Thailand is not known for being the most organised country in the world and this coupled with their motto ‘mai pen rai‘ which loosely translates to ‘no problem‘, ‘never mind‘ or ‘don’t worry‘ means that most foreigners are left seething when things go wrong, aren’t ready or haven’t received the service they are accustomed to in the west. Firstly and most importantly, this ISN’T the west. Once you get that clear, you can stop comparing and things will become easier to accept, although this is easier said than done…
Here is a story (read: rant) in five parts to illustrate this point. As much as I love life here, the beaches the sunsets, the palm trees and the cocktails and food, sometimes it isn’t all about paradise.
Grab a coffee and sit back, it’s a long one…
To work in Thailand, you need a work permit which requires killing millions of trees. You also need hundreds of photos and various letters from your employer. When I first applied for the permit, each time I went to work to collect the documents (and secretly mourned the trees), I was told, “Something is probably missing.” When I asked the obvious question which involved something about a checklist to ensure nothing was missing, my boss smiled at me like I was short of a few brain cells and said, “This is Thailand, they change it every time we submit the same application.” Mai pen rai.
Story 2 – Friday
So eventually I get my work permit which is valid for a year but because I’ve had to exit the country to get the special visa required BEFORE this, immigration have issued a 3 month visa so when those 3 months were up, I had to apply for an extension which would hopefully last as long as the work permit. I took the reams of paper to the immigration office, which is on the far side of the island. I arrived at 11:49. The lady greeted me, smiled and said, “Can you come back at 13:00, we are closed from 12:00 – 13:00 for lunch.”
I pointed at my watch and informed her that 12:00 was still 11 minutes in the future. She frowned and I realised that was the wrong answer. I sighed and smiled.
“No problem. I will get some lunch and come back at 13:00, yes?”
She smiled a huge smile and answered, “Yes, we eat lunch too.”
Great – an hour wasted. Never get in the way of a Thai and their lunch break (and the 15 minutes window either side of that time). Next time I need to check their opening hours. Luckily the German coffee shop over the road does a good schnitzel and iced coffee. Mai pen rai.
Story 3 – Friday cont.
I waited an extra 15 minutes after lunch just in case. I walked in to find two people in front of me (well, not including the 10 people already sitting and waiting) and I wasn’t entirely sure which direction the queue (if you could call it that) was moving in because people just seemed to be approaching the counter in a weird random manner.
The lady saw me and smiled.
“Good,” I thought to myself, “she’s had a good lunch.”
I waited patiently for the two people in front of me to finish glueing their photos onto their forms and finally, it was my turn. I handed her the pile of papers and she looked at me and said, “You need to go to back office.”
Why she couldn’t tell me that when she first saw me, I have no idea. Another ten minutes wasted. Mai pen rai.
So I walked in the general direction she had pointed and arrived in a small room with HUGE piles of paper all over, similar to the ones I was holding so I decided I was in the right place. Two immigration ladies were chatting so I said hello. They glanced my way, said hello back and then continued talking. I waited.
After a while, the one lady turned around and started to enter info onto her computer and the other one pulled out her phone and started checking her Facebook.
“Keep calm, mai pen rai!!” I started chanting in my head… a lot!
After around 10 minutes of me standing there like a tree-killing muppet and coughing every now and again to make sure they hadn’t forgotten me, they gestured to a chair and I sat down.
One lady still typed, the other still checked Facebook. Oh well, if you can’t beat them…. So I pulled out my phone and started checking MY Facebook. It’s now after 2pm.
Suddenly a couple and a small child walk in, passed me and started talking to the lady at the computer and immediately she started helping them.
In my head “Mai pen rai, mai pen rai.”
20 minutes later she had sent them away telling them they needed a letter from a doctor at a hospital not a clinic. They expressed their frustration openly and stormed out.
Then Computer lady and Facebook lady proceeded to chat for the next 15 minutes, I’m assuming about the differences between a hospital doctor and a clinic doctor.
Finally, after 2:45pm, computer lady looked over at me and said just one word. “Yes?”
Mai pen rai, Mai pen rai.
I smiled and handed her my huge pile of paperwork, she grimaced, rolled her eyes and said, “Mai ow!!” to Facebook lady. Luckily I knew this translated roughly to “Don’t want”. Before I’d even had a chance to think, I smiled, pointed to the paperwork and said with a huge smile, “Ow, ow, ka!” which means “Want, want.”
She looked up at me and it occurred to me that I knew nothing about how her day was going. I smiled again and told her I was sorry I was giving her extra work on a Friday. She smiled back and I knew everything was going to be okay (or so I thought).
I spent the next forty minutes catching up with my writing assignments while she went through the papers checking each and every single sheet. Eventually she called me over to Facebook lady’s chair and gave me the news. On each page where the owner of the company that I work for, had signed, the spacing between their signatures didn’t match her rubber stamp.
I stared at her, not quite sure I understood. But it really was that simple. She had a stamp which had dotted lines for signatures. They have signed their signatures too far apart and when she stamped the papers, the signatures didn’t appear on the dotted lines.
I stared again. I was almost expecting her to burst out laughing and say, “Ha! Had you going there, didn’t I?” But she didn’t. She was completely serious.
I felt a overwhelming urge to burst out laughing but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to stop. So I did the only thing I could think of. I smiled and said, “Mai pen rai. I will come back on Monday okay?”
“Yes, I will give you a list of what we need with my phone number if you need your Thai staff to call me to check anything.” That was kind of nice.
I smiled, she smiled, Facebook lady was back and she smiled. Everyone was happy. I thanked her and walked out, now after 3:45pm and then proceeded to have a fit of the giggles as soon as I reached my bike, much to the amusement of the waiting taxi beside me. Mai pen rai.
Story 4 – Monday
On Sunday evening, I had photographed the list and emailed it to my office to prepare them for whatever it was they needed to prepare. On Monday morning, I went to the office, asked if they’d received the email, waited for ten minutes while they did what they needed to do and then I headed back to the immigration office, this time arriving at 11:15 hoping lunch wouldn’t be extended by too much this time.
I went back to the same office that I sat in on Friday to find it empty. After ten minutes, the lady appeared, I greeted her, she nodded and then sat down and…ignored me.
What followed for the next hour tested my patience to the limit. She worked on her computer, went through her paperwork, tidied her desk which involved collecting paper clips from around the office and stacking her pens neatly, checked her Facebook and then started processing the short stay visas. I went from sitting patiently, to staring openly at her, not caring in the slightest if she saw how utterly irritated I was. I’d had to cancel an early afternoon meeting too which will now throw my writing schedule out of kilter so I really wasn’t happy. Mai pen rai, right?
Eventually at 12:15, she sat back and said, “Excuse me Madam, we are closed for lunch, you come back after 1.”
I would love to write here EXACTLY what went through my head but I honestly don’t want my blog to come up in the wrong places on the internet. Instead, I did the only thing I could do, I mumbled something about, “mai pen rai” and headed out. Actually I think I did drop my head into my lap first and groan to which she responded, “Sorry.” I was too angry to try and spot the sincerity. An hour wasted sitting waiting, now another hour will be wasted waiting for their lunch break.
After lunch, I was ignored for another hour and a half after which she sighed and gestured for my papers. She then sighed again and told me that whatever she wrote on her little list hadn’t actually been done. “I gave you my number so your staff can call if you have problem, why didn’t you call?”
I have no idea why my office didn’t call, I just assumed that they’d understood what was required. We called my office together and the immigration officer explained what was required. I was seething. I now had to drive 40 minutes back to the office, cancel another appointment and get the paperwork adjusted AGAIN.
MAI PEN RAI, MAI PEN RAI.
I was so angry when I left the immigration office, I had to control how I rode my bike. I was furious at the stupid process, furious that the lady at the office didn’t actually do what the immigration had asked, I was furious that I had wasted a day and not got any work done because I’d had to cancel appointments, I was furious that I’d had to cancel 3 English lessons and forfeit 1900B (which ironically was the cost of the extension) and I was just furious at Thailand.
I drove to the office, handed the paperwork back and explained AGAIN what was required saying I wanted to take the paperwork home THAT night so I could be at immigration first thing the next morning because I was tired of wasting all this time. But alas, one of the people who needed to sign wasn’t there so I had to go back to the office at 9:00 the following morning instead of reporting at immigration at 08:30 like I’d planned. I was so angry, I threatened to drink an entire bottle of whiskey but later settled for two cocktails and spent the evening trying to calm down.
MAI PEN #%€@* RAI, MAI PEN #%€@* RAI.
I spent most of the night thinking about the fact that the Thais are quite happy without us foreigners here and don’t actually give two hoots about what you’re doing here whether it’s encouraging tourists to visit therefore bringing more money into the country, or whether you’re bumming on the beach sampling the local drug trade. Their customer service skills are shocking and downright rude to say the least and a visit to any government office needs to be accompanied by at least three Valium or two joints, none of which I partake in, hence this frustrated blog post.
Story 5 – Tuesday
After crazy dreams involving paper, matches, petrol and Valium along with mourning ceremonies for trees, I was up early. I drove the 20 minutes to the office to collect the paperwork and got subjected to the good-natured teasing from two of my bosses who have managed to endure this for many years and are still able to smile. I then drove for 40 minutes to the immigration office. I walked straight through to the office that I’d grown to love (not) and sat down.
For various reasons that will forever be unknown to me, I was dealt with within an hour. With a slight grimace, she took my papers, checked, rechecked, and checked again and then proceeded to decorate them with different coloured rubber stamps. Then she told me that they had extended my visa for a month while the main extension got processed.
If I told you that I nearly jumped over the desk and hugged her, would you believe me? I thanked her profusely, bowed, wai’ed and thanked her again and then got the hell out of there before she found something else wrong. Now I have to wait while they process a year visa extension which involves going back for monthly visa extensions until it’s processed. Luckily it doesn’t incur additional costs each time I go back.
I know we all joke about “This is Thailand” and yes, it is, but it doesn’t make dealing with things like this any easier. It IS challenging and it IS hard and often it feels like a waste of time but, if you want to work in this country, it’s a necessary process so we have to simply grin and bear it. I’m sure that dealing with government departments are a challenge in any country.
Alternatively, get it done, order another round of cocktails and then sit back, smile and say,
“Mai pen bloody rai.“