Tedium, thy name is visa run: a brief and hectic journey to Vientiane

Visa runs have never fallen under the category of what I’d call a good time. They tend to be expensive, time-consuming, uncomfortable and exhausting. But they are necessary for living in and traveling through much of Asia, so I’ve grudgingly accepted them as part of life. I’ve been hanging out in Chiang Mai, Thailand, since late July, and it occurred to me recently that I had some decisions to make. I had been granted a 30-day stay upon flying into Bangkok, and then made two visa runs to Mae Sai, at the Thai-Burmese border, to get new exit/entry stamps that gave me an additional 15 days in the country each time.

Concerned that the next go at Mae Sai would result in a warning about overstaying my welcome in the Thai Kingdom, or a refusal for a new stamp, I realized the time had come. Either I start making my way back to Beijing or apply for a longer-term visa, which would give me up to two more months in the country and spare me the odyssey of sitting in a cramped van with a sordid collection of expats and travelers twice a month.

Balcony view of Vientiane

Not quite ready to return to Beijing, in part due to new visa laws in China that will make getting back into the country more expensive and more of a hassle, I decided to go for a two-month Thai tourist visa.

Of course, you can’t just apply for a new visa from inside Thailand. That would be silly. In order to obtain this all-important travel document, I’d have to leave the country and apply at a Thai embassy elsewhere, such as Malaysia or Laos.

I had researched this process on and off for the past month or so, and to my dismay, had to admit there’d be no way of doing the run for cheaper than a few hundred dollars. I decided to cross the border into Laos because it seemed to be the closest and least expensive way to get this business done.

Thanks to a detailed post at Got Passport, I had some idea of what the trip would involve. I opted to pay a tour company to get me across the border and back, as I didn’t want to be haggling with tuk-tuk drivers at the crossing on my own at six in the morning. A friend and I tried the go-it-alone for as cheap as possible approach when doing a run in Mongolia, and I don’t care to repeat the experience of being ripped off and creeped out before it’s even noon.

I booked a roundtrip ticket from Chiang Mai to Vientiane, Laos, with Aya Service, a company I had used when visiting Pai, in northern Thailand, and for border runs to Mae Sai. They’re cheap and seemed reliable so I was willing to give them a shot for the longer trip. The cost was 1,500 baht, or about $49USD, which included service to the border, breakfast at their office in Nong Khai near the Thai-Laos border, Laos visa assistance, transportation to the Thai embassy in Vientiane, and the trip back to Chiang Mai. Not too bad.

Following the Got Passport recommendations, and those found on other travel sites, I had new visa photos taken ahead of the trip (you can get four for 100 baht at the Kodak store on Rathvithi Rd. in Chiang Mai, across from Zoe in Yellow) and exchanged some baht for U.S. dollars. The Laos visa costs 1,500 baht, or $35, so it’s cheaper to pay in American currency. I also made copies of my passport and debit card for the whopping price of 6 baht ($0.19), stopped into a 7-Eleven to load up on water and some snacks for the trip and I was good to go.

Having ridden a number of overnight buses in Thailand and Malaysia before, I wasn’t expecting great things from an 11-hour overnight trip in a minivan but hoped for the best.

Silly, silly me.

Visa runs are all hell

At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, the Aya Service van rolled to a stop outside the guesthouse where I had been staying in Chiang Mai. I wasn’t wild about having to do this visa run, but I was excited to see a bit of Vientiane while waiting for the visa to be processed.

About 20 minutes into the bus ride, my enthusiasm began to give way to frustration, aggravation and a dread of the night to come.

Passengers in Vientiane

My fellow passengers included five fratty-sounding Canadian guys who were slightly obnoxious but mostly tolerable throughout the ride.

Then there was an Israeli woman who was nice enough, except that she seemed to have no idea what was going on at any given time and kept demanding answers from Thai and Laotian people who seemed to be doing their best to ignore her.

Then there were my fellow visa runners: a middle-aged German man who is engaged to a Thai woman with whom he has just had a son; a Filipino man who is visiting his daughter and grandchildren in Chiang Mai; and another, younger German guy who is studying in Chiang Mai. I continue to be grateful that these three all turned out to be nice and normal, as they made the entire visa experience more bearable.

The ride was more or less excruciating. No amount of seat reclining, foot propping, twisting or turning could make sleeping in that van comfortable. To add to the fun, a mysterious odor pervaded the van for most of the trip. We never identified the source, though it at turns smelled like sweaty feet, vomit and unwashed rear end. Yummy.

Admittedly, I was intensely cranky by the time we arrived at Aya Services office in Nong Khai. I was aggravated by having to shell out the money for not only a new Thai visa, but one for Laos as well; every inch of my body ached and my skin had a sheen of sweat over it that felt two inches thick. (Did I mention that visa runs often leave you feeling utterly filthy and smelly? Well, they do. Prepare yourself, if you ever make such a trip.)

An Aya staffer directed us to the second floor of the office to enjoy a breakfast of egg sandwiches and coffee before we went on to the border. The fun was only beginning.

Crossing the Border

Before leaving Thailand to head into Laos, we had to fill out Laos visa applications. This is a particularly sore subject for me. It would be one thing if I was planning to travel in Laos for any considerable length of time, but I was buying this visa, which takes up an entire page in my passport, for one day. Someone on a visa forum I was reading recently referred to the entire visa scheme as a “cash cow,” an entirely apt way of describing it. Every government in the world that requires visas for entering the country has an amazing racket going: the cost of the visas, the charge for overstaying the visa, and the nickel and diming that goes into the details, such as the costs for crossing the Friendship Bridge, or making additional copies at the embassy. Nevermind that those costs are usually small; they add up after awhile.

Sunset on the Mekong

We boarded another minivan, this one smaller and older than our ride from the night before. Two minutes down the road, we stopped at Thai immigration to get exit stamps. Then it was back onto the van for a quick ride across the Friendship Bridge and we found ourselves standing in line to apply for the Laos visa on arrival.

This was a fairly painless process, but a tedious one. You go up to a counter, fork over your application, passport and money - the visa itself is $35, but you’re charged an additional dollar for crossing the Friendship Bridge, which you pay at immigration. About 20 minutes later, our passports were returned to us. I suspect we would have gotten them sooner had the woman in the office not been fixated on a television program, so much so that the officer collecting the passports had to keep reminding her to get back to work.

Once we had all received our Laos visas, we boarded a songthaew, or rickety version of a pick-up truck. After a short ride into Vientiane, the driver deposited the four of us visa-runners in front of the Thai embassy, where there were plenty of opportunistic businessmen willing to help us fill out the appropriate forms and make copies of the necessary documents before entering the embassy. It cost me 40 baht, a little more than $1, to have one of these guys make copies of my Laos visa and advise me on filling out the Thai application form. It may seem a little silly to need assistance with something like that, but when applying for any visa, you want to make sure all of the necessary boxes are checked and all information is complete, lest you find yourself having to go through the whole process again.

Once inside the embassy complex, the two German guys and the Filipino man and I took numbers to determine our places in line and waited with a crowd of about 20 or 30 other people to drop off our applications. It was only about 9:15 a.m. Not too bad, I thought. I’ll drop this off, find somewhere to have breakfast and have a wander around the city. I was determined to enjoy what I could of Vientiane, and make the most of the opportunity to see a new capital city.

About 30 minutes later, my number was called. I approached the window, smiled at the decidedly unfriendly clerk, and handed her my passport. She scanned the pages and frowned.

“Your passport is full. No pages left.”

“There are three free pages at the back,” I insisted.

She shook her head and handed me back the passport. “Not visa pages.”

I wanted to scream. I just knew something was going to go wrong. If living in China teaches you anything, it’s that nothing is easy or goes as planned. Apparently this lesson was going to carry over to Laos.

“What can I do?”

“You have to go to American embassy, add pages.”

OK, that’s not so bad, I thought. A hassle, but I was going to do that while in Chiang Mai anyway, so it’s not the end of the world.

The only problem? The Thai embassy closes at noon. It was nearly 10, and I was sure getting anything done at the American embassy was going to take at least several hours.

“What if I can’t get back by noon? Can you rush to get the visa processed tomorrow?”

She smirked. “No. Can get Friday.”

Of course.

Seeing that I’d get no more help from her, I grabbed my bags and headed out to look for a tuk-tuk to take me to the embassy. Just as I was leaving, the sky opened up with a soaking downpour. I would have laughed if I wasn’t on the verge of tears/violent rage.

Local vendors, Vientiane

Finding a tuk-tuk driver proved simple enough and he got me to the American embassy in about 10 minutes and said he’d wait outside and drive me back to the Thai embassy. Fine, great, whatever. At that point, I suspected he was ripping me off by charging me 400 baht (you can use Laos kip, Thai baht, USD and even Euros at a number of places in Vientiane), even with the return trip, but beggars can’t be choosers and I really needed to get this visa application done that day. I was booked on the return bus to Chiang Mai for the next night, and besides, even though I had only been in Vientiane a couple of hours, I already felt certain I didn’t want to spend an extra night there.

Once inside the American embassy, I told the Laotian employees at security that I urgently needed to add pages to my passport.

The woman nodded.

“Ah, yes, but you will have to call inside and ask for special permission. You need to have an appointment.”

Of course you do.

“Who can I call? I’m only here one night, I need to apply for this visa today.”

She put me through to a receptionist inside the embassy. I explained the situation and the kind-sounding woman on the other end of the line spoke with her boss and then gave me permission to come in.

“We can do this, adding pages to your passport today, but we charge a fee. Eighty-two dollars or the equivalent in kip.”

“I see. I only have Thai baht. Will you take that?”

“No, we don’t take Thai baht. Only dollars or kip.”

It makes sense. I get it. Why would they take Thai baht at an American embassy in Laos? That didn’t make it any less frustrating.

Back to the tuk-tuk I sprinted and the driver took me to a money exchange shop. Whether I got the best rate possible, I don’t know and I highly doubt it, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get this mess over with.

Then it was back to the American embassy, where things went surprisingly smoothly. I paid the fee of $82 and within 10 minutes, my passport was returned to me with 48 new visa pages. That should last me a little while.

Next up: time to rush back to the Thai embassy, where I took another number and waited to be called. When I made it back up to the counter, the surly female clerk was still on duty. She was as unfriendly as she had been an hour and a half before. I’d get no help or reassurance from her. Time to submit the application, walk away and hope for the best.

Mahosot Hospital

Of course, it wasn’t over yet. I had to go to a room inside the embassy to wait for my number to be called so I could pay the visa fee (1,000 baht, about $32).

Once I was paid up, I made my way to the Bahay Pynoy restaurant and guest house where Bohn and Lars, the Filipino man and younger German guy, were staying and asked for a room. We had all arranged to stay at the same guest house and travel back across the border together the next day. The woman at the desk quoted me 500 baht for a single room, which I had read was a standard price. Still, doesn’t hurt to try for a discount.

“Um, yes, I can offer you one room at 400 baht,” she told me. “But you can’t use the bathroom.”

“Why not?”

“Um, doesn’t work. But you can use the shower.”

“But the toilet doesn’t work?”

She giggled nervously.

“You mean it doesn’t flush? How about if I just pour water down it, will that work?”

More nervous giggles. “Yes, it’s OK.”

Fine. I can live with that. Not having a flushing toilet isn’t my favorite thing about a room but I’m OK with going Thai style for a night and tossing a few buckets of water down to make it flush. No problem.

She leads me up to the room, which is bigger than I expected. Almost immediately, I flop down onto the bed and pass out for the next three hours. So much for sightseeing all afternoon. The bus ride, the back and forth between immigration and the embassies - I needed a nap.

When I woke up around 3:30, I was pleased to see the rain had stopped and the sun had come back out. It was extremely hot in Vientiane - heavy, sticky air and almost no breeze. But my plan was to head to the Mekong River so perhaps there’d be some relief there.

First, though, I needed to brush my teeth and pull my sweaty self together so I decided to inspect the bathroom. At first glance, it appeared clean enough. Then I flipped open the lid to the toilet.

The issue, it turned out, was not that the flushing apparatus didn’t work. It was that the toilet was completely clogged with an alarming amount of human fecal matter.

So. That’s great, I thought. I’m spending the night in a room with a toilet filled with someone else’s poop. That’s completely sanitary and pleasant, I am sure. It really is just going to be one those days, huh?

But I had few choices. The small guest house was completely booked and I had already locked myself in for the night. Besides, there was a bathroom downstairs. How bad could it be to walk down three flights of stairs to a public restroom every time you need to use the toilet? It's not like I haven't done that in hostels before.

Nevermind, I told myself. It’s one night. This is completely gross, but it’s only one night.

Grabbing my camera and some cash, I headed out to see Vientiane.

Beerlao

The one thing I wanted to do while in Laos’ capital was see the Mekong River. Various travel blogs and forums had said that if you do nothing else, be sure to get to the Mekong by sunset, grab yourself a Beerlao and enjoy. And by that point, I really needed a beer.

As I stood on a street corner pondering a map, I noticed Lars, the young German guy from the minivan, standing a few feet away, also pondering a map. Turned out we were on the same mission, to get out of the hotel and see some of the city. We both wanted to see the Mekong so we set off together.

We ended up walking the entire way, which only took about 30 minutes or so, and saw different sides of the city. Laos used to be a French colony, so a number of street and building signs are still in French, and some of the older generation speak French.

One thing I noticed about Vientiane was that there seemed to be a tradition of beautiful European architecture on many of the houses and storefronts, but they have fallen into filth and disrepair. Some are covered up by store banners while others just look sad and shabby, in desperate need of some strong cleaner, paint and restoration.

Down by the river, we passed the Mahosot Hospital, a place that inspires zero confidence when it comes to health care. The building is old and dingy-looking and the quick glimpse I got into the emergency room looked the same. The wheelchairs appeared rickety and outdated and there was a drabness to the entire place.

Before leaving Chiang Mai for Vientiane, I had researched hospitals and medical facilities in the city and came up with this gem on the expat site J&C Lao: “Unfortunately, the local hospitals are still a 'no-go' for foreigners due their lack of the most basic equipment.” If Mahosot Hospital was any indication, I certainly believe that.

Just beyond the hospital lay the riverfront and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of excitement. I have long wanted to see the Mekong River and was delighted that I was finally getting the chance. The sun was just beginning to set, so I had made it in time. Now to get that beer…

Lars and I walked along the waterfront, which is pretty well-developed, at least in this part of town. There is also a lovely park and playground and a decent-sized market where you can buy goods such as clothes and jewelery, as well as street food and very cheap beer.

We each bought a cold Beerlao for about $1 a piece and had a seat near the riverbank, where a number of other people had gathered as well.

I can’t say I found the Mekong particularly beautiful, but it is massive and, for me at least, it was something to behold. I’m sure there are better vantage points and pleasanter ways to experience it, but I was content simply to have made it there and be able to see it at all.

On the way back to the guest house, we wandered through the city center, which was cleaner and more attractive than the area near the Thai embassy. The city struck me as a quiet capital; despite some nice-looking restaurants and bars, there didn’t seem to be many people in them, though it was a Wednesday night so that might explain it.

After a brief dinner of tasty noodle soup at a roadside stand, I headed back to my tainted hotel room and was asleep by 9:30.

The long road back

The next morning, I wandered around Vientiane a bit more, shooting photos and seeking inspiration. But I was antsy to be on the way back to Chiang Mai.

Visa pick-up time at the embassy is between 1–3 p.m. and by the time it rolled around, I was counting the minutes until we left. I was craving the comforts and familiarity of Chiang Mai (I may have developed a bit of an attachment to that city) and was tired of all the bureaucratic bullshit through which I had been wading the past few days.

Monks near the Mekong

Naturally, the embassy at the gates didn’t open until 20 past 1, so all visa applicants got to queue outside like beggars, which in some ways we were, since we were at the mercy of the Thai government. Once inside, things moved quickly enough, though I couldn’t help but think, as I observed the stack of passports and paperwork being shuffled around behind the counter, that this was a magnificently inefficient system and that people surely have gone insane from dealing with less.

The ride out of Vientiane was mostly uneventful, but nearly as tedious as the rest. Bohn had arranged to have a tuk-tuk driver pick up all three of us and take us to the border for 100 baht a person - not a bad deal, since we had been told it’d be 200–300 if we traveled on our own. Some haggling needed to be done when the driver arrived, however. Upon seeing Lars and me, he told Bohn that it would be 300 per person for each of us, 200 for Bohn. Lars and I suspected we got the price hike for being white foreigners, but Bohn insisted that the driver stick to the original agreement and we got the discounted rate.

We schlepped across the Laos border, got our exit stamps, then boarded a bus to Thai immigration for 20 baht.

Once through Thai immigration, we called Aya Service, since they had said they’d send a car to pick us up, but that turned out to be false information. So we walked back to the office and essentially all collapsed on the couches in their waiting area once inside. All that was left to do: wait three hours for our bus to arrive, then board for the 11-hour journey back to Chiang Mai. So close to home, yet so far away.

We got lucky on the ride home. There were only five passengers and we each got a row to ourselves to spread out and sleep. What an amazing difference from the ride there.

Overall Impressions of Vientiane and the visa process

Spending one night in a city is hardly enough time to judge it justly, but my initial impression of Laos wasn’t an excellent one. Seeing the Mekong was cool and there was some lovely architecture to observe, but on the whole, Vientiane was quite dirty and I got more of a “third world” feeling during my brief time there than I have in most other places I’ve been in Southeast Asia.

However, I wouldn’t rule out taking a longer trip through Laos in the future. I’ve heard that Luang Prabang is exceptionally beautiful, and I know a lot of people love the backpacker scene in Vang Vieng, though I am less keen to go there than I used to be after hearing stories about traveler deaths and raids there. And a number of travelers have told me Laos is their favorite place in Southeast Asia, so I’m quite open to learning more about the country and seeing more of it.

Patuxay, Victory Arch

Of course, the entire experience was tainted by my firm belief that visa runs are an enormous racket, and the purest example of extortion one can find. No amount of chipperly resolving to get excited about seeing a new city between trips to the embassy can dull the fury at having to shell out hundreds of dollars just to be a tourist for another couple of months.

I usually don’t waste too much energy getting riled up about visa runs and fees because I recognize that they are a part of life when living overseas, especially in Asia. I’ve been dealing with these issues every few months for the past two and a half years, and while I don’t like it, I try to waste as little time as possible dwelling on it.

It’s only when I’m tired, sweaty, mosquito-bitten 100 times over, and utterly at my wit's end with people hollering “Tuk-tuk! Where you go, miss? Tuk-tuk! Border!” every time I walk down the street, that I feel the appropriate rage and sense of defeat at the reality of the situation.

Oh well. At least I got to enjoy my Beerlao.