The Adventures of Tom: August 2014

I can’t believe that when I look at my passport the words “Oh, to be an American” sometimes pop into my brain.

By | Fri 1 Aug 2014

The laziest way to write is to choose a subject and then spend 800 words slagging it off. This sort of text is the stuff that pays the mortgages of tabloid journalists, and it’s abhorrent. Unfortunately, my dear reader, it’s exactly what I am choosing to do in this month’s column. I don’t want to. I’d like to be writing about motorbikes and mountain roads, iced coffee and sunsets over Doi Suthep, my imaginary cat named Puddles or that adorable snowman thing whose head keeps falling off in Disney’s Frozen.

But alas, I can’t, because it’s sitting in front of me like the little pointless purple bastard it is – my passport. It’s not that I actually hate my passport; it’s not a bad looking little book and it has pictures of pretty birds in it. It’s just that it represents an insane level of absurd bureaucracy that has had me leap out of bed in the middle of the night because I think I’ve missed an immigration appointment.

I know this is not exactly news to most of you who have lived here for a while. Chiang Mai immigration, visa runs and the realisation that you don’t have quite as many blank pages as you thought are a pain-in-the-arse part of all our lives (although Chiang Mai Immigration is much less of a pain-in-the-arse than it used to be). But is all the palaver and paperwork really necessary? Well, according to breaking news we can all breathe a sigh of relief because all that visa run nonsense is a thing of the past. In their wisdom the powers that be are no longer allowing those who cross the border by land back into Thailand on a tourist visa, so that is one less thing for we visitors to the Land of Smiles to worry about! In fact, as things stand all sorts of palaver and paperwork could be a thing of the past as many of us will have little choice but to move home – or to Cambodia. Cambodia doesn’t seem to give a monkey’s who comes to hang out for a while. But then again this is Thailand, and in Thailand the rules change as often as most of us care to change our underwear, so by next week, everything could be different.

The first thing that irritates me is I’m required to have a passport. It’s the law. However, the buggers are almost impossible to get hold of if you are not in the UK and are quite bloody expensive. I had a quick look on the various chat-forums to see how the new system of going to Bangkok and having all applications for UK passports sent back to Britain for processing is shaping up. If you are planning to apply for a new passport, or are having problems with your current passport or visa, stay away from the chat-rooms. The stories are not pretty. However, I think it’s fair to say that one cannot really claim to have lived in Thailand until one has bollocked up with their passport or visa at least once.

I can’t believe that when I look at my passport the words “Oh, to be an American” sometimes pop into my brain.

Which brings me to the photo. Get this wrong in even the most miniscule way and you can expect a C-minus for effort and all your paperwork to go to the bottom of the pile. There is no way for anyone who follows all those instructions on the UK Government website about how to take the perfect passport portrait not to look at least a little bit like a depressed murdering pedophile rapist. Why can’t one smile in the photo? What on earth difference does that make?

And it’s a book. With pages in it. A book! Who has books anymore? Shouldn’t it have at least evolved into a laminated photo ID with a chip in it by now?

My passport has a chip in it, although I have no idea why. In fact just stick a chip in my earlobe and have done with it. Earlobe scanners, that’s what we need. I’m aware that many borders may not have the technology to deal with anything more complicated than a book filled with rubber stamps, but I’m not interested in important details like that interrupting my rant. So yes, stick a chip in my earlobe.

One of the arguments against my rather super chip idea seems to be that “they” would be able to tell where one is and what one is up to at all times. Other than the rather odd paranoid assumption that “they” actually give a toss, doesn’t the ubiquity of the smartphone make this argument redundant? I read a while ago about a criminal hiding out in Thailand who brilliantly failed to avoid not being captured by the police (see what I did there?). It was not because of any clever detective work, but because the genius selfied himself on Facebook having a high old time on a rather recognisable beach. I do understand the whole Big Brother problem with my chip-in-the-earlobe idea, but like captain clever criminal here, are we not revealing to “them” most things we might not want “them” to know every time we turn on a phone, tablet or laptop? Just imagine how brilliant it would be to do visa extensions or 90-day check-ins at an ATM. A quick rub of one’s earlobe on a cash machine and bingo, all sorted. I’m pretty sure Thai immigration is more than technologically up to speed to deal with that sort of thing.

And just look at all those stamps – Thailand, Laos, Burma and Cambodia. That’s got to scream drug mule or sex trafficker to any border official outside Southeast Asia. If I was security at Heathrow I’d bloody well strip search me and think it perfectly justifiable to do so. Sorry Thailand, Laos, Burma and Cambodia; you are gorgeous countries, but you do have a bit of a reputation (as does UK Immigration).

I will say that I’ve had some merry old adventures while off on a visa run. If it wasn’t for my passport I never would have been robbed by two ladyboys in Laos after accepting a lift on their motorcycle. Not the greatest adventure, I admit, but an adventure all the same that taught me a few valuable life lessons: not only that too much Beer Laos can spell trouble in Vientiane, but also that people can be extraordinarily kind and generous to idiots who get themselves into a bit of a fix. There is nothing nicer than the moment one realises one will not have to walk from Laos to Chiang Mai.

And I can still remember my first border run to Burma. I was extremely excited about it. The country was on the verge of democracy with Aung San Suu Kyi leading the revolution against decades of violent repression by the military junta. The reality of being offered fake Viagra and sex with small boys in Tachilek was admittedly not quite what I was expecting, but it was Burma, a country that has been an almost mythical place in my imagination ever since I was a boy, and somewhere I got to briefly visit on numerous occasions all because I needed a stamp in my passport.

Right, hold that press. I’ve just been invited to spend the weekend away by someone lovely whom I would never have met had she not been on a visa run from Rangoon to Chiang Mai. Ignore all the above, passports and overblown bureaucracy are brilliant.