Thursday, August 16, 2012

How to Do a Successful Visa Run in Chiang Mai (Part 01)

So you have been traveling in Thailand for a month now. You have swam, sunbathed, dived, and partied in the islands. You still have lots to see in Thailand but your allowed travel time is up. There's still the whole business of northern Thailand which is a destination on its own. So what do you do? Easy. Go on one of the great backpacker traditions in Southeast Asia: the Visa Run.

From Chiang Mai, de facto capital of northern Thailand, there are two (2) types of visa runs. Which one to do will depend on how many more days of travel time you want. One visa run in Chiang Mai will give you 14 more days of travel time. The other visa run in Chiang Mai will give you 60 more days of travel time with the possibility to extend for another 30. Let's discuss the first type of visa run in Chiang Mai.

Visa Run in Chiang Mai
Standing in two places at once: the Thailand-Myanmar Border Crossing

Mae Sai not Mae Khong

Although northern Thailand has a number of border crossings to Laos, it is actually inadvisable to use any of them if your goal is a plain and simple visa run in Chiang Mai. The nearest Thai-Laos border crossing from Chiang Mai is seven hours away one-way at the Chiang Khong (Thai side) - Huay Xai (Lao side) border crossing, two towns separated by the Mae Khong, or as it is more commonly spelled, Mekong.

For a plain and simple visa run in Chiang Mai, that is, leave Chiang Mai in the morning and return in the evening with a new passport stamp and 14 more days of travel time, then it is much more recommendable to use the Thai-Burmese border crossing at Mae Sai (Thai side) - Tachileik (Burmese side), which is only four hours away from Chiang Mai. So let's get down to business. How do you do a successful visa run in Chiang Mai?

Border Crossing to Tachileik, Myanmar
Visa Run in Chiang Mai: Border Crossing to Myanmar

1. Book with Chinda House.

In Chiang Mai, there are many hotels and travel agencies that can help you set up a visa run to Mae Sai. All of them will involve a round-trip minivan ride. Rates will depend on where you book it and what is covered (lunch and snacks, for instance). If you want a plain and simple transport service for your visa run in Chiang Mai, then book through Chinda House (Ratvithi, Soi 2). Rate is currently 500 Baht. It covers your minivan ride from Chiang Mai to Mae Sai and back to Chiang Mai. No frills. Just the way any self-respecting backpacker would want it.

2. Wear comfortable clothes.

You will want to be very comfortable for your visa run in Chiang Mai. The trip will last the whole day. The minivan ride is body-numbing enough without you wearing uncomfortable articles of clothing. Plus points for those who wear flip-flops. They can easily put their feet up and have a snooze.

3. Sit at the front row.

The front row of the minivans have the most leg room. I'm not a tall person, but all that space sure helps me stretch out a bit. Have I mentioned the visa run in Chiang Mai is a whole day trip?

4. Take motion sickness pills.

Some parts of the road in your visa run in Chiang Mai will pass through mountains. It's no Chiang Mai to Pai highway, sure. Still, some sections are unbelievably curved. Motion sickness can be a problem.

5. Bring a book, a laptop or a friend.

Your visa run in Chiang Mai will last four hours of sitting inside a minivan one-way. Some parts of the highway are scenic, but at some point, you will want some form of entertainment. So bring a book, a laptop, or someone to talk to. Oddly enough, I've seen people who have done the third one, bringing someone on their visa run in Chiang Mai even if that someone doesn't need a visa extension.

6. Bring snacks.

There is one stop each way on the visa run to Chiang Mai. However, most items are bit overpriced and unappealing. So bring something to munch on the way.

Visa Run in Chiang Mai: Stopover in Chiang Rai
Stopover on the way to Mae Sai. Plus points if you scald yourself on the hot-spring geyser.

7. Bring a 10-dollar US bill.

The visa run to Chiang Mai you booked only covers the minivan. Upon exiting Thailand in Mae Sai, you need to get yourself an entry permit to Myanmar at the Myanmar border post in Tachileik. The entry permit is 500 Baht. However, if you have a 10-dollar US bill, the immigration officials of Myanmar at the border post will gladly accept it even if 10 dollars US only amount to around 300 Baht (as of writing).

8. Take a peek at Myanmar.

This type of visa run in Chiang Mai actually gives you a taste of Myanmar. Once you get your entry permit in Myanmar, you have the option of walking around the Burmese border town of Tachileik for about an hour. Myanmar is less developed and much more traditional than many of its neighbors and you will clearly see that as you step out of Mae Sai and into Tachileik. It still baffles me how a child would have had a completely different life, future and understanding of the world had he been born on the other side of the border not eight meters away.

Visa Run in Chiang Mai
Actual Thailand-Myanmar border. Thailand on the right, Myanmar on the left.

9. Watch out for the change in the lanes.

This is a curiosity you will discover on your visa run in Chiang Mai. Thailand drives on the left side of the road, Myanmar on the right. Vehicles passing through the border crossing actually need to change lanes in the middle of the bridge connecting the two border posts of Mae Sai and Tachileik. Your minivan will not exit Thailand and take you to Myanmar. You will need to walk there. So, on the pratical side, look both sides of the road and watch out for passing vehicles before changing lanes yourself.

10. You leave your passport at the Tachileik border post.

Your entry permit to Myanmar grants you permission to explore just Tachileik. You cannot venture into the rest of Myanmar because they keep your passport at the immigration post. You need to get it back when you exit Myanmar and re-enter Thailand that same day. When you re-enter Thailand to get your 14 more days of travel time, you fill out an immigration card and indicate WALK as your means of transport. I found that interesting.

The whole visa run in Chiang Mai through the Mae Sai-Tachileik border crossing takes about nine hours. You leave Chiang Mai early in the morning, get to the border at lunch time, and get back around four or five in the afternoon, depending on how much your driver likes to live on the fast lane. Once again, this visa run in Chiang Mai only gives you 14 more days of travel time. To get 60 more days, please watch out for the next post tackling visa run in Chiang Mai to the Lao capital of Vientiane.


Chiang Mai to Mae Sai usual route


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