‘Visa Run’ – Another Adventure or Needless Nuisance?

(Written on the Malaysia to Thailand train – with a new visa in my pocket)

When I first heard someone say they were off to do a ‘visa run’, it sounded very exotic. I marvelled at the person for being so familiar with living abroad, and knowing how to go about it. Since then I heard it so many times it lost some of its initial appeal and glamour, although I still regard people doing ‘visa runs’ as being serious about staying overseas and not just passing through. However, people usually utter the words with a sense of resentment and boredom in their voices. “Oh, I have to do a visa run. Again.” Then I assume that maybe they are not that committed to the travelling cause anymore, but prefer a comfortable base. I have become a bit like that too. But I still like visa runs. They fill me with the travelling buzz and the excitement of seeing unfamiliar places. I have also learnt that doing a visa run is not rocket science, and is definitely not as complicated as I believed it was. True, it does take a bit of planning. What’s most annoying, it makes you leave your comfortable pit (and all the pets you accumulated over the years) for a few days. If you can accept that, the rest is fun. Depending on your attitude of course.

If you’re planning to stay in Thailand for more than a couple of months, then sooner or later you’re bound to embark on the dreaded and much-talked-about ‘visa run’ trip. Luckily, Bangkok is well situated to provide you with many options to choose from, and the neighbouring countries (with the exception of Myanmar) are all easy enough to cross into in order to reach the closest Thai Embassy.

visa run at Phnom penh

There are many agencies that will be (more than) happy to assist you with organising the trip to obtain a new visa or extend the old one. It’s an option to consider if you don’t fancy looking into all the train and bus connections yourself, and it will most likely not cost you more than a do-it-yourself trip. However, it comes at the cost of your freedom and independence, and puts you at the mercy of minibus drivers that are trying to beat the land-speed record. Loo and food breaks are at their discretion. If this doesn’t put you off, a visit to the travel agency it is; no need to read on.

Or you can decide to take fate into your own hands and take responsibility if anything goes wrong (not very likely). Then Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore await you, as does a colourful little holiday in its own right.  The famous website The Man in Seat Sixty-One provides good guidance on how to independently reach different destinations overland.

When you reach a city which has a Thai embassy, a similar dilemma occurs: should you entrust your passport to one of the thousand agencies or guest houses to organise the visa in your name, or do the trek to the embassy yourself? The cost of the two options is very similar, if you count in the price of the taxi/tuk-tuk/cyclo/motorbike/pushbike return fare/rental. If the (simple, easy) visa paperwork is done by an agency, some more of your time is then freed to explore the city before returning to Bangkok. Sometimes the Thai embassy happens to be near an enjoyable  sight-seeing spot, so doing it yourself can combine visa application with exploring (as is the case in Penang, where the Thai Embassy sits 2 kilometres from the magnificent, lush and free to enter Botanical Gardens). Most embassies issue single entry visas, and do so without officiousness. Double entry visas are sometimes more difficult to obtain (some embassies don’t issue them at all). A tourist visa is given for a period of 60 days. It can be extended for an additional 30 days at the nearest immigration office within Thailand for a fee of around 1000 baht (see the visa section of this website for more information).

Laos is your closest and probably most convenient option for an independent ‘visa run’. Board the train at Bangkok’s Hualamphong station that will take you all the way to Nong Khai, the border town. The sleeper leaves daily at 8 PM and costs between 1,217 baht and 258 baht, depending on your luxury requirements (2nd class sleeper for around 700 baht is recommended). From Nong Khai you can either take the bus to Vientiane, or use the international rail link and experience Laos’ only stretch of railway, ending 13 kilometres from Vientiane in Thanaleng. 30-day visas are available on arrival to Laos for most nationalities for $30-$35, depending on your country of origin. The Thai embassy in Vientiane is very generous with issuing double entry visas.

The other straightforward but more time-consuming option is to take the train to Malaysia or Singapore. From Hualamphong station a daily train leaves at 2.45 PM to Butterworth (a 15 minute ferry ride from Penang, Malaysia, which has a Thai Embassy). You can also continue from there to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. It’s an almost 24-hour journey from Bangkok to Penang, and another 7 hours from there to Kuala Lumpur, or 12 hours to Singapore’s Woodlands station. The ticket to Butterworth costs 1,210 baht, from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur another 40 Ringgit (400 baht) and about 34 Ringgit (340 baht) from there to Singapore, all based on 2nd class accommodation. Graciously, Malaysia offers 90-day visas on arrival at no cost for citizens of most countries (but together with some other countries, it does not recognise Israeli passports). Singapore gives 15 to 90 day visas on arrival to most countries, free of charge.

The trip to Cambodia is not as clear-cut as the trips to Laos or Malaysia, but can be very rewarding. You can either do the whole length by bus (good luck to you!), or break it into shorter steps and first take the train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, near the border. It’s best to take the morning train at 5:55 and arrive there at 11:35AM. Then continue to the Poipet border point by tuk-tuk. In my experience it’s much better to apply for a Cambodian visa before arriving at the border, although visas on arrival are available, if you don’t mind being constantly alert to  different scams and bribe requests. Remember: the only thing you need to pay for is the visa ($20). However official the setting or the uniform, just say “no thank you, just the visa” when people insist you pay them for a medical check , an overtime fee, a Saturday fee, a Monday fee, a border fee, or because you have blue shoes. Walk across the border and take the bus to the unmatchable Ankgor Wat in Siam Reap. The Thai Embassy is in Phnom Phen (a 6-hour bus journey from Siam Reap). The wait for a visa there is a slightly longer 2-3 days.

The last piece of advice: take a warm jumper if a stretch of your trip includes a vehicle using air-conditioning . I’m writing this wearing all the clothes I brought with me, and wishing I had some more. The Asian taste in how cold it needs to be to utilise the A/C does not fall within my temperature comfort zone.

And enjoy your visa run! Don’t be dissuaded by some pessimistic reports. Create your own experience. And then happily return to Bangkok.

visa run at Singapore