Well, about a few weeks back it was my turn, the first in years actually, to do a visa run to Vientiane, Laos. And I did the visa run on my own and not with some over-priced Visa Run trip company.
Thinking back, the last time I had been to Vientiane was just a year or so ago, that time with a buddy of mine who was looking for someone to accompany him on his visa run trip.
My first venture over the river into the Land of a Million Elephants (compare to Land of Smiles) was way back in the days of 1996 when the only known traffic congestion in the capital was caused by too many half-defunct rusty bicycles breaking down at the lights. And compare these examples for tourist-development: in those days the scenic village of Vang Viang, 3 hours north of Vientiane, was home to 3 or 4 guest houses and a single tin-shack that sold jars of Beer Lao in the evenings. Since then though, Vang Viang has turned into Laos’ equivalent of Khao Sarn Road. Then, in those “good ol’ days”, the only way foreigners were permitted to travel to Luang Prabang was by a pre-packaged airplane tour – now there are air-con buses with bus-hostesses handing out assorted cakes and blaring out the latest in Thai pop music. I doubt that any other country (besides perhaps Cambodia) in the region has developed so quickly over the past decade or so.
Back to me trip info. My first mistake on the visa run was in taking the bus from the Morchid Bus Terminal in Bangkok to Nong Khai on the border. Arriving at the Northern Bus Terminal rather late-ish, I bought a ticket for something like the 9 o’clock departure. Having read up that the trip by bus was around 10 hours, I basically calculated that I would be arriving in Nong Khai at say… 7 in the morning – just in time to have breakie, cross the border and get to the Thai Embassy for opening. Absolutely not – instead our bus driver, thinking he’s Michael Schumacher, decides for himself that we are all in a desperate rush to get to our destination and rips the distance in no time – didn’t even bother stopping for supper (a norm on over-night buses). We arrived at more look 5 in the morning and it was friggin freezing by Thai standards – worse luck was to come, when on shifting through my bag, I finds out that I had forgotten my jacket at home. Shivering away, I could do nothing but twiddle me thumbs and sip hot coffee for the next hour or so before heading to border.
I advise therefore, to sod taking the bus to Nong Khai and instead a train which arrives after daybreak. The train station is also closer to the border (Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge) and there are shared songthaews (passenger pick-up vehicles) which do the run for just 20 Baht a person. From the bus station, I paid 50 or 60 baht for the tuk-tuk to the border – it’s much further.
Through immigration on the Thai side and it’s another 20 Baht by bus across the bridge. Arriving on the Laotian side and in need of a Lao visa (36 pound for Brits) I was met by a hundred or so foreigners also wanting one. Quite a wait altogether, probably about an hour to go through the whole procedure – that is exiting Thailand, going over the bridge and getting a Lao visa.
Now take a hint here – once you pass through Lao immigration you may be bombarded with touts suggesting you take one of ‘their’ songthaews to the Thai embassy in Vientiane. Instead, forget them and walk straight ahead where you’ll find a shared songthaew charging 50Baht each to take you direct to the Thai Embassy or hotel / guest house of choice. If you are looking for even cheaper than that, there are public buses which leave when as full as sardines in a can.
Second mistake – I went straight to the Thai Embassy for opening at 8:30 – and as it was a Monday I ended up getting ticket number about 350. Altogether, it took me around 2 and a half hours of being sat around mostly listening to foreigners about their Visa trip company run so far. Having paid a small fortune for their packaged trip, they had the privilege of being served first, but they also had to wait for ages. Forget it visa-runners, if you wanna do the trip, do it yourself and you’ll save lots of cash and enjoy the freedom of eating and drinking where and whatever you wish – even though you may make a couple of blunders along the way like me! Big Tip: Don’t bother getting to the embassy on time, arrive half an hour before the closing time of 11am when there are hardly any people left.
After the embassy, I took a tuk-tuk into Vientiane at about 40Baht and stayed at a guest house recommended by my buddie here in Suphanburi. The guest house was fine enough mind you, but it was pretty far from the river, a kilometer and a half walk. So, if you fancy being near farang eateries and the bars etc… better you find a place to stay near the fountain area.
There are a few things I love about Vietiane, but tops just has to be the awesome views of the sunset from the banks of the Maekhong River while having a having a Beer Lao and a coupla snacks – absolutely mandatory for anyone on their first trip. Second up perhaps, is the French bread – contrary to popular thought, French bread is a traditional breakfast for many of the locals. As for me, the bread with cheese spread has been a must-eat on ever occasion I been to Laos. Third up is the national female dress. Pop down the river for the sunset, and you can admire the local Lao ladies having a drink after work wearing their sarong (and high-heels#@!). A type of dress which got booted out of Thai tradition during the cultural transitions of the 1930/40s. Even the schoolgirls keep to wearing sarongs – altogether a pretty difference from the so-called Westernization of Thai outfits.
Before you know it, your Thai visa will be ready in a jiffy – next afternoon to be precise. Not being so daft this time, I got to the embassy well after opening hours and received my passport back in literally 2 minutes. Having done the trip on my own and not with a visa tour, I had plenty in my wallet left over for another fun day in the capital. Unlike the package tourists who get hauled back to Thailand as soon as they collect their visas.
After a memorable coupla days in Vientiane it was time to head home. And it was very simple indeed. I just walked to the Talat Sao (Morning Market) and hired my own songthaew to take me to the border for a more than reasonable 100baht. There are direct Vientiane – Nong Khai buses which do the trip for slightly less, but they drop you off at the bus station. But I had thought sod to the bus and opted for the train instead. Going on your own like this, you also get the chance to wander around duty free where you can pick up bargain-priced imported French wines and premium whiskeys for your Thai friends and family.
Arriving on the Thai side, you once again get approached by tuk-tuk offering you a pricey ride; be adamant that 20baht is enough to get you to the train station and you’ll soon be pointed to a shared songthaew. I had no bother whatsoever getting a train ticket back (to Ayutthaya for connection to Suphanburi). Even if you gotta wait around a bit waiting for the train, there are a few restaurants just opposite dishing up eatable munchies where you can hang around till your train leaves. I had such a fine time altogether that I’m tempted to go back to Vientiane as soon as I can. Do the Vientiane visa trip on your own, don’t rush it, and it can certainly turn into an enjoyable mini vacation.