When we told Audrey’s mother we were going to Myanmar to extend our Thai visa, her anxiety level began to rise. “Don’t worry. Hundreds of British and Scandinavian men do it each week. If they can do it, we’ll have no problem.”
Visa runs are a way for foreigners to extend their legal stay in Thailand by crossing over to a neighboring country for five minutes. The return to Thailand allows the foreigner another 30 days (limit of a total of 90 days within a 180-day period). The usual suspects doing visa runs are dive instructors without proper work visas, western men who don’t want to leave their newfound Thai girlfriends, and tourists like us who want to stay in the land of smiles until our return flight.
We considered going with one of the many tour companies in Patong, which included a 6 AM pick-up and 12 hour day. Having had our fill of Patong, we opted to use the visa run as a way to take in some other sites in southern Thailand.
In Ranong, Thailand – the jumping off point for a visa run to Myanmar – we stayed at the Kiwi Orchid Guesthouse, conveniently located by the bus station. We made arrangements to do the visa run the next morning with the guesthouse owner. Rather inconveniently, nothing was ever completely clear in the owner’s explanation of the visa run process that she faciliated. She concerned us by saying that our $10 bills for Myanmar were not crisp or new enough (i.e., apparently, they didn’t have all the anti-counterfeiting measures that are now embedded in the new multi-color U.S. Dollar bills). Officials at the Myanmar border are picky and difficult. The next moment, “no problem”, she changed tune for no apparent reason and suggested we were fine. Trying to get consistent information was impossible. All the banks were closed at that time so we had no choice but to believe her change of heart was genuine.
We went to the nearby night market to see what Ranong had to offer. An endless choices of curries, grilled squid and horseshoe crabs welcomed us; we finished the night off with a tray of sweet mango and sticky rice for less than $1.
Upon leaving the Thai immigration office the next morning with our exit stamp, we saw food being brought to people behind bars in what looked like a cleaning supply closet. We asked if this was some type of jail and were told that it’s the regional holding center for illegal Burmese. They stay there for a couple of days until they are strapped inside a bus and shipped off to remote parts of northern Myanmar, in hopes that they’ll be discourages to re-enter southern Thailand. In similar fashion to the Mexicans who risk their lives coming to America, the Burmese swim or take rickety boats to reach Thailand and find work. We were told these folks would likely be back very soon.
We got back in the car and drove to the pier to hop on a long-tail boat to Myanmar. We passed by small islands with temples and Buddha statues, getting stamped out of Thailand one last time, and then to the Myanmar side. Boats full of Thais and Burmese made their way to and fro with the smart locals protecting themselves from the sun with umbrellas. We sat in the heat and fried.
We hopped off the boat on the Myanmar side, not sure what to expect from the immigration officers after what the guesthouse owner had told us. We were met with wide smiles, questions asking us how our day was going, and no questions whatsoever about our old $10 bills. It was such a nice welcome to Myanmar. Too bad we had to turn around and leave immediately.
We returned to Thailand and made ourselves legal through to our return flight to Vienna, plus a two-day cushion. But, this was it. This was our third stamp in 180 days and would mark the end of our stay in Thailand.
Practical Details on Thai Visa Runs
Travel agents: Visa Run tours are available from most travel agents in Phuket, Krabi or other beach areas for 1,300 to 1,500 BHT and include transport to and from Myanmar. The trip, if done in one day, takes about 12 hours, return.
On your own: Buses run regularly to Ranong from Krabi or Phuket town (note: for those who get car sick easily, the A/C on the bus starts to fail as it makes its way up windy roads. Crack out the motion sickness medicine). In Ranong, travel agents and guest houses can arrange land and boat transport to and from the immigration offices for 300-400 BHT.
Where to stay: We stayed at Kiwi Orchid for convenience to the bus station. Facilities are less than modest, but it’s convenient. Ownership changed recently from its previous owner from New Zealand to a Thai colleague. Although information is fleeting and changes frequently (perhaps due to the change of ownership), the visa run was smooth and took only two hours.