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Thread: Laos Road Trip (April 2015)

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    Laos Road Trip (April 2015)

    LAOS

    Lovely Laos – landlocked and somewhat impoverished but what it lacks in material wealth in makes up for un bundles in its stunning natural beauty.

    I have covered Visa entry and temporary car import separately.

    Money – essentially the Lao Kip is pegged to the USD at a current exchange rate of ~ 8100 = USD 1. However the whole country if effectively tri-currency based, with USD and THB accepted pretty much everywhere and most like CNY in the far north.

    I did find it cheaper paying in Kip, so recommend exchanging enough money to cover hotels/food/gasoline if possible, but make sure you use or exchange all the left over Kip back to USD or THB before leaving Laos and no-where wants it in Thailand.

    Banks in Savanakhet (and other major cities) are competitive for exchanging money – no need for pristine USD bills like Myanmar. [NB: No money chnager in Chiang Mai offers Kip, so you’ll need to exchange money in Laos].

    Costs – hotels we stayed at ranged from ~300 THB to 1000 THB but there are some palatial hotels charging north for USD 300/night. Food – decent food is actually MORE expensive than Thailand as ingredients need importing (or because foreigners are an easy target to gauge) – sure local food is dirt cheap, but unless you have a cast iron constitution then be prepared to pay for quality. Gasoline was around USD 1 (8200 Kip) /liter near Thailand but shot up to 1.60 USD (13,000 Kip)/liter in bottles on a hill in the middle of no-where! Beer Lao is good, cheap and ubiquitous and tastes much better in Laos than the exported stuff. Entry fees to special attractions are very reasonable compared to rip-off Thai (farang) prices.

    Day 1 (Chiang Mai – Khon Kean 650km)

    I went via Highway 11 then Highway 12 – straight forward driving on good roads. Highway 12 is being massively upgraded from Phitsanulok to past Nam Neo National Park, but there is no congestion, just very scenic views over the rolling hills.

    I had to pay Isaan entry ‘tax’ by way of speed trap just before Chum Phae – 400 Baht and receipt issued – all very professional – welcome to Isaan!

    Arrived in Khon Kean early evening and headed for Kaen Nakhon Lake which was very crowded getting ready for Songkran festivities. Wat Nong Weang Muang Kao well worth visiting for its huge iconic spire and the lake throbbing with humanity. The dinosaur theme seemed very apt looking at the farangs in the Westerner centric area around the Pullman Hotel! Stayed at the Grand Leo Hotel – a Chinese ‘love hotel’ me thinks, but at 400 Baht/night – decent value for money.

    Happy Bar was good eats then a evening waling tour of the City Pillar Shrine and sand sculptures nearby. Doubtless Gee will have a more positive view on the place but I can’t say I’ll be rushing back. A very big city with clearly significant wealth and likely good nightlife but did not appeal much to me. (Solly).

    Day 2 (Khon Kean – Savanakhet 260km)

    Into Isaan proper with the vast open farmlands I’d expected – Kalasin – wtf is there?! Onwards on Highway 12 then Highway 2042 where there was some good scenery at times. Near the border came across an interesting temple of a style I’ve never seen before.

    Mukdahan was a fairly uninspiring market border town with the usual Chinese tat and aprt from the whacky space needle seemed little reason to stay there, so I headed over the border. I’ll cover the border crossing separately.

    Savanakhet is not the most scenic town on Earth but the old French colonial section downtown is well worth exploring. We ate and rank at the Mekhong Sala Bar on the bank of the river – food OK but a bit pricy, cold beer Lao – excellent!

    Stayed at Somchith (Somjid) Hotel about 1.5km NW along the road of the new Thai consulate - walking distance (10 mins) to the consulate and decent wifi (400/600 Baht/night). Got to the Thai consulate at 08:00 and was first in line, consulate opened at 09:00 and I was walking back to the hotel at 09:05! – really the best Thai visa related experience ever!! Unfortunately (since Feb 2015) you can no longer pick up your visa in the afternoon fo the same day, meaning another night needed in Savanakhet.

    Day 3 (Savanakhet)

    For first time and having the car this was not a problem as chance to explore a little, so headed into town. By the old hospital and Tourist Info office - Lisa's Cafe owned by a Swedish guy and his Lao girlfriend was very good and his local knowledge helpful – very much recommend popping in to have a bite to eat (yummy), a cold beer and/or play pool (he’s got the towns only pool table). The map he gave me was handy as I was actually looking for Souther Laos most revered temple (That Ing Hang) wrongly located on Google Earth.
    That Ing Hang (temple) is well worth visiting – I was lucky and stumbled across the back route (dirt road) which goes by scenic Bungva Lake where they have earties over looking the lake. (This time of year the water was very low but still worth visiting). That Ing Hang is a serene place indeed – it feels lost in time and hardly anyone was there (no foreigners) – the central stupa is only allowed to be visited by men.

    Heading back to town decided to take a look at the casino - Savanvegas!

    Strangely this is quite difficult to find. From the ‘dinosaur roundabout’ (yep – looks like they are competing with Isaan on the dino-theme) head northeast on Highway 9 less than 1km and the turn is to the left (huge sign). From the border crossing there are no signs though – so perhaps some enhanced marketing is in order.

    The casino is big – the gaming floor has the usual slots and tables plus some odd Chinese centric games I’ve never seen before. The Mrs did get lucky and we won $250 (2 million Kip – whoppee!!). [A little side note here – we went back the following morning while waiting to pick up my passport/visa – at the buffet restaurant the maître d'hôtel wants money upfront for the buffet (odd) but I decide on Western breakfast instead (bit cheaper and more to my taste, the buffet being mainly Asian food), anyway after the meal I’m told I need to pay for orange and tea …. Hummm … I think not, its included in the breakfast deal. Whats transpired is collusion between the maître d'hôtel and the head cashier to pocket a self appointed tip which was a mere 80 Baht – not at all happy with their response the General Manager Michael Gore comes over to sort things out. I give him the disputed money that magically materialises and have a very pleasant conversation with Mr Gore who I’m sure will find a proper solution – anyway Sir it was a small dent in an other wise fun time at Savanvegas].

    The majority of punters were Thai with some Chinese and very few Westerners. The other good thing at Savanvegas are the shows – live music, cute girl singers, well worth a visit and be lucky!

    Day 4 (Savanakhet – Paksan 320km)

    With the wait to 14:00 to collect my passport lost some valuable driving time. Drove up relatively good Highway 13 north. The road has some pot-holes and gravel sections, so bikers would need to be careful. With no road marking I felt it too unsafe to risk driving at night, so stopped in Paksan – 150km short of Vientiane. Stayed in the Chinese Paksan Hotel for 600 Baht/nght – nice room but no-where to eat.

    Day 5 (Paksan – Vang Vieng 300km)

    Got up very early (05:30) and reached Vientiane by 09:30 which was enough time to do the major ‘sights’, but not do justice to such a pretty city. Got lucky finding Sisaket Temple immediately then following Chinese lunch at Talad Sao Shopping Mall (handy parking outside the Tourist Info Office) then onto Patuxay (Arch) and then Laos most revered site – Pha That Luang.

    Parking in Vientiane is nuts – surprisingly busy like Paris insane double/triple, park where you like parking! Would have loved to spend more time in the city and run with VH3 but this time not enough time. Patuxay had great views from the top and could feel the spiritual warmth at the lovely Pha That Luang.

    Filled up on gasoline and the onwards on Highway 13 to Vang Vieng. The highway was mostly very good, the best thus far but fairly busy with many buses and HGV’s but a good road. The usual dangers where pot-holes/fallen trees/rocks/gravel/cows/buffalo/on coming traffic/ buses/HGV’s/kids in the villages and last but not least the cute Lao women!

    Arrived at Vang Vieng as the sun was setting – stunning!!

    Patuxayang Vieng really is a special place – the scenery is mind blowing, so we decided on the 1000 baht/night Villayvong Hotel with magnificent views over the river and mountain karsts. Finding a place to eat was tricky but evbentually we decided ona laid back place called Vanphaxay just above the river in the main town. Great ambiance (and wifi) and discovered a new delicious dish – honey and sesame seed coated chicken (Oh Yes!). That night was a wonderful electrical storm at 02:00 – just truly magical watching the lightning dance in the huge limestone karsts, how blessed I felt!!
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    Day 6 (Vang Vieng – Phonsavan [Plain of Jars] 250km)

    I got up very early again (05:30) and went to scout the town – I’m sure a LOT of fun can be had here and really did not want to leave. A photographers’ paradise. A MUST DO is take a boat trip (USD 10 per head, 2 PAX per long tail boat), so we were first to hit the river at 07:30 for a 2 hour boat trip. I’ll let the photo’s speak for themselves - fantastic even with a drop of rain (extra atmosphere). Boat trip over then we headed to The Blue Lagoon and Topoukham Cave. A 600m climb to the cave (normal Belly run really) and into the cave – we didn’t have enough time to really explore deeper into the cave system (and this si the best one in the area) but was spectacular with a opening letting the light flood into to the main cavern.

    Then a dash back to the hotel to shower and hit the stunning roads north. This drive northeast on Highway 12 then Highway 7 was OK but became more challenging with increasing potholes and many village dangers/distractions. Ideally more time would be needed to really appreciate what must be up there as one of the worlds most scenic drives. After the poorly signposted turn onto Highway 7 at Phou Khoun the road becomes less bend ridden and much less trafficked. We were fortunate to arrive at Site 1 of the Plain of Jars (Phonsavan) at 18:00 as because a tour bus turned up they let us got into the site (4.30 USD for 2 Pax plus car) which was kind of extra special to enjoy the mysterious plain at sunset. [I’d have liked to have seen Sites 2 and 3 which are >20 km from Phonsavan but decided that seeing Site 1 would suffice – it was a long journey to get there and I think many may not feel it worth the effort, but I was more than happy to explore in the little time we had – apart from the mysterious stone jars there were trenches and bomb craters from the ‘70’s Pol Pot/Vietman War era.

    With darkness falling we found a basic but clean local guesthouse for 300 Baht/night on Highway 7 in Phonsavan town.

    I made the error of not filling up with gasoline in Phonsavan and also decided on changing my route. I’d planed to go back via Laung Prabang but as we’ve already been there, decided to attempt the more ambitious push to Phu Lao and then northwest on Highway 1C to Pak Mong.

    Day 7 (Phonsavan – Oudomxay 500km)

    This is one of the most difficult and dangerous drives I have ever done Got up at 04:30 and was on the road at 05:00, despite feeling that driving in the dark in Loas is not worth the risk, wanted as much time as possible to make it to Pak Mong.

    Overnight a massive storm had swept through and it was clear by the flooding and fallen trees that it had been pretty intense. Being one of the first on the road in the dark made for added caution. Continuing east on Highway 7 was OK (avoiding the obstacles) and by Mueng Kham the sun had risen on this relatively easy road.

    However I’d risked not filling up at the many gas stations in Phonsavan assuming the later towns would have gas – wrong! No gas station in Muang Kham and I missed the turn onto the bizarrely numbered Highway 1C north. I was heading to the Vietnam border and realised something was wrong (Garmin GPS tried at times to put me on some strange and massive detours). I turned round and back-tracked to Mueng Kham tand found Highway 1C.

    I am very grateful to hobomaps dot com for the extremely useful map of northern Laos. The 100km section from Muang Kham to Phao Lao was stunning and relatively OK but the road was very little trafficked – especially that early in the morning, so extra caution needed to make it past the fallen trees, rock slides and debris on the road. Hobomaps pegges the section from Phou lao to Pak Mong (255km) as taking 9 hours! This worried me as to what sort or road would take so long to get through!! Also I was out of gas!!!!

    Phou Lao was a ridge-top village junction and I did make the right turn, but no sign of a gas station – I was seriously concerned and on asking some locals was told there was a gas station down in the valley about 8km further. Indeed there was a welcome gas station but gas did not come cheap – 9,600 Kip (1.20 USD or 20% more expensive than normal)/litre. I filled up with most of the Kip I had left – about 2/3rds the tank but should have filled up fully as later would nearly run dry again.

    From Phau Lao to Pak Mong has to be one of the world’s great driving roads – it makes the Pai – Mae Hong Son or Hana Highway look positively dead straight! It is breathtakingly gorgeous and at a wide river valley we stopped about 55km out from Phou Lao at a village called Vieng Thong. Here we had the best food we had on the entire trip – a Viet/Lao noodle soup – delicious.

    Highway 1C then begins to become more challenging and climbs – the views become even more spectacular and on one mountain crest there was a rest stop over looking the vast expanse of mountains – there are not really superlatives to do it justice.

    I should have done a bit more research as just before Pak Mong lies Nong Kiew (seemed like Vang Vieng lite) – I dearly wanted to check this place out and subsequently have found out the is a boat services on the Nam Ou River. This is one place I’d like to go back to in future to explore.

    I reached Pak Mong (no gas station) in hours from Phou Lao – significantly less than hobomaps 9 hour estimate. The road is generally OK and would have been even better in drier conditions – especially for bikers but the moody clouds and rain at times did add to atmosphere.

    From Pak Mong to Oudomxay is 75km (on a ‘bad asphalt road’) according to hobomaps – little did I know how bad! With little gas and no gas station in Pak Momg town (there was one just outside the town I should have used but gas was a bit pricey >10,000 Kip/litre), so I thought I could make it to Oudomxay – wrong!!

    In fact the road started off great – it had just been built! After 10km or so it tuned to gravel and large stones and became increasingly difficult – fortunately the rain had stopped but the construction works were awful. There were several wrecks at the side of the precipitous road and the road was fairly heavy with all manner of traffic. The conditions got worse and worse and I was just hoping to make it through OK. Gas was also running out, fortunately on the top of a long ascent there was the remains of a village decimated by the construction works with a place selling bottles of gasoline for 13,000 kip (1.60 USD)/litre – the 60% mark up seemed immaterial in the circumstances and I bought as much as she’d let me have!

    The God’s were kind and as sun set we made it to Oudomxay (they are building the road from Oudomxay too, so the last 10km into town was good – I expect it will take a year to complete the road – after this it will be a great drive).

    In Oudomxay we stayed at the Xokxay Hotel for 580 Baht/night – too tired to hunt for something to eat. Noisy location and a soulless hotel with dubious cleanliness and broken wifi.

    Day 8 (Oudomxay – Chiang Mai 625km)

    Set off at daybreak (05:45) and the 1C rejoins Highway 13 (Laos most important road). This road has been recently (in the last year I’d guess) been rebuilt and while incredibly bendy is now an OK road. However there were many wrecked trucks (I suspect fatal crashes – brake failure looks most common cause).

    Nearing the Chinese border there were stall selling mainly fresh produce very cheaply – water melons and bamboo seemed most ubiquitous, but also there was wildlife on offer sadly. I decided an popping up the 20km detour to the Botan border crossing to China – very underwhelming.

    Highway 13 goes to China and Highway 3 heads to Laung Namtha onto Huay Xai. This road is ‘new’ (2 years old max I’d guess) so expected it to me ‘easy’ – its not! It was raining at times very heavily and the rain had taken its toll with several nasty looking wrecks en route, round one bend I nearly collided with a HGV using a cable to try and pull a small truck that had flipped on the road upright!! Having filled up in Oudomxay (lost of gas stations) the only issue was getting to Huay Xai in one piece – as a driver who likes a challenging road I did on the whole enjoy this road but its not as scenic as the high karst mountains further south.

    Finally make to Huay Xai – time to ship in some Beer Lao and head over Friendship Bridge IV (very easy) back to Thailand.

    Then was left the anticlimactic familiar drive back to Chiang Mai mostly in rain.

    So 3100km and back home! Driving is Laos is not for everyone and really should be taken at a slow pace to enjoy the wonderful scenery Laos possesses in bundles.

    The road numbering and marking leave a lot to be desired – but roads are being improved so expect in future travel by road in Laos will become less challenging. Certainly prepare in advance and unless you are au fait with eating local – take food along on the long sections between towns in the remoter areas.

    The Lao people are generally reserved and traditional, so apart from the heavily touristic areas nightlife options are limited to say the least.

    It may be a while until I return to Laos, but I’m very happy to have seen so much of such a verdant lovely country – khokhobchaithan.
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    CAR (temporary Export/Import) to Laos

    Step 1 – Obtaining a Car ‘Passport’

    This was easy enough – the owner of the vehicle needs to go to the Transportation Office where the the vehicle is registered (in my case Chiang Mai) and fill in a very simple form and pay 255 Baht – for this you after waiting 2 days you receive a purple ‘passport’ with the vechicles details in English and two (T) stickers. [After 60 days you get Romanised number plate stickers, so if you plan ahead then get the car ‘passport’ >2 months in advance, but I did not have time but no-one questioned me about this at anytime, so don’t think it’s very important].

    Step 2 – Exiting Thailand (at Mukdahan)/Entering Laos (at Savanakhet)

    Copies needed (worth getting prior to journey) –

    4x Blue Vehicle Registration Book (all pages)
    4x Vehicle owners ID
    2x Owners Passport (photo page)
    Exiting Mukdahan (Thailand)

    At Thai checkpoint need to fill in 2x Information of Conveyance Form (TM. 2)

    This has some odd questions as applies to aircraft and marine craft as well. Basically a car is a ‘van’ (Q1) the kind of conveyance (Q2) is the make of vehicle, they also want the VIN (engine # from the Registration) and the other questions are self-explanatory. The immigration official was helpful enough.

    After filling these 2 forms in go through Immigration as normal for yourselves and the vehicle – NOTE – its VERY important you keep hold of the second stamped copy of the TM. 2 form as this is essential for re-entry into Thailand.

    Next was Thai Customs – they stamped the Car ‘Passport’ and entered info into computer and the fee was 150 Baht (receipt given). Here was where the Car Registration/ID/Passport copies were needed. A white customs print out was given.

    To cross the bridge the fee is 50 Baht (Thai side) and 20 Baht (Laos side). Receipts given.

    Entering Suvanakhet (Laos)

    First up was for me (UK national) to get Visa on Arrival – on waking the guy up and handing over completed VoA Form with 2 photos and fee (USD 35 for UK national) – very promptly and without any request for any ‘extra fee’ was given passport with page gobbling visa stiker (valid for a 30 day entry). My wife was given 30 days gratis on her Thai passport.

    No more forms to fill in on Laos side – after Immigration proceeded to Laos customs and details were entered into computer and Car ‘Passport’ stamped. Fee here was 250 Baht (receipt given) and a yellow customs print out given.

    Finding an insurance agent open/awake was a struggle but after 20 mins a lady appeared at the window of Lanexang Assurance Public Company – and for 200 Baht we bought 1 weeks 3rd Party Insurance Cover. NOTE: I very strongly recommend you take out this basic cover at least – a friend had a serious accident there that resulted in the death of Lao national and it was very messy indeed to sort out as had no Lao insurance cover. Additionally the roads in Loas are some of the most dangerous I have ever driven on – for such a small sum do not cut corners!)

    Summing up the entry/exit at Mukdahan/Savanakhet at Friendship Bridge II the total cost was 670 Baht (plus USD 35 for the Lao VoA) and took about 90 minutes in very quiet conditions. Had we known the routine, could have probably done the crossing in less than half that time.

    NOTE: We did inform the officials on both sides that we intended to drive through Laos and exit at Huay Xai/Chang Kong – the response was ‘no problem – have everything in computer’.



    Step 3 – Exiting Laos (at Huay Xai)/Entering Thailand (at Chang Kong)

    Noting it was the eve of Songkran and heavy rain the boarder crossing was deserted, so I wonder if this is the official routine or not.

    Exiting Huay Xai (Laos)

    Went to Immigration with passports as normal and Form TM. 2 – Lao Immigration Officer asked for 200 Baht – stamped passports (no receipt).

    Actually we made a mistake and went to Lao Customs first and official took back the yellow form and stamped the purple Car ‘Passport’ (gratis).

    Entering Chang Kong (Thailand)

    Cross the bridge (no fees) and a clever way to change sides of the road – then proceeded to Thai Immigration. Handed over passports and Form TM. 2 and copies of Car Registration and asked for 200 Baht (no receipt).

    Proceeded to Thai Customs, handed over white customs form and purple car ‘passport’ stamped (gratis). Surprisingly no customs inspection – just a friendly ‘you can go’.

    Summing up the exit/entry at Huay Xai/Chang Kong at Friendship Bridge IV cost 400 Baht and took 20 minutes – very easy!



    Now knowing the procedure for me I would do it again and try with Myanmar and Cambodia and perhaps even Vietnam in future – having your own wheels means so much freedom to explore and work to your own timetable. On both sides the officials were helpful and easy to deal with.

    I expect the procedure is similar for motorcycles although I have been told that at some crossings they only give a 14 day tourist visa entry and that you may need a pre-approval letter. At Huay Xai, Vientiane I believe that the process outlined above at Savanakhet would be similar.
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    Laos Trip Report (April 2015)


    VISA (Non-Immigrant O – Marriage Based)

    This in my 15 years of Thai visa’s/extensions was by far the easiest

    - APPLICATION FORM with TWO PASSPORT PHOTOS
    - 5000 BAHT
    - DOUBLE SIDED PHOTOCOPY OF WEDDING CERTIFICTE (Tor Lor 3)
    - PHOTOCOPY OF MY PASSPORT PHOTO PAGE (signed and dated by me)
    - PHOTOCOPY OF MY WIFES NAME CHANGING CERTIFICATE (sign and dated by her)
    - PHOTOCOPY OF MY WIFES HOUSE BOOK (signed and dated by her)
    - PHOTOCOPY OF MY WIFES ID CARD back and front (signed and dated by her)

    The requirement to show the original marriage certificate should be emphasised - a gentlemen in the queue was turned down on the 1 year Multi-entry Non-O as he did not the original marriage certificate, he was however given a double entry tourist visa for 2000 Baht.

    In >15 years of dealing with embassies, consulates and immigration offices, I commend Savanakhet for its simplicity and ease of use.

    I recommend the Somchith (Somjid) Hotel about 1.5km NW along the road of the new Thai consulate - walking distance (10 mins) to the consulate and decent wifi (400/600 Baht/night). In town by the old hospital and Tourist Info office - Lisa's Cafe owned by a Swedish guy and his Lao girlfriend was very good and his local knowledge helpful.
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    Excellent and very useful Laos road and town/travel info here -

    Hobo Maps Home Page
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    Nice report.. Where are the pics ??

    N Laos Vientiane to oudomxuay and around that region is stunning.. Far more impressive for me than the south..

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    Great stuff Kev'...thanks for posting.

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    Wow, what a great trip; and a great read. Thanks Kev.

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    Great report Kev

    Any chance of showing your map route?

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    Pics on my FB Sef - heres the route map Gee -

    I changed my mind about going through Laung Prabang and did the eastern loop (in pink).
    Attached Images Attached Images
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    Very informative Kev. Thanks.
    Pics would be nice ;-)
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    Great report, crazy how petrol is so expensive even by western standards, you'd have to wonder how the locals afford it?

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    Nice report......loved the visa section, seem way easier than Penang. And no question about bankbook???
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    Quote Originally Posted by geir View Post
    Nice report......loved the visa section, seem way easier than Penang. And no question about bankbook???
    This is why I told you to go there.. Marriage papers only gets one year multi entry.. Money not needed to be shown.

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    Yeah, will go there on my road trip to CM after I come back from Noggieland. Probably sometime in June or July......When is it smoke free up there???
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    As soon as it tips to rain season its cleared.. I suspect its pretty clear already given song gran storms but am south now so cant be sure.

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    Quote Originally Posted by geir View Post
    Nice report......loved the visa section, seem way easier than Penang. And no question about bankbook???
    The only thing they are strict on is showing the original marriage certificate (and I'd also take original + copies of the marriage entry at the Amphur and name change for Joy (if she did this - the Phuket office forced K1 to change her surname under some daft directive [now no longer in force] back in 2006 IIRC).

    They did not ask for any financial information at all (although I did take bank book in case). Really it was the easiest most efficient visa process I have ever done for a Thai visa!! [Pity its a 900km trip from Chiang Mai].

    Smoke season already as good as done - been loads of storms since late March. [Smoke season is March - April]. Try and get here before mid-August before I head back to UK.

    Pics on my Facebook - sorry but too much PITA resizing to post here, if your not a FB friend of mine and want to see the pics - PM me.
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    Quote Originally Posted by LivinLOS View Post
    This is why I told you to go there.. Marriage papers only gets one year multi entry.. Money not needed to be shown.
    It's the old Hull of SE Asia 555555555

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    Senior Member Geespot's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by geir View Post
    Yeah, will go there on my road trip to CM after I come back from Noggieland. Probably sometime in June or July......When is it smoke free up there???
    Your road trip to CM? You might find yourself heading in the wrong direction 555555. Savannakhet is due east from Khon Kaen

    Kev basically did a loop round Laos and reentered Thailand at the nearest border post to CM

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    I think it's actually closer to Ubon, isn't it?

    Exact opposite direction from CM.

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