I. Introduction to the Labyrinth.
When charging into their respective hearts of darkness, Kafka’s protagonist prowling the endless dim halls of bureaucracy and Conrad’s hero plunging through the green walls of the jungle in search of Kurtz, both experienced the grim pleasure of knowing that giving up was not an option. So it was with me a few days ago as I set out to renew my retirement visa for Thailand.
As with anyone planning a difficult voyage, I spent several days preparing as best I could; reviewing procedures and requirements, collecting documents, assembling funds and choosing the clothing I was going to wear. Most time-consuming of all, however, was figuring out how to get to the Thai immigration Office in Bangkok.
About two years ago, the Immigration Department moved from an easy to reach central location in downtown Bangkok to the massive Government Complex in the nether reaches of the city, far from most public transit facilities except for a few buses and the ever-present taxi’s.
The Complex, I discovered, appears on no maps of the city that I could find. The interactive website that integrates all of the cities transit and provides simple to use directions from and to anywhere in the city, did not, or would not, direct one to the Government Complex. Neither the Complex, the surrounding streets or nearby notable sites like hospitals and the like are listed. At first I thought it might have something to do with an overzealous concern about security, until I discovered the Immigration Department’s own website advising those with business with the Department to take a taxi.
Nevertheless, after about an hour of so of searching, I discovered a i-tube video, complete with a zit faced post-adolescent in a baseball cap and the light wisp of a mustache demonstrating how, for only 50 cents in fares, it can be done. It was quite simple really and I decided to follow his directions.
I have been to the Immigration Offices at the Governmental Center several times in the past. those times I have either taken a Taxi which charges a flat rate of at least $10 or gone with my roommate, the Little Masseuse on a voyage taking about two or more hours and requiring at least four bus changes. This time I decided I was going to make it on my own. Like Willard on the Mekong in Apocalypse Now I was determined to find my way to Kurtz no mater the risk.
So on the day I had chosen, I got up very early, dressed as I had planned, gathered my things and left my apartment. After a big breakfast (I did not know when I would get to eat again), I took the skytrain to Mo Chit*Station at the end of the line just as the lad on the video recommended. He had advised then taking the 52 bus that stops at Mo Chit and goes directly past the Government Complex.
Unfortunately, when I arrived, I discovered a significant transit center with many busses, taxi’s and vans milling about. I began to doubt my video guides directions, especially since they all seemed to be going in the opposite direction to where I was headed. So, for some reason, I decided I should abandon my guide and take a taxi instead of trying to figure things out. When I told the first Taxi driver I accosted where I was going he quoted me a price that was the same as that charged by the taxi drivers near my apartment. Of course I refused to be ripped off and moved on to the vans. I knew from past experience many of them went past the Complex.
I approached a knot of drivers standing by a line of vans and asked which one was going to the Complex. I was ignored. Undaunted, I began asking individual drivers. Although most continued to ignore me, one smiling fellow seemed eager to help and took me toward one of the vans. The driver shook us off and quickly drove away. Then there ensued a series of angry exchanges between the smiling helpful driver and the other drivers. Finally, the helpful driver, having lost his ever-present smile, turned to me and explained that it would be a long time before a van to the Complex would come by and that I would be better off taking a taxi.
Crestfallen I was still determined not to be taken for the $10 demanded by the Taxi mafia that I had now become convinced ran the city. Unfortunately my confidence ebbed out of me like air from a punctured balloon. I began to feel I had over estimated my abilities as an explorer. Perhaps there was no way to get there from here. I began panic and began to believe that I may have to take the damned taxi after all.
Suddenly a beggar, missing teeth, wispy hair and rumpled clothes, appeared along side of me and said, “Take the bus if you want to get to the Government Center.” And, just as he said it, a number 52 bus slowed down in the street right next to us.
Bangkok busses do not really stop but usually slow down just enough for passengers to jump on or off. I jumped on and sure enough it dropped me off at the Complex. I made a note to on my way back find the beggar and give him some money, perhaps the entire $10 I saved on the taxi, minus the 25 cent cost of the bus.
I was feeling good.
* There are many “chits” (ch is pronounced sh in Thai) in Bangkok. The Skytrain has three, Mo, Phloem and Lom. At one time there were plans for a movie to be called, “Three Chits in Thailand” but it was cancelled by the head of the chit project for lack of interest….. I know, I am a chit for writing this.
II. Stunned in the Sun.
I arrived at the building that housed the Thai Visa and Immigration Office and a
number of other agencies. It was one of the 20 or so government buildings in the Government Complex. It is a huge building that looks like a giant arrow-head plunged into the ground. It has an enclosed central court as large as half a football field. The location of the Complex is so remote that the basement of the building houses a complete shopping center, including banks, restaurants, grocery stores, a car dealership I believe and a lot more.
I was in good spirits. I entered the crowded visa and immigration offices, marched up to the intake desk and handed them my passports. I had two passports because my previous passport was due to expire in December and while I was in the US I had its replacement issued. The smiling young woman behind the desk sporting a badge that announced “trainee,” took my passports and earnestly leafed through them. Her ever-present smile creased into a frown and collapsed. Sensing the anxiety rising in my gut, I babbled my explanation for the two passports. She asked did you show the passport officer at the airport both passports. “No,” I responded, “one had been cancelled so I showed him only the valid one.” Her frown deepened. She turned and spoke with another woman dressed in a military uniform.
Panic rose to my throat as they spoke and rifled through the document now and then glancing in my direction. Then the uniformed one broke away and walked to the counter at which I was standing. She was not smiling. Said, “you have the wrong stamp.” Forcing a smile I inquired, “how do I get the right stamp.”
“You need to go to immigration to get it changed.”
Relieved I responded, “where is that,” hopeful it would be in the same building.
“But,” my smile gone, “this is immigration. “Can’t you do it here” I pleaded?
She looked at me for a moment then turned went back to the no longer smiling trainee. They leaned close together and spoke Now and then they would glance at me. Then the Trainee, smiling again came back to me and said come with me. My heart leaped with joy.
We walked into the large processing room with hundreds of people stagnating around staring perhaps fifty or more cubicles with red lights on the front flashing various numbers. We walked up to another counter behind which sat a man in uniform. She spoke to him in Thai. I gave my story again. They spoke some more. He gave her a piece of paper with a number on it. She then turned and said come with me.
We marched to one of the cubicles with the same number as on the piece of paper. She went in. Came out again said “you have to go to airport. Have stamp changed.”
“But” I sputtered, “Why not here? Where in airport?” and things like that. I was losing it.
She took me back to the first uniformed man. They spoke animatedly. She came back to me. We returned to the cubicle. This time I went in and sat before a grim-faced man in a uniform with ribbons on his shirt and braid on his shoulder. I started to explain again. He took the passports and looked through them going back and forth among the pages; looked at me and said, “You have the wrong stamp. You have to go to the fourth floor immigration at the airport and have it changed.”
Although I sensed defeat, I pleaded, “how do I know where at the airport. What happens if they refuse?”
He looked at me took the little paper I have been given with the number of his office and on the back wrote, “Fourth Floor, Immigration” in English and Thai and handed it back to me.
Knowing that it was the best I was going to do and guessing that at least I could wave the piece of paper around the airport and claim it was from Bangkok Central Immigration Office, I left the building and caught a van back to the Mo Chit Skytrain station.
My confidence slowly returned. I was on a mission. It was still only 10am. I could get it done today. I felt like Willard on the Mekong. Giving up was not an option.
III. Off to the Airport.
I got back to the Mo Chit Skytrain station without too much difficulty and took the train a few stops back to where it meets up with the elevated railway that goes to the airport. I crossed over to the Airport train station and paid my fare. I discovered that I had paid a three dollar fare for the luxury express. I did not know there was such a thing. Normally I would have chosen the lower fare train, but I guess in my hurry I was not paying attention. When the train arrived and I entered the car I was surprised. Normally the rail cars have the usual bench like plastic seats aligned along the walls facing each other. Here they were upholstered airline seats in orderly rows facing forward. As I took my seat and the train started up I was pleased despite my extravagance. I was comfortable and the trip would be shorter than the local giving me time to get my business done at the airport and return to the Immigration Offices.
Although the existing Skytrain had been built through the center of Bangkok, touching almost all the tourist and commercial areas and had already been extended halfway to the airport, the powers that be, both financial and governmental, decided it would be in their interests to create a separate company and transit line just to service the airport. They placed their stations where the airport line intersected existing mass transit lines . The theory being, I suppose, that the people, in the tourist and commercial areas and the like who wanted to get to the airport by less expensive mass transit would be willing to lug their suitcases on to one mass transit facility, travel for quite some time to the transfer point and then lug their things over to the new line for the final trip to the airport. Everyone was surprised when it didn’t work and the expected ridership failed to occur. Since then there have been the usual marketing campaigns, promoted by marketing mavens who convinced the powers that be that poor marketing was the problem and not any defect in the concept. That has not worked either.
Anyway I took my seat and stared out of my window as we rode high above the city. In an effort to reduce costs, in addition to scrimping on the quality of the stations, the roadway and the rolling stock, a route was chosen that avoided the developed portions of the city thereby lowering land acquisition expenses. From a point somewhere not too far from the Royal Palace grounds on the river and extending almost all the way to the new international airport there exists a relatively undeveloped strip of land about a half a mile wide. I have no idea what urban development dynamics caused this. Through this stretch the airport rail line travelled.
As I looked out my window I could see that in this stretch of land the jungle still existed. Not the jungle one sees in documentaries with thick gnarled trees and multi-storied green terraces, but a marsh jungle of grassland, clumps of thick vegetation with wispy leaved trees and black waters peeping through from beneath it all. In the distance the shining high rises gleamed and the pressed in on the margins. Here and there a collection of shacks of what I have learned are referred to as “informal communities” appeared. Rusted corrugated roofing covering dwellings and shops made from a variety of urban detritus, Narrow little lanes teeming with people zigzagged through each community. The structures were either built on stilts over the black waters of the marsh, or crowding over remnant canals.
I was enjoying the view and my contemplation of it when the first attack occurred. Fleas began their relentless assault of stinging bites all over my body. I wanted to run from the train howling, but it was the express, so I had no choice but to sit there. When the train rolled into the airport, I left it quickly. I already had started to feel the little red welts rising all over my body. I thought I must have looked as though I had come down with a case of measles.
At least I had arrived. I consoled myself with the thought that the protagonists of Conrad, Kafka and Coppola who furnished the material for this extended and convoluted metaphor faced worse.
IV. At the Airport with no Place to Go.
Having arrived at the airport and ignoring the insane itching all over my body from the flea bites, I rushed up to the fourth floor as I was directed to by the bemedalled and braided uniformed character back at the immigration office. I was still clutching the tiny slip of paper with my printed interview number on one side and the scribblings of that esteemed gentleman on the other: “Airport, fourth floor immigration” in both Thai and English.
Upon reaching the fourth floor, I recognized it as the departure floor with its row upon row of counters for ticketing and hundreds and hundreds of people busily engaged in going or processing the going or cleaning up after whoever was going actually went.
Knowing that in all this turmoil I could never figure out the location of the immigration office, I sought out an airport information desk. Found it. The woman behind the desk smiled at me. I explained the situation to her and waved around the piece of paper. Her smile disappeared and she motioned me to wait while she called someone. After speaking to whomever for a few minutes she put down the phone and told me to wait and then proceeded to completely ignore me. I recognized that particular Thai trait. To her I had suddenly become a non-entity; someone no longer quite human.
Perhaps a little explanation about Thai culture would help to understand her reaction. To a Thai you are not completely human if you are not Thai or are a lower social status (this is a trait not unknown among Americans also). Farangs (Western foreigners), could be forgiven their non-Thai-ness only if they are of a superior class . A superior class in Thailand usually means, money. If you have it you are rewarded with a smile and an acknowledgement of potential humanness even as they try to separate you from the money. There were three reasons that disqualified me from being truly human in the eyes of the lady behind the information desk; 1) I was not Thai; 2) I was not dressed like I had money (I was in my Ocean’s Eleven outfit, flowered shirt, short pants and floppy hat) and; 3) If I had money, I would not be doing this myself but would have paid some Thai some of it to run around collecting the documents and paying the bribes on my behalf.
The phone rang. She picked it up, spoke for a moment and handed the receiver to me. I explained everything to the woman on the other end and waved the piece of paper around even if she could not see it. She said that I should hang up and wait until someone calls back. I did and waited. After awhile the phone rang and we repeated the process, at the end of which the voice at the other end directed me to be at door M-28 at precisely 20 minutes after the hour where someone will appear there to help me. After profusely thanking the voice, I hung up. I asked the information lady where door M-28 was located. She pointed vaguely across the departure area to the right and returned to ignoring me. I went off in search of door M-28 full of optimism that someone there would finally solve all my problems. It was only 10 after the hour. I, nevertheless, rushed to find door M-28 not wanting to risk being late.
V. Disgust and Loathing.
I got to door M-28 with plenty of time to spare – except there was no door. The only M-28 I found was a counter at the end of a long row of counters for various airlines. The only doors nearby were two departure gates. So I nervously stood there waiting for my assignation. Twenty minutes after the hour came and went, then thirty minutes. When forty minutes came and went, I was really concerned, so I approached a woman sitting behind counter M-28 and told her my story and waved the little piece of paper. Instead of smiling blankly or ignoring me as most Thais would do this woman unleashed an exceedingly vicious attack on me saying that she did was not interested in nor cared about my troubles and that this was an airline counter and I should not be standing there. She pointed to the boarding gate and told me to go stand there if I must stand near some doors.
Taken aback, I was speechless and stepped a few feet away from the counter to try to figure out what to do next. I decided to go to one of the gates and try there. Maybe the rude counter Nazi was right.
So I went to the gate and found a woman in uniform, explained my story and waved the piece of paper as well as my passports. She smiled took my passports, leafed through them as though she knew what she was looking for and said, “I understand. Stay right here. I will be right back.” She took my passports passed through security and went-up to two uniformed passport officers behind their counters. They talked. They all looked my way. Then she turned and came back with a large smile on her face. Like someone suffering Stockholm Syndrome my heart leapt for joy at her smile.
“It is all taken care of,” she said. “Come with me.”
VI. Hope Diminished
So, I followed her, ever hopeful that this time it would all work out. She led me to Airport security. After I passed through the usual minor strip-search, I looked around for the woman. She was gone leaving me confused about what I was supposed to do next. I decided approaching the two uniformed passport officers I had seen her speaking with was the most reasonable thing to do.
I walked over to the counter they sat behind. Told them my story while waving around the increasingly wrinkled, sweat stained and forlorn piece of paper. I handed them my passports. They leafed through them knowingly. Spoke to each other. Then looked over at me and spoke to each other again. Finally one of them took possession of the passports turned towards me and told me that he would handle it. I was elated.
“Give me your boarding pass,” he demanded. I plunged into depression. With my voice rising with my hysteria I said, “No, no you do not understand” and I began to tell my story again and wave the little piece of paper around, at which point a younger man in a darker uniform with a bit more ribbons and braid arrived. Spoke to the passport officer. I repeated my story again and showed him the piece of paper.
“No problem,” he said. “Come with me”
I followed him through the passport review post and into an office that contained two desks behind one sat a similarly uniformed officer and behind the other he sat down. He leafed through the passports. Just to be sure, I explained everything again and showed him the piece of paper one more time. “No Problem,” he smiled and turned to fiddle a bit with his computer. My happiness level began to rise one more time.
Finally he finished whatever he was doing, satisfied he turned to me and asked, “Now where is it you are traveling to today?”
VI. Helpless in Savarunbumi.
“No,” I shouted, hysteria overcoming any sense of decorum and common sense I had left. “You do not understand, I am not going anywhere today.” I then explained my story once again and handed the little slip of paper to him.
He looked at it, nodded, got up and went over to his office mate, a slightly older uniformed man with a little more braid. They talked, looked over at me, ten leafed through my passports and talked some more. Finally, the younger man turned to me, handed back my passports and said, “Immigration, second floor.”
“But, but,” I spluttered. “The man at downtown immigration said airport fourth floor. See he wrote it down here.” I offered him the slip of paper.
He did not take it, but repeated more firmly this time, “second floor immigration.”
Sensing defeat, I pleaded, “How do I find it? What if they send me back up here again?”
“I will take you,” he responded.
Somewhat relieved I followed him back through the offices, past the customs officers through security and then across the building to a bank of elevators. I got in the elevator. He reached in. Pressed the button for #2 and quickly walked away as the doors closed on me.
The elevator did not stop at the second floor.
VII. It Gets Worse
Of course I did not know the elevator did not stop on the second floor until it passed that floor and halted on the first. I took the escalator to the second floor in search of the Immigration Office. The second floor was the arrivals level and lacked the bustle of the 4th floor departure level. There were essentially only the money changing kiosks and two large openings in the far wall from which people arriving in BKK were disgorged. I could not see anything that announced it had anything to do with immigration. Eventually I spotted a door before which stood a woman dressed in a uniform different from most of the others, lighter in color and lacking braid or ribbons. I walked up to her and explained my story and showed her the slip of paper. She smiled and said, “I understand. Follow me.”
She led me into a small room where a man in a similar uniform sat next to a table smaller than a card table. He seemed to have little of no english capabilities, nevertheless I explained everything again showed him the slip of paper and my passport. He leafed through my passport and seemed confused and looked to the woman with what I interpreted as a look of bewilderment.
I said, “Immigration Office. Second Floor. The people on the fourth floor told me to go here. Where is it?” The woman seemed to translate it for him. He fumbled some more through my passports. Eventually I tired of this and asked her “Where is the Immigration office on the second floor?”
She said “in there” and pointed to a door at the back of the room.
“Great” I said. “I will go in there.”
After another brief discussion in Thai with the man, she said, “you can’t”
“What do you mean I cannot. The people on the fourth floor sent me here.” I was clearly getting upset my voice was rising. Thai’s hate people who get emotional.
They spoke again briefly, then the woman said come with me and took me back into the main hall, vaguely pointed toward the opposite wall and said, “Ask at information counter over there.”
VII. A Light at the End of the Tunnel.
I was now back to where I started, at the Airport Information Desk, two floors below where I had begun. I told the woman behind the counter my story and waved the slip of paper around. She called someone. Hung up. Told me to wait. The phone rang again. She handed me the receiver. I explained everything again to the person on the other end. Hung up. Waited. The phone rang again. A very angry person at the other end wanted to know why I was not at Gate M-28. Said that someone went to the trouble of going there and I was not there and now everyone is very angry at me. I decided I was better off not trying to explain. The voice told me to be at M-28 in five minutes and clearly left the impression that if I did not do so my days in Thailand were numbered.
I hung up the phone and ran up the two flights to M-28 on the fourth floor. The nasty woman behind the counter glared at me. I avoided her gaze. Five minutes went by. At about the 10 minute mark I noticed a woman dressed in half a uniform (uniform shirt, regular slacks) striding purposefully across the airport floor in the general direction of M-28. She was not smiling. The land of smiles did not exist for me that day.
I asked if she were the person I was to meet and handed her my passports and showed her the piece of paper. She scowled but did not speak. She took the passports and leafed through them and scowled some more. She motioned me to follow her and led me to an elevator at the back wall of the office of the uniformed man who walked me all the way across the airport to the elevator that did not stop at the second floor.
We entered the elevator. She pressed the button for the second floor. This time the elevator stopped at that floor. Without speaking she set off walking through several offices and around some partitions until we reached the arrivals area where there was a long table. She motioned me to sit. I sat. She disappeared into an office.
The table was sticky with spilled soft drinks and was crawling with ants. I could see in front of me the passport control section dedicated to arriving flight crews. I watched the crews arrive and pass through passport control for about an hour. Finally the woman came out of the office. She was smiling. I was not too sure how to read that.
She said, “I fixed it.”
I looked at the stamp in question. My heart sank. It looked the same. Said that. She explained that she had changed the date of my temporary visa from the 30 day temporary limit to Friday three days away. I looked at her with a look of confusion. She said that Friday is the day my retirement visa runs out as though that explained everything.
She then asked me why I did not hand both passports to the passport control officer when I arrived. I said, “because I did not want to confuse him.” She laughed at me.
Then led me to the passport control exit, motioned me through, bowed and with a broad smile said, “Well then, let me welcome you for the second time to Amazing Thailand, the land of smiles.”
I left the airport. It was too late to return to the Immigration Office, so I went back to my apartment. That night I slept fitfully. All I accomplished today was to reduce the time I could remain in the country to three more days. I kept asking myself, what would Willard do, if after reaching Captain Kurtz’s compound in Cambodia he realized he had to start all over again with a new set of orders. AWOL most likely.
IX. Return to the Immigration office and Redemption
The next day I got up early and returned to the Immigration Office at the Government Center, hopeful but not optimistic.
When I arrived I marched up to the same woman who I started with yesterday. She seemed not to recognize me. I gave her my passports. She leafed through them, smiled and pointed me through the door on her right.
I went through that door to the counter behind which sat the same uniformed and braided man who had sent be to the uniformed man with more braid who humorlessly sent me on yesterday’s odyssey.
Today he simply looked at my passport, grunted and gave me a slip of paper on which was printed the section I was to go to and a number. He pointed to the offices that made up that section.
I took a seat outside of the offices. Seven hours later my number was called. I went into the cubicle where another uniformed man with braids on one shoulder sat. I gave him my passports. He looked through them, took a stamp out of a drawer, slammed in on a page of my new passport, wrote something and handed them back to me with a smile.
Taken aback by this sudden display of simplicity, I asked, “How much do I have to pay in fees for my new retirement visa?”
“Nothing,” he responded. “Just extended your existing visa to the original date it would have been had your US passport not expired.”
“You mean I have to do this again in five months not a year?”
“Well can I get re-entry permit so I can leave and return to Thailand without losing my retirement visa?”
He said, “you have to go to another section.” He gave me another slip of paper with a section letter and a number on it.
I went to that section. Two hours later I walked out of the building with both my retirement visa and reëntry permit, $100 poorer for the permit.
As with the completion of any journey or quest my feelings were equivocal as I thought about the last two days. It was good that I achieved what I had set out to accomplish, more or less, but I did not feel especially happy about it.
Life seems to me to be little more than a series of side trips along a longer journey. And like all journeys no matter how pedestrian or mundane they contain the same elements; hope, disappointment, determination, surprise, boredom and just about every other human emotion that one can conger up. I guess that may be why most literature is about a journey of some sort.
- Living Like A Queen in Bangkok! Part 1 – Introduction (cgksinmel.wordpress.com)
- Bangkok (stewart17.wordpress.com)
- Accidents happen when you take a motorcyle taxi in Bangkok (cotihowelltraveler.wordpress.com)