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The visa run is an inevitable fold in the fabric of life on Koh Tao. Most expats on the island are not on work permits but on “multiple entry” tourist visas. That means that every 60 days, or every 90 days if they have extended their visas in Koh Samui, tourists must leave Thailand and renter in order to activate the next 60 day “entry.” Yet there are no stipulations on how long you must spend outside of Thailand between entries.

So for those on Koh Tao, it all adds up to hopping the border to Burma. My first visa run was a learning experience indeed — with the fun bonus of being mistaken for a prostitute. But I’ll get to that part.

Visa Run To Burma

“Burma’s lovely this time of year!” That’s the joke we love to say when someone is bemoaning the hassle of an upcoming visa run. It’s a joke because while the entire process takes almost a day, you spend less than 30 minutes within the Republic of Myanmar.

The process starts with taking the night boat from Koh Tao to the mainland. I was shocked by the level of comfort on this boat — there were individual beds with pillows, blankets, and a power outlet for each person. I slept soundly and dreamed that the boat plowed across Thailand and brought me all the way to Burma. No such luck. Instead, the boat dropped us in Chumphon before the sun came up and a cramped minivan carried us horizontally across Thailand for several hours.

Visa run from Koh Tao

When we reached the Andaman Sea, we were led through a dilapidated immigration booth where we received exit stamps and were bid farewell by the Kingdom of Thailand. After we were herded onto a wooden boat to make the water crossing to Burma.

Visa Run To Burma

Visa Run To Burma

These photos might indicate that things were a little less than, shall we say, up to code. But rest assured, this boat was the very official Visa Express.

Visa Run To Burma

Along the way we passed scenes similar to those I have seen all around Southeast Asia where people are living on the water — stilted homes, boats as the primary form of transport, and happy children playing on the banks.

Koh Tao Visa Run

Koh Tao Visa Ruun

The boat ride was slow and silent save for the coughing fits of the sputtering motor. At one point, we stopped at what seemed to be a checkpoint island of sorts and armed guards stepped on the boat and eyed us suspiciously as we held up our passports like white flags. They nodded and retreated.

Visa Run To Burma

Visa Run To Burma

Eventually the boat reached what looked like any other dusty border town. There were starving dogs and puppies everywhere, leering men trying to sell Viagra and children with distended abdomens begging for spare change. We waited in line, handed over our passports, and were welcomed warmly into the Republic of Myanmar. And, perhaps a bit rudely, we turned right back around and left the way we came.

Visa Run To Burma

Despite the unappealing scene at the border (really, no border town is ever appealing) I felt a pang of regret that we weren’t going to see even a tiny bit of Burma. I’ll be back someday, I suppose.

Visa Run To Burma

The boat brought us back to the same immigration checkpoint that we had departed from not more than 2 hours before. We waited in line, trying to make ourselves more presentable after reading a sternly worded sign that I think unfairly discriminated against hippies. It was kind of hard to make Mark much more presentable, however, considering he forgot to wear shoes. Luckily I had brought along a top to cover my shoulders.

Visa Run To Burma

Luckily we were both allowed re-entry into Thailand despite our slight ragamuffin appearance (we had been traveling all night, in our defense). However, my disheveled appearance must have been confusing to some, as while I was waiting for Mark to finish in immigration I had one of the most bizarre experiences of my travels. I was sitting on the dock playing with some flea-ridden puppies when a local man approached me and started an extremely odd conversation. Unnerved, I hopped up and made a beeline for Mark and asked nervously what he made of the whole situation. He agreed there were very few ways to interpret a proposition that ends with “I will pay you.”

Ah, life in Southeast Asia. First I accidentally get a massage in a happy-ending parlor and then I get mistaken for a prostitute. At first I was in disbelief that the man could think that I was for sale… it seems a bit against the sex-tourism stereotype, right? A Southeast Asian man approaching a white woman and offering to pay for sex. But in retrospect I have heard there are a shocking number of Eastern European prostitutes in Thailand, so maybe I shouldn’t be quite so surprised. It was definitely unnerving, but like I said after my massage parlor experience: Just another great story to tell at formal dinner parties!

We arrived back on Koh Tao on the afternoon boat, less than 24 hours after departing. Just another day in the life on Koh Tao.

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Think it’s hard getting a visa for Burma? Try getting a visum USA for America! Companies likes ESTA permits can help.

  • Sarah Somewhere
    April 28 2012

    Ha! I love the ‘he forgot to wear shoes’ part! Oh and the mistaken for a prostitute part was quite amusing too 🙂

    • Alex
      April 28 2012

      Surprisingly, very few people wear shoes on Koh Tao! I don’t know how they do it, I’ve always got to have at least flip flops on these delicate feet!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    April 28 2012

    Ha ha ha! When my husband (Tony) was reading this post over my shoulder, he snorted at the “Visa Express” picture and proclaimed, “Well, I guess they know their audience.”

    And I too laughed at the whole Mark not wearing shoes part. At least he wasn’t wearing “the any kind of sandal”. That would have ben too much hippie for immigration to handle!

    • Alex
      April 28 2012

      Yeah I think some of those guidelines were a bit… unclear! Ah well, we made it in in the end!

  • Kathryn
    April 28 2012

    OK, I’m going to make a poster of the photo of the Kingdom’s anti-hippie rules and frame it. Hilarious!

    • Alex
      April 28 2012

      Yes, the whole hassle of the visa run might have been worth it for that…

  • Dani
    April 29 2012

    Love the guidelines for entering Thailand – hilarious! I find visa runs so bizarre, we did ours in Laos (together with 350 other people!!) and were surprised how easy it was.

    • Alex
      April 30 2012

      Wow, and I think the 20 or so a day from Koh Tao is a lot! Three hundred and fifty is another story. It is a crazy situation… can you imagine the US allowing people to exploit a loophole like that?!

  • Camels & Chocolate
    April 29 2012

    “Wearing transparent trousers is impolite.” *SNORT*

  • Grandma Burr
    May 6 2012

    Glad you survived.

  • Jeff
    May 7 2012

    Here in Korea, if someone asks if you’re Russian they are really asking if you’re a prostitute.

    • Alex
      May 7 2012

      Jeff, see the trackback on this post… one of my readers/fellow bloggers just wrote a post about that EXACT topic… being in Korea and being asked if you are Russian!

  • Diane
    June 15 2012

    That sign was hilarious! I would love to work as a copy editor for all English language signs in foreign countries. I’m serious. I’ve seen so many errors and unintended meanings come from signs that a native speaker could easily correct. Yes, I’m anal like that. 😉 Loved your story!

    • Alex
      June 16 2012

      I actually find them charming 🙂 In the book Sightseeing which is by a Thai author, he talks about how people don’t correct those errors and such because they know tourists find it “cute.” Fascinating!

  • Oh my goodness— I can’t stop laughing about the sign barring foreigners “who look like hippies” from entering the “Kingdom”! That’s making it to the top of my favorite Engrish list!

    • Alex
      March 8 2013

      Yeah, clearly they aren’t being too strict on that one… I see hippies every which way I look in this country! 🙂

  • Ryan
    July 17 2014

    That actually looks like a much more interesting visa run to Myanmar than the Mai Sai border trip that I’m used to.
    Now that the Immigration department is clamping down and refusing out-and-in entries to those with a bunch of stamps in their passports, I wonder how all those people on Kah Tao will manage to stay.
    Or will all the diving instructors just disappear from Thailand?

    • Alex
      July 18 2014

      I will indeed be curious to see what happens. Hopefully this will force dive shops to have to start ponying up for more work permits!

  • Emma
    September 27 2016

    I’m thinking I may have to take the same visa run from Koh Tao. Just wondering, did you need to apply for a visa to cross the Burma boarder?

    • Alex
      October 14 2016

      Nope! You only need to apply for a visa if you are entering further into Burma — to just do a border run none is required. Good luck!

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