Burma and Back . . .

by Neil Campbell, Nov 25, 2002 | Destinations: Myanmar / Thailand / Ranong

Immigration is tight in Thailand and the authorities have developed a simple system to keep it that way.

If you're arriving on a tourist visa, and as a tourist or a traveler the chances are you will be, then immigration requires that you leave the county each month to renew it. The whole thing is designed to make sure that they know where you are and what you're up to, the last thing Thailand needs the country filling up with little Leonardo Decaprios bumming around deserted beaches for six month stretches sparking international incidents with their disappearing acts. There are lots of other non-immigrant visas but to obtain one you'll have to meet a string of conditions.

The whole process is really not a big deal and 'the visa run', as it's become known, is really quite a simple process. If you wish to stay in Thailand for longer than thirty days then each month you'll have to find the nearest border with a recognized immigration office and take a day trip to another country.

The Visa Run has become part of everyday life for long stay visitors and expats in Thailand and, in areas where large populations of foreign travelers stay, the whole process has become a small business in it's own right. Many local businesses offer a service where you can do the whole thing in a day, although to do it yourself is much more fun and usually considerably less expensive. Companies offering these services usually advertise in the local press.

My last run took us from Phuket province in the South West, by bus to Ranong a little further north and from there to Burma by long-tail boat. The entire journey was to take us only two days and began with me having to wrestle my passport back from the shop I'd hired my motorbike from. After the diligent owner was satisfied that every scrape, bump and dent on my prehistoric moped was already there when I'd hired it, we were on our way.

The journey proper began as we boarded the one o'clock bus from Phuket Town for the seven and a half hour journey to Ranong. We were in luck as the bus had a toilet - check before you board or pay the consequences. We choose seats near the back of the bus, as I am no lover of the drag racing antics of Thai bus drivers, and as such we were spared from witnessing teeth clenching near misses as our coach thundered along the highway.

The journey was thankfully uneventful and surprisingly relaxing, could I be getting used to the V.I.P. bus Grand Prix? We arrived in Ranong sometime after 8pm and it was immediately obvious that Ranong was not a tourist town. After a hair-raising jaunt on the back of a motorcycle taxi driven by some distant cousin of Evel Knievel, whose bike refused to be tied to just one side of the road, we emerged in Ranong's main street.

Although there're not many tourists who venture this side of the beaten track there is enough traffic from the visa runs from Bangkok, Phuket and Hua Hin to justify a few cheap hotels run by the ever shrewd local Chinese minority. Ranong was once a thriving mining town but like most industries, almost everywhere, the gold has long since gone from the hills. The residents these days seem to be rallying round the last remaining horse in town desperately trying to teach it new tricks. Only calcium mining remains profitable and as a result Ranong seems to be deep in decline.

We stopped for some dynamite (chili) soup at one of the many roadside cafes and were stunned by just how inexpensive Ranong is, compared with the more affluent regions in the south. After a short walk we settled at one of the no-name guesthouses that run the length of the town's main street. Our room was far from palatial but seemed reasonably clean and tidy and after the long bus journey we would have settled for a cardboard box. An hour later we were refreshed enough to explore a little and set out to discover what Ranong offered in the way of fun. We tried and failed to send an email in the cheapest Internet café we'd ever graced and found to our dismay that we'd arrived too late for the cinema. Bars were in abundance however and we settled down to a few drinks and a game of pool whilst being entertained by the Thai house band that played contemporary Thai music with competence and style.

Eventually exhaustion took us and we headed back to our hotel only to discover we'd obviously missed the curfew and they'd shut these steel shutters on us. After a brief spell of panic and a little brute force we were able to gain entry and head quietly to the land of nod.

We woke early and began the process of earning us another thirty days in Paradise. Against our better judgment we took motorbike taxis to the fishing pier, almost five miles from town, the journey cost us a mere fifty cents each. Our intrepid couriers waited with us at the immigration office near the pier while we were clocked out of Thailand. If you're planning a visa run at some point during your stay in Thailand, remember you must obtain an exit visa before you leave for another country or you will be shipped back to get one, this would be an unnecessary and tiresome journey and you can't assume anyone will remind you first. After we had obtained the relevant paperwork we were driven at high speed to await the boat to Burma. There's quite an industry in shipping foreigners over the river to Burma and the long tail boats were positively stacked up to await us.

We waited indecisively for what seemed like an age, trying to get the price of passage down, we'd been told in advance that the trip should cost us around thirty baht each (about seventy five cents), but were having real problems trying to get anywhere for under two hundred baht. After we'd outgrown the patience of our taxi drivers they left and the fare, minus their undeclared commission, came down to about one hundred and fifty. I think we spotted Anastasia even before the local boatmen and a model of bulk purchase was put into practice. When Pete turned up we managed to negotiate a fare of one hundred. Although miles from the original promise of thirty baht each we were delighted at our reduction and jumped aboard the boat for the half hour crossing to Burma.

Burma, now renamed Myanmar by the oppressive regime masquerading as a government, is listed by Amnesty International as one of the ten poorest countries in the world and the country is in a real mess. I could go on forever about the shortages of everything from light bulbs to paper clips to the strict social controls the government instills on the people. The truth is that the government has only just opened the borders and allowed outside visitors. For a long time entry to Burma was impossible and, although many people deem a visit to Burma as a way of sustaining the harsh regime, the lack of foreign influence was exactly what closing the borders was hoped to achieve.

To enter the country from Thailand you have two choices; you can purchase a one-day visa and return to your country of origin that night or you can obtain a twenty-eight day visa and enter Burma for a longer stay. Before choosing the latter seek professional travel advice, as the internal situation is Burma is not stable, at the time of writing Burma and Thailand have begun limited border skirmishes but then again that may change by this afternoon. Burmese and Thai relations have always been poor as the Burmese have a naughty habit of invading Thailand every so often. Although it was over two hundred years ago many Thais will never forgive their neighbors for the sacking of their ancient and beautiful capital, Ayuthaya. These days the ill feelings between the two countries tends to revolve around border disputes and illegal Burmese workers who flood the Thai border in search of a days wage.

Once on board our little boat we speed off towards Burma and after a brief stop at the weirdest gas station I've ever encountered, simply a hut on stilts in the middle of the sea where the long-tails are refueled in mid flight. We bounced along in the wake of many larger fishing boats and a couple of well placed cigarettes brought on a guided tour from our captain, who could only have been seventeen and whose quite remarkable grasp of English seemed far too accomplished for his calling, he pointed out the various islands in the estuary and the respective ports required for departure he also showed us the famous casino island off the shore of Burma where the big spenders come to be pampered, spin the wheels of fortune and play a round or two on the Jack Niclaus designed golf course.

After a very relaxing and scenic trip over the river we arrived at the small hut serving as Burmese immigration. My legs just aren't what they used to be and I found negotiating the steep slippery steps rough going. Once inside the basic office we were liberated of five dollars each for the privilege of visiting Burma for the day - be aware that the Burmese like their hard currency clean and crisp and they will refuse to accept any bills that are too scruffy or too dog-eared. We never actually got to set foot on Burmese soil however as apparently it's customary to just get back on the boat and head for home.

We had time to chat to our fellow passengers on the return journey. Pete who hailed from Norfolk in Northern England was making his way north from the south of Thailand and was currently residing on Koh Chang a very peaceful and inexpensive island in the Andaman Sea, not to be confused with the other Koh Chang on Thailand's East Coast. Anastasia was an American from New Jersey and had amazing teeth, she was also the only one of our little party to have the sense to be wearing a hat, which in an open boat in the midday sun should frankly be made compulsory, her partner who'd deserted her for the visa run was off scuba-diving in the Similan Islands. As they'd arrived in Thailand at different times he'd already made the trip to get his visa and therefore had found something better to do when the need came for her to renew hers.

Once we got back to Thailand we headed for the immigration office once more, this time to announce our arrival, I got a weird abyssal feeling whilst in the limbo between visa like I was walking in some kind of no-mans land and was glad to have my stamp of approval firmly thrust back into my passport. We had a few hours to kill before the next bus to Phuket and decided to spend them at the bus station, as I mentioned earlier there's not much to do in Ranong so we decided to head for the bus station and do nothing there instead. We met lots of fellow travelers at the bus station and swapped stories and email addresses with a few of them. Dan and Sue, an attractive couple from England, had had a few spills in their time in Thailand. Dan had hired a 400cc motorbike in Phuket and wiped out on one the treacherous hills in the province. The damage his bike had sustained was so great that it was cheaper for him to buy the wrecked bike than put it back on the road, in Thailand there is no insurance for motorbike hire and if you bend it, you mend it as one hire company puts so eloquently. His new purchase had set their trip back considerably the whole adventure having cost him around two thousand US Dollars which was the majority of their traveling funds. They were heading back to Bangkok to try and find work and were down to their last two thousand baht. (Around fifty US Dollars)

Our bus was the last to depart, as always, and we climbed aboard to find our seats at the back of the bus were already occupied by a couple of very chatty Burmese Buddhist monks. Despite being very tired after the whole affair I couldn't resist an opportunity to listen to our unusual companions as they taught us a little about the Burmese culture and the language and showered us with gifts. They gave us Burmese money, postcards of temples, sachets of Burmese coffee and even make-up, which my delighted girlfriend accepted with relish. Eventually, after hours of facts, demonstrations of Burmese writings and pictures of cities and temples, sleep took me but not before we'd given them our address in Phuket and a couple of presents in return. The older monk, who seemed to be the leader of the two, was an avid coin collector and had accumulated an impressive array of currency from as far afield as The Netherlands and Austria. I was only too happy to add a Scottish fifty pence piece to his treasury, although I don't think he got the subtle difference between my coin and the one he had already liberated from England.

Once back in familiar territory, we were a little weary but still glad we'd decided to take the trip ourselves rather than rely on an outside service. We had been back only a couple of days and woke one morning to discover a couple of very chatty Burmese Buddhist monks sipping Coca Colas at the restaurant outside our bungalow. They'd been stationed in the monastery in Kathu about twenty kilometers to the north and had decided to come and visit us. They were given food and drinks from the restaurant owners, as is apparently the custom and again they showered us with yet more souvenirs of Burma. From the reports we have received from other travelers our saffron robed missionaries are typical of the Burmese people, who are so friendly that they themselves are reason enough to visit a region where even corporate giants Coca-cola haven't yet set foot.

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