Visa run virgins

Trip Start Feb 15, 2006
Trip End Feb 16, 2007

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Monday, June 19, 2006

Now that we have decided to stay and attempt our PADI Open Water Diving Certification we have to extend our visas. We had originally planned to stay in Thailand for one month so we just got the standard 30 day visa upon entry. However there is just so much to see and do, in hind sight we should have applied for a 60 day or 90 day visa prior to arrival.

Anyway visa runs seem to be the every day norm in Thailand, especially here on the island of Koh Tao. Almost every travel agent advertises them and it's pretty self explanatory; you cross one of the boarders and come back again, simple!

We book our tickets and pay the 1,400 baht which includes boat, bus and boat there and boat, bus, boat back. It's cheaper to take the night boat and the lady explains we will travel on the car ferry (11pm) which has beds, blankets and pillows to Chumphon. A mini bus will pick us up from there at 6am and take us to the boat which will cross the Burmese border and then back again, returning on the 1pm catamaran. We will collect our tickets at 9pm so we find a room where we can have a sleep and read the first chapter of our dive book (our bags are at Easy Divers ready to check in tomorrow on our return). After reading the first chapter I am scared to death and wondering just what the hell I've got my self into.

We eat, collect tickets and the lady informs us that the car ferry is not running tonight, it's a normal boat; ok fine, it leaves at 10pm. It's now 9.20pm so we pop into the 7 - 11 to get pop and crisps. While I'm queuing at the counter some guy elbows me in the head; ouch! This should be a sign of how the night will go, he apologises profusely and I say 'hey it's ok, I'm fine' as if it happens every day, pay and leave heading towards the pier.

Our boat is now in sight, Ben and I look at the boat, then each other and then back at the boat. Its bright blue and red and looks like it could sink at any second. A man takes our tickets and tells us to get on board, I want to scream. We climb on to the lower deck, it stinks of oil and in the middle is a huge table which covers of the deck so I head upstairs in search of a bed, blanket and pillow as the lady promised. The first thing I notice is there are no beds, blankets or flaming pillows. The floor is strewn with bodies and there is a small kind of cubby hole which is full of bodies too. There is however one big welcoming double bed situated right behind the captains wheel and no we cannot sleep there either.

We tip toe between the limp bodies sprawled out along the deck and park our bums on a corner of the bench that runs all the way round; its going to be a bloody long night. As we set sail uncomfortable and cold I figure this lot ligged out on the floor are not visa run virgins. The sea is ruff, the waves toss the boat around like toy in its grasp and there is a never ending circle of lights surrounding us from fishing boats casting their nets in the deep, deep sea. I manage to squeeze my self into a gap on the floor shivering from the wind, wrapping myself in the life I grabbed as soon as I stepped on board. The elbow man is on the boat and turns into my saviour as he lends me not one but two t-shirts to keep me warm. Ben goes to the loo and upon his return he drags me off the floor shouting 'come on down stairs its going to. . .' and before he finishes the sentence the heavens have opened, bodies are alive and diving for cover into the tiny cubby hole barely big enough for eight people and now housing 20. We run down stairs trying not to fall over board as the boat is tossed from left to right. We are soaking wet now and find a spot next to the roaring engine. It's hot, noisy and smells bad, but hey at least it's warm and dry. Elbow man joins us and we settle down to try and get some sleep. The bodies from above slowly make there way down one after the other in search of warmth and a space to lay there heads in need of sleep amongst the staff on board. I feel sick, the rain is lashing through the open windows showing no signs of relenting, we are still being tossed around like a toy boat lost at sea and all the while I cling to my life jacket hoping dry land will find us soon.

At 3am the boat docks, we sit and wait not sure where we are or exactly where we are heading, only wishing I was in a nice warm bed sleeping like pretty much the rest of Thailand. The mini buses arrive at 5am and we embark on the second leg of our journey, 2 hours later we (about 25 of us) file into the immigration office to get our passports stamped, confirming we are leaving Thailand. We get back in the bus and 10 minutes later we arrive at the dock for the second boat where a man collects all our passports along with $5 (deportation tax) and we sail across the river to another immigration office, then sail some more and hey presto we are in Myanmar (Burma). We have 15 mins to by cheap cigs (2 for 200) before we head back to the boat, returning to the immigration office on the river where a guard comes on the boat to check our bags (you're only allowed 200 cigs per person and 1ltr of alcohol), he then signals the all clear for us to return back across the river. We get back into the bus and file back into the immigration office to get our passports stamped with a new 30 day visa; it's that easy. A two hour drive takes us back to Chumphon where we just have enough time to call at KFC for food, arriving at the docks just in time for the 1pm catamaran and by 2.30pm we are back on Koh Tao, alive and ready to live another day.

The moral to this story is:

If like us you are virgin visa run people follow my good advice regardless of what the person who sells you the ticket says.

1. Arrive at boat at least one hour before departure time (or more if possible) to get a space to sleep (cubby hole is best choice).
2. Take jumpers/t-shirts and be wearing warm clothes (take sleeping bag if you have one).
3. Grab life jacket and use as pillow (you may need it and I counted more people on board than life jackets).
4. As soon as the mini bus arrives dive in for best seats (the three directly behind the driver with the most leg room then you may be able to get a little more sleep).
5. Ask driver if he is calling at KFC for food (you will be starving) it's the highlight of the trip.

I hope you get to catch the nice warm ferry boat and wish you lots of luck if you end up on the same boat we did; Bon Voyage.

To be continued. . . . .
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