19 December 2008

Immigration Irritation

It's been a frenetic few days of travelling and other hassles over the last couple of days, not helped in the slightest by Thailand's immigration services.

Laos had been great with Luang Prabang being the highlight for both of us. I think we may already of said that it is one of our favorite places that we've been to anywhere in the world. It just has a really special atmosphere, a kind of X factor that you can't quite put your finger on. We could have easily whiled away several more days there doing nothing in particular. The tubing and scenery around Vang Vieng were also great but the town itself, the food and a fair few of the other visitors left a lot to be desired. Vientiane was also a lovely place to spend a couple of days soaking up the atmosphere and the Beer Lao!

Anyway, we left Vientiane on Wednesday afternoon at half two on the bus to Nong Khai in Thailand. We passed out of the Laos boarder, over the friendship bridge and awaited our turn at the Thai border. It was here that our problems started. Whilst queueing at the Thai border I spotted a sign saying that as of the 25th of November 2008 people entering Thailand via a land crossing would only be granted a visa for 15 days.

This would not have been a problem except that when we were planning our trip a few months ago you were given 30 days. We had also been advised that before you enter Thailand you should have a ticket out of the country. So to abide by the rules we booked a flight out of Bangkok to Myanmar (Burma) 28 days after our entry.

Under the new immigration rules this rendered our 180 quid flights, which were only available on a non-refundable booking, completely worthless! We were not best pleased at this last minute change of immigration policy upon our finances. It was not only our Myanmar flights that were at risk but the knock on effect on our Myanmar visas, the loss of some of our pre paid new year accommodation in Koh Pangan but also our plans to meet Anne in Bangkok on the 22 February (she has booked flights to come and meet us). All of our carefully made plans were starting to fall apart because of a change in immigration policy. We begged with the border official to give us the 30 days we had expected but he wouldn't budge. He did say that we could get a visa extension at the Bangkok Immigration Office if we wanted one.

Feeling a bit annoyed and also worried about our plans we made our way to Nong Khai train station for the thirteen and a half hour overnight train journey into Bangkok. Thirteen and a half hours on a train probably sounds like most peoples idea of hell but this was great. There was loads of room, really comfortable seats and a bed that was as good as any that we've slept in. It really was a fantastic service. I did however feel sorry for anyone who has the misfortune to work on the track maintenance for the Thai railways as the train toilets empty directly onto the track!

We arrived in Bangkok at around 8-ish on yesterday morning fully refreshed after a good nights sleep and ready to take on whatever the immigration department could throw at us. To cut a very long story short we returned to our hotel six hours later with, despite our best groveling and begging, only a 7 day extension but 40 quid lighter each. The 7 day extension still left our flights for Myanmar useless and was scuppering a plans to meet Anne but at least we would be able to see the new year in on Koh Pangan and use our accommodation that we had already paid for.

If we left the country and came back in we would get another visa on arrival and all our problems with the Myanmar flights and visa would have been solved, however that would have used up our 3 Thai entries and we would have not been allowed back in to meet Anne in February. Being stuck in Thailand on her own for two weeks may have annoyed her a little bit.

We also looked at crossing into Malaysia and then trying to fly from there into Myanmar. However all the flights had an overnight stop in Bangkok, hence that 3rd visa stamp, and still no meet up with Anne.

My plan at this point was to just stay in Thailand anyway and overstay our visa. The Lonely Planet book said this is possible and you get a fine of a tenner per day overstay when you leave the country. So for 80 quid each we would be able to follow our original plans. Problem solved . . . or so I thought.

Liz started to do some research into it on the Internet and every story she found strongly advised against doing this. If the police find out you will get thrown into an immigration detention centre until you are deported back home. It didn't sound like Liz's idea of fun particularly as the Thai immigration detention centres have recently been criticised by Amnesty International!

It looked like our only option was that we would have to write off our trip to Myanmar and try to ignore the 260 odd quid that we had already spent on flights and visas. Thank god that Air Asia have let us reschedule our flights . . . of course for a fee (another 40 quid each).

The only issue that we now have is that although we can get back into Thailand to meet Anne our timing is to cock and theoretically we have to leave 4 days before her. Time once again for another visit to the Bangkok Immigration Office to have another visa extension.

When we originally booked this part of our trip we followed all of the rules that were in place in relation to the time we could stay and having an exit ticket booked so that there would be no issues. Now those rules have changed its costing us at least an additional 240 quid in visa extension and flight re-booking fees to get ourselves out of the mess that the immigration changes have left us in. Do the Thai authorities not want tourists to come into the country and spend money . . . or are they just interested in screwing visitors for visas? Answers on a post card to Mr Angry, c/o Thailand.

Today we again leave Bangkok after an overnight stay at the Bella Bella guest house (highly recommended) for an overnight bus and boat journey to Koh Pangan, where we'll be spending Christmas and New Year. We're both looking forwards to a bit of beach action after 7 weeks on the road.

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