The Saga of the Burmese Visa Run
January 17, 2010 – Day 388 – Koh Samui, Thailand
At the ripe hour of 7AM we descended upon the city of Ranong intent upon finding the immigration office. We need that exit stamp from Thailand so we can officially leave and come back with a fresh 15 day visa. Gives us plenty of uninterrupted time to “explore” the beaches of southern Thailand. Of course, that mainly hinges on the idea that “explore” means drink beer, go diving and snorkeling, and maybe—if duty calls—some lying on the beach, just to make sure it’s safe for future travellers, of course.
At any rate, it really wasn’t that far, the Thai immigration office. After we left the guest house and set out on our own, on foot, we realized we were wasting time. We convinced the first moto taxi we could find to take us to the office. It was a tight fit with the three of us on the little moped but we got there and it was actually pretty fun. Turned out that we went to the old immigration office and by the time we could decipher this tiny morsel of info from the, shall we say, unhelpful chap within our moto taxi was gone and we once more set off on foot to find the proper office. Fifteen minutes later we found the right pier where the new office is located and another 10 minutes in the strictly “Foreigner” line, we had our exit stamp.
Now only to get to Burma. Hmm…Wait, what’s that little man with webbed feet? Yes, I do need a boat! No, that’s too much but we’ll pay 100 baht each instead. OK? Right, let’s go.
With another grumpy looking German couple, we descended some rather precarious looking stairs and hopped into one of the hundred or so identical longtail boats bobbing and clunking together in the black water. The same black water that just moments later unapologetically swallowed Saben’s sunglasses. Materialistic bastard.
Just across the river there is a major visible difference between Thailand and Burma. The Burmese houses are so shabby and sad looking it is hard to imagine anyone living there. Big contrast between how the beloved King of Thailand treats his people and how the Burmese government neglects theirs.
Anyway, back to the visa business. With a couple of scheduled border checks along the way and a river so choppy and with such strong waves it seemed certain we would capsize and die just like the fate of so many boats each day here, we eventually made it to Burma. Nameless border town which holds little import for us as we are on a single track mission: getting a stamp in and back out again. We made a single purchase during our time in Burma and that was to buy a Myanmar Beer for Saben’s beer label collection. Stamp, stamp, US$10 (ouch), beer, and we are back in the boat zipping noisily across the river that we keep taunting with our stubborn survival at its fierce attempts to make us “sit down and stay a while.” The whole matter took 2 hours and we were very lucky to have a good boat driver who did not indeed allow our boat to capsize and did not break down.
Back at the Thai side, we officially re-entered Thailand, got the stamp, paid our boat driver, and hopped into the back of a truck taxi heading for our side of town. Grabbed our bags and hopped a bus 45 minutes later and, whew! Finally we were on our way to Koh Samui. All that before noon and we didn’t even get the opportunity to eat a single meal yet today.
The minibus from Ranong to Surat Thani (port town where you catch the ferry to Koh Samui—or another chosen island destination) took about 3-4 hours. A bit of waiting around for another hour or so til we could get the next bus to the actual port where the ferry way leaving and then we were lucky enough to catch the ferry literally 2 minutes before it pulled off. During the hour and a half ride to Koh Samui we chatted up this nice German fellow with bright blonde hair and a hearty laugh. The sun was just setting at we pulled out to sea and made for a nice ride to the island. We arrived just at dark and hopped another truck taxi from Nathon (Koh Samui’s port town) up the coast to the northern beach Mae Nam. Big sigh of relief to be in one place for at least the next 7 hours. Definitely ready for some food and sleep!
Honestly, you can do this without a tour guide or going through a guest house. You can do it on your own, for less money and in less time. You will probably even get out alive! I mean, no guarantee there but we both did so there is that.
Anyway, since we have a certain affinity for using overpriced and generally unnecessary tourist setups, we decided to forgo the guest house’s border run package. We stayed at the Kiwi Guest House as a matter of convenience because we were dumped on right there by the bus station and it was getting dark and beginning to rain. We had heard mixed things about the place but turned out to be basic but sufficient for one night. Staff are really terrible, bathrooms not great but rooms are okay and there are a few local restaurants nearby that are much cheaper than the Kiwi’s. Of course, it didn’t help that we refused to buy the border run package or the minibus ticket to Koh Samui with them so that probably contributed to our ideas of their staff and service.
If you want to do the visa run yourself, it’s all quite simple. The immigration offices open at 7:30AM every day of the week. If you go on a weekend or other “holiday” you will be charged an extra 5-10 baht by the Burmese at one of the 2 stops on your boat ride. It’s called a “holiday fee” and as you might have guessed, is just a nice way for the Burmese border folks to make a little extra money on the side.
Take a moto drop or truck taxi to the port immigration office. If you are staying in the market area of town, it should cost maybe 20 baht for a moto. From the Kiwi Guest House it might cost 30-40 baht (just a guess since we didn’t pick one up til we walked to the market and a bit farther). The port is very busy with locals going to work or just hanging around. There will likely be at least a couple of guys direct you toward the immigration office for the hopeful 5-10 baht tip. You can’t miss it though. Just walk toward the noise and water and turn right when you get “inside” the huge building, which is kind of open air. There will be a line of foreigners waiting for their exit stamp so you’ll obviously want to join them. When your turn comes, you will wordlessly hand your passport into a low dark window and stand and wait patiently (2-3 minutes) for them to hand it back. Just before they return your passport to you, they will take your picture so be sure to remove hat and sunglasses and look at the little camera behind the dark glass so you don’t have to try to figure out what they hell they want from that tiny uncomfortably low and small window.
From there, you might get picked up by a boat driver or you might need to walk over toward the rickety looking stairs and ask someone around there. Negotiate a good price and find out how many other people will be in the boat. If are two people and want to rent the whole boat, a good rate is 300 baht. Of course the drivers start out asking around 1000 baht so don’t be afraid to seriously negotiate with them. If you can share the boat with say, 4 people, a really good rate is 100 baht per person. This is what we paid but the driver was charging the German couple we shared the boat with 200 baht per person. Just FYI.
Very important thing to know: have a photocopy of your passport ready! You will need it for the first Burmese border check (your driver will take it and your passport inside and you will wait 3-4 minutes in the boat). If you don’t have one, you can pay 5 baht for a copy at the Thai immigration office after you get your exit stamp (door on left side as you walk away from the stamping counter).
Once you are in the boat, the driver will get you to where you need to be and make sure you are properly checked and stamped. When you get to Burma, you will go into a little office where you will wait with a big gaggle of other foreigners to have your passport stamped and pay your US$10. They will hold up your passport and try to pronounce your name so you can come over to the counter and retrieve your passport; then you ca be on your merry way, whether into Burma or back to Thailand.
A note about the US$10. It must be American currency and it must be absolutely pristine! The bill needs to be as new as possible and without any creases or blemishes of any sort. If you don’t have US$10 you can pay the Burmese visa fee with 500 Thai baht. Of course that translates into about US$15 so it’s best it you have American currency. However, the Burmese border officials are known to be awful to deal with and will come up with any number of absurd reasons to reject your perfectly spendable US$10 bill and demand payment in baht. You can see why, when they would make an extra US$5 off each person they do this to!
So that’s it. Your driver will herd you back into the boat and zip you back across the crazy river. There will be two scheduled stops on the way back. One is to make sure you didn’t smuggle drugs or people or something else equally illegal and one is to check your passport again. Boat driver handles these again and each takes less than 5 minutes. Once you arrive back to the Thai side of the river, head back up the stairs, get in to “Arrival” line and get stamped back into Thailand. Done! You’ve got a fresh 15 day visa, now get to the beach!