Vientiane, Laos

A mini Arch De Triumph thing in the middle of Vientiane

So Thailand’s offering free tourist visas until March 2011. The best place to get one (so I’ve heard) is Vientiane, Laos. The city itself is kind of sucky because it’s kind of expensive (compared to Chiang Mai) and there’s not much to do but you only have to stay overnight (it takes a night for them to process your visa) and then you don’t have to go back for another 6 months.

Supposedly the best visa to get is the double entry tourist visa – it means you can enter Thailand twice. Each time you enter it’s good for 2 months, but you can pay a 1900 baht (about $60USD) extension fee to get an extra month – so for around $120 you can stay for 6 months and you only have to cross the border one time, after 3 months (2 months + 1 month extension).

A minibus roundtrip between Chiang Mai and the Nong Kai (a Thai city at the Laos border) costs about 1800 baht. It’s about 10 hours each way, which is a bummer – but the minibuses are airconditioned and if you’re lucky there’ll only be a couple other people on the trip with you. You give immigration your passport and if you’re American, $36USD (it varies depending on what country you’re from) or 1540 baht. It’s a lot cheaper right now with exchange rates to just give them USD instead of baht. That gets you a Laos visa for 30 days. Then, you have to pay 20 baht for a short bus trip across the border over the “Friendship Bridge”. Once you’re on the Laos side, you have to get a tuk tuk or taxi into Vientiane city… which will cost you about 200 baht if you’re alone, less if you can talk the taxi driver down and you have more people with you to share the fare.

The visa application hours at the Thai consulate are only in the morning, and you can only pick up your visa and passport in the afternoon after 1pm. Things you’ll need: an application form, 2 passport photos that you have to glue to the application form, your passport, and a photocopy of your passport AND of your Laos visa. There’s a bunch of little places set up around the consulate area that’ll take passport photos, fill out your application form, and photocopy for visa for around 200 baht. It’s cheaper to just do all this stuff yourself, the Thai consulate has a photocopy machine upstairs and you can probably get passport photos done cheaper elsewhere.

There’s a lot of guesthouses and hotels around town, and the average room rate seems to be 600 baht a night for an aircon room, some places have wifi. Food is a little more expensive than it is in Chiang Mai, I ended up finding a minimart and just living off of snack type food and cans of tuna for a day and a half.

After you pick up your visa, you’ll need a ride back to the border – which will cost you around 200 baht, unless you can argue the tuk tuk driver down. The tuk tuk will take you to a taxi truck, which will take you to the border. Then, it’s 4000 kip for a bus across the bridge to the Thai border. Hooray!

crossing over the burmese border

shaun and i went on a little adventure the other day.

we have visas that can last up to 2 years, but we have to cross over the thailand border and back every 90 days to keep them going (not sure what the reasoning is behind this). we didn’t know about this catch until after our 90 day period had already passed, ooooooops. overstaying your visa doesn’t really seem to be much of a big deal here, there’s only a monetary fine of 500 baht a day when you overstay your visa and not deportation…. though it sucked because we overstayed 9 days which was 4500/person, equalling 9000 baht (around $270USD). bummer! apparently they can’t charge you over 20000 baht/person (or 40 days’ worth) for overstaying. with some visas, you have to cross the border more frequently and i’ve heard stories of people just not bothering to renew their visas until they’re ready to leave the country, and then just paying the maximum fine when they buy their tickets for home. a road we will not being traveling down, for sure. crossing the border every 90 days is no big deal, and it’s a great excuse to go see laos and vietnam as well as other surrounding countries.

anyway, when we realized we overstayed, we bought the cheapest ticket to cross whatever border we could find as soon as possible. the only one we could really afford (what with the fine and all) was a van ride over the northern thai border, into burma. we had to get up at around 5:30am the next morning and meet the van in front of the travel agency where we booked the trip, so neither one of got any sleep.

a couple of people shaun knows had to make a border run for their visas too, so we met them out front of the travel agency and the van picked us up. we picked up a couple of other people around town who were making border runs as well for the same reasons.

we rode for around 6 hours in a crummy little minivan that was apparently not equipped with any shock absorbers, and the highways around here aren’t exactly the smoothest. it was like riding on a trampoline strapped to the back of a bucking bronco. the guy didn’t even slow down for the rougher parts of the road, i’m amazed that the van even made it to burma and back.

we passed through some really beautiful countryside on the way, lots of mountains, rice fields, groves of trees, and jungle. as exhausted as we were, it was nice to see a little more of thailand. i really should have taken more pictures, but i was too tired to really do anything other than sit and try not to fall out the window from all the bumps in the road.

the topography here is really strange. there’s long, flat expanses of land (chiang mai city is on one of them) and then mountains shoot up out of nowhere. the mountains are really interestingly shaped themselves, a lot like what you see in japanese ink paintings (instead of shaped like triangles they’re more lumpy). i’m guessing this is maybe because they’re older and have been worn away or something?

we stopped a couple of times along the way for bathroom breaks. this one place we stopped at was built on a hot sulphur spring, and had a geyser in the front.

they had a large foot soak area outside, which sounds kind of gross (soaking your feet in the same water as a bunch of strangers) but it was flowing water, and i didn’t have any cuts on my feet. i thought it was actually pretty cool.

once we got to the border, we had to pay our overstay fines before we got into burma. once we payed those fines we crossed over this bridge and into a creepy office where you pay a fee – either 500 baht or $10USD, which is strange since $10USD = around 330 baht. one of the people with us knew about this and had changed out some baht for some USD, so we saved a couple hundred baht which was good.

from the thai side, looking at the bridge to get to burma:

burma was depressing. as soon as we set foot across the border there were all these people trying to sell you cigarettes among other things… but mostly cigarettes. everyone i saw was dirty and had really awful teeth, which were totally black (it was gross). there was a huge market set up that we went to as a group and wandered around in for about an hour. it was full of designer knock offs, which would’ve been kind of funny if i weren’t so tired and bummed out. there were all these dirty little kids begging for money, too. you could really tell how desperate everyone was for cash, and i think that the situation at the thai/burma border probably wasn’t nearly the worst of it. i didn’t take any pictures while in burma either, since i wanted to draw as little attention to myself as possible. i just wanted to leave.

once we got back to the thailand side i felt so much better… people were hocking things there too, but it wasn’t close to the same level of pressure and desperation. ugh. i think next time we’ll go to laos or vietnam instead. arriving back in chiang mai was one of the best feelings ever.

Finished With The Legal Stuff

Our visas have been approved – hooray! Actually not too tricky of a process… but a little pricey. We bought letters of recommendation from a company in Thailand (I think the company is called Sun Belt Asia), $150 apiece. I don’t think you necessarily need these letters, but supposedly it really speeds the process along… especially when you’re trying to get a long-term visa (in our case, for a year). We sent these letters plus our passports and a simple one-page visa application form along with $175 per application to the honorary Thai Consulate in Houston (Sun Belt Asia recommended this consulate). They processed our visas within a day, but we forgot to send self-addressed pre-paid envelopes for them to mail our passports back, so we have to wait a little longer until the visas are actually in our hands.

Next up on the list: storage, plane tix, and immunization shots!

…on a kind of sadder note, I found a new home for Mister Kitty. He’s been my companion for 5 or 6 years now, and I’m really sad to see him go – but it’s for the best. He’d be miserable if I tried to drag him to Asia with me. I’m happy to report that he’s doing really good in his new home!

The Passports Have Arrived!

Me and Shaun’s passports have arrived in the mail! Hooray! Now we’re working on getting visas… Shaun’s been doing more research about that than me.

Change of Plans

Shaun and I were originally thinking about moving to Japan over the summer, but after a lot of talk we’ve decided to hit up Thailand first. The money that we can save up between now and moving time would go a lot farther in Thailand than it would Japan ($1USD = about 35 baht). For the sake of my own paranoia I did a little research on how safe Thailand is for expats, specifically Americans, and as it turns out Thailand isn’t any less safe than living in a big U.S. city. There isn’t much in the way of violent crimes, but you do need to keep a particular eye out for pick pocketing and credit card fraud. With the money we’ll save up between now and then, plus the money I’ll be making through web work for US Businesses (I plan on still maintaining, Shaun may not even have to find steady work and we can accompany each other everywhere which aside from being enjoyable it’s a pretty good safety measure. We’re going to be staying away from the southern provinces, since there tends to be civil unrest in those areas and we don’t want to get caught up in some violent protests.
We’re planning on moving at the end of August, since that’s when my lease is up. Shaun’s moving in with me in May, so we can split rent and save up even more cash.

Some useful links:
OSAC 2009 Crime & Safety Report for Thailand
US Department of State Country Specific Information: Thailand
Thailand Cost of Living
Thailand Visa Information