We’re often asked by people who are unfamiliar to the cruising lifestyle what we do all day. They envision us spending most of our time sitting in idyllic anchorages, sipping on exotic cocktails while working on our suntans. We do get to do this on the odd occasion, but in reality, cruising involves many different activities including, believe it or not, sailing! Striking the sails in a foreign port means we now have to deal with officialdom. In most cases it is pretty easy these days, but in some instances, it can be a bit of a challenge. Here’s just one story:
We checked into Thailand on December 4th and handled the formalities at the convenient “One Stop” center in Ao Chalong, where Customs, Immigration and the Port Captain all reside under one roof. While Thailand has a plethora of lengthy official forms to be completed and requires heaps of copies of passports, documentation, etc. the process was fairly straightforward and the officials were relatively pleasant to deal with. Having been through the process last year, we pretty much knew the drill. At the end of the half-hour process we were asked to complete a “customer satisfaction survey,” contributing to a case of writer’s cramp. In all our years of cruising, this was a first! Can it be that the Kingdom of Thailand actually cares what we think and are trying to please us? A pleasant thought, but read on.
As the owner and skipper of the yacht, I was granted what is called a “Captain’s Visa,” upon arrival, which allowed me to remain in Thailand for one month. Apparently a month in Thailand is only 29 days, as the stamp in my passport said my visa expired on January 2. Why don’t they just call it a 29-day visa, for Buddha’s sake??
In order to extend this captain’s visa, I would have to post a 20,000 baht ($540 US) refundable bond for yacht, allowing me to leave Moonshadow in the country and make a visa run. From Phuket, this usually is done by making a one-day trip to Myanmar (Burma), giving me another month – excuse me – 29 days in Thailand. The visa run to Myanmar, a big business in Thailand, costs 1800 Baht ($49 US) and involves sitting on a bus for 13 hours, checking out of Thailand, then into and out of Myanmar, then back into Thailand. This didn’t exactly sound to me like a great way to spend a day of my rapidly advancing life, let alone 1800 Baht.
The other option was to perjure myself ever so slightly and request a visa extension based on the fact that I am waiting on spare parts, having the boat worked on (i.e. spending Baht), having a sail built (i.e. spending more Baht), all the while tied up in the most expensive marina in SE Asia (i.e. spending even more Baht). Perhaps I should have just said I came with a boat load of money and haven’t spent it all yet, can I please, pretty please, stick around just a bit longer and get rid of it here in your lovely country?? For a country that thrives on tourism, Thailand doesn’t make it easy for anyone to hang around too long. Go figure.
Armed with a letter from the marina manager to this effect, I drove a half hour into Phuket Town and to the local Immigration Department.
I walked in the door, and felt like I had entered one of those ice bars where the temperature is kept well below freezing and you have to put on Eskimo gear to stay warm while you sip vodka drinks from glasses made of ice. Wicked aircon you got here dudes! I was greeted by an official in a bright yellow shirt who looked at my letter very uninterestedly, and then glanced at my passport. He informed me that I needed to first go to the “Vessels” office across the street due to the nature of my visa. Fair enough.
I put on my now fogged-up sunglasses, crossed Phuket Road, and managed to find the Vessels Office in a small building nestled amongst some apartment blocks, where I presented my paperwork to another uninterested official in a bright yellow shirt. Reaching up on the shelf behind me, he pulled down a foot-thick stack of papers from the shelf and began to thumb though them. He examined each one carefully, obviously in no hurry. At least their air conditioning was set at a comfortable level. Ten minutes later he had located the check-in papers for Moonshadow and the ball was rolling. He handed them to the guy behind him, apparently his superior, and there was a flurry of rubber stamping and signing after which he shuffled off to make some copies.
When he handed me the papers he said, “Whatever you think is fair.” It took me a minute to get my head around what he was saying. Right, I was being solicited for some “baksheesh.” This was a first for me in Thailand, but I wasn’t too fussed so I dug into my pocket, pulled out my money clip and peeled off a couple 100 Baht (US $2.70) notes. He said “too much” and gave me back one of the 100 Baht notes. I suppose that this was his way of saying we may be corrupt, but at least we’re not corrupt and greedy. I was then dispatched back to the Immigration office across the street to process my visa extension. I thought to myself, “this is going to be a breeze, and I’ll even have time to relax with a newspaper and a latte before I head back to the boat.” Ha!
I walked up to an open desk and was greeted by another official in a yellow shirt who looked at the paperwork and barked at me to go to the desk three spots down, where apparently the Captain’s Visas were processed. Sorry, I didn’t see any signs. Waiting in the queue in this over-air conditioned haven of bureaucracy, I was forced to literally and figuratively “chill out” for a half an hour, long enough for the fog on my sunglass lenses to turn to frost. I finally reached the desk of the appropriate official, wearing a bright yellow shirt, of course, who reviewed my paperwork and asked for how long I wished to extend my visa. I replied “a month should do it.” He read the letter from the marina, written in Thai, and pointed out to me that it didn’t say so on the letter. He scurried off to talk with the big Kahuna in the corner of the office who glanced very uninterestedly at my letter and shook his head. I had the feeling that I was running into some headwinds. When he returned, I was informed that unless it specifically stated how long I requested to extend my visa, the extension could not be processed. Bugger! I packed up all my papers and drove a half hour back to the marina, all the way exercising my numb fingers to get the blood circulating through them again.
The lady in the marina office politely apologized for the oversight and quickly printed me a new letter, pointing to the Thai writing where the request for a 30 day extension was mentioned not once, but twice. This should do the trick, I thought.
I drove a half an hour back to the Immigration office in Phuket Town, lined up in the proper queue and waited patiently for my turn, hoping I would get out before either the office closed for the day or I developed a case of frostbite. When I finally got to the desk, the official, wearing a bright yellow shirt under a leather jacket, looked at all the paperwork and barked out that he needed copies, two of this, two of that, two of everything, and two passport photos. Jeez, I didn’t even need passport photos to check in the first time, I thought. I meekly offered up two nice copies of my passport which I had produced on my printer. Without even looking at them he barked, “No, I want new ones!” Certainly, your highness, I thought to myself. He pointed to the door, indicating that I should not even think of bringing my sorry carcass into his esteemed presence until I had my act totally together. Funny, I don’t recall seeing any instruction sheet anywhere here in the Ice Palace – er, Immigration Office – on how to get one’s act together for this sort of thing. I dug for the car keys, thinking that that I was off on another drive to find a quick passport photo shop and a copy center in Phuket Town.
To my pleasant surprise, just outside the door there were two very industrious Thai ladies at the service of all of us dejected and ill-prepared seekers of visa extensions. One had one of those four-barrel Polaroid cameras that can give you four passport photos with just a single click of the shutter. She took my photo against a blue background sheet that had been tacked to the Immigration office wall, handed me three very faded and fuzzy looking photos and collected 180 Baht. Next to her was another lady who had a copy machine that was so old it surely must have had a rope starter. She proceeded to make all the copies I needed, and then relieved me of another 30 Baht. These two ladies were a classic case of finding a need and filling it, and were easily the two nicest people I had come in contact with all day.
Back inside the super-air-conditioned office, I made my way back to the correct desk where the leather-jacketed official motioned for me to sit down like I was a juvenile delinquent in the principal’s office. I politely handed him my stack of papers with two hands (the way you are suppose to do it in Asia). After a quick glance at the papers, he gave me a look of disgust and thrust them back at me, insisting that I put my signature on each and every copy. I scribbled my name a dozen times and handed the pile back to him. He then informed me in his broken English that I would only get a 15-day extension and asked me to hand over 1900 Baht (US $51). I said, but I requested 30 days? He said that if I needed more time, to come back after 15 days and I would be granted another ten days extension, at no additional charge, all the time looking at me as if I was supposed to drop onto one knee and kiss his ring to show my gratitude. In any event, I didn’t want to insult his math nor his authority and reckoned it would be all the time I needed, so I politely thanked him and went on my way, looking forward to thawing out during the half-hour drive back to the marina. Funny thing, for some reason they don’t do customer satisfaction surveys at this office.
Ex-pats who have spent a lot of time here have a saying when something like this happens: “T.I.T.” This is Thailand.