It’s not actually that difficult to get a work visa in Laos if you know the right people and are willing to use a fixer. The layers of bureaucracy piled on top of inefficiency in a workaround culture means that if you want your paperwork processed in a timely fashion, you’ve got to oil the machine. The fixer has the ins, knows the shortcuts and whose palms need to be greased. Fixers aren’t illegal but they also aren’t used by the US government, who thinks the Lao government’s own policies and procedures should function without bribes, workarounds or favoritism based on who you know. While that sounds reasonable in theory, in practice it meant that for my entire year in Laos I was functioning on a 30-day tourist visa that needed to be renewed every month.
I got my first visa on arrival at the Watty International Airport in Vientiane. Over the year the airport has been renovated and looks more and more like what its name suggests and less like a warehouse that leads onto the tarmac. Two forms filled out in blue or black ink, a passport photo and $35 crispy US dollars in exact change later, an entire page of my passport has been eaten and I don’t have to worry about my visa status for the next 30 days.
While 30 days might seem like a while, it flies by. The US Embassy to Laos kindly arranged a motor pool pick up for us in the capital to drive to Nong Khai, Thailand. The US government had written letters to the Kingdom of Thailand asking for fast-tracked multi-entry visas as a new law limited land crossings between Laos and Thailand to two per calendar year sans visa. Another form, two passport pictures, 5000 Thai Bhat and another full passport page later, suddenly getting into Thailand is easier than staying in Laos.
The motor pool driver used the diplomatic lanes on the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge 1. After we passed through immigration, drove to Macro, the Thai version of Costco where I bought slightly cheaper cheese, peanut butter, pasta and too many tempting prepackaged snacks before heading back over the bridge with my forms to pay $35 and see another passport page (plus half a page for entry and exit stamps) fill up.
Well, if I have to leave every month, why not make a little vacation out of it? My roommates in Vientiane and I spent a long weekend in Chiangmai, Thailand in September on our visa run holiday. It was an incredible trip filled with elephants, temples, street food and coffee shops. I pierced my nose. We went to an ethnic dance show. It was easy to count the money and get around and everyone spoke a bit of English. Laos is gritty, difficult and frustrating in ways the well-oiled tourist machine of Thailand is not. Flying back to Watty and using another passport page didn’t feel so frustrating when attached to a long weekend away.
The Chiangmai trip was so successful that for October my roommate and I planned a trip to Hue, Vietnam. We had left the capital at this point and were living in our placement city of Savannakhet. We took a 7-hour day bus to Hue, rode motorbikes through an abandoned waterpark, ate delicious food and took the train to Da Nang. Swimming in the Ocean in October is pretty nice. Visiting the UNESCO town of Hoi An rounded out the trip and once again, the full passport page for the Vietnam visa and the full page for the Lao visa didn’t seem so painful, until I realized I would very quickly need a new passport.
I visited a friend in Luang Prabang and on the way stopped in Vientiane to start the paperwork process to obtain a new passport abroad. While the embassy would reimburse me for the Lao tourist visas, buying a new passport came out of my own pocket. The passport photos I had been using without issue at the Lao border didn’t pass snuff with the US Embassy. They sent me across the street to have new photos taken and I will say I was not prepared and look like a meth addict in my new passport.
I hadn’t crossed the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge II yet so in December I took the bus from the bus station near my house to the bridge. I wasn’t savvy enough yet to realize that I didn’t have to take the bus all the way to the bus station and could instead immediately go back through. Immigration and across the border so I ended up in Mukdahan wandering around testing out the limits of my Lao language skills in Thailand before the next bus departed for the bridge. For most Thai and Lao people immigration is quick and easy. I, on the other hand had to go to the visa on arrival window and wait for my new visa to be processed. The bus left without me and I was stuck on the Lao side feeling salty that I paid for a bus ticket and not wanted to be gouged by the tuk tuk drivers waiting for foreign tourists. I called my Lao tutor and friend Thip, who came to pick much to the chagrin of the tuk tuk drivers.
My friend from Chicago came to visit in the beginning of January and we spent a week touring around Laos. I figured I could extend my visa by a few days at the visa extension office in Luang Prabang and get a new visa when she left as she was going across the bridge to an airport in Nong Khai. The immigration officers at the bridge in December hadn’t given me an entry stamp to go with my visa so the immigration officers at the extension office couldn’t or wouldn’t extend my visa. I was illegally in Laos for 4 days and had to pay $10 per day overstay and listen to a lecture about how I broke the law and promise not to do it again at the bridge in Vientiane.
I was back in Vientiane for an English conference and as I had ridden my bicycle half way across the country from Savannakhet, I figured biking to the bridge wouldn’t be a bad idea. Plus, bicycles are allowed on Friendship Bridge I so I wouldn’t even need to deal with the bus. While bikes are allowed, so are very terrifying large trucks. And there are railroad tracks on the bridge (for the time being the only tracks in Laos) that diagonally intersect the road. I didn’t have my bags and all my stuff on my bike for the first time in a week. I felt so light. I was flying. A big truck was behind me. The railroad tracks were coming up too fast. I couldn’t stop in time, I crashed on the tracks. The truck whizzed by and some nice Thai men stopped in their car to pick me up and make sure I was okay. My helmet saved my life but not my dignity. I rode bloody and in pain to the Thai border officer. My 6 month multi entry Thai Visa had run out. The officer reminded me without a visa I would only get two land crossings. I promised I’d get a new visa. I biked home in the dark, slowly and painfully. Then picked gravel out of my knee and elbow in the shower.
In March, new Thai visa in my new passport, I rode my bicycle to the bridge in Savannakhet and parked it on the Lao side. I took the bus to the Thai side. More savvy now, I didn’t get back on the bus after going through Thai immigration and instead walked across the 8 lanes of traffic to head back into Laos. The guards were spectacularly confused and were insistent that I was going the wrong way. I tried to explain that I wanted to go back to Laos, that I just need a new visa. Eventually they were satisfied and after a mere 15 minutes in Thailand, I was back waiting for the bus to Laos. The bus was taking its good old time and I saw other people getting into the Savannakhet casino vans that function as free shuttles from Thailand where there are no casinos to Laos where Lao people can’t gamble but foreigners can. There’s a sign in the van stating very explicitly that the shuttle is free and any driver who asks for money should be reported. I rode with some Thai people across the bridge to the Lao immigration, paid the driver 100 Baht and went on my way.
My visa was running out but I knew I was flying to Malaysia soon for Lao New Years and wanted to extend it until I left I dropped my passport off and the officer said it would take two weeks to process! This seemed ridiculous but was still before my trip so I paid the $2 per day to extend and promptly forgot all about it. The day before Lao New Year a wash of dread set over me as I knew the office would be closed and didn’t know if there would be any way to get my passport over the holiday weekend. I changed my flight. I biked to the office Friday morning and met a very kind man who could get into the office where my passport was but didn’t have the key to the desk drawer. He asked me very politely if I knew that it was a holiday. I did. And I just forgot. This incredible man took down my WhatsApp contact information, tracked down the woman with the key and called me the next day to give me back my passport. Miracles do happen. I’m an idiot. And it all worked out anyway.
For my last visa run I went with my new Canadian roommate to Mukdahan across the second friendship bridge. We road bikes to the bridge, put the bikes on the bus and spent the day sign seeing, visiting temples and gawking at how much there was to buy and how nice the town was. We went shopping at Macro, a nice bookend to my visa runs, ate Pad Thai in the mall foodcourt and got back to the bridge just at the sun was setting. For unknown reasons the bus ticket seller told us we couldn’t buy bus tickets so we decided to hitch hike. Bicycles and motorbikes aren’t allowed on the bridge. We had hitchhiked together before in Thakhek but we didn’t have two bicycles in tow with us then. Nearly all the pickup trucks were full of groceries and goods from a day of shopping. Finally, a pickup with an empty bed stopped and picked us up. The driver didn’t speak English but ended up being an administrator at the school I was teaching at in Savannakeht. He waited for me to get a visa and took us all the way to the bus station. It was such a happy coincidence and nice way to end a year of back and forth trying to stay legally in the Lao PDR.