October 29, 2008

Bangkok, Thailand

Visa: [You need one] everywhere you want to be

Even India understands the efficiencies of outsourcing. And yes, every word of that post is correct—the Indian embassy no longer handles its own visa applications. I may have been one of the first to learn about this the hard way.

Determined not to waste another day, I stayed in the same neighborhood as all the embassies and even left three hours early in case there was a line. I never expected I’d end up walking past the embassy at least four times without knowing it. I never expected the cab driver would be any help. And I certainly never expected that when he dropped me off in front of a bank building, I should have tipped him ten times his thirty-baht fare.

God has a sense of humor. That morning He must have gotten a hearty laugh as I walked up and down every street and alley in Sukhumvit, throwing up my arms in disgust, while He was plotting to save me through the mouth of an armed, and irritated, Indian guard.

“You are wanting to go to India?” he asked.

I replied yes, nodding wildly, then began a futile effort to pantomime the concept of a visa. Thai gibberish followed, first from the guard, then the cabbie. About a minute later, he rolled up his window and cruised off; I wondered how many baht that snow job had cost me. But he motioned ahead, then to the left—which of course required a right turn, a joyride down a few blocks, a U-turn, another two-minute red light, a second U-turn, and finally a drop-off. I had only one instruction: 15.

A Malkovich door?

Walking in, I glanced over the directory and saw nothing about the Indian embassy, or anything about a visa, on 15. There were a few South American embassies on 13, so maybe the guard and the cabbie crossed signals. Nevertheless, I squeezed into an elevator, peered over the nine Thai women wearing seemingly identical black slacks and yellow polyester-ish polo shirts, and pressed 15.

I half expected to need a crowbar to open the elevator, and to be greeted by ghosts, or Mrs. Zarves, once the door slid open. But there was an unobscured floor at 15. The small victory of arriving staved off any feeling of intimidation for the next phase of my journey.

It only took an hour and a few frantic text messages to the States to put in my application. It seems you need a “sponsor.” Ordinarily, making up a name and pulling a phone number out of my travel guide would not have raised my pulse, but I could not afford even a typographical error unless I really wanted to stay in Thailand. I wrote down my girlfriend’s tour guide. You’ll need to skip to Day 5 to see how that worked out.

“Wat” I came to see

The remainder of Day 2 I could not have planned better. I saw more temples (though I skipped the con artists this time), the Grand Palace, and legendary Thanon Khao San.

Thanon Khao San

Tourist-inflated prices prevented me from having more than a Singh and noodles, but the scenery was its own reward. A mix of hippies, college girls and couples, Californicated adventurers, and not to be outdone, guys in their late twenties traveling alone. Kitschy retail assault. Open-air Aussie pubs. Tattoo parlors. Travel agencies. And more backpacks than I’d seen in all of Europe.

Two beers turned self-pity into inspiration. As I sauntered among the crowds wondering why I came to Thailand alone, why I stayed in sleepy Sukhumvit, why I didn’t take two months off, I resolved not to ask later why I had cinched my shoestring budget too tight to enjoy it. So I booked a mini-getaway to Phuket.

Something about me must have screamed “leave me alone” that evening. Still, the green curry held my interest during dinner, and I turned in early once more.