A few months ago the Bangkok Post was running stories about Immigration at Suwannaphum airport. Huge lines, multi-hour waits, surly officers; it sounded like an absolute nightmare. Tourists and residents were sending letters of complaint. Obviously things were a mess.
In mid-May when I had to go back to the US for a couple of weeks for business, I was prepared for the worst. My girlfriend Som and I arrived at the airport about three and a half hours before my flight time. Check in at EVA Air was quick and efficient, and we were left with more than three hours to kill. We headed downstairs to have some lunch. I hadn't checked the lines at Passport Control, but figured they'd be pretty bad.
"Hon, why don't you just go on to Century, do a little shopping, and grab the minibus home."
"Really?", she perked up at the word 'shopping'. Century Plaza has a ton of 'cheap fashion' and she can spend a couple of hours there and only spend five hundred baht or so. Century is also the minibus stop to go to Hua Hin. We live in Hua Hin. I hate waiting for her to shop, so this was a chance for her to take her time shopping while knowing I wasn't waiting impatiently.
"Yeah, go. Hell, Hon, I don't even know why I brought you up here. Just habit, I guess." I really didn't know why I'd brought her with me. Maybe a holdover from the days when a friend used to drive me up to the airport.
"There's no reason in the world for you to be here. Go home and I'll see you in a couple of weeks."
"Okay tirak, email me from Taipei and Skype me when you get home. I want to know you are safe."
"Of course, Hon. No problem." We settled the bill and she headed to the Airport Link train. We've been together a long time and are not demonstrative in public. We never were, for that matter. It's not dignified.
I steeled myself for a long wait at Passport Control as I went upstairs and walked to the back of the airport.
When I got there, I was the only person in line. No one ahead of me, no one behind me. I was 'it'. WTF? I thought. It was still two and a half hours until my flight. I didn't want to do anything suspicious, so I went through. I smiled and handed the officer my passport. She was an Isaan looking lady about fifty or so. She went through my passport and when she found my re-entry permit she smiled.
"Oh, you live here in Thailand!" It was a statement, not a question. Her English was accented, but correct and not strained.
"Yes, ma'am", I answered.
"Oh, that's nice, where do you live?" If this was a grilling, it was about the most friendly one I'd ever had.
"I like it down there. Do you have a Thai wife?"
I admitted that I did – I don't, exactly, but the difference is only a legality. While she finished stamping my passport I glanced behind me and there was no one there. She handed me my passport.
We chatted for a couple of more minutes. She wasn't grilling me, she was bored and there was no one else to talk to.
The trip was uneventful and not worth mentioning.
When I returned to Thailand at the end of May I thought, "Okay, now for the long lines and problems." It's a LONG way from EVA's gates to Immigration. When I finally got there, it didn't look that bad.
There was a young lady checking documents and assigning people to lines. She stopped me at the head of the line but didn't check my documents. She headed down the line, checking arrival/departure cards. I waited about ten minutes, but when one line was almost empty, I headed for it.
This was my first time to enter Thailand on a re-entry permit, so when I handed my passport to the officer I mentioned that and said I wasn't sure what to put down for my visa number. "Oh, no problem." He found the right page and stamped me through. Total time in line, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes.
I've been back and forth between Thailand and the US ten or twelve times, and although this trip was particularly easy, especially leaving Thailand, it wasn't that unusual. Even during high season I doubt I've waited more than an hour. I've done many visa runs to Ranong (the Andaman Club) and never had a problem. I held a multi-entry business visa for about four years. I couldn't get an extension (or to tell the truth, I never tried) because I only had one employee, but needed four for an extension.
Bashing Immigration is a pretty popular hobby with expats, but neither I nor any immediate friends have ever had a big problem. My recent experience renewing my retirement visa in Hua Hin was typical of my experience with Immigration in Hua Hin. It was my first time to renew a retirement visa, and I knew I met the requirements. Hua Hin has a lot of retirees, and most live a pretty quiet life. We're not exactly targets.
I had to do my ninety day report a few days before I needed to extend my visa, so we went in Monday to do the report. Som wanted to handle renewing my visa, so I said that was fine. I did the report while she talked to the lady in charge of the office.
"Okay tirak, I know everything. We'll do it tomorrow, no problem."
"Fine, Hon." I shrugged my shoulders and rolled my eyes when she couldn't see me. She's quite bright, but she didn't get the nickname 'Lady Alzheimer' without reason. I knew what I needed, and had a few days to extend my visa. I wasn't worried and it would make her happy to help me.
Tuesday morning we went to the bank and she updated my passbook. Kasikorn Bank only provides a summary if it's been a few months since the last time you updated your passbook. She was ready to go to Immigration.
"Uhhh – Hon, I think I need a letter from the bank."
"No. No problem."
"This doesn't make sense. I need a letter from the bank."
She had the bank print out a statement for the year to date.
"Okay, tirak, let's go."
I rolled my eyes again. I've learned that in those cases where I know Thai law better than she does, it's better to let her learn on her own. I could have forced her to get the letter, we could have had an argument, but she would still have believed I could have gotten the visa extension without the letter.
When we arrived at Immigration a young lady out front checked my application, glued on my picture, and told Som we needed a couple of copies. While Som made copies, she started saying, "Hurry! Tirak! Get a number! Get in the queue!"
"Hon, there's nobody else here!" She sounded bossy, but she was just trying to take care of me. When I had a business, her job was to help me deal with anything not covered by my lawyer or my accountant: mostly banking, which can get rather arcane for a business. To tell the truth, I'm one of those people who is stymied by bureaucracy. I can deal with complex concepts and wrote software for about twenty five years, but for some reason, bureaucracy, even in English, makes my brain shut down. My girlfriend is the same, but she speaks very polite Thai and can be quite charming. That can go a long way here.
Naturally, as soon as I had a number I was called to the counter, and the officer and I had to wait for Som to finish making copies. When she arrived, the officer looked over my papers and asked, "Mister, do you have the letter from the bank?" I laughed.
" Bpen arai, tirak?" (What is it?)
"Well, Hon, she wants that letter that I told you about."
After a quick consultation with the lady in charge at Hua Hin Immigration, and her writing a note to my bank, we ran to the bank and got the letter. The bank lady printed the letter with the wrong date, then corrected it with the wrong date. I wanted the right date on the letter, but didn't want to embarrass her. That would have slowed us down.
"Hey Hon, isn't today the nineteenth?", I asked my girlfriend as innocently as possible. The bank lady immediately asked her superior. It was, in fact, the nineteenth. She quickly printed a new letter and signed and stamped it. We were good to go. There were no recriminations about the letter. They would have served no purpose. Now Som knows I need a letter. She won't forget next year.
We arrived at Immigration at 12:03 PM and saw a sign on the door saying it was closed until 1:00 PM. I resigned myself to an hour's wait but Som walked right in. In a minute she gestured to me.
We were back with the lady who'd handled my case. She looked at my letter, application, everything, then asked, "Mister, you have the tabian baan?" It's a book that records who lives in what house, or something. I've never seen one.
"No", my girlfriend answered. "We'd have to go down to" (a rather popular hotel in Hua Hin) "and hope the owner is there, and she may not even have recorded us. She owns our house."
"Okay, no problem, just draw a map." Som did so, but I had to correct the house number. We were out in two more minutes.
At lunch we were laughing about the morning. I was good for another year. I think she was more relieved than I was.
" Tirak, khun Pla said she knew everything, but when she went to help her husband it was a problem. We knew nothing and it was easy." Khun Pla and her farang husband were neighbors, but not really friends.
"Yeah, Hon, you know why?"
"No, tirak, why?"
"Because it was lunchtime and the lady in charge said, 'Extend that farang's damn visa so we can EAT!' Thais have priorities, dear."
My experiences with Thai Immigration over a long period mirror yours. If you're clean cut, well-presented and polite they are very easy to deal with.