About this time yesterday I was seething with anger, fit to kill as they’d down in the boondocks. I’d just paid a visit to a travel agent on Sukhumvit Road (I won’t name names at this point, but they are located near the end of Soi 11/1, if you’re keeping track) that handles my air tickets and most especially arranges the visa that I need each time I visit Myanmar. I’ve been using this agent for several years for the visa service, and more recently for plane tickets after I tired of the cattle-car experience of flying with budget carrier Air Asia.
Anyway, the “service” at this travel agent has always been a bit … erratic. Sometimes they are efficient and other times they are maddeningly slow or inept. But the place is run by Burmese natives and I’ve always felt like it was a good thing to support them and give them my business. Well, after this week’s fiasco, no more!
I dropped by the travel agent over a week ago to give them my passport and the required two photos, along with payment for the tourist visa. It usually takes 2-3 working days and then I go back to the travel agent and pick it up. I pay a lot more than I would getting the visa directly from the Myanmar Embassy, but I’ve heard so many horror stories about that embassy, at least the impolite way that they treat some tourists, that I’ve never dared to go down there myself. Plus, I save time by letting the travel agent go through the application process and go back to pick it up later. Things seem to have improved at the embassy in recent years, since the dawn of “Democracy” in Myanmar, but I’ve continued to use this local visa service simply for the convenience.
A day after I dropped off my passport at the travel agent, they sent me an e-mail telling me that the embassy would not issue me a tourist visa this time because I’d “been to Myanmar many times already.” If I wanted to visit the country, they told me, I would need to apply for a business visa this time. Of course, there was a twist to this: the cost of the business visa is more than double that of the tourist visa! Did I smell a scam of some sort? Indeed I did!
I wrote back to the travel agent, complaining about this “need” for a business visa. How many times is “too many”, I asked? Did the embassy give you a figure? Of course they had no answers to those questions, only suggesting that I apply for a new passport from the US Embassy, the logic being that a new passport with blank pages would not show the already used visas in the old passport! And to that odd request, I asked: doesn’t the Myanmar Embassy keep track — in a computer possibly — of how many times a person has visited their country? The more I thought about this visa mess, the whole scenario seemed very, very odd. And wrong. I’m not doing any business in Myanmar. I never have. So why was the embassy — or perhaps the travel agent itself, wanting to pocket the extra profit — trying to pull this shit?
The other catch in applying for a business visa is that you must show a “Letter of Invitation” from a registered company in Myanmar. But of course this lame travel agent didn’t tell me exactly what sort of company needed to invite me, or what type of letter was needed, only suggesting that I ask “a friend” for an invitation. Later, I found out that this invite had to be on an official letterhead and accompanied by the company’s official business registration in Burmese. Arrrgghhhh!!!
But, I was lucky. I know a few legitimate business people in Myanmar and one of them was kind of enough to furnish me with the necessary letter and other documents in a quick and efficient manner. Which is more than I can say about this fucked-up travel agent and the way they did NOT issue my air ticket in a timely manner. I won’t bore you with the details of that additional problem, but suffice to say that it proved to be nearly as big a headache as the visa mess.
After waiting over a week, for both the visa to be straightened out and the air ticket to be issued, they both materialized yesterday afternoon. I went down to the travel agent to pick up my passport, and pay the additional fee for the business visa, which, I’ll repeat, was over double the cost of the tourist visa. I vocally expressed my displeasure, even going as far as banging my fist on the counter and shouting expletives. I questioned the price that the travel agent was charging me, especially after finding out the “real” cost of the visa if you get it direct from the embassy. “But they ask you for more documents if you go by yourself,” one of the women at the office told me. I couldn’t imagine being asked for more documents than I already had to procure, but even if that was the case, I think I’d rather take that option the next time than the torture of dealing with these thieves at the travel agency. I reminded them that I had been a repeat customer for the past five years, but they still didn’t feel like cutting me even a little bit of slack on their exorbitant visa charge. Say no more, you morons; you’ll never see me or my money again.
So I woke up this morning still upset, and wondering if they had managed to fuck up my air ticket too, even though they had given me a receipt. I logged on to the Bangkok Airways website to check on my flight and they had my booking listed, but there was a notice about some “error” with the reservation, suggesting that I phone the airline office. I did that immediately, but was reassured by the friendly customer service agent that my flight was confirmed and everything was in order.
Whew! A sigh of relief … and finally a big smile. Myanmar, I’m coming back!