Most travelers come to Ranong for exactly one reason and one reason alone — to get that passport stamped so they can legally stay in Thailand for another 30 days. While doing the border run isn’t particularly pleasant, it is straightforward — particularly when you’ve got a Travelfish Howto guide on hand.

The first step is to go the Thai Immigration Office near the port district of Saphan Pla to get an exit stamp. This is easily done by catching a red songthaew from Ranong market and telling the driver “Immigration”. Once at Saphan Pla it’s another songthaew ride or a short walk 500m around to the longtail docks. More than likely you’ll be met by the boat skippers or their agents outside Immigration anyway, and they’ll take you the boat as part of their fee for getting you across to Burma and back.

The round-trip should cost about 300B if you have to go it alone or 100B-200B if you’re with a group.

The journey across to Burma’s southernmost city of Kawthaung (sometimes still called Victoria Point, a leftover from British colonial days) takes about 40 minutes. It can be quite hairy in bad weather, and engine breakdowns do happen, so make sure you pack your sea-legs. It is also a good idea to take an umbrella to protect yourself from the rain and sea spray in the wet season and the sun in high season, though be careful not to knock any monks on the head with the umbrella as the resulting bad luck could well lead to multiple motorcycle exhaust burns in Phuket (it’s a long story — just steer clear of monks). After returning safely to Thai soil, don’t forget you need to make another stop at Immigration to get your entry stamp.

Kawthaung town in Burma

Cashing up
Your visa renewal for Thailand is free for most nationalities, but you have to pay the Burmese military government US$5 to step onto its shore for 10min. It’s a good idea to get the greenbacks at a bank that does foreign exchange before you leave on your visa run. The $5 should cost about 200B. If you leave it until Ranong you may have to pay 300B for the bucks. The Burmese immigration officials are particularly picky about the quality of the notes, so if your Abe Lincoln isn’t spotless, creaseless and brand spanking new you’ll have to pay 300B anyway.

Foreigners on visa runs can stay in Kawthaung for up to two nights but are not allowed to use it as a base for further exploration of Burma. Points of interest that stick out are the temple, the men’s traditional dress (called longyi), street kids and the overall poverty of the place compared to Thailand.

boats doing the visa run to Burma

Accommodation in Kawthaung
If you do want to stay, there are a few options available: The Honey Bear Hotel is on Strand Rd and is visible from the boat as you approach the dock; the Kaw Thaung Motel Phone: (059) 51 046 or (059) 51 139) is around the other side of the hill on the main road leading away from the pier and the Taninthary Guest House Phone: (059) 51 784, (059) 51 785 is on Garden St, off the main road.

“You want whiskey? Cigarettes? Opium, heroin, viagra, cocaine, marijuana?” The touts that come out to greet you when the boat docks at Kawthaung often sound like they’ve been listening to too much Queens of the Stone Age. Whatever lies at the heart of this enigmatic and still very closed nation, it certainly can’t be found with these guys. You usually have 10-20 minutes before the boat heads back and many ex-pats use this opportunity to buy up to two cartons of cigarettes (80B-100B each) and two bottles of spirits (50B-100B each). Don’t even consider bringing the other stuff back though — the tout who sells to you will inevitably call the Thai police and give them an exact description of you and the group you are with. As your return bus passes through a checkpoint, the long arm of the law will pull you out and slap you with a heavy fine and possibly jail time, and the Burmese tout gets a kickback to boot. This happens more than you’d think.

Burma visa run photo

The “posh” visa run
If you don’t want to worry about the transport particulars, travel agencies on Phuket, Khao Lak, Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao along with destinations further afield, can set the whole thing up for up for you. It takes about a day-and-a-half from the Gulf islands and a full day from Phuket. It’s more expensive than if you do it yourself, but you get to ride on a VIP bus and often meals are included. Often the “posh” run makes for a quicker journey to Ranong, but slower visa processing once you’re there because you arrive at Immigration the same time as the 40 other people on your bus.

Posher still
Offshore casino-cum-hotel Andaman Club also organizes visa runs from its own private pier, north of the main pier at Saphan Pla. Expect all your needs to be catered for if you’re taking part in this little venture. The lodgings are on the Burmese island of Thahtay Kyun, between the Thai mainland and Kawthaung. Those who chose to stay at the hotel for a few days will have no lack of things to do — the Andaman Club has a fitness centre, bars, an 18-hole golf course and organises day trips to the “virgin” island of St Luke’s. If you’re just visa running, the boat stops at the island anyway, giving you the chance to do some duty free shopping and have a flutter at the craps table