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Why Thailand Hates Backpackers, or Why I Visited Burma

Mae Sai, Thailand

Something about this doesn’t just seem right. Here I am in Chiang Mai in Thailand, a supposedly tourist friendly country, jumping in a minivan to do a visa run to Burma, a country ruled by a military junta, which isn’t exactly famed for its tourist friendliness. So why am doing this?

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Thailand got over 15 million visitors last year. That is a lot of people, but still somehow the more I am reading into visas for Thailand the more I get the feeling that Thailand doesn’t actually want backpackers. Let me explain a bit. If you arrive to Thailand by land, you will receive a stamp that allows you to stay in the country for 15 days only, there are no exceptions to this if you haven’t applied for a visa beforehand (who does that?). On the other hand, if you fly into the country, you will receive at minimum 30 days, or if you are from certain countries in South America, even 90 days. Also if you are already in the country, you can only get a seven day extension on your visa, which will cost you 1900 Bath, that’s almost $10 for a day, the most expensive visa I’ve ever heard off.

Why this favoritism of people who fly in, over to those that use the bus to get in? Well, when you think about it, there seems to be two different groups here. The people, who come with a bus, come from either Laos, Vietnam or possibly from Malaysia. And these people almost certainly are backpackers. Whereas people coming in by plane, are more likely to be tourists on a package tour or other short holiday. Of course you have plenty of backpackers arriving by plane also (Thailand being their first destination or only destination), but you can’t separate these from the other aviation passengers. So it seems Thailand rather wants the tourists, who are on a short holiday, willing to spend more, as opposed to the backpackers who are traveling on much smaller budgets, and will often do almost anything to save money.

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These were my thoughts as we finally arrived to Mae Sai, the little border town on Thailand’s side on the Burmese border. I might had been a bit gloomy, but I really dislike getting up to catch a bus at 7 am, especially since I am not really going anywhere!. Everyone on the bus seems to know exactly what to do except me, so I follow the crowd in to the immigration office at the end of the street.

There is a long queue before they finally stamp me out of Thailand. The Burmese immigration officers are much more efficient at getting my visa sorted to enter the country. Even thou they don’t allow anyone to pay with the $10 note, that is the official cost of the visa to Burma on the land border. They claim it needs to be paid in Bath and the cost is 500 Bath. So basically the officers are making $4 profit on every customer, and that money for sure isn’t going to the government. Well, I suppose it’s better that the money is left to the corrupt officials instead of the military junta.

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I get a piece of paper instead of my passport. When I inquiry about this, they explain mostly in sign language, that I can use the paper to collect my passport when I come back from Burma to Thailand. You cannot enter most of Burma on this piece of paper; basically you can only access the town on the other side. And that is what most people are here for, a new visa to Thailand.

So I step on to  Tachileik on the Burmese side and I am immediately set upon by a dozen touts trying to sell me viagra, whisky, tobacco or anything I might require. I try to politely decline, but it has no effect, so I just walk past them. I walk around a little on the market that is basically just on the border, before I buy a Coca-Cola, feeling like I need to buy something to justify me being in Burma, and then walk back. Thou on retrospect a coke does seem a bit ridiculous thing to buy.

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I walk back on the other side of the bridge, hand the paper to the official in a small office. The paper has my photo on it, which he quickly glances before handing me my passport, which already has entry and exit stamps for Burma stamped on it, both for this day. Well that was efficient.

I walk to the Thai immigration, fill out the entry form and go to the office. I know it’s pointless but still I ask the officer if it is possible to get a longer visa, even three weeks would help me a lot. He shakes his head, and says “two weeks”. I hand over my passport, considering if I should just slip in some money within the passport, but decide against it at the last second.

I walk back to the minivan, we only had an hour here in the border town. Basically this was a shopping trip for me. Like in Finland when we used to do ferry trips to Estonia to buy cheap booze. I just did a shopping trip to Burma to buy myself a new visa for Thailand.

And who is exactly benefiting from this and how?

I learned that the reason Thailand is doing this, is to combat illegal workers in Thailand from doing border runs for new Visas. But the minivan I was in, was full of people who have lived here for years, and done already so many border runs they can’t even count them. So clearly it isn’t working, it is just annoying backpackers. It caused me problems, and it is almost purely because of Thailand’s stupid visa rules that I am skipping all the beaches and islands of Thailand. Because I am just getting the feeling that Thailand doesn’t want me. Instead I’ll fly to Philippines where there are plenty of beautiful beaches and diving opportunities.

So in the end it is the Burmese military junta who gets $10 for each customer and the Burmese immigration officers who get $4 for each customer. But somehow I don’t think that was the purpose of these rules.

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Do you think I am blowing this whole thing out of proportion? Have you had problems with Thai visas?

24 Comments

  1. Certainly not convenient yet I’m somehow not surprised. As a Canadian, I had to pre-book a visa in order to visit Brazil and it cost me $150 but lasts 5 years! It’s my excuse for traveling back there before the visa runs out ..
    Cheryl Howard recently posted..Where to Eat in Szczecin, Poland.My Profile

  2. Never been to that part of the world, but that would be very annoying. I didn’t like having to do a border run after 90 days in Argentina :-)
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..The Impressive Teatro Colon Opera House in Buenos AiresMy Profile

    • I suppose nobody likes border runs. But a border run every three months doesn’t sound too bad 😉 I mean at that point it’s about time for a quick trip to somewhere!

  3. Wanna talk hassle? Last year, I applied for a visa to Thailand in Japan where I was living at the time… and, yes, I would be that person who applies for her visas beforehand… not because I’m particularly good at planning ahead or anything but because I’m nervous by nature and worry too much about that kind of thing.
    Anyway, the Thai consulate in Japan only allows you to apply for a single-entry, 90-day visa (no double entries allowed). And in order to apply for it I needed to submit all kinds of documents like bank statements and a departing flight ticket confirmation. I also had to find a Japanese citizen to vouch for me & sign a document saying they were responsible for me should I end up destitute or imprisoned. (Which, mind you, is kind of an awkward thing to ask one of your friends to do.)
    So, yeah, Thailand may not be too keen on being overrun by backpackers, but they’re especially not keen on having any vagabondy types coming from Japan… or at least not the vagabondy types who might end up broke or in jail. (Although, I suspect this is something of a reciprocal measure as I’m sure Japan has rather vigorous visa restrictions on Thai citizens entering Japan.)
    But, on a happier note, when I returned to Thailand later last year, I applied for another visa while I was in Laos (remember, nervous type, we do that kind of thing). I was able to get a double-entry 4-month visa and all I needed was a passport photo & 24 hours to spare. So, yeah, I’d definitely suggest getting a visa beforehand (even if you’re not the type to do it), just make sure you don’t try to get it in Japan!
    Sally recently posted..8 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Becoming an ESL Teacher OverseasMy Profile

    • Eh, that does sound like quite a hassle. I am thinking that I might also have to start looking into visas beforehand, it would make my life a lot easier sometimes. It’s just something I really haven’t had to trouble myself with before! Yeah I’ve heard that visas to Thailand are quite easy to get from Laos or Cambodia, I really should’ve done that, would had saved me a lot of hassle. But point taken, I’ll keep in min not to apply for a visa to Thailand in Japan!

  4. As we knew we’d be staying in Thailand for a while we got a visa in advance like Sally so we have a double entry two month visa giving us four months in total. It seems they are easy to pick up in Laos.
    Erin recently posted..The Weird and Wonderful World of Vegetarian Cuisine in Kyoto: Part 1My Profile

    • Yeah, it’s definitely worth getting the visa for Thailand from Laos. Makes things a lot easier if you are planning on staying in Thailand for a while.

  5. That does seem like an expensive hassle, but your trip does sound amazing!
    Michael Figueiredo recently posted..Top 10: Things To Do in Lisbon, PortugalMy Profile

    • Yeah, the minivan and the cost of the visa for Burma, it all adds up, but it’s still cheaper than the visa extension you can get in Thailand. Thou you will waste a day going to Burma and coming back.

  6. I was just hinking if the shoe was on the other foot and the place I lived was constantly been explored by backpackers – it would send me a little crazy!
    Lassa recently posted..amazon promotional codeMy Profile

  7. That experience sounds terrifying, especially the part about them keeping your passport.

    ~ Emme
    Emme Rogers recently posted..#CrossCanada Playlist ~ Ross Neilsen & the Suffering BastardsMy Profile

    • Yeah, leaving your passport to a corrupt border official while entering a country controlled by a military junta, is a little worrying.

  8. Well, the good part is you got a Burmese stamp in your passport and $10 isn’t bad for a country stamp + an extension, but I get your frustration.

    I really DIDN’T know about the 15-day deal if you cross into Thailand overland. I’ve done overland crossings with Thailand twice now (Laos & recently Cambodia). Good thing I didn’t stay long in Thailand after returning from these places.

    I get my visas in advance. I always read about border scams and don’t want to deal with that stuff.
    Christine | Grrrl Traveler recently posted..Atrocities of Tourism: 6 annoying habits of touristsMy Profile

    • Yeah, $10 isn’t too bad a for a country stamp, especially for a country like Burma. But I ended up doing the border run twice, and the second time you do it, well, the novelty will have worn off by then..

  9. wow that is really annoying. They should do something about it. Well at least you can lay claim of stepping your foot in Burma for now.
    Amer @TendToTravel recently posted..A brand new canvas for a new beginningMy Profile

    • Yep, there is that for sure! :)

  10. I need a visa run tout de suite! Not sure if Burma will be my chosen destination though. i too hate how they only give a 15-day visa if you’re coming overland…
    Raymond @ Man On The Lam recently posted..Classic TV Combats Airport EnnuiMy Profile

    • Yeah, the two week visa is pretty rubbish. If you’re planning on staying in Thailand for longer, I’d recommend going over to Laos, checking that out, and then getting a proper visa for Thailand from Vientiane.

  11. hey artic nomad,

    My Thai wife and i saw your site and she explain that Thailand get all the tourists, so they share their success with Laos and Burma. This is the reason for the visa rules… to keep the peace between countries cause Thailand have all the best things to offer. They call it a Friendship Agreement. Anyway… nice blog brother

    • haahaa 😀 Thanks Edan, that does make sense when you put it like that. I didn’t realize!

  12. Visa laws in Thailand are always a hot discussion, as they never seem to make any sense. The laws seem to change day to day and person to person without any obvious reason why. If you plan on staying in Thailand for an extended period of time, it is a good idea to apply for a tourist visa in another country prior to arriving, that way you get two months and you can extend it for one extra month for an additional 1900 baht. If you are already traveling in Asia, just head to a Thai embassy somewhere, you’ll need to apply in the morning on the first day and pick it up in the afternoon on the second.
    Lawrence Michaels recently posted..Top Ten Phuket BeachesMy Profile

    • Yeah they do change frequently, but you are right, if you plan on staying any longer period in Thailand, you should definitely get your Visa beforehand. I didn’t know that when I got there, so I didn’t get one beforehand, which then meant a few trips over to Burma. Yeah, you can get the tourist visa easily in almost all of the neighboring countries.