Thailand has many things going for it.
It has beautiful beaches, good weather and amazing food.
It has a proud history, friendly people and low prices.
It has scooters.
On the flip side, it also has an interesting set of visa regulations that require most foreigners who want to stay in Thailand for a while to regularly be somewhere else.
For people coming here on a short holiday the rules aren’t too onerous. 30 day visa exemptions are granted to residents of most countries who arrive by air, or 15 days if arriving by land. Short term tourism is encouraged.
Work, residency and educational visas allow the holders to stay for extended periods within Thailand, albeit with their own sets of rules. Longer term stays for tourism purposes are a different story.
Foreigners can’t apply for tourist visas inside the country, so Thai embassies around the world are kept busy processing 60 day visas and counting the money generated from the application fee. Exactly what you get – and what need to get it – seems to vary wildly however.
The coveted double-entry visa is readily available at the embassy in Vientiane, Laos, for instance, with minimal documentation and hassle. This lets you enter Thailand twice, for up to 60 days each time.
Try asking for the same thing in Singapore and there is a good chance you will be knocked back, asked for a raft of documentation, or both. If you are lucky you might get a death glare and a single entry visa.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I applied in Melbourne, Australia last year. What I didn’t count on was a smile and the question ‘how many entries would you like?’. One day and $135 later I was the proud owner of a triple-entry Thai visa in my passport. Most people will tell you such things don’t exist.
It appears that they do.
Although it is possible to extend a visa entry by up to 30 days at the nearest immigration office, the cost is relatively high at 1900 baht ($60) and it only postpones the inevitable. Last week I took the cheaper and more painful option of a visa run to Burma.
A few different companies provide the same service at the same price – a packed minivan ride from Chiang Mai to Mae Sai and back in a day for 600 baht. With expectations low I was quietly impressed to receive a phone call 10 minutes before the ubiquitous grey van turned up outside my apartment at 7:15am.
We started making our way swiftly northwards towards the border about half an hour later, after finding inventive ways of fitting large motor vehicles into small laneways while collecting the remaining passengers.
The sole highlight (and I use that term loosely) of the next four hours was a comfort stop at the hot springs ‘park’ near Chiang Rai. I spent some time there last year and it is worth a visit if you’re in the area, but there was only time to queue for the bathrooms and force down a mediocre coffee before we were on our way again.
Pushing my vague travel sickness to one side as we arrived in Mae Sai I walked the hundred metres to the Thai immigration office. Hint: when doing this yourself, make sure the departure card that is hopefully still stapled into your passport is filled out before you get to the window. Mine was, but many weren’t – and you will be sent to the back of the line to sort it out if you forget.
The Friendship Bridge that crosses the Moei river between the two countries isn’t especially remarkable (nor especially friendly, come to that) but the view from one side of it was interesting enough. The utilitarian buildings on the other side? Not so much.
The Burmese immigration office reminded me of my old primary school classrooms, albeit with more attractive uniforms. Some well-groomed officers officiated over proceedings while an array of backpackers and expats filed through to hand over the 500 baht visa fee. Apparently it is also possible to use a pristine US $10 note if you have one.
For my hard-earned cash I was entitled to a special piece of cardboard with my photo on it that allowed me 14 days to travel a full 160km into Burma if I so desired.
Deciding that I needed neither cheap cigarettes nor Viagra from the nearby market I chose to travel approximately 160cm into Burma instead, getting the stamp in my passport and heading straight back to Thailand. I filled in a new arrival card, had my passport stamped and within five minutes I was allowed back into the country until early March. Easy.
On a per minute basis Burma had to be the most expensive country I have ever been to.
After my second mediocre coffee of the day we set off again back towards Chiang Mai. The route was equally thrilling in reverse, although to be fair it would be a lot more scenic on a scooter than from behind the tinted windows of a speeding minivan.
11 hours, $35, leg cramps and far too much crappy coffee.
At least we were home in time for dinner.
Another 60 dinners, in fact.