Visa Run Hua Hin to Vientiane
For many expats, and indeed anyone that wishes to stay in Thailand for an extended period, it’s sometimes necessary to do a “visa run” to nearby countries to obtain the desired visas that are normally only issued outside of Thailand. It’s possible to live in Thailand almost indefinitely as long as you’re prepared to travel abroad occasionally, and jump through the inconvenient bureaucratic hoops that stand in the way. Unfortunately not everyone fulfils the requirements to obtain one of the several types of long term visas, so it might be preferable to apply for consecutive tourist visas instead.
There are dozens of ways to do a visa run, and many suitable destinations are fascinating places in their own right, well deserving of a few days’ visit or even longer if you have the time, budget and inclination. This article describes just one possible way to do a visa run between Hua Hin and Vientiane, and outlines the approximate costs and what can be expected along the way. Other modes of transport can be used and alternative itineraries followed, affecting both the journey time and total costs.
The Visa Run Process
A visa run typically involves visiting one of the Thai embassies or consulates in neighbouring Asian countries, usually just long enough to apply for and hopefully obtain a new visa that lets you to stay in Thailand that little bit longer. The arcane visa rules and regulations constantly change without much prior notice, so it’s essential to check the Thai government guidelines carefully before you go. Additionally, the Thaivisa forums are a good source of up to date and relevant information on the topic, with news and status reports from visa runners that have been to the various candidate destinations.
What can prove successful for one applicant may not be the case for somebody else with a different set of personal circumstances. The Thai embassies are also notoriously fickle and the rules do not seem to be applied consistently. The golden rule is to research extensively in advance before you need to do the visa run, and choose the destination carefully based on the latest reports to maximise your chances of a successful outcome. Of course, if you have previously had only one or two tourist visas, it’s highly likely that you’ll breeze through the process and experience few difficulties.
For single entry tourist visas, permission to stay in Thailand for 60 days is granted by default which can be extended by another 30 days (for a fee of course, currently 1900 baht) at the immigration office in Hua Hin. With double entry visas it’s necessary to exit and re-enter Thailand when the first one expires, after which the second entry can be activated for 60 days. This can likewise be extended at immigration for 30 days more, giving a total of 180 days in Thailand.
Many a long term foreign resident in Thailand has come unstuck, as they assumed it would be simple to get a new visa and failed to check things out properly beforehand. It’s good to be prepared, so here are a few vital things to check before you go.
- What type of visa do you need and what are the required dates
- Pick the most suitable destination where success is most likely
- Download and complete the relevant visa application form
- Get passport photos and a photocopy of your passport
- Obtain any supporting documents that may be needed
- Arrange transport to the chosen destination
- Change some money into the foreign currency
Finally, you need to decide whether you want to make the trip independently, or would rather join one of the many organised trips to minimise the cost. Those kind of tours usually spend just one or two nights at the destination, just enough time to get the required visa and return to Thailand.
More details on the visa process in Vientiane as well as application forms can be obtained from the Royal Thai Embassy in Laos website, at this address:
Getting to Laos
The visa run from Hua Hin to Vientiane in Laos is relatively straightforward, but there are several ways to get there. By far the quickest method is to fly from Bangkok directly to Wattay Airport in Vientiane, which is also the most expensive way and there are only limited flights daily between the two cities.
A cheaper but still convenient alternative is to fly from Bangkok to the local airport in Udon Thani, which is about an hour away from the First Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge (pronounced sapaan mittapaap Thai-Laos hairng tee neung), which spans the Mekong River at the border between the two countries. The flight takes about an hour, and tickets can occasionally be found for less than 1000 baht but typically closer to 1500 baht, including taxes.
Thai Airways operates three flights to Udon Thani each day. A one way ticket varies between 2000 to 3000 baht departing from Suvarnabhumi airport, but cheaper tickets may be found. The first two flights let you make it to the border and into Laos by early evening.
Air Asia flies to Udon twice a day from Suvarnabhumi, but only the very early morning flight gets you to the Laos border before it closes for the day. A single ticket costs around 1500 baht, but promotional fares may sometimes be available.
Nok Air departs four times daily to Udon from Bangkok’s Don Muang airport, and the inclusive cost is approximately 1400 baht. Only two of those flights will allow you to reach the Laos border on time, so you might need to spend a night in Udon or nearby if you catch one of the later ones.
As always, check the airlines’ websites for the latest schedules, prices and availability. When travelling by air you still need to reach the relevant airport in Bangkok, which can be done as cheaply as 180 baht by minivan from Hua Hin to the Victory Monument, followed by taking the BTS Skytrain from Phaya Thai station to Suvarnabhumi airport (either the local stopping line or the more rapid and expensive airport express line). Alternatively, there are plenty of buses, taxis and trains between Hua Hin and Bangkok.
Udon Thani Airport to the Laos Border
Getting from Udon Thani airport to the Laos border is very simple. When you reach the arrivals hall, a curiously named “limousine” minivan service is located just before the exit doors on the right hand side. The cost to the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge is fixed at 200 baht for a one way ticket. The minivan is parked outside the terminal building and will depart when there are enough people, probably a wait of no more than twenty minutes or so. The journey to the Friendship Bridge takes less than an hour and the minivan drops you off at the western side of the bridge, near the Thai customs checkpoint.
There are of course several other ways to travel from Hua Hin to Vientiane. A common option is to take a bus from Bangkok all the way to Nong Khai, a small town that nestles on the Thai side of the Mekong River very close to the border and bridge. From the town’s bus station, it’s simple and inexpensive to commandeer a taxi, tuk-tuk or motorbike taxi to get to the bridge.
The bus trip between Bangkok and Nong Khai can take up to 12 hours, depending on how many stops are made and the type of bus. Be warned that buses in Thailand can be very cold as the air-conditioning is often set to maximum, and road safety can be an issue considering the way they drive at breakneck speeds or crawl along and hog the wrong lane. Besides these gripes, bus travel is generally quite comfortable as long as the more expensive VIP buses are used.
Another option is to take a train to Nong Khai from the main Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok. The journey time is quite slow (11 hours or more) but relatively comfortable, depending on which class of ticket you have. For overnight trains, it’s best to book a sleeper berth in advance for maximum comfort.
At the Border
Make sure you arrive at the border crossing before 5.30 p.m. when it closes for the day. At the checkpoint, you will notice there are a few desks with spare departure cards and pens where you can complete the card if you have not already done so, and a few basic facilities and toilets. There are also many opportunist touts hanging around that can provide details of taxi drivers on the Laos side, but it’s not absolutely necessary to arrange transport until you have crossed the bridge.
Continue to the small customs booths to get stamped out of Thailand by the rather serious looking officials, a process which should take no more than a few minutes depending on the time of day. At busy periods there are dozens of other visa runners and tourists so you might be forced to queue. Once your passport has been stamped, there is a frequent shuttle bus that runs between the Thai side and Laos (it’s not possible to walk across) which departs roughly every twenty minutes. The trip costs up to 20 baht depending on the time of day, and takes less than ten minutes to reach the Laos border.
At the Laos immigration and customs post, a 30-day visa on arrival can be obtained. Application forms are available, and chairs and desks where you can sit to complete them. This is where your two passport photos will come in handy. The visa fee for citizens of most European countries is between $30 and $35, which can be paid in dollars (the recommended option, as the fee is lower) or Thai baht, with an additional $1 charged outside “normal” hours, which means between six and eight in the morning or after four o’clock in the afternoon.
Once you have handed over the application form and passport it takes a few minutes to issue the visa, after which you simply collect your passport and continue on past security. There are unlikely to be any checks carried out, but you never know. At this point, you have unceremoniously crossed into Laos and should have a brand new and gleaming visa sticker in your passport.
Note on Currency
Laos’ official currency is the kip (1 Thai baht hovers at around 267 kip), but the baht, US dollar and the kip can all be used quite interchangeably. It’s important to have small denominations available, as most places are unlikely to be able to change large value notes. Note that it’s almost certain that you won’t be able to change kip into any other currency outside of Laos, so make sure any spare cash is converted back into baht before you leave the country.
At the Laos border, it’s also slightly cheaper to pay the visa fees in US dollars, so it’s recommended that you carry all three currencies for maximum flexibility.
Getting to Vientiane
Getting from the Laos border to Vientiane costs anything up to around 250 baht in a taxi, although it’s also possible to negotiate a price with a tuk-tuk or minibus driver. Various transport options are available at the border, so just take your pick and bargain hard. There is also a much cheaper local bus which stops frequently along the way and takes longer, but quite frankly it’s not worth the additional hassle and inconvenience. The bus eventually stops at the Talaat Sao (morning market) near the city centre.
Getting to the riverside part of Vientiane where most of the hotels are located takes around 30 minutes or so. If you have arrived early enough in the morning and taken a taxi, then it should be able to take you straight to the Thai embassy and wait outside while you apply for the visa.
At the Thai Embassy
To reach the Thai embassy from Vientiane, take a metered taxi which should cost no more than 150 baht, or haggle with a tuk-tuk which can be found all over the place and on nearly every street corner. The tuk-tuk drivers will tell you emphatically that the price is fixed and attempt to show you the price list, but just ignore this and barter. All the drivers know the location of the Thai embassy which is: 15 Ban Ponesinuan, Bourichane Road. The embassy opens only on weekdays and not weekends, and is also usually closed on Thai national holidays. All visa applications can only be submitted in the morning between 8.30 a.m. and 12.00 p.m. with collection the following day anytime between 1 and 3 p.m.
On arrival at the embassy, you’ll be greeted by hordes of touts and tuk-tuk drivers that wait outside. Enter the gates and head to the main open area on the right, where there are rows of plastic seats and a small booth in the wall. There is a ticket machine to one side, which places you into the queue along with everybody else. There are also visa application forms available if you have not already completed one. Two passport photos and a photocopy of your passport are also required.
Once the form is filled in and the photos affixed, all you need to do is join the other bemused-looking applicants and wait for your number to be called, shown on the electronic display above. When that happens, give the form to the officials and take the ticket already issued to the main building on the left. Here you’ll have to wait again until your number is called, after which you can pay the appropriate visa fee and get a receipt.
Current prices are 1000 baht for a single entry tourist visa, and 2000 baht for a double entry visa. These fees have been completely waived in the past, meaning free visas were available for a while, but unfortunately the latest promotion ended in March 2011. For the current prices for each of the visa types and to obtain the application forms, check the Thai embassy website already mentioned. You are not absolutely guaranteed to be given the visa requested, and it’s not uncommon for visas to be refused or alternatives given (for example, a single entry tourist visa may be granted instead of a double entry one). The embassy officials may also question why you want to stay in Thailand continuously, and scrutinise your passport and any previous visas and entry stamps in detail.
The entire process takes about an hour if the place is not crowded, but it can take much longer when applicants arrive en masse at certain times of the day. When you return the following afternoon, just hand in the receipt at the main building to collect your passport resplendent with a shiny new visa. There may be nobody else there, and it’s often possible to walk straight in and pick up the passport within a few minutes.
Return to Thailand
Going back to Thailand, you have much the same travel options but in reverse. If you have not already booked any onward travel, there are dozens of travel agents and tour operators all around the main tourist areas and riverfront in Vientiane. For example, it’s possible to go by VIP bus directly to Bangkok for just over 1000 baht, or an overnight sleeper train from Nong Khai with free hotel pickup in Vientiane, including transport back through the border to Thailand. A first class sleeper ticket costs roughly 1500 baht and departs around 5 p.m.
When flying from Udon Thani, it’s cheapest to go to Nong Khai first and take a train or bus to Udon. Getting to Nong Khai is simple enough; a taxi from almost anywhere in Vientiane to the Friendship Bridge costs around 200 baht, then a tuk-tuk or shared taxi to Nong Khai town or bus station should be about 50 baht per person. Alternatively, there are plenty of places in Vientiane where you can arrange a bus or minivan directly to Nong Khai. Prices vary quite a lot from about 100 to 400 baht.
Another option for those with time to spare is to spend a night in Nong Khai, which is a quiet little town on the banks of the Mekong. There’s not much to see and do, but it makes an interesting diversion and there are a few bars, hotels and restaurants. In this case, take a bus or train the next day to Bangkok and then onwards to Hua Hin. Buses can take up to 12 hours to reach Bangkok, and prices start at less than 400 baht, or about 700 baht for one of the more comfortable VIP buses.
At the Border
The first consideration is to make sure you have already converted any unused Laos kip back into Thai baht. There are several money changing places at the border, which is your last chance to do so. A duty free shop with knockdown prices can also be found there.
To exit Laos, simply pass through the booths on the right hand side of the border post and get stamped out of the country. There is a security checkpoint but nobody seems to check anything, and yet another shuttle bus for 20 baht which takes you over the bridge to the Thai customs checkpoint. Note that there is no departure tax to be paid at the Laos border, or at least if there is supposed to be, they seem to just wave everybody through.
Back at the Thai end of the bridge, pick up an arrival card, fill out the form and continue to the booths where Thai customs officials will stamp your newly acquired visa. After all that effort, it’s good to be back in the land of smiles!
Things to do in Vientiane
Vientiane is a small city but there are certainly a few things to do for a few days, but probably not much longer than that. The city doesn’t have the same traffic congestion and noise as most Thai cities do, and the whole place has quite a relaxed and laid back atmosphere.
Bars and Nightlife
Vientiane’s nightlife will seem fairly unimpressive to anyone familiar with the bars and clubs in Thailand. Vientiane can even be considered tame in comparison with Hua Hin. By midnight or shortly after, most establishments start to close but it’s still possible to find a few that stay open later. Perhaps the best thing about Vientiane is the cheap, tasty and widely available Beer Lao, which is about 12,000 kip (45 baht) for a large bottle in a bar.
There are dozens of small and friendly bars located around the Mekong riverside area, but they aren’t frequented (at least overtly) by bar girls the way they are in Thailand. Bor Bpen Yang is quite a large and popular terrace bar that has a few pool tables and a restaurant. When it closes everybody moves to the nearby Samlor Pub which stays open later, but is always shut by 2 a.m. This is quite a dark and dingy venue with various freelance girls hanging around, but it’s a lively and fun atmosphere.
Besides strolling along the Mekong or enjoying the various restaurants and bakeries, there are a few reasonable attractions and places of interest. The Patouxay Monument is described by the sign inside as a monster of concrete, and looks somewhat like an inferior version of the Arc De Triomphe in Paris. It’s possible to climb to the top of the stairs and enjoy the surrounding views, but the monument itself is rather unimpressive even by their own admission.
The main temple in Vientiane, Wat Luang, which features prominently on all the guidebook covers is also worth a short visit if you appreciate temples, or you could drive out to Buddha Park (some 20 kilometres or more from the city) to marvel at the bizarre statues and sculptures, stopping on the way at the Beer Lao brewery for a free sample and tour.
Approximate Trip Costs
The following table summarises the approximate costs that could be expected for a typical visa run to Vientiane, travelling by air from Bangkok to Udon Thani and returning by bus from Nong Khai, as well as two nights in a decent budget hotel. Not considered here are meals, drinks and any other entertainment so expect to spend a few thousand baht more depending on what activities you do. As shown, the overall trip cost is likely to be a not inconsiderable 10,000 baht or more when additional spending money is included.
|Minibus from Hua Hin to Bangkok||฿180|
|Skytrain to Suvarnabhumi airport||฿100|
|Flight – Bangkok to Udon Thani (Thai Airways)||฿1,800|
|Minivan – Udon Thani to Friendship Bridge||฿200|
|Laos visa on arrival fee||฿1,300|
|Taxi to Vientiane riverside||฿250|
|Hotel accommodation for 2 nights||฿1,000|
|Tuk-tuk or taxi to the Thai embassy||฿150|
|Thai tourist visa fee – single entry||฿1,000|
|Tuk-tuk or taxi back to Vientiane riverside||฿100|
|Tuk-tuk or taxi to Thai embassy and then to border||฿200|
|Tuk-tuk or taxi to Nong Khai town or bus station||฿50|
|VIP bus to Bangkok||฿700|
|Skytrain and minibus back to Hua Hin||฿200|