Tired of having to go down to immigration every 60 days, paying 2000 baht and requesting a 30 visa extension, and then having to leave the country and sit around in another country waiting for another visa – always unsure if they’ll approve back-to-back tourist visas – I decided to sign up for another year’s worth of Thai classes. Part of that process includes leaving the country and applying for the visa outside of Thailand. Having done visa runs to Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Cambodia, I settled on Laos as my destination of choice.
I booked a visa run with a company called Thai Visa Run (descriptive, eh?). For 6900 baht they take care of everything. After I had made my arrangements some folks made suggestions on cheaper alternatives to Laos but I really don’t think going it alone is all that much cheaper.
Cost of Thai ED visa: 2000 baht
Cost of Laos entry visa: 1225 baht
Hotel room (1 night): 500 baht
So right there you have fixed costs of 3725 baht. So that means that you’re really paying 3175 baht for:
Meals (2x meals)
Gee suggested flying to Udon Thani for 1500 RT. Throw in another 500 baht for a taxi or other transport from Udon Thani to Nong Khai and you’re looking at about 2000 baht which means, other than meals, you’re paying a 1175 baht premium.
But, you do get something for that 1175 baht (other than the meals). You get priority routing through immigration. The bus arrives around 6:00am at the Nong Khai border and immigration opens at 6:30 so you’re first in line. The Thai Visa Run (TVR) staff take all of your passports, pay all of your fees for an entry visa, and get you on a bus across the Friendship Bridge. Then you’re taken to immigration where you pull a number and then immediately taken back to the hotel. The next day they pick up your passport from the Thai consulate, pay your exit fees, etc. No waiting. No standing in queues. Nothing.
Oh, and they fill in all of your application forms and such for you. You simply sign the documents when you show up. They make sure you have the appropriate copies of your passport and other documents which saves you that trip to the copy center.
All in all, is it worth the $30 USD premium? Up to you. For me, first time in Laos, I thought it was worth it.
Of course, I spent 8 hours on a bus getting there and 8 hours back. A plane to Udon Thani might be an hour and some change. But if you factor in checking in at least an hour before departure, traffic to the airport, the transportation from Udon Thani to Nong Khai, I don’t think you’re really saving more than 3 or 4 hours. If time is the utmost importance to you that might be a factor but the earliest you can cross into Laos is 6:30am and if you’re apply for a visa you have to wait overnight anyway. I left on a Wednesday night and was back on Friday night. I don’t think you can get there, get a visa, and get back with any more than a few hours difference since most of that time is sitting around and waiting for the visa. And that is especially true with the priority service you receive at the Laos immigration and Thai consulate.
Anyway, we met up at the TVR offices on Sukhumvit Soi 71 around 7:30 pm. They went over all last minute paperwork and such and by 8:30 we were downstairs and boarding vans. I had a seat next to a guy who I gotta guess was about 40-something to maybe lower 50-something. Long hair, surfer type dude. I knew we wouldn’t have much to talk about when he said he recently moved here to Thailand after getting kicked out of his mother’s house back in the US. Behind me sat three Arabic speaking folks (two guys and a girl) who did not shut the f*ck up for the entire 8 hour journey. DVD movie playing? No reason to shut up. Just talk louder. People trying to sleep? Just keep talking the entire way.
There was an Iranian dude on the trip who within a few moments of meeting him announced that he had been at a party on Soi 33 the other night and they had hot girls and a room you could take them up to. Surfer dude seemed fascinated by that and the two of them hit it off.
This may sound weird but he’s the only Iranian I’ve ever met. Every other person from the country of Iran that I’ve met calls themselves Persian. It’s sort of their way to recognize their heritage yet distance themselves from the current regime in Iran. Especially in the US, many pro-Shah Iranians/Persians fled Iran after the Ayatollah took over. Anyway, it just struck me as odd that he called himself Iranian. Especially since he was so westernized.
So we rolled into Nong Khai at the border around 6am. The border didn’t open until 6:30 so we sat around in a line of vehicles waiting to make the great crossing over the Mekong River. It was strangely cool. Cooler than I had ever experienced in Thailand. I had to get out of the vehicle and walk around to get the blood flowing. I hadn’t slept even a wink the entire trip so I was working on about 22 or so hours without sleep.
We were rushed to the front of the queue and we walked through the Thai immigration line and then had to sit and wait for the numbskulls who were on visa overstays and had to go see the immigration official and pay the overstay fine. One tip: bring DEET. They have you sitting outside in a waiting area that is mosquito-central. Luckily I had brought some but others hadn’t.
While we were waiting I curiously watched a guy trying his game on some Philippino girls by speaking Tagalog. I’m not sure why it seemed funny to me. Here’s this guy sitting on the Thai / Lao border with a Tagalog phrasebook chatting up the Philippino gals.
We jumped on another bus and that took us over the Friendship Bridge to the Laos side and we breezed right past immigration. We didn’t even stop really. We got out of the bus, walked past immigration (not showing our passports or anything since the tour group had already turned them in), and got on another bus.
First stop in Laos was a restaurant near the hotel where we would eventually be staying. Our choices for breakfast were khao pad gai, khao pad nuu, khao pad moo (chicken, beef, or pork friend rice). I unfortunately picked pork and they basically served the food in shifts. First the chicken, then the beef, and then the pork. By the time I got my food they were already calling for people to hurry up and get on the bus. I threw down a few bites and got back on the bus.
Next stop was the Thai consulate. I’m not even sure why we had to come. TVR had our passports, our visa applications, etc. and so we walked up and punched a machine that spit out a ticket number and then we gave our tickets to the TVR staff and got back on the bus. Total time at the consulate was under 5 minutes.
The bus took us back to the restaurant which was connected to the hotel we would be staying at. Like I said, I have no idea why we stopped for breakfast and then went to the consulate or even why we had to go to the consulate at all. We could have just gone to the consulate and then had breakfast and checked into our rooms.
Sometimes you learn not to ask questions. This was one of those times.
The TVR staff announced that checkout the next day was noon and they would pick us up at 12:30. Then they left and we were on our own to do what we wanted in Vientine.
Since I hadn’t slept all night I checked into my 2’ish star room and crashed.
I can’t really say much about the room. Back in the US I would’n dream of staying in a place like that. Here in South-East Asia it’s pretty normal for a 500 baht ($17 USD) a night room. A bed of questionable softness, a shower that consists of a shower head on a hose (connected to a spot heater), and various forms of life (spiders, geckos, etc) sharing the room with you. On the upside it had aircon and satellite television.
I woke up around 1pm and decided to go out and explore the capital city of Laos. Since I hadn’t really connected with any of my travel mates I decided to head out alone.
My first impression of Vientiane is that it seemed a lot more like a Issan village in Thailand than the capital of a country. Few if any high rise buildings, no major international brands (McDonald’s, Starbucks, etc), and lots of mom and pop shops all over the place.
I didn’t know which way I was going to get into the center of town so I winged it a bit and just started walking in the direction that the most traffic seemed to be flowing in. I got about thirty minutes into the walk when I decided to pull out my trusty iPhone and check my direction of travel. I was heading south-west but I really wanted to be heading due west. I had gone far south of the places I wanted to visit and needed to backtrack a bit to get back on path.
That brings up an interesting point for people with Thai phones. I loaded up 500 baht on my phone before leaving. 500 baht in Thailand might last two or three months even if I’m SMS’ing and calling like a crazy man. I burned up nearly 500 baht in 5 SMS messages with my gf and pulling up the map on my iPhone. They charge something like 30 baht per SMS message to a Thai phone plus about 30 or 40 baht per minute for a phone call. I have no idea what they charged for data but it must have been outrageous to burn through 500 baht that quickly.
What made it even worse is that as I walked around to shops that sold reload cards none of them had 12Call (AIS). They had DTAC (Happy) cards but no 12Call.
I turned off all of my data services and everything else on my phone. I had about a 100 something left on my card and figured I better keep it in case of an emergency.
I finally found my way to Wat (or Vat in Lao) Si Saket. It’s the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. Constructed in 1818 it was built in Thai style (vs. Lao style) which is one of the only reasons the Thais did not burn it to the ground when they sacked Vientiane in 1827.
After Si Saket I wandered down to the Mekong River and walked down the riverside until I got hungry. I stopped off in a little mom and pop Italian place and ordered a pizza. Surprisingly, this was probably the best pizza I’ve had since moving to Asia. If the French left one good influence it was how to make bread. And good bread is a key element of a good pizza.
While I was eating I decided to check to make sure I had everything. The one thing I couldn’t find was the business card from the hotel. I know I had taken one before I headed out. In fact, I remember reaching for something in my pockets earlier and pulling up the card while I was out and about in the city. Where the f*ck was it?
This was pretty serious because I didn’t even know the name of the hotel. They dropped us off and we just walked in and grabbed a key. I had no idea what the name of the hotel was. I thought I might be able to remember how to backtrack back to the hotel but you never know.
I tried to take my mind off of things (not knowing what hotel I was staying at) by getting a foot massage. I have to say that they did a pretty decent job. Not the best I’ve ever had but pretty damn good.
After that I went down to the shore of the Mekong and took some pictures as the sun set. I couldn’t help but think that now I was going to be trying to backtrack and find my hotel in the dark but damn if watching the sun set on the Mekong isn’t an absolutely amazing site.
I started walking back a little after 6pm. I had a map I had printed out that gave me a good overview of the city and I was able to get back into the general area that I knew the hotel was in. But the hotel was not on the map.
The most difficult part is that the main landmark I remembered was a roundabout which means that there are several streets shooting off of the roundabout. I ventured several hundred meters into each street and down the sub-streets (our hotel was on a sub-street) but I couldn’t find the hotel. I walked, and walked, and walked, and walked.
My worst case scenario was to get a hotel room for the night and then head to the Thai consulate early in the morning and catch the TVR staff there and have them take me back to the hotel. Thankfully it didn’t get to that.
Around 8:30 I remembered that I had called the Bangkok office of TVR on my mobile and still had the number in my phone. I called the office back in Bangkok and asked them for the name of the hotel. Luckily I got ahold of the owner and he told me the name of the hotel (the Laong Dao 2, for those interested). I fortunately had enough baht left on my phone for that phone call. As it turned out, I was close. I had not gone far enough down the main street where I was 70% sure the hotel was (the other two streets I split 15%/15%).
I got back to the hotel around 9pm. My feet were blistered like you wouldn’t believe. While I was out there walking that’s not a huge thing. I’ve spent enough time in the US Army to know blistering up and just marching on. But just like the military, it’s when you stop. When you stop, that’s when you feel the pain. That’s when the swelling starts.
And it wasn’t just my feet. The shorts I was wearing cut weird against my thighs. The stitching on the inside of the shorts was quite rough. When I pulled them off to take a shower the inside of the shorts had blood on them. I had rubbed the skin raw to the point of bleeding.
I was done and dusted by around 11.
Next morning I woke up around 8am. I tried to find a local restaurant that was serving breakfast but struck out. I had to resort to mini-mart food.
As I walked back to the hotel I saw some of my fellow visa-seekers sitting around the lobby downing Beer Lao. Remember, this is 9am in the morning.
As promised the vans showed up around 12:30 to pick us up and we went straight to the Laos border. When we got to the border the TVR staff told us we could shop for a bit at the duty free shops and to meet them in front of the bank in about half an hour.
I walked around the duty free shops looking for souvenirs to take home I couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t an Lao original object for sale. Everything they had for sale other than booze, chocolate, and perfume could be bought in any tourist area of Bangkok. I mean, who needs a wood ashtray with a metal image of an elephant that says Laos when they sell the same exact design except saying Thailand everywhere in Bangkok?
In fact, I saw some playing cards and I know that in Bangkok they cost 300 or 400 baht per pack. In Laos they were asking 50 baht. I bought a couple of packs and when I took them out of the packaging they had a stamp on them that said they were manufactured in Thailand :-)
We cleared the Lao and Thai borders in no time. A few minutes later we were sitting at a restaurant on the Mekong having breakfast/lunch/brunch, whatever you want to call it. Again, we had khao pad [FILL IN THE BLANK] and then started the long journey back home.
We made it back to BKK around 11pm. The van dropped me off near the Phrom Phong BTS and I hobbled down Soi 26 back home. But I think I got some good pics. I’ll let you judge. :-)