The only downfall of staying on beautiful Koh Tao for an extended time is as a foreigner is you must make a visa run. Most people that plan to stay in Thailand longer than the 30 day tourist visa on arrival – like I have so I can complete my scuba diving internship program – should apply for a multi entry tourism visa (METV) via a Thai Embassy/Consulate before they leave home.
This entitles the holder of an METV to enter and leave the Kingdom of Thailand as many times as they wish within a 6 month period. Each ‘entry’ is valid for 60 days. If you are focused on Professional level scuba diving education, such as the PADI Divemaster course, and don’t plan to do much else but diving, then unfortunately you cannot just sit on Koh Tao for the duration. You must exit and re-enter the country every 60 days.
Alternatively, many ‘Interns’ plan a trip to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam or Malaysia as part of their whole South East Asia experience, taking time out of the diving, to travel. Planning a trip or two like this will mean the travel won’t seem like a visa run, but more of an adventure!
For those people that are focused on scuba diving in Koh Tao, there are visa extensions and border bounces and when your visa is about to expire you either go home, or you can travel to Laos where the Embassy there is still issuing 60 day single entry visas for those travelers that already had an METV.
Let’s have a look at your responsibilities regarding your METV, as well as the various options you have to remain within the rules and regulations the Thai government has set.
The Visa Extension
So you’ve been in Thailand for approaching 60 days now and it’s time to get your first visa extension. For all of us on Koh Tao the fastest way to do this is to go to Koh Samui immigration office. This isn’t the worst trip to make but the added cost of the trip (1,400 THB return) and the 6am Lomprayah ferry to Nathon pier isn’t fun.
I have done this trip several times, and I could literally do it in my sleep which is why I always pay the extra 100 THB to go in the VIP area on the Lomprayah catamaran ferry (air-con and comfortable reclining seats) so I do spend the 1 hr 45 minutes it takes to get to Koh Samui sleeping! As soon as the ferry is pulling into the pier in Samui, you need to be upstairs waiting to be one of the first people off the boat.
Then it’s a race past all the locals shouting “Taxi Taxi” to get a lift with one of the taxi bike drivers to be first in line at immigration. The taxi bike costs 100 THB but if you can spot someone else going to immigration (just look out for a barefoot person, hardly anyone from Koh Tao wears shoes!) then you can share the cost.
After a quick 5 minute bike ride you pull up at the office, fill in the application form, handover your passport, a photo, 1,900 THB, a photo copy of your passport, a photo copy of your departure card and last stamp received, then wait for your number to be called. As long as you are one of the first people there, this can be as little as half an hour then you are free to go and you have 30 more days in Thailand!
Over the other side of the island near Chaweng Beach is Central Festival, a two story open air shopping mall with coffee shops, a food court, a supermarket, clothes shops, the body shop and a cinema.
After a few hours here it’s a quick stop at McDonald’s to take a few burgers back to Koh Tao for everyone (I have seen Big Macs posted on the facebook Koh Tao selling pages many times) and then back on the ferry.
Whenever I go to Samui I always bump into someone I know on the ferry. On one visa trip I bumped into one of the instructors from Crystal and he had planned to stay in Samui for the whole day to explore the island, so rather than getting straight back on the next ferry to Koh Tao, I decided to tag along with him.
We rented a bike, got out our map and decided where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see.
First on the list was a hike to one of the waterfalls. It was boiling hot and I was wearing flip flops so it wasn’t the best idea but was well worth it at the end.
When we got back to the entrance there was a place selling fish food to feed the catfish, carp and a turtle so we spent a good half hour throwing the pellets into the water and watching the fish go crazy.
We drove around the island following our map, trying to cram in as much as possible. The scenery is beautiful and it’s easy to find your ways around so I definitely recommend a road trip. We went to see the Elephant Gate, two huge carved elephants either side of the road.
This led us to Wat Kiri Wongkaram, home of Luang Por Rerm, the mummified monk. He passed away in 1966 and is still there now. They say that his hair and nails still grow and are sometimes cut and used as protective charms.
Next stop was Wat Khunaram Temple. The temples in Thailand are absolutely stunning and no matter how many I see, I am blown away every time. Inside the temple I had my fortune told. Firstly I had to kneel down and pray to Buddha. There was a bamboo container with some Chinese fortune sticks and I was told to shake the container until just one of the sticks falls out, the whole time focusing on a question I wanted answers to. Each stick is numbered so once I had one I matched it with the numbered cards on a board to get my answer.
I still didn’t have a clear answer so sat down with the monk for more incitement. Feeling positive after speaking with the monk we decided to then visit the local school there. We asked the staff there if it was ok for us to look around the school and of course they didn’t mind.
The classrooms were basic but the walls were filled with the children’s artwork. As we were walking through everyone was looking at us and waving, they all looked so happy to be there.
Outside the boys were playing football and we sat and watched for a while just taking it all in. They looked so happy and we laughed as they did a glory dance when they scored a goal! Before we left we spoke to some of the children, had some photos together and then they gave me a puppet they had made from a paper bag.
After a full on day of exploring we were shattered so headed back to the pier to catch the ferry and had already begun planning our next visa extension trip in Samui.
Part 2 – The Border Bounce
For each of the entries on your visa, you have 60 days in Thailand. After this you need to cross the border. The Burma trip isn’t too much of a hassle, more of an inconvenience. Completely different to my full day in Samui, when you do the Burma border bounce, you spend 5 minutes in Burma and then get straight back on the longtail.
I really don’t see why some people make such a song and dance about the overnight boat, sure the mattresses are just like school gym mats and the pillow isn’t exactly filled with duck feathers, but I always sleep like a baby!
You can stop at 7-Eleven before getting onboard to buy supplies (beer, snacks, water) and if you can’t fall asleep straight away there are always people to chat to and have a beer with.
The boat leaves at 11pm and gets to Chumphon around 5am where a mini bus is waiting for you to take you to the border. No need to set an alarm, the staff come and wake everyone up.
After a 2 hour boring and uncomfortable bus journey, we arrived at immigration where we handed over our passports and the immigrations officer checked them over it to see if we had overstayed and were due a fine of 500 THB per day or not. This is one of those nerve racking moments, like at airport security where you know you have done nothing wrong but still, for some reason you feel you’re going to be in trouble for something.
All passports OK, it was time to cross the border.
We jumped on a longtail which took us across to Burma, half way there we were asked to put on our life vests as the longtail went past some immigration officers who looked like they just sat on a tiny island all day watching every boat that went past to keep an eye on who was on it. (And you thought your job was boring sometimes)!
Once in Burma we were taken into the immigration office, handed over our passports to be stamped, $US10 and were free to go. Easy!
The shopping experience here is not like Samui at all, there were 2 tiny shops we were taken to where we could buy alcohol, cigarettes, fake perfume and sweets. Duty Free, Burma style!
After just 10 minutes we were rushed back onto the longtail and headed back across the border where we entered back into Thailand. We had to then queue up at the Thai immigration office to get our passports stamped back into Thailand.
G7 countries can get a 30 day visa on arrival. Other countries are usually only granted 15 days, unless you are activating a second entry from a previous tourist visa. As far as a visa on arrival goes, the Ranong border allows for 3 per calendar year.
Once everyone was finished at the immigration office, we all jumped back on the bus and head back to Chumphon. From Chumphon, we caught the 1pm Lomprayah back to Koh Tao. It’s always a relief coming home.
Koh Tao to Laos Border
The Laos visa run starts off the same as Burma, as you catch the night ferry to Chumphon. You arrive at 5am and have about an hour to wait for the mini bus that takes you to the bus stop. You wait at the bus stop for about another hour, but then the long journey begins.
In total, the Laos visa run takes about 4 days, and most of that time is spent on a bus, so make sure you have a good book or some music to keep you entertained!
You head towards Bangkok first. This part of the journey is on a public bus and takes about 8 hours. Once in Bangkok, you head to a meeting spot in an office building where people on the same visa run will be waiting to catch a mini bus. The minibus drives through the night until you get to the border. This journey is roughly 9 hours long and sleeping on a bus isn’t always easy.
On the second morning, you arrive at the Thai/Laos boarder at about 5am and have to wait for the boarder gates to open at about 7am. You then walk through the border to immigration. This is at Friendship Bridge, which joins Thailand to Laos. You receive your stamp to leave Thailand and a bus picks you up on that side to take you over to Laos.
The Laos Experience
Once in Laos, you head straight to the Thai embassy to hand in the paperwork to apply for your visa. It takes a while as there are so many foreigners applying for visas, but once you get chatting to the people in the queue with you, the time passes quickly. Once all your paper work has been submitted, you get taken to your hotel for breakfast. The night’s accommodation at the hotel is included in the price of this visa package.
This was the first time in six months that I had a hot shower! The rest of the day and evening you are free to explore the town of Vientiane. We went sightseeing and got some great pictures of monuments and temples around the city. We also found the Royal Palace, which was beautiful to see. We tried the street food and found a street market to do some shopping.
All the people that you have been travelling with on the bus and mini bus stay in the same hotel as you, so by this time you have made some friends and can enjoy dinner and drinks in good company.
The next morning you have breakfast at the hotel before heading back to the border. The company that has facilitated the visa application has collected your passports from the Embassy and has them ready and waiting for you at the border to cross back into Thailand.
You are now only able to receive a single entry visa (double entry visas have been discontinued), but a single entry gives you 60 days and the option to extend your visa by an extra 30 days (in Koh Samui or at any other Thai immigration office).
Heading Home to Koh Tao
You then start the long journey back to Bangkok. You arrive back in Bangkok in the evening so you will need to find one night’s accommodation (an additional expense) as the bus back to Chumphon leaves at 6am the next morning. There are many cheap hostels around Khao San Road so it’s pretty easy to find something when you arrive. The alternative is to stay awake through the night and experience what Khao San Road has to offer. There are plenty of restaurants, pubs and clubs to keep you entertained for the evening.
Bright and early the next morning (6am) you head back to Chumphon on the Lomprayah bus. You arrive in Chumphon in time to catch the 1pm ferry back to Koh Tao. The ferry takes about 2 hours, provided the ocean conditions are not too choppy, so you arrive back on Koh Tao at about 3pm. There is nothing better than seeing Koh Tao getting closer and knowing you are coming home!
After the long journey to Laos, a cold beer at the Crystal bar is just what the doctor ordered!
To make things that little easier, we are lucky on Koh Tao to have Island Travel and visa Guru Johnny Chopsticks to assist with any questions you may have. His travel agency was established in 2006 and is where foreigners are recommended to go to book their visa runs.
We realize that even after explaining how the Thai visa system is working it can still be confusing & tricky to understand, so a one-on-one consultation prior to booking is a good way to go to ensure you’re making the right move.
Note: This blog was written on the 12th March, 2016 and all information is correct up to this date. Please be aware that Visa regulations are subject to change and ultimately any visa issued is at the discretion of the Immigration officer dealing with each individual case.
Authors: Jade Allchin (PADI DM # 365654) with Heather Nicholson (PADI DM #370231)