Bangkok Journal Chapter 9 - Visa Run Singapore, Part II


I noticed the skyscrapers first, on the 25 kilometer (about 15 mile) drive in from the airport. They looked very new, very modern, brightly lit. Very clean. I noticed some parks, with tennis courts and playing fields, as the taxi got closer to the city center. They looked clean too, organized. And traffic was moving normally. I felt like I was on a California freeway, approaching San Diego or some other litter-free SoCal suburban city. Everything remained clean and orderly as we left the freeway and sped on over to the hotel. The hotel looked a little run down, very brown and tan, with old paneling in the lobby. Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought. A little character, perhaps.

I took my carry-on up to my room, dropped it and headed back out for cold medicine, toothpaste and shaving cream (thanks to the new rules about fluids on flights – 100 ml or less on carry-on – they’d thrown away my oversized toothpaste and shaving cream at the airport in Bangkok. The cold medicine was a new necessity.) The first thing I noticed, as I walked out in the warm (about 95 F/ 40 C), highly humid air was that I couldn’t smell anything. At first I simply assumed this was due to my cold, but my nose was running and, in between sniffles, working just fine (I could smell as well as taste my Fisherman’s Friend cough-drop, after all).

In Bangkok, on any street, any time of day, I can always smell orchid or jasmin, durien, wood or charcoal fire and the seared smoke of chicken or pork as it’s being grilled – all mingled with a dose of exhaust and other toxic car and bus fumes. People stop to buy the blooms to use to decorate the Buddhist altars placed throughout the city. They purchase durien (aka “stinkfruit” – and not allowed on planes) even though it smells like used, ripe, unwashed socks (like a good French cheese, it smells awful but tastes exquisite – so sweet and sticky that you’ll pass out and see stars from the experience of eating it, not necessarily in that order). And, of course, the streets are always alive with people buying, selling or preparing and eating food. The streets are always full.

In Singapore the streets were full too but only with people walking from mall to mall. The only scent on the breeze was a mixture of expensive brand name designer perfume trails puffed out to the sidewalk on a blast of frigid air-conditioning each time an automatic store door opened or closed. I wondered if the lack of smells was just a fore-warning of an overall lack of personality. It was. Everything turned out to be bland there. The air was so bland in Singapore that I even ended up missing the smell of exhaust.

One of the things I’d tried to read sitting back in the airport in Bangkok was a small “Lonely Planet Best of Singapore” guide that I bought in the airport bookstore for 400 baht. It acknowledged that Singapore was often referred to as “Singabore” and that the “national obsession” was shopping – both for locals and tourists. It advised that you might be able to find some interesting, cultural things in the city if you avoided the Orchard Road tourist and mall area. So it amused me (really it did – in a morbid sort of way) to discover that my hotel was at one end of Orchard Road and that the Thai Embassy – the main focus of my visit and my only real reason for my being in Singapore – was located directly at the other end. It looked on the map to be about a mile walking distance from my hotel to the embassy. But that walk, I later discovered, consisted of mall after mall after mall after mall after mall after … (isn’t there a song: “99 miles of mall on the wall, 99 miles of mall, you take one down and pass it around, 98 miles of mall on the wall”. No, wait, that’s bottle of beer, isn’t it?). The malls were followed by coffee shop after Starbuck’s-styled coffee shop (a lot of them actually were Starbucks). Okay by me – I love to shop and, in my distracted and physically ill state of mind – bumbling numbly through malls with hours to kill sounded do-able. (I like to drink tea, too, but try to avoid Starbucks or its generic equivalent when I can. These days, that’s not as easy as it sounds. No matter where you go in the world, there is always a McDonald’s and, now, Starbucks. They spread like fungus in the heat.)

My guidebook also said that some of the shop keepers – not in the malls but small shops along the way and stalls at the markets – could be aggressive. So I was fully prepared for Mr. Singh, standing outside his tailor shop on a side street next to the hotel that I had to walk down every time I wanted to leave the hotel to go anywhere. Mr. Singh was a doe-eyed, roly-poly Sikh – I could tell by the turbin – and spoke English with the sing-song lilt of an Indian accent. He took me by the arm and walked a stretch of sidewalk with me each time I passed his store.

"I want to make you a nice suit. Come inside. I measure you."

"But I don’t want to come inside. I don’t feel very good. I want to buy cold medicine."

"You take my card. Come by tomorrow. I want to make you a nice suit."

"Tomorrow I have plans."

"You come next day."

"On that day I leave Singapore." (which turned out to be wishful thinking. The visa process would cause Mod – Noraseth’s trusty travel agent sister – to have to extend my visit an entire day and to change my return flight as well.)

"Then you come next time you in Singapore."

Oh Mr. Singh, I wanted to say, I hope there isn’t going to be a next time, but, superstitious fool that I am, I didn’t want to jinx things. Nor did I want to offend dear, determined Mr. Singh. So I took his card. And waved to him – without stopping – every time I passed him and his shop over the next few days.

Mr. Singh brings up a point about Singapore. I think there’s a national language. I think it’s some kind of Chinese. But there’s also a big mix of people – Chinese, Australian, British, Malay, Indian, etc. So everyone speaks English. Not always with perfect grammar, but with enough fluency for conversation. At one point, I saw some local Singapore-Chinese whispering so I suppose they were speaking the local lingo, but in public it’s all English, English, English. The after-effect of colonialism, perhaps, practical but dull. Being an English teacher, the last thing I want to do in my free time is take a “busman’s holiday” and use English while in a foreign country. Unless I absolutely have to. Well, in Singapore I had to. There were no alternatives. Okay, so I don’t really speak Thai yet either, but in Bangkok I always say hello, thank you, excuse me, one moment please and all the other phrases I know in Thai when I’m on the street. Even when some people speak English with me, I try to stick to my few words of Thai. (I also know enough to say where I want to go in taxis, which is hilarious. They automatically think, then, that I am fluent and start chattering with me in Thai. I had Noraseth teach me how to say “really I don’t speak very much Thai.” They laugh now when I say that.) But my experience in Thailand is Thai: whether I can speak it or not, it’s real and it’s there. In Singapore, there was only English. For that they get another black mark on the score card of character and personality. Not that I find English unacceptable – it is a world language and, after all, the reason I can remain employed abroad. But only English? I found that strange in Singapore. I know other languages were probably being spoken there, but in secret, as if a dirty habit.

I got my cold medicine and my toiletries without any other assaults (although Mr. Singh’s sales attack had been the most interesting thing to happen to me in Singapore so far – and would turn out to be the most interesting thing in general). The medicine didn’t help. How could it. Singapore suffers from the “South Florida Syndrome”: the warmer it is outside then the colder the air-conditioning is cranked up inside. I have never understood the logic of this principle, unless the goal is to assure that people get or remain physically ill forever (or to clear out restaurants fast so that the next customers can get a table). I fell into the former category – I would be ill for my entire visit and would finally start losing this cold after I got back to our un-airconditioned apartment and the pollution of Bangkok. Also after, conincidentally, I got my visa. For I did get my visa, oh yes, and perhaps the stress of the uncertainty of that process was the reason for my cold in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of my story. I still have a few more things about Singapore in general. Some of them sort of good. Then I’ll elaborate on the visa process.

Do I sound cranky and whiney when I write about Singapore? Was it just because I was sick while I was there? Or stressed about the visa (which, I think, is related to being sick while there). Or is it really such a dull place, lacking character? Yes to all of those things. Here are some high and low points:

Food was a low point. Everything was edible but bland. Even the local dishes were tourist level boring. The hotel had a restaurant that had decent and simple soups and chicken dishes. I’m sorry I didn’t have the energy to get out to some other areas of the city. I’ve heard (since being back in Bangkok) that the areas called “Little India” and “Arab Street” have pretty good, authentic food. Seriously, though, the best food I had during the entire trip were the chicken and rice and fish and rice meals on Royal Thai Airways. That says a lot!

Chinatown turned out to be another (unexpected) low. I thought Chinatown would be an authentic experience, similar to other Chinatowns, like in New York, for instance, or in San Francisco – or even in Bangkok. But it was tourist trinket heaven and the food was not even as good as the Chinese at some of the mall food courts in upstate New York. I did find a nice wooden box with chopsticks for Noraseth there, though. And the price was good. The man told me a legend about luck – and pointed to a Chinese character written on the inside lid of the box. Everything I put in this box, he said, will magically double – so I should not put a rock in! Two rocks would be heavy and useless. I should put money in, he said. Then he laughed and took me next door to meet his brother, who wanted to give me “very good deal on jade.” Having honed my skills of negation to perfection during my practice session with Mr. Singh (and being a veteran of serape buying bartering from my many trips to Tijuana while living in San Diego), I was easily able to put him off (and make a fast dash for the door). I followed the first salesman’s advice, though, and did put some money in the wooden box. I put one of each denomination of Singapore coins in. Noraseth collects coins of all kinds. It seemed sweet at the time. And it would turn out later that he would like the box … and the coins. (He never even asked how much I paid for it, which is usually his first question – especially about gifts I buy for him. He isn’t big on getting gifts. He’s big on saving money. I’m big on giving gifts. I hate saving money. That’s why I give him all mine and let him give me a budget. But in Singapore I had a little freedom. Cash freedom – we don’t own a credit card. I’m proud of that.)

Kinokuniya Book Store was THE highlight. Here I actually spent some serious Singapore dollar (but not TOO much. I didn’t want to get yelled at when I got home, after all!) Although this is a Japanese chain (there’s a branch in Bangkok), it is the biggest English language bookstore in all of Southeast Asia. It. Was. Amazing. The selection was better than the Bangkok branch. I was impressed. For this store alone, I might consider a return trip to Singapore. But only if Noraseth were with me. He loves bookstores too. And I’m never bored when he’s around. I really do enjoy his company. I missed him in Singapore. But I had to tend to my immigration status alone. And that – the visit to the Thai embassy – turned out to be another highlight of the trip. It did go as smoothly as my colleagues predicted. But I was nervous and full of foreboding as the minutes ticked down before the doors opened on Thursday morning (I had arrived Wednesday night). I was fairly certain all would go well and I’d get my visa. But it was my first time and I really wasn’t sure of the procedure. So I was quite nervous. Let me describe the thought process as I take you with me to …

The Embassy

I didn’t sleep well on Wednesday night. My cold and visa worries kept me awake and the air conditioning aggravated my illness to the point where I shivered in bed – under two sheets and three blankets – the entire night. I started Thursday feeling wrung out, overwrought and emotionally exhausted. Perhaps this explains why I felt like I was walking to my own execution and why, along the way, I felt as if my knees were going to give way any moment. Even Mr. Singh knew to leave me alone. He took one look at me and then looked away quickly (at another newly arrived white foreigner. I heard him tell the guy he wanted to make him a suit. But I couldn’t even smile at that.)

I had left the hotel extra early since I hadn’t taken the time to check the physical location of the embassy the night before upon arrival. I’d been too sick to even consider a walk to anyplace other than the drugstore. On the map it didn’t seem too far but there was a major intersection (at Scott Road, the name of which, in my condition, I wasn’t sure if I should take as a good or bad omen). In American measurements I suppose it was about a mile. I walked slow (feeling, as I’ve said, as if chains were around my feet and a sheriff with a big white cowboy hat was by my side. I half expected Jack Ruby’s ghost to pop out of the crowd and pop off a few shots into my abdomen – which would have been a relief at that point.) I tried to laugh at myself for my overly dramatic thoughts, but I was simply too tired. I arrived at the embassy gate at 7 a.m. The sign said the hours were from 9.15 until 11.30 mornings (applications only mornings) and 2-4 p.m. in the afternoon. Well, at least I was there at the right time of day to apply, even if I was early. I’m always early everywhere I go (if I’m alone) so this didn’t phase me at all. I simply went to the nearest coffee shop – Far Coast (a Starbucks clone), drank a tea and tried to eat a scone (which turned out to be very dry. Like I said, the food in Singapore, no matter where I went, simply didn’t appeal.) I noticed on the monitor, as the English speaking clerk rang up my order, the words “Thank you. Enjoy your adventure!” I tried to take heart from the meaning – and from the fact that these words were turning up in my life this morning. A reminder to lighten up, I suppose. The words were also printed on my receipt, which I’ve saved. I’m looking at it now as I write – glad, though, to be far removed from the morning I received it.

I walked back over to the embassy about 8. Two other people had already lined up. I joined them. Now I had an hour and fifteen minutes to worry (would I get my visa? What if I didn’t?) and wonder about how the flow worked. We were outside two gates – a large gate for autos and a small gate to walk through – and the embassy itself, a low, modern, tropical building, was across a very large, well kept lawn complete with palm trees and sprinklers. What would happen when they opened the small gate? Would we all dash toward the embassy as if to storm it, trying to be first in line inside? One of my pet peeves is people who cut in line (especially if others have been waiting a long, longer time before them). I kept glancing behind me. By 9 a.m. I counted forty-five people. I was trying to figure out my strategy if any of them tried to pass me on a mad run toward the building once the gates opened. Trip them? Grab hair? Flip out and start screaming? Or just be annoyed with no way to express my frustration? I never even considered the possibility that, ah, we might have to file through the gate orderly, give a piece of ID at the little guard shack, then proceed in order to the building where we’d take a number as soon as we stepped inside (which is, thankfully, the way it all worked. I was number three. But I got bumped up to number two because the original number two had left his passport at the guard shack as ID and had to go back to retrieve it. I knew I’d probably need my passport for visa business, so I’d given my German drivers license at the gate. I may have been out of it from worry and illness, but I was still together enough to realize I’d need my passport inside.)

I looked at the two people in front of me also while I stood there in line. Number two, with his long blond hair, tee shirt and shorts, looked like the kind of guy I’d call a “backpacker teacher” – the kind of tourist who hits a nice place and decides to stay a few months and then finds a job teaching English that requires no qualifications other than that you are a native speaker (you’d be surprised how much this occurs. They’re desperate for native speaker teachers in Asia.) Number one was also dressed casually (I myself was not. I was wearing dress trousers and dress shirt but no necktie) but she looked more like a long-term teacher and looked also like she had her Scheiße together. She was carrying a see-through plastic portfolio with her application in it, passport photo attached. I had photos with me too, unattached. I also had a letter from the university that is hiring me asking that I be granted a non-immigrant class B (business) visa. But I had no application form (where did she get one ahead of time?) and, I suddenly realized, no pen. Double Scheiße!

Once inside, after taking my number and picking up an application, I realized I needed a pen desperately. I was number two now and they were just about to call number one, who was sitting directly behind me. I turned to her and asked if she had a pen I could borrow. She frowned. But she dug in her purse and found one (which I returned to her as soon as I finished). I filled out my application form while she was at the window. I was almost in tears, my hands trembling as if I’d been drinking whisky in massive amounts non-stop for six months and had just yesterday stopped cold turkey. Maybe it was the cold medicine. Maybe it was the fact that my life as I knew and had come to love it could, in fact, in the next few minutes change very drastically and not in accordance with my plans. Where would I be going from Singapore if I didn’t get a visa for Thailand? Back to Europe? Back to the States? It suddenly occurred to me that I really don’t know sometimes where home is anymore. And with that disconcerting thought in mind, my number was called.

It all happened very quickly. The woman in Asian-Muslim dress (veiled) and with perfect Cambridge-accented English took my app, gave it back and told me to fill in a few extra lines I missed (which I quickly did), took it again and, with the letter from the university in hand, went to confer with a colleague. She came back to the window after thirty seconds. “You’ll get 90 more days. Come back tomorrow to this window at 2 p.m. and pick up your passport.”

I turned and left the embassy after having been inside less than five minutes. I should have felt relieved but I wasn’t. It’s a weird feeling to turn in your passport in a foreign land. I’d lost the one document that allows me to cross borders. I was stuck now in Singapore! I should have felt elated that she’d informed me I was getting a three month extension. But she hadn’t said whether it would be a tourist or business visa and I wouldn’t believe it anyway until I had my passport back and could read the sticker or stamp for myself. I spent the next twenty-four hours feeling as down as I had before I’d entered the embassy. Only frequent trips to Kinokuniya Bookstore distracted me and eased my pain. They even had poetry – Rimbaud, cummings – and the complete lyrics of Patti Smith. I bought those and more. But I still felt like crying.

I was first in line the next day. The embassy opened at two after lunch, but I’d had enough of Singapore and this whole hoo-ha by now and was starting to get antsy and angry on top of everything else. I was determined to be first in line to just get in and out of there and get the whole thing over with. I didn’t even care about the visa anymore. I just wanted this process to be over. I lined up at 12.45 and the guard behind the fence laughed and said I was “too” early. I have a book, I snarled (but with a smile). I always have a book. Sometimes I’m so early at airports (by five hours) that my flight isn’t even in the computer yet. I not only had a book, I had three – two of them new (see above paragraph). I was set and nothing, not even the hallucinatory Singapore sun, was going to get me away from that gate before it opened.

An older, bald English chap, also a teacher in Thailand – but on the beach in Phuket – showed up about 10 past one and we passed the rest of the time chatting until they let us in. I would not have wanted to be in his (dizzy) shoes. He’d just arrived and needed to apply (and planned to do so now, hopefully, even though the sign said he could only do that during morning hours. Good luck, I said.) He hoped to be on his way back to Thailand tomorrow. Good luck, I said again. I told him how I’d just spent the entire last evening online with my travel agent – the irrepressible Mod – to extend my stay another night and to change my flight. He just chortled. He’d been on lots of visa runs and they didn’t seem to worry him one way or another.

By 2 p.m. only about 20 people were lined up. I wasn’t worried today, though, because I knew the drill. As soon as the gate opened, I offered my German license. The guard just waved me pass without taking it. Inside I took a number – as did everyone else – but when the window opened, it was first come first served, give your receipt and get your passport. (Since I was standing near the window I was one of the first served.) Things seemed so much more relaxed in the afternoon! The civil servant even smiled as she gave me my passport. I took it aside and opened it – again, my hand trembling uncontrollably – and found the sticker. Three months. Non-immigrant class B (business). The full monty. I should have danced a jig. Instead I left the embassy numbly and finally began to cry as I walked across the lawn to the gate. I don’t know if those tears (which I tried to hide as I walked down the street) were from joy, relief or just from being ill and overwrought. I still didn’t feel joyful. All that work for only 90 days. Was I going to have to do this again in December? (No. Now that I will be at the university and they will arrange a work permit for me, I can renew my visas in Bangkok in the future. It was only after I returned to Thailand and double-checked this information that I finally began to feel as if I’d accomplished something on the trip to Singapore.) My tears finally stopped as I entered the overly air-conditioned world of Kinokuniya. I bought two more books. This didn’t cheer me up either, exactly, but it did distract me.

Victorious return?

I had to wait until the next morning, Saturday, to fly home. I guess I do think of Bangkok as home, no matter what my visa status is. Noraseth is there. Noraseth is home. I was, of course, climbing the walls by the time I woke up (too) early Saturday, checked out, and got to the airport. I had a long sit in the terminal before the gate opened – but I had books galore to keep me occupied. I still felt depressed and could not understand this one bit. Really, the trip had been successful (and expensive – and I’m not talking about the books. Hotel and airfare, food and etceteras had cost a bit of baht transferred to Singapore dollar.) So, aside from the cost, which I could afford, why wasn’t I feeling happy about the outcome?

A Chinese woman with a clipboard approached me. Said she worked for the Singapore tourism board and could she survey me? Sure, why not. As long as she didn’t want to sell me a suit, I was up for a few questions. What was my overall impression of Singapore? Cold place, I said, very cold, very, very cold. What did I mean? That the people were unfriendly? No, I said, literally cold. TOO MUCH AIR-CONDITIONING. But it’s very warm outside, she said. Exactly, I said. The country is near the equator – it’s SUPPOSED to be warm. The entire experience of it being so cold in Singapore echoed, for me, the artificial, removed nature of the place. I was glad to be leaving, I said. Would you ever care to return (this was an official question, but I could also tell I’d piqued her interest). Well, I said, more to myself than to her, there is Kinokuniya …

Two weeks have passed since the trip. I’m over my cold and I now feel my time in Singapore was successful. It took me one of the two weeks since I’ve been back to rid myself both of the cold and the feeling that all was lost, doomed or, at the least, unsuccessful. Noraseth and I went out to dinner at one point and I had to keep reminding myself that we were celebrating. But now, in retrospect, I feel okay about the whole thing. It’s part of the mess of living abroad. It was necessary. It has paved the way for things to be easier in the future. And it’s over (for now).

I think, more than anything else, the uncertainty I experienced during the trip (and the visa process) was the thing that affected me most deeply. But I must learn, especially in Asia, to just move forward and let the processes work the way they work here even if – especially if – I feel uncertain. Things turn out normally for the best. The route is sometimes a little different than expected or planned, but one does generally arrive. Things may work uncertainly but they certainly work. That’s just something I’ll have to get used to in Asia and in Bangkok. That and being able to fall asleep anywhere. But I’ve already started practicing that and can nod off quite easily now in taxis.

Postscript Poem

Written on the return flight, in the air over the Gulf of Thailand:

The gulf

I’m blue as you
coming and going
coming or going
you protect that city
my home
from me
seal me out
          a bit
destined to endless
visa runs and
whatever else it takes
to stay
to cross the gulf
that separates
coming and going
coming or going
The Gulf of Thailand
blue and salty
as am I in this stream
on this ocean
above this gulf
coming home.

("The gulf" 22 September 2007)

Bangkok, 1 October 2007