Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Visa run to Betong

Visa Hassles - March 12, 2011

We're in Betong, the Las Vegas of southern Thailand and former home of Nut, my BTGF. I'm here on a "visa run", a frequent and unavoidable nuisance for foreign travelers in Thailand. We picked this city for a couple of reasons, one sentimental and one practical: Nut lived here for 8 years before moving to Bangkok and hasn't been back for more than 2 years. And coming here by a route she has often used, a route that involves a short traverse through northern Malaysia, offered a chance to leave the country and thus not overstay my visa as well as for Nut to visit a part of Thailand that holds many good friends and memories. We took an overnight train to Hat Yai and then came by minivan here to Betong. I checked out of Thailand, entered Malaysia and then reentered Thailand a few hours later with a new Visa On Arrival (VOA) all in the same day. The visa I obtained in this manner is, unfortunately, only good for 14 days until the 24th of March. Read on if you want to hear my visa rant, otherwise skip down to the Betong heading.

[begin rant...]

One of the many idiosyncrasies in the Thailand visa rules is that if you enter the country by air and do not already have an official Tourist Visa, you are issued what's called a Visa On Arrival which is valid for 30 days. If, however, you enter the country by land your VOA is valid for only 14 days. Why this is so is anybody's guess, especially in a country that depends so heavily upon tourist dollars. I had obtained a "triple entry" Tourist Visa from the Thai embassy in Los Angeles last summer. It entitled me to three 60-day visits. Typically when your first 60-day period is almost up you would make a quick trip outside the country (a visa run), to Laos or Cambodia usually, stay for a day (or a week), or turn around and come back immediately to begin your next 60-day period. If I had been careful with those three visits my Tourist Visa would have allowed me to stay for 6 months as long as I made two exits and re-entries. But when Nut and I left Laos back in mid December to come back to Bangkok we only stayed about a week before going to Cambodia. In this way I more or less wasted one of the entries on the original triple entry visa -- I used only a small portion of the 60 days I was entitled to. I used the last of my three entries to get back into the country after leaving Cambodia. Three weeks later I went to Africa.

Fast forward to February 10. Upon my return from Africa I was only allowed the standard VOA of 30 days. That visa, a VOA by air, expired on March 11th, long before my March 31 departure date. Hence the need to make a visa run and the reason we made this long journey to Betong. In addition, because this new VOA, the VOA by ground I got when we entered Thailand on a bus, is only good through March 24 I must kill at least a week here so that when I cross back into Thailand on the way back the new 14 day VOA will take me up to the 31st. That means we must stay here until the 17th. You might ask, why not just stay longer than your visa allows? Because it's expensive to do that, very expensive.

A friend unintentionally overstayed his visa when he mixed up the "Must be Used Before Date" with the "Valid Until Date" on his 60-day Tourist Visa. He missed his flight home because he couldn't immediately come up with the fine levied at the airport by Thai Immigration: 500 baht for each day he was in Thailand illegally. His fine amounted to a total of about 13,000 baht ($390 USD). If you add to that the $150 re-booking fee charged by his airline, it was a costly oversight.

To make matters worse, I recently learned from my friend Henry that when Nut and I returned to Bangkok from Laos back in December I was not required to use one of those precious 60-day entries. I could have requested a 14-day VOA at that point and saved one of the 60-day visas for my return from Africa. DOH! I didn't know you could do that. My apparently incorrect understanding was that you had to use all the entries on your Tourist Visa  before you could use a VOA to get into the country. None of this is spelled out anywhere. It is stuff learned only through experience.

[end rant]

Betong (March 11-17, 2011)

There's not much going on in Betong to interest the typical falang traveler. I referred to it as the Las Vegas of southern Thailand because it's a travel destination for many well paid Malaysian workers. Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country where drinking alcohol and partying are frowned upon, in fairly sharp contrast to Thailand. Consequently Thailand is considered wide open to the many Muslims who live near the border and Betong attracts droves of these fun seekers. They party in the discos, eat out and get massages, hire willing Thai bargirls for fun and frolic and in the process drive the prices of everything skyward. The modest hotel we're staying at here, the Cathay Hotel (N5.77290 E101.07012), costs 550 baht, about $17 USD, and food seems to cost about double what it does in Bangkok. Nor is the food as much to my liking as that of Bangkok and the northern provinces. The curries and sauces here tend to be Indian influenced and contain some ingredient, as yet unidentified, that offends my sense of taste. We went to a nearby street-side restaurant the other night and the bill for a fried fish, a Heineken, some rice and stir-fried veggies, came to 680 baht. Although the fish in its chili-garlic-citrus sauce was delicious the price would be considered exorbitant in the rest of Thailand. The food commonly available on the street is a mixture of Thai, Muslim, and Chinese. The local Chinese food I've had is bland to the point of tastelessness. Nut however is loving this reintroduction to the food she remembers from her years here.

Betong skyline from our hotel room

Swallows roosting for the night near the Clock Tower
Seeing as we're so much nearer the equator I expected to be uncomfortably hot most of the time but the climate is surprisingly pleasant, quite a bit cooler and rainier than Bangkok. We've been here four days and it's been partly cloudy all day every day with occasional short, intense rain showers. At night it's actually cool enough to make you feel chilly were you aboard a moto. Nut says that's the way the weather here usually is — Betong has no rainy or dry season as up north — it rains almost every day and it's generally cloudy. I'm positively loving this relief from Bangkok's hot and muggy March weather. Nut rented us a small moto for 200 baht a day and we've been going for rides here and there in the surrounding countryside. The area is beautiful — mountainous terrain clothed in cool, verdant forest interspersed with groves of rubber and orange trees. Rubber is the big cash industry here. Rubber workers earn good salaries, sometimes as much as 3000 baht per day ($100 USD), a huge salary in rural Thailand. Most of the rubber in the world is synthetic like the product used for tires but there must be a substantial market for pure gum rubber and latex which is what will be made from this material.

Raw rubber mats
We visited Betong's Winter Flower Garden (N5.88605 E101.02075) on a cloudy day with rain threatening to fall at any minute. It's about 15 miles out of town at an elevation of about 1000 feet. We wandered around shooting pictures on this cool, breezy day, a day that ended up being quite lovely. We got back to town just before the big afternoon downpour.

Relaxing in the shade - Betong Winter Flower Garden

Rain threatens to dampen our outing - it's time to leave
During our last days here we took a couple of random motorcycle rides into the surrounding country just for something to do. I was fascinated by the rubber trees. The method of gathering the sap or milk is similar to the way we collect maple sap for making maple syrup. The rubber tree groves, each tree with its collecting cup attached, also look similar. In the closeup below the cup is positioned so as to not collect anything either because the sap isn't flowing or there's too much rain at the moment. Diluting the milk with rain water renders the collected product less valuable. The trees in the rubber groves in the hilly area around Betong are again reminiscent of New England sugar bushes because most aren't regularly spaced in neat rows nor do they appear to be intensively cultivated.
(Note added 07/22/12 - I recently learned that rubber tress are native to South America. These and all other rubber trees in S.E. Asia were brought here by the British and other colonial powers because rubber was, and remains, a strategically and economically important material.)

This tree bears the marks of many collections

Finally it was time to head back to Bangkok. We had traveled as far as Hat Yai on an overnight train, something I'd always wanted to try. It was both more, and less, than I had expected, especially considering the cost of 1,500 baht (~$45 USD) each. The compartment was tiny even with the upper berth folded up — there was barely room to sit with my legs out in front of me. Of course for most Thais legroom is a non-issue. When the porter came round to set us up for sleeping we found the beds quite comfortable. However, the air-conditioning was set so low as to chill us both to the bone despite the blankets, or that we had donned our socks and long sleeve shirts. Nut, who was in the top berth nearest the cold air outlets, slept fitfully that night. Was there a temperature adjustment in the compartment? Are you serious? I had heard stories about the frigid aircon in those sleepers but I guess I didn't believe they would keep them that cold. Now, I believe. The trip took about 15 hours and, aside from the chilly night, was quite comfy. For our return trip I opted to travel in a  so-called VIP bus. The bus trip is quicker by about 4 hours (go figure), cheaper — 1000 baht vs 1,500 baht  and our only other experience with such a bus, back in October when we made a 9-hour trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, had been good. But first we had to get back to Hat Yai. For 250 baht apiece we booked a minivan to take us there.

Nut with some friends at Cathay Hotel - Betong
The 4-hour trip from Betong in the minivan was dreadful. I swear I will never ride with one of these crazy-ass cowboys again. The drivers are aggressive, drive like they own the road, and are totally unconcerned if the other 12 people in the vehicle live or die. You read about minivan accidents all the time in the Bangkok papers: "Minivan rear ends truck — 8 dead including the driver!"; "Minivan leaves highway at 140 km/hr — driver to blame!" Before overtaking a vehicle these guys pull up to within a few feet of it and stay glued to its bumper until the other driver sees him and pulls over with stark terror in his eyes. Often as not the other vehicle is a small motorcycle carrying a passenger or passengers, frequently children. Do they give a shit? Nope, just business as usual. They'll come to within a few feet of it and just squeeze right by totally unconcerned about any oncoming traffic or whether the bike is being forced off the road. One tiny error in judgment at this critical time could kill or maim several people. In this particular van, the driver had a seat belt (unused of course - he wouldn't want to appear weak or unmanly) but there were none for the passengers. He never hesitated to attempt a pass on curves or hills and NO PASSING  zones meant absolutely nothing to him. The minivan ride going to Betong was bad but this one was downright scary. By keeping silent the Thai passengers, long schooled to keep mum as a matter of politeness, as a point of honer almost, only encourage the continuance of this stupid and reckless behavior. And I, unable to speak Thai, sit in frozen anger waiting for the truck to suddenly appear in our lane, or the moto we're now crowding off the road to spill its occupants out onto the pavement in the path of our wheels. Never again, I swear.

Against all odds we did make it alive to Hat Yai. After buying our bus tickets we booked a hotel room near the terminal and then took dinner at a restaurant Nut remembered. After a nice meal we hit the sack. Next day at 5 pm we left for Bangkok. If you've never seen a Thai VIP bus some of the shots below will introduce you. They're pretty cool. Spotlessly clean and nicely furnished with thick curtains that always work (rule #1: all Thais hate the sun!) they have seating for only 24-32 people in a double-decker configuration allowing plenty of room for everyone.

Interior of upper deck - VIP bus
The view from our lower deck seats - VIP bus interior- Hat Yai
Some might consider the color scheme a bit garish. Thais love vibrant colors and these bus interiors show that. The exteriors are pretty wild too — I love the way the Thais decorate their vehicles. Same for taxis: brilliant colors; hot pinks, bright greens, shades of orange.

We're on our way home - Hat Yai to Bangkok by VIP bus

Bangkok, March 22, 2011

After an 11-hour overnight trip that wasn't nearly as comfortable as I'd hoped we were back in our little place on Soi 4, Samsen Road, where Nut and I will bide our time until the flight that will carry me to Oregon leaves. While it's good to be back in these familiar surroundings I'm also feeling sort of blue. I'll enjoy my months stateside, of course. I'll visit with my family and spend the summer in Alaska with my old and dear friends. But I'll be looking forward to returning next October.

I'm actively trying to buy a used motorcycle in the general neighborhood of Eugene before I leave here. I found a snippet of HTML code somewhere on the net that I modified to search the Craigslists in cities close to Eugene for a Suzuki DL650. I also have several eBay Saved Searches that alert me by email whenever a new DL650 listing appears. It's only a matter of time before a good and workable deal shows up. Buying a bike sight unseen is a tricky situation considering I would be unable to inspect it before I buy nor would it be easy, and maybe not smart, to pay four thousand dollars for a bike without being right there to receive the signed title in my name. Perhaps I'd best wait until I'm at Tuli's to buy it. I'll try to keep you in the loop.