a Visa Run to Savannakhet, Laos. October 2015
So it was Visa run time again. Only this time with the new website bangkok112.com I decided to take a few photos to document the journey, as well as the obligatory video (coming soon). Savannakhet in Laos is now my preferred destination to get a Visa for Thailand. Before that, it was always the Laos capital Vientiane, but due to the massive increase in people doing Vientiane Visa Runs I’ve now stopped going there. Reports of 150 people queueing an hour before opening time and some visa companies taking 90 people at a time make the place not worth the hassle in my eyes.
Savannakhet is the 2nd largest city in Laos, with a population of 120,000. It lies along the banks of the mighty Mekong river, and its old French colonial buildings from the past are now crumbling away gracefully. In recent years the city has seen a resurgence around the river crossing and Bus terminal, with commercial investment flowing in due to it’s proximity to Thailand. Tourists are still however very thin on the ground, and the expat community is virtually non-existent. Nightlife options are next to none, but a few delightful little cafes and restaurants are dotted around the city.
I have been to Savannakhet once before in 2014 and had a successful trip. The Thai Consulate there is generally regarded by expats as one of the easiest and most hassle free places to get your Thai Visa. Visas are generally stamped here with no questions asked, and paperwork requirements are less strict than other Thai Consulates and Embassies. The Savvanakhet Thai Consulate had a same day processing service before so I didn’t need to stay over last year. Unfortunately, as of the 1st February 2015 they have now changed to next day collections, requiring you to stay in Savannakhet overnight. No big deal, I did a 5 minute trip advisor search and had 3 places on a shortlist that I would check as a walkin customer on the day of arrival.
I booked a VIP bus (the most expensive one they had) from Mochit bus terminal over the phone, on the day of my departure and also choose my seat. It was the same bus I used last year and the seats are very comfortable, and give ample leg room which is sometimes needed if you are a foreigner. My bus was leaving at 9:15pm from the big bus station near Mo Chit and I paid the reasonable price of 734 baht at the local 7-Eleven on the day of departure.
After a 180 baht Bangkok taxi ride to the bus terminal I had arrived in good time. I loaded up on snacks from the 7-Eleven (fruit juice, water, 2 banana cakes, 2 chocolate bars etc…) and also purchased some travel sized toiletries for the trip. It is important not to be without supplies as you never know where your next decent meal will come from on these kind of Visa Runs (I’ve been caught out in the past before).
My 734 baht VIP bus.
The destination of my bus was Mukdahan, and the VIP bus was comfortable enough. We were given bottle of water and a snack box with a bottle of chocolate soy milk, a packet of crisps and a ‘Chester’s Grill’ chicken burger,. It would have been ok but the burger had mayonnaise on it (I can’t stand the stuff). I scraped with the tissues given what mayo I could off the burger and chomped away at the corners. I’d already had a full meal at 6pm so this was more of a bonus snack than a meal. A good thing about taking the VIP bus is that because they give you food, you are not herded into the Bus Food Centers at stupid o’clock in the morning, where the quality of Thai food on offer is at best mediocre. The other passengers on my bus were behaving themselves which was good (sometimes it can be a mixed bag), and I did a little video recording before sleeping soundly from about 11pm to 5am.
I was woken at 5am by the service woman squeezing my wrist, I opened my sleepy eyes and was given the smallest bottle of sour milk you’ve ever seen, and a cold towel. Marvelous! After discarding the meagre offerings 2 Thai guys managed to flag down the bus and negotiated a 2 hour journey for 200 baht each. It would have been ok if they weren’t sitting right next to me, yakking away in Thai for half an hour or so, meaning I got no more sleep for the rest of the journey. When they eventually fell asleep I was wide awake! This sort of thing you have to let slide living in Thailand as if you get annoyed at all these little inconveniences, your life here will become one big living nightmare. Mai Bpen Rai – No Worries.
Bus times for the 50 baht bus from Mukdahan to Savvanakhet.
We arrived around 7:10am at Mukdahan Bus Station. Immediately upon disembarking the bus I headed straight to the queue for the 50 baht bus over the border to Savannakhet.
My bus ticket from Mukdahan to Savannakhet. The amusing thing is the only info on is a date stamp and ticket number. All the other fields are left completely blank!
Luckily, I didn’t have long to wait for the 7:30am bus, and also luckily for me Laos people are terrible at queueing. Their strategy seems to have no order to it, and they seem passive and oblivious to people pushing in. By cutting in the side of the bus and holding my camera high up pretending to take photos, I managed to get on and get a seat at the back. Result!
We all stamp our passports out of Thailand, and then get back on the bus to cross over the ‘Friendship Bridge 2’. One thing that always strikes me about Laos people is they all seem to be around the same hight, very short and around 5 foot 4. I was the only Westerner on this bus and I towered above nearly everyone.
Travelling over the Second Friendship Bridge.
The Mekong River is at just about it’s maximum flow rate in October, and especially after all the rains that have been recently with a few tropical storms passing through. The bridge opened to the general public on 9 January 2007. The Mekong basin is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world, only the Amazon has a higher level of biodiversity. No other river is home to so many species of very large fish. The biggest fish can grow up to 1.5 metres and weigh 70 kilograms.
At the Laos side I am pleased to see the office is open for foreign Visa-on-Arrivals at 8:15am. I fill out my forms and hand $35+1 for my Visa (the $1 is due to me not having any photos). The Laos border official tells me that 3 of my one dollar bills are no good, luckily I have a big stash of small dollars and he accepts the next ones given. If I want to pay in Thai money it’s 1500 baht, or $42 as of 8 Oct 2015. Every little saving helps and I always think of the money saved as beer money for later.
After getting through the Laos Immigration the mission now was to get to the Thai Consulate for as little money as possible. I was on my own with no other foreigners around, not a good negotiating position. A tuk tuk guy insisted on 200baht to the Thai Consulate, I said 100 and he was coming down to 150. Lucky for me there was Filipino couple boarding a neighbouring tuk tuk and I tagged along for 100 baht per person, which wasn’t such a bad deal in the grand scheme of things.
My documents were in order and I just needed a fresh application form and to cut and glue my 2 photos to the top right of the page. A little tip that I always do is to check online for the form and fill it all out on a blank sheet of paper, then merely copy the info onto the application form when you arrive. I do this because if for example you are really tired, or have a stonking hangover, then writing the wrong information down can potentially lead to some uncomfortable questioning from the Thai Staff.
A Westerner with a very distinct and unconcealed Thai tattoo waits in line at the Thai Consulate in Savannakhet.
It’s Tuesday morning just after 9am and the doors have opened. I’m surprised to see I’ve been given number 12 and there is only one person behind me. This is another reason I always do my Visa runs midweek now. On a Monday or a Friday in some locations it can be bedlam, but here everything is calm and relaxed and everyone is processed within 20 minutes of opening.
A couple of Laos tuk tuk guys are inside the Thai Consulate ready in wait for any potential
My forms are submitted and I’m relieved that no questions have been asked of my application. There is always that small off chance that you will be either denied or asked questions that you are ill prepared to answer. But today is not that day, today I’m given a ticket with a number and will return the following day at 2pm. I leave with a smile on my face.
I leave the Thai Consulate and have 3 choices for accommodation. I decide to try the ‘Avalon Residence’ first as it is close to the Thai Consulate, Bus Station, and is within 10 minutes walk of the Consulate.
It’s overcast but the rain has not arrived yet. A quick witted schoolgirl riding a motorbike gives me the ubiquitous V-Sign as I snap away at anything, and everything.
They start early on the motorbikes in this part of the world. Is this boy even 10 yet? Notice how his fingers can barely grasp the leavers.
I get both good and bad news when I arrive at the Avalon Residence. They do have a room, but it will only be available at 2pm. It’s 9:30am and I have 4 and a half hours to kill. Damn! I rent a bicycle and go for an explore near the riverfront for a nice cafe to kill some time. One annoying thing about Savannakhet is everything seems to sprawled out, a kilometer or 2 just to get to a cafe or restaurant and back. If you’re in the burning midday sun or a heavy tropical downpour your options are limited to using motorised transport. Tuk tuks will generally take you to a desired destination and back for 200 baht, but I don’t like to be tied down and like to wander around, that’s why I took the bicycle.
The past fades away. The first French colonial building I spot.
This is Savannakhet, everything is laid back here. Unfortunately my first choice of Lin’s Cafe is shut for the day. Oh well, time to explore some more.
Is this really downtown in Laos second largest city? It looks like a shot from a North-Eastern Isaan village in Thailand.
French colonial heritage.
It’s like a movie set the way some of the buildings are perfectly crumbling away.
Sorry, Closed for today.
I eventually settle for this place on the riverfront. I was the only customer for the 2 hours I was there.
I sit upstairs with a decent view of the river, and a decent view of the rainclouds about to swamp the city.
Local fishermen drop their anchor and set their lines hoping for the catch of the day.
The beer is going down nicely. Beer Lao is welcome at any time of the day, and 3 beers disappear by the time my bucket of ice has melted. Time to cycle back to the Avalon Residence.
I order a much needed vegetable rice stir fry from the small Avalon Restaurant, and am surprised at how tasty it is (15k kip, 68 baht).
The food and beers have gone down a treat. I head to my room, when I get there the first thing I do is turn the aircon down to 16 degrees. Then I then take a shower and pass out for 3 hours.
Waking in the evening, I have a rough plan to head to Dao Savanh Restaurant, or any other similar establishment. I usually like to try new places on my travels, disappointingly when I look of my window I see it’s raining. I monitor the rain for half an hour or so until it stops, so I take the chance and start cycling to the fancy restaurant.
Unfortunately, nature is against me as the rain restarts less than 10 minutes after I set off, forcing me to U-turn and bomb it back to the Avalon. I arrive half soaked and order some food in the Avalon Restaurant again.
Crispy vegetable spring rolls for 15k kip (68 baht).
Not so nice Green Curry, full of mushrooms and not enough meat.
So I head to my room and turn on the TV. I’m on the 4th floor and my TV doesn’t seem to be picking up any English speaking channels. HBO movies or English sport normally are standard in this part of the world. Surprisingly, the WIFI signal is very strong so I watch a few Youtube videos in HQ on my smartphone. Then I hit the sack around 11pm and sleep peacefully without anything planned for the next morning…
Part 2 coming soon….