This is the elusive document I need to have in order to continue to work in Thailand without leaving the country every 90 days to obtain another non-immigrant visa. It is a ‘Religious Affairs’ visa that was secured with a letter from the Church of Christ in Thailand, along with documentation of my two masters degrees and my doctorate and several photographs of me, serious and unsmiling. I now have this document, but there were several uncomfortable hours spent in a hotel room in Penang, filled with uncertainty. Let me tell the tale.
I enjoyed checking in with Thai Airways for this trip. After all, with one change of clothing, a bare minimum of personal items and no computer, I had no baggage to check, only a large suede tote bag and my purse, all of which easily fit under the seat in front of me. Everyone who enters the airport is screened, passing their baggage and purses through a large x-ray machine. Then, it was on to the Thai Airways counter, where I checked in as an international traveler. They checked me through to Penang and gave me a window seat on a Boeing 777 airplane, which I thought was a huge aircraft until we boarded and it quickly filled it up with all the people who were flying domestically. The evening flight to Bangkok was uneventful and, when I disembarked, a friendly flight attendant looked up the gate for my flight to Penang. I walked… and I walked… and I walked… and I walked to my next gate. It was a long walk, but I got to see the inside of Suvarnabhumi (pronounced soo-wahn-nah-puhm and, if you don’t understand why, see my previous post) International Airport for the first time. I was impressed with this world-class airport – with its architecture, its design, its shops, its art, and the clean, spacious restrooms.
The flight to Penang was also uneventful. I should remind you, at this point, that Penang was a part of Thailand at different times during its long history – most recently in the mid-1940’s. The Thai pronounce the name pee-nuhng, with the emphasis on the first syllable. (The people of Thailand are the Thai. To put an ‘s’ on the end would be the same as putting an ‘s’ on the word ‘deer’ to indicate plural.) I flew through Immigration and Customs and caught a taxi for 40 Ringgits to the hotel. It was close to midnight when I checked into the Cititel Hotel, a gracious old hotel in the center of Georgetown, the old historic district of the city. The room was comfortable – though the mattress was Asian-firm – and my window faced the ocean, a fact I did not discover until the sun came up the next morning. That’s when all the excitement began.
I awoke in plenty of time to have a good breakfast and get to the Royal Thai Consulate when it opened at 9 AM. But, just as I was stepping into the bathroom to take a shower, a fuse blew, knocking out the air-conditioning and all the lights in the bathroom. Not knowing how long the repair might take, I gave up on the shower and settled for washing my face and hands in the sink in the reflected light from the bedroom. Thankfully, I had ironed my dress the night before, so I slipped that on and went down to the lobby to discover breakfast options and to report the electrical problems in my room. The huge ABC breakfast buffet wrapped all the way around the edges of the room with choices for Asian, American, British and Chinese (ABC) guests. After eating my fill, I stopped upstairs to brush my teeth and discovered that all was well in my room. I then went outside the lobby to discover how to make my way to the Royal Thai Consulate. For a mere 15 Ringgits, I was deposited on the doorstep of the Consulate at exactly 9 AM.
I signed in and was given the number 2 and proceeded up the steps to the porch, which was the ‘waiting area.’ No, it was not air-conditioned and, even at that hour of the morning, it was muggy and warm. At the window, the man who greeted me took the letter that I had been assured was all I needed. He gave me several papers in return and told me to complete an application. When I indicated that all the papers had already been submitted, he re-read the letter and nodded, but still insisted that I had to complete the application and return with a copy of my passport, two visa photos and the fee in Ringgits. I took a deep breath, sat down on a bench on the porch with the papers on my lap (no, there was no writing surface available) and completed the application, perspiring in the heat and humidity. A kind young man (the entrepreneurial type) informed me that he could make a copy of my passport for just 2 Ringgits. Fortunately, I had two extra visa photos with me from my previous application for a visa. I completed the information that I could on the visa application and returned to the window with the application, the newly created photocopy of my passport, the two photos, my passport, and the fee in Thai Baht, for I had not converted enough Thai money into Ringgits to pay the 230 Ringgit fee.
The next five minutes were endless and filled with carefully-worded diplomatic negotiations. Plastered all over the building and the window were yellowed pieces of paper that proclaimed that the fee could only be paid in Ringgits, but there was no place to exchange money without taking a taxi to the center of town. The Consulate was in a residential neighborhood. I apologized for my mistake and asked whether he could make an exception (this one time) and accept the fee in Thai Baht. The first response was ‘no,’ but I again apologized and said that I realized it was my fault, but this process was new to me. Time slowed down and it seemed like forever, but the man behind the window finally took pity on me and graciously agreed to accept the fee in Thai Baht. I thanked him profusely. He then accepted all my paperwork and the fee and told me to return the following afternoon at 3:30 PM for my visa. That’s when the most serious negotiations began.
On the advice of ‘people in the know’ in Thailand, I had purchased a low-priced, non-refundable, non-changeable ticket on Thai Airways. My return flight was booked for 8 AM the next morning. I would not be in Penang at 3:30 PM – but then, I could not leave without my passport and the visa. Among those yellowed pieces of paper stuck to the window, I could see a piece of paper that declared that, while Tourist Visas and Transit Visas could be obtained in a single day, all other Non-Immigrant Visas would take a minimum of two days. I had no idea what the cost of changing the Thai Airways ticket would be, but it would be expensive. I also knew that the hotel was fully booked and there were no rooms available for another night. I had no idea where I would find another room and what it might cost. So, I apologized again and explained the situation to the man behind the window. This time, he claimed he could not help me. The policies had been set long ago (as I could see from the yellowing of the papers) and it was out of his hands. I asked whether I could speak to someone about my dilemma and he said ‘no.’ Recognizing that he had already made one significant exception for me, I asked if he would consider making another. I took ownership of my error in not knowing the procedure and apologized for that error, but asked for his help. Finally, in a second gracious act, he said he would ask his supervisor what might be possible, but cautioned me not to get my hopes up. He told me to return to my hotel and wait for a phone call. He told me that I would hear something by 3 PM. I again, thanked him profusely and made my way back to the hotel.
Needless to say, I did not even see any of the beautiful colonial buildings that we passed on my way back to the hotel. The British arrived in Penang in the mid-1700’s and Penang only achieved its independence in 1957. The evidence of this colonial presence was everywhere – in beautiful buildings, tree-lined streets, and huge houses. But I did not see them as we traveled back to the hotel. At the time, I was too upset and anxious to enjoy the unique beauty of Penang. I returned to my hotel, logged onto the computer in the hotel just long enough to send two email messages to let someone know the obstacles that lay before me, and went to my room. I sat there all day, waiting for a call. I took photos from my hotel room window. I read the newspaper and a book. I also had several conversations with God – angry ones, pleading ones, and finally, humble ones. And, in the end, I was touched by grace… and by the graciousness of the man behind the window. He personally called to let me know that I could pick up my visa at 3:30 PM that day. I praised God for the grace that was given to me on that day… and the graciousness of this unknown man.
I did not waste any time. I ran down to the lobby and climbed in a taxi and rode to the Royal Thai Consulate, arriving 30 minutes early. The man behind the window was sitting with other employees, enjoying a well-deserved break. A huge smile lit his face when he saw me and he told me everything would be ready at 3:30 PM. And so it was. I was third in line and he gave me my documents and wished me a wonderful time in his city. They would not allow me to take photographs of him or of the building, which I wished to do. Not wanting to take any more of his time, I thanked him again and apologized for any inconvenience I may have created. Then, precious document in hand, I caught a taxi back to the hotel, this time jabbering away with the driver and taking photos of every colonial building in sight!
I got back to the hotel after 4 PM – too late to really do any significant sightseeing. But I did not want to be in that lovely city and not see some of the sights. (I do have to mention that the cost of moving into our new house in June – including the three-month security deposit for the lease – had depleted our funds and left me with little to spend for non-essentials.) Outside the door of the hotel, I found a row of pedicabs – the type that were used for transportation in the last century. I discovered one brave soul who was willing to show me what he could of historic Georgetown in the 15 Ringgit half-hour that I could afford. In a little over thirty minutes, I saw King Street, Queen Street, China Street, the old Fish Market (which still operates every day), several Chinese Temples, Fort Cornwallis, the port (from a distance), two historic churches, and lots of old colonial office buildings.
By the time, I got back to my hotel, it was around 5:30 PM and I was exhausted from the activities and emotions of the day. Fortunately, there was a wonderful Japanese Restaurant in the hotel and I treated myself to a wonderful meal. (I hadn’t had any food since the tea and toast I had for breakfast several hours – and a lifetime of experience – earlier.) I feasted on edemame, gyoza, and shrimp tempura, relishing every tasty morsel. As I ate, I had time to reflect on the events of the day and to realize that I had been blessed with an experience that I will use in my work for years to come. The volunteers who come to Thailand may, at times, find themselves in strange and unfamiliar places, trying to following unknown procedures, without access to the resources and support they need to accomplish the task they have been given. How can I, as the person responsible for those volunteers, provide them with the support and the resources that they need in order to reduce the anxiety that such situations can create? Would I have recognized the need for these things if all had gone well with me that morning? Probably not. Then, stuffed to the gills and wiser than when I came to Penang, I went back to my room to pack and set my alarm for a 5:30 AM trip to the airport the next day. Needless to say, the ‘firmness’ of the mattress did not bother me at all that night. I slept soundly, waking, as I usually do, just minutes before the alarm was due to go off.
I made it to the airport with time to spare and breezed through Immigration. I spent my last 25 Ringgits on a batik sarong that we can use for a tablecloth in Thailand. Once again, I was thankful that I had not checked any luggage, for the time I spent in all the airports was minimized. Thai Airways checked me through to Chiangmai, which surprised me, as my first flight landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Sure enough, I by-passed Immigration and Customs in Bangkok (and the very long lines for each) and went through those processes when I arrived in Chiangmai where I was one of only a handful of people traveling internationally. A quick cab ride home and, after giving Mom a big hug, I crawled into bed and slept. All the time, God is good.
Other photos of Penang: