I recently changed jobs, and as part of the process had to leave the country to get a new visa… again. Apparently, if you have a “valid teaching license” (not the temporary ones you can renew 4 times), you can get your existing Non-B visa changed over to your new school… but if you don’t, it can’t be transferred and you have to leave the country to get a new visa.
I’ve already done this, gotten a single-entry tourist visa in Savannakhet, and changed it at Bangkok immigration to a Non-B (again)… next step, work permit, then immigration AGAIN to get that new Non-B visa extended to a year.
Anyway, here’s a rehash and update of my very first blog for Ajarn.com back in 2012 about how to get a tourist visa in Savannakhet, Laos, among the most laid-back places I’ve ever been and with far less people than Vientiane. The biggest change since 2012 has been the apparent relocation of the Thai Consulate and some other minor details; I hope this can help make the task of going for a new visa less daunting!
I won’t claim to be any kind of expert on the matter, but from everything I’ve heard from the many people and agencies I’ve talked to, Laos is the only country you can easily (relatively—without flying) get to from Bangkok that will grant you a double entry tourist visa. And, after a bit of last-minute research, I discovered that the Consulate in Savannakhet is far more relaxed than the Embassy in Vientiane both in the ability to smoothly go through the process and the atmosphere of the town itself.
After going, I have to agree. I’ve never been to Vientiane, but I don’t see how the process could have been easier… considering it’s an odd procedure in the first place.
Keep in mind that this is just my experience. I was trying to be relatively as cheap and quick as possible getting to and from Bangkok being that my visa was about to expire.
The largest area where you’ll find discrepancies are in the travel; there are countless ways to get to Savannakhet, but I chose what I think is the cheapest and easiest way to go.
I’ll do the down-and-dirty version first, then details after. This is a long article mainly for me to remember my journey (and it helped me my second go-round too), but I’ve tried to keep the important bits short first and expand on them later.
First, here’s what you need before you leave Thailand:
-A valid passport (good for at least 6 months past the date you go)
-2 Passport photos. Any photo shop in Bangkok/other cities will make; just tell them you need passport photos for a Thai visa, as there are different sizes. Get at least two—you’ll need one for your Laos entry visa and one for your actual Thai visa. I got something like 8 made for 150 baht at a little photo shop near Phahon nYothin, across from Central Plaza mall and next to Union Mall.
-2 signed photocopies of your passport. Black and white worked fine for me. Technically, you only need one, but if you go to check into a hotel while the Thai consulate has your passport… you’ll obviously need a copy to fill out the booking paperwork. You can probably get around this, but I hate being without any copy of my passport. This is Thailand (and Laos), after all…
-Patience. We’re in Thailand. Just go with the flow!
Second, visa fees needed as of August 8, 2015:
-1500 baht for a Laos Visa on Arrival. You don’t have a choice, even if it’s just for a day.
-2000 baht for a double-entry tourist visa OR non-immigrant-B visa, or 1000 for a single-entry. From everyone I’ve spoken to, teachers or not, I’d go with the tourist visa. I’ll make a few notes on what I wrote on my visa application form later.
-50 baht for a “visa stamp” when you leave Laos. It appeared only the Farang were told to pay this, but it’s not like we have much of a choice.
That’s it for the actual visa costs, which totaled me (single entry) 2550 baht this go-round. But, remember this: after 2 months, you’ll have to visit the immigration office in whatever town you are living in and pay another 1900 baht for a 30 day extension.
After that, you’ll have to pay travel costs to and from another international border to initiate your “second entry,” and after another 2 months, repeat the process… PROVIDED you don’t get a work permit, which allows you to extend your visa to the length of your contract.
Third, travel costs: (assuming you’re traveling to and from Bangkok)
-About 1400 baht for bus tickets to and from Bangkok to Savannakhet: about 1100 baht for the long stints from Bangkok to Mukdahan, 100 baht (50 baht each way) from the Mukdahan bus station to and from Savannakhet, and roughly 200-400 baht total costs for taxis throughout the trip.
This will obviously vary from person to person depending on what class bus you take, where you take it from, and/or whether or not you decide to fly. I will note here that you shouldn’t have to pay more than 100 baht if you have at least 2 people taking a tuk-tuk from the Laos boarder to the Thai consulate.
You won’t be the only person at the border needing a lift to the consulate when you arrive, so if you’re not shy, you can save yourself some money by traveling with others.
Fourth, various tidbits to know:
You will have to spend a night in Savannakhet to get a visa; it takes 24 hours for them to issue visas, and there is no getting around it.
Don’t worry too much about changing currencies. Everywhere I went in Savannakhet took Thai baht, and I believe that most will take US dollars, too.
You MUST present your visa application from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. You can then pick it up the following day from 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. Be sure to keep the receipt ticket they give you at the counter when you turn in your passport; picking them up relies on the numbering system indicated on the receipt you get.
Don’t expect anyone aside from the bus ticket vendors and Thai Consulate staff to know any English. They don’t. But they’re all quite friendly, so just be friendly in return and you can usually find out what you need eventually.
Remember the name of the hotel/guesthouse you stay in while in Savannakhet. For some reason, the agents want to know this when you leave, and it should be written on your departure card.
I roughly calculated how much I spent, including visa fees, travel costs, and food/accommodation, and I came up with around 6,000 baht. I’m sure you could spend less, and I’m positive you could spend more.
The basics, getting to and from Bangkok to Savannakhet:
-Take a bus from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit or Chatuchak, depending on who you ask) to Mukdahan, then from Mukdahan to Savannakhet.
-Be sure you are prepared for the various entry/exit procedures both in and out of Thailand and Laos. Each border has duplicated procedures. Details are listed in the sections below.
-Once you get your visa, simply retrace your footsteps back to Bangkok!
This is basically how it went down for me, just to give you an idea of travel times involved in the whole process.
Wednesday August 5
8:00 p.m., depart for Mukdahan
Thursday August 6:
7:00 a.m., arrive at Mukdahan bus station
7:30 a.m., depart on bus for Laos border (Savannakhet)
8:00 a.m., arrive at Thai border to exit
8:20 a.m., arrive at Laos border to enter
9:10 a.m., arrive at Thai consulate
9:30 a.m., free time until the next day at 2:00 p.m.
Friday, August 7:
2:00 p.m., pick up passport with double-entry visa
4:00 p.m., arrive at Mukdahan bus station after clearing both Thai and Laos borders
7:20 p.m., depart on bus for Bangkok
5:45 a.m., arrive at Bangkok Mo Chit bus terminal
Total time spent: about 60 hours.
To get to Mukdahan (before Savannakhet) from Bangkok:
You can fly direct from Bangkok to Savannakhet through Laos Airlines (and possibly others); Savannakhet has a small airport. But, I talked to several people I met there that said the flight isn’t exactly comfortable, and it cost somewhere upwards of US $150 for the 2 hour flight. That’s not ridiculous, granted, but considering I got the bus there and back from Bangkok for under US $40, it’s all a matter of how much you want to spend.
That said, if you want to take a bus from Bangkok, you have a few options. First, get to the Mo Chit Bus Station (although the sign above it actually reads Chatuchak Bus Terminal). You can take the MRT to KamphaengPhet (which comes up in part of the Chatuchak Weekend Market) and take a motorbike taxi to the bus station for 30 baht, depending on your driver. A meter taxi will probably run under 60 baht.
Alternatively, go to the Mo Chit BTS station and take a bike taxi from there.
Once you get to the bus station, find the third floor (it’s a huge bus station by my standards). You’ll want the bus that runs Bangkok to Mukdahan, the Thai town just across the river boarder from Savannakhet, Laos. If memory serves, the company is around booth number 96. If you get confused, the information desk on the ground floor is very helpful.
There are several options: first class, second class, and VIP. Basically, VIP buses typically have leather seats with more leg room than the “first class” tickets I bought my first time going to Savannakhet.
Whatever the meaning, it cost me 650 baht from Bangkok to Mukdahan, first class, on a relatively comfortable coach bus. Second class was something like 460 baht. There are several options; have a Thai friend look up VIP buses and it’ll be 200+ baht cheaper than buying at the bus station.
My understanding is that there is a bus that runs to Mukdahan every night around 8:00 p.m. (I’m sure it varies a bit), but this being Thailand, we didn’t actually leave until almost 9 p.m. The bus coming back was relatively on-time.
Keep in mind that the travel time is between 10-12 hours (depending on traffic and your driver), so no matter what you’re riding on, it’s going to be uncomfortable. If you’re on a budget like me, you’ll just have to suck it up. Both buses I took, there and back, had great air conditioning, a bathroom (which I didn’t use, so I can’t say as to its usability, but my acquaintance in the seat next to me had no complaints), and you’re given a little light blanket for the trip.
The seats do recline a little, but again… remembering that this is a really long trip, it’s going to become uncomfortable. Personally, I can’t sit still for 10 minutes, much less 10 hours, but that’s just me.
The bus stops about halfway through the trip for 20 minutes at a bus rest area, so you can get out, stretch your legs, get some food/drinks if desired, etc.
Getting from Mukdahan to Savannakhet:
This bit is easy. If you take the 8:00 p.m. bus, you’ll arrive somewhere around 7:00 the next morning, and there is a 50 baht bus that leaves from the same small bus station to the Friendship II Bridge every thirty minutes or so starting at 7:30 a.m. This bus will get packed fast, so unless you’re lickedy-split, you can expect to stand packed in like cattle. Or, basically just like every time you take the BTS at rush hour in Bangkok.
Luckily, it’s only about a 10 minute ride from the Mukdahan bus station to the Thai border. You’ll have to get out and go through Thailand’s exit procedures, get back on the same bus to cross the bridge, and get off again at the Laos boarder, at which point you’ll have to get a tuk-tuk to the Thai consulate (or other transportation).
Exiting Thailand and crossing the border procedures:
You’ll get off of the bus at the Thai border just before the modern Friendship II Bridge and have to go through a passport check. You’ll need a “departure form” that you may already possess; if not, you’ll have to ask for one and fill it out. Make SURE you get a stamp on your existing visa or other documentation saying you actually left the country; otherwise, as I’m told, you could have problems actually getting into Laos.
The passport agent should give you a re-entry form into Thailand when you leave as well as a Laos entry/exit form. These are all simple forms, but I’d suggest you fill them in ASAP to avoid bottlenecking the lines at all of the border checkpoints.
The border appears to open at 8:00 a.m. judging by the playing of the King’s Anthem at around the time our bus arrived there, which was around 8.
Once you’re through this easy bit, it’s back onto the bus. Be sure to say “moo” to show off the cattle that you are.
Entering Laos and crossing the border procedures:
Once you’re off the bus, unless you already have a Laos entry visa (which is unlikely), you’ll need to go up to a little counter titled “Entry Visa” or something similar. It’s just before you get to the entrance booth for passport control.
Here, you’ll be given a form to fill out (again). Once you’ve completed it, give it, one of your passport pictures, your passport, and 1500 baht to the agent behind the window. I’ve been told it’s slightly cheaper if you use US Dollars, but I used baht and had no problem.
This will take a moment; the agents in this particular line of the process aren’t in any great hurry. This last trip, I had to wait about 30 minutes for someone to bother showing up.
After you have your Laos visa, make sure you have your Laos entry form filled in and your passport out. They’ll want to take your picture, and without much fuss you should be on your way.
Small note here: the visa and entry forms both ask your purpose of entering Laos. I just put “visiting.” No sense in being too descriptive. Similarly, various fields in both the Thai and Laos visa form and entry/exit form ask purpose of stay, address, and/or contacts within the country. Being that you’re applying for a tourist visa, having a physical address may raise eyebrows. I left the address fields blank on all of those forms, and for any other fields in question, I was just vague.
For example, on the Thai visa application, it asks something along the lines of what you’ll be doing during your stay. I simply said that I intended to visit Bangkok, Phuket, and Chaing Mai. We all know (the authorities included) that this is just paperwork for the sake of paperwork.
Getting to the Thai Consulate:
I went up to a random fellow filling out visa paperwork and asked if he wanted to share a tuk-tuk to the Thai consulate. There’s one way of making friends. He agreed, and after haggling the tuk-tuk driver down from the outrageous 200 baht he wanted per person to 100 baht per person (still a lot for the short trip), we were on our way.
Luckily, in my brief experience in Laos, everyone is quite nice and generally helpful. Obviously, taxi drivers are going to want to make as much money as possible, but just be nice and polite and do what you have to do. Let’s keep a relatively good image for foreigners in this little town; otherwise, we’ll end up making Savannakhet the same as Vientiane and getting multiple tourist visas will become impossible.
The Thai Consulate moved since I last visited in 2012. Now, it is closer to the boarder entry point, just off of whatever the “main road” would be. It’s less than a 10 minute taxi/tuk-tuk ride from the border, and is a nice new brown building with full security. It’s on the way to “old” Savannakhet, so if you get there, you’ve gone too far.
Once you’re at the Thai Consulate, just to the left of the entrance there is a little visa application stall with a nice lady working for the Consulate handing them out. At least, there was when I went; I did not have to pay for one. It is possible to get scammed by the many little stands right across the street from the consulate, but before giving into them, check at the consulate itself first. You can make copies and whatnot for a nominal fee.
Here’s the important part: it’s only 1000 baht for a single entry tourist visa, but 2000 for a double entry. Make SURE you hand-write next to the “tourist visa” box the words “double entry” clearly, and when you turn in the form to the agent at the window, make sure you politely ensure she/he knows that you want a double entry visa (if that’s the case). There is no box or field to write this, so make sure you remember to indicate it!
Other than that, the form is fairly self-explanatory. Be vague when needed, and hand it in with your passport, a photocopy of your passport, a passport picture, and 2000 baht (double; 1000 single). You will get a receipt to pick it up the next day between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. I’d recommend being there at 2:00 p.m. the next day if you plan on making it back to Bangkok (or wherever) that evening; it gives you plenty of time to play with.
Staying in Savannakhet:
Like I’ve said, there really isn’t much to the town. It’s a quaint little French-influenced spot next to the large Mekong River, and not much is going on. Seriously, it’s the exact opposite of the insanity of Bangkok. It’s actually a bit like a vacation… a welcome vacation mandated by the government, but a vacation nonetheless.
I only looked into two hotels last time I visited: one right next to the river whose name escapes me, and one that I’ve seen recommended elsewhere called Leena Guesthouse. I’m not big on planning, so I hadn’t bothered trying to book in advance, nor did I have any idea where hotels (if you can call them that) would be. Luckily, the town is so small that I literally walked around until I found a sign for Leena Guesthouse.
This time, I opted for what would be considered opulent foreigner-friendly hotel… the Avalon Residence. It’s not far from the consulate, and is about a 2-3km walk from the little night market/church in the middle of the old part of town. 650 baht/night, nice AC, hot shower, wifi, the works. Somewhat English-speaking staff too, and has its own decent coffeeshop/restaurant right next door.
Note the difference between this “posh” (for Laos) hotel at 650 baht/night and my last stay at 350 baht/night; it’s all in what you want. Both have generally the same accommodations, but Avalon is far easier to get to and definitely designed with foreigners in mind, whereas Leena Guesthouse (my last stay) is far more… barebones.
Note here that I paid in Thai baht with a 1,000 baht note and was given change in Lao kip. Interesting.
There are a number of other small guesthouses, but after talking to other travelers, I’d say Leena is about the cheapest and most acceptable of the lot. Avalon Residence is most convenient and cheap for what you get (now that I’m not as poor as my last time in Laos).
You can also opt for a full-fledged hotel, as I’ve heard from others, with a pool and other amenities, but someone told me that costs over 1,000 baht. Again, like anywhere, you can pretty much spend as much as you want to spend. The bottom line is that the prices aren’t too different than what you’ll find for similar accommodations in Thailand (in most places).
If you’re like me and don’t like to plan much, though, don’t worry; you are almost guaranteed to find a spot to stay. I was lazy; I told a tuk-tuk driver “farang hotel” and he took me right to Avalon. HA! I’ve gotten hiso in my old age…
Eating in Savannakhet:
I won’t lie: I splurged on food during my short stint in the little town… both visits. But, whereas accommodations aren’t much cheaper than they are in most places in Thailand (in my experience), the food is definitely cheaper.
This being a former French colony, there is both old French architecture and food to be enjoyed. I’ve been on a raging craving for French food, and I must say: outside of France, which I visited last year, I haven’t had better French food.
There are a number of small French restaurants around the town. I stopped in Lin’s Café (I stumbled upon it while wondering, actually) and had a lovely club sandwich, Vietnamese-style spring rolls, a banana smoothie, a hot tea, and a large bottle of water between my tuk-tuk friend and myself, and it was under 300 baht.
My splurge came in the evening and the next day at another French restaurant called Daosavanah, located in the long square that leads up to the Christian church. You can’t miss the church… it’s quite beautiful, albeit out of place in my eyes.
For 65,000 kip (250 baht, $8 USD), I got a 3-course legitimate French meal: pumpkin-vegetable soup, beef bourguignon, and two scoops of coconut ice cream, plus a few Beerlaos. And as I said earlier, it was delicious… as close to perfection as I’ve had. I did something similar this go round (2012, now 2015); the owner/cook, Marjorie, is excellent, and the place has wine! Not good wine, but wine! Sorry; BeerLaos is a first-class ticket to a miserable hangover. Trust me.
Seriously, this is a very sleepy little town. I’d go so far as to say village. I can’t remember the total it came to, but it was cheap. This is impressive considering the use of real butter.
You can also get Thai/Laos/Vietnamese foods at any number of places throughout the little city. During my first evening in Savannakhet (in 2012), I spent a few hours with my newfound tuk-tuk friend in a pavilion right on the river enjoying several Beerlaos and a light dinner. Peacefulness is the name of the game.
Thoughts on Savannakhet:
There’s really not much to say about the town itself. It’s tiny by Bangkok standards. The joke I heard several times was that the town’s one stop light wasn’t even really needed.
It was certainly hot while there, so I spent most of the daylight hours sitting under shade and fans. Don’t expect to be necessarily blown away by the presence of the French architecture; it’s mostly poorly maintained and looks pretty much like you’d expect a poor border town to look.
Even so, Savannakhet has a certain character to it. The people are nothing but nice. None of them will have any idea what you’re talking about in English, so make sure you bring your acting skills. It’s still a relatively new thing for them to deal with foreigners; the Friendship II Bridge that connects Mukdahan and Savannakhet, as I understand it, was only completed in 2007, and there are not many foreigners wandering around at all.
I did meet one Australian family and one American who were living in the town, but all the other people (I say “all” as though there were many… about a bus-load’s worth) were doing the same thing as me: getting visas.
It’s not my cup of tea, really, being that I’ve been living in Bangkok and am used to having things to do any time I want. Savannakhet is the complete antithesis of this. I’m told there are a few little night spots, but everything I saw closed at 10:00 p.m. or so.
So while you shouldn’t expect to have a raging party while there, my suggestion would be to simply enjoy the change in pace of life. Especially if you’re coming from a place like Bangkok or even Chiang Mai, this little town is a good day’s worth of fresh air.
Returning to Mukdahan and Bangkok:
It’s quite simple, really. Once you pick up your passport at the Thai consulate, try to pool into a tuk-tuk back to the border with some of your fellow visa-runners, and it’s back through the gates again on both sides of the river border. Make sure you have checked that you got a double entry visa (if that’s what you wanted), and make sure you’ve filled out your departure card that you should have received when you entered Laos the day before.
I’d recommend being quite friendly to the agents at both border checkpoints; they have a quite mundane job, and I got the distinct feeling that you could easily piss them off. That would be bad for you; remember, we don’t have any true legal rights in Laos or Thailand, so our lives are in their hands.
For example, during my 2012 trip while standing in line next to a random Norwegian who told me all about what it was like to trip on acid during my 15 or so minute wait in the line to clear the Laos border, I had to help an old man who had obviously been drinking for quite some time to not arouse suspicion. Well, I didn’t have to, but I felt I should. My recent trip was likewise.
I love the random people you meet on little outings like this. Seriously, it’s quite an experience!
Also on that note, there are clear postings at each border saying something along the lines of punishments for drugs being lifetime in prison, and punishment for intent to sell being death. How’s that for swift justice?
That said, I really didn’t get checked… so I guess, if you’re willing to take the chance, you could probably get away with it. I believe the official limit on “legal” goods going back into Thailand is one bottle of booze and a carton of cigarettes per person. I hear both of those items are hot tickets in Laos being that they’re ridiculously cheap across the border. It never occurred to me to buy any, so all I can say about re-entering Thai customs is that they ran my bag through a scanner that I don’t think anyone was looking at.
Remember here that you’ll have to do the same get-on, get-off of the bus routine. You can buy the bus ticket back to Mukdahan literally right after you go through the exit Laos passport control. This passport control booth, by the way, is where I had to pay the 50 baht visa stamp fee. I didn’t ask; I just went with it on my first trip, but for whatever reason didn’t have to pay that stamp fee this last go-round.
If you play your cards like I did and pick up your passport at 2:00 p.m. at the Laos Thai Consulate, you can be across the border (and both border controls) and back to the Mukdahan bus station by 4:00 p.m. The process really doesn’t take too incredibly long, all things considered.
I decided to head on back to Bangkok that night, so I bought a return ticket with the same bus company (which has a clear sign posted in the Mukdahan bus station with times leaving roughly between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. depending on the service you choose) and killed a few hours at a nice little coffee shop inside the Mukdahan bus station.
The ride back to Bangkok was long as ever, but I was back at the Mo Chit terminal just before 6:00 a.m., which worked perfect being that the MRT and BTS systems in Bangkok don’t start until then anyway. Keep in mind here that, at least during this time of morning, getting a taxi directly from the point of disembarkation is next to impossible. I’d recommend walking either to the main entrance of the bus station and trying to catch one there or walking across the street from the station a ways to catch one.
So… that’s the long version of a short story! It was almost exactly the same story as my first trip there 3 years ago. It’s not bad, but hopefully it’ll be my last “mandatory unpaid vacation” for quite a while to come…
I have some photos from my trip as well if you want to look at them