musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Immigration Men

There has been a lot of negative press in recent months about the long delays getting through immigration at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. In some cases, passengers arriving at the airport have had to wait nearly two hours to get processed by the understaffed and overworked immigration officers. I’ve never had to endure nearly that long a wait upon arrival at the airport in the past year, but I have noticed a much longer wait to get OUT of the country; crazy, alarmingly long lines that test the patience of even the most hardened traveler.

 

But when I took a flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh last week, I was startled to show up at immigration and find myself stepping right up to the desk, no waiting whatsoever. And no, it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. After all the complaints they were getting recently, the authorities reportedly hired a bunch of new immigration officers, or in some cases reassigned some warm bodies, to immigration. Whether this is a temporary fix — just in time for the Thai New Year water festival the middle of this month — or a sign that they have finally decided to get matters organized properly is uncertain at this point.

 

After that pleasant immigration processing when exiting the kingdom, I had a totally opposite experience when returning later in the week. The lines at the immigration arrival desks were as long as usual, but they’ve initiated a new “snake line” system that supposedly makes the waiting time more equitable for everyone. They have also hired “document checkers,” young women who make sure you have completed the arrival form properly before you reach the immigration desk. The biggest problem with the new system seems to be the recently hired immigration officers. I have no idea what sort of training they received, but two officers that I observed were taking a very long time to process passports, and one of them had to call over a supervisor twice while I was waiting in line. And of course that’s the guy I got. Once I got to the desk, it took only slightly longer than normal to get my passport back, with a rare smile no less! But on a hunch, I looked at the new expiration stamp inside the passport. As I had feared, this guy had totally screwed up: he had given me a 30-day tourist visa instead of using the 1-year non-immigrant visa that was already stamped inside the passport. Instead of expiring in October, my visa was now only good until late April. I brought this matter to his attention and he apologized. But he clearly didn’t know what to do at this point, so once again a supervisor was called to the scene. Instead of giving me a new stamp, he took a pen, changed the date, and initialed it. I asked him in Thai if there would be any problem the next time I left and re-entered the country, but he assured me that everything would be kosher. Except he obviously didn’t use the word “kosher.”

 

Once I had finally made it through that immigration maze of hell, I rushed over to the baggage carousel, only to discover that none of the bags from my flight had started coming out yet! Upon landing, we had to wait nearly 15 minutes before disembarking because a bus had not arrived to take us to the terminal, and now there more delays! If this had been someone’s first trip to Thailand, I can only imagine they would be wondering what sort of inept place they were visiting. Not exactly a favorable first impression of a normally delightful country.  But hey, at least it’s not as awful as the United States of Agony, where redneck immigration and customs officials would detain you — deciding that you fit the profile of a sex tourist, drug dealer, and/or terrorist — take you into a room, and subject you to more interrogation and humiliation. You know, on second thought, maybe having to wait in line for an hour or two isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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