The dreaded visa run. It is an inevitable experience when living in Thailand. With most people coming from nearby Chiang Mai to extend their stay for travel or work, a short trip often turns into a nightmare. People you meet may vent about their horrid experiences, but it doesn’t have to be that way for you. Here is a helpful guide on making the best out of your visa run to Vientiane.
Time is Precious
Give yourself enough time. Nothing is worse than a rushed and hectic trip going somewhere that you don’t really want to be in the first place. Including two days of travel, five days is just the right amount of time to take it easy while taking care of business. In order not to miss too many days of work, I left Chiang Mai on a Saturday afternoon by plane and returned on a Wednesday evening. I had one full day of leisure, 4 nights of wandering and delicious dinners, 2 half days dedicated to the visa and 2 free days to travel to and from. Give yourself the opportunity to take it easy and the actual time spent at the consulate won’t seem so bad.
Choose Your Transportation Wisely
Most of the horrors experienced on this trip come from the 12 + hour bus ride that people usually take from Chiang Mai to Vientiane. Although incredibly cheap, it often isn’t worth the pain and suffering. I booked a round trip plane ticket through Bangkok Air from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani, a Thai city right on the Lao border for $100. Once you arrive in Udon Thani, you can take a city bus for about 80 Baht to the border or take an airport shuttle for 200 Baht (about $7). Since I arrived after five in the evening, I didn’t have enough time to make it to the public station before buses stopped running. The airport shuttle dropped me off at the border where I first exited Thailand, waited around ten minutes for a second bus which cost less than $1 for a ticket and then got dropped off at the Lao border to get my entrance visa. The visa into Lao took about 15 minutes and cost 1,500 Baht. I then caught one more bus right outside the visa office that dropped me off at the station within the city center for about 24 Baht. The transport was cheap and by saving time on my 1 hour flight, I didn’t mind the short amount of time I needed to travel by bus through the borders.
Make Time to Enjoy Yourself
Chances are, you like to travel, and reality is, you are visiting a new place and a new city with places to be discovered. Don’t let your spirit of travel and discovery be stifled by the visa process. There is a popular backpackers hostel in Vientiane called the Dream Home and most of the customers there are others trying to get their visas just like you. Swap travel stories with newly made friends, lounge out in the movie room, play pool in the common room and enjoy your free breakfast in the mornings. Rent a bicycle and take a self-guided tour of the sleepy town. There is a river front park, a night market and plenty of beautiful temples to keep you busy for a day. If you have the time, rent a motorbike and take a 40 minute scenic drive to the Buddha Park which costs about $1 to get in and makes for some great photographs and wanderings. Spend the evenings playing drinking games in your hostel with a cold and delicious Beer Lao or head out for dinner at the Lao Kitchen which serves traditional Lao dishes, has an English menu and plenty of options for vegan diners.
The visa process will go a whole lot smoother if you come prepared. Make sure to have two passport sized photos featuring an un-smiling you and a white background. Come prepared with a pen to fill out the form and have two copies of your passport handy. The consulate opens at 8:00 am for drop offs but make sure to get there at the very least, an hour early as there is usually a long line of people waiting out front. The waiting area has no tree coverage and Laos is hot so make sure to bring an umbrella or wide brimmed hat. As you enter, you will reach a table honing glue to attach your photos and a member of staff will give you a number. Starting from 1 I received number 168 and only found myself waiting about 40 minutes before I was able to turn in my paperwork and leave for the day. All together, it took under four hours and I was eating lunch by 11:30. The next day, the pickup door opens at 1:30 and you can grab a number and head to the desk to pick up your passport. A lot less organized than the first day, it still took less than two hours to get back my passport and visa.
There you have it! Do some sightseeing, eat delicious food, laze around for a few days and cross the border with your shiny new visa in hand.