The Chiang Mai Visa Run

20 11 2008

Chiang Mai, Thailand

This post may not be of much interest to those friends and family reading for the sake of seeing what we’re up to. But it’s pretty important for travelers like myself and Gage who have some curiosity about those little logistical things when traveling such as how not to get fined and kicked out of a country you’re visiting. After being in Europe on our luxurious 90 day visa, it’s a bit of a shock to come to Thailand and receive a stamp in your passport indicating that you only have 30 days (which actually turns out to be 29, but more about that later). For those who want to stay in Thailand for more than those thirty days, you are faced with the task of a visa run. It’s not particularly difficult, but can be pretty confusing, so hopefuly this little post will give you an idea of how to do a visa run from Chiang Mai, Thailand up to Mae Sai, Thailand and get your new visa on the border of Burma/Myanmar.

Gage and I have been staying at the CM Blue House in Chiang Mai where the wonderful owners Tim and Tony have gone out of their way many times to take care of us. One of those times involved setting up our visa run bus. Since Chiang Mai is a pretty popular tourist destination, it’s eat to get a visa run bus from here. Most people go to one of the licensed travel agencies or the tour info desk at their hotel. There are dozens of bus operators to choose from so just make sure of a few things when choosing. 1) The travel agency you use has a TAT license (usually displayed prominently from the outside). 2) The bus is air conditioned and modern. 3) They stop for breaks at least twice in the trip (your legs will thank you). You can take a bus to Mae Sai in which you cross to Burma or to Huay Xai in which you cross to Laos. Since it is a shorter trip to Mae Sai, costs only $10 to enter as opposed to $30 for Laos, and does not require taking a boat trip like the Lao border does, we opted for the Mae Sai run. As nice as they may sound, I generally try to avoid boat trips in Asia because they tend to crowd them way beyond capacity and sometimes have issues staying afloat. As my dad put it once, “In certain countries, it is advisable to cross a river by swimming rather than taking a ferry. In the referenced countries, taking the ferry generally results in swimming anyway.” Think I’m being cynical? A quote from Lonely Planet’s Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & the Greater Mekong regarding traveling from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, “Boats should hold about 70 people, but captains try to cram in more than 100…speed boats [are] not the safest transport south, and fatalities are not uncommon…there was even talk of banning falang from these boats.” Hopefully you noticed the scary fact that they don’t want to ban the deadly boats, just keep the foreigners off of them. And you think your government is bad.


Back to the subject. One handy tip for finding a visa run bus is to ask any foreigner living here what bus company they use. It turns out that even those people living and working in Thailand still have to do a visa run every 90 days, which the government calls ‘reporting’, aka making sure they know where you are. We paid 700 Baht each the day before and we picked up the next day at 7:30 am in front of our hotel. The van looked pretty new and the seats, while very cramped, were pretty comfy. However, the ride is about 4.5 hours long for just one way, and no matter what kind of seats a bus has you’re bound to be uncomfortable eventually. Luckily our bus stopped about two hours into the journey at a little pit stop outside of Chiang Rai which had some food stalls, snack stalls, and of course the obligatory tourist kitsch.

bus pit-stop

Two and a half hours later, we got to the border, everyone unloaded and made their way to the big Thai border building. You can’t really miss it as it looks like a giant arch with windows and a Thai roof. Just head to the left side of the arch (not under it, that’s only for vehicles) and you hand over your passport and departure card, which should be stapled into your passport, they stamp you out and you walk out the other side going towards Tachilek, Burma.


Leaving Thailand

You cross over a bridge and then enter the right side of the arch on the Burma side (Thai drive on the left side of the road and the Burmese drive on the right, so the entrance keeps changing sides). This is when things get a little weird. You walk into a room that has three desks, two computers, and about 4 employees. When a seat opens up you plop yourself down in front of one of the computers, hand over your passport, and fill out the little information sheet they hand you. They will then use a little web cam to take your picture, print out a piece of paper with your name, passport number, and picture on it and send you on your way. Oh yeah, and they don’t give you back your passport. Seem scary? It is. Luckily we knew this would happen so we were able to explain to the girl who had traveled the bus with us that she would get her passport on the way out. The most important thing to remember is that the little slip of paper they give you is now your passport. If you lose that, enjoy Burma because you ain’t getting back into Thailand. On the Burmese side you will immediately be accosted by tuk-tuk drivers and sales people. A little tip here, learning how to say ‘no thank you’ in Burmese will actually garner quite a bit of respect and they may actually back down. Saying no thank you in English, though, seems to just encourage them. If you are a man you will get offers for hookers, viagra, cialis, cigarettes, and drugs. If you are a woman you only get the cigarettes and drugs. Bummer. Other than that there are various food stalls and an entire street lined with tons of cheap western items for sale. One warning, though, you can’t bring food back across the border and the Thai border guards will ask if you purchased anything in Burma and will inspect your bags. They’re not fond of imports.

Entering Burma/Myanmar paper-passport

You only need to stay on the Burmese side for about 5-10 minutes. Once you’re done saying No, thank you for the 8 millionth time, walk back to the arch and enter into the opposite side. Just hand over your paper passport and they’ll hand over your real passport and stamp you out. Then it’s back to the no-man’s-land bridge and entering the left side of the Thailand arch. You fill out another arrival and departure card and then they stamp you in to Thailand. Our driver gave us about an hour to get all of this fun done, but it only took about 20 minutes.

Entering Thailand

Entering Thailand

There is, of course, plenty of shopping to be had on the Thai side as well, so you can linger for a bit, get some food, and then meet up with your bus at the time and place appointed by your driver. After that it’s another long drive, which is again broken up by a short pit stop. You’ll get back to Chiang Mai by about 6pm or 7pm, in time to enjoy some dinner.

Important things to remember:
1) Bring US Currency to pay for your Burmese visa, you can pay in Thai Baht, but it’ll cost you 50% more (500 Baht instead of $10 US). Make sure all money you bring is in like-new condition otherwise they may not accept it.
2) Do not bring food across the border.
3) The expiration date on your passport is the day that your visa has EXPIRED. That means that you have to do your visa run at least one day in advance of that date. Yes, this means that you only actually have 29 days in the country, which isn’t really a 30 day visa, but arguing this at the border will not go in your favor. If you overstay you will be fined at the border and if you’ve really overstayed or are a complete jerk, they might not let you back in. You’re a guest in someone else’s country, play by the rules.
4) This is not a border to cross into Burma. While you can stay in Tachilek, Burma for 14 days, you cannot go beyond the border of the city. Since the city is a border town, it’s probably not a good indication of what Burmese life is like. If you want to enter Burma you have to visit the embassy in Bangkok and, if you are granted a visa, fly in.
5) In case you’re not up to date in current events, the Burmese Junta government is a very oppressive regime who basically took over by force, locked up the elected president, Aung San Suu Kyi, in her home for the past 20 or so years, and changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, and continue to rule their people in a very Orwellian 1984esque manner. Calling the country Burma instead of Myanmar is seen by some countries as a way of not recognizing the authority of the Junta government. OK to do on a blog. Not so recommended when standing with the border guards.

1) Bring some snacks and drinks on the bus, but don’t drink to much. Bathroom breaks are infrequent and a bouncing bladder (thanks to the glorious Thai roads) is hard to hold.
2) Even if it’s blazing hot out, bring long sleeves or even a blanket. Air conditioning to most Thai drivers means dropping the cabin temperature to just above freezing.
3) If you have one of those neck pillows people use on planes, bring it.
4) Video games, music players, books, and anything else you can use to distract yourself are a good bring-along.
5) Try to sit close to the front. I don’t get car sick easily, but the bouncy roads had me wishing the windows would open and that I had motion sickness meds.




8 responses

20 11 2008

I think you deserve 28 days off after that routine.

21 11 2008

I agree! Man, what a pain! At least it’s done now, however, and you can continue enjoying your visit in Thailand. 🙂

22 11 2008

OK. The meditation update was great, but what about the Gingerino!?

22 11 2008

OH. And the one thing you didn’t mention was your prolific use of your digital camera while you were “meditating”. How many outtakes were there when Gage wouldn’t “stop smiling”? (Make it look like you’re meditating!”


20 03 2009
Chang Mai Fan

I have to do a visa run out of Chang Mai in the next couple of days so thanks for the information.

4 04 2009

Thank you soooo much for that amazingly detailed information…. I’ve been trying to work out for ages the best way of border-hopping to extend my visa!! Think I’ll try your way, it sounds easy (almost!)! :o) Thank you again!!

19 03 2010

Well Done! I Like it!

31 03 2010

You don’t mention if you obtained a Myanmar visa prior to the crossing. However, from your mention of a visa required to fly in, I assume you didn’t need one to get into Myanmar?

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