Nov 27, 2011

The Thai Visa Run--Shall We Dance?

Imagine a dance where you can either pay for someone to show you the steps, or you can try to learn it yourself.  The dance itself seems pretty straighforward.  Among long-stayers and expats in Thailand, this dance is known as the Visa Run.

When people of most Western countries such as Australia, Canada and USA arrive by air into Thailand, they are given a 30-day visa-on-arrival at no cost, which is terrific.  But the down side comes when you want to stay longer than that if you didn’t have the foresight to buy a 60 day visa in advance.  The easiest way to extend your visa is to physically cross one of the land borders with Malaysia, Myanmar, or Cambodia.  Enter the 'visa run'dance.

From Koh Phangan, there was a local tour operator who facilitated a ‘visa run’, for a fee.  All you had to do was to be at the ferry at 5am, and their mini van would pick you up on the other side for an entire day of travel to the Malaysian border at Satun to the south and then back to Koh Phangan by 9pm.  But this extremely long day, spent mostly in a car, really didn’t appeal to us, especially with the kids in mind.

So we decided to do the trip ourselves, breaking it up with an overnight stay at the border town of Satun.  We envisioned 2 easier travel days on our own terms.

Ha!  Boy, were we ever wrong!

We arrived at Satun expecting to find, well, a border.  But no one could tell us where it was (not to mention that the locals didn’t speak any English)!  To make matters worse, the bus station that we arrived at was in the middle of nowhere, with no taxis or other transport in sight.  Luckily the only other passenger on the bus at this point led us literally down the garden path, all the way to his home which was nearby.  He didn’t speak any English, but indicated that he would take us somewhere on his motorbike.  But then he told us to wait.  So we waited, not sure exactly what for at this point.

Soon a girl pulled up on another motorbike and jumped off and asked us in English what we wanted.  It turned out she was his sister and she was on home on holidays from her job at a resort (hence she spoke some English).  But even then, they were unsure of where we needed to go exactly, which much discussion going on in Thai amongst the many family members present.  Eventually they took us on 2 motorbikes to a hotel in town, refusing any attempt at payment for their hospitality.  A bright moment in what was rapidly becoming a bleak situation.

We simply couldn’t believe it—no one spoke much English and certainly no one could tell us where the Malaysian border was although it was supposedly in this town!

After dinner and a good night sleep, we tried again bright and early the next morning.  We visited the Immigration Office in town at 8:30am, where at last someone spoke a bit of English and was able to tell us that the border was located some 50km out of town (but in which direction, we still didn’t know) where we could ‘go and come back’ to renew our visa.  But there was conflicting information as to how we could get there without our own vehicle.  There apparently wasn’t any public transport access.

Then another bright moment, some might say even a serendipitous one.  There was another girl at the office seeking to do the same thing, but it turned out that she was Thai but currently held a German passport.  And not only was she going to the border too, but she could translate for us! (She was actually there with her aunt, who lived in Satun, yet she still didn't know where to go!)

We decided to all share a taxi, which was a win-win for both of us as it was quite expensive at $20 USD/600 THB for the return trip, equivalent to a night’s accommodation at a good hotel.

Once at the border, the procedure was strange, even a bit surreal.  This was the main part of the dance and we quickly learned the steps.  First we had to walk to the Thai immigration booth to get our passports stamped out.  We then had to walk about 50 meters to the Malaysian border booth and complete the Arrivals form for the official.  After having our passports stamped ‘Arrived’ in Malaysia, we then had to step to the other side of booth and hand our passports to the other official (who was in fact sitting right next to the Arrivals official) to stamp us ‘Departed’ from Malaysia.  The quickest trip in Malaysia yet!  Then it was a walk back to the Thai side, complete the Arrivals card, and get our passport stamped ‘Arrived’.  None of the officials batted an eyelash at this trip; and we learnt this part of the dance well.

Until recently, this ‘visa run’ dance gained you another 30 day visa.  But now they’ve changed the rules and you only get a 15 day visa for land border entry into Thailand; luckily it’s all we need.

With our goal finally achieved, it was then another 5.5hr trip by minibus back to Suratani, then a crazy 1hr trip on another mini van travelling at speeds of up to 150 km/hr to get to Don Sak pier to meet the 6pm ferry, which then took another 3.5hrs to get to Koh Phangan.  We arrived at our hotel at 10pm, exhausted, but satisfying our legal requirements to stay in Thailand.

What a mission!  Moral of the story:  Sometimes things are not as easy as the appear.  We just thought that the whole process would have been more straightforward, starting with the locating the actual border!  In hindsight, it probably would have been so much easier had we gone with the ‘service’ where all our transport and connections were made for us.  All we would had to have done is show up for the 5am ferry, then sit back and wait for the dance.  So while we still danced, we ended up learning it the hard way, which was more exhausting than it needed to be!


  1. Hooray for visa runs! Renewing my visa was part of the reason for my visit to kigali!
    Glad you guys eventually found the border! :)

  2. Yes, Visa Runs ARE an adventure, and often 'encourages' you to visit a place that you otherwise wouldn't have!

  3. Gosh that is so funny! A dance on the boarder and you get another 30 days...I had to laugh at how you walked on one side of the booth to the other side to have your passport "Stamped" :)

    At least you have another 30 days!


  4. Sadly, This dance only gets you another 15days now (new rules).

  5. That sounds stressful with the kids! Glad you figured it out...Thailand makes it worth it though :)

  6. Lurking to say hi for the first time. Really enjoying your blog.
    Visa runs are always a chore. I can't imagine doing this with two kids as well. They are great little travelers!
    It seems like Ranong would have been a closer Visa run for you? Well, if you need to do another run for more days, try it out.
    You get to take a boat ride and it's a crazy adventure!

  7. Hi
    Yes, we were debating between going to Ranong or to Satun and were advised that time and distance wise, it was about the same. Plus if you go to Ranong, it's another $10 USD per person for the day permit to enter, as well as the boat costs. So Satun won out due to the seemingly lower costs.

    Thanks for coming out of the shadows, Pufferfish!

  8. Great adventure for you guys! Too bad that I still not visited Thailand. The place looks peaceful and beautiful. Hope that I can go with my friends someday, Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hopefully you get to Thailand some day soon!