above is Mr. Wanchai who helped guide me with my visa
Deciding on an Agency
Kevin and I waffled back and forth about going with an agency versus going by ourselves to Vientiane, Laos for our new visa. The two options were to go to Cambodia or Laos and from what we’ve heard, Vientien is preferred for issuing longer visas. We needed a year-long ED visa, so we chose Laos.
The debate was largely circling around the benefit of knowing we’ll get the visa if we go through an agency (it’s not actually 100% guaranteed, but it’s a pretty strong bet) but at a much higher cost, versus the “we know we can literally get there” on our own at a much lower cost. In the end we decided the added assurance was worth the cost and we spent an afternoon driving around Pattaya to pick an agency among those we found on online. Long story short, we ended up at 1st Class Visa Run which has its offices in the back of a restaurant/hotel on a street lined with bars which were just opening at noon, the ladies adjusting their make up already on the row when we parked our bike. The neighborhood seemed iffy, a part of Pattaya we almost never seen but is certainly prevalent near the beach. Bar after bar and farang near retirement age that orbit these bars in various stages of drunk, all hours of the day.
Inside, was a desk and a gruff lady who clearly has seen it all from confused, angry and silly old farang seeking visas, I’m sure. I really liked her, but she was short and to the point. She had us come back so she could review all our documents to make sure that everything is in order. Like she said when my husband said we didn’t have our paperwork with us: “You don’t get visa, not my problem.” We came the next day and she checked through everything. She made phone calls to confirm that the documents we had were correct, and she insisted that my husband retake his photos wearing a shirt with a collar, rather than a T-shirt. It felt good that little things like that were being noticed. No flags, that’s the idea behind an agency. Come with a group and the whole lot get through smoothly. We got the photos redone at the end of the street in a few minutes, and were scheduled to be picked up at our apartment in a few days. This agency goes to Laos every Wednesday and Sunday. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this agency was one of several in Pattaya owned by Wanchai Saengsanguan (you see him in the photo at the top with me), who more or less proved our savior in Laos, championing for a difficult visa. I’m guessing that almost any agency you find in Pattaya goes through him (all we found had the same price), but I don’t know for sure.
map link to the 1st Class Visa Agency, above
Going to Laos
The drive out to Laos is grueling. It’s 10 hours from Pattaya and you leave in the evening (6 or 7 pm) with the van full of other foreigners, and drive through the night in order to arrive at the border long before the actual border opens. So you’re there at about 4:30 in the morning and the immigration office opens at 8:00 (long ass wait); if you don’t have any kind of fancy visa, just a tourist visa, you go through the border when it opens at around 7:00. But it’s a very long, sleepless trip, despite air-con and cushioned seats. You stop about every 3 hours along the way, so you can visit a restroom and grab gas station snacks and all that. Better than a bus, but still very uncomfortable, almost inexplicably uncomfortable, like you are stuck in a small plane.
We had to wait for the immigration office on the Thai side to open at 8:00 AM – already cracked out by a completely sleepless night, this is one of the hallmarks of the run. You read descriptions of the timetable and you think “No big deal, I have to wait for a little bit,” but you are dead tired and find yourself sitting around for hours on chairs, or on lawns, and then going through very tedious bureaucratic hoop jumping. The combination of the 10 hours in the van, the long, long waits, and then the paper shuffling, and in some cases the question as to whether your visa will even be approved is a nerve-wracking mix. So we’d been sitting outside the Thai Immigration office, very fatigued, on some benches while getting to know a very fat, sweet dog who loves having her belly rubbed. It was a small joy in an already tiring process that we were just beginning. We’d been picked up at 7 pm in Pattaya, it was approaching 13 hours in and we still hadn’t seen an official.
We were told in the van when we pulled up to Immigration (at about 6 AM, after the 4:30 arrival at the border) that we could fill out our own paperwork, or pay an additional 300 baht ($10) each to have the driver do it. Hey, we are doing this visa thing with an agency to be part of a group and I had no idea whether the forms had English on them or not, so we went with the extra charge, as did everyone else in the van. At 8 we took a number and waited in line to see the officers with our passports. Though we’d paid the extra 300 Baht for our driver to take care of this process, I cannot tell you what exactly it was that he did. I’d probably forgo that cost next time. In our case when our number finally got called the officer wanted proof of Kevin and me being married. This was because of the uniqueness of our past visa, something which no longer is possible in Chiang Mai, but to be sure this was not a document we anticipated needing. In fact the agency did not anticipate it, and our lawyer back in Chiang Mai (who we ended up calling several times) thought it was crazy to require it. This was the first introduction to the realization that the visa process could very well be held up for document reasons that simply can’t be anticipated. Some office somewhere can have requirements, or a change in requirements that you won’t know about. So we looked like jerks while we argued back and forth about “proof” of our marriage. Our name is the same on the passports, not good enough. Our visas already were based on the fact of our marriage, not good enough. At one point the driver who was supposed to be taking care of everything for us took us outside and showed me the document I’d acquired from my previous school. Even though this document should have been sufficient they were making a deal about it and the driver kind of hemmed and hawed about it for 10 minutes before kind of covertly offering that we could “make it go away” for 1500 Baht ($50). I said, “fuck no, the document is fine,” and we refused to pay. At this point it wasn’t clear if there was a hustle going on or not, and in fact we still don’t know. The officer had demanded proof of our marriage so there was no way for him to back out of that, even after we refused to pay extra to have the driver somehow make it okay. We were very, very lucky in that our lawyer in Chiang Mai who had handled our visas before was able to find a copy of our marriage certificate and email it, day saved. The immigration officer became jovial and happily accepted the document. Huge shout out to Rhys at Assist Thai Visa and his continued help.
What we seemed to learn in this is that a) bring absolutely every document you could possibly need with you on your visa run, and b) even if you use an agency you may run into a significant document road-block, there may even be a little bit of a hustle going on, c) once you get to the point of discussion impasse what the immigration officer needs, in the end, is some additional documentary evidence to hang his decision on, to point to and include in your case. I’d also say that this could possibly have been worse without the agency. While the driver solicited a way to pay ourselves out of the situation this may even have been a help and not a hustle – not sure. The Vientiane Embassy has long had a reputation of being an easier visa destination and it may very well be that the crossing is receiving something of a crackdown, a tightening of rules and restrictions. Even though things worked previously, they may not work so smoothly now. Some of the things we ran into on this run seemed to be a surprise to the experienced agency owner, who I believe was working fairly on my behalf. In any case, all this is being done while you are extremely tired. Later in the day we saw some people just losing it, literally screaming and stomping feet – it’s not fun, even if it all goes smoothy and is just a case of waiting in lines. A word of advice though: no matter how frustrated you are, no matter how unreasonable the snag might seem, do not lose your cool at the immigration office or at the embassy. Smile, be relaxed, explain yourself 100 times if needed; but do not throw a fit at a government office that is deciding whether or not to let you stay and/or re-enter the country.
Crossing the Border – Into Laos
Our little group was made up of, it seemed, people needing an ED visa or those who had overstayed. Everyone else with the agency who was getting their 90 days had already just crossed the border when it opened around 7 AM. After we got ourselves cleared at Thai Immigration we were driven to the border, and then tuk-tuked across. So far, so good.
Our visas were checked and re-checked at different windows and stop points, but that was largely handled by the agency. Your job is basically to be handed your passport and then hand your passport to someone else, all while being polite, on repeat for a few hours.
When we got through the Laos border we got on a bus that took us to a van, which took us about 30 minutes into the city to the Thai Embassy. I saw some folks in front of us in a song thaew (like a share cab in a pickup truck) who I’d seen at the border, so you can do this on your own but probably it would be very disorienting your first time around unless you like that kind of adventure. Everywhere we went was part of this visa process and as Vientiane is a border town Thai Baht were accepted and prices were given in both Kip (Laos currency) and Baht, so we didn’t have to exchange money. And Laos and Thai are similar enough that you’ll probably be understood if you speak some Thai, as well as English at the border and Embassy, but no idea whether or not your Tuk-Tuk driver will be willing to debate details with you; probably you could just say “embassy” and get where you want to go.
At the embassy we caught up with the folks who’d gone straight through the border, without going to the immigration office first. So, I guess they’d all just been sitting there waiting this whole time. Wanchai, the head honcho in charge of the agency and who goes on every trip, told me later that they’d had breakfast first, so maybe they checked into the hotel and then went to the embassy? At any rate, if you’re in a group you sit and wait until your group is called up together. Someone hands you your packet of documents and passport photos attached. There’s another line that’s for non-groups (non-agency) and that line is much shorter, but that’s the line we saw quite a few difficulties in: a guy who had some visa issues; a guy who threw a fit because there was some problem with his passport pictures; a man and woman couple who seemed utterly lost in every possible way. Our group went through fairly smoothly. Those with tourist visas got their paperwork turned in and then went up the stairs in an adjacent building to pay for their visas; the agency will pick up your passport the following day, so those with tourist visas departed after paying the fee and leaving their documents/passports – as the agency fee includes the cost of the visa I assume this amount was regiven to them at the cashier. Kevin and I were a difficult case though, and the lady working the window for the groups had a long back and forth with Mr. Wanchai over my visa. I couldn’t call my old school because I was now in Laos and my phone plan isn’t international, so my phone was useless. Mr. Wanchai used some kind of pay-as-you-go scratch off sheet to use his own phone to ring my school a number of times, trying to right the situation. It was necessary for the process, but I suspect it was above and beyond. It no doubt cost him money to make these calls to my former school, and he had to call them several times to get the paperwork just right so the visa would go through.
We actually had to leave the embassy without knowing for certain if we had the visas or not. Back at our hotel under Mr. Wanchai’s advisement I had to write a letter to the head of the embassy, explaining some aspects of our former visa, and as I headed for breakfast that same day (at 2:00 PM) and then to the room to sleep (I had not slept in 30 hours) the state of our visa was, “Kevin is okay, your visa still 50/50.” Not very comforting, but I was too tired. I was actually too tired to sleep and lay in the bed feeling exhausted and spun out for a good hour before finally crashing.
The hotel was actually really nice, the room big and spacious. The lobby was welcoming and clean with comfortable chairs. There was a place where you could by snacks or beverages, and the attached restaurant was satisfactory (you get 3 meals included in the agency cost.
The agency picks your passports in the afternoon the following day. Check out is at noon, so you basically have a late morning and bumble around for a bit, have your pre-paid meal before checking out and getting back into a van to go wherever it is they take you. I don’t know where that is normally because for Kevin and me it was back to the embassy. Mr. Wanchai drove us over and had us wait at a restaurant across the street from the embassy while he went to argue for our visas. Or my visa, really. He said he’d come get me if I was needed to help make the decision – I might be called to talk to an official. We had some coffee and I ordered some food at the “Five Star Restuarant”, the ice coffee was really good. We sat for about 2 hours, before Mr. Wanchai reappeared and I could see the stack of passports in his hands. All of them were red except for two navy blue folds at the bottom of the stack. I knew at that moment it had been a success. He motioned for us to come quickly, standing in the street as he was, so I rushed about trying to pay our check. We climbed into a waiting cab and headed back to the border to meet up with the rest of the agency clients. There was a true sense of relief, and a feeling that Mr. Wanchai did everything in his power and experience to help make things right. It was a big deal.
Going with an Agency
Because this was our first trip doing this I can’t say what it would have been like doing it on our own. We did run into a few people who were on their own and were having problems with their visa, and they were like: You’re with an agency, why are you having issues? This being said I was really happy that we took the most conservative route and we had someone championing for me with the government offices. If I had travel to Laos again to I’d definitely go with Mr. Wanchai once more. I feel he had my back and used all of his experience to make things run smoothy.