Visa run in Penang

Recently, I had to leave Thailand to fix my visa and decided to try a new location, Penang, Malaysia! I have been to Kuala Lumpur before and had been hearing lots of good things about Penang!

This entry is to share information for what I paid for my flights, hotels, and my observations from spending four nights there.

Getting there

Round trip ticket from Chiang Mai to Penang (had to stop in BKK both times) was around 12,000 THB through Air Asia.  That is pretty expensive when you compare that to how much it costs to do a visa run from Chiang Mai to Laos, but I have been to Vientiane too many times and wanted to explore something new!

The taxi from the Penang airport into the city was 45 ringgit which is about 450 THB.  Currency is super easy to translate, just add a 0 to Malaysian money and that is about the equivalent to Thai baht. (give or take depending on the rates)

Hotel

I searched around for a while where I got dropped off and decided on the Oriental Hotel.  Per night was between 80 – 90 ringgit, which isn’t cheap, but I needed wifi and at that point just wanted to drop my bags and relax.

I would highly recommend this hotel based solely on the service from the doorman, who became my friend, and the guys at the front desk.  They were nothing but helpful from the first second and every-time I came up or down they asked me how I was, booked taxis for me, and recommended sites to see.  One night I came back to the hotel around 7pm and when I walked in, they said ‘Where have you been? We haven’t seen you all day and were getting worried! We were about to call the police to look for you!’ They were good people, and when you travel, it never hurts to have good people in your corner.

The rooms were nothing special, but they got cleaned everyday, and the basic set-up was just what I was looking for.

Thai Embassy (website)

This was by far the easiest, fastest, and cheapest embassy I have been to.  Granted, some days might be busier than others, but the set up was not conducive for massive crowds like you see in Laos. I filled out my application and was at the counter within ten minutes.  I even got to pickup my visa the same day!

Around the city

I made it a point to not research too much or make an itinerary with what to do and see. For this trip I merely walked around and decided where to go based on what looked cool and how I was feeling.  I was able to see most of the city this way.  The city had nice ocean views with clear blue water, interesting side streets and markets, and great Indian food.  I went back to the Coffee Bean almost everyday as they had great wifi and quiet places to do work.

Overall, it was a cool city with great food.  I did not go out at all for the nightlife, but from the locals I spoke with, the city seemed to have some decent clubs and places to go out.  If a cheap and fast visa run is what you are looking for, Penang is not your answer, but if you are looking to get away for a few days and explore Malaysia then Penang might be a good fit.  Kuala Lumpur also has a Thai embassy, but in my experience KL was more expensive overall.

Feel free to ask any questions about this city, visa runs, or anything else.  Hope you enjoy the photos!

David Poppe

david@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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Visa Run to Laos

Recently Dave and I took a short two-day trip up to Vientiane, Laos. The main purpose of the trip was to renew our visas for Thailand, but we also got to check out a different city and get a new country stamp in our passports!

We decided to take a bus service to avoid multiple forms of transportation and after a recommendation from a friend we ended up booking our trip with Aya Service. The fee was 1,500 baht per person and included pickup and drop off service around the city, breakfast in Nong Khai, guided service at the border, and a ride to the embassy. To start, the service picked us up in a songtow close to our apartments and brought us back to the Aya office where we got on a larger van to start the 11 hour drive from Chiang Mai to Nong Khai, a city on the Thai border just south of Vientiane. We booked a night bus to get there early and have the full two days to get to the embassy and explore the city a bit.

After a hot breakfast sandwich and coffee at the Aya office, we arrived on the border early, around 6 am, and made our way through the Laos border control – be prepared for the 2,000 baht (about $65 USD) visa fee when entering Laos, even if it is only for 2 days in the country! Bringing extra Thai baht is helpful as the border and embassy fees are all paid in cash, and many guesthouses and restaurants accept Thai baht, as well as Kip, the national currency in Laos. Also remember to check the expiration date on your passport; unfortunately, one of our fellow travelers was turned away at the border because he only had four months left on his passport (instead of the required six months) and had to head all the way back to Chiang Mai!

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Flags of Laos

Once through the border, the Aya guides ushered us to a group songtow that drove us about 45 minutes into the city of Vientiane and dropped us off at different locations around the city.  Most of us just headed straight to the Thai Embassy.  Remember to bring lots of copies of your passport, and extra passport photos. We needed to show pictures for the Aya office and attach two photos at embassy; plus it is nice to have passport copies while your real passport is held overnight at the embassy, just in case! Be aware of people outside of the embassy offering to help you out “for a small fee”. Some of them could be legit but be weary of people asking for your passport who will go in the embassy for you. I would be cautious and make sure all your paperwork and fees are given directly to the officers at the embassy itself. Once inside, the visa process was well organized, the staff was friendly and besides waiting an hour or so for our numbers to be called, the process was straightforward and we got our tickets to return the next afternoon to pick up passports and new visas.

Fortunately, we made friends quickly with the other travelers on our bus and followed recommendations to stay at a cool guesthouse a few blocks from the Mekong River. Our guesthouse, the Mixay Paradise, was only 400 baht (about $14) a night for a double room with air conditioning and a private bathroom and located right in the hub of the backpack section, a short walk to the river, restaurants, bars and food stalls. The Mixay Paradise was a great find and I would recommend checking them out if you are heading to Vientiane!

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Vientiane

The next day we walked around the riverfront in the morning and went in search of French baguette sandwiches! Coming from Thailand, we were craving good bread and cheese and luckily we were able to satisfy the craving pretty fast, and even stock up to take some back for the ride : )

We had to get our own rides from Vientiane to the border, one of the downsides of the service since that is what we were hoping to avoid, but for 50 baht each we squeezed eight of us into a songtow and rode back to the border. Once across the border, the service picked us back up and took us to their office to wait until the van was full to head back to Chiang Mai. Unlike Vientiane, Nong Khai is not the most exciting stopover but with good food and new friends we were able to have some fun while passing the time before heading back home.

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Fun songtow ride!

Overall, we were happy with the Aya service and even though we were only able to see a small part of the city it was a fun trip in a cool new city! If anyone has any questions about the Aya service or visa information feel free to leave a comment below!

Katherine Devine

Katherine@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Visa run to Cambodia!

Recently, a few members of the ATMA SEVA team took a 10 day trip to Cambodia to fix our Thai visas.  When staying in Thailand it is very common to visit either Laos, Burma, Cambodia, or Malaysia in order to apply or fix a Thai visa.

The goal of this blog entry is to tell about our travels regarding how we got to Cambodia, traveling within country, what to watch out for, and also to share some photos from the trip.

Getting there

To start, we left from Chiang Mai and took a train down to Bangkok.  Unfortunately, because of the high tourist season we were not able to book sleeper cars (bed provided) so we settled for normal chairs.  The price for one seat was around 400 Thai Baht.  The ticket said the trip was fifteen hours but, as with everything in Thailand, there were unexpected delays and the trip ended up being just over twenty hours!  I would highly recommend either getting a sleeper car on the train or just take the bus. A plane from Chiang Mai to Bangkok is the fastest (only about one hour) but can be expensive when traveling on a budget.

Once we arrived at the train station in Bangkok, we took a taxi to a van station and booked seats on the van to take us to the border of Thailand and Cambodia, to a town called Aranyprathet.  The ticket for the air-conditioned van was around 200 Thai baht.  This trip took around five hours and was not too bad at all.  The vans move at a good speed and the seats are comfortable.  The van dropped us 200 yards from the border.

Border Crossing

Crossing the border from Thailand into Cambodia was extremely easy and fast. At the first check point you fill in a basic sheet with information for Thai immigration, and no charge at this point.  Now you are officially in Cambodia, and people will be approaching you for taxis and trying to sell you various items.  Next, you walk into a building to apply for your Cambodian visa, which is a simple sheet and the fee is around $20 USD.  This only took about ten or fifteen minutes.  Lastly, you go through an immigration check point where you have to fill in another sheet with basic information, no charge at this point.  Once you are cleared, you are all set and ready to look for transportation.

Poipet to Siem Reap

The city of Poi Pet is about 2 hours away from Siem Reap so you need to find a taxi to take you to the city.  This is where we encountered our first scam.  We had all read different opinions on whether to take a taxi right from the border or to take the free shuttle first and then a taxi.  Once you enter Cambodia people will be all over you asking where you are going and offering the cheapest price for a taxi.  This can be confusing and overwhelming, especially coming off over 24 hours of travel.  We choose the free shuttle bus and the plan was to get a taxi from the bus station to Siem Reap.  The shuttle takes about fifteen minutes and when we saw the bus station we knew something was off.  The bus station was in the middle of no where, with no lights, people, or buses around.  There were around seven other tourists on the bus and we all knew we choose wrong.  Once off the bus the local guys came out and began to call us a taxi.  The swindle is that they require you to pay them half and the other half to the actual taxi.  As opposed to getting a taxi right from the border to Siem Reap and there is no middle man.  Things began to get heated as there were about fifteen agitated Cambodian men surrounding two taxis, our group demanding a cut, and we were trying to bargain for the lowest price and figure out what was happening.  The total price was 1500 Thai Baht ($45 USD) but half went to the bus station guys and the taxi got the other half.  What we should have done is just get a taxi right from Poi Pet to Siem Reap and that price should not be more than 2,000 Thai Baht and if you find an offer for 1,500 Thai baht, that is about as good as we heard you can get.  The situation was funny in hind sight and we joked after the fact, but for a brief few minutes it looked like things were about to spill over.

Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville

We spent a total of 9 days in Cambodia, going from Poipet to Siem Reap to Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville back to Phnom Penh and from there flew back to Bangkok.  Just a few brief reactions and recommendations.

-Siem Reap is extremely touristy and was basically built to house tourists visiting Ankor Wat

-Ankgor Wat is tremendous and absolutely worth the visit. We were only able to spend one day there but there are 1, 3 and 7 day passes available. One day pass is $20 USD.

-Phnom Penh is larger than we thought and a fun city to walk around with lots of cool markets and shops all over.  Make sure to visit the killing fields at Choeung Ek (about 20 minutes outside of the city) and Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21, to understand more about the country and the history.

-Sihanoukville is one of the main beach towns in southern Cambodia, with lots of smaller towns on the outskirts. We took a bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville for about $10 USD and the ride is between five to seven hours.  The beaches were nice, people were friendly and there were plenty of guest houses available. We stayed around Otress beach which is slightly off the beaten path and less crowded.

-We did not book any hotels or guest houses ahead of time and were able to find nice places in each city for about $15-$20/ night. There are cheaper options available if you look hard enough but most tuk-tuk drivers steer tourists to the more expensive areas or places where they get a commission.

– Most people speak some English, so booking tickets, guest houses, talking to Tuk-Tuk drivers and ordering food was very easy and most travelers can get away with just a phrase or two in Khmer (the language of Cambodia).

Thai Embassy

The Thai embassy is located in Phnom Penh, the capital city, and is an easy tuk tuk ride from anywhere in the city.  The embassy was one of the most unfriendly I have ever been to, but you never know if it is a case of a bad or off day.  Before you visit or apply for any visa you should definitely look at their website before hand and have all your documents ready.  We were not as prepared as we should have been and had to take a tuk tuk ride to make photo copies and scramble for documents.  We left our visa application Thursday morning and were told to pick it up the following Tuesday afternoon.  Another good reason to check the website is to see the turn around time and to ensure you have enough time to obtain your visa and plan the rest of your trip.

Below are pictures from the entire trip!  If anyone has any questions about making a trip to Cambodia, visa runs, or anything else just leave a comment below.

CLICK HERE FOR GOOGLE MAP

David Poppe

david@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Photography Corner – Mae Sai part 2

In Mae Sai part 1, the ATMA SEVA team went to the White temple and also Mae Sai.  On our second day, in the morning we went to Wat Thampla MaeSai also known as the Monkey cave temple, as monkeys roam around and live on the premise.  The temple is set right into the mountain and jungle and there are two caves you can hike up to.  There are great views and the caves are fun to be in and the Buddha shrines within are stunning.  There are quite a few monkeys and visitors are accompanied by local teenagers who carry bamboo sticks in case the monkeys bite or jump on people.

After Wat Thampla, we set out to find a very unique temple named Wat Maa Tong or the Golden Horse temple.  The temple is famous because of the abbot Phra Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto, who is a former professional kick boxer, and has also helped the local hill-tribe community immensely.  He also teaches self-defense and muay Thai to the young men to teach discipline and give them strength.  The monks in this temple ride horses to collect alms in the morning, hence Golden Horse temple.  A while back a horse was donated to the temple and the abbot saw how the horse could help him spread the Dhamma.

We went for a hike next to the temple to try and reach a stupa on the mountain.  After about forty minutes of hiking we found a farm in the jungle where lots of horses were and we also saw the abbot, but he was unable to speak as he was in the middle of a seven day meditation.  The area was so mystical with a muay Thai training area, horse farm, and Buddha statues nestled into the lush green background.  We never reached the stupa, but we were overly satisfied with what we had found.

Stay tuned for the next Photography corner as the ATMA SEVA team went to Wiang Haeng several days after this trip!

CLICK HERE FOR GOOGLE MAP

Photos by David Poppe

david@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Photography Corner – Mae Sai trip part 1

This photography corner is broken up into two parts.  The ATMA SEVA team recently took a trip up North to Mae Sai to make a ‘visa run’ and also to explore and see new sights.  Mae Sai is a city in Northern Thailand that is on the border of Burma, and one location travelers can cross to renew their visas.

Although the trip was only two days and one night we managed to see and do quite a lot.  The first day on the way to Mae Sai, we stopped for coffee and breakfast at a nice resort and then visited the famous White temple.  The White temple was created by a famous Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, and the Thai name of the temple is Wat Rong Khun.  You start by ‘walking through hell’ and once you begin you cannot walk backwards.  There is a staff member at the entrance and they will not let you walk back down.  After ‘walking through hell’ you enter heaven.  The artist created his vision for what each realm would look like, and the White temple is still a work in progress.  It is very unique and a main attraction in Northern Thailand.

After the White temple, we went to Mae Sai to cross the border and also explore the local markets.  In the city of Mae Sai there are giant markets with a wide range of products.  The market is very cheap and a place many Thai people go to shop in bulk or even to supply their local market.  Products range from cheap sunglasses, shirts, pants, handbags, wigs, jewelry, toys etc.  Mae Sai is also famous for their fruit flavored wine and if you are not sure which flavor to purchase, most vendors will let you sample the various flavors until you are happy with your choice.

Stayed tuned for part 2 which includes the Golden Horse temple and also Wat Thampla which has fish caves and wild monkeys. (google map on part 2)

Photos by David Poppe

david@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org