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Here in Thailand, it's all about India (so far)

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It just wouldn’t be a regular day for the Rymans on the road if there weren’t a few near misses and tense moments, would it?

So let’s recap…we left Bali shortly after a four-hour blackout and just one day before a moderately powerful earthquake caused panic and injuries across the island, though no fatalities that I know of. We had just left Singapore when another earthquake centred in Indonesia was felt there, though it caused no damage. We were on the east coast of Malaysia when the country issued a tsunami warning for the west coast due to the massive earthquake in Padang, Indonesia. We were still there, swinging in our hammocks in the Perhentian islands, when we got pummelled by the tail end of Typhoon Ketsana, which toppled trees and crushed bungalows at our resort and neighbouring ones. Then just as we were about to get out of Malaysia today, a terrorist threat: as I was waiting to board our flight from Penang to Bangkok this morning, I opened up the newspaper and read that Malaysia was advising its citizens not to panic despite a threat from Indonesian terrorists planning to take action against the country today for some series of perceived injustices.

The drama should have ended there, but we boarded and landed (uneventfully) in Bangkok with a pressing mission: we had to present ourselves at the visa processing centre for the Indian embassy by 3 p.m. That’s because unlike every other country on our itinerary, India doesn’t just hand out tourist visas at the airport: you have to apply for them well in advance via a process almost as onerous as obtaining a Canadian passport. The deadline to submit applications is 3 p.m. daily, and it takes five working days to process applications for foreigners. We looked at a calendar and counted the days: if we got our applications in today, October 8, the soonest we could possibly get them back would be October 14 at 4 p.m. We have to be on a train to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand by 7 p.m. that same evening so that we can arrive there the same day as Mark’s mom, who is meeting us there after a marathon flight from Canada.

So it was Indian embassy or bust, and the difficulty of our mission became apparent as soon as we wedged ourselves into an airport taxi: it was already 12:15 p.m. as we pulled away from the airport, and it was going to take over an hour to reach our hotel here in Banglamphu because of the shocking Bangkok traffic. We would have to check in, drop off our bags, get our bearings and get right back out and into another cab bound for a different part of town that would take yet another hour to get to. On top of this, both kids—whom we had awakened at 6:30 this morning (after a late night) to catch our flight—were exhausted, tired of driving, starving, and thirsty.

We made a compromise: they could have a five-minute swim here at our hotel’s rooftop pool, and then we would all have to pile back into a cab again. Deal, they said.

So it was already 1:45 p.m. when we were back on the street flagging down a cab and trying to explain to the driver where we wanted to go. There was one problem: I didn’t have the address. I’d forgotten it in a notebook in my backpack at the hotel. I did know where it was on a map, though, so I kept pointing to and mispronouncing nearby Thai street names. I don’t know how many times I said, “Sukhumvit?” (a major artery)—it felt like a dozen—but the driver just kept looking at me like I was speaking Swahili. Using two different maps and recognizing the odd landmark building here and there, I was eventually able to communicate where we wanted to go despite apparently butchering the Thai language in the process.

We’d been stuck in traffic for about 20 minutes, and it was 2:20 p.m., when it suddenly dawned on me that I’d forgotten all of our visa photos back at the hotel room.

NOOOOOOOOOOOO…..Mark wondered if he should jump out and run back to get them, then meet up with us. But there was no way he had time for that. Then we considered abandoning our entire plan and asking the driver to just turn around. I wasn’t a fan of that plan since it meant sure defeat—and it would also mean returning to Bangkok some other time for another week to try this whole thing all over again, and that’s just not on our itinerary. I figured we were halfway there and after all, this is Asia: there would probably be some kind of photo service available for an exorbitant extra fee for disorganized people just like us. So on we went.

We finally arrived at 2:45 p.m. In my haste to rush us in before the deadline, I nearly plowed right by the security guard on the main floor, who wanted all four of us to sign in with passport numbers. Finally, we all piled into the elevator and got out at the 15th floor, only to be greeted by another security checkpoint where we had to state the purpose of our visit (after waiting behind several other people) and then be checked for weapons on our way in. We were given reams of paperwork to fill out—three pages worth of forms for each of the four of us—and we needed to obtain several photocopies of each of our passports as well as two photos. Sure enough, there was a photo booth right there in the visa office, where we got the requisite number of photos for a whopping 1,000 baht. Nonetheless, it was a tall order given that we had less than 15 minutes left.

We were told that we couldn’t get a number and get in line to submit our applications until we had all our paperwork completed, so we worked like mad things for nearly an hour, just hoping they would take the applications anyway--and completely ignoring the starving, thirsty, exhausted children, who at this point were probably even too weak and confused to fight. They eventually helped themselves to some water at the cooler and found seats somewhere in the waiting room. It was about 3:30 p.m. when we were finally ready—but the woman who’d been organizing the queue had departed. In a state of desperation, I buttonholed the first sari-clad woman who exited a door marked “Staff” and asked her what we should do next. She said she had no idea, but the man coming along behind her might know. So I asked him, and he said cheerfully, “Oh, I think it’s too late; applications close by 3 p.m.” I gave him the biggest, saddest doe eyes that I know how to make (I’m not very good at that sort of thing, but it must have helped that my desperation was actually sincere) and explained that I really had arrived before the deadline but had filled out forms for four people because of my children, and so on, and so on…so he asked me to follow him outside the office, back to the security area, where he instructed someone out there to issue me a number.

Long story short, after a great deal of stress and suspense, the office did accept our applications and we’re to show up again on October 14 at 4 p.m. to collect our passports with the visas inside them. (That should be another interesting day, since our train north leaves at 7 p.m.) Besides all the work involved in obtaining them, the cost was crazy. On top of the 1,000 baht for the photos, the visa processing fee was 1,450 baht or so, and the visas themselves cost more than 8,000 baht. (I can’t do the math just now but there are 33 baht to the dollar, approximately—all told, far more per visa than we’re paying to go anywhere else.)

And the embassy has this comforting little message for anyone daring enough to book a ticket to India before getting the go-ahead (I saw this written on several signs posted around the office): “Please note that the Embassy of India reserves the right to delay/refuse the visa without stating any reason and the fees once paid are not returned under any circumstance.” The posters go on to recommend that applicants refrain from booking any tickets until after they have their visas in hand. This is so perfectly, quintessentially Indian that you just have to laugh. We did look at each other and ask: Why are we going there again, again??

When we finally stumbled out of the building, we headed straight across the street for some ridiculously expensive pizza and beer, the first food or drink we’d had, or given the kids, in over eight hours. Then we got another cab back to our hotel district...after a few tries. When we flagged down a first taxi and I opened the door and said, "Khao San Road?" the driver, who was wearing earphones, just chuckled at me like this was the most ludicrous suggestion he'd ever heard, and waved his hands dramatically at me while continuing to giggle, saying, "No no no no no no no!" Okay...We did finally find a driver willing to take us. We got in and he immediately cranked up the Elton John. Yes, it has been a strange day! Time spent in airports and planes: 4 hours. Time spent in cabs: 3 hours. Time spent in suspenseful queues: 2 hours. Whew.

And as for Bangkok? Admittedly, we haven’t seen very much of it yet--mostly just the insides of taxis. We hope to get a more leisurely start to the day tomorrow, although we do have some errands to run: a visit to the post office, some shopping, a phone call or two and a trip to the train station to book our tickets to Chiang Mai on October 14, in flagrant, optimistic disregard of the Indian embassy’s warning.

Posted by The Rymans 08:50 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel

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Patti!! Whew!! I am a bit stressed myself after reading that. What a day. I am amazed that your children did not completely melt down - kudos to them for knowing they really really needed to hold it together for you there. I hope the rest of your time there is less eventful. Enjoy! And Happy Thanksgiving, my friend.

by Corinne

Gotta love Asia!!! Bangkok traffic is a killer. Tip for pick-up = go to station and drop bags at station left luggage for the afternoon rather than lugging them through the embassy. That way you can head straight there if it takes a while to pick up passports. Left luggage is fine and cheap esp. for a couple of hours - we left Chris' dive gear there when we went to Laos for a whole week!
Have fun in BKK!! love CRFS xxxx


AWESOME! I am again speechless reading about your travels. If it was just you and Mark, that is one thing... but, with two kids... amazing.

by Tricia

You are so incredibly brave! My heart was pounding reading this story. As you may recall, we are on a year of family travel abroad, but ours seems ridiculously easy by comparison. Take care and good for you! I am going to share the link to this post in a Lonely Planet forum I moderate, about Long-Term Family Travel and Sabbatical, http://www.lonelyplanet.com/groups/long-term-family-travel, because your family travel is so impressive. I admire your resiliency and adventure.
Best of luck to you,
Sarah (away-together.com)

by Sarah

Ahh Sarah - lulled into a false sense of security!! In a year you'll have at least one heart pounding moment. We had a typhoon and flooding in Vietnam and got ripped off in Thailand but it was all nothing compared to our friends' experience in China: http://ourbigworldtrip.travellerspoint.com/29/ Check it out!!


Happy Thanksgiving! Let's hope your day is more relaxing than the one you just described!


by Natalie Ramsden

Hello everyone and thanks for the comments and TDay wishes! Sarah, glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for linking to it. Things have improved since this first crazy day, but not by much: Bangkok is just difficult (expensive, crowded, congested, and getting anywhere interesting is so time-consuming with all the traffic that it's hard to get motivated to get out and see the city). But we're off again in just another day. Enjoy the turkey, Corinne and Natalie!

by The Rymans

Rachel again: Thanks for that link to Jen's blog, I had not read that entry and it's a classic!!! There's another great one I've read but I can't find the link, maybe you know it...it was another family's blog and the page was about getting on the wrong train in India. Well, it was the right train on the wrong night and the whole family got kicked off by the conductor at an unfamiliar station in the middle of the night. I'd love to read that one again but can't recall where I saw it. The things that go wrong....!

by The Rymans

Oooh I haven't read that one - let me know if you find it!! Sent you an email re:Laos...
R xx


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