2,317 words. Reading time of 8 minutes.
There will come a time for most travellers when any of the following will happen:
- You find yourself in the wonderful city in Thailand known as Chiang Mai and the expiration of your visa is fast approaching.
- Your bank cards get locked due to suspicious activity and you’re practically homeless, having to be exceptionally careful with how you spend your remaining cash.
- All of the above and your visa is expiring in just one day.
As you can probably guess by where I’m going with this, number 3 happened to me.
I had beautifully romantic plans of hiring a good road bike and flogging it up the mountain roads to Mae Sai where the closest border crossing into Burma from Chiang Mai is. I had already spoken to the guys from TBB tours about hiring a big Triumph and which of the backroads would be best to detour on. I had a pretty good plan of attack.
Disaster struck with PayPal who were my only source of being paid at the time and they put all my withdrawals on hold due to suspicious activity. Not good.
Hitchhiking to Chiang Rai
“No worries” I say optimistically to hide how I really felt and I decided I would hitchhike. I had met a guy on a train in Bangkok (how all the good stories start) and he had regaled me with talk of his hitchhiking journeys between cities in Thailand, claiming it was easy if you made it just outside of the city. I didn’t think about it then, but he was about 175cm (5’7”) and fairly wirey. I’m an exact 2 metres (6’7”) and “built like a brick shithouse” so they tell me. I know which guy I would feel more comfortable giving a lift.
I had also read some other bloggers who claimed it’s pretty easy to hitchhike here. I’ve since found that website again only to read the “about” page which shows a hot little blonde chick. I definitely know who I’d prefer to give a lift.
This is the part where I was going to upload a video of me standing in the middle of nowhere, getting drenched in rain which was soaking through my 20kg backpack that had all my stuff in while getting sprayed by the cars that were driving past without stopping. I would have, but my phone has just departed my pocket while on a scooter this morning. One of those weeks you know…
You can probably tell how this went. I walked in the 35 ℃ (95.00 ℉) 80% humidity heat for about 4 hours in the direction of Chiang Rai all the while wearing through the soles of my thongs/flip flops/jandals depending on where you’re from.
Because my account had been locked, I had no food or water and I felt like I was dying. I stopped in at a branch of SCB bank to see if I could open a bank account because I was hoping they might offer me some water. I was given a sweetened tea that felt like it was going to dehydrate me further but I dragged it out as long as possible to stay in the small air conditioned room. I felt like a dick for such blatant abuse of hospitality, but definitely not bad enough to not do it. I walked for about one more hour and it soon started raining with such ferocity that I was soaked within a minute. I stood there trying to wash as much salty sweat out of my hair as possible so that I could start drinking the water running down my face and actually get some hydration. It was quite cooling but made me look like even more of a madman who shouldn’t be given a lift.
I realised I was probably going to dye before getting to Chiang Rai, where I would still need to get another lift to Mae Sai from, so I turned around to head back towards Chiang Mai.
Miserable, wet and stinking big time, I made it back to the centre of Chiang Mai and promptly had a sleep in the middle of the park.
I walked around to different hostels to see who was able to take an online payment so I could use a friend’s debit card while they were still in Australia. I wasn’t having much luck with the language barrier with all the staff telling me to use HostelWorld.com despite my explanations that all those sites would only take a deposit with the balance being payable in cash.
I eventually came across a hostel where the owner, understanding my plight offered for me to stay until my accounts were sorted and to pay on check-out. They then showed me where they unlimited snacks were and gave me some of their own food. I’m going to write about this amazing hostel soon though I don’t yet know whether to address it by name because I don’t want people showing up expecting to abuse the same level of hospitality that I have received. Let me know what you think I should do in the comments.
Catching the Bus to Mae Sai
At this point, I had been able to cash out 700thb (Thai Baht) worth of bitcoin that I had left over from 2013. It was a good start but I had been told that it would cost me about 400thb in return bus tickets and that you require 500thb to get the visa on arrival for Burma. Without that, you can’t get the departure stamp required to be able to get back into Thailand.
I was still in a bit of a pickle, but with my visa expiring the following day, I knew I had to chance it so I dropped 400 on a return bus ticket.
I caught a 30thb taxi at 5am the next morning and got dropped off at the Chiang Mai bus station which is a 1 hour walk from town.
The bus/coach that I caught was pretty decent and seemed to be reasonable value for money. The bus driver seemed like he was trying to qualify for the opening round of the World Super Bus championships and hooned his way through the mountains. I tried to catch up on some sleep and only woke up from falling off my seat once.
The bus trip lasted about 5 hours and had plenty of stops along the way where you could use the toilet or buy snacks. Both of these required money though…
Mentally Preparing for Possible Jailing or Abuse
When I finally arrived at the Mae Sai bus stop, I had 160thb in notes and 30 in coins. I noticed a sign next to a row of Songthaews that said 15thb to the Mae Sai border. It seemed like a good deal considering I didn’t know how far it was. It turned out to be around 5km’s so I set aside the remaining 15thb I had in my backpack so it wasn’t visible in my wallet.
The area of town as you approach the border is quite nice and there are many shopfronts and streetside stalls giving it a vibrant market feel.
The border between this part of Burma and Thailand is the ruggedly beautiful Sai river which was at the time, very high due to Monsoon season and was part way into some of the buildings lining the Thai side of the border.
Immigration is housed in a large, semi ominous looking building/gateway that opens up to the bridge crossing the Sai river.
It was game time. I had already been told that Thai immigration are quite savvy in this area and I walked into the border area past the huge sign that said “No Visa Runs” in bold red writing.
I knew that if I was asked to prove that I had the money to get into Burma and I failed to do so, they would have an obligation not to allow me into the no man’s land between borders where I would get stuck, but that they would also realise I was about to overstay my visa and no longer had enough money to meet the requirements for staying in Thailand. With this in mind, I took my camera out of it’s bag and wore it around my neck and tried to make it look as expensive as possible, I gave my watch a quick polish and I walked in confidently, trying to look as affluent as possible. It was a bit of a waste of time as they gave me my departure stamp and I walked straight through along with everyone else.
Do Not Try This at Home
That was the smallest hurdle out of the way. I walked across the bridge to the Burmese border and waltzed casually into the immigration office. The staff here seemed incredibly slack compared to Thailand so when they asked me (while sitting below a large sign that said “No Visa Runs”) what I was planning to do, I admitted to doing a Visa run. My logic was coming from the notion that they wouldn’t care very much, because Thailand were the only real “victims” of doing a visa run in out of their country.
Fortunately they were rather happy with this answer and stamped my passport into Burma. So far, so good but then came the clench your butt cheeks so hard you’ll take the seat with you if you stand up moment. I kept a casual expression until they asked me for 500thb and pretended to be as surprised as possible. “I didn’t know I needed 500 baht!” They just kept repeating it to me, assuming I just didn’t understand what they were saying. All the other immigration officers came to the desk trying to explain to me, and I eventually was able to make them understand that I didn’t have the money. I tried to hand the officer the 160thb I had and he angrily threw it back at me.
This deadlock continued for over 10 minutes, but my biggest fear was that there would be an ATM (Cash Machine) nearby and that they would walk me over to it, expecting me to be able to withdraw. Fortunately this was not the case. They explained that I could pay $10 instead. When I asked what type of dollar, the officer showed me an American $10 note. “I’m not American, why would I have that?” That attitude didn’t get me very far, but when they realised I was willing to hang around and would just be a nuisance, I was able to settle for $3.00SGD (Singapore Dollars) and 160thb.
They walked me swiftly to the departure office and within 30 seconds of the two officers chatting, I had a departure stamp.
I’m still currently much more familiar with Thai culture, so my spirits were lifted minutely by the idea that if I was going to jail, it would be Thai and not Burmese.
Entering a Country, 20 Minutes After Leaving It
It seemed as though a lucky spirit had kissed me on the arse.
I was mildly optimistic, but wasn’t out of the woods quite yet.
I walked back over to the bridge, towards the third “No Visa Runs” sign of the day and worked hard on conjuring a smile that looked casual, not too optimistic, not forced and generally just chill.
Within 45 seconds I had a new stamp and was back in Thailand. I had a good chuckle and went to find a Songthaew upon which I would splurge my last 15thb.
Mae Sai sees far less Western tourism than most other parts of Thailand so I smiled for the photos that the other passengers wanted to take with the ginger-bearded, pasty giant and eventually got back to the bus station. I hung out in the air conditioned food court of a Tesco Lotus for an hour and a half and then wandered back to catch my long-ass bus ride back down the mountains. All in all, a success.
What the Cheapest Way Would Have Actually Been
The roads to Mae Sai are beautifully windy if you’re a lover of motorbike riding such as myself, and as it transpires, it would have been a bit cheaper to hire a decent sized scooter for the day and the ride would have been immensely fun. If you’re not a rookie when it comes to riding, this would be my suggested method compared to a bus. You will have to have on-bike stamina though as it will be at least 10 hours of riding.
If you’re travelling with friends, or you meet a bunch of cool people in Chiang Mai who also need to renew their visa (actually quite likely) then your best bet is to hire a car and have an awesome road-trip with some mates.
The Moral of the Story
Please, whatever you do, do not try and attempt to recreate what I did to save money.
It was out of absolute necessity and I was simply just lucky. Doing this without dire need is simply just ignorance and disregard and could leave you being deported.
Have you done a similar visa run you would like to share? Perhaps you have a similar story of almost homelessness. What I would also like to get opinions on is whether you use the name Burma or Myanmar. I know that Myanmar is it’s official name, but I like to give a shout out to the people by using the name that wasn’t changed by an unelected military junta. Perhaps, and I would like to be called out if necessary, I’m actually being even more ignorant by assuming it’s any of my business?
If you have any comment at all. Please let me know in the comments below, I love hearing back from you guys.
Also published on Medium.