When I signed up to come teach in Thailand, I was under the impression that my employer would be providing me with a work permit that would allow me to stay in Thailand during my employment and come and go as I pleased. That everything would be easy and smooth.
Well, that was false.
The road to getting a work permit through your school means that you must have documentation that you are employed by the school, not the agency you came over with. So, if you have a non-B (working visa) through your placement agency, most likely, this can’t be converted to a work permit because once you’re placed, you are technically working for someone else. Does anyone tell you this? No. I don’t get told details for about 80% of the things that happen here. I just figure them out as I go along. Sometimes, I don’t even think the Thais know what’s going on.
After three months in the Kingdom, it was time to renew my 3 month Non-Immigrant B visa (supported by XploreAsia, my placement agency) that I paid $80 for back in the States before I left. With a packet of documentation from my school saying they were, indeed, my new employer, I boarded a visa run company van in Bangkok bound for the boarder of Thailand and Laos. (Side note: Every placement and every teaching situation is different. I have friends from XploreAsia who weren’t provided with visa paperwork – meaning they had to exit the Kingdom and come back in on a 30 day tourist visa, or that are paid by their agent – I’m paid by my school. No two situations in Thailand are alike, that’s why it’s best not to assume too much from blogs and what you read, and just, as some put it “ride the wave.”)
Anyways, I had been dreading this visa run for the past few weeks; 9 hours on a van with strangers did not sound like a ‘good time’. But in the end, I was glad to have this experience to go to Vientiane, the Laos capital!
Basically, the visa run company meets you in a Tesco parking lot in Bangkok. No reservations, just show up with passport, documents and money. Board a van. And go. While the overnight van ride wasn’t ideal, it did stop every two hours for a bathroom break. If you know me, my small bladder and said bladder’s ‘travel anxiety’ (seriously, every time I get in a moving vehicle, I have to pee), this was good. And I arranged to travel with two Greenheart/XploreAsia girls, Aankita (my orientation week roommate) and her friend, Gina, which made the trip less stressful. We ended up meeting Maria, a teacher in Bangkok (from Chicago!) and we sort of formed a little group that ended up touring Laos together during our free day.
The visa company did an exceptional job organizing all of our documents and taking care of the visa process for our entire group. They did drop us off at the boarder at 5 am, sleep deprived and freezing (it was in the low 50s and we weren’t dressed appropriately) where we had to wait almost an hour and a half outside at Immigration to be stamped out of Thailand and admitted into Vientiane, Laos. Did I mention it was cold? Cold I haven’t experienced since I left home. It wasn’t the most ideal situation, but we all just sucked it up and went along with the process. We arrived at the embassy to submit our new visa paperwork as the sun was making its mid-day mark and took a nap on the embassy lawn. I kid you not. People waiting to submit their visa paperwork all spread out, napping on the Thai Embassy’s lawn.
As a side note, the cost of an entry visa into Laos (for our less than 24 hour stay) is around 1,550 Baht (ouch!), a new Thai Non-B was 2,000 Baht ($60…Why is it cheaper coming from Laos than America? I don’t know…), and the company fees for transport, most meals (the food was quite good), lodging and submitting all our documents was 2,850 Baht. A total of 6,400 Baht. A cost I wasn’t expecting I’d have to incur while in Thailand (I only make about 28,000 Baht/month), but mai pen rai, I guess. Obviously, if you travel without the aid of a visa run company, you’ll probably save 1,500 baht, but I liked having a company do all the thinking for me. Also, for those going on visa runs, most merchants will take Baht as payment, but will give you change in Kip. So take small Baht bills and you won’t have to exchange money, nor will you be left with Kip at the end of the trip (hey that rhymes!).
A big negative was that the hotel we stayed in was horrid. Gum and writing on the walls, bugs, stained sheets, cobwebs…I’ve never stayed somewhere so grimy. One of my friends slept with the lights on to deter roaches. Fun times. Maybe I’m just a spoiled America, because some people acted like this place was the Ritz. I promise to never, ever complain about a Holiday Inn or a Travel Lodge again (and that’s a fact!). The food in the hotel restaurant was good though. I’ll give it that. And Laos proved to be a pleasant surprise. The air seemed cleaner, the sky a beautiful blue, not marked with the haze I see in Rayong. I was only there for a day, so I can’t be a good judge, but it seemed less hectic and influenced by the West.
Vientiane doesn’t have a lot to see, but Victory Gate was a big highlight, as well as the Mekong River, and of course, the bread. French baguettes, pain au chocolate (almost better than in France!)…French colonialism, I don’t hate you. Oh, and they drive on the RIGHT side of the road. Almost felt like home…almost.
And I did try Beer Lao, which, no offense Thailand, is so much better than Chang.
Before we got our visas back, we did some duty free shopping at the boarder, which was also connected to a “knock off, fake everything” store. It’s illegal to take counterfeit products out of Thailand, but you can buy them at the boarder. Oh, Asian logic! I understand you so much! One of the most amusing items in the store was the “knock off iPhone 5s” that you could buy for around $100. I asked to see it, and while the outside looked like a legitimate iPhone, it was heavy and the screen was a badly replicated version of the home screen on the real iPhone. I found it hilarious for some reason…they actually exist.
Anyways, I obviously made it back safely. With my, as I like to call them, ‘certificates of achievement’ for my travels (my Laos visa and my new Thai Non-B visa)! My passport is getting full, and I love it!
Being in Laos showed me just how normal my life in Thailand is getting to be. And ‘normal’ maybe isn’t the best word to use because nothing is really normal to me here, but it’s life now and I accept it. But in Laos, I had that traveler’s anxiety when I didn’t know how to ask “How much?” or when the vendors replied in Lao Kip instead of Thai Baht. It reinforced the idea that the honeymoon phase in Thailand is over; I’m not just a traveler anymore.