It’s a little after 5 am and the sky is completely black. I’m sitting on a bench outside Tony’s, a family Thai restaurant, near Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand. I’m only there for a minute when a giant white van – the kind popularized by pedophiles and serial killers – screeches to a halt in front of the restaurant. A stocky Thai man in his fifties jumps out with a clipboard.
“Yes!” I walk over to him, he checks my name off of his list, and he beckons to the door of the serial killer van. I look around, just to see if there will be any witnesses if I’m about to be abducted. There’s no one.
Inside the vehicle are four other people. They look unconscious and don’t move when I get in.
I find a seat in the back and settle in. Here we go…
I am on my way to Ranong, a fishing village at the Myanmar border. After a hellish day at the Phuket immigration office (click here for the full story), I was told that I wouldn’t be able to renew my current visa, and would have to leave the country and come back on a tourist visa. So, instead of spending the day teaching and climbing, as I had planned, I was on my way to Mynamar with four unconscious passengers at five in the morning.
I am barely settled in when the door is slammed shut behind me and we’re off. I change my seat six times to find one that has a functioning seatbelt. Despite being locked down, I’m still getting airtime. We must be doing at least 150, and the roads are filled with potholes.
The others start to wake up as we swerve around huge transport trucks, cut off grandmas on scooters without signalling, and fly over every bump on the road.
It takes us six hours to get to Ranong. By now, we’re all awake and completely nauseous. I’m delirious from exhaustion and hunger. We jump out of the van and are hit with the clamour of old women selling their wares, young men directing people to the correct lines, and the engines of the longtail boats in the water nearby.
The Ranong immigration office is a large, open-air wooden structure, packed with people and smelling distinctly of raw fish. Our chaperone, the stocky Thai man accompanying us on our visa run, quickly guides us to the right line. There is nobody else there, but as soon as we stand in place, about 60 or 70 people file into the building and are directed into our line.
Yeeeeees! We’re first, we’ll be out of here in no time…
The first in line from our group is a beefy Portuguese man. He’s built like a bouncer and ageless – he could be in his early thirties or late fifties, I have no idea.
The Bouncer hands over his passport, which is taken by detached hands through a small receiving window. Minutes pass and nothing happens. It’s hot as hell in here, and everyone is dripping buckets of sweat. The other three in our group take out cigarettes and light them in front of a sign that says “No Smoking”.
I point out the sign to the Australian girl in our group. I’m not a stickler for rules, but the heat, the smell of rancid fish, and the cigarette smoke combined is making me nauseous.
She shrugs indifferently. “Well, nobody’s saying anything, so I think it’s fine…”
The trio continue to aggressively chain-smoke as the minutes pass. The Thais in line look at us disdainfully. Although the room is completely packed, they’ve created a slight radius around us.
We’ve been in line for about half an hour now, with absolutely no movement. Every few minutes, someone comes out of a closed room and says something to either the Bouncer or our chaperone. After some quiet discussion, the person goes back into the office, furtively shutting the door behind him or her.
“Hey, why is it taking so long?” I ask the Bouncer, hoping he may have some insight into Thai immigration procedures.
“I overstayed my visa by 60 days.”
“60 days??? By accident or on purpose?” I joke.
He shrugs mysteriously. There’s another sign above the receiving window, outlining the different penalties for overstaying your visa. For 60 days, a foreigner will not be able to re-enter the country for at least a year.
“Wait… will they even let you back in on another tourist visa?”
“Oh, they’ll let me back in…” he says confidently.
I do the math on the number of days he’s overstayed and the daily penalty fee.
“You’re going to have to pay over 1,000 US dollars!”
He shrugs again. I’m not giving him any new information. Another man comes out of the Secret Room and whispers something to our chaperone, who nods emphatically. Our chaperone leans in to whisper something to the Bouncer, who also nods. This is the shadiest game of Telephone I have ever seen…
Between their hands, something is exchanged – a giant wad of cash? A blackmail note? – and our chaperone dutifully runs back into the Secret Room with it.
I’m pretty sure the Bouncer has a body buried somewhere in Thailand. Nobody other than a seasoned killer could look that confident when faced with potential deportation, or that blasé about losing over a grand in one day.
We wait even longer. The line is now well over a hundred people, most of them Thais. They peer ahead at the group of foreign delinquents responsible for the hold-up.
The Aussie pulls down the straps and body of her dress, so that her shoulders and half of her chest are uncovered. Her boyfriend also rolls up his shirt and tucks it into itself, so that it resembles a baby tee from the early nineties.
Under the “No Smoking” sign is another sign: “This is the official Thai government authority. Please dress appropriately.” I am about to point this out, but I’ve given up. I’m pretty sure this group DGAF about signage.
I, on the other hand, have dressed formally for the occasion. If I’m going to be deported, I want to be dressed like a low-level accountant who shops at JC Penney.
Not only have the Thais given us a wider radius, but they are now averting their eyes from the shameful display of semi-nudity in front of them.
Earlier, I had been trying to dissociate myself from this pack of chain-smoking, semi-nude, line-holding-up, potential felons, but I’ve given up. We’re all standing together, looking foreign and speaking English. I’m one of them now…
Finally, the Bouncer gets his passport back. I hear a collective sigh from the line, as it has been nearly 45 minutes at this point, and everyone, including me, is agitated and on the verge of a heat stroke.
The rest of our group goes through relatively quickly. I’m the last one, and when I’m done, I walk over to our chaperone, who seems to be arguing with the Aussie. When he walks away, she looks at me with rage.
“He says I can’t go with you guys to Myanmar!”
“What?? Why not?”
“I didn’t bring my passport…”
“Oh… you didn’t think you’d need your passport to go to another country?” I’m trying to be nice, but politeness isn’t my forte.
“Well, it’s just Myanmar,” she says dismissively. “And I’m not doing a visa run, like you guys. I’m just accompanying him,” she nods towards the Boyfriend.
“Oh! Then you don’t need to come with us to Myanmar, you can just wait here,” I point out.
“I don’t want to wait here alone…”
She looks anxiously around the crowded room. I’m pretty sure our group is shadier than anyone else here, but it may not be the best time to point that out.
Our chaperone, who looks like he’s about to have a nervous breakdown, runs over to us.
“I talked to the immigration authority,” he says nervously. “And they said you must stay here, or else you could be thrown into jail!”
“I still don’t understand why I can’t go with you guys,” she whines.
What? This guy just explained the whole story, including the plot twist, to you!
“You don’t have your passport, so you seem like a sketchy drug mule, and you’ll likely be sent to a Burmese prison and thoroughly interrogated,” I explain.
She’s still sulking, but she goes to sit on one of the benches along the side of the room.
The rest of us board one of the longtail boats packed with merchants, children, and other confused foreigners. The engine starts with a roar and we take off. I stick my headphones in, so the deafening buzz doesn’t split my skull open. I have no idea where exactly we’re going or what’s going to happen next.
Here we go again…
To be continued…
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