***For readers who have stumbled across this post in search of guidance about Visa runs from Thailand to the Mae Sai border of Myanmar and don’t want to scroll through my exhaustive experiential narrative, just read here to find out what I learned
On Friday morning while having breakfast at Thien art cafe in Pai in the north of Thailand I had this urgent feeling that I needed to check my Visa expiration date. I thought it was the 6th and it was already the 4th so I scrolled back to the photo I took of the last visa stamp I received in Koh Samui (as I had left physical passport as collateral for the scooter I rented earlier this week)– and ooooh, low and behold, I needed to leave the kingdom of Thailove by the 5th. I paid for my breakfast and headed to Ayya, a one-stop shop travel retailer, on walking street to find out about my options. All they offered in terms of a “Visa Run” was a four-day round trip bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos– at the time, four days seemed to me too long. So the lady at the desk told me the quickest method would be to get on one of their buses back to Chiang Mai and then catch another bus to the Mae Sai border between Myanmar and Thailand where I could walk across the bridge and then get stamped back in– seems simple right?
Well, it has been over 48 hours since the beginning of this seemingly simple, but very necessary journey, and I am now an illegal immigrant stuck on the Thai side of the Mae Sai border. Anyways, back to the story..
I had an hour to run back to my friend’s house and pack a small backpack with a change of clothes, toothbrush, and some vitamins, literally the bare essentials, before hopping on the 2.5 hour bus ride from Pai to Chiang Mai. I got some dramamine pills from 7-11 and I knocked out peacefully until Chiang Mai. I get to the bus station and things are a bit hectic, so many people, different ques, different bus companies, flashing neon colors– aaahhhh I’m so confused. I finally find the Green Bus, which according to many is the best bus to Mae Sai, BUT their bus for the day is totally full. So I buy a ticket for Saturday at noon, and I wander aimlessly around Chiang Mai for about an hour knowing that I need to find a place to stay for the night, but with a dead phone and an indecisive attitude about where to stay, I just start walking. After walking about 2.5 miles I make the decision to go back to the old town (a nice area with lots of temples, about a 20 minute walk from the night bazaar) so I get in one of those big red pickup truck cabs and the driver took me to Soi 6 for 40 baht.
I stopped at the most American looking bar on the block, the name was something like ‘Mexican Elvis.’ I felt like I was floundering around with nowhere to go and no idea what I was doing so I opted for something familiar, even if it wasn’t the kind of place I’d go at home. With floor to ceiling columns on two sides and no doors, the openness of the space was inviting; and one of the waitresses was super helpful, she kept calling me darling, which sounded funny coming from a Thai person’s mouth but oddly enough, it was really comforting.
After I had a whiskey or two, she pointed me to Nature’s Way hostel next door to where her and her sister stay. They were full, but the Aussie running the desk was super cool and he called another hostel called Kikie’s down the road and got me a private room for 300 baht. Oooowee first time in a hostel…. it was nowhere near as dirty as I had envisioned in my head.
The next day I woke up and tried to do some writing for a few clients over breakfast and then hailed a tuk tuk back to the bus station.
The bus was a bit late but once we were off I took some more dramamine and nodded off over the course of the 5 hour bus ride. As we neared the border I saw a bus pulled over being searched by police, and then our bus pulled over and two Thai police officers came aboard and asked for our passports. Now, my passport stamp clearly says I need to leave by March 5, and today is March 5, but for whatever reason it didn’t matter. A woman on the back of the bus wasn’t so lucky. I heard her speaking Thai with the police several rows behind me and she didn’t sound happy, she sounded frantic. Within minutes she was being escorted off of the bus with the police holding some kind of document written in Thai and what looked like her ID card. Nobody on the bus made a peep, as I looked around everyone was either staring straight ahead or looking down as if nothing had happened. A few tears welled up in my eyes, what is happening to her? There’s nothing I can do about it, I don’t speak Thai and even if I did it seems like the police here aren’t people you want to mess with– but what if that were me?
We drove onward for a few kilometers and by this point I’m starting to get nervous about the time– the lady at the bus kiosk told me the border counter closes at 6 p.m. and it’s 5:45… I’m sure there are other people on this bus in the same situation, don’t worry, everything will work out as it should, worrying will get you no where, this you’ve learned countless times… So I take some deep breaths until we finally stop at the Mae Sai bus station. I get off the Green Bus and I try to ask the bus attendant where I go to get my Visa stamped, (essentially, where the heck is the border), but she just points at the line of pickup truck taxis parked to the left and brushes me off.
My god I’m so confused right now, and feeling a bit high and out of it from the dramamine– can you even get high on dramamine? I guess that depends on your version of “high,” but Jeezus this sure feels a lot like a hefty dose of xanax wearing off. A small group of about 4 or 5 taxi drivers stand scattered in a circle, one of the younger drivers asks me where I want to go and I tell him the border… (I swear when I booked the bus ticket, the woman said the bus would take me to the bridge where the border is, but there’s nothing I can do about that now)… The driver walks over to the rest of the passengers vacating the bus and after a few minutes of feeling like he’s forgotten about me I do an odd but noticeable move with my head, kind of like iguanas do when they’re stretching the heads up and down, and I get his attention and give him a look of puzzled confusion, trying to non-verbally say ‘hey, I’m here, what do I do?’… He starts speaking Thai to some other people and then loudly says “farang” and looks at me, (‘farang’ in Thai mean foreigner)… Great, I’m the annoying Farang, the last thing I want to be.
Finally a sweet young (non-Thai) Asian girl with a surgical mouth mask hanging off of her right ear comes up to me and says brightly with a big smile “I can help you, what you need?” I tell her I just want to go to the border. She finds me the right taxi, and within seconds we’re on our way for only 15 baht (50 cents). Wow, what an angel she was! Once in the pickup taxi a verbal altercation begins to brew between an elderly German man and an elderly Thai man (although I don’t think he was really Thai). The were going back and forth between speaking Thai and English, until the (supposed) Thai man ended their discourse with “I’m just trying to be nice, but nevermind, you have no etiquette, you are not welcome in my country anymore. If I ever see you again… Thai people are good people, but you, you have no etiquette, no sir you are not welcome.” At this point I’m thinking the German was probably being an old grump, we’ve all been on a bus for the last 5 hours and there must have been some kind of miscommunication, no big deal. Soon we’ve turned into the parking lot of the Tesco Lotus Grocery Story and the taxi driver is going up and down the aisles of the lot giving an occasional honk, and I’m getting frustrated because I need to get to the border before the close, it’s 5:57 p.m. and me, me, me– gosh get over yourself doll face, you’re not the only one. We exit the Tesco and pick up a tough looking lady and two boys who just came from soccer (futbol) practice and now we are really packed in there.
I’m sitting next to the elderly Thai man, and I ask him “how far are we from the border?” He tells me that we’re a few kilometers away and we get into some chit chat, his English is pretty good and he begins to tell me that he has a house up here in Mae Sai and one in Bangkok, but that he knows of some good hotels near the border because I will probably have to go tomorrow since they border will be closed. Soon he knocks on the roof of the taxi to get off and he waves me along, but the German puts his hand out and waves his finger like ‘No don’t go, with him.’ The Thai man throws up his hands and says whatever and walks off and the cab it moving on along again. The German tells me the border is another few hundred metres up, and that man wasn’t a good man (I actually don’t agree, I think the Thai man was just trying to point me to the hotel that he knew of– but either way, that’s not what I wanted, I wanted to at least check to see if the border was open)… So the German and I and some others get off the truck and approach the border offices.
Ahhh and now to the crushing of hopes and dreams and any plans I had of getting back to Pai and my friends within the next day. I get to the window on the Thai side of the border and I show my passport to the female officer and she says “No you cannot go.”
“You already had a 30 day extension, you have to fly out or go to the immigration office and ask for a 7-day extension, but they’re not open until Monday.”
This last part is a summarized version of what took about 15 minutes to understand with the help of the German man who speaks Thai. The lady at the window was not very nice, she almost seemed happy to deliver the bad news, but the 75-year-old German, whose name is Manfred, turned out to be a godsend. He showed me to the hotel that he always stays at when he does border runs the “House Hotel,” an acceptable but desolate 5 story hotel that seemed more like a ghost town, but with no bed bugs, and at only 280 baht a night it was A-OK for me!
—-stay tuned for part 2… will Portia the explorer ever make it out of Mae Sai?!—-