ESL teachers know the visa run quite well: you leave the country for a short period of time (sometimes just a few hours) to reset the amount of time your’re allowed to stay on a certain visa. Expats in Korea make a quick sojourn to Japan, folks in Laos head to Thailand and those of us in Taiwan usually head to Hong Kong.
In most cases you can simply leave and come right back, but sometimes you might also need to visit an office, fill out forms, submit passport photos, wait in line and do a secret handshake with a certain official who is only available from 1 pm to 3 pmand pay an expensive fee before they let you back in.
My run wouldn’t involve jumping through said hoops, but I would still need to leave the country and return to allow enough time for my work permit and Alien Registration Card to be processed without overstaying my original 90-day landing visa. Confusing? Yes. Convenient? Not in the slightest.
Before coming to Taiwan I anticipated the possibility of having to make a visa run in the event that I couldn’t find a job within the first couple of months so I bought a ticket ahead of time hoping I’d never have to use it. Most expats in Taiwan head to nearby Hong Kong, but tickets to the Philippines were significantly cheaper for the dates I needed. I figured I might have a chance to sneak off to the beach before my flight back to Taiwan.
I figured wrong.
I half-assedly look up where I’ll be landing and discover that I’ll be nowhere near a beach. The Air Asia flight from Taipei drops me just outside of Angeles City, the
sex entertainment capital of the Philippines. When Clark Air Force Base was still up and running (a few miles west) Angeles City was where U.S. pilots would go for wholesome R&R.
I arrive by bus from the airport and the first image I see is an elderly caucasian fellow with a fanny pack being led down the street by a much shorter, much younger filippino girl. On the walk to my guesthouse I see different versions of the same “couple” several more times.
My first trip to the Philippines and I end up in the red light district.
I make my way to the Villa Santol Lodging House tucked away on a quite street just off the main drag. When I pass through the yellow iron gate I’m greeted first by a group of 7 or 8 elderly casually sipping beers at a table in the open air bar. I say hello, but no one seems to pay me any attention. They’re all speaking in thick Australian accents.
A short round Filippino woman checks me into my room and gives me a couple pointers: I can help myself to beer and other beverages in the cooler so long as I write down what I take; after dark I am to lock the front gate when I leave and I need to stay alert when walking through the neighborhood. I inform her that I will only be staying for one night and request a cold beer.
I grab a seat at the counter and can’t help but listen in on the table of Aussies behind me. One of the guys is telling a story about a friend who was recently overcharged at a bar. None of the others seem to understand because they keep arguing over the details.
“So he had 6 beers but was charged for 7?”
“Was the waitress cute?”
“What kind of beer was it?”
I get the feeling they meet here regularly–an Aussie shriners club or something, only these guys have done away with the maroon felt hats and are wearing t-shirts with the names of bars and strip clubs printed on them in bright neon letters.
They finish their beers and the conversation shifts to their plans for the evening.
“Dancing girls or football tonight, boys?”
“Well you can’t fuck a football, mate!”
I imagine these fellas are the surviving remnants of Full Moon partiers that never gave up partying. The magic mushroom shakes and booze buckets have given way to watching rugby and ordering lap dances. Life must be rough.
They ask about my plans for the night and I tell them I will only be having dinner because I’m heading back to Taiwan the next day.
“Back to the band?” someone asks.
“Uh, not exactly.”
“Oh, I figured you’re in a rap band.”
I’m slightly offended, but also curious as to how he came to the conclusion that I’m a rapper from Taiwan.
They take off and I am left to figure out where to eat dinner. A quick Google search brings me to the Angeles City “Gentleman’s” travel guide (link NSFW). In addition to restaurant listings, they also offer advice on how much to tip local prostitutes. Clearly they aim to be comprehensive.
I settle on a Mexican restaurant within walking distance and am once again told to be aware of my surroundings when walking throught the neighborhood at night.
On the way there I pass places called Honkey Tonks, Shadows and Gobbles Heaven, all with their own cluster of showgirls sitting out front. I get cat-called with phrases like “We love the sexy black man” and “Sexy Bob Marley!” A boy selling cigaretts out of a large wooden box stops me and goes into a rehearsed spiel about Marlboro and other popular brands that can be had for a good price. I decline the offer, but ask where Tequila Reef Cantina is. Frustrated, he mumbles something under his breath before moving to the next passerby.
A motorized tricycle driver (the Filippino version of Tuk-Tuks) points me in the right direction of the restaurant and I deposit myself at the bar and order a margarita. The restaurant is half full with the same lot of older white guys I’ve been seeing around town, along with a few Filipino guys knocking back bottles of San Miguel. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen any young tourists or travelers in Angeles City. With discount airline Air Asia flying in and out of Clark Airport to and from tourist hotspots elsewhere in the Philippines, I halfway expected to see a bustling backpacker ghetto with family run hostels and internet cafes when I arrived. It certainly has the feel of Koh San road or even Vang Vieng but all the twenty somethings in flip flops have been replaced with fifty somethings in tube socks. Instead of cart vendors laden with t-shirts and pad thai, the vendors here hawk condoms and foreign cigaretts. When the sun goes down in Angeles City there are plenty of tourists about, but many of them appear less interested in sand pales filled with vodka and Red Bull and more interested in exotic pleasures.
Back at the restaurant I ask the bartender what’s good on the menu and she steers me away from the Mexican fare.
“I like the bistek tagalog.” I take the suggestion on the thought that during my first visit to a country, the first thing I eat should be something local–plus it’s one of the cheapest items on menu. The bartender–a slim gal named *Sophie who wears her “don’t fuck with me” face as well as any female bartender I know–replaces my empty margarita glass with a bottle of San Miguel and I ask her how she feels about Angeles City being a hot bed for cheap thrills.
“Why? Are you fishing?” I’m thrown off by the question, but quickly comprehend the meaning. I once again explain my visa situation She skeptical–but satisfied–with my response.
“I don’t like it all. I was born and raised right here in A.C. …but I wouldn’t raise kids here.” I assume this is because girls from Angeles City run the risk of ending up working at one of the red light bars, but Sophie tells me that many of the bar girls are from elsewhere in the Philippines–mainly Manilla. Instead of staying in Angeles City, Sophie plans to join her boyfriend in New York once she has saved enough money. I want to ask more, but my food arrives and Sophie gets hit with a wave of drinks.
I finish my food and decide to take the long way back to the guesthouse. Fields Avenue–the epicenter of Angeles City’s gentleman’s district–is just starting to rev up. Distorted club stereos compete with traffic nose and cat calls from the bar girls. Trike drivers offer to take me wherever I want to go, roaming sun-burned tourists stumble in and out of bars, some with drinks still in hand. Most of the shops on Real st. are closed, but a few vendors are stil selling souvenirs and trinkets to anyone willing to stop and take a look.
My flight tomorrow leaves at 12:05.
Angeles City probably won’t make my Top 10 list of day trips, but as visa runs go, I’d imagine it’s as good a place as any. The accommodation is cheap, the beer is good and–unless you’re into strippers and bar girls–you’ll be ready to leave the next day.
A few tips for those making the same visa run:
-Air Asia offers flights between Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) and Clark (CRK, just outside of Angeles City) for as little as $44 USD one-way.
-To get to Angeles City from Clark airport, hop on a Jeepney (half jeep, half bus). They wait for passengers just outside the airpot exit on the right. The cost is 50 Pesos. It won’t leave until it’s full. Get off at the first stop near Jollibee restaurant. To get back to the airport head to the Clark/Freeport Jeepney Terminal just across the street from Jollibee and ask one of the drivers to tell you which gate to wait at for Clark Airport.
-The Villa Santol Lodge is worked out well for a night’s accommodation. It’s about a 10-15 minute walk from the Jeepney terminal, on Fatima and S.Surla. If you book by phone you’ll get a small discount. I paid 490 Pesos for a simple room with a fan and shared bathroom.
-Unless you plan to do some serious partying, you shouldn’t need more that 1,500-2,000 Pesos for a single day visa run. This will be enough to secure a cheap room, grab dinner and breakfast, and get a few beers. Keep in mind that you will also be charged an exit tax at the airport when you leave. If I remember correctly it’s about 450 Pesos.
-Don’t be stupid. There’s a lot of nonsense you can get into if you’re not paying attention. When you go out, don’t bring any more money than you need.
*Author’s Note: Named changed to protect privacy.