Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Barriers of an (almost) intangible type - Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok Government Center
World citizen, cosmopolitan soul, international attitude, free spirit. All of these are very evocative expressions. They recall images of poets and thinkers sitting at a table, a glass of absinthe near the notebook and a goose quill pen in the hand. Self proclaimed as such as you can be, you still have to face the ones who don't agree with you...and there's loads: lawmakers, members of central and local governments, police officers, immigration officers, customs officers, independence and separatist movements, chauvinists, extra-parliamentary groups, xenophobes, religious fanatics, nationalists, localists, regionalists. Everyone, in their own fashion, will tend to make you feel like an alien, a stranger, a citizen of a faraway place, not yet of the world but of a small town, a district, a neighborhood or a block.
I currently hold a Thai student visa, which I got by joining a language school, after having paid the fees for a whole year in advance, as it's normally done here. It's not so bad though: at least here I can pay the rent every month, whereas when I was in China I had to settle the twelve-month account, plus deposit, on the spot - with a stack of filthy 100 RMB notes - before the keys were handed to me.
Let's not stray from the topic though: in order to give you an example of how the aforementioned saboteurs will act in order to make you feel like a (not too) welcome guest all the time, I'll tell you about my latest visit to the Bangkok immigration office.
I need to kill two birds with a stone: an extension of stay and a re-entry permit for an upcoming trip to Malaysia (for an explanation of these terms you can refer to the addendum at the end of this post). In brief, two applications, two numbers, two queues, two counters, two stamps, two pains in the neck, two everything you can think of. I need an almost perfect combination of events and an auspicious alignment of stars not to be forced to spend the whole day at the office.
I choose the time of arrival with rather accurate randomness: not too early, to avoid the annoying queue in front of the closed door - all those people throwing defiant looks at each other and silently scheming - and not too late, in order not to be given a three-digit number.
A number is not handed out unless a form has been correctly filled. I get the proper one, I fill it and I stick my photo on it, using a glue that smears my passport and the school papers. Every time I try to remind myself to use just a little of it, but it's always too much, too watery, too greasy and smelly.
I still haven't got the passport copies (they're essential! The original document is never enough for some people...), but I decide to try my luck and I face the guy who hands out the numbers anyway, otherwise a lot of people will get ahead of me. I'm lucky, I get number 37, then I go to the photocopy shop and after I'm done I reach the counters.
A newly installed screen is broadcasting a video explaining the procedures and why every application needs about fifteen minutes to be processed. The possible reasons for a delay are also listed (to make it short: it's always the applicant's fault).
It's a complicated routine and an application has to go through a considerable number of hands before it can be approved by the supervisor, but taking into account the quantity of open counters and the number that I got I should be able to make it in the morning. It's better not to count too much on it though, unexpected events are always lying in wait: when I'm in the hands of bureaucrats I never fail to feel like a partridge in a wood beaten by poachers.
The situation is fluid, the sequence of numbers is running smoothly, when number 30 is called there is still a long way to go before the dreaded twelve o'clock deadline, lunch break time. A woman is given a passport, but instead of leaving happy and relieved she gets back to her seat. After a few minutes they give her another one. And she sits down again. Damn! She represents a group of Burmese immigrants, which means that she's submitting many applications with only one number. I'll have to wait much longer than expected. But I should still be able to make it.
In fact my moment of glory arrives very soon: I hand passport, documents and cash, and as everything is alright I can go back to my seat. The employee will enter some data into a computer and check them. I keep an eye on her, there doesn't seem to be any problem and everything is passed on to the Financial Officer.
From now on it is difficult to monitor the progression of the process as the applications are piled up and a lot of people are bustling about the table. I can just use my intuition.
When I reckon that my passport is already on the supervisor's desk - the final step of the procedure - the machine calls the number of a lady who walks with an arrogant pace and a threatening look, the obvious signs of a person who has got a problem but is poised to fight to the last breath before giving up. In fact the greener who is in charge of the first procedural step slightly shakes her head and starts to say something, but the other shuts her up with a couple of sharp remarks and has her call her manager. And he happens to be the supervisor who was about to stamp my passport.
I fear the worst. The supervisor sits at the greener's place, takes a look at the papers and then, smiling and without haste, starts to explain the regulations to the woman. She answers point for point, haranguing, pointing at some place, referring to something and quoting someone. I walk around, hop and mumble to give vent to my irritation. They go on like this for a long time, before the supervisor decides to give her one more chance, sending her to a colleague of his. Why didn't he do that earlier?
It's my turn, they give me my passport with the extension stamp on it, but it's already twelve o'clock. I try to get started with the re-entry permit application before everybody goes out for lunch, but it's too late, I'll have to get a number after one o'clock.
I get down to the basement of this brand new and imposing Government Center, which looks like the airport of a main Chinese city: a parade of might and wealth, a striking showdown.
I stroll, look around, eat something, have a coffee and then I go back to the immigration office. One more form, the glue, the photos. Where are my photos? Damn, I must have lost them this morning: I'll have to go downstairs again. It doesn't take long: God bless the digital era. A few years back I heard somebody using a curious expression: "digital crisis". It was the owner of a photo developing and printing shop. Those people are the only ones who could call it like that.
I get back to the office. This procedure is easier than the previous one and by two o'clock I'm already done.
When I'm getting on the cab I take a last look at the building and a painful thought crosses my mind: I will have to return here soon, way too soon. The veggies and rice patter on the pit of my stomach. World citizen, free spirit: I wonder if Diogenes and Voltaire also had to extend their visas every three months.

In order to clarify some doubts on the first part of the post I will make a (partially serious) digression into the different types of Thai ED (education) visas.
My visa, having being issued by a Thai Embassy at a bordering country - in my case it was Laos - is of the single entry type and even though it's valid for one year the period of stay must be extended every three months at the immigration office.
Furthermore, in case the single entry ED visa holder needs to leave the country a re-entry permit must be obtained first, in order to keep the visa "alive" while abroad.
If I had applied for the visa in Europe I would have been able to get a multiple entry one and there would have been no need to go to the immigration office every three months for an extension.
Even this type of visa presents some inconveniences though, as the holder will have to leave the country not less than once every ninety days, without applying for a re-entry permit though, in this case. Do you think it makes no sense? Don't worry, it probably doesn't, unless you manage to get into the details of the logic of a South-East Asian country's bureaucracy.
By the way, there are some additional complications. Let's assume that your current extension will expire on the 31st of the current month. As we have already said you need to show up at the immigration office before that day to get an extension of stay for ninety more days. You follow the advice of the Immigration Department and of your school and you report a few days in advance, let's say on the 25th. The extension will obviously start from the expiration day, which is the 31st, but unfortunately there is an annoying catch. Every three months it is also necessary to report for address notification. Fortunately these two things (extension of stay and notification of address) can be done on the same day, in our case on the 25th. As already said your stay will be extended for ninety days starting from the expiration day, which is the 31st, but the clock for your next address notification will start to run on the 25th! In brief, before your one-year visa expires you will have to go to the immigration office an extra time just to notify your address for the last time. It might seem useless to you, but only to you. Judging by the pieces of paper that they stuck to your passport, by the use of CAPITAL LETTERS, bold font and a considerable number of exclamation marks!!!, for them it must be a very crucial point.
Anyway a student visa is still better than a tourist one, as its holder is spared from having to embark every two months on one of those jolly journey generally known with the name of visa-runs.

No comments: