A long 8-hour day at Thai Immigration ended with the cancellation of my visa and the requirement that I leave the country before midnight. So what happened?
It started back in mid-December. I woke up (at 10am) to another day of retirement in Bangkok and casually browsed my email. In amongst the “I really should I unsub this but it’s easier to just delete” messages was an email from Agoda, a travel company that I occasionally used to book hotels and flights.
The subject read “Hello from Agoda.com Bangkok – Engineering Team”. Opening the email I read “I came across your profile and I thought you might be a great addition to the team here at Agoda.”
“Hmmm”, I thought, “That actually sounds interesting…” I replied telling them that I was willing to learn more.
After two days of interviews, I was sold, and so was Agoda. I was offered the position of ‘Manager of Front-End Development” at the Bangkok office, located in a high-end shopping mall a few train stops from my condo.
It would be a challenge. I would need to learn C#, .Net, ASP, and a bunch of other new technologies, I would be managing a large team of engineers from many different cultures, and I would need to come up to speed on the Agoda code base. A lot to learn. Plus I would give up my retirement, and the freedom it brought me.
The man who will become my boss is a total geek, passionate about technology. He compares code to poetry. Within the first half hour I knew I would enjoy working for him. By the end of the second day he had me convinced that I could handle the challenge. Agoda, while huge, has the fun feel that I miss from Glassdoor, and I think that with time I can contribute to the culture, at least in engineering.
Plus they were offering me buckets of money (by Thai standards.)
A few weeks later I heard from Agoda’s legal team. In order to get a work permit, I would need to leave Thailand and re-enter with a business visa (“Non-Immigrant B visa”). And in order to get the business visa, I would first need to cancel my retirement visa (“Non-Immigrant OA-Long Stay Visa”).
I would have to cancel my retirement visa in the same place where it was issued, which was the Government Complex in Bangkok. And then I would have to leave the country by midnight. This was crucial, and not doing so would put a black mark on my immigration record, which would jeopardize my chances of being granted a business visa.
No worries, I’d go to Immigration in the morning, get them to cross out my retirement visa, and then fly out in the afternoon. Easy!
I’m such an idiot.
It’s Monday January 9th. I wake early, and at 8am take the subway out to Mo Chit, near the end of the line. From there it’s a slow 45-minute taxi ride to Government Complex, a huge building with an atrium so large that I feel a dizzying wave of agoraphobia come over me before ducking into the confining offices of the Bureau of Immigration. It’s 9:20am, a short time after the offices opened.
I am given a queue number of ‘L72’. The ticket helpfully notes that there are 52 people ahead of me. A new number is being called every 10-15 minutes. I sit down and prepare for a long day.
It’s even longer than I anticipate. At 12pm an announcement asks everyone to leave the office while the staff takes their lunch break. I march out through the exit doors with hundreds of other dead-eyed applicants. We shuffle aimlessly around the atrium. We would make great extras in a Romero film.
At 1pm we stagger back, seeking brainzzz but finding none.
I have missed my 1:20pm flight to Malaysia. No matter, the there are hourly flights until 6pm.
Finally my number is called at 2:30pm.
Happily I present my passport to the immigration officer and tell her “I wish to cancel my retirement visa.” Her facial expression shifts from disinterest to concern. “Why?” she asks, “Why would you want to do this?”
I explain that I have been offered a job, and needed to go out-of-country to obtain a work visa. Her facial expression shifts from concern to incredulity. “You will leave Thailand?” Yes, I say, I am planning on leaving as soon as they cancelled the visa. “You need to cancel visa, then you need to cancel multi-entry permit.”
Oh, good god. After this I need to go through another queue. Shit.
She says something to an intern (whose vest proudly states “Trainee #18”). The intern takes my passport and asks me to sit outside. She brings the passport to a different cubicle.
While waiting, I get a queue number for section C2, which will cancel my multi-entry permit. The number is C2-150. I peek into C2 and they are handling C2-101, so I have plenty of time. At this point I am juggling bureaucrats. I don’t have a choice.
30 minutes later, I am called into the new cubicle. “Yes?” asks the immigration officer. “I need to cancel my retirement visa” I say patiently. She looks up at me, shocked. “What?” she asks, “Cancel?”
Clearly this is above her pay grade. She goes to discuss my case with an immigration officer with more gold chevrons on her jacket. (I am realizing that all of the immigration staff seemed to be women. I wonder why?) She then comes back, hands me my passport, and says “You wait outside.”
I find a seat next to a woman in a head-to-toe black burqa, wearing dark eyeglasses. She looks like she is about to arc-weld something.
A half hour passes. No one calls my number. I go to ask the woman how long it will be. She waves me towards Senior Officer. I approach her slightly-larger desk. She looks up at me, and waves me back towards Junior Officer. Oh oh.
“But she tells me to talk to you!” My voice is clearly showing signs of hysteria. She stares at me for a moment, evaluating my mental stability. Then she goes to discuss things with her inferior. They speak at length. A third, then a fourth officer joins them. 15 minutes pass. Finally the superior officer comes back, takes my passport, and says “When do you leave Thailand?” “Today” I reply.
“You want to cancel the visa today‽” she asks, her eyebrows rising. Yes, that is why I am here at immigration. She shakes her head sadly. “Please wait outside”.
An hour passes, and Senior Officer processes passports continuously. None of them are mine. I know that they all have numbers that came after mine. In fact, a line of people is forming in front of her desk. Am I being incredibly stupid for waiting outside as she asked? I text my boyfriend Birdie, asking him to translate the sentence “After I finish here I have to go over to the other side to cancel my multi entry permit” into Thai for me. Returning to her office, I push to the front of the line and interrupt her while she is filling out paperwork for a family of four.
I hold my phone in front of her face, pointing to the text:
เสร็จจากตรงนี้ผมต้องไปอีกที่นึงเพื่อทำการยกเลิก multi entry permit อีกนะครับ รบกวนช่วยเร่งดำเนินการด้วยครับ
“Yeah. I know.” she says, then turns back to the paperwork that is not my paperwork.
At 4:40pm I am starting to panic. I go to section C2. There is no one waiting for service, and the immigration officials are packing up to leave. I explain my situation. The immigration officer there must see the panic in my eyes, hear it in my voice. She smiles at me and tells me that she will wait until 5pm. She can not wait any longer. I thank her, and go back to section L.
The line in front of Senior Officer seems to have grown longer. In fact, it is no longer a line. It’s become a crowd surrounding her desk. As soon as someone stands up from her desk, someone else grabs the seat. It’s a game of musical chairs.
I try to be patient. 10 minutes pass. It is 4:50pm.
I get Birdie to translate “The lady in section C2 said she would wait until 17:00 and then she is leaving.” I push through the crowd and put my phone out, pointing to the text:
ผู้หญิงเคาเตอร์ C2 บอกว่าเค้าจะรอจนถึง5โมงแล้วจะกลับบ้าน
Senior Officer nods, then goes back to a couple’s paperwork. Yeah. She knows.
I pace just outside her cubicle. I’m not going to make it. Damn, damn, damn. My airline tickets and hotel are non-refundable. I’ll have to re-book everything and start from scratch tomorrow. And why would tomorrow be any different?
At 4:59pm I go to the desk again. I stand right by her, looking distraught. I’m out of words, and try to move her by blasting her with the waves of stress that are emanating from my body.
With no explanation she reaches into a stack on her desk and hands me my passport. “What, it’s done‽” I ask. “Yes.” How long has it been waiting there on her desk? I don’t bother to ask. I grab it, thank her, and run to section C2.
The friendly officer in C2 is putting on her coat. She laughs and asks me to wait outside. I am happy to do so. I am going to make it.
Ten minutes later she returns my passport to me. Everything is cancelled.
Fleeing the Country
I grab a taxi and head to the airport. Don Muang Airport is only 10km away, but it’s 5pm. Everyone in Bangkok is heading home. It takes an hour to get to the airport.
The AirAsia staff is sympathetic to my missing my flight. They laugh out loud when they learn that I had missed it by 5 hours. Then they are apologetic when they tell me that it is too late to get onto the 7pm flight. The only remaining flight is at 9pm, and I will have to go to the ticket office to rebook my flight.
The ticket office looks at me sadly. “The 9pm flight is completely booked, you will have to fly tomorrow.”
Really? The possibility that flights from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur would be full hadn’t even occurred to me. And at 9pm on a Monday? Who does that?
“I have to fly today” I tell them. “I just cancelled my visa.”
They offer the possibility of flying standby, but tell me that standby is very expensive. To fly standby will cost ฿5,250 more than the value of my one-way ticket, which had cost me ฿2,250. Why? At that point I’m not asking. After a quick survey of the airport I learn that this is the only remaining flight on any airline today. I have no choice.
I am told to return at 8pm.
At 8pm, I am told to wait until 8:30pm.
Finally I am given a ticket and sent to the gate, where I learn that the flight has been delayed 30 minutes. But it will leave before midnight.
That is all that matters.
I land in Kuala Lumpur at 1am, and though I get through immigration quickly, it’s 1:15 by the time I get to the KLIA Ekspres train, which stops running at 1am. I take a taxi to my hotel, a 45-minute ride. The driver is fun and tells me of the Butter Caves, which sound wonderful. I imagine gently flowing yellow limestone formations. (I later find out that they’re actually called the Batu Caves.) He guesses that I am Australian. I do a bad Australian accent, and he laughs.
I arrive at my hotel just past 2am. It’s been a long day, and I need to get up tomorrow at 7am so that I can arrive at the Royal Thai Embassy when they open.
I should be tired, but I feel wonderfully energized. I survived another bureaucracy.
And as sister Martha says, that’s a good thing.