Thailand has some tricky visa rules. If an Australian arrives by plane at any international airport in the kingdom, they will get a 30-day visa free of charge on arrival. However if that same Australian arrives by land, eg. from Malaysia or Cambodia, then they will only receive a 15-day visa. For any traveller doing an extended ramble like we are, roaming around Asia by land and intending to stay way more than two weeks in Thailand, the 15-day visa is a major inconvenience.
The intention I’m sure is to encourage foreigners who want to stay in Thailand indefinitely to obtain the appropriate long-stay visa – if they can. With the 15-day limit, anyone who wants to continue to stay in Thailand must do a “visa run” to the nearest border post to extend their right to stay in the country. That usually requires taking a minivan to the border, crossing over and then crossing back again, then another minivan back to home base… a visa run can easily consume an entire day when you add it up. And over-stayers can definitely be penalised; I deliberately overstayed my visa by four days the last time I visited Thailand, calculating that paying the fine was cheaper than getting a visa renewal. But if I overstayed more than a week the equation would surely have swung the other way…
There is an alternative option, if you’re organised enough. Thailand offers 60-day tourist visas (for a fee) provided that you arrange the visa prior to entering Thailand. When we finally turned our attention to this issue before leaving Sydney in February, we were so busy moving out of our home that we didn’t have the time to apply for the tourist visa. I seriously considered doing it during our short visit back in March, but given that it took at least two working days and would require two trips to the city for lodgement and pickup, it wasn’t worth the risk. We knew we probably weren’t going to go through Kuala Lumpur so we resigned ourselves to the likelihood of having to do at least two visa runs during our Thailand leg. Annoying, but there was nothing we could do about it. Until a serendipitous meeting in Penang delivered 60-day tourist visas to us – on the same day – just as we were about to enter Thailand. Magic :-)
It began barely ten minutes after we checked into our guesthouse in Georgetown. It was early evening, and we’d just dumped our bags in the room and headed out for a meal after the seven hour bus ride from Melaka. Walking down the street towards us was a lone backpacker who’d just got dropped off, and he approached us to ask where “the street with all the guesthouses” is. Whaddya know, he’s Australian, and in fact he’s the first Aussie traveller we’ve met since we left for Scandinavia in February (we don’t count the guy who’s been living in Oslo for ten years as a “traveller”). After doing the obligatory swapping of origins (Geelong, Sydney) we explain that we don’t know where that street is because we’ve just arrived ourselves. However the place we were staying at was really good, and it was literally just down the road so we pointed it out to him, explained how nice it was, and wished him luck. Then it was off to dinner and an early night.
The next morning we head downstairs for the free and substantial breakfast (The Red Inn Court really is an amazing guesthouse, but more on that later) intending to eat and then head off for a day of sightseeing around Georgetown. We immediately get talking to a Brit, Mike, who’s at the tail end of a year off just like the one we are starting. He’s heading to Sydney soon and so we started answering questions and giving some tips, and within minutes we have his email address and an offer to stay with him when we get to London. Awesome! He’s still feeling the effects of the night before, which apparently was a raucous affair of booze and karaoke amongst new arrivals at the Red Inn Court, and some of his fellow carousers head downstairs over the next hour in various states of pain. There’s Peter, the computer guru from Hungary who’s job is so mobile that he can work from anywhere while travelling around Asia, as long as he has the internet. Then Bec, another Brit on a year off. And Tim, an Indian student from Singapore. They all look rather tender, to put it politely…
And then the man from last night, the Aussie, enters the fray. We didn’t even swap names last night, but we soon find out his name is CJ, he lives in Bangkok and he usually teaches English for a living. Although he wasn’t part of the previous night’s mayhem he slots into the group perfectly, and for almost an hour we’re all chatting away merrily. CJ is totally relaxed until someone points out to him that it’s nearly 10am, and he’s nearly an hour late for his trip to the Thai consulate – he’s still running on Thailand time. CJ starts to rush because, as he suddenly explains, the entire purpose of his visit to Penang is to get a 60-day tourist visa so he can stay in Thailand. What, I ask, you can get Thai tourist visas in Penang?? Yep, he responds, and on the same day too if you lodge them early enough. Kristen and I look at each other and nod, grinning, and we ask if we can go with him as that’s exactly what we’re after too. He says sure, as long as we can leave immediately as he was told there was a 10.30am cutoff for same-day applications. I race upstairs, grab our passports and within minutes we’re all in a cab to the consulate.
Leaving the confines of colonial Georgetown is a revelation. Coming from the beauty of Melaka’s charming streetscape, central Georgetown is frankly ugly by comparison. Supposedly the main attraction of the city, the strips of shophouses clustered around the old fort are dirty and faded, and the whole precinct has a vaguely derelict air. But just a few scant kilometres away the suburbs become freshly painted with carefully tended tree-lined boulevardes and modern shopping districts, and the Thai consulate is located in the middle of this wealthy zone.
Applying for a visa is quite straightforward, and there are some industrious folk set up outside to profit from the constant stream of applicants. If you’ve forgotten to bring along two passport photos (we sorted ours in Sydney before leaving), don’t worry: there is a mobile photo booth available that will print you some in minutes. Don’t have a photocopy of the details page of your passport either? Not a problem, just come over to this van sir where a photocopier is set up in the back (we did need this service). The only thing not available was an ATM, situated as it was in a residential suburb. Fortunately CJ was able to spot us the difference for our application fees. One final hiccup: CJ was wearing a singlet (a sure sign of an Aussie, according to Mike), and that was not allowed inside the consulate grounds. Disrepsectful to the King, presumably? After a bit of light banter, the guard offered him a too-small T-shirt to wear while lodging his application.
We had about four hours to kill until we could return to pick up our passports, so we all decided to hang out together back at the Red Inn Court before wandering the town a little in scorching 35 degree heat. During this time we swapped more stories, of course, and got to learn some more about CJ’s fascinating life over the past decade. As well as living in Bangkok for most of that time, he’s lived on a roof in Karachi, Pakistan, for three months because he was too poor to stay anywhere else. He’s hobnobbed with Karachi’s top actors and artists, because as a westerner in a largely shunned country he had easy access to the local elite. He managed a group of fast food restaurants on a military base in Afghanistan several years ago, a stint which ended abruptly and hilariously about a year later. And he is also now a film producer in Pakistan, successfully finishing one film that will shortly be released and about to start making another. Not bad at all for someone who’s only 35…
Anyway the afternoon flew by, and after we’d picked up our passports with their shiny new visas we returned to Red Inn Court for some well-earned beers. We’d been talking about alcohol on and off all day, so the subliminal urge to satisfy the thirst was irresistible. Chugging beer in the afternoon shade while watching a local road crew swiftly re-surface the road in front of the guesthouse was strangely fascinating, as was watching nearby shopowners lovingly watering down their patch of freshly laid bitumen. As afternoon turned to evening some of the morning crew returned and the beers kept flowing. By the time darkness fell the whole crew was re-united – us, CJ, Mike, Becs, Tim and Peter – plus a newcomer, Englishwoman Maria who we’d been spotting all day riding around town on a bike. We all decided that karaoke was in order, and after freshening up we headed to a local pub for a couple of drinks before hitting the same karaoke bar that the others had visited the night before.
Details from here are hazy, but the abiding memory we both have of the end of the night is the image of CJ, sitting with his back against the wall wearing Kristen’s wraparound sunglasses, microphone in hand, belting out a brilliant version of U2’s With or Without You and looking (and sounding) uncannily like Bono. It was the perfect end to an unexpectedly awesome day, not just for the new friends made but because we obtained the coveted 60-day visa right when we needed it. It’s made our coming adventures in Thailand all the more exciting, because we can now indulge our fantasy of spending several weeks bumming around the Andaman Coast’s beaches and islands without a care for such trivialities as doing a visa run. Serendipity indeed :-D