Some things about Asia make me miss Europe. For backpackers, Europe is simple, easy and accessible. For myself as a Canadian, I had no visa requirements and for the most part, I only had to deal with one currency. It made moving around and seeing multiple countries easy.
I have been spoiled so far, not only have I never needed to apply for a visa, but I've rarely been scrutinized at border crossings, and all entries were free of charge. This is far from the case in SouthEast Asia, though I enjoy more lax requirements than other nationalities, I still have to pay fees for visas in multiple countries, apply in advance for my Burmese and Vietnamese visas, and there is no such thing as an unguarded border in SouthEast Asia.
The most important thing is to be knowledgeable about the requirements before you go, and to know which crossing you will likely be using. Which crossing is especially important, as different border crossings have different options available; some may offer visas on arrival, while others may not. Select crossings may only be open in one direction, and nothing is worse than making your way to the border only to find out your trip was in vain.
In addition, some countries have other requirements such as proof of onward travel, proof of funds, required vaccinations, or finger printings. It is important to check requirements for your specific nationality as it can vary greatly.
Two of the best tools that you have at your disposal for researching the status of border crossings are a Google search organized by most recent entries, and Wikitravel. Wikitravel is written by travelers and it is likely that if a backpacker had a bad border experience, it will be added to the site. Use Google to search for individual crossing and be sure to organize the search by date. You will get a lot of bad results, but are much more likely to find relevant information.
The first place to check is your home country's website for your visa requirements. Most countries will make this information available online. The information isn't automatically updated when visa requirements change, so it isn't infallible, but it's an excellent start.
As with most countries around the world, your passport needs to be valid for 6 months after your enter into a country. Burma and Vietnam require me to apply for a visa in advance, which I will do in Bangkok, and Sihanoukville respectively.
Thailand offers its own visa conundrum, and really epitomizes why visas are such a hassle. For a country with such a developed tourism industry, it sure seems like Thailand doesn't want any visitors to stay. The country's visa rules have changed multiple times in recent years, and as a result, I am only able to receive a 15-day visa when entering Thailand at a land border crossing, while a 30-day visa is issued only at airports.
This is not so much a problem for me as I will be splitting my time in Thailand with a trip to Burma. I did however have to adjust my schedule slightly to fit under the 15-day limit, and if I decide to spend more time in southern Thailand, I may end up overstaying my visa, at the cost of 500 Baht a day. 30-day visas as a bare minimum, are extremely common around the world. For a country such as Thailand to restrict tourism like this is acutely frustrating, but what can you expect from a government that seized power via a military coup?
Most of the countries charge fees for a visa. This is important to note as it can easily make an impact on your budget depending on your citizenship. I've budgeted $150-$200 USD as there are visa costs associated with entering Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. The baffling reality is that visa costs vary depending on where and how you obtain one. For this reason, and the possibility of border shakedowns, I have to budget for a range of costs and not an exact amount. Its not all bad, a person from Israel would certainly face more red tape, fees and hassle then a Canadian with a golden passport.
It is important to remember that visa information is subject to change at any time, so be sure to double check your information before you depart. Below are links to the visa requirements for common backpacker countries.
- Travel Canada
- U.S. State Department
- British Foreign & Commonwealth Office
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
- Project Visa