Visa run: Chiang Mai to Laos – the easy, do-it-yourself way

Living in Chiang Mai has been a great treat – but like most people, it became time to do a visa run. Here’s how we did it in a single overnight trip, with some time for sightseeing:

Step 1: Get to Chiang Mai’s bus terminal earlyby 8:30am if possible. Why? The bus you want leaves Chiang Mai at 9am.

Step 2: Get your tickets at the Green Bus counter for Chiang Khong. Two buses a day (9am and 1pm) make the 4 hour trip – again, try to catch the earlier one if you can. If there are any delays to the later bus, there’s a chance you may not make it to the immigration office before it closes at 6pm.

Step 3: After arriving in Chiang Khong, take any tuk-tuk to the border – a fixed price of 30 baht per person applies to foreigners and Thais alike. It’s about 2 kilometers if you want to walk it. You’ll know you’re in the area when you see the signs offering passport photos, currency exchange, tours, and so on.

Step 4: leave Thailand. The usual formalities are involved: filling out your departure card, getting stamped out, and so on. Theoretically you can cross the street and present your passport to ‘arrive’ again, but you’re about to make one of the more interesting border crossings around.

Step 5: Walk down the hill to the longboats. 40 baht per person pays your way to cross the river. Boats leave every few minutes, so you won’t be waiting too long. Get your pictures in fast – the boat ride only takes a few minutes.

Step 6: Enter Laos and the village of Huay Xai (pronounced ‘hwey sigh’). Start by picking up the two forms from the “Immigration Passport Check” counter. Fill them out, then hand the forms and your passport over at the “Visa on Arrival” counter. A currency exchange desk is right there, but there are several others just up the street.

Step 7: When your name is called or passport is shown, it’s time to pay up – Canadians, you get the short end of the stick ($42 USD), while Americans pay $35 USD. Most everyone else pays $30 USD (like other crossings into Laos, they charge a $1 ‘overtime fee’ if you arrive on the weekends, and another $1 ‘fee’ if you don’t have a passport photo). Try to pay in US dollars if you can – otherwise, it’ll be 1,500 Thai baht, a bit of a penalty. On the positive side, your tourist visa is good for 30 days, and boats to reach Luang Prabang are bookable if that’s your desire.

Step 8: Head up the hill, exchange some baht into Lao kip, find a hotel or guesthouse (several are along the road at the top of the hill – we stayed at the Thaveesinh Hotel, left from Immigration and on the right), and freshen up.

Step 9: Meander, eat, drink some Beer Lao, and enjoy the laid-back nature of the area. A couple things to see: Wat Keophone Savanthanaram (complete with plenty of hellish depictions of Buddhist hell) and Fort Carnot, the old French fort in the area. A number of restaurants run along this tourist-friendly street – the Riverside restaurant has a good selection of Western and local eats (from Immigration’s office, turn right, walk around 100 meters and look for the yellow sign).

Step 10: Wake up early – no later than 8am. Sorry, but I don’t get to make the bus schedules. Change your kip (save 10,000 kip per person for the river crossing!), get stamped out at the Laos immigration office, then cross the river again (10,000 kip from the Lao side). Get stamped back into Thailand, then get a tuk-tuk or songthaew back to the bus terminal. The locals know where you’re going, and know the bus schedule pretty well. Just don’t let them sell you tickets they (probably) don’t have.

Step 11:  The buses back to Chiang Mai from Chiang Khong all leave before noon – specifically, 7:15am (arrives at 2:30pm), 9:45am (arrives at 3:30pm), and 11:00am (arrives in 5:30pm). The 9:45am bus has VIP seats available and is faster to get back to town. The 11am bus skips the highway (and Chiang Rai) in favor of several smaller bus terminals in northern Thailand.

Wow, that sounds like a lot of steps. Take heart – especially for those that don’t enjoy getting ripped off by tour companies.

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  • Tripologist

    I spent a night in Huay Xai on my way from Luang Prabang to China. If you want to visit Kunming and Yunnan Province in China, there is a bus every couple of days that travels between the two cities.

    On a side note, I think I stayed at the same hotel when I was in town.

  • Alphonse Bertrand

    Hi my name is Alphonse
    I wanted to know if border visa works also for Cameroonian passport holder.my visa expires on the 19april,I need a new Thai visa double entry at thai-Laos border

    • Chris

      I’m afraid I don’t know, Alphonse. Your best resource might be your local embassy or a website that aims to show what visas are available to what nationalities. Try doyouneedvisa.com for one.