That Time of Year
Everybody has a time of year that they look forward to with about as much enthusiasm as a root canal or a visit to the proctologist. For many Americans it’s April 15th. That’s the final date to have filed your Federal Income Tax return. While not exactly overjoyed at the prospect of sending a large chunk of my hard earned savings to Washington to be squandered (yet again), it never filled me with unbridled fear and loathing. I’ve always been the kind of guy who keeps his “ducks in a row”. I kept all my receipts organized. I entered everything on Quicken. I was good to go. All I had to do each year was hand over a file folder full of paperwork to my accountant and let him crunch the numbers. This kind of planning and attention to detail has served me well in LOS, especially when “That Time of Year” approaches. For me that would is Visa Day.
Ah, Visa Day! Time to see the well oiled machine that is Thai Immigration at its shining best! Well, not really. It’s more like a test of endurance no less challenging than competing in a Triathlon. At least in a sporting event you can be fairly certain that the rules haven’t changed when you went down to the concession stand for a hot dog and a beer.
When getting ready to for a visit to Thai Immigration it’s best to sit down, take a few cleansing breathes, meditate, and calm yourself down…way down. Just keep repeating this mantra: “Soon it will all be over. I have Jai Yen (a cool heart) I must not run amok.” And you know eventually it will be all over…at least for another year.
I must admit that my heart does go out to all of you who have to trudge down every year to Thai Immigration in Bangkok. I wonder which circle of hell Dante would have assigned that fine institution. While it doesn’t actually say “Abandon hope all ye who enter” above the doorway, your first impressions don’t exactly put you at ease. Your second, third and fourth impressions aren’t much better at reassuring a quavering heart. I’ve only had to make one trip there, but let me tell you the experience was enough for a life time of bad dreams. I’ve never been to a place with so many unsmiling, unhelpful, and uncaring government bureaucrats; all of whom have made it their life’s goal to make your life as miserable as possible.
After a day (or more) of abuse you almost expect some one to pop out with a video camera and shout, “Gotcha! You’re on Candid Camera”! Well unfortunately although it may be like being stuck inside a bad Reality TV show, it is definitely not a comedy.
In a previous submission I related my first attempt to divine what in the hell I actually was to produce for documentation to receive a “non-O” visa. This was in preparation for my move here. I foolishly thought that going to the “horse’s mouth” (The Thai Embassy in Washington) made sense. Folks, that turns out to be the last place you want to turn to for any information! After dialing I waited an exceedingly long time before anyone bothered to pick up the damned phone. Before I could even open my mouth, I was brusquely informed (in not very good English I might add) that everyone was busy eating lunch, and to call back later. Click. This fool had no idea who I was or why I was calling. I might have been an important official calling about a matter of urgency. Hell I wasn’t even in Thailand yet and already I had learned that lunch takes precedence over anything and everything! I’m sure some of you are nodding your heads, having been a witness yourselves to Thai “prioritization” in its full glory! Eventually I was actually able to speak to someone. A fat lot of good that did me. I was told (again quite rudely) that the embassy could not provide me with a list of required documents. Click. I can’t help but wonder what HRH would think knowing that his nation’s embassy was in such capable hands.
I wound up scouring the internet for information. In the end it was not of much value. Despite the mountain of documents I had methodically put together, upon our arrival in Bangkok I learned that: Everything I Knew Was Wrong. I needed to start from square one. Welcome to Thailand! I won’t go into detail about every hoop my wife and I had to jump through over a 48 hour period. Let it suffice to say that we were NOT greeted with smiles here in a country called The Land of Smiles. In the end, after all was said and done, I did not receive my Visa from these cretins. My wife and I were told that since we were moving to Lampang, I needed to apply at Chiang Mai Immigration. Everything we had done was a complete waste of time and effort!
Chiang Mai Immigration, while still an outpost of Thai bureaucracy, is a breath of fresh air (literally) compared to Bangkok. I think those of you reading this who obtain your visas in Chiang Mai would agree. Oh, yes, I finally did get my first visa there. It was still a learning experience. I just wound up bringing every fucking piece of paper I had, in both English and Thai. Eventually I got the damned stamp in my passport. I may not be the brightest kid on the block, but I pride myself on requiring a short learning curve when it comes to paperwork. Having learned the procedure one time, I simply took notes so I wouldn’t have to “reinvent the wheel” on subsequent occasions.
And so that’s how I found myself this past Tuesday trucking up to Chiang Mai, briefcase in hand. A few days before I had gone over my check list:
- Two visa extension forms, filled out. Check
- Two photographs of the proper size. Check.
- Two copies of my passport pages. Check.
- Two copies of my departure card. Check.
- Two copies of my divorce paper. Check.
- Two copies of our marriage certificate (in English) Check.
- Two copies of our marriage certificate (in Thai) Check.
- Two copies of my wife’s identity card. Check.
- Two copies of our “household register”. Check
- Two copies of my son’s birth certificate. Check
- 1900 baht. Check.
Of course I had had lots of other papers, “just in case”. Hey just because the abovementioned papers were what they required last year doesn’t mean that this year I won’t be asked out of the blue to produce something completely new!
The drive from Lampang to Chiang Mai takes me about 1 ¼ hours. The highway is smooth, the scenery interesting, and the curves just curvy enough to make driving pleasant. Getting to Immigration is a breeze. It’s located next to the airport. Parking is almost non-existent, but there is ample parking on the other side of the highway. They open for business at 8:30, and it is a good idea to get there before a long line forms. I was a tad later than I would have liked, but hey you try telling your tee-rak to shake a leg and see what good it does! Anyway I was number eight when I signed into the long term visa extension book. Not too bad. The main waiting area is open-air with plenty of seating. A nice touch was the two pretty college girls at an information table politely offering assistance. There is small restaurant and a coffee shop, all charging premium prices. There is a photocopy and picture shop which always does a brisk trade. I would love to have a piece of that action! Two baht a copy isn’t much, but in the course of a day they make many thousands of copies. At the copy shop near my home it only costs 40 st. a copy, but I guess when you really need that document copied now, 2 baht isn’t going to break the bank.
Speaking of the bank, my next stop was a branch of Bangkok Bank to get an updated passbook page. I also needed a letter from the bank that said yes indeed I did have at least 400,000 in my account. For some unknown reason, when I got my first non-O visa, Immigration required me to open up a separate account in Chiang Mai, even though we live in Lampang. It’s not that big of a hassle. I only go to that branch once a year to get the required letter. We had had to wait for the bank to open at 10:00, and it took 45 minutes for the bank officer to print my letter. Letter in hand it was back to Immigration to wait for my number to be called. It was now after 11:00; time for a decent if expensive iced mocha. Finally we were called into the inner sanctum to have our paperwork processed. Instead of the usual dour faced official we lucked out and had a smiling loquacious middle aged woman. After complimenting me on my pink shirt (hell it was Tuesday and everyone was wearing a pink shirt) she started filling out and stamping the requisite forms. She and my wife kept up a constant stream of chatter, pausing to show each other baby pictures (our son, her grandchildren). As a “mere man” my comments weren’t solicited, so I spent a few more productive minutes enjoying the sight of some extremely attractive college girls going about their office work. After much smiling and cooing all around, the paperwork was finally done. I handed over 1900 baht. There was only one more step to go. The head police honcho had to put his chop of the whole thing, which shouldn’t have taken more than 30 seconds top. Unfortunately it was now lunchtime, which as you probably can guess meant that instantly, and I do mean instantly, all work in the office came to an abrupt halt. The police official picked up my paperwork, glanced at it, and just as quickly put it down and walked out, along with the rest of the worker bees. “Come back in one hour!” we were told. Oh well, no use fussing over the inevitable. Luckily Central Airport Plaza was a five minute walk away, so we headed over to luxuriate in the air conditioned mall and have some lunch. We enjoyed some tasty Pad Thai at 25 baht per plate, strolled around a bit, and then headed back to Immigration where to our delight everything was done and we were free to get on our way. That is not to say that my passport had a new visa stamped in it. I had to settle for the usual “under advisement” stamp. In the end the whole ball of wax had to be sent down to Bangkok. I was told to return in about six weeks. With a little luck then I would have my precious stamp. Then I could forget about everything for another year, or at least until the bells ringing in my head told me that it was that time of year again.
It is a nerve wracking process. While it seldom happens, what we have to understand is that at any time they could in fact so visa declined and then suddenly one's life in Thailand is, well, as good as over!