Well, I am proud to say I survived my first visa run cross de border and lived to tell the tale. It was in fact quite an interesting experience that was, dare I say it, at times good fun.
The trip that I took is known as a ‘Herbert Visa’ because it is organised by a crazy German guy named Herbert who has been getting foreigners new visa stamps for over 10 years. He has gotten the process down to a tee in terms of timing — my father, who has done a Herbert Visa trip before, warned me that he would be quite strict with everyone during the trip. “Look out for the guy with a grey ponytail shouting at everyone,” my father said. “That will be Herbert.”
So said, so done. Herbert indeed met everyone as they got off the ferry in Donsak and started shouting at people to sit down and be quiet and listen. “You all sit on these three tables — one, two, three. No, not that table. NOT THAT TABLE! Please get up and move! Now!”
He explained how the whole trip would work and gave us all itineraries. Then he even went as far as to delegate people into specific mini vans which we were to stay with during the whole trip. I checked the itinerary; it said that we would be making exactly one pee stop for exactly ten minutes, and that if anyone was late by even one minute they would be left behind. “Did you ever see this Seinfeld show, The Soup Nazi? Herbert is the Visa Nazi,” explained a woman from Germany who had done this trip three times. “But don’t worry. Herbert is the best. Just do exactly as he says and don’t miss the bus.”
We travelled in convoy in four vans, each with a big sticker on the side which read “VISA/BURGER”. I found out what all the burger business was about when we stopped for our 10-minute pee break and everyone had to eat a pretty terrible burger. But, food is food, especially when you are on the road with a Visa Nazi, so nobody refused.
As we drove south through Thailand towards Malaysia things started to get a bit dodgy. There have been some radical insurgents in the southern region, and for about an hour we drove through what looked like a war zone — the military had put road blocks and partitions which you had to weave your way around, which I suppose is to prevent any insurgents from making a fast escape down the highway. We often passed sand bunkers with a small team of military personnel in uniforms holding big machine guns. No wonder Herbert is very strict about where and when the convoy stops!
We were driving for many hours, and of course what else can you do to pass the time other than to chat with the other people around you. Talk about a bunch of colorful characters. First was Nikki, the American girl from California who just spent three years in India learning yoga and meditation, who told me that this would be a year of change for me, as Saturn moves around the Earth once every 29 years, and this year I turned 29. Then was Oliver, a Belgian guy who was a dive instructor on another nearby island, who told me all about diving all over Thailand, and how to get jobs in the industry. Next was Frenchie, a French guy who clearly was on a whole other wave length, as he would not tell anyone his name and claimed he was an alien (as in from another planet) travelling with nothing but his wallet, his passport, and his ukelele. It was definitely interesting to see what other ‘resident tourists’ were in the same situation as me.
Day turned to night, and around 11 pm we reached the border with Malaysia, and checked in for a few hours of sleep at a horrible hotel which, on a Tuesday night, had a huge disco blaring downstairs, full of Thai prostitutes and Malaysian businessmen. Herbert ushered everyone into the conference room, and ensured our papers were together and ready for the next morning. Once we were done, we were allowed to go to sleep, but the bass from the disco downstairs made it a bit tough. A word of advice — always travel with ear plugs… ALWAYS.
We were awoken by the master and commander at 5.30 am sharp, and made the official crossing into Kota Bahru through the Thai-Malaysia border and got stamped out. Once everyone was through, we were dumped off at a nearby mall, and Herbert took all the passports to the consulate for processing. We had a lot of time to kill in this mall. The Germans and the French people seemed quite content to spend six hours smoking outside; perhaps it is a European thing. Some of us others decided instead to go to the bowling alley, where a game was only two ringgit (less than $1 US). Would have been nice to have some cold frosty beers, but Kota Bahru is a pretty conservative area of Malaysia, and the whole mall was dry.
Finally, Herbert returned with all of our passports and all of our beautiful new visas, and we were off again to cross back into Thailand and get a new stamp allowing us to stay for 3 months or a year or whatever. But, since it was too late to get any ferries back to Koh Samui, the next stop on the list would be the Post Laser Disc Pub (????) in Hat Yai. It was a surprisingly nice pub, a proper British pub with Guinness and Kilkenny on tap and lots of food. Everyone sat down and relaxed with a long-awaited refreshment for happy hour. There was lots of restaurants around and some of us wandered the streets munching and drinking.
By about 11 pm I was exhausted, and back at the pub put my head down to sleep. Then, a tap on the shoulder. It was two quiet Russian girls who had not said much to anyone else on the trip. “You tired?” they asked me. “Come with us. Ve do zis trip many times. Ve know good place, ya? Come.” We walked around the corner and the three of us carefully snuck into the local cineplex and into one of the theatres where a Thai movie was playing. “Zis is good place to sleep!” the girls told me. “Get comfortable.” I popped in my ear plugs, set my alarms, and got comfy in the big cinema chairs.
Finally 1 am came, and we hopped back into the vans began our trip back north to catch the ferry back home to Koh Samui. Most people were stinking drunk by then and we had to stop for a number of pee breaks, but Herbert didn’t mind because his job was done — we all had our visas and we were back in Thailand. Everyone fell asleep for the ride so it was blissfully quiet. At Donsak we caught the 6 am ferry back to Koh Samui, and sat outside on the back patio of the boat drinking some terrible coffee and enjoying the beautiful view of limestone mountains in the mainland.
I am extremely glad to be back home in Samui, and to have a wonderful 3-month stamp in my passport allowing me to stay. All in all it was a good trip and quite interesting. I met some very nice people whom I am sure I will meet up with at some point for a lime. And though Herbert is extremely strict about the trip, he is very efficient and got the job done. After all, imagine how difficult it must be to organise 30 people with many different passports and visas and get them all back into Thailand within 42 hours. He does a damn fine job with his Visa/Burger trips, and would recommend him to anyone trying to extend their stay here.
Oh, and those of you who didn’t get the pun about the name of this post, please check here.