Crossing borders is a pretty common part of travel in regions such as Southeast Asia. You’ll inevitably need to get from one country to another via land, sea or air and it can sometimes be an intimidating or confusing transition. I completed ten border crossings in Asia last year, some more eventful than others. This is a summary of my most notable experiences – how I got from one country to the next (relatively) unscathed.
- Thailand to Burma and back again – by boat, bus, boat, boat, bus then finally boat.
Visa runs are a nightmare. Especially when you are determined to do it the cheapest way possible. Since I wanted to stay in Thailand longer than my allocated 30 days, I had no choice but to nip to Burma and back for an extra 14 days to be stamped into my passport. I paid about $30 for the trip, but the real cost was in terms of tiredness and aggravation. Luckily I’m pretty good at getting my head down and getting on with it when it comes to crappy journeys. I departed Koh Tao at 11pm on a seriously rusty night boat back to the mainland. There were beds to sleep on and it was relatively comfortable. I got a few hours’ sleep, although I may not have been so relaxed had I known beforehand that a few months back one of these liners had sank in the night killing all on board… We arrived at Surat Thani in the early hours and jumped straight into a minibus which drove us to the port of Ranong, possibly one of the most unattractive parts of Thailand. I got stuck in the back seat of the bus, extremely cramped and uncomfortable. Next we had to exit Thailand, and then literally jump into a boat to cross the bay to Burma. There was no communication from our Thai guides and I hated giving away my passport to them, though I had no choice. We got into Burma where it started raining extremely heavily. In 15 minutes our entry and exit stamps had been completed in a shabby, worryingly non-official-looking office. Then back onto the boat in the rain to cross the bay full of floating litter. Now we re-entered Thailand, receiving our 14 day stamps. We climbed in the bus, departing straight away to Surat Thani where we arrived around midday. The journey had been stressful for me as I was moving islands so I had been lugging my backpack with me all the way. En route to Surat Thani, again stuck in the backseat, an idiotic fellow passenger decided to drink loads of beer and then threaten to piss himself for the last hour of the journey when the driver refused to pull over for a toilet stop. Sitting beside him for that hour, praying I wasn’t about to be pissed on, was the worst part of the whole trip – he was British, of course. I finally boarded the boat to Koh Phangan, totally exhausted but having gained another couple of weeks in Thailand to enjoy.
- Thailand to Vietnam – by air.
I needed a 30 day visa for Vietnam and you must get one in advance before you enter the country. However, I’d heard of a loophole where you can apply for a visa approval certificate and purchase the full visa at immigration when you fly in. The certificate can be ordered online and sent via e-mail for $10. It’s not technically legal or an official way of getting a visa, but everyone does it – so I’d been told. With the certificate and paperwork in hand, I queued up at Hanoi airport and paid the $30 for my visa to be processed there and then. It took a while but was a relatively stress-free experience, and much cheaper than if I had bought a visa in advance. I had been slightly worried about chancing it but luckily the internet was reliable and made my life a whole lot easier. (I used the website http://www.vietnamvisapro.com/.)
- Vietnam to Cambodia – by boat.
This was probably the easiest border I crossed in Southeast Asia. My travel buddy and I took a boat up the Mekong river from Vietnam and moving from one country to the next was very straightforward. We disembarked the boat at the border line and got our exit stamps for Vietnam. Then we continued down the river for 10 minutes or so before getting off the boat again and getting our entry stamps for Cambodia. It couldn’t have looked less like an official crossing point. There was one bloke in a small building on someone’s farm who provided the stamps, and that was that. The journey became more typically Asian when our boat broke down soon after, and we were stuck for an hour being stared at by a group of fascinated Cambodian children until a rescue boat arrived.
- Cambodia to Thailand – by bus.
The crossing at Poipet is known to be a tricky one. You have to have your wits about you in this busy border town. Leaving Cambodia to enter Thailand was fairly straightforward. We’d booked our transport with a travel agent in Siem Reap so we had a guide to tell us where to go and what to do. We departed very early and got to the border at around 10am. There was a huge queue to get the Thailand entry stamps, though, and we soon got tired of standing around with our bags. It took ages to get to the front. Then, when were first in line a rude Cambodian man pushed in front of me and then spent ages arguing with the lady at the desk before she let him through. When I finally got my turn the lady was distracted and talking animatedly with her colleague. We made it to the other side, and set off in our minibus to a restaurant about 100m down the road where we had lunch. It was here I realised an error had been made. Looking in my passport, I had been given a 40-day visa instead of the usual 14-days which I was meant to have. I pointed this out to our guide but there was nothing we could really do about it, it was a free visa that I certainly wasn’t going to complain about!
- Thailand to Cambodia – by bus (Poipet crossing part two).
I knew karma would find a way to get back at me for my good fortune with the 40-day visa. You get nothing for free in this world. Coming back through the unsightly Poipet, as we queued for our stamps to depart Thailand the immigration official seemed to be looking through my passport for an awfully long time. Next thing I know, I’m being pulled aside and told to wait around the back. I attempted to stay calm and remind myself I’d done nothing wrong. I waited… and waited… and waited, with no one telling me what was going on or how long I would be kept. They asked me a few questions about my plans in Cambodia, and I tried to explain to them that I was going to miss my bus to Siem Reap if they didn’t let me through. Finally, after being stuck for ages and them photocopying my passport to death, I was allowed to depart Thailand. Entering Cambodia was fine and no one said anything. Relief was short-lived when we had to find a way to the station to get a bus to Siem Reap. I hated the Poipet crossing by now and vowed never to use it again.
- Thailand to Malaysia – by boat, bus, random car and boat.
The mainland border between these two countries is still experiencing conflict and travellers need to be very careful when overlanding here. This is why my travel companion and I decided it would be best to cross the border by boat rather than land. We departed from Koh Lanta on Thailand’s Andaman coast and made our way back to the mainland. Next we took a small bus to a port town further down the coast. Since it was the low season there was only us and one other couple making our way south that day. After waiting around by a travel agent for a while, we were taken in a car to the actual port, only to find the boat was overbooked and we couldn’t get onto the one departing in 10 minutes. Instead we would have to wait three hours for the next one. We weren’t happy about this, especially as the food on offer in the departure lounge was terrible. After a painful wait we crammed onto the 4pm boat and spent the journey watching an extremely graphic horror movie on a big screen, which was surely inappropriate for the small children on board. Our destination was Langkawi island where we entered Malaysia with no problems, then rushed off to find accommodation before it got dark.