Remember the time we illegally crossed the Thailand-Myanmar border…TWICE?
Oh, wait. That was today.
Since there’s already plenty of (boring) advice floating around about how to make visa runs from Bangkok to a neighboring country, let me share with you a humorous story of how NOT to do it.
Why visa runs?
Any foreigner who’s spent any time in Thailand knows the aggravation of visa runs. Truthfully, they’re the bane of our existence. While having a built-in vacation every 2-3 months SOUNDS wonderful, the reality is that they can be very expensive or stressful – or both.
But alas, it’s the price you pay to live in “paradise.” Every 60-90 days, you dutifully jump out of the country to get a fresh stamp in your passport and come back in for your next go-round. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them!
At least, I usually do, when I know about them. You see, Thai immigration laws change about as often as Taylor Swift’s boyfriends. Every other month, it seems like there’s some new rule or regulation to follow (translation = new way to get money from foreigners).
When we went to file our 30-day extensions yesterday (the only way to turn a 60-day stay into a 90-day stay), we were informed that because we hadn’t “registered” our address via our landlord, we would have to pay fines before we could get our extensions.
Like, several hundred DOLLARS in fines.
I love Thailand and everything, but I wasn’t too keen on paying through the nose just to get another 28 days in the country (since we already have our real visa run booked in late June). So we had three options: 1) Pay the fines, 2) Hop a quick flight to Malaysia, or 3), Drive out to the Myanmar border and do a land crossing.
Judging by the title of this post, you can probably guess we went with Option #3. Sounds easy enough, right? Hop in a car, drive out to the border, get a few stamps in the passport, and we’re good to go.
Not so fast, amigos. Not so fast.
Journey to Kanchanaburi
The day began innocently enough. Our South African friend Dee jumped at the opportunity to get out of Bangkok for the day and graciously offered to drive us the 120 or so miles to the border.
So we hop in his car around 6:30 am and begin the 4-hour drive out the Myanmar border, through lots of lush green farmland, palm trees, and banana trees. As we neared the border, the terrain grew increasingly hilly, with dramatic green karst cliffs pushing out of the earth.
Around 10:30, we begin nearing a series of checkpoints leading up to the Thailand-Myanmar border at Ban Phu Nam Ron. Security is lax at best – in one town, the soldiers were joining in with a passing street parade – so it was smooth sailing all the way until we lost reception on our cell phones.
In retrospect, that should have been our first clue.
Crossing the border at Ban Phu Nam Ron
Driving along past several makeshift security posts (translation = bored Thai policemen playing on their cell phones while traffic goes by), we reached a point where a pickup truck was stopped in the middle of the road. After waiting for several minutes, the cars behind us started to go around the truck and keep going.
Deciding to follow suit, we also pulled around the parked (and empty, we discovered) pickup truck and continued on our way. A moment later we hit a slightly more official-looking roadblock. Dee waits in the car (since he’s not making the crossing) while Jeremy and I get out to ask the officers in the bamboo hut about exit formalities.
As you can imagine, not much English is spoken, and our Thai is definitely not advanced enough to be asking questions about immigration. The officers looked at our passports and then waved us onward, so onward we went. The same thing happened at the next checkpoint down the road, and the next, where the road suddenly turned from smooth pavement to bumpy red clay.
Faithfully we stop at every checkpoint and show our passports, and every time we’re waved further onward. At last, we spot a dilapidated building with the word “IMMIGRATION” written on a wooden sign. We’d made it!
So Dee parks the car and waits while Jeremy and I head inside to get our exit stamps out of Thailand. The immigration “office” is basically a dusty wooden shed with a makeshift desk, two bored-looking officers, and four sleeping dogs. With smiles on our faces (this has been the easiest visa run EVER!), we hand over our passports to officer #1.
“Exit stamp?” he asks.
Our smiles fade. “We get stamp here,” we reply.
The language barrier limits understanding for both parties. “Thailand stamp?” he tries again.
Jeremy and I are thoroughly confused at this point. “We get stamp here?” we repeat, but this time it’s a question.
Officer #2 comes in at this point, and they spend the next 10 minutes pouring through our passports for exit stamps that don’t exist. It’s at this point we finally realize:
We have crossed into Myanmar…ILLEGALLY.
We are almost THREE MILES into Myanmar…ILLEGALLY.
(Let me stress that Myanmar is not like Thailand. Until about 10 years ago, it was a socialist country completely cut off from the outside world. The Burmese experienced decades of oppression and harsh rule under a military regime. Even now, Myanmar is light years behind the rest of Asia).
And we’ve just unwittingly entered it…ILLEGALLY.
This is a big enough problem for Jeremy and I, as American citizens. But for our South African friend Dee (whose passport hasn’t been checked once during this whole process), it presents a whole new problem.
South Africans are NOT eligible for visas on arrival in Myanmar like Americans are. So not only is Dee illegally across the border, but he’s not even ALLOWED to receive a visa to be there!
There and Back Again
Fortunately, the immigration officers were in a fabulous mood today. Rather than throwing us all in Burmese prison, he returned our passports and instructed us to drive back to Thailand to get our exit stamps. (And then return to Myanmar.)
And at which of the 27 checkpoints were we supposed to do this? That part, of course, got lost in translation.
So we began the bumpy journey back through all those lovely checkpoints, half laughing at and half terrified by our current predicament. Jeremy and I hop out again at – checkpoint #3, maybe? – and use Google translate to try to get our point across.
Again, communication is limited. But we manage to understand that we need to keep going until we reach (something?) that looks like an official building.
So back we go, until the dirt road turns to pavement again. We pass through another checkpoint before we FINALLY see a little blue building with a thatched roof that says “IMMIGRATION” on it. To our surprise, there’s now a queue of cars leading up to the building, and the road is now blocked by a gigantic red and white striped gate.
Where the heck was THAT when we drove through earlier?
So yes…we had unknowingly driven right past the border patrol, right past the immigration office, and almost three miles into another country. AND NOBODY NOTICED.
Crossing Ban Phu Nam Ron Border – Take Two!
Now that Dee (and his car) were safely back on Thai soil, he wisely decided to park and let us sort ourselves out. Jeremy and I walk over to the immigration office and fill out the appropriate paperwork before we’re herded onto a “shuttle” (translation = pickup truck) to take us across the border.
We’re crammed into the truck with 3 young women and the surly old driver. It doesn’t take us long to realize that everyone on both sides of the border has heard our story by now.
At every checkpoint along the way, the soldiers all laugh and wave at us, like we’re visiting celebrities. Our fellow passengers are snickering with the driver and *secretly* taking photos of us (as if we wouldn’t notice). Once we receive our much-awaited Myanmar entry and exit stamps, even we’re starting to laugh.
We’re about to make our 4th trip across the border in under an hour…and only the 2nd legal crossing!
At last, we arrive back at the Thai immigration office, where we’re stamped in for another 60 days (in this case, 28 days, since we’re already booked to go to Bali at the end of June). And then we do what any relieved persons would do in this instance – celebrate with cold, frothy, heavenly cups of Thai iced tea.
After all, you know what they say: Any day you DON’T end up in Burmese prison is a good day!
Visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai
Astonishingly, it’s not even NOON. We’ve driven 4 hours from Bangkok and crossed the border a record 4 times…before noon.
Dang, we’re good.
Dee has been loyally waiting for us in the small parking lot near the immigration office. Famished and relieved, we backtrack an hour to the city of Kanchanaburi. After a quick lunch on the river, we set off to tour the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.
In case you missed the old movie with Alec Guinness, this bridge was built during World War II and is part of what’s known as “The Death Railway.” An estimated 9,000 laborers lost their lives constructing the railway line that ran between Thailand and Myanmar (then Burma).
After our visit to Kanchanaburi, we headed for Bangkok and arrived home around 6 pm – twelve hours after we left! Not only did we get an incredible story out of the ordeal, but the entire day cost us around $50. (Considering the fines and extensions would’ve cost us $230, I’d say we made out pretty well!)
In conclusion, dear friends, now you know how NOT to do a visa run across the Thailand-Myanmar border.
Please note: This travel tale is meant to entertain, and also shed some light on the realities of living abroad. I am in NO WAY suggesting that you ever attempt to cross this border (or any other border) illegally. The truth is that we are all very, VERY fortunate that there were no repercussions for our blunder!