Green Light for China

Well, they pushed it nearly to the last minute – about 36 hours before my flight’s departure – but the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok finally approved my tourist visa. We leave tonight at 2:00 for Shanghai.


The irony was that after we applied, the embassy approved Tawn’s visa (in a Thai passport) with no difficulty, charging him only 1500 baht (about US$ 50). My application was initially rejected because of their concerns that I could not demonstrate sufficient funds to travel. That was funny, considering I’m the one who bought our plane tickets!

After providing additional documentation, my visa was approved. The charge for me: about 9000 baht (US$ 300). The real kicker? Tawn’s visa is good for up to 30 days of travel. Mine is good only for 7 days of travel. Ouch.

While in Shanghai, we will stay with Tawn’s cousin and his wife. We’re also looking forward to spending time with Jason and his husband. I suspect I will not have Xanga access while there, so may have to be away for the next week or so. I’ll be back, though!


Applying for a US Visa

Tawn’s 10-year visitor visa to the United States expired in January so before our next trip back he needs to apply for a new visa.  This process is really cumbersome and I thought I would share it with you because (for those of you who are American citizens) you should appreciate just how many hurdles there are to entering the country legally.

The most important thing is this: even though we are legally married, because we are a same-sex couple our marriage is not recognized by the Federal government.  In other words, were we a different-sex couple I would be able to sponsor Tawn’s visa or residency in the US.  In this case, should the US government find out that Tawn is married, they could deny him a visitor’s visa on the grounds that he might intend to stay illegally.  Nuts, isn’t it?  What was that bit in the Declaration of Independence?  “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”  Oh, right… we didn’t mean equal, equal.

Embassy To get your US visitor visa, you need to complete two online forms.  The first one is comprehensive but not too unusual: name, address, employment, when are you traveling, who are you visiting, how are you paying for it, have you ever had a US visa before, etc. 

There is a section on this first form, though, that is hilarious.  Six yes/no questions including “Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose?  Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State?  Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?”  This must be some kind of an intelligence test because anyone who answers yes to that question must be stupid.

Oh, wait!  Below those questions it says, “While a YES answer does not automatically signify ineligibility for a visa, if you answered YES you may be required to personally appear before a consular officer.”  Oh, whew!  At least the Nazis and terrorists still have a chance to go to Disneyland.

The second form, a supplemental one, gets into crazy amounts of detail.  Each country you have visited over the last ten years and the year of each visit.  Detailed information about two previous employers including address, phone number and exact dates of employment.  Detailed information about all schools you have attended including address, phone number and exact dates of study.  All professional, social and charitable organizations to which you have contributed, are a member, or have been involved.  Any previous military service.  Any specialized skills or training including firearms, nuclear, biological or explosives.  Exact itinerary of trip including contact information for each destination.

Beyond the forms, Tawn has to pay a $131 application fee (non-refundable) and has to purchase a PIN number to use to make an appointment online.  These fees are paid at the Thai post office, interestingly enough.

After making an appointment he will go to the US embassy, submit all the forms and documentation and then conduct an interview with a consular official.  During this interview he needs to demonstrate his “intent to return to Thailand”.  The government does not require any particulars here, only that the burden is on the applicant to demonstrate that he or she won’t overstay his or her visa. 

Tawn has a strong case to make: full time employment from a global firm for five years, ownership of property, long-term financial investments, and the only child of two retiree parents.  Add to that a demonstrated history of more than ten years of global travel in which he has consistently returned to Thailand and I think his chances are pretty good.

I want to stress that I am not disparaging the Department of State and its visa application processes.  I just think that US citizens need to appreciate the hoops through which potential visitors and students must go through in order to come to the US.  And if anyone has any questions as to why the US is starting to slip from its number-one perch in the world, this might be part of it! 

Why are we discouraging people to come here?  We need more fans, more students, more people who will absorb what is great about America and then go back home and spread the news.  Instead, we’re telling people they aren’t welcome.   And you know what?  There’s plenty of other places for them to go.  Our loss.


Singapore Border Run

It is easy to get caught up in everything else that is going on in life and to start spending less time at the computer.  However, I’ve pulled myself back and have something to share with you.  Last Friday I had to do a border run, fulfilling a requirement of Thai visas that I exit the country every ninety days.  Normally, my travel schedule is such that I don’t have to leave the country just for the purpose of leaving the country.

Deciding to have some fun with it, I made it my project to tell the story of my trip through a short video.  This forced me to pay attention to everything I was doing and think about how to most effectively convey the experience.  After editing and viewing it, I must say that I’m pretty proud of it.  My best video to date!  I hope you enjoy it.


Crossing the border in Pong Nam Ron

Every ninety days I have to leave Thailand.  Not because I get my fill of the traffic or som tam, but because the conditions of my year-long visa (and most other non-immigrant visas, for that matter) require it.  I can fly somewhere on holiday or even just step across the border and then re-enter: it doesn’t matter so long as I leave Thailand.

Over the past two and a half years most of my border runs have been combined into already-planned travel: Tawn and I take a weekend in Hong Kong, go for a visit back to the United States, etc.  So far, there have been only two times when I’ve had to make a border run specifically because I needed to leave the country: the first was a day-long trip to Penang, Malaysia on August 31, 2006 and the second was about three weeks ago.


Above: Me at the border with Cambodia in the background.

There are a dozen companies that help expats and tourists conduct border runs to Laos or Cambodia and border runs are one of those topics that have a place in the mythology and folklore of expats in Thailand. 

Down on Khao San Road the backpackers share tips and insights on how to stay here as long as they can, how to work the system, and how to avoid overstaying their visas.  For those just sliding by on tourist visas, even with the recent “crackdowns” restricting those who receive visas on arrival to only ninety total days within a six-month period, there is something called the “three thirties, a sixty and a seven” that can net you just over five consecutive months of stay with minimal effort.

Even for those of us who are here legitimately and hold nonimmigrant visas, the topics of what visa type, where did you get it, and how are you handling border runs is still a common topic of conversation.

The Cambodian day trip is one of the most common border runs.  For about 2,000 baht (about US$65 but rising fast) you can hop into a van or a bus with several dozen expats and make a nine-hour roundtrip to the border.  I’ve been hesitant to make this trip because I’ve heard that the experience is a nightmare.  Not only the hours and hours cramped in a vehicle but then at the border you are attacked by beggars, limbless war victims and children, who swarm to the foreigners like so many mosquitos. 

It is easy to understand why, in a country that is still so impoverished, people would take this route to earn a living, but it is horrifying to know that giving some spare change isn’t doing anything to alleviate their suffering.  Perhaps this is a copout and I’m just a westerner who doesn’t want to come face-to-face with the legacy of genocide, but this does not make for a pleasant day-trip.

When Roka told me about a border run she had taken with a company called Sawasdee Transport and her story painted a very different picture, one that sounded much more promising.

So I emailed the owner, a German named Claudio and he confirmed that there would be room on Friday’s trip.  Please meet the van at the Tesco-Lotus at On Nut BTS station at 7:30 am, he said.

Arriving about 7:15 at the large parking lot, I was at a loss as to which van I was looking for.  White and silver Toyota passenger vans are even more common here than street-side food vendors and since On Nut is the terminal station for the Sukhumvit line, dozens of vans transport workers from the parking lot to destinations all around the eastern side of the city.

Spotting another farang I approached her and asked if she was waiting for Claudio, too.  She was and in just a few minutes Claudio came pulling up in his car and pulled into a space next to three other vans.  A large group was going today, so there would be a total of these three vans plus Claudio ended up having to drive his car to the border, too.

Of the three dozen or so passengers, almost all were Filipino laborers. I have one Filipino friend here in Khrungthep and didn’t realize just how many people the island nation exports to Thailand.  Our van had a British national, the Canadian-Belgian dual citizen I had met a few minutes before, and seven Filipinos, one of which had a lovely voice and quietly sang a capella nearly the whole trip.

I liked the transparency and honesty with which Claudio did business.  The expat community is rife with tales of unscrupulous border run operators who will get you to the border only to discover that your visa or paperwork is not in order and you cannot cross the border that day.  Often that is a waste of money and it is always a waste of time.  Claudio, on the other hand, thoroughly reviewed everyone’s documents in advance of the trip and double-checked before leaving that everyone had everything they needed. 

We headed up to the border, stopping once en route for a toilet break.  The ride was comfortable enough and I read a bit and visited with my seat mates.  The Canadian-Belgian woman had the most interesting story: she had come to visit her parents about two years ago as her father had set up a company in Thailand six years prior to that.  She so enjoyed it that she has spent the better part of those last two years here living with them.  Since the limit on tourist visas using the “three thirties and sixty and a seven” is about six months, she just switches passports every six months and then travels for a few weeks in between to get all the way to the six months.

P1050992 Our destination was the Ban Laem crossing in Pong Nam Ron, Chanthaburi Province.  This is a smaller crossing and less popular with the larger border run operators than another crossing nearer to Khrungthep.  As such, there is much less traffic and, because of the way the border and the casino are laid out, you don’t have any contact with the Cambodian locals.  In fact, it is arguable whether or not you ever really arrive in Cambodia.

As gambling is “illegal” in Thailand, the Thais go to casinos set up right across the border in Laos and Cambodia.  At Ban Laem the casino is actually placed before the true entry point into Cambodia.  The physical order of the border is: Thai border control office, Thai border guard, bridge over the muddy creek that is the actual border (above), casino compound, then Cambodian border guard.  The Cambodian border control office is actually on the casino grounds so clearly the business is there to cater to foreigners doing border runs.

When I say “casino”, by the way, don’t think Macau or Las Vegas.  Think of the local chapter of your Rotary Club with one of their linoleum floored halls filled with folding chairs and faded card tables.  Needless to say, no cocktail waitresses serving free drinks.  No pictures allowed, unfortunately, so let your imaginations run with that image.


Above: Looking from Thailand into Cambodia, the entry to the casino is just behind the white, circular sign.  There is a red-roofed shack behind that where the Cambodian border guard is located. 

Below: Standing just outside the Cambodian border guard shack looking into Cambodia.  Interestingly, the disparity between income on the two sides of the border is amazing.  While both are rural and poor, the Thai side has nicely paved roads and some development.  The Cambodian side is much worse off.  That might be attributable to the fact that the people coming over from the Thai side never go any further than the casino.


We were on the Cambodian side of the border for about an hour.  The Canadian-Belgian woman and I tried our chance at the fried rice and then did some duty free shopping.  The best news of all was that Cambodia has no duties on imported wine and, as I learned from the British man on the way back, there really are no practical restrictions placed on the quantity of items you bring back into Thailand, even though the legal restriction is 1 liter of alcohol.  I bought two bottles of a nice Australian wine for 350 baht (about US$11) each and discovered that at the store here in Khrungthep they were being sold for 1789 baht each thanks to Thailand’s 400% duty on luxury goods.

P1050989 This alone is enough to encourage me to make more border runs to Cambodia.  Maybe I can even bring the car and buy a few cases!

We crossed the bridge back towards Thailand, a blue and white sign in Khmer script saying (I assume) something like “farewell and come again”, right.  Who knows, though?  It could have been propaganda denouncing the decadent westerners who don’t do much to actually help the lives of everyday Cambodians.

Below: Looking back into Thailand, the new immigration offices on the right hand side.  The British man was telling me that just a few years ago, the offices were literally a shack, just like on the Cambodian side.  The rickety wooden pedestrian bridge is a remnant of times past.


We were back at the Tesco-Lotus by 5:00, having hit some heavy thunderstorms on the way back.  According to the British guy, he has never done this trip when there weren’t afternoon thunderstorms as the area is in the mountains.  Talking with him, he has an interesting story.  Married to a Thai woman for more than eight years, he hasn’t applied for permanent residency but instead has a working visa sponsored by their company, which makes and exports wedding dresses to the UK and other parts of Europe.  They have recently started to do made-to-order dresses online, so if you are interested in having a wedding dress (or, I suppose, any other type of dress) made to order and then shipped to you, I’m sure you could find some good deals on their website.  Not an endorsement, by the way, just something I picked up on the trip.

All in all, the trip was fairly painless and a convenient way to do a border run without having to plan and pay for a trip somewhere outside Thailand.  As much as I love flying, I can’t fly outside Thailand for much less than 6,000 baht given the price of fuel these days.  For that, I can do a Cambodian border run and buy a dozen bottles of wine.