The Cost Of Paradise
One of the drawbacks to living in Thailand is the issue of visas. If you have a regular job in the country, then your employer will arrange a one year work permit that allows you to stay in the country for the entirety of that year. However, if you are like me, then you rely on a one month tourist visa which means that you need to leave the country after 30 days or incur a cumulative fine. The incentive is that this fine keeps adding up and for a budget traveler represents at least the amount they would pay for daily accommodation. To be hit with a bill on exit that you cannot pay means a visit straight to the slammer until you can. There is no "Oh sorry sir, you didn't realise you've been here for 2 years on a one month visa? Well that is our mistake for not finding you and mentioning it. Please pass through channel C and tell them we said it was OK to waive the fee and go home." Hell no! It’s a one way ticket to the 'Bangkok Hilton', a place that's main recreation is 'Staying Alive', a pastime that involves no dancing but a similar number of tight pants.
So, the main objective of all overstaying visitors to Thailand is to stay on the right side of the law. For most, this means a one day jaunt to the nearest border and takes up about 12 hours of your day. <Not necessarily, it all depends where you live and where you go for you visa run – Stick>. It is know affectionately as the 'visa run' by first timers or the 'bloody visa run' by the disaffected. I certainly fall into the latter category.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that Thailand can’t role out the red carpet for all and sundry, after all paradise is fair overrun with drop outs and loafers. The idea of the visa run is to keep track of these types to make sure they don’t overstay their welcome. It just grates a little when I am here supporting their economy through alcohol consumption and regular street food dining, not breaking any laws and respecting their culture. Yet I still have to leave every month at great expense and inconvenience to myself.
The nearest border checkpoint for those residing in Bangkok is Poipet in Cambodia. Alternatives include a full day’s train ride either to Laos or Malaysia, followed by an overnight stay and a similar journey home. That means a journey of at least two days plus a further 3 spent on the toilet recovering from the train food. No sirree that’s not for me. I'll take my chances dashing to the Cambodian border thank you.
Now the average Visa run candidate has 2 choices, they can either go on their own initiative or alternatively pay someone else to hold their hand all the way. I have never done this, relying on my experience to get me there and back. All I can say is that the hand holder must be pretty damn special as he charges 4 times the going rate for a regular journey. I just hope he's got his hands insured….
Departing from my house at 2.15am, yes you read that right, I took a taxi. ‘Taxi airways’ had been booked to pick me up and they sent the taxi equivalent of an exocet missile. To say that this guy could push Schumacher would be putting it mildly. I'm not quite sure how he could see as my eyeballs were forced into the back of their sockets and by the time we arrived at the Central Bus Station my hair had a complete windswept look a la Bridget Jones. All this despite the windows being closed….
Bidding farewell to my trainee stunt driver I entered the Station to be greeted by a scene straight out of 'Gone with the Wind.' You know the one where the camera pans back across the platform to reveal scenes of human devastation and misery. Either this was some kind of re-enactment society or it was National 'Lets all take a bus day' as it appeared that most of Bangkok had turned out. The scene was made all the more unusual by the fact that all of these travelers had sent their luggage to purchase their tickets!
At each ticket window one could see a line of bags, boxes and suitcases all waiting patiently for the sale to begin. Being English I muttered something to myself about it not being cricket and went off to find my respective window. Can you imagine that happening in England? A nice orderly queue of people and then someone walking up and saying "Excuse me, do you mind? My box was saving a space in line for me." I don't bloody think so! Riots have started of less, and I do believe that it would be reported in the papers as 'Queue Rage' or perhaps 'Stupid Foreigner Rage'.
I plonked my self in line wondering how long it would take for 2 bags, a case and a sack of oranges to buy their tickets. Scanning around the station I noticed that almost everyone was asleep. Could it be possible that when the window opened I might be able to leapfrog the random luggage and get my ticket first? Would it hell! No sooner had the lady entered the ticket booth and switched on her computer than half the station leapt up and charged the window. Snapping up like a pro surfer I narrowly avoided getting trampled to death but was impressed that the stampede was actually in an effort to form an orderly queue. Very civilized indeed and a little more of my heart was won by Thailand.
On purchasing my ticket I was handed a bottle of water and a small, very sweet cake. So sweet in fact it made you want to run all the way to Cambodia, not an ideal situation before embarking on a long bus ride. Kind of like spiking an Astronaut's drink with exlax just before they bolt him into one of those space suits. The destination was a town called Aranyapatet, the last Thai city before entering Cambodia. The bus departed at 3.30am sharp. At that time of the day traffic around Bangkok resembles something close to normality and before I knew it we began to glide our way through suburbia.
The fact that I hadn't slept before leaving for the station meant that once my walkman was on and my eyes bandaged closed I was off with the fairies. You know, the place where your neck hurts so much from trying to support your head as the bus ramps repeatedly over small bridges. Meanwhile gravity pulls your saliva glands into overdrive causing you to swamp your shirt. Even Tinkerbell wouldn't have given me the time of day when I finally stirred as the bus pulled into Aranyapatet.
A short tuk tuk drive (to the uninitiated it’s a small open air Robin Reliant with a Cessna engine under the passenger seat) reminded me that I had forgotten to take a pee at the bus station. The vibration coming up through the seat had a similar massaging effect on my bladder to a gorilla squeezing an orange, and by the time we pulled into the border checkpoint my back teeth were afloat. Desperately running away from the checkpoint in search of a loo I hoped I wouldn't be shot by some overzealous guard mistaking me for an asylum seeker. I was comforted by the fact that he was probably used to this reaction from foreigners once they had taken a peek over the border into Poipet, Cambodia's border town.
Now I am not sure of the literal translation of Aranyapatet and none of my Thai friends seem to be able to enlighten me. So I have come up with a few of my own. 'The last chance to turn back' might be one, or perhaps 'It’s all downhill from here'. Personally I think 'Don't walk much further, you'll fall off the edge of the world' would best describe the naming of this town, as only a few kilometers away you find yourself literally transported back to biblical times. Now to the average historian that might be a wonderful prospect. To a man who can't move his neck, is soaked in his own saliva and really doesn't want to be here, biblical times suck. Poipet in Cambodian means 'Welcome tourist, let me inspect your wallet'. If it doesn't, it should.
Exiting Thailand through an air-conditioned office you step out onto a road and receive your first warning about what is to come. It is 7am and the border has literally just opened. Scores of Cambodians are pouring through into Thailand. Some are just walking alone, others laughing in groups. In the middle are wooden carts laden with produce carrying everything from fresh fruit to woman’s sanitary products, their axles groaning under the weight as men, women and children try to keep them on an even course. Customs officials, all two of them, prod the occasional cart load to see if anyone is inside in a vain attempt to stem the flow of illegal immigrants though 'Human Trafficking Alley'. Something tells me that a small role of notes or even a bag of fresh oranges will ensure you get waved through.
Standing to the side of the road I view the line of amputees patiently waiting for my approach with a mixture of sympathy and concern. Their sheer number reminds you of the legacy of 4 decades of war in a country where one in 236 people is an amputee (The USA average is 1 in 22000) but it also means that I will be slowed down as I try to considerately make my way through them, an ideal place for pickpockets to strike. Making sure all valuables are secured I begin to cautiously move past them, offering a sympathetic smile here, or an acknowledging nod there.
Over the last few years of working out here I have done as much as I can for various people in need. That could be through giving food to wounded soldiers who have family but cannot find work, to raising awareness of worthy charities in the country. I collect clothes and take them to some of the poorest villages in the country, sponsor a child’s education and even do guided tours around a land mine museum come charity. They have taken in 20 kids all with survivor stories whilst running awareness programs for farmers; the group most likely to unearth new mines. By doing as much as I can to help others I can reconcile myself to the fact that I can't help them all. If every visitor to Cambodia helped just 3 people whilst they were here, then last year over 3 million people would have been helped. The only way you can cope out here is by doing your bit to help a few souls and showing sympathy and kindness to the rest.
I made it through with valuables intact and stood there in front of the visa office. I can't be sure but I may have heard a uniform cry of 'Let the fleecing begin!' and boy was that rallying cry answered. Within the next thirty minutes
I had no fewer than 5 uniformed officials attempt to extort money from me, they were for the following:
1. For taking my visa application form and passing it through the window (100 baht)
2. Writing my passport number in a book and claiming I had passed through medical quarantine (100 baht)
3. For showing me where I would need to get my Entry stamp. It was the window marked 'Entry Stamp' and the man doing the showing was stood in front of it! (100 baht)
4. For stamping my passport with said entry stamp. (100 baht)
5. For stamping my passport with the exit stamp after I had crossed the road and left the country immediately. I was told that I would have to pay a 200 baht fine because this was 'not a nice thing to do.' When I asked where it stated that I could not enter and exit after 5 minutes I was told in no uncertain terms that they were getting fed up with people doing it. I pointed out that until it became law forbidding such short term visits, people would continue to use Poipet for their visa runs. Furthermore, whilst it might be annoying to Cambodians that our visit was so short we still had to pay an extortionate visa fee of $25 for a 5 minute foray across their border. I could see him eyeing the KY Jelly and rubber gloves so hastily pointed out that I spent a lot of time in his country and would be returning to work here next month. Closer inspection of my passport confirmed my numerous lengthy visits and he made no further problems, choosing instead to eye a young Japanese backpacker as if he were Osama himself.
In total Government employees attempted to fleece 600 baht out of me ($15) during a 30 minute spell. To the first time visitor the impression of Cambodia as they cross this border stays with them for the duration of their visit. Something needs to be done about it as my impression of the Cambodians is that they are honest, trustworthy and hard working. All apart from the politicians that is but that is the subject for another rant at some later date.
The scene you are confronted with once having set foot in the country is enough to deter all but the hardy of soul. Touts approach you from all sides, offering you everything from a taxi direct to Angkor Wat to a quick bit of 'how's your father' before continuing on your journey. Who the hell accepts an offer like that? Dubious at the best of times, anyone who chooses to go into a brothel in this hell hole is asking to be mugged, beaten up and left with an itch that even industrial strength penicillin won't shake. I can almost hear the laughter at the Embassy as some idiot recounts their story of misfortune. "Wait; let me get my breath back. So tell me again, you did what exactly and where? Oh that’s just priceless, you've made my day! Sure we'll help you get a new passport and your Travelers Cheques re-issued, right after we've helped find the most stupid man alive. Ok, we've done that, wasn’t that quick? Is it just a standard passport you'll be wanting then sir?"
People in various states of undress roam around a litter strewn square. Nobody seems to have any purpose in their stride, as if getting to their destination will only mean they now need to turn around and head back, like so many fish in a tank. Despite my deep love for Cambodia I have to confess that the urge to explore this little niche of my favorite country is all but non-existent. There are some places that are simply best left alone. Every country has them, Slough for example.
The main lifeline to this sad place is the casinos jammed in no-mans land between the two Kingdoms. Asians as a rule like to gamble like no other race on earth resulting in almost all of these nations making it an illegal pastime. But this is a grey area, a blind spot overlooked by both Governments who I am sure mutually benefit from the proceeds. Hailed as the 'Las Vegas of South East Asia' (only if Al Qaeda gets hold of the American counterpart) it offers the opportunity to loose all of your worldly possessions in a 'friendly atmosphere.'
I wonder if they ask you what country you would like to have your legs broken in should you be unable to pay off your debts? The wise choice would be to opt for Thailand; although knowing the Thai health service, once they discovered you were penniless they would probably break both your arms and give you a partial sex change before dumping you on the street. So Cambodia would be the choice of the discerning loser, where medical treatment involves a smile and a wink, along with a huge amount of sympathy as your legs try to mend themselves.
Las Vegas it ain't. Two immense and grubby buildings standing in what can only be described as land fit only for illegal waste dumping. Still, the Asian 'defective gambling gene' runs strong here and it is not hard to spot the clammy hand arrivals as they walk between these two worlds to satisfy their urges. Gamblers Anonymous is not popular here, the society preferring to set up workshops where candidates can stand up and say "Hi my name is Wan, and I've never placed a bet in my life." Even these were closed when they discovered the mafia was running a book on how many people would attend.
I walked slowly back past these marriage breakers and ran the gauntlet of some new and equally needy unfortunate souls. Finally I was welcomed back in to Thailand by an official whose expression read 'only managed 5 minutes away this time eh?' Before I could say "Show me where it states I have to pay you for doing nothing" I was out of Cambodia and back in Thailand, having my bum numbed by yet another tuk tuk ride. There was just enough time to grab a couple of cokes from the station shop before I was on my way back to Bangkok. All of that effort for another 30 days in paradise.
Some twelve hours after leaving my home I was back. Tired, hungry but relieved that it would be a long time before I would need to repeat the process. My job ensures that I will leave and re-enter Thailand on a regular basis eliminating the need for the dreaded visa runs. My heart goes out to those poor souls who have to repeat the process every month. The idea of visiting Poipet 12 times in a year is enough to drive a man to get drunk in a casino whilst on the arms of a woman of dubious character! Maybe that’s why they built them there…