I was recently contacted by a female teacher who was getting herself in a pickle over a visa issue.
To provide a brief outline of the story, this teacher held a non-immigrant B visa, which was valid for a 90-day stay in Thailand. She had used that visa to apply for a work permit, but then decided that she didn't like the school all that much and so got herself another job.
The work permit application at the ‘old school' was therefore withdrawn.
The teacher's new job starts on February 1st but her non-immigrant B visa expires on January 15th or thereabouts. Therefore the teacher is faced with the task of doing a visa run and obtaining a new non-immigrant B visa from a Thai embassy or consulate in a neighboring country such as Malaysia or Laos.
I can already see all you old Thailand hands out there, shaking your heads in amazement, and thinking "why on earth does she need to e-mail you when that sort of basic visa information is available on a thousand Thailand visa-related websites?"
Ah, that may be true, but what people don't always appreciate is that for every genuine visa question, there are usually a hundred different answers - especially when it applies to Thailand.
I'm convinced that we are beginning to live in an age where there is simply too much information available to us.
A world of confusion
Far too much of that information is contradictory and confusing - and when you sit down in front of your computer screen to do a few hours of ‘research' on whatever topic takes your fancy, you end up further back than when you started.
The finest example I can think of when it comes to ‘information overload' is that wonderful website Trip Advisor, where people write about their experiences staying in hotels around the world and grade the accommodation on certain criteria. I'm sure you're familiar with it. You may even be a member like I am.
I love Trip Advisor - and as that well-known saying goes, 'I can't leave home without it'.
It's probably the most unhelpful website in cyberspace when it comes to finalizing holiday plans, but I don't care a jot - I'm totally addicted to the thousands of hotel reviews that make choosing the right hotel something bordering on mission impossible.
Hong Kong digs
A case in point.
My wife and I were planning a New Year break in Hong Kong, as we've done several times before. Our regular hotel in Kowloon, The Novotel, was unfortunately fully booked so we had the unenviable task of choosing somewhere from scratch. Somewhere we had never stayed before.
We knew exactly where we wanted to be in terms of location and after looking at Google maps, we quite fancied the look of The Regal Kowloon Hotel.
This fine-looking, modern hotel ticked all the boxes and then some.
It was a fortune cookie's throw from the harbor. It was surrounded by shops and restaurants. It was a five-minute walk to the nearest subway station. It even promised free wi-fi. It looked like the perfect choice.
Of course what I should have done there and then is whipped out my credit card, booked it on-line, and not given the hotel another thought until the airport shuttle bus dropped us off at reception with our suitcases.
But why make life easy when you've got the chance to make it difficult? So I foolishly decided to peruse the 2,456 reviews of The Regal Kowloon, Hong Kong on Trip Advisor. Oh Lord, when will I ever learn?
"The unfriendliest hotel staff I have ever encountered" said one reviewer.
"The check-in procedure was a nightmare. It took us four days to get our room keys" said another.
"I wouldn't stay there again if it was the only hotel in Hong Kong. I actually thought about checking out and sleeping on a bench in the park" added a third.
Three reviews in and it wasn't looking good for The Regal Kowloon. But hold on......what's this?
"The staff were wonderful and the hotel couldn't be in a better location. I shall certainly stay here again"
This was followed by "what a fantastic hotel. We were upgraded to a penthouse suite on the 50th floor with magnificent views of the waterfront - and the manager - a Swiss fellah I think he was - even carried our bags for us"
Double-checking that neither of those reviews were actually written by the manager, I flipped a coin, it landed on ‘heads' and I booked The Regal Kowloon.
We stayed there for five nights, the staff were terrific, the check-in procedure was atrocious, the view from our room was to die for and no, the manager didn't carry our cases up to the room.
I gave it a glowing report on Trip Advisor.
The dilemma of relying on Trip Advisor for a hotel recommendation often boils down to just one question - do you seriously want to stay in a hotel that has 500 good reviews and 499 bad ones?
Does that one extra positive review tip the scales in the hotel's favor? Or are the 500 reviewers who gave the hotel the thumbs-up the type of people who would be happy to sleep anywhere as long as it wasn't outside?
What you always have to keep in mind is that reviews of hotels or restaurants or tourist attractions, etc are always ‘one-off experiences' They are snapshots of life, fleeting moments in time. They're unreliable at best.
We've all had days when we've gotten out of bed the wrong side and as we trudge through the day, everything just seems wrong with the world. Days when the steak at the restaurant is overcooked, the hotel room service is too slow, the queues at the fun park go back for miles and the night safari is a rip-off.
I recall spending hours of my life researching Paris on the internet.
Wifey and I decided to do Paris one year for our annual Songkran escape and I appreciated there was much to see and do in what is undoubtedly one of Europe's finest capitals.
I kind of had an inkling already of what I wanted to see but that didn't stop me checking at least fifty Paris travel websites first.
Firstly, The Louvre Museum. I mean, you've got to go and see The Louvre haven't you? How could you contemplate going to Paris and not seeing the Mona Lisa?
Yes, I know you have to shove crowds of tourists out of the way for a photo opportunity - and I know that even then, the painting will still be so far away it'll be like looking through a rolled-up newspaper with an eye closed. But it's the Mona Lisa innit?
"Don't miss The Louvre" said a blogger on one website I looked at - "allow yourself at least a couple of days to wander down its vast corridors and feast your eyes on its treasures"
Should I believe her? She's clearly an art lover - which I'm certainly not. Do I trust her - or trust the opinion of a bloke on another blog who said he was bored shitless after twenty minutes and wandered outside into the Parisian fresh air to get an ice cream?
Never mind, there's always the Eiffel Tower.
"Go to The Eiffel Tower in the morning and the queues are sure to be horrendous" said one reviewer, "Go at night when you'll have to stand in line for ten minutes at most"
This was contradicted by another well-intentioned soul who wrote "At night? You're going to go up The Eiffel Tower at night? What kind of dumbass are you? The nights are for wandering around the narrow streets and alleys of Montmartre and soaking up the atmosphere"
This was tempered slightly by "Montmartre! Don't wander the streets of Montmartre after dark. I did just that and lost everything - my passport, my traveller's cheques, my virginity. Be warned. Go to The Eiffel Tower or The Louvre instead"
I think you get the picture.
Now how do I make the leap from Paris to mobile phones?
I was in the Samsung shop in Paradise Park Shopping Mall on Sri Nakarin Road. I've never been one for gadgets but at that time I needed a new mobile phone.
Browsing around the Samsung shop, I came face-to-face with the Galaxy Note - one of the finest mobile phones in the world at that time - well, at least until the new and improved version appeared sometime the following week.
You'll have to believe me when I say it really wasn't my intention to spend half a year's salary on a new mobile phone but as I stood there holding the machine in the palm of my hand and stroking it gently with an index finger, the inevitable happened - we fell in love with each other.
However, before I made the journey from ATM back to the shop with a wheelbarrow, I sought some reassurance from the reviewers on well-known technology sites.
"This phone is the best investment you'll ever make. It's a hell of a phone"
"I would sell my wife and children to buy The Samsung Galaxy Note. In fact I already have"
"Since I bought the Samsung Galaxy Note a few days ago, it hasn't been out of my hand. It's opened up a whole new world. My wife has left me and I haven't even noticed"
Fantastic I thought. Everyone loves it. But let me just read one more review.
"If you think this phone is good, wait until you see the new version that's coming out at the end of the year. I played with it for five minutes at The Madrid Mobile Phone Expo and It was like being a kid on Christmas morning again"
Aaaaaaaaaaah!!!!!!!! You swine!