Visa run to Burma
Today was a hectic day on the road — especially compared with my past week of going nowhere and of lying on the beach. Last night, I finally said goodbye to Ko Tao, departing on the night ferry back to Chumphon. The ferry set sail at 11pm, and arrived on the mainland at 5am. It was a sleeper ferry, fitted with a deck-full of bunk beds — and miraculously, I slept like a log for the entire journey. From Chumphon, I immediately grabbed a minibus (pre-booked) west to the city of Ranong, from where I did a so-called "visa run" over the border to Burma (now called Myanmar), and then came straight back without hanging around. I didn't hang around in Ranong, either: from there, I caught a bus headed south; and by 4pm, I'd made it to the city of Krabi. Lots of bussing and boating to squeeze into one day — so much, in fact, that I had time for virtually nothing else.
A visa run is a trip where you travel over the border to a neighbouring country, and then travel straight back. Visa runs are very common in Thailand, as it's one of those countries where tourist visas are easily available, where there's no limit to how many you can receive each year, and where the cheapest and most hassle-free way to renew your visa is to leave the country and to return. Australians receive 30 days visa-free in Thailand — and since I'm going to be here for 36 days in total, I need to renew my visa-free status at least once while I'm here.
I booked the whole visa run "package" — including the ferry to Chumphon, the minibus to Ranong, and the boat ride over the border and back — from Ko Tao, which made things much simpler (and let's face it, people are going to take a cut wherever you book it). The early-bird minibus arrived in Chumphon about 5 minutes after I stepped off the boat; and from the pier in Chumphon, it drove straight to Ranong, which is on the Burmese border.
We arrived in Ranong at around 7:30am, where we went straight to the immigration office, and where the Thai officials there whacked an exit stamp on all of our passports. Then, we were taken straight over to the pier at Ranong, and plonked on a little long-tail boat that drove over the wide isthmus of water separating Thailand from Burma in this region.
I was in Burma for all of 15 minutes, and there wasn't much to it: I hopped off the boat; I went into the immigration office (which is right on the pier, on the Burmese side); they gave me an entry and an exit stamp (in return for the cash fee of US$10 — after all, this is Burma); and I jumped back onto the boat. During my short sojourn in Burma, I had time to notice only a few small things. The town that I saw in Burma looks quite similar to any town in Thailand, except that it's somewhat poorer and more crowded. Most of the men in Burma like to wear sarongs instead of trousers (apparently, this fashion used to exist in Thailand as well, but they phased it out in order to become more Western). And many of the women wear a chalky yellow paint on their faces, which I understand is to make them look more beautiful (if you say so, guys), as well as to protect their skin from the sun.
The isthmus between Thailand and Burma is a wide, calm and pleasant stretch of water, framed by lovely mountains on both sides. Small fishing boats float lazily across its surface, and locals smile and laugh at each other as they drift past one anothers' boat. Upon returning to Thailand, we were stopped at an army checkpoint, which was stationed on a little island in the middle of the isthmus. The soldiers were friendly enough, and they performed an extremely cursory check of our bags, which wouldn't have uncovered a bomb even if it was ticking inside like a grandfather clock.
Once back in Thailand, we returned to the immigration office, where we all received a new Thai entry stamp, and a renewed tourist visa. I met one guy on the boat who's been living on Ko Tao for 2 years (he has a local girlfriend), and who's been doing a visa run every 2 months during that time — he said that it's rather a pain in the bum, and that he knows Ranong and the Burmese border way too well by now.
The minibus was taking most of the passengers straight back to Chumphon, but I had instead only booked my package as far as Ranong. This is because my next destination was Krabi, and because it's just as quick to get to Krabi from Ranong as it is from Chumphon. So I asked the minibus to drop me off at the Ranong bus terminal; and when I arrived there, I was lucky enough to find that the 10am bus direct to Krabi was about to leave, and that they were selling tickets at the door. So I didn't even have time for a sit-down breakfast — I ducked into the convenience store next to the terminal, and grabbed a few snacks for the road — and then hopped straight on the bus, and away we went.
It was about 6 hours, as the local bus crawls, from Ranong down to Krabi. It was a nice enough ride, on a reasonably straight and well-sealed road. The scenery was thick jungle most of the way, with the odd village or rice field interspersed amongst it all. We stopped for lunch at a local eatery, where I downed a hearty bowl of chicken noodle soup (the staple diet of the locals). As we came nearer to Krabi, the scenery began to morph, and to give way to the impressive limestone cliffs and crags that so strikingly characterise this part of Thailand.