**current visa info for US citizens can be found here:
Unfortunately, I had to leave Pai since my tourist visa was about to expire. It’s officially called a visa renewal, but I’ll stick with the common term, visa run. This turned out to be an interesting adventure, although not exactly what I had expected, and certainly not the VIP route. Looks like this couple from the UK may have found an even less comfortable way — taking a moped from Chiang Mai in winter. Cool blog, they sold everything and hit the road three years ago… http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/a-visa-run-to-burma-by-moped/
Thailand gives you a free 30-day tourist visa (for US citizens, not sure if this is true for all countries), and you can renew your visa by exiting and re-entering at any border crossing. If you return by land you get a 15-day extension, and if you return by air you get 30 days. I just needed 15 days, then I’ll be off to India. There are many options to cross the border by land: Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia… Information is inconsistent, both from Thai and US Embassy sources. Blogs and travel site forums seem to be the most accurate and up-to-date resources.
Here was my not-so-good plan, based on various conversations and bad assumptions: take the 5:30am AYA Services bus from Pai to Chiang Rai, see the White Temple and Black House quickly, go to Mae Sai and cross the Thai border into Myanmar, get the new Thai visa, return to Chiang Rai for the night, then head to Chiang Mai in the morning. (Spoiler: not enough time to do all of this in one day, only the visa…)
Started out quickly: the AYA driver did the 3+ hour trip over the mountains from Pai to Chiang Mai in 2 hours and got to Chiang Rai before 11am. (No, you didn’t take the wrong bus, the turnoff to Chiang Rai is at the entrance to Chiang Mai.) I was in the front seat with the driver, a Thai woman, and her 8-year old daughter, an extended version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with the driver playing steering wheel air guitar on every tight corner. This is exactly what I signed up for on this trip, and only 500 baht!
Once I got to Chiang Rai, it took a while to find my very-not-recommended guest house (sorry Chat House), cheap but not clean. Then I had some lunch at Connect Cafe across from the old bus station, pretty good. (The first place I tried said yes, they have vegetarian dishes, try the green curry with chicken.) By the time I figured out the local bus schedule, it was around Noon, so I decided to focus on the visa first, then see what I had time for after returning to Chiang Rai. The local bus #5 to Mae Sai cost 39 baht, about $1.30 US. With traffic and several dozen stops, the one hour trip took almost two hours. If you’ve been on SF MUNI through China Town, you’ve been on this local bus, except everybody is smiling, even the old guy who put his groceries on my back, see photo below. There’s also an air conditioned Green Bus #18 that might be much faster, worth looking into if you want a less colorful ride.
Once we got to the Mae Sai bus terminal, there were red taxis ready to take us to the border, or at least to the line of cars waiting to cross the border. That was another 15 baht. Then it was a short walk to the Thai immigration gate. They removed the entrance visa ticket from my passport, stamped the exit date and pointed to the door toward Myanmar. There’s a river between the two border towns, the bridge is crowded with street food and tourists like me.
The Myanmar immigration officer seemed to be very friendly, he asked for the 500 Thai baht ($17 US) entrance fee (no Myanmar Kyat required), and said something I couldn’t understand. By the time I figured out that he was asking if I’d be doing any shopping, he was annoyed, so I said No, I’m heading back to Thailand. This seemed to be the wrong answer, and he waved me out with a Go now. But I did stop for a strangely bitter Singha at the little border reggae(!) cafe, and I walked through the liquor store that was stocked with high-end Napa Valley wines and good Scotch. Not sure why I found this strange, just shows how little I know about ‘closed’ countries like Myanmar.
After the Singha, I walked back across the bridge to Thailand and got another free tourist visa that’s good for 15 days. The whole weird thing took about half an hour. Mae Sai was interesting, as border towns tend to be. I wandered up the hill through the maze of market stalls until I was stopped by a rooster. Good thing — my red taxi barely made it back to the bus station to catch the last local bus leaving for Chang Rai at 5:50pm. Would have been stuck in Mae Sai for the night… I had to stand for the 90-minute ride back to Chiang Rai. I’m maybe 5’10” in my Chacos, and my head bounced against the ceiling the entire ride. Some local school kids wanted to speak English, so we tried to converse the last half of the ride. I told them where to study in California, and they offered new translations for my tattoo, something like You go now. Funny stuff, best part of the long day.
Made it back to Chiang Rai about six hours after I had left, too late to visit either of the places on my list (they’re both about 15 minutes out of town in opposite directions.) Dinner at some random restaurant was ok, and the clock tower show was memorable… I took the 9am A class Green Bus back to Chiang Mai, it was a very cheap and comfortable three-hour trip with two quick stops. If you want VIP or X class, book a couple days ahead, might be worth the few extra baht if you really want to try to sleep, but A was fine.
Chiang Rai provided a great opportunity to practice the non-judgement we had talked so much about at the Xhale yoga retreat. Still working on that. If you have positive comments about Chiang Rai, please add them below. There are many options if you have time to stay, see the wikitravel page: Chiang Rai. I would like to have seen the White Temple, have heard it’s fascinating, ridiculous, or both. Man on the Lam covers it well, another cubicle escapee with a blog… http://manonthelam.com/the-creepily-peculiar-white-temple-chiang-rai/
Here are some photos from the journey. If you found a better way to do the visa run (day trip from Chiang Mai, or spend an extra day in Chiang Rai to see the two sites, etc.), please add them in the comments for others (and me) to learn from.
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