Southeast Asia travel: A guide to overland border crossings

Southeast Asia travel: A guide to overland border crossings

Well-travelled pros offer some tips and resources on how to stay sane and cut through the red tape as painlessly and quickly as possible
Don't let the red tape get you down. Plan your border crossings well and enjoy the experience. Here, locals leaving the Myanmar border town of Tachilek head into Thailand's northernmost border city, Mae Sai.

Flying might be quick, but to really get a real feel for Southeast Asia, try rolling old-school and make your way through the region on the ground, where you'll gain a better understanding of the varying landscapes and cultures across the region.

There is a variety of popular routes. For instance, it's possible to follow the Mekong River from China’s Yunnan province to Vietnam through Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.

But as with any form of adventuring, there are drawbacks. When traveling overland you will deal with a whole mess of border crossings, which can mean smooth sailing or a huge headache, depending on your level of preparation.

Here are a few tips on how to make it across a land border with as little hassle as possible.

Manage your expectations

An overland trip can provide a window into ground-level daily life. That daily life may include bumpy roads, long lines and unexpected detours.

Stu Lloyd, a senior director at the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), advises travelers to curb their frustrations and savor the melee.

“The border crossing is part of the experience of travel," says Lloyd. "Enjoy the quirks of the moment. Most importantly, be patient and calm and expect to queue.”

Research

Getting to Vientiane via Thailand is easy. The Laos capital lies just over the Thailand-Laos Friendship Bridge border crossing.Make sure you know the visa information for each country well before your journey. Destinations such as Cambodia and Laos offer visas on arrival, whereas a visa to Vietnam must be arranged in advance.

Plus, a few border crossings are not equipped to provide visas on arrival for destinations that usually offer them. If there is an e-Visa system, as Myanmar is reportedly working on implementing, apply for it online a few weeks before you leave.

Time it wisely

To avoid arriving at a crossing congested by a lengthy tour bus caravan, dodge the border’s busiest times.

Long weekends and public holidays always inspire more travel, which can result in border traffic.

Patricia Weismantel, product manager at Spice Roads Cycle Tours, has plenty of experience planning overland trips; she manages bicycling trips that cover 17 countries across Asia.

“At any crossing you can have the bad luck of arriving at the same time as a big bus group, which will mean long lines,” says Weismantel. “The best time to go is when the border first opens; usually there will be no big tour groups there that early.”

Mason Florence, executive director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, adds: “In general it's best to aim for weekdays; at some border crossings they may charge a bit extra for 'overtime' on weekends.

"More importantly, try to arrive to cross borders an hour or two before they close for business -- this is usually around 4:30 or 5 p.m.”

Be prepared

A little planning goes a long way when you are on a multi-country expedition.

- Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months. Otherwise you’ll be denied entry.

- Bring photocopies of your passport, travel documents, hotel bookings and visa information.

Before hitting the road, make sure you passport has enough pages to hold all those visas and stamps. - Check that you have a few empty visa pages. If you do not have pages free for visas, you will have to go to your embassy to have extra pages inserted before you can enter the country, throwing a kink into your trip. Some countries, like Canada, don't even offer their residents new pages so you'll have to get a completely new passport.

- A few destinations have downloadable visa application forms on their websites. If you can fill out the paperwork in advance, you can shave some time off the wait at the border.

- Bring a few extra color passport-sized pictures of yourself, as they may be required for the visa on arrival. Double check the size of picture required; the dimensions differ from country to country.

- If you have not been issued a visa yet, have a pen on hand to complete the application paperwork. At most border crossings all you'll find are some dangling strings minus the once-attached pens thanks to sticky-fingered travelers.

- Alert your credit card company that you will be conducting transactions in a new country so they won't suspend your card for suspicious usage.

- Be ready to answer questions. Where are you going? What is the address of the place you’ll be staying? What is the purpose of your trip? How long do you expect to stay?

- Carry both local currency and U.S. dollars in small bills. Have the exact cash amount ready for the visa fee, as officials may not be overly eager to provide change.

Be respectful

The best way to speed through immigration is to conduct yourself with grace,calm and a respect for local culture.

“Just smile and be patient and alert,” advises Lloyd of PATA. “Remember you’re an ambassador for your own country as much as a visitor in the host country. Respect the local customs and dress appropriately. Body language and a smile go a long way.”

Get your tax back

In some countries, such as Thailand, tourists are not required to pay the Value Added Tax (VAT) on items above a certain value that they are taking out of the country.

You will need to get a tax reclaim form when you purchase the item, then present a receipt, the item, and your passport when you leave the country. Make sure to get a stamp outside passport control before you cross the border. Note: the stamp must be issued the day of the border crossing.

Location, location, location

Not all border crossings are created equal. Some points of immigration are easier to traverse than others. For example, the fan-favorite point of embarkation for travelers from Thailand to Southern Laos is the Chong Mek/Vang Tao border.

When traveling from Cambodia to Laos, however, you have only one option: the Veun Kham/Dom Kralor crossing.

Check Southeast Asia travel website Travelfish.org for a handy list of the most popular and convenient crossings by country.

Look out for scams

Minivans, tour buses and border crossings are a breeding ground for touts looking to make a fast buck off unsuspecting tourists. Be polite, but be cautious and remember that if you are well-informed you make poor prey.

“Here I’ll take that for you!”: if someone offers to carry your bag, it's not out of the kindness of their heart. They will probably slam you with a fee for hauling your duffel from the taxi to the curb.

Scam bus: a few tour buses are infamous for hosing tourists. The ride from Bangkok to Cambodia and the ride from Vietnam to Laos are particularly well-trafficked with these shysters.

The bus drivers will do everything they can to stall the trip so you arrive at your destination after dark. Once the sun has set they can shuttle you to one of their buddies’ guesthouses. You'll be so exhausted and disoriented you'll happily oblige, and they'll receive a commission on your stay.

Do your own paperwork: the forms are straightforward and there is no reason to pass your identification over to a stranger who may not return it and will certainly charge you for the unnecessary service.

Know what things should cost: make sure you know the exact visa fee as the border officials and tour operators may be looking to skim money off the top by inflating the fee. Calmly providing documentation that displays the official costs could save you money.

Above all, enjoy it

There’s a romance to traveling by land that is impossible to capture if you travel by air. On a terrestrial voyage you are literally following in the footsteps of ancient explorers.

You don’t want a little border bureaucracy to put a damper on your overland odyssey, so be patient and prepared.

As Florence of the Mekong Tourism Forum so aptly puts it: “It’s not about getting from point A to point B -- it’s what happens along the way.”

Resources

For more information on Southeast Asia travel, here are a few websites that offer specific information on visa requirements and costs:

- Wikitravel.org/en/Southeast_Asia
- Southeastasiabackpacker.com
- Goseasia.about.com
- Exploremekong.org
- Lonelyplanet.com
- Travelfish.org