Making the Ranong to Kowthoung Estuary Visa Run

Kawthoung Travel Blog

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The new Thai visa lasts 15 only days so Kowthoung is a destination that many have to be heading to as they cross into Myanmar before returning to Thailand to obtain a new visa. Ignore what some say and make the effort to see Ranong/Kowthoung /Andaman Club/Sea Gypsies at least once. It ranks highly amongst the world's romantic border crossings ��" the experience is in large part Indiana Jones with a small dash of Venice. Planned correctly it’s a straightforward and safe trip to make.

On both sides of the estuary in addition to the ubiquitous Chinese and Indians you'll come across Burmese (Muslims & Buddhists), and minorities like the Shan, the Karen, Mon and my favourite the Moken (Sea Gypsies) and the scenery is breathtaking.

Phuket to Ranong along highway 4 is a journey worth in itself and you'll see much of Thailand's beautiful wooded mountains and waterfalls without getting out of your car. Try and time your return for sunset which is usually just past 6.30pm and you'll have one of the more memorable car rides of your life.

Arriving at Ranong on the Thai side the crossing point is located just behind an Esso/7-11 station and many choose to leave their cars in the parking of the station where for a fee of up to 40 bhat your car will be looked after. As you get out of your car you'll be accosted by friendly but persistent "guides/fixers" who will offer to arrange the whole crossing for you.

The blue arched entrance to the crossing point is immediately across a busy street market and your senses will be assaulted the instant you step out of your car by a multitude of sights and sounds and smells. As you try and recover you will be harried by Thai guides/fixers with offers to help you do the visa run.

If you are prepared to pay extra just go along with a guide who will help you with the paper work on the Thai side (just to the right side of the entrance for farangs and to the left for Thais making the crossing). The exit formalities are very simple and involve filling in a short exit form with name/nationality etc. and handing this to your boatman. Meantime a Thai border officer will take your picture through the glass screen till - (you only need go inside the immigration office if you have to pay the visa over-stay tax). The guide will help with the process and also direct you to a river from which you'll make the journey across. For this you'll pay the guide approx 100 bhat, you'll get overcharged by 100 bhat for the necessary $10 for the Burmese side if you don’t have it, and same again for a photocopy of your passport page. These are all maximum prices and subject to negotiation. A private river boat will cost you max 600 bhat (which you only pay once you have returned back to the Thai side) and chances are that you'll be asked to tip the river driver 50-100 bhat. If you are in a generous mood do all this and don’t haggle incessantly. If you have very little money read on below.

Before you get onto the river boat make sure that you have made clear the extent of time you wish to stay on the Burmese side, the amount to be paid, and that you will only pay the boatmen and guide when you get back to the Thai side and secure your Thai visa or get to your car if its parked at the Esso/7-11.  If you like bargaining and get a discount then offer to part 30% upfront and balance on return.

My first trip across I was hustled by the guides but at no point did I feel threatened by them and as long as you keep your wits about you - you and your possessions will be safe. I took along a camera in a small backpack. Its really all you need. Dress in full length light cotton clothes and pants to protect you from the mosquitoes (especially if you intend to travel at dawn/dusk) and bear in mind that unless the conditions are perfect you will get a little wet. In the event of a rainstorm/rough seas you'll get very wet and bringing a light raincoat is a great idea from March onwards the river boatmen will almost always provide you with an umbrella.

The guide will direct you onto a river boat with a 2 man crew. Once on board chat with the crew and take their mobile numbers. If you like the crew the next time you need to cross you can prearrange matters with them and when you are on the Burmese side you will also find this number helpful if you agree a later time from them to pick you up. The crossing to Kwatung takes about 40 minutes. If you have a camera with a lens you'll spend the entire time taking pictures - the crossing is a competent photographers dream with mist filled riverside shots of houses with stilts, river traffic, islands and mountains, pagodas and statues at several Buddhist shrines. If lucky you'll see dolphins if unlucky sharks (human not finned kind once you have crossed). As you cross you'll first come to a small islet in the middle of the estuary which is the Burmese checkpoint. here you need to give your river boatmen the photocopy of your passport for stamping/signing ��" always hold onto your passport - make sure you get the copy back and check that its stamped or signed. (On the return you'll stop at the Thai checkpoint on a separate islet where you need not provide the copy).

Im uncertain why these checkpoints are there - presumably to check for contraband. Both the Thai and Burmese officers manning the checkpoints are friendly and you really need not engage with either your boatmen will deal with them.

After the checkpoint it takes about 25 minutes to get to the Burmese docking jetty. You'll be unable to mount the jetty without the help of a new set of Burmese (guides/fixers/beggars) and with that first hand up you'll be immediately indebted to them so you have another choice to make either seek their assistance and part with another 50 bhat or so or firmly but politely shrug them off. On the Burmese side people are poorer and slightly (only slightly)  aggressive in seeking to "help" you.

Once on the jetty either ask one of your boatmen to accompany you (especially if he is Burmese) or instead zero in on one guide who speaks good English and let him help you through the visa process on the Burmese side (ask for the guide named Win) a Pastu Malay with a wisp of hair on his chin in the Muslim style he is the best I have come across so far. He speaks perfect English and takes care of the visa process for 20 bhat. Its well worth it. The process itself is carried out in a small office at the end of the jetty and involves you handing over your passport & $10 for stamping to a Burmese officer who is sitting while another officer takes you photo on his computer cam. It takes 5 minutes in total. 

If you are looking to save every bhat possible the Burmese side is not the place to do it - without a guide/fixer who apparently gives the officers a commission the process can take as long as the Burmese officers want it to. On my second crossing I saw a German couple sitting forlornly on wooden chairs. Apparently they had finished their journey through Burma and were now looking to cross to the Thai side but because they had not tipped or spoken with anyone and behaved in an arrogant manner they had been held on a passport stamp infraction for more than a day and told that they may have to go back to Yangon (Rangoon) . 

I asked if they needed my help but they rebuffed me as well so as far as I know they could still be languishing in Kwathung (if they are say hello to them from me ;-).  If there ever is a problem, and there rarely is if you are on a simple visa run, never offer any money directly to the border officers ask your fixer for advice as to how to best resolve the situation and let him intercede on your behalf.

You now have a 2 week Burmese visa and can stay in Kwathung district - take a boat trip to the Andaman Club or better still the dolphin grounds  which costs 300 bhats and there are sights to see if what you are interested in Burma itself and not looking for pre-packaged farang “tourist experience”. Alcohol, cigarettes, viagra, and other vices are all plentiful and apparently much cheaper than in Thailand but as I don’t partake I cant really say what you should expect. If you are wise instead of "looking for a deal" try and travel beyond Kwathung and get to know the people and you'll be amply rewarded.

As long as you have arranged matters with your river boat men you can spend the day visiting the sites. If you have paid off the boatmen then dont expect them to be waiting for you. Its best is to agree everything beforehand and stick to your side of the bargain. In Kwathung there is the Honey Bear hotel (1000 bhat) and the Kwathung Motel (800 bhat). Neither are great shakes. The motel wins it for its amazing sea views. If you are really adventurous you can try and negotiate a few days rent at a private house for upto 100 bhat a night but I dont advise this especially if you are travelling alone.   

After you return to the Thai side your boatmen or Thai guide will help you complete the simple visa process on the Thai side which involves the filling of one entry form with details of where you’ll be staying in Thailand.  

Tips for doing it on the Cheap: If you are looking to minimise the cost of the run. For necessary FX $10 go to Tesco Lotus In Ranong - Siam Bank has a good exchange inside. Its also a good clean place to eat with many restaurants and shops. When crossing ask for Boy & Esso's river boat. (400bhat) return. In Burma ask for Win (20bhat visa help up to 200 bhat per day as a guide to town and adjoining region/islands).

If you really don’t want to spend anything then do all the paper work on both sides yourself and wait for a boat that is taking many local passengers and see if you can get a ride for as little as 30 bhat.


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photo by: Deats