Visa runs are an unfortunate reality for expats living in Thailand. Regardless of your desired visa, you’ll find yourself skipping back and forth over country borders every few months while you navigate a bureaucratic labyrinth of queues, stamps, and missing paperwork, all the while crossing your fingers that the next immigration officer that you encounter doesn’t mind the amount of stamps in your passport.
Visa runs are tedious, exhausting, and humiliating. There is no amount of money you can pay to make the process of acquiring visas any less awful. In some ways, it seems like the visa process was crafted to purposefully humiliate foreigners.
I recently did a visa run to the small town of Savannakhet, Laos with my girlfriend. I had been there before, so I had certain expectations about the trip. The first thing I knew to expect was that the trip to Savannaket would be terrible. The second thing that I expected, the most important thing, was that the queue at the Thai consulate would be small in comparison to Vientiane.
In order to lessen the awfulness of the trip to Savannakhet, we booked a Nok Air “fly and ride” package that included a flight from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani and a van from the airport to a hotel in Mukdahan, near the Laos border. The flight was an hour long, and the subsequent van ride was two and a half hours. Honestly, this wasn’t so bad. It certainly beat the 12 hour, refrigerated bus ride that I’d taken in the past.
We stayed in the Ploy Palace. If you’ve ever been to one of the less popular ‘buri’s’ in Thailand, you should have a pretty good mental image of Mukdahan. At night, everything is dead and quiet, save for a flickering bank sign and a 7 Eleven. We did manage to find an open restaurant where the only other customers were drunk policemen who appeared to be gossiping loudly about whatever small town gossip there is to share.
I don’t like towns like this, and I wonder how much better things would be in that town if Google or Alibaba were to come in and enslave the local population in human hamster wheels. What if everyone in that town had free wifi and the latest flagship phone, and all they had to do was ride a stationary bike for 8 hours a day and generate electricity? What if their entire lives were automated, their meals dispensed from glowing neon vending machines, and their dreams disregarded in exchange for basic comforts and a chance at a pseudo middle class lifestyle? Maybe then people would have a genuine reason to visit Mukdahan, instead of using it like a cheap hourly rate motel for visa runs.
The next morning, I knew to queue up at the border as early as possible. We arrived at 6:30 AM, right behind a few visa agency groups. I wondered why anyone would pay for a third party to walk you through such a straightforward process. My questions were quickly answered when I realized that the immigration officers were processing the passports from the visa agencies first. No matter how quickly you filled out paperwork, immigration was working on a stack of passports that were handed over in bulk.
Oh by the way, it’s cheaper to pay the Laos visa fee with USD. You probably already knew that. I knew that, so I was smart and exchanged a few baht for the fee and also for my hotel. What you probably didn’t know is that Super Rich likes to stamp a cute little pink logo on their bills. Another thing you don’t know is that immigration officers don’t like that little pink stamp. No one likes that stamp. My USD was worthless. Apparently it’s a gamble whenever you exchange money, because even if your bills are crispy clean you might have a tiny little mark that renders your bank notes useless. This is such a problem that people have lost thousands of dollars because of some stupid company policy, I’m surprised that no one else is complaining about this.
Anyway, we arrived at the Thai consulate around 8:00 AM and, lo and behold, a queue of approximately 100 people stretched from the entrance of the consulate to the tree in the front yard. This is where the humiliation began.
The sign in front of the consulate states that they open at 8:30 AM, but they don’t. Of course they don’t. Why would they? They don’t open until 9:00, and when they do open they let in about 20 people at a time like it’s a fucking Hermes store and they’re worried about shoplifters. Each group of 20 to 30 people took approximately 30 minutes to process, and only once every single person in that group had dropped off their paperwork was the next group allowed in. I stood in the hot sun and pantomimed the process to my girlfriend. “Papers please”, shuffle, stamp, hand a number, “Next”. I don’t know how they make it last so long. In the meantime, a hundred genuinely decent people stood outside in the heat as dew sprinkled from the tree onto their oily faces.
Can someone explain to me why these married couples, qualified employees, and humble old retirees have to stand in the sun for over 2 hours just to pay for the right to legally live in a third world country? I mean for the love of God, there are seats in the consulate. Once you’re let in, you’re still standing in the queue. There’s no reason for the seats. Once you drop off your paperwork you’re done! Why are there seats? What the fuck?
After two and a half hours, I finally dropped off my paperwork and was able to check in to my hotel. I stay at the same hotel every time I go to Savannakhet. It’s cute and comfortable and all I do is sleep in that hotel and eat at the café around the corner. I don’t do anything in Savannakhet because it’s like being in Purgatory. I kind of like that feeling. If I was in to opiates, I would have a reason to live there.
The next day after a huge breakfast, we went back to stand in another queue in front of the consulate. We arrived at the consulate around 1:00 PM, and waited until 2:00 when they actually opened. Yes, they SAY they open at 1:00, but they don’t. Why not? So the same group of people from the day before stood outside in the middle of the hot ass day to hand in a receipt to get their passports.
So I finally get my passport back and am ready to head back across the border. Still, somehow, I am concerned. I fear that, for whatever arbitrary reason, someone at the border isn’t going to like me. My heart raced when I slid my passport to my immigration officer. She flipped through my passport, complained about how I wrote my address, then let me though. What a relief.
I wonder though, why was I relieved? I did everything right. I was a prime example of the type of foreigner that Thailand claims to want in the country. I’m a good guy, I can stay. I think my feelings of anxiety come from some kind of PTSD from past experiences with immigration. I feel like I’m skeptical of the whole system because of the constant news stories about immigration crackdowns and new rules. I can’t be the only one who feels this way.
Shout out to Felix, by the way.