Amazing Bureaucracy

August 6, 2001

My first experience with Thai bureaucracy involved my dog and I. We both landed in Bangkok after a thirteen-hour flight. My canine companion was dropped off near the luggage belt, groggy but fine. I headed off to immigration officers and presented my dog’s paperwork. They told me I had to speak with the airport veterinarian. Not as easy as one might think. I followed a security guard around looking for him for over one hour.

Eventually they told me to wait at his office. Wait I did. Finally a short, heavy, smiling man arrived. He said, “What dog is your dog?” and pointed to a poster illustrating a few breeds. Yikes. My dog definitely was not represented. I panicked, pointed to a kind of hunting dog, smiled and handed in my paperwork. I was told to sit down and wait. Sit I did. He filled out form after form after form after form and after using stamp after stamp said, “Please sign here. 1,500 baht please.” I received a piece of paper, found my way back to my pooch, showed my new060801k1.jpg document to the guards, and wheeled her out of there. This was only a warm-up game for things to come.

If you plan to work or live in Thailand for any length of time, arm yourself with a large pile of passport photos of every size, shape and colour. Find your local photocopier and make friends with it and hope for the best. What it all comes down to in the end is paperwork, legwork, cash, and more paperwork.

When I use my Thai Visa card I actually earn points that can be cashed in for different objects offered in the ‘redeem your points’ catalogue. Sounded easy enough. I chose a gym bag and a bottle of wine and waited by my mailbox. Nothing ever came. It turns out that the wine had to be picked up at the main office. If you are a foreigner, your entire passport had to be photocopied and turned in with your claim. The bag would be mailed eventually and could not be picked up together with the wine. I went through with the whole painful procedure, more for spite than for060801k2.jpg the goods.

Trying to conduct interviews for Kat’s Window can also throw me into a major bureaucratic tangle. The reason why I spend so much time interviewing people on the street and not talking to people inside a company is due to amazing bureaucracy and not some prejudice on my part.

I have tried to get into an orphanage, a public school, a museum, and a supermarket, to no avail. The first person I talk to usually becomes either confused or suspicious. They find their supervisor. I repeat the story. The supervisor finds their supervisor. And I repeat the story again.

At the end of two- to four-hour run around I am told something to the effect of, “Please submit a formal request to the president/chairman/owner requesting permission to do so.” I inevitably walk away. The only way to really get in is to know someone inside the ‘machine’ who will pull a string or make a call. Actually knowing whom to call is the absolute best and most efficient way of getting most060801k3.jpg things done in Thailand.

When a colleague of mine recently reported a totally out-of-whack phone bill he’d received to a group of friends, the first question was, “Well, do any of us know someone who works at the phone company?” The answer was no. A collective sigh sounded around the room. It was going to be tricky to get this sorted out indeed.

Forget about the paperless office. Even when parking your car in Thailand you receive an oversized official-looking piece of paper that needs to get an equally impressive stamp on it if you want to exit the lot for free.

Oddly enough, don’t assume that all of the bureaucracy will let things just slip through the cracks. Despite of the piles of paper everywhere, it is rare to not be billed for something or to have Thai immigration not notice that you have overstayed your visa. And it’s tricky to talk your way out of much, especially if you don’t have the right connections. Thai bureaucracy is to be taken seriously.

A Thai man I know is soon to leave his country for the first time. He is a professional homebody and a very earnest guy. This is a huge event in his life. He plans to head to Malaysia and has already received his immigration form for when he reenters his country. The questions on it left him terrified. First time in Thailand? Length of stay? Purpose of trip? There is no box to check that says, “I’m Thai. I live in Thailand.” He’s scared to give the wrong answer and create a mess. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he cancels the journey.

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