The dodgy visa crackdown taking place in Thailand right now is generating a phenomenal amount of paranoia and a good deal of this has come from certain corners with much of it blown out of all proportions. It would seem that at least one errant website has been responsible for unnecessarily putting the fear of God into a hell of a lot of people. In today's column, I try to unravel the dodgy visa mess and answer some of the questions that are flying around. Just how did the system work? How was it allowed to operate for so long? And the big one, what should one do if they have a dodgy visa in their passport?
Thailand has always been very generous with foreigners who want to come and stay in their country. Pretty much anyone with a Western passport can rock on up, get a 30 day stamp and enter the country. And from then on, all these people need do is exit the country and re-enter right away and get another 30 day stamp ad infinitum. This required a trip out of the country and in the past, this essentially meant a trip to either Laos or Malaysia, the closest of which was about a 10 hour overland journey from Bangkok OR an international flight which would cost several thousand baht. If neither of these options appealed, there as a third option: sending your passport out of the country to get a new visa…while you stayed here!
Known to a good percentage of the foreign residents of Thailand, a number of businesses offered the service of sending your passport out of the country where it got the correct exit stamps, entry stamps and it came back to you in a few days with a legitimate visa that had been obtained in a questionable way. From what I can gather, the passport was generally sent south to Malaysia.
Exactly what happened I am not 100% sure, but rumours suggest that one’s passport went through immigration control with a whole bunch of others, often from a busload of tourists whose passports were all collected and sent through together, allowing the tourists to go through the checkpoint without the need to alight from the comfort of their vehicle. The stack of passports would get stamped out of Thailand and into Malaysia, and the stack would be distributed back on the bus, with a few going to a visa agent.
If this was how it was done, no doubt someone on the bus was aware that something fishy was going on, because the stack of passports that was much bigger than
out of Malaysia, and back into Thailand.
There has been conjecture that some of the Bangkok or Pattaya based visa agents would have someone down on the Thai side of the border who they would send down a stack of passports to each day. It has been purported that this person would simply walk the passports through immigration and get them all stamped. Such allegations would mean that a number of immigration officials were involved. As with all government officials in these parts, the immigration officials of both Thailand and Malaysia have always struck me as friendly, honest, forthright citizens and such claims are truly hard to believe…
However the passports made it through immigration, and sure, it may been via another means, it would appear that all of the immigration entry and exit stamps were genuine, but the way the visa was obtained was illegal. And as the visa was genuine, data would then have been entered into the immigration computer meaning that for the naughty person who sent their passport on holiday, it would appear to anyone checking that all was well. The passport holder could repeat this and go and get another visa in the same manner, or could exit the country legally, through any checkpoint, and had nothing to worry about. Or at least that was the theory…
While I have no idea when such services first started (but believe it was a LONG time ago as I have heard the odd story of people using this type of system for 10+ years), it no doubt started as a relatively small thing. Someone eyed an opportunity, ran a few passports, and probably made a little bit of money on the side. With Thailand home to a large number of foreigners, many here on short term visas and the requirements to leave the country properly considered somewhat of a hassle, such a service obviously appealed to many.
In time, more and more people began to offer the visa service, and the service became very well known in expat circles, especially amongst those who did not have employment with a work permit and the corresponding visa or had no employment at all. For rates ranging from 1,800 to 4,000 baht, one could send their passport on holiday and not have to deal with the long journey to Laos or Malaysia (and later Cambodia), or the expense of getting on a plane and flying out of the country.
Some of those people offering the service seemed to work solely as visa agents, and from all accounts made a good living from it. And then there were businesses offering other services, such as hotels, bars and restaurants that, with the special handshake, could also send your passport on holiday for a few thousand baht.
And then as things became REALLY well known some entrepreneurial types acted as middle men, offering fellow Westerners new to Thailand an easy way to get their visas sorted out. They would use one of the existing visa services, and simply add a couple of thousand baht on top, their profit for their “assistance”. Ads started appearing in the Bangkok Post for various visa services, some of them totally legal, some otherwise. It was at this stage that any casual observer could see that it had all become too big, too well known, and it wouldn't be too long before things went bang.
I’ll never forget back some time around the second quarter of 2000 when the Bangkok Post ran a large piece profiling a firm called Thai Visa. The piece went on to talk about the services offered by the company and had an in-depth interview with the Scandinavian managing director, and how his could get visas for Westerners without them having to leave Bangkok. I was incredulous that the newspaper could print such a story and present it in such a way that made it sound totally legitimate! The impression that I had at the time was that the writer hadn't actually thought through the issues involved, and hadn't realised that he had profiled an illegal business in a very positive way! Later that week in the lobby of a popular Thai language school, one student who had also read the article was distributing business cards he had collected from the premises of Thai Visa. A number of them made their way over to use this company's services. These people had absolutely no idea that the service offered was illegal, no idea at all… Upon my recommendations that they rethink using the service, some got quite indignant, and one even got nasty.
But Thai Visa's good fortune was not to last. Whether it was due to the rumoured entry into the dodgy visa market of a new, locally run outfit, or whether it was due to the rumours of marital problems between the Scandinavian owner and his Thai wife, the premises of Thai Visa were visited by the police in the second half of 2000 and a shockwave was sent through the industry when the owner was deported from Thailand and apparently blacklisted, for running an illegal business.
Now what is interesting about these businesses, and Thai Visa more than any of the others, is that many operated under what appeared to be a very legitimate front. Many of the customers knew that it was dodgy, but I bet many others, like the aforementioned students, didn’t. Despite Thai Visa being busted in a high profile case, it seems that none of the folks who procured dodgy visas from this crowd experienced any visa related problems. From what I understand, all customers who had lodged their passports with Thai Visa at that time somehow managed to escape unscathed, and all got their passports back with the visa they were expecting. Whatever the reason for Thai Visa being busted, this should have signalled the end of the dodgy visa scam, but it didn’t. One can only hypothesize that Thai Visa were busted on a tip off, and that the other players in the industry were aware of this and didn’t see their own businesses under threat in any way.
Other operators continued to offer the service and from what I gather, there were no real hiccups for some time. That was until just a couple of months ago when the present crackdown began, a crackdown that has been reported much more heavily online than in the national press.
All sorts of rumours are circulating about what might have started the current dodgy visa crackdown and here are the two that I hear most. The first is that the terrorist Himbali who was found in Ayyuthya a couple of months back had used such services which were then highlighted to a senior government official who ordered the crackdown. The other rumour which is very interesting is that while visas obtained through questionable methods in the past were genuine visas obtained illegally, some dodgy travel agents, purportedly in Khao Sarn Road, started to offer their own visa service. But instead of actually providing the service of sending the passport out of the country, getting all of the legitimate stamps (and ensuring that it was all entered into the immigration computer system), they had had fake border exit and entry stamps made up and would simply stamp the passports of their unsuspecting customers! When these former customers went to leave the country they would find that there was no entry into the computer and upon closer inspection, that the stamps were fake. Immigration started noticing an increase in the number of these fake visas and started cracking down, or at least so the story goes.
I am of the belief that the Thais let this loophole be exploited for far too long and it got to the stage where eventually they had to crack down on it. With any scam, the more people who are involved and know about it, the sooner word will get out – and it will be clamped down on, even in a country with serious corruption issues. That was what happened here.
What sort of numbers of foreigners have used these services? It is impossible to know but it does seem that a lot of the people who just mill around Bangkok and on the surface appear to be doing nothing worthwhile, use them regularly. A lot of people who work in Bangkok illegally have used them too. A large number of people who came to Thailand to be English teachers who entered the country on anything other than a Non-immigrant B visa have also been big users of them. As these services have apparently been operating for quite some time, no doubt there are huge numbers of people in Thailand now with a passport literally full of these questionable stamps.
But just how fake are those stamps? Immigration would no doubt tell you that if you did not leave the country yourself, then technically the visa is illegal. Some might be fake stamps made with a stamp from a dodgy rubber stamp maker while others might be illegally obtained stamps. If one has fake stamps made with one of these rubber stamps then they are stuffed and there is little that one can do. But if one has a legitimate stamp obtained through a questionable process, they probably have much less to worry about.
There have been various musings in forums online about certain visa stamp numbers being fake. (The number can be found in the border area on the outside of the stamp and is repeated over and over). Certain numbers have been purported to be fake, while some respondents in the online forums have said that they waltzed through customs with those very same numbers – and didn't have any problem. Something is not quite right and most likely the stamps are just used for a certain period of time and then the number binned, or taken out of circulation.
While I have yet to read anything from a credible source, certain reports suggest that people who have been caught with dodgy visas have suffered quite different fates. One fellow was reportedly told to pay what was effectively an overstay fine and was told to leave the country immediately, get a new visa and then would be welcome to return. Another fellow claims that he went through the court system, was found guilty and was deported as well as being blacklisted, prevented from ever returning to the Land Of Smiles. Paranoia in some circles has offered the thought that anyone caught will spend many years in one of HM The King’s hotels. What is a fact is that document fraud in Thailand is a serious crime and the maximum penalty is a few year’s jail time.
Rumours abound that any foreigners caught with dodgy visas will do years and years of hard time in a Thai prison. I personally believe that this is nonsense scare mongering. For crimes like this, the Thais are actually quite compassionate with Westerners (compared with the sentences handed out to locals) and I doubt anyone will be sentenced to jail time (unless they have previous convictions, or are found guilty of other crimes). Being chucked out of the country and told never to come back is quite likely though…
Given that many folks who have used the visa agents truly didn’t know that the service was illegal, and thus a crime was committed (yeah, yeah, I know ignorance of the law is no excuse…) and more importantly, given that many of these firms were operating in such a way that customers truly believed that they were using a genuine service, perhaps the Thai authorities should go easy on anyone found with dodgy visas? Given the high profile that Thai Visa had in the past, it wouldn't take the world’s best lawyer to run the ignorance angle as a pretty decent defence. After all, if you read about a company profile in the most popular English language newspaper (not an ad, but a full profile and interview!) then that is as close to legitimizing a business as you can get.
I believe so many of the changes taking place in Thailand now are happening as a result of situations like this, where obviously illegal enterprises became so big, but were operating in such a way that a layman could be forgiven for genuinely believing that what was offered was in fact legitimate. We haven't heard the end of this one.
Finally, if you have dodgy visas in your passport, tut tut tut! You are a naughty person indeed. But despite what some people have said, I do not believe you have much to worry about, unless it was a visa you got from one of the newer operators who used fake stamps. If that is the case, you have got problems… But then, if you do go to your embassy claiming that your current passport had been lost, stolen or worst of all, put through the washing machine, don't expect to get a replacement in a hurry. Rumour has it that some of the European embassies have run out of passports and have had to send back home for more!
Where is this pic?
Last week's pic
This week's pic
Right outside the World Trade Centre,
near the main intersection!
FROM STICKMAN'S BAG OF EMAIL:
Deja Vu – this is EXACTLY what I thought of Buriram a year ago…(and just as I wrote it in a column last October).
Fans of a bit of afternoon delight in Patpong will be most disappointed to hear that the bars in Patpong that have traditionally been open during the day, such esteemed establishments as The Star Of Love and other venues offering a similar service, have been prohibited from opening until 6:00 PM. Must be a lot of disappointed expats in the Silom area…just where will they go for their afternoon stroll now?!
There is a young farang girl working at a Soi Cowboy bar, that is she is doing work of some nature, but is NOT on the game. I really cannot see the logic in this. She is obviously a teenager and quite frankly, one has to ask what the hell she is doing there. Being in such an environment cannot do her any good at all, and if she does actually do any work at the moment, it could give the coppers an "in" to cause that bar no end of grief. So, to the bar where this young lass is hanging out, while I am sure your intentions are good, it might be an idea to reappraise the situation.
The fellow purported to have stolen in the soi 4 scam tried to sell shares in the new bar Fork n' View, which is not even his. He still owes everybody from the poor Thai employees he never paid, to all the investors and partners. He fled down to Pattaya and answers his phone but when he knows it is someone he has stolen from, he pretends to not speak English. He is also a coward as well as a parasite! I hope people in Pattaya know what a scum bag he is. The Thai police are after him, the US DEA are aware of him and apparently he is involved in all sorts of things. The Indian authorities are now aware of him and all his passport details are with them as well as Thai immigration and the UK's Scotland Yard. He ripped off two elderly retired people for 50,000 dollars. This poor old couple are now returning to US with sever financial problems. I might also add, the man retired in Thailand because he has cancer, which the scammer was well aware of. The money he stole from them was meant to secure their future due to the man's illness….maybe it is me, but that is disgusting. Nobody should find that clever. He is vile. An internet site is being set up to tell people what he does.
For those of you who want to get your Thai girlfriend or wife interested in the joys of reading, be aware that Jake Needham's "Laundry Man" is due out in Thai next month. I'm guessing that this one might have more appeal to the educated Thai women.
For those who use bent software, you won't find a lot of it available at Panthip Plaza at the moment. The vendors are back to a trick from the old days whereby they take customers' orders, take their money, and then dispatch the product out to the customers' residence or hotel, presumably by the postal service.
Jake Needham and Christopher Moore are about to get a run for their money with Asia Books preparing to release a raft of new thrillers on the market. Best of the bunch is picked to be The Family Business by real life private eye Byron Bales. Bales has created a gritty claims investigator, Roth, who comes up against corrupt cops, lying hookers and hired killers as he tries to nail two ruthless con artists in Bangkok, Manila and New York. Bales, who has an office in Bangkok, really knows his stuff and tells you more than you probably should know about defrauding insurance companies, and his cynical world-weary gumshoe is a match for anything conceived by Raymond Chandler.
Another forthcoming good read is The Vampire Of Siam by Jim Newport, who like Jake Needham has a TV/Movie background. Jim helped create award winning shows like The Shield and China Beach and now splits his time between Los Angeles and Thailand. His first novel is about a wealthy expat who uncovers a serial killer in the City Of Angels, only to discover that the murder is a 175 year old French vampire.
And former British teacher turned cartoonist and Bangkok Post columnist Colin Cotteril, who now lives in Chiang Mai, has written a detective story set in Asia called Evil In The Land Without. It’s a riveting read, the story of a detective from the UK on the trail of a killer who targets young children. It’s a disturbing tale and shows a darker side of The Land Of Smiles and its neighbour Burma.
Asia Books, who apparently want to get 100 published titles on the market have also asked the author of Bangkok Angel to write a follow up which has a working title of Bangkok Angel – The Reality. The author told me that Bangkok Angel was easy to write as it was just what happened to a green farang in the City Of Angels. This next book requires that he looks back over what he has learnt in 9 years of being married to a Thai, and brining up a Thai boy. The author says that "although there is a lot of deception in the city there is also a lot of beauty and honesty too". Pick up his first title if you don't have it already.
It is one of the really grey areas of so called "wholesome businesses" and there's something iniquitous about these charges, in fact that some could argue that the hotels themselves could be accused of living of immoral earnings by imposing them. Hotels try to argue that you pay by the person, yet the room rate is the generally the same whether you check in with one or four! So which hotels charge the most? And when charged, were you given a receipt? The one time I have actually seen this sort of thing going on, the hotel staff made no attempt to hide the fact that the money went straight into his pocket… Feedback from readers would be much appreciated as I'd like to name and shame in next week's column… Also, anyone got any hints on how to get the naughty ladies into the likes of The Oriental?
I made it down to Megabreak this week and wow, I was blown away by the place. The moment you walk into the main pool hall, you know that this is a little bit different to your average bar with slags and pool tables. While it all sounded like Double Dutch to me, the friendly farang management at Megabreak have got all sorts of fancy equipment from professional tournament standard tables, to top quality cues and balls, right through to these contraptions tat rack the balls and even the lighting in there is how it should be. You can play by the frame (25 baht) or by the hour, 240 baht – and the rates are a bit cheaper early in the day. There is always one of the farang owners on the premises and you can tell that this was a business built by pool players, for pool players. Overall, a very nice place indeed. If you are in Bangkok on holiday and are stuck for something to do during the day, Megabreak is well worthy of your time. Just walk down Soi 4 on the same side as Nana Hotel and it is just a few hundred metres down there. It is open from around 11:00 AM until 2:00 AM, every day.
Quote of the week comes from a friend, "there is one word which sums up this country – WHY"!
Mrs. Stick's Corner
Each week, Mrs. Stick will answer questions about Thai / farang relationships and general issues that baffle the average Westerner in Thailand. Mrs. Stick is an open-minded Thai lady who is happy to answer your questions. Please send questions for her, via me, at the usual email address. Two or three questions will be chosen each week and answered in the following week's column. The responses are hers and NOT mine although I may attempt to correct her English from time to time. Note 1: I may not necessarily agree with what she says! Note 2: Unfortunately, she doesn't have time to reply to your inquiries via email.
Question 1: I have known a bar girl and her sister that both work in Pattaya for about a year. They claim to have an older married sister who lives in Bangkok and has a 5 year old child. The girls told me the Thai husband does not want the wife to work at any kind of job, just stay home with the child. This practice of wives staying home and not working may have been popular in western countries a few years back (not any more), but I was wondering, could you shed some light on what the Thai cultural beliefs are for country working class families regarding this in general? I would think that to make ends meet, everyone that could, would work and the husband would encourage this and it's not a matter of saving face by a husband (to be able to support his family by himself).
Mrs. Stick says: I think the wife should stay home for the first 2-3 years of the child's life. But since people now send kids to school from age 3 or 4, then everyone can work again after that. It depends on the family, and specifically, whether the husband can make enough money to support the family. If he can, then there is no need for the wife to work.
Question 2: Will a Thai girlfriend insist on marriage and family at some point or is she
relatively content in a committed monogamous relationship based on honesty, trust and integrity? If you are stridently opposed to having children will that generally compromise a relationship with a Thai woman irrespective of age?
Mrs. Stick says: You better start the hunt to find someone else. I'm sure that most farang women would be very much the same. You cannot deny mother nature and women have certain needs that come at certain points in their life and this is especially so in Asian culture. It's a trade, meaning some sort of value placed on love and the heart. Why can't you give her something that she ultimately wants, commitment, when you she is giving you what you want… If you really love her and want to be with her for the rest o your life, you should be ready to let people around her know that while you may not want to get married, you are prepared to take on the responsibility for properly looking after her. Think of this analogy. You go into a bookshop and see a book that you really want. You can't read the whole thing there. You have to buy it and then you can have it forever… Marriage is as much respect as anything, especially in this part of the world.
Question 3: I have been married to a splendid and beautiful Thai woman for almost four years. Unfortunately, I have to spend most of my working time in Korea, where I can make and save money for the plans that we've made together, to buy some land and build a house, and perhaps have a kiddo as well. There's a lot of time apart, because even as an English 'ajarn', the money is much better in Korea, and teaching pays jack in Thailand. But my spouse seems to think that because I'm surrounded by university girls, that I'm going to get involved with one (or more) of them. This is just not on for me; I'm an old-school guy in that regard: for me, marriage is married. How do I convince her that I'm not looking elsewhere, that she's the only one?
Mrs. Stick says: I would like to pass on this question to Stickman as it is a tough one. Trust is a big thing. Her state of mind will be very fragile with this situation. The way you maintain communication is critical as are the number of visits that the two of you make to each other. As an idea, perhaps buy her an open ticket so that she can come and visit you any time. Or maybe have a permanent webcam into your bedroom so she can see just what you are up to… I guess that as you have married such a splendid, beautiful woman, then you have exactly the same things to worry about!
I do my best to try and keep things positive in this column but recently it has been hard to do so, very hard in fact. Personally, the column has been taking more and more time and that combined with a much busier work schedule has taken its toll. In addition to this, there is a really negative feeling in the air with many expats in Thailand at the moment. A number of things have been happening that are making a great number of foreigners seriously reconsider their positions here. More than ever before, foreigners are getting a message that we are less and less welcome here. You might not read about it in The Post or The Nation, but believe me, on the ground, there is a strong air of discontentment amongst a diverse range of Westerners living in Thailand. A lot of folks aren't happy at all and many are asking themselves the question, "will I still be here in 12 months?"
Your Bangkok commentator,