Most expats know the ‘pleasure’ of having to travel to one of Thailand’s borders periodically, just to spend a few minutes in the neighboring country, then walk back and cross the border back inside the Land of Smiles. This process, which is about as fun as a colonoscopy, is referred to as the “visa run”.
Most people consider one-month visa runs tedious and boring. However, there are a lucky few of us, who get to repeat it every two weeks!
I decided to describe one of these visa runs for the sake of the “two-week” folks who don’t yet know what’s in store for them. How to decide whether you are in this group? According to the guideleines of the Royal Thai Embassy Extraterrestial Grouping Organisation (RoTE-EGO), if your country’s emblem contains a red star/ hammer and sickle, or did in the recent past (say, in the last few hundred years :p ) or if your country’s currency is equal to/lower than the Thai Baht (or was, say in the last few hundred years) – congratulations! You are in! Welcome to the club.
The first thing you have to do is find the appropriate bordercrossings, as not all borders let Farang through. This should be relatively easy; just go to the nearest bus terminal at 6am and look for the small group of grim-faced Farangs waiting around like soaked birds. Then follow them. Try to pretend to be friendly and pry valuable information out of your travel companions; otherwise, you might find yourself in all sorts of unpleasant situations. For instance, you can stuff your Thai baht you-know-where, if you only find out at the Burmese border that the officials accept only US dollar bills.
When you get to the border, updated with all the latest info, get yourself ready for a tough ride – and no, I don’t mean the shaky songtaew.
The initially friendly officials (friendly because they didn’t look at your commie passport yet) will handle you a tiny slip of paper – really easy to fill out, just a few lines of non-intrusive questions. Don’t get lulled into safety! This little form is only for the privileged majority of Americans, Swiss, Canadian etc citizens. They flash the paper, get the stamp and are welcomed in LOS for another month. You, my friend, will get the special treatment. So, you can take that little piece of paper and stuff it you-know-where (if there is still some place left near the Thai money :p ).
The fun starts when the officer looks at your passport. “Oh, from … (insert your fifth-world country here). Here! Fill this out”. Upon saying this, he will give you a bunch of forms with all sorts of intrusive questions, such as what you will do in Thailand, your address there, a Thai reference’s name and address, the color of your underwear, etc. You will also need two passport-size pictures, (inside Thailand: 20 Bt, at the border: 200 Bt), two copies of the back of your passport, two copies of the latest stamp in your passport (inside Thailand, 50Satang each; at the border: 5Bt each – hey, at least you make use of all those stuffed-in Thai banknotes now!).
By the time you finish, the size of the stacks of paper piling up at your desk could be enough to give you a greencard in just about any other country – but this is a LOS experience.
You put the stack in front of the officer. He takes it to the back, along with your passport. You are almost done – you think. The few hours of detainment (I guess they are checking whether you are a commie insurgent, agitator or secret agent), will give you enough time to check the others passing by. You can muse about the strangeness of the world, as you watch fornicators, child-prostitue recruiters and paramilitaries walk by without a hitch, while you are sitting there like a Bangladeshi refugee waiting judgement to be passed upon you. Your sin: born in the wrong place. But you can condole yourself with the thought that it’s nothing personal. They treat your country this way, not you (if this works, lucky you!).
After a few hours, if this is your lucky day, you are granted permission – but first you have to flash the cash! Depending on your status, you have to show 10.000 or 20.000 Bt – cash only. This will be really difficult time for you if its not your usual style to carry hundreds of dollars cash into safe heavens like Burma. But if you are smart, (and read this blog!), you will have the dough, show it to them and you are good for another two weeks. Of course, being the courteous fellow that you are, you compensate the country with 1000Bt for the wonderful treatment.
Every good thing has to end once…
…and so has your visa runs. If you linger around one border for too long, the officers will be tired of your ugly commie face and will tell you outright that the only way for you at this border is OUT. In that case, you just gotta try your luck at the next border, until they will know you there too…
What happens when all the nearby borders are closed for you at the last day of your visa, and the next available border is more than 24 hours away? In that case, you will get to experience the thrill and excitement of being an illegal outlaw in Thailand. Can’t work, can’t study, can’t re-enter the country. If you are caught with an expired visa, incarceration, a hefty fine and repatriation are the expected treatments.
On the other hand, if you turn yourself in at the nearest immigration office, you only have to pay a small fortune to get a grace period of two weeks, which you can use to find another, yet unused bordercrossing and hope for the best.
Amazing Thailand, isn’t it.
(Side note: America, the country often labelled as one having a paranoid foreign policy, was quite welcoming to this ex-commie writer. Yours truly still holds a valid multiple-entry US visa that was given for ten years, no questions asked. Like I said, the world is strange. )