The End Of Overland Visa Runs?
Getting a visa for Thailand in South-East Asia is more difficult and more time-consuming than ever. Policy changes at Thai embassies and consulates in the region have made things easier for the visa section staff, and more difficult for the visa applicant. Could recent changes mean the days of overland visa runs are coming to an end?
If the term visa run confuses you, let me explain. A visa run is a journey you make when your visa / permission to stay in Thailand is about to expire. You leave the country and return with a new visa / new permission to stay granted. One might simply cross a land border, exit Thailand, enter a neighbouring country, exit that country and be back in Thailand in less than an hour. Or one might depart Thailand and travel to a Thai embassy or consulate in another country, apply for a new visa there and then return to Thailand. Visa runs have been a fact of life for those who wish to stay in Thailand long-term and don’t have a work permit / marriage visa / retirement visa.
Most who make visa runs do so on a budget and traditionally, visa runs have been done overland.
In the late ‘80s through the ‘90s, the most common visa run was a long trip to the Thai consulate in Penang, Malaysia. Most of the 20+ hour journey was spent on a train as well as a short ride on a boat. A couple of days later with a new visa in your passport, the return journey was made. Some people did this for many years; one well-known expat made that journey every 90 days for the best part of a decade.
As neighbouring countries opened up, new visa run options presented themselves. Phnom Penh in Cambodia was considered a good choice by many – it’s a fun place to spend a night or two. And the most popular spot for more than a decade has been Vientiane, the capital of Laos. A visit to the sleepy capital with its charming cafes, French bistros and cheap but excellent Beer Lao was no great hardship. Most found Vientiane a pleasant and relaxing break from Thailand.
But things changed a few months back in Vientiane when the Thai embassy there introduced a new system. Anyone who wished to apply for a visa had to book an appointment online. To make matters worse, the number of bookings was limited each day, mooted to be just 250 people. No appointment = no chance of lodging a visa application in Vientiane. Vientiane’s popularity has seen bookings made for weeks in advance so you can no longer go there to lodge a visa application on the spur of the moment.
In last week’s column I wrote that the Thai consulate in sleepy Savannakhet (a small town in southern Laos directly across from the Mekhong River from the Thai city of Mukdahan) had transformed from a sleepy outpost consulate to an uber busy consulate. I mooted that this was in the wake of the Thai embassy in Vientiane introducing the online appointment system. Vientiane had been processing an estimated several hundred visa applications some days and with the new system limiting numbers, the overflow had to go somewhere. It looks like Savannakhet was many people’s choice.
To recap what was reported in last week’s column:
This week a long-time reader made the annual pilgrimage to the Thai consulate in Savannakhet, Laos, to apply for a new non-immigrant O visa. The Thai consulate in Savannakhet has long been favoured by some as it is quiet with relatively small numbers of people applying for a visa. Or at least that’s how it used to be. Not any more! It might be the low season in Thailand but said reader said it sure didn’t feel like that in Savannakhet. This week it was far busier in Savannakhet than he had ever seen it. He was on the first bus across the bridge in to Laos, but when he arrived at the consulate there were already hundreds of people waiting to lodge their visa application. He finally handed his passport in at 2:30 PM (the usual cut off time is midday) and was given number 379 – and he wasn’t even anywhere near the end of the queue. Could it be that Savannakhet has become so busy after the Thai Embassy in the Lao capital, Vientiane, put in place a booking system whereby you must book an appointment online – fail to do so and you will not be able to enter the embassy and cannot apply for a visa there. With the number of applicants at Vientiane thought to be limited to a few hundred per day, the spillover had to go somewhere – and it looks like Savannakhet is the number one choice.
In a crazy reversal, the sleepy outpost consulate at Savannakhet (I can’t get my head around why they opened a consulate there in the first place) is now as busy as the embassy at Vientiane was. Some mornings, the queue outside the consulate has hundreds of people. Getting a visa in Savannakhet has gone from heaven to hell. How sustainable is this? Does Savannakhet have the staff numbers to handle these sorts of numbers?
What about elsewhere in the region?
The Thai embassy in Phnom Penh hasn’t been visa runner friendly for years. A 4-day processing time is the standard, meaning a long stay which may not be convenient for those who have to get back to Thailand. On top of that, anyone with a history of visa runs to Thailand may find their application declined.
Old favourite Penang is no longer the friendly, soft touch it used to be, especially for tourist visas where a history of back to back stays in Thailand will also see your application declined.
It wasn’t always like this. Visa runs used to be easy, fun and a nice break from Thailand.
I made my first ever visa run in July, 1998. The Thai embassy in Vientiane was a ramshackle shophouse in the middle of town. The visa section operated from a small window facing out on to the street where you handed in your documents. You did so outside in the scorching Lao sun while the visa officer was inside a cool air-conditioned office. Had there been a queue – there wasn’t – it would have been awful. Worse still if the heavens had opened.
21 years later in Savannakhet and it’s not much different. The infrastructure at the consulate was not built to cater to hundreds of people queuing up in the street.
Given that some in the queue will be retirees, older and their health might not be what it was, how will they fare wilting waiting in the sun as the queue slowly creeps towards the consulate? And then they get to experience the very same the following afternoon when they go to collect their passport. Thai embassies and consulates in the region just aren’t geared up for the number of visa applications they get.
It’s a far cry from applying for a visa for Thailand in our homeland. The Thai consulate in Auckland operates out of a law firm in the middle of the city. The waiting area is the lobby of a law firm so it’s plush and comfortable. Every time I have been there I have been in and out in less than 5 minutes. Friendly service with a smile.
But flying to your homeland every 3 or 6 months to apply for a visa is not an option for most. So what are the best options for visa runners today?
You CAN still apply for a visa at Vientiane. Appointment slots may be booked up for weeks in advance and the available slots depend on the type of visa you’re applying for (it seems they limit numbers by type of visa), so you’ll have to be organised and book ahead. If you are organised and disciplined, Vientiane remains a good option.
Phnom Penh is the only Thai Embassy in Cambodia and is known to be difficult. Processing is slow so you’re looking at staying at least 4 nights. And anyone who has a history of back to back visits might find their visa application declined. The positive is that Phnom Penh is inexpensive and has a vibrant nightlife so it might work. Once.
You could fly to Myanmar for a few days and apply for a visa at the embassy in Yangon which is said to be relatively quiet. Probably a nice place to visit once too. Overland is not practical so like Phnom Penh, you’re looking at an airfare, a visa for Myanmar which you need to apply for in advance – which is a pain – plus accommodation which is said to be pricey for what you get. It’s no cheap and cheerful overland trip.
Hanoi and Saigon in Vietnam are both options but again, you’ve got the triple hit of an airfare, a visa (not everyone needs one, so you need to check) and accommodation. The embassy in Hanoi and the consulate in Saigon are both said to be getting busier and each has its own unique document requirements (proof of funds, airline ticket in and out of Thailand and a confirmed hotel booking may all be asked for). Hanoi and Saigon are both fascinating but I wouldn’t want to go there every few months.
Down in Malaysia, Penang is not the soft touch it once was, Kuala Lumpur is difficult and no-one wants to stay in Kota Baru unless they have to. It is easily the most boring place I have been in all of South-East Asia (the local food is excellent, however).
What if you’re willing to travel further afield?
The Thai consulate in Brisbane, Australia is great. I like Brisbane – it isn’t Sydney or Melbourne but it’s still got enough going for it to keep you busy. Very good food, laid-back people, wonderful weather and fantastic beaches just an hour or so away. Thai Airways and QANTAS both fly between Bangkok and Brisbane if you’re willing to pay the several hundred dollar airfare. It’s a good option if money is not an issue, especially if you can wrangle a multiple-entry visa (which they may issue to non-Aussies).
Making a visa run is almost like a rite of passage for Thailand expats. That said, there is a pretty good argument to get your visa situation sorted long-term so you avoid the whole visa run circus. At the same time, being forced to take visa runs is an opportunity to visit neighbouring countries. It’s fun for a while but it gets old.
There has been talk that within 2 years Thailand will introduce a whole new online visa application system. You submit all documents online and when (if?) your visa is approved, you collect it at a Thai embassy or consulate of your choice where it is affixed in to your passport. As convenient as that sounds, the very idea of such a system has some worried – will it be prejudicial against those with a questionable visa history i.e. those have stayed long-term in Thailand on short-term visas? Time will tell.
The combination of huge numbers applying for visas at embassies and consulates in the region which are not geared up to handle such numbers, limiting the number of visas issues each day and a mooted new visa application system could put an end to overland visa runs. That leaves me with mixed feelings.
Last week’s photo was taken from the Onut skytrain station of what is often referred to as the Onut Food Court, which is located by Sukhumvit sois 79 and 81. It proved tricky and only a few people clever readers got it right.
Stick’s Inbox – the best emails of the past week.
The real Thailand.
I needed to go to an early morning meeting and found myself on the Bangkok metro at 7:45 AM. The car was quite full and I found myself squeezed in and looking about. While other people might see an overly crowded train, I saw economic prosperity. Here it was, quite early, with hordes of Thais, mostly young women, going to the office. I saw a vibrant economy, and one not linked to the sex trade. To those who want to understand Thailand today, ride the metro or BTS early one morning and look around. Women going to a proper job, with nary a tat or braces to be seen. This is the real Thailand, not the one found in bars.
One foot out the door.
I retired last February from San Francisco and moved to Bangkok at age 59. I have been traveling to Thailand since 2003 and planned my retirement since then. I live quite comfortably in Bangkok in a high-rise condo one stop on the MRT from Terminal 21 and my rent is 30,000 baht / month. My monthly income from my 401(k) is 4,000 USD. Nevertheless, despite my ability to live quite comfortably here I have one foot out the door. The immigration requirements are absolutely preposterous. There is so much uncertainty about what new rules will be enforced that it’s hard to feel you can reside permanently here. The constant reporting is a joke. Health insurance requirements and coverage are the next scam. Unlike others, I do not have a Thai girlfriend, wife or children and have no plans to do so. That would be economic suicide. I am in good health, and enjoy fitness club visits 5 or 6 times a week, I cook my own food and eat very little Thai. And while I used to be a regular visitor of the naughty nightlife, now that I actually live here I rarely visit Nana or Cowboy. The whole gogo thing is an absolute rip off and no longer the fun it used to be. That being said, I do like the fact that it is there any time I want to go.
Prefer Thailand to California.
As I am an unhappy resident of California there is one area of your comments about retirement that I would like to respond to. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area (wildly expensive) I can attest that it is not a pleasant place to live (unless you really are one of the 20-something high-tech billionaires). One is bombarded with hate from extremists who have no toleration for any difference of opinion. This is particularly the case from hostile feminists who constantly blame everyone else for their bad attitudes. It is not that Thailand is so great that attracts many of us so much, it is that it is NOT California. Did you know that a survey of Bay Area residents just posted in the media found that 44% of Bay Area residents are planning to leave the area in the next two years? Just a hunch but I guess that 95%+ of the residents of New Zealand like it there. There is a huge difference between happily living in New Zealand and being trapped in miserable California. It is not that expats like me think that everything about Thailand is great, we just find it so much better than California.
Different place, different bullshit.
I can confirm your mate’s experience at the Brisbane consulate. I got a multiple-entry tourist visa last year, and was shocked when they told me to come back that same afternoon. A massive difference to the single-entry tourist visa I just got in Europe a few weeks ago. It was dead, but they still needed 4 working days to process it, and the kid there was a seriously snotty little brat. He went completely ballistic when I couldn’t find my passport ticket and wondered out loud if he had given me one. It really reminded me of how fragile the egos of so many Thais are, and the inward-looking arrogance that readers have mentioned. I’ve been going to Thailand for nearly 30 years, and was always going to retire there, but now I’m not so sure. I spent a lot of time in South America a few years back, and am in Portugal now, checking things out. Yes, there are a lot of alternatives. But I imagine there’s plenty of bullshit to go around, just a different flavour thereof.
When I left Mukdahan for Laos this week for a 90-day exit, a fat, sloven and sullen immigration officer – the only one on duty – made it obvious I had interrupted his mid-morning lunch as he slowly cleaned his hands and went just as slowly through every page of my passport, even the empty ones. If that is how they treat people who have a marriage visa and are supporting a Thai family, heaven knows how they treat tourists. I get the same slow, looking through every page of the passport every time I enter and leave the country now, despite clearly having a valid marriage visa. They really couldn’t make it more obvious that we are a nuisance wasting their time.
May has continued in to June with business super slow in the bar areas of Bangkok. A handful of bars are doing alright despite the lack of naughty boy tourists around. Those bars doing well all have one thing in common – a farang owner or manager in the bar most nights.
One of the odd things some bar owners have done is cut advertising during the low season in what is an apparent bid to save money. Is this not the time of year they need exposure most? Some gogo bars such as Playskool, Enter and Bada Bing have even stopped updating their Facebook pages which strikes me as just plain madness.
There was a blackout on Soi Cowboy last night at around 11:15 PM when the power went off, came back on seconds later only to go back off for another hour. Needless to say, it ruined trade and Saturday night’s take probably looked more like a Monday’s.
And it wasn’t plain sailing at Nana last night either, although the fun and games were limited to one bar. At around midnight, Bangkok’s best gogo bar, Billboard, was evacuated due to smoke in the bar. Customers were told not to worry about their bills, just to leave and go to Butterflies. The issue was related to some dodgy air-con servicing. It’s all been fixed and it will be business as usual tonight.
Word on Soi Nana is that Hillary 4 is on the market and there are several interested parties. The Hillary name is very unlikely to be part of any deal.
And what about the long-closed Climax which was also part of the Hillary Group? Will it ever return? Word on the street is that a venue that fits the bill is still being sought.
Over in Bangkok’s oldest bar area, Patpong, the gay bar influx continues and some say the vibe at Patpongis changing.
Still in Patpong, how do those beer bars towards the Suriwong Road end of Patpong soi 2 survive with so few customers?
The recently relaunched Strip – or should I say, The Strip V2 – has extended its 90 baht drinks special through until the end of June. Al drinks are priced at just 90 baht, all night long until the end of this month (but not lady drinks, of course).
On the subject of happy hours, the local bottled beer 39 baht happy hour at the Aussie Pub on Sukhumvit soi 11 has caused quite a stir. Compare that with the dingy bar area at Queen’s Park Plaza where in one bar the size of a shoebox a lady drink will cost you a quite ridiculous 240 baht. And some bar owners wonder why they have so few customers!
Some bars in Nana Plaza need to do something to attract punters. The big 3 – Billboard, Butterflies and Spanky’s – are cleaning up while other bars are fighting for the left-overs. With punters squealing about poor exchange rates and high prices, happy hours early evening with prices below the psychological 100 baht level is one way to get customers in the door. Just look at Soi Cowboy where Tilac, Dollhouse, Shark and Lighthouse all have fantastic happy hour specials – and customers respond. At 90 or 95 baht, the bar still makes a profit and if the vibe is good, punters will stay, buy more drinks, remain beyond happy hour and pay full-price for drinks – and they might buy some lady drinks. They might even pay a barfine. And who knows, they might return the next night. You’ve got to give them a reason to go inside in the first place and once you’ve got them inside, treat them like a long-lost friend, not some sucker to be milked. Make them feel like leaving the bar is the last thing they want. It’s not rocket science but some bars, especially Thai-owned bars, just don’t get it.
Authorities descended on Sukhumvit Road between sois 5 and 7/1 on Wednesday night and rounded up vendors selling sex toys, sex enhancing drugs and other sex related paraphernalia. It was the 3rd bust on that strip this year and several vendors were arrested and taken away.
Down in Phuket, Indian melodies have been replaced with tunes from further west as the sons of Allah descend on Bangla Road in pursuit of things I am not sure the one they worship would approve of. The changing customer base is good for the ladies of Patong who had been complaining that some Indian gents had been doing their bit to uphold what some say about them not wishing to open their wallet. It is said that the Middle Easterners flocking to Phuket now that Ramadan has ended have plenty of cash and are very happy to spread it.
It was funny reading comments from Thai men on Facebook this week after an article was published in Khao Sod about an incident where a Thai man went for a massage, wasn’t happy with the experience and tried to grab the money he had paid for the massage as he left. A scuffle broke out, the police were called and Khao Sod reported on the incident. The incident itself was hardly newsworthy, but the comments posted online provided an insight in to what Thai men experience in massage shops. What struck me was that what they complain about really is no different to what foreign men complain about. Many Thai men commented on the service provided by these grey area massage outlets where extras might be available. The complaints concerned rushed service, high asking prices, that she was not in to it at all and that it’s not what it used to be. While foreigners think they may get a raw deal these days, don’t think local men get it any better. Amazingly, some women who work in massage shops joined the discussion and were quite graphic in their responses about what the work is like as well and how little money they make. The days of Thais being reluctant to talk openly about sexual matters appear well and truly over. Many were open and this all played out on Facebook – where most people were replying under what I assume was their real name.
This year’s AmCham Independence Day Picnic will be held at Bangkok Pattana School on July 6th, from 1:00 – 8:00 PM. It’s a celebration of America and American culture with various American-themed activities, entertainment and some of Bangkok’s American-style food vendors present. It’s a fun day out for families.
The first State Of Origin rugby league match was played this week. I believe the banana benders won. I forgot to mention it in the last column, so for all you league fans who can’t watch it at home – Setanta no longer shows State Of Origin – two bars showing the matches are the Australian Bar in Sukhumvit soi 11, naturally, and The Kiwi, in soi 8.
The domain name BangkokNights.com is up for sale and could be yours for just $3,995. Decent domain name but I can’t see anyone paying anything like that for it. I would have guessed it might be worth a few hundred dollars, at most. Please note this is not the popular BKKNites.com site.
Take a small umbrella with you if you’re going to be in Bangkok over the next few months. Friends in Bangkok reported very heavy downpours this week. One day, Soi Nana was flooded from top to bottom with a traffic jam the length of the soi. It’s not the wettest time of year – that tends to be late September and October in Bangkok – but very heavy rainfall can hit the capital any time from now until early November.
Salesman of dodgy investment products, “Rick” has branched out in to health insurance or as he prefers to call it, medical insurance. If you get any unsolicited emails from Thailand promoting health insurance or investments promising high returns, those are what the delete button was made for.
This site has attracted many characters over the years, from those who have contributed stories to those who have featured in the column. The aforementioned clown “Rick” doesn’t qualify for character status – he is but a pest and a con man. But one who is a character is The Mad Professor. Reader Don spotted The Mad Professor working on his diagrams this week and snapped a few shots of him. Like me, Don is fascinated by him. And speaking of characters, I have a column opener in the pipeline about some of the characters who have appeared on this site over the years and where they are now.
Think twice – or at least check things out at home first – if you’re thinking of going to Thailand for elective medical treatment. It might not be the bargain you think it is. The other half is looking at LASIK treatment for her eyes. She found a package offered at one of the mid-range private hospitals in Bangkok for around 100,000 baht. Various follow-up visits are recommended so the total cost overall would probably blow out to around 110,000 baht. Here, a premier eye surgeon will do the very same procedure for just a fraction more. All follow-up visits are included in the initial cost. At the end of the day, there’s little in it price-wise – but if you factor in travel costs, it’s cheaper to get it done in Kiwiland. It’s yet another example of how Thailand isn’t always the bargain it appears to be / was. And, to be frank, a Kiwi surgeon has me feeling much more sabai-jai (comfortable) than a surgeon in Bangkok.
LSWT stands for Linear Shock Wave Therapy. This is the modern, non-invasive, and pain-free method for treating erectile dysfunction. The process is simple. It uses low-intensity shockwaves to treat the issues causing erectile dysfunction. The focused energy from the shockwaves helps to get more blood flowing into your organ for improved erection capabilities and performance. This treatment is now available in Bangkok at HE Clinic at a fraction of the cost charged at clinics in the US and Europe. Find out more.
Reader’s story of the week comes from Skins, “Burglarized in Thailand”.
Quote of the week comes from a forum, “Thailand is like chocolate fudge cake, absolutely delicious but too much of it will make you sick.”
ThaiTiger looked at the 5 things to consider when buying a condo in Thailand.
The Daily Mail ran an article this week about transforming a neighbourhood in old Bangkok long known as a hangout for street-walking prostitutes.
For a primer on Thai politics and the recent election, this Khao Sod editorial is brave.
Deutsche Welle looked at Thailand and the impact of mass tourism.
The colleagues of a popular French correspondent in Bangkok wrote a touching statement in the wake of his death.
There is growing evidence that some bar owners are finally acknowledging that current prices are causing punters to turn their back on the bars. Count me amongst those who think prices are just too high. Personally, I will happily pay 200+ baht for a good German beer with a meal but parting with 180 baht for a watery Jack+Coke (which is what you get in some gogo bars) strikes me as poor value. Standard prices won’t drop, but introducing happy hours / promotions / daily specials etc. should help to get those sensitive to price back in the bar. With things described as super slow at the moment, it’s up to bar owners to show who is the most savvy as the fight to get punters in the door heats up. The low season is going to be interesting this year.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : email@example.com