Bangkok Journal Chapter 8 - Visa Run Singapore

I enjoy so much observing and recording my new surroundings that I often forget that’s not the point of being here in Asia. Although I feel, as I jot down my notes and later type up these chapters, like I’m writing a travel book for some publisher who’s promised me money in return (oh don’t I wish!), or as if I’m on assignment for some world famous newsmagazine or television production, the fact is that those feelings are fantasy and have nothing to do with the real reason I’m here. I’m here to build a life together with Noraseth, to live and work in Bangkok as an English teacher and, to that end, to secure the official permission required to remain in Thailand to pursue those goals. This brings me, literally, to Singapore on a visa run. No, I don’t mean running up my visa card at the nearest mall (although there are more of those in Singapore than I can describe – but I’ll try my best in a moment). I mean visiting the Thai embassy t/here and applying for an extension of my tourist visa, which is set to run out in a few days. Hard to believe that I’ve been in Thailand a month already, but I have. And I must leave and ask for permission to return if I want to stay.

Every foreigner wishing to reside and work in Thailand has done a visa run, so I’ve been told. The process used to be a bit easier (i.e. without leaving the country) but things have been tightened up since that (allegedly) weird John Karr turned up here in-country claiming he murdered Jon Benet Ramsey. Didn’t look good for Thailand that he turned up here, of all places, and that he had a job teaching young children. Once he was deported, the Thai government cracked down on foreigners – and visas. But even if you have to leave the country, it’s just an extra step, nothing more. A visa run is: nothing, easy, part of the process, etc. So I’ve been told.

Of the many alternatives mentioned by my fellow teachers at RMIT, Singapore seems the easiest and most efficient. But also the most expensive. You have to fly to Singapore. It’s a city-state-country-island at the southern tip of Malaysia about 900 miles south of Bangkok and close to the equator. I know a lot of English textbooks published in Asia come from there. Otherwise I know nothing about the place except the name. The other destination choices for visa renewal sound more exotic, certainly cheaper to reach, but more time consuming (15 hours one-way on a bus. A visa run is always at least an overnight trip, often several days.) Those places include Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Myanmar. Can Americans even go to Myanmar, formerly Burma, or is it on the communist bad boy list with Cuba? (Some of my colleagues are British and can, therefore, use Myanmar should they choose.) Would I want to go to Myanmar? Don’t they have that nice woman who challenges the military junta under permanent house arrest there? I set foot over the border there once while in northern Thailand three years ago and it was a creepy, unsafe feeling to be there just for 20 minutes in a restricted tourist zone. Even if I can go there, it seems risky. As do the other places. To visit, sure. But to do serious emigration business, which has me already a bit nervous, I think Singapore sounds safest. I don’t need a Wild West adventure right now, or a dusty saloon-style embassy with shady civil servants wearing military uniforms and carrying rifles as they stroll back and forth on a palm shaded veranda. I just want a nice, ordinary office building with Dell computers, secretaries and pens that work. So off I head, reluctantly, to Suvarnabhumi Airport, this time to depart, hopefully only for a few days.

I’ll make my notes. I’ll write my observations. But there’s more of an emotional undercurrent than when I’m normally out looking around Bangkok amazed that I’m here as more than a tourist and impressed with all the similar, yet different, things I see. On this trip to Singapore, I’m heading to the airport Wednesday a bit depressed, with a feeling of dread, wondering whether I’ll ever see Noraseth again although I’m certainly sure that I will, that all will be well and that I’ll be back on Saturday with my visa sticker proudly taking up one of the last available pages in my passport. But the dread is there. Noraseth must feel it too. As I left the apartment, he pulled me directly in front of him and looked deeply into my eyes, his own round-black Asian orbs a little watery, and told me to come back safely to him. When he does something like that (in opposition to throwing grapefruits if not at me, then at least inspired by me), you know that something serious is afoot.

As if mocking me, Grimace, the God of Stress, has gifted me the day before my departure with a head-cold that can only be described as being crafted in the very bowels of hell (or in the underground workshop of those ugly Orgs in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). I feel like shit and just know the pressure on the air plane is going to add to the dismal pressure in my sinuses and the overall pressure of my trip. I feel as is I’m under thick, murky water, every step taking me deeper and deeper into the dark, slimy muck. The only hope I have to hold on to is a colleague’s comment that Singapore “is a breeze. And the shopping’s good.” It better be.

The sound of one baby clapping

I first saw them in huge, hanger-sized almost empty top part of the terminal. I had checked in early (my habit in general and certainly the case everywhere I would go on this trip). They’d arrived early also, as had a handful of others and we were all forced to wait in this more general area until the boarding area near the gate opened a few hours later. I noticed them because the child, probably about 18 months, wore kiddie-squeaky-toy shoes which echoed throughout that huge hanger each time she took a proud, uncertain step. She’s just learning to walk, I thought (amazed at my well-honed powers of observation and analysis!) From a distance she seemed adorable with her short straight black hair pulled up into a top-knot with a colorful bow. Her cute, chubby face reminded me of Pebbles Flintstone, or at least the Asian equivalent. Children are so cute. And the further away from me they stay, the cuter they remain. Those squeaky shoes, the sound of which seemed to inspired only more wide-legged attempts at walking, were already starting to annoy. But she didn’t chirp and squeak too long – each time she walked out of a range where he could easily reach her without standing up from his seat on the base of a fountain, her skinny father grabbed her and spoke firmly to her to remain close to him.

They were traveling alone. The father looked too young to actually be a father, but I’ve learned to suspend my ideas (or to dismiss my guesses) about how old Asians are. They all look like kids to me, this guy is no exception. He’s probably in his mid-twenties, though (even though through my western filter he appears to be about fifteen). He’s taller than most Thais and wears his SBAH (straight black Asian hair) a bit longer than mostin a kind of Beatles mop (mod Beatles circa 1964 – not the shaggy bearded 1970s Beatles). He’s got a bit of angry red acne on his calm brown face and I sympathize silently as I see this, having been through my own bout of stress-related acne recently. He’s lost in thoughts, at least until his little girl starts walking out of his grasping range. Then he hops out and gently redirects her with a soft hand and firm voice. She bubbles along happily.

My theory about my happiness regarding the adverse measure in relation to distance of nearby children is confirmed later as we make it down to the boarding area. I’m sitting not reading (I’d like to be reading but this headcold is forcing me to blow my nose every five seconds instead) when I hear an un-humanlike howling, a scream so devastating and shrill that it, like my sinus virus, can only be from the true core of hell. I turn and scan for the source, surprised when I discover that this chorus of wailing loud enough to be fill an entire nursery (hell’s nursery) is coming from tiny, cute Pebbles. Wonder what caused this? Has she just now realized that Mom is not on this trip? Have the squeeky shoes lost their snap? And, most importantly, how long will it be before someone, hopefully JohnPaulRingoGeorgeDad shuts her up before I am forced to throw a pained and disdainful glance in their general direction to signal my displeasure. My head throbs stronger with each yell. Then she stops yelling. But my head does not stop throbbing. She has stopped her Wall of Sound (really, Phil Spector would be proud – if he wasn’t busy being distracted by being on trial for murder) only because they are moving. We’ve reached the part of the process where families with small children are being whisked onto the plane. I hope I never see her or her Beatle-bushed Papa again.

I am sitting right next to them, of course. One of the joys of early check in is that I’m usually assigned a seat in the first row of coach, just beyond the bulkhead that separates it from business class. One of the disadvantages of such a seating assignment is that families with small children are also usually assigned seats forward in the cabin as well. I am on the aisle in 31-B. Directly across the aisle in 31-C and D are, yes, as if you had to guess or as if I even need to mention Murphy’s law, Pebbles and Beatle-bushed Papa. I deserve this for having bad thoughts about them, I say to myself as I stow my carry on under the seat in front of me and sink sadly into my seat which can be removed to be used as a floatation device if necessary. But Pebbles is not crying anymore. She’s making friends with the 3-year-old Australian sitting next to her. The three-year-old’s mommie, who looks like a cross between Olivia Newton-John and Kylie Minouge, is playing “gitchie-goo” with Pebble’s feet as she sits on her father’s lap. I’m trying to decide if this a cultural insult (feet are considered dirty in Thai culture, but Noraseth always tells me that with babies all the rules about such superstitions are suspended) and, before I can sneeze yet again we’re in the air … and Pebbles is fast asleep.

There is something amazing about the way Thais hold their children. I don’t know how to express it except to say it’s like velcro in an effortless zen kind of way. It’s like the child is attached by some unseen bond and is aware of it and there’s no need to make a big fuss about it or to use some designer baby shawl or baby-toting-knapsack like we do in the west. Pebbles slept for the entire two hour flight held in the cradle of father’s left arm while he first read the newspaper and then ate his meal (which is always surprisingly good on Royal Thai) with his right. When it was time to eat, he set down his paper and pulled his tray table out of the arm-rest – right over Peb’s head – and just went to town on his food without even a second thought. When dinner was over, though, he couldn’t put the tray back. I did that for him, from across the aisle, and I got the biggest grin of thanks. I felt redeemed from all bad thoughts. How could I have bad thoughts about a Thai baby? They’re low maintenance, for some reason, and seem to just fit in wherever they go.

A week after we arrived in Thailand, Noraseth told me we’d head out to Thammasat University to meet our friends Chitra and Adon. They’ve been friends of Noraseth’s since high school. I’ve known them both since Germany. They lived in Stuttgart for a bit and studied at the Rudolf Steiner Insitute there. I couldn’t wait to see them again. They’d had a baby, too, Noraseth told me. Three months ago. She’d be there too. A three month old, I thought. That sounds kind of young for the all day outing we’d planned. But Mimi ended up just being part of the group. I don’t think she cried or whimpered once. Chitra would breastfeed her discreetly now and then, and there was a small backpack with a diaper change in it, but mostly it was just us and Mimi, with Mimi riding in her mom’s or dad’s arms. And we were in crowds, in restaurants, jumping on and off of water taxis, etc. That baby just seemed so comfortable in one of her parent’s arms and it was clear that she was safe, undroppable, somehow attached. Not that we don’t adore and carry our kids along in the west too – or in other Asian cultures. But the way the Thais just carry the kids as if it’s just another part of the arm is amazing. And that the kids seem to feel content an entire afternoon – or plane ride – just resting there on a forearm or shoulder. There’s something special about it. Now I understand how the kids can ride on motorcycles without falling off. There’s no question of fallling off, they’re part of the body of the adult. It’s very mysterious to me (and I know I’m not doing it justice in my writing about it). You’ll just have to come visit and see baby transport here in action. A cool thing.

Thais, by the way, whether babies or adults, have an uncanny ability to fall asleep anywhere. I realized this one day as I saw at least three people in various parts of town sprawled on their backs snoring – across the seats of parked motorbikes. Not only did they not roll off, but they didn’t seem at all aware that falling off was a possibility. I can’t even sleep in a chair at a library without worrying I’ll slide out (which I usually do). So I don’t even try anymore. But the Thais, give them a sqaure foot and they’ll nap in, on, at, around it. And I say it as a complement. It’s very “in the moment.” Must come from the Buddhist roots (and the languid heat, which is very sleep inspiring). This tendency to sleep where you be probably helps a baby when it’s being carried about. It certainly seemed to help Pebbles as she snoozed during our entire trip down to Singapore.

Watching Pebs and Papa turned out to be the highlight of my flight. It took my mind off how nervous I was about going to the embassy the following morning to deal with my visa issues. They cured my fear of sitting close to kids on crowded planes. I felt like a new person. Until we started to land and the cabin-pressure, as I’d feared, didn’t agree with the pressure in my aggrevated sinuses. It felt like someone was stuffing cotton – too much cotton – in my ears with toothpicks. And the toothpick points were pushing through the cotton to stick like thorns in my middle ear. It couldn’t get any worse than this.

Could it?

Find out in “Visa Run Singapore, Part II”.

Bangkok, 28 September 2007