Clearing the Myanmar visa hurdle

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“Bangkok! I need tickets to Bangkok!” he said in panic to a Jetstar customer service operator over the phone.

We were going to Yangon, Myanmar, having planned the trip a week ago.

But 10 hours before departure, a friend casually mentioned that we needed tourist visas for Myanmar, or risked being deported on arrival.

Currently only certain ASEAN countries, including Vietnam and Philippines, are allowed visa-free entry into Myanmar.

When we heard the news, we ran for Google. We searched through every forum post on Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor. It was a relief to know that we were not the only clueless individuals – that citizens of all ASEAN countries could presumably breeze their way around Southeast Asian with no immigration hassles.

But for Myanmar, most of us would still need a visa.

The only known place that could give you an instant Myanmar tourist visa was Bangkok, Thailand for 1280 Thai baht (S$49.70) a visa.

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A Myanmar Tourist Visa

The Myanmar embassies in Malaysia (S$42.20 for a visa) and Singapore (S$124 for a visa) both offered visa application services. But the procedure required at least two working days, time we did not have. We found out about needing a visa on a Friday. Other tour agencies would take an average of five to 12 working days.

But we were determined to visit Yangon. After all it was just awarded “World Best Tourist Destination Award” by the European Council on Tourism and Trade, and saw almost 2.04 million visitors last year.

So at 7 am on Friday, we flew to Bangkok.

A European traveller told us there was usually a horde of backpackers, European tourists and locals outside the embassy. “If you want the visa on the same day, you’d better be there by 8.30 am.”

Of course we were caught in the famous Bangkok jam. But we arrived at Shan Road at 10.10 am, near the Myanmar embassy. It opens for visa applications, Monday to Friday, at 9 am and closes at 12 pm. Visa collection is from 3.30 pm to 4.30 pm.

At the embassy, I quickly realised that the Thais had also turned the ‘Bangkok Visa Run’ into a full-blown service industry. There were tens of people claiming to be agents who offered to ‘settle’ our visas for us.

“Go see see [sightseeing] in Bangkok. We do the visa for you. You come back at 4 pm, we give you the visa. 1800 baht (SGD 69.90) per person,” one travel agent said to me.

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In the queue among travellers.

We did not want our passports stolen, not after what happened on MH370. We hotfooted our way to the embassy.

To our surprise, there were fewer than 30 people at the embassy. Of course, this was pure luck; we were told by a couple of seasoned travellers that sometimes you could be in the queue from 9.30 am, only to finish up at 12.30 pm.

Outside the embassy, there were at least five vans cashing in on ‘visa run’ travellers. They offered passport photo-taking and photocopying services, pens and application forms. Needless to say, their prices were heftier than anywhere else in Bangkok. But none of us had the time to bargain and they knew that well.

Minutes laters, we were equipped with all the necessary documents – application forms and two passport photos. For those who wanted their visa on the same day, proof of hotel reservation and air tickets to Myanmar were also required.

“Say you are a student, or unemployed,” I remembered someone advising us last night. Apparently, the embassy staff would get a little unsettled if you said you were a journalist, writer or photographer.

Oh, other details needed on the application form: description of your hair, complexion and eye colour- not weird at all.

We paid 1280 baht (S$ 49.70) for the same day visa, each, at the counter.

We returned to the embassy at 3.30 pm to collect our visa. Though there were hundreds of people, the counter staff were really efficient. We were in and out within 20 minutes.

Right after, we made a beeline for the airport and took a Golden Myanmar flight to Yangon at 7 pm that night.

We saw dozens of familiar faces at the airport, mainly European travellers who also came to Bangkok for a quickie visa into Myanmar.