I'm off to Amsterdam next month and thoroughly looking forward to it. Even though I haven't been for well over 20 years, Amsterdam has always been one of my favorite cities and I'm looking forward to showing it off to my faithful travel companion - my Thai wife.
Unfortunately, travelling to Europe means having to go through the laborious process of gathering a whole pile of documentation and applying for a schengen visa at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok.
Despite the fact my wife already has three Schengen visas and three UK visas in her passport from past visits, these visa applications are always stressful. Our trip to the Dutch embassy last week was no exception.
Thais don't go to The Netherlands in any great number so as far as embassies go, the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok is a rather sleepy affair located in an attractive leafy soi just off the main Ploenchit Road. On the morning of our appointment, we got there nice and early with all our ducks in a row and received a queue ticket number. There were barely a dozen visa applicants ahead of us in the line and we were looking at a thirty-minute wait at most.
As someone categorized by the embassy as ‘accompanying the visa applicant' I wasn't allowed to enter the building's inner sanctum but through a large plate-glass window I could see my wife sitting patiently and waiting for one of the three visa officers on duty to call her up to their window and begin the application process.
Eventually my wife's number was called and I sat there minding my own business and planning the best place in the neighborhood to have lunch. After several minutes my wife emerged and marched up to me in a fit of mild rage. The Thai officer had asked my wife to photocopy all the pages of her husband's passport, so that meant leaving the embassy compound and finding a photocopying shop nearby. All in all, a dreadful inconvenience. Not only that, but luckily I had decided to take my passport only at the very last minute.
Later, over lunch, when my wife had eventually calmed down, I quizzed her more about the application process and the questions the officer had asked her. To be honest, the interview hadn't got off to the best of starts. My wife sat down and the officer started the interrogation by asking if she had applied for a visa at that specific embassy before. My wife told the officer no - but she did apply for a visa for the Netherlands about twelve years ago when she went on a package tour with her mother. It was a very natural, friendly answer. It's the kind of answer I would have given, purely to break the ice in such a formal environment. Unfortunately, natural and friendly are two adjectives that rarely come to mind when dealing with visa officials. The Thai officer, a lady of about 25, tut-tutted, rolled her eyes and reminded my wife that that was not the question she'd been asked.
As I say - not the best of starts to an interview.
For the rest of the short interview, the questions were mainly about me.
"What does your husband do in Bangkok?"
"How long has he lived here?"
"Which side does he dress?"
The part I don't understand is that I'm not the one applying for the visa. How are the questions relevant? I could be a retired billionaire or a struggling jazz musician. I don't see that it matters.
I was under the impression that the visa applicant had to prove three things;
Firstly, that he or she has enough ‘reason' to return to Thailand. The embassy wants to be sure that the applicant won't just disappear forever into Europe's vast hinterland and live a glorious life on government handouts and state benefits. And that's why my wife did exactly as the Dutch Embassy ordered and had taken a letter from her company to clarify her salary, position and years of service, etc, etc.
Secondly, the visa applicant has to prove that he or she has the necessary funds and travel insurance and they will be able to cope in an emergency. And that's why the visa applicant submits an updated copy of their bankbook and also an original copy of the travel insurance policy. Simple really isn't it?
Finally, the visa applicant has to show that he or she is indeed taking a vacation or a study trip or whatever. And to cover this, I had given my wife a copy of all the e-mail communication between myself and the rather nice-sounding Dutch lady who owns a two-bedroom house overlooking one of Amsterdam's central canals, in other words, the place where we will stay. The e-mail communication was all nicely formatted and even a cursory glance showed that it contained details of the house-owner's bank account number and bank address, where I had sent a deposit to in order to secure the accommodation.
All of the information above had been dismissed by the Thai officer at The Dutch Embassy. She never even looked at it. She was far more interested in whether the applicant's husband had pulled the legs off spiders as a child and eaten up all his greens.
No, that's not entirely true. The officer did ask my wife why she didn't have a hotel voucher to confirm the accommodation. But when my wife told her that we were staying in a typical Dutch house rather than some 5-star steel and concrete monstrosity, the officer merely viewed my wife with even more suspicion, if that were at all possible. The officer was obviously under the impression that people who travel abroad always stay in hotels. At least they do in her blinkered little world.
These embassy stories of Thais giving fellow Thais an unnecessarily hard time are all too familiar. I'm sure many of you reading this ramble have been in exactly the same boat. I'm just curious as to where the embassies recruit these staff members from and what kind of training is involved?
I'm going to get on to very sensitive ground here now but I'm of the firm belief that you can't have Thais dealing with Thais in these situations. For those who have lived in Thailand any length of time the reasons should be obvious. Thai culture - at least between Thais - is one of status and one-upmanship and knowing where you belong in the social pecking order. It's sometimes a culture of inflated self-importance and power trips. A Thai visa official can wreck all your travel plans and dreams with one stroke of a pen. There can't be a bigger power trip than that. Surely you can't have Thai visa applicants being judged by a supposedly impartial officer when there is all that cultural bullshit ticking away in the background. Wow! I'm really going off on one here.
Thais won't thank me for saying this - and I say it with a degree of tongue-in-cheek - but I'm convinced that as a nationality they are not meant to travel. It's almost as if the rest of the world doesn't want them. "Stay at home - we'll come to visit you instead"
Getting a visa for your holiday destination is just one of the hardships you encounter when travelling or making travel plans with a Thai partner. Landing at airports and going through immigration control is another.
My favorite airport story occurred several years ago when I took my wife to Spain to visit my parents. We had been holidaying in England at the time but as a welcome side-trip, we caught a two-hour flight from Birmingham to Alicante on Spain's Costa Del Sol. My parents live in a small Spanish village about 30 miles inland.
Alicante Airport is always busy but because the vast majority of passengers are either tourists or residents of Spain, passport control is unbelievably relaxed. There will usually be a couple of bored looking officers talking about Real Madrid's chances of winning the cup, while a stream of Brits abroad file past waving their red EU passports, their pensioners bus pass or perhaps even a Blockbusters membership card. Basically the first thing you lay your hands on when rummaging around in a handbag.
At Alicante Airport, It's possible to clear immigration, drag your suitcase off the carousel and find yourself basking in glorious Spanish sunshine, literally half an hour after your plane has landed. I knew this from previous visits so the moment the aircraft seatbelt lights went off, I grabbed my wife by the hand and made for the exit door. We were standing at passport control while every other passenger was still wrestling their duty-free carrier bags from the overhead bins.
The Spanish immigration officer beckoned us to approach the counter. He gave my passport the quick once over and then saw that I had filled in a landing card. As an EU citizen this is not something I am required to do. He muttered the Spanish equivalent of "you stupid prick' and then flung the card at me. The card hit my chest and landed on the floor at my feet. I stooped down to pick it up and then passenger and immigration official stared each other down, rather reminiscent of the way Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier used to do to each other minutes before a fight. Welcome to Spain Senor!
When my wife handed the officer her Thai passport, it was as if someone had suddenly plugged him into a power supply. His eyes lit up and his whole body language shifted. He recognized instantly that although of similar color, this wasn't your run-of-the-mill EU jobby for very little escapes Spanish officials in the world of passports. He flicked through the pages from front to back and then did the same thing in reverse - twice. He checked the photograph, looked up at my wife and then checked the photograph again. There then followed a puzzled shake of the head.
By now the other passengers had caught up with us, their footsteps echoing on the tiled floors. The immigration officer instructed us to stand in one spot and not move a muscle and we stood there helpless and embarrassed while the other 248 passengers scurried through immigration flashing their passports, bus passes and video club membership. We adopted a blank expression every time a passenger looked at us and wondered exactly what we'd done or more to the point, what we had attempted to blow up. And then they were gone. We were alone - just me, my wife and a gruff, overworked Spanish official. He flicked through the Thai passport for the umpteenth time and then the following conversation took place.
"What country?" he asked.
"Thailand" I replied, and pointed to the cover of the passport. If you are looking for the origin of a passport, I think the cover is undoubtedly the best place to start.
"Ah Thailandia" the officer announced triumphantly, and with that he waved us through and wished us a pleasant onward journey.
If Alicante wins an award for the most miserable and most confused airport staff, then Christchurch Airport in New Zealand takes home the trophy for the friendliest.
The first surprise comes as you stand in the queue and snake your way towards the passport control booths. The airport has several sniffer dogs that are allowed to roam freely among the queuing passengers. There is no advanced warning of this however. One moment you are discussing travel plans with your partner and the next minute there's a Labrador's wet nose nuzzling in-between your bum cheeks. And I hope you won't think any less of me when I say that I've definitely had worse experiences.
The immigration queues move at a glacial speed and when the novelty of rubbing up against a Labrador wears off, you're left wondering what the hell is taking so long. When eventually it's your turn to be processed by the officer on duty, the reasons for the long wait become apparent. You are now face-to-face with the chattiest man in New Zealand.
"So where are you guys heading for?"
"Yes, I would love to see your itinerary if you could fish that out for me"
"I see you've rented a car with Eazee Car Rental. Actually they have just changed their name to Juicy Car Rental. I'm not sure why but that's what they've done. I guess a lot of companies go in for a corporate re-branding at some stage"
My wife and I just stood their and nodded. What else can you do other than say "can you just stamp the bloody passports before our holiday is over"
He even went as far as to ask me what I did for a living. I told him I was a website designer only because it was the first thing that came into my head. The officer gave my answer some thought.
"You know something - and I'll tell you this for nothing - you wouldn't earn much in New Zealand as a web designer"
This was getting ridiculous. What was next? - an invitation to his modest Christchurch semi-detached for sandwiches and a chat with his wife?
I instinctively looked at my watch and thankfully he got the message. "Have a great time in New Zealand folks"
"Yes, if we ever fucking get there" I muttered.
What else can happen at airports? Oh yes.... I never like the fact that at British airports I'm allowed to fast-track it through the EU citizens channel while my wife gets to queue up for several hours with ‘those who hold funny passports' - you know the ones I'm talking about? I never see the point of deserting my wife and then having to wait for her on the other side of passport control so I generally ask staff if I can also go through the ‘people with funny passports' channel and I've never once been refused. I think in some ways the staff admire my courage.
I'm never sure why but when it comes to non-EU immigration queues, we always seem to get stuck behind the stick-thin Cameroonian, who has somehow contrived to land in England without a penny to his name and no worldly possessions save for the address of a guy he met twenty years ago written on the back of a fag packet - or a Ladbrokes betting slip if he's the organized type. And as his wife and four kids cling to his trouser legs and wonder exactly what the future holds, the officer asks him where the family is heading to once they're allowed into the country.
"I come stay England.........home..........my friend"
"Yes, I know you are staying at your friend's home Mr Bucpapa but do......you.....know....the....actual......address?"
The stick-thin Cameroonian thinks for a moment.
"I come stay England.......home.......my friend"
I shoot my wife that look - that look that means we're in it for the long haul. All the other passengers on our flight have long gone. There are just our two suitcases going round and round on the carousel under the watchful eye of two bored baggage handlers. Eventually one turns to the other and says "let's give it another ten minutes and if they don't show up, we''ll burn them"
I've just this minute heard that my wife has been granted her visa for The Netherlands. What adventures lie ahead I wonder. I'm literally trembling with excitement.