A ‘visa run’ is common terminology among the backpacker crowd in Thailand. Us backpackers aren’t known for planning ahead, so like millions of others each year arriving at the Bangkok airport, I got a stamp in my passport that allowed me to stay in Thailand for 30 days. The problem is: 30 days just isn’t enough for a country as special as Thailand.
So what are the options for extending a Thai tourist visa? Well, if you’re like me and made the decision to stay in Thailand after arriving “in country”, you have three options:
Option 1: Slog on over to the local Thai immigration office (only possible if you’re in a large enough city), wait in line, fill out paperwork, return a few hours later, wait in line again, pay a handsome sum of cash to the rude immigration staff (in the neighborhood of $50) and hope they’ll allow you to extend your visit to ‘The Kingdom’. (Not how I like to spend my time in Thailand.)
Option 2: Ignore the rules and hope that you won’t get arrested for staying in Thailand longer than you’re allowed to. (Not a good option at all – chances are you’ll need to pay a hefty fine as you leave the country, although staying just 1 or 2 days longer than allowed isn’t generally considered a big deal.)
Option 3: Go on a visa run (the most fun option). It used to be the case that you could do an easy visa run by taking a cheapo bus across the border to Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia or Malaysia and get 30 more days to spend in Thailand (legally) upon re-entry. It might involve a long and uncomfortable bus ride, but you could make a fun little side trip out of it, and meet some fellow backpackers along the way. But Thailand has changed their immigration rules again recently, and if you enter ‘The Kingdom’ by bus, train or boat you’re only allowed to stay for 15 days. Those of us wanting 30 more days now must leave the country and return by air – landing at an International airport in Thailand means an automatic 30-day stamp. Something I really needed this time.
So while I could technically take a bus to a neighboring country and then fly back to Thailand to get 30 more days, the thought of spending 12 hours on a bus from Bangkok was unappealing to say the least. I recruited my French friend, Eric, who recently moved to Thailand to join me on the visa run and keep things interesting. The only question remaining was which country to visit.
Cheapest Flight to Laos
Word of mouth has it that fine French food and wine can be found in Laos, which made this a top choice for Eric. But scouring the Internet for airfares left me less than convinced. The cheapest tickets available on Orbitz.com were over $300 round trip – quite a bit more than I wanted to spend on a simple visa extension.
Thank god for AirFareNinja.com – The unconventional cheap flight discovery service unearthed tickets for less than half of the Orbitz.com price on the obscure airline Lao Central. We booked the tickets via LaoCentral.com and five days later we were on our way to Survanabhumi airport (BKK) for a 10:00am flight to Vientiane.
Lao Central is not well advertised or well known – despite the cheap fares, the flight to Vientiane was about 75% empty, which left plenty of elbowroom. And also in spite of the cheap fares, this is not a ‘budget’ airline – the service was really good! They allow you one free checked bag with your ticket, plus the lovely flight attendants managed to serve a full meal and drinks during the short 1-hour flight.
The cheapest AirAsia or Ryanair flights during off-peak seasons might be cheaper per mile-flown, but when you consider the great service, free checked bag and the fact that fares are 60% lower than the competition, Lao Central is THE way to get from Bangkok to Vientiane.
Visa on arrival at Vientiane Airport
Vientiane is the capital of Laos, but arriving at the tiny, informal airport gives the feeling of a remote frontier town. Eric and I strolled around on the tarmac for a few minutes before heading inside to get our Lao visas. This requires filling out a couple short application forms and waiting in line for about 45 minutes. The process is simple, but leaves something to be desired from an efficiency standpoint.
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The Lao visa fee ranges from about $30 to $40 US Dollars depending on your citizenship. Only cash is accepted, but they are happy to accept US Dollars and Thai Bhat. (Note that paying in US Dollars gives you a significantly better exchange rate versus paying with Bhat.) If you don’t have exact change in US Dollars, not to worry: you’ll get correct change back in US Dollars.
Getting a taxi into town should be arranged and paid for within the arrivals terminal of the Vientiane airport. It is a flat fee of about $7 USD to go anywhere within central ‘downtown’ Vientiane. 15 minutes later Eric and I arrived at the Vientiane Plaza Hotel – a strange, but somehow classy and at the same time very communist institution. We booked ahead because the shortage of good hotels in Vientiane means things fill up fast.
What to do in Vientiane?
Vientiane is a tiny city by Asian standards (200,000 residents) and without loads of tourists. This makes it easy to get a feel for the local culture and infiltrate the Lao hangout spots. The French influence, however, is hard to miss. Street signs are posted in Lao and French (no English). And very decent French restaurants are dotted along nearly every side street. Eric and I headed directly to a local creperie for crepes and Normandy-style cider. The quiet, breezy town reminded us of Southern France, but with a happier and even more laid-back vibe.
We stayed 4 days in Laos, but the comatose pace of life there made if feel like much longer (a good thing). It was easy to take it all in on our short trip. Some notable highlights include:
1. The rooftop restaurant/bar of the Sengtawan Riverside Hotel for sunset drinks (book ahead to sit outside, and dress to impress).
2. Lao restaurants where the locals go to eat great food, and get drunk before 6pm daily. The restaurants across the street from Settha Palace Hotel are particularly tasty.
3. Sala Sunset Khounta restaurant made from scrap wood where live bands play and locals enjoy the Lao version of pub food (mainly seafood). The place looks like an abandoned ship with a great outdoor terrace and a nice view of the Mekong River.
4. BorPenYang: a rooftop pub with a lot of working “girls” (actually transsexual men – common in this region). Closes around midnight.
A few things that we would not recommend:
1. Massage in the basement of the Sengtawan Riverside Hotel (not bad, but you can find better atmosphere elsewhere)
2. Staying anywhere near the mercure hotel in the area outside of the tourist zone. Instead of looking like a colonial French village, this part of Vientiane looks like an abandoned Russian industrial town. 100% lacking in charm. Be sure to find a hotel in the nice part of town (as shown on the map below)
We were surprised to find prices generally a bit higher than Thailand. But it’s also true that many of the best things in Vientiane don’t cost much. A stroll along the Mekong River for instance, provides instant relaxation and a dose of fresh air. Also, good wine is certainly cheaper in Laos than in Thailand. (Alcohol taxes in Thailand continue to soar.)
Overall Vientiane proved to be a calm oasis that kept us feeling relaxed and more prepared to face the bustle of big Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok. On the way back to the Vientiane airport we vowed to return to Laos in the future. Next time we’ll be sure to get out of the capital and explore the natural side of this beautiful country.