Wednesday, February 28, 2007 Thailand Thailand

Visa teasers

The cool skytrain at Siam Square. [IMG_1282]
Bangkok City of Life [Enlarge]

Ah, visas. How we love them. Every one is different. Some like UAE and Thailand are freely given, others like Jordan, Turkey and Laos are paid for on arrival, and then there are the ones like Syria and India for which you have to visit the embassy. And the forms are different, but there's always at least one question that you can't fill in because it's not designed for independent or overland travellers. So what do you put when they ask you for your address in the country you're visiting, or for details of your return flight out? You could make something up—the name of a hotel or a travel agent—they probably won't check but they might. You could leave it blank and hope that it doesn't matter, or you could write in something vague like "travelling". A combination of the latter two has yet to cause us problems, but yesterday's visa application was for China. Chinese visas are the stuff of legend on the web: stories abound about how picky the Chinese officials are, how they will check out your entire itinerary, and how you mustn't leave any boxes blank. We needed to get it right because we've already paid the deposit for a tour! Our travel agent in Beijing had sent us a letter of introduction to take to the embassy, along with their itinerary and lots of passport photographs.

We went straight to the Chinese embassy in Bangkok more or less as soon as we arrived back on the overnight train. As we understood it, the visa process takes four days: this was Tuesday, and we wanted them before the weekend. After getting in a taxi and failing to persuade the driver to take us to the embassy ("Too far!"), we were forced to use a combination of two canal boats, a metro and our legs to get to Ratchada Phisek Road way out in the east of town. It was 10:00 by the time we got to the embassy. The visa office occupies a large square room and feels not unlike a major post office. You take a numbered ticket and wait. There were a lot of other people seeking a China visa in Bangkok that day. Admittedly it was the second day that they were open after the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, but even so, it was busy. Our ticket was number 260 and the funky laser display was only showing 95! There were five windows open and the embassy was due to close at 11:30. Unsure of whether we would make it to the head of the queue in time, we took a couple of application forms and filled them in. We noticed that there was a same day priority option—so much for it taking four days! It was a bit more expensive but it would mean that we would have our passports back and we wouldn't need to cross town again in a few days. So we ticked the priority box and then grabbed a seat when we saw one come free. The woman beside us had ticket number 343—suddenly 260 didn't seem so bad. We had observed that if no one came forward to one of the five windows within ten seconds of their number being called the number would move on and they would presumably have to start from scratch. So as our number approached we lurked close by the window. We were poised, ready, as above the third window from the left the numbers two, six, zero appeared. We leapt forwards and flung our forms and supporting documents under the glass. It was then that we noticed that each window had two members of staff behind it processing applications! They must have been unusually busy. The lady glanced over our documents and handed back the letter of invitation and itinerary, keeping the two forms and passports. Then she told us to return at 15:00 to collect the visas. And that was it!

We had four hours to kill. We were out in the suburbs so there wasn't too much to do touristically. On the way from the Metro station we had passed a big Tesco superstore (yes, they have even made it to Thailand) so we went for a nose around there. Their range of ready-meals included Thai green curry: just like at home. In fact if you didn't look too closely at the deli counter it could have been home. We wandered into the next door mall, had a Coke and topped up on soap and shampoo. Later we treated ourselves to a Thai Pizza Hut lunch. Then, in an inexplicable fit of impulse purchasing, we bought The Man With The Golden Gun on DVD, to watch on the laptop later. We justified the purchase because it was cheap and we hadn't seen a movie for a while, but mainly because the film is partly set in Bangkok.

All of a sudden it was 14:30 and time to go back to the embassy. It's amazing how you can while away time in a mall, especially if the alternative is to go outside into the superheated streets. When the doors opened on the stroke of three, the waiting mass poured into the embassy and up the stairs, forming a queue at the payment counter. Once we had paid our 5,900 baht (GBP 93.26 / USD 180.00) for two double-entry priority visas, we took our receipt to the collection counter and got our visa'd passports with no problems. Yet again, all the horror stories on the web had proven to be inaccurate.

OK, we've got our Chinese visa sorted, so where next? Our China tour starts on the overnight train from Hong Kong to Shanghai on 25th March. We actually want to be in Hong Kong several days before that, firstly to see the place (and Macau), and secondly to buy some more Malarone before our current stocks run out. We know—well, we've found on the internet for all that's worth—that there are at least two travel clinics in Hong Kong able to dispense Malarone to travellers.

Sticking to our ideal of going overland, we would go through Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, then by train up the Vietnam coast to Hanoi, then train across China to Hong Kong. The problem is, although Hong Kong is part of China, for visa purposes it's completely separate. As British citizens we can visit Hong Kong for 180 days without needing a visa. To travel overland from Vietnam through China to Hong Kong would count as entering and then exiting China, thus using up our visa. We would then need a new Chinese visa to get back in once we were finished in Hong Kong, which we wouldn't be able to apply for until a certain period of time had elapsed. OK, but surely we have a double-entry Chinese visa so there's no problem, right? Wrong. We need a second entry into China for a special reason which we will talk about later. And tourists can't get more than two entries at a time.

So overland to Hong Kong is out. Our preferred option is to fly from Hanoi to Hong Kong. It's not very far—about the same as London to Glasgow. We can still get to Hanoi overland from Bangkok. Cambodia issues visas on arrival at the two main border crossings with Thailand, but we need to get our Vietnam visas before we set out. You know what this means. We trundled off this morning to the Vietnam embassy—thankfully much nearer to our hotel than the Chinese one—filled in more forms with more photos, handed over yet more money and surrendered our passports again. This time it cost 5,000 baht (GBP 79.03 / 152.54 USD ), and is an overnight job. We have to go back at 16:00 tomorrow to collect our passports and, hopefully, our visas.