Let’s call it prescience. I was aware before leaving for Vientiane that the Thai consulate there would take two days to process my visa request: one day in the morning (8:30–12am) to accept the relevant documents and the next day in the afternoon (1–3pm) to deliver the visa. Afraid there might be a last-minute snafu I banked not on two days’ presence but on three.
And a last-minute snafu there was: on Wednesday morning, arriving at 8:30 and yet number 36 in the early morning queue, I learned that two documents were missing.
It was easy to figure out why: what Immigration had sent the office about the documents required for a ‘three-month non-immigrant visa’ was couched in general terms covering all sorts of beggar’s conditions, and all the documents mentioned there were in my hands that day. Immigration hadn’t provide the office with a separate, complete list of 14 items (as I was handed over at the consulate that morning) and, this being a first, Personnel hadn’t thought of requesting one.
Those missing documents, once I had repaired to the guesthouse a friend had booked for me quite a way away and called the office, were sent me by email within hours and I printed them out. By then it was too late to resubmit my application that day.
I did that the next morning, arriving at 8am and yet number 25 in the queue, surrendered my passport, paid the dues (2,000 baht) and was issued a receipt, the sesame to the next day’s visa. I was immensely relieved, yet still dreaded to think what would have happened had I booked the return flight for that same day.
The rest of my stay in Vientiane I spent mostly at the guesthouse, reading alternately two unsatisfactory novels (one in English: Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence; and one in Thai: Sakhon Pulsuk’s Roiphlae Khong Saiphin (Saiphin’s scar) I’ve yet to finish, and dozing on and off, what with the short nights, the angst, the heat and the indolent pace of Lao life.
For all that, I had three worrying glimpses of this country I first visited in 1974 and last in 1992, and several times in between, every time as a journalist: the amazing number of brand-new cars in the streets; the seemingly high cost of food (a bowl of noodles in the street sells for the equivalent of 60 baht, twice the price in Bangkok – noodles as luxury food?); and the astonishing wealth of at least one member of the politburo.
I’ve seen worse times there, but that stay was definitely spoiled for me come security check at the airport yesterday afternoon.
You guessed it: one more ‘confiscation’.
Of the Cricket lighter I, a smoker, always carry in my breast pocket and of the spare I always take along in my bag in case the first is lost or malfunctions, as happens all too often. In my most forceful Thai I let everyone around know what I thought of that zany piece of kleptomania, but nothing doing: apparently, preventing smokers’ well-known proclivity of starting fires on board (only outbound) flights is a matter of national policy and cultural pride. Before surrendering the second lighter, I made a show of rendering it useless.
The funny part came just after. A few steps away from the checkpoint you enter the departure hall, one side of which has been thoughtfully provided with a glass cage for smokers. Surprisingly, there were five or six falang smoking in there. One of them, a Frenchman it turned out, had a yellow lighter on the tablet by his side. I walked up to him and asked, ‘How come they didn’t pinch yours?’ ‘Oh but they did,’ he answered. ‘I just borrowed it again to light up and promised to return it before we left.’
Standing in an immigration queue for an hour to take or get off a flight is simply unacceptable by anyone’s standards … Why can’t all the booths be staffed?
I could have signed this part of Less Frequent Traveller’s letter to the editor in today’s Bangkok Post.
Yesterday I stood in line for exactly one hour and two minutes (5:42pm to 6:44pm – after a 400 metres’ walk at full speed from plane to congregation) at Suvarnabhumi’s immigration battlements, manned by half a staff. Of the three queues I could survey, mine was the slowest; the one manned by a woman, the fastest by a good ten minutes. (The constant presence next to my ear of two motor mouths loudly talking turkey, leisure clubs and credit cards in some middle-eastern pidgin didn’t make the waiting any more pleasant.)
This of course came after queuing up at the Thai consulate (less than 15mn) to retrieve my passport with visa and again at the Lao Airlines counter (perhaps 10mn) and then again at the immigration desk (another 10mn or so) – not to mention the couple of hours spent out smoking and in reading at the airport waiting for check-in time.
Flying time between Bangkok and Vientiane is 50 to 60 minutes, depending on the craft and the winds. With the new airport 38km away from here, and the need to get there early and/or beat the traffic, count on four to five hours to emerge at the other end! If this trend keeps on, going by car will be faster – and cheaper.
Altogether I’ve wasted five full days on this visa caper – and only reading some 200 pages of that Thai novel by fits and starts could count as work. And the final bill comes to roughly 460 euros, a full 80 per cent of it spent on the Lao side.