Break For The Border

A rundown on my visa run to Laos.

Monday
8am

This is what 8.am on a Monday morning at the Thai consulate in Vientiane looks like.

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Technically it’s outside the consulate as the gates haven’t opened yet. There are probably already about 200 people here. It’s going to be a long morning…… Thankfully I booked myself into the hotel just across the road from the consulate so I had a bellyful of breakfast to keep me contented in the queue. Although even if you don’t get to eat before you arrive there are a multitude of enterprising street stalls to meet your needs for a modest fee. ( you can also pick up application forms, photocopies and photographs on the street outside should you wish to.)
And a side note here- it’s rainy season people, if it’s not actually raining, it will be- bring an umbrella.
We are all here waiting for our magic number. When the gates open we will all patiently file through and wait to be given a queue number, then we will all patiently wait until our number is called so we can shuffle to the numbered windows and submit our visa application. Then we will all go, clutching our magic numbers, to another building where we will all patiently wait until our number is called again and we will pay.

Then we get to leave, but not with our passports, we will all have to patiently wait till tomorrow afternoon to get into another queue to see if our visa requests have been granted and then we can pick up our passports and run to the border. But that’s tomorrow …..

9am

Well the magic number for today is 204 and this is what will determine just how long I have to sit here. At least 2 hours I’d say.

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It is always wise to bring something to entertain yourself with. Thankfully this is something I already know so I have my ipad, my crochet and a book, just in case.

10am

We are still only at numbers 91-100….
It always amazes me how unprepared some people are when they turn up to get a visa. It’s really not that difficult to find out what you will need before you get here and yet droves of people turn up without the first clue.

You need a filled out visa form, supporting paperwork depending on what type of visa you require, 2 passport photographs ( with a white background ), a photocopy of your passport pages and all relevant entry and exit stamps and most importantly the correct fee in the correct currency ( Thai Baht in this case ). I know that you can get the forms and the photos at the consulate but It’s really not that difficult. And as I mentioned above, even if you have none of these things before you arrive the street vendors can supply you with everything before you come rough the gates. And yet in front of me in the queue was a young chap with nothing other than a hangover and a can of beer……

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He had decided that he needed a 1 year education visa but had failed to realise that you have to actually register and pay for the course before you apply for your visa. He quickly decided to try for a 60 day tourist visa instead.

11am

191-200 have just been called, I’m almost there…..
My crochet has been garnering a lot of interest and I have just taught a young Filipino lady how to crochet a miniature top hat. As you do.

12 pm

My number was called at just after 11am. I submitted my application
and went through my supporting documents with the rather stern looking Thai official. He seemed, if not happy, at least content that all was in order and I took my ticket through to the payment hall. I’m still here. This is usually the quick bit. Today it is not. Monday is always the busiest day here and if you have the choice and flexibility on days then I would recommend mid week. This time round I did not and today was really the only choice. Bummer.
Mr unprepared is now touting around the waiting room asking if anyone can change his KIP to BAHT as he thought you could pay the fee in local currency……. He really didn’t think this through.

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12.30 pm

4 and a half hours later and I have my receipt in hand ready to take back tomorrow afternoon and retrieve my passport. That was a long long wait. Last time with small one we were done by 11, but tighter restrictions on the issuing of Thailand visas has clearly added a little time to each application.
I hate being without my passport, it really unsettles me. Particularly when I’m waiting for something as important as this.

Tuesday
1.34 pm

My manicure in town took a little longer than I expected it to ( I know…first world problems, but there really isn’t much else to do in downtown Vientiane in the morning as I discovered when I arrived in an almost deserted city centre after breakfast ), so I hopped out the back of a tuk-tuk and in through the consulate gates long past the time for getting a decent queue number.

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137. Sigh.

2pm

Mr underprepared from yesterday morning has just rocked up at the counter and is trying to explain that he has lost his receipt and is extremely cross that he will have to wait till the crowd has thinned out till he gets dealt with.
There really is no hope for some people.

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2.15pm

The young Filipino lady I met yesterday has just showed me a selection of multi-coloured miniature top hats that she made this morning. 🙂 I have no idea why she would need so many but she seems very happy with them anyway……

2.30pm

137 came up at 2.24pm – woohoo!! There was a slightly nervy moment when it turned out that my passport was not in amongst the general assortment on the desk and I must admit that a little bit of wee nearly came out as I watched the lady go across to a smaller pile all with notes attached to the front. She read the note and scrutinised both my photo and my face. She crumpled the noted and shook her head and advised me that there was no problem just that one of her colleagues yesterday had flagged up that that I didn’t look anything like the picture. She complimented my new haircut, handed me back my passport and wished me a pleasant day. While I was a little intrigued to see how mr unprepared made out it was not enough to keep me from skipping out the gates and across the road to my hotel to pick up my bag.

2.50pm

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I am writing this in the back of a rickety tuk tuk on the way to the Laos – Thailand border. I’m holding on VERY tightly as it seems our journey has turned into a race with another tuk heading the same way.

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I can’t tell you what speed we are going as the vehicle has no speedo, nor any other working instrumentation, but I do know that while we may not have the horse power to beat his friend on the flat when it comes to any incline, however slight, we have him nailed as he has 3 strapping young Aussie lads in the back of his and I am, once again, flying solo.

Jer Gan Mài

Flying Solo

I’m oddly unenthusiastic about this trip.

I’m off to Vientiane in Laos to apply for my one year Thai Visa.
The reason I’m going to Laos is that you cannot apply for an education visa inside Thailand. It has to be done a a consulate or embassy on foreign soil and Laos is the most convenient .
No. I don’t know why I have to leave the country either, but I do, so here I am at the airport waiting to board my flight for Udon Thani. Yes I know I said I’m going to Vientiane but it is half the price to get a flight to Udon Thani and cross the ‘ Friendship Bridge’ into Laos from Thailand by bus.

Ah visa runs……

I’ve been to Vientiane before, last year when small one needed her Education Visa. And as much as I was looking forward to it I really didn’t have a good time.

When you first do a visa run there is always an element of confusion and chaos as you are not really sure of the procedures or which lines you need to stand in to get the right forms and such, add to that a very tired and confused 8 year old and it’s a joy I can tell you.

There are a few oddities at the Laos border crossing that its worth being aware of before you go.

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1- while you can pay the visa fee in thai baht the preferred currency, and cheapest option by far, is US dollars. 35 of them to be precise. Unless it’s a weekend when you will be asked to pay an extra dollar for ‘overtime’. ( T he irony of the preferred currency being the US dollar in Laos is not lost on me and if you have even the smallest grasp of Laos/ US history it should not be lost on you either ).

2- the Laos visa on arrival form is available to download online. Don’t bother. The actual form given to you is a very particular and specific size and any other sizes are not accepted. It really doesn’t take long to fill in the correct one.

3- it is advisable to ensure that the bills that you use to pay the visa fee are spotlessly clean and un wrinkled. This may sound silly but, I can assure you after the near fiasco we had last time, border officials will refuse to accept any bills that have even the tiniest smudge or wrinkle. I have been told that ‘some’ will accept blemished bills, but it’s really not worth the risk of either being refused entry or being stuck with a blemished $100 bill that can only be exchanged in one particular branch of one particular bank in the whole of Vientiane.

4- Be warned that once you are across the bridge you will be at the mercy of the local taxi drivers. You will, unless you happen to be with a local, get overcharged. It will cost you a minimum of $15 to get to Vientiane city.
However; Before you leave Thailand as you wait to get your passport stamped you may be offered a taxi into the city for around $10. It could be a wise move to take this offer as the price rises once you are across. If you are very fortunate the driver will accompany you through the crossing process and magically produce all the forms you need so you can fill them in on the way over the bridge ( there is a mandatory 20 baht bus fare for the bus that actually takes you across the actual friendship bridge ) . This only applies if you get a seat. It is usual for the bus to be packed far beyond normal capacity

Once the formalities of the crossing and taxi negotiation have been completed it is a short ride to the city itself. A city which is peculiarly similar to most other northern thai cities, yet in many ways starkly different.

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At first glance Vientiane seems like a vibrant multicultural city, but most of this is an illusion due to the huge numbers of ‘visa-runners’ who are simply passing through.

As little as 5 years ago it was still considered to be somewhat quirky to visit this cheap and cheerful corner of communist south east Asia, but the taxi drivers and street vendors soon got wise to the sheer volume of tourists passing through on visa runs for various other SEA countries and prices have been driven up to such a high that it is comparable cost wise more with western nations than eastern. There is also an unusually high level of aggressive street begging with many reports of people being followed around the city for hours at a time by groups of ragged looking children.

It was not children that spooked small person on our last visit, but a clearly unfortunate man who saw us having lunch in a side street cafe and decided to help himself to small ones bottle of pop from the table. Despite being chased out of the cafe by the owner he waited for us to finish and followed us down the road wailing and begging for money.
Now I’m not heartless and clearly he had suffered much in his life, but when he started tugging on my bag from behind it was more than time to flag down an overpriced taxi and get out of Dodge.
Of course i cannot blame people for trying to exploit the ‘rich white tourist’, but it has gone so far now that many people, myself included, will only come back to this city because they have to rather than because they want to.

Which is a great shame as I’m sure the city has many charms and wonderful sights to see, but to be honest after my last trip here I’m really not that inclined to seek them out.

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It’s now around 5 hours since I started this blog post and I am ensconced in the comfort of my hotel room with a take away dish of delicious smelling mystery food and a couple of cans of beer Lao. The rain is thundering down outside and ensconced I shall stay till the early morning sees me take my place in the first of many lines at the Thai Consulate. Once that is done and dusted I will try to walk around the city with fresh eyes and see the beauty that is here rather than relive the disappointment of the last trip.

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Wish me luck.

Jer Gan Mai