Today I had the joy of experiencing what every long-term traveler calls the “visa run.” Most countries place a limit on the amount of time you can stay in their country without leaving and renewing your visa. Thailand is no different. Fortunately, they don’t have a limit on how long you have to be gone, just that you actually do leave. So, that’s what I did today since my visa waiver would have expired tomorrow.
Thailand grants most travelers a 30 day visa waiver on arrival. Note that I wrote visa waiver, not just visa. Visa waivers are actually rather common and they make travel much easier. Instead of requiring you to obtain a visa in advance or at the airport, they waive the requirement and simply stamp your passport with an entry permit. If you want to stay longer, though, then you have to leave and return which is a bit of annoyance (though understandable from the country’s point of view).
If you fly into Thailand the visa waiver is for 30 days exactly, not a month. The distinction is important. While not common, some countries do allow for a month. If you arrive on a certain day of the month, you must leave the same day of the following month. Not only that, people tend to think in months, not days, so it is easy to overstay your visa waiver. I arrived in Thailand on October 10. Had I waited until November 10 to leave, I would have overstayed my visa waiver by two days. That will certainly mean a fine (500B a day in Thailand; jail is sometimes included in other countries).
So, off I went to Mae Sai in Northern Thailand to renew my visa waiver by crossing the bridge over the Ruak River that divides Thailand and Burma (Myanmar). I booked a van that takes you there for 650B (about $21), round-trip. They pick you up at where you are staying, drive you the four hours there, wait for an hour, and then drive you the four hours back. Some companies wait longer should you want to do a little shopping on the Burma side, but really most people are there to just do a visa run.
The driver to Mai Sai was a bit crazy. My driver, a typical Thai driver, speeds, swerves into oncoming traffic to overtake slower vehicles, honks, speeds up randomly, slows down randomly, takes corners at full speed, and manages to find and hit every single pothole on the road. The scenery is nice, though I imagine it would be more enjoyable if I were not bouncing all over the place.
Mai Sai itself is nothing special; nor is Tachileik on the Burma side. I was dropped off on the Thai side and walked a short distance to the border control on my left to exit (Thailand is opposite America when it comes to driving). The exit stamp is important since it shows you did not overstay your visa waiver. Then I crossed the bridge, switching to the right side, to enter Burma.
Normally a visa is required for Bruma, but I think the Burmese figured there was money to be had so they just grant you a visa waiver for the day. It costs $10 (and it should be a crisp, clean, new looking bill). However, the agent I encountered refused American money and would only accept Thai baht. This was odd because even our driver was selling $10 bills for 380B ($10 is roughly 300B).
Nonetheless, the agent was insistent it be 500B, which is actually about $16, not $10. I was insistent myself that he take American money (they are supposed to) but he kept telling me to change it and started to helping other people, so I relented and paid the 500B. I was not pleased by this, but there was little I could do. Burma isn’t exactly known for being corruption-free and I’m sure the border agent realized he could make some extra money on the side by requiring baht instead of dollars.
I paid the agent, he gave me a big piece of paper that I handed to another agent two feet away (I love the efficiency). That agent entered my information and snapped a picture of me. Once that was done I had the choice of leaving my passport and going shopping, or being stamped in and out of Burma right then and there so I could return to Thailand. I opted for the latter and re-entered Thailand within a few minutes of leaving.
While Thailand grants a 30 day visa waiver when you fly in, crossing by land is a whole different story—you only get 15 days. While not optimal, it is better than paying the 1900B for a 7 day extension. Of course, if I had a full 60 day visa I could have it extended for 30 days, but not for a visa waiver. Besides, it looks like I’ll be headed to Cambodia in a couple of weeks, so the 15 days works out just fine.
The whole journey, while tiring, was uneventful and I am legally allowed to stay another two weeks in exchange for a day of my time and a total of $37. Not bad.