They say things come in threes. I don't know who they are, and I understand confirmation bias. Still, this is the third time I've had to get a visa in as many months, which is two more times than I experienced for all of 2015. You know, when I was traveling full time. I'm supposed to live in Thailand now. What is this topsy-turvy world I've crashed into?
But I digress. I know you're just here to see how I almost got arrested, aren't you? Well... you're in for a treat.
This is not a how-to guide.
The following survival points work well for the Royal Thai Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. They would not have worked at all at the Royal Thai Embassy in Birmingham, England. And I have it on good authority that the experience at the Royal Thai Embassy in Hong Kong is different than those two. Each embassy -- even though they are all Royal Thai Embassies (did you know that's the proper spelling?) -- operates with a completely different set of rules and processes. No, I don't know why this is. It just is. It's what it's, as no one says because even though the contraction is valid it sounds strange. What was I saying about digression? Ah, yes...
Make a vacation of it.
At a minimum, getting a visa from the Royal Thai Embassy in KL is a two day process. You drop off your stack of documents in the morning, and you (hopefully) pick up your passport and visa the following afternoon. I suppose a crazier person than I could look for a super-early arriving flight, but there aren't any "red-eye" flights from Bangkok. That, and I absolutely hate red-eye flights. Doing so before dealing with bureaucracy? Madness.
We flew in late Saturday, giving us time to enjoy a little KL culture (it's quite the melting pot) and all day Sunday to do what we wanted, plus most of the day Monday and all morning on Tuesday. Why did we have the luxury of available time when dealing with an embassy? Because we knew what the hell we were doing. After reading this, you'll be a little closer to our reality.
Stay close, but not too close.
Visions -- nightmares is more apt -- of months before shot through my brain as we searched the area nearby the Royal Thai Embassy on Agoda, Trip Advisor, and Booking.com for accommodations. Save the shithole across the street, there were zero hotels within easy walking distance from the embassy. And by "easy", I mean anything under 500 km, as attempting a further distance in Kuala Lumpur would leave us arriving sweat-stained and reeking of dirty backpacker. There would be plenty of their ilk in attendance soon enough, and we didn't want to put break the quota.
We opted for a hotel just outside Bukit Bintang, not far from the twin towers. Save the uninspiring breakfast, an upstairs neighbor with a penchant for stomping around her hotel room in high heels at 2:00a, and a systemic towel shortage; it put us less than 10 minutes away by car. And smack dab in the middle of a boat-load of Pokémon. Hey, don't judge.
Look nice, not like a stinky backpacker.
There was something off about the dreadlocked backpacker in front of us. It took me a while, but I finally realized she, unlike every other person in line at 9:00am, wasn't clutching a passport and stack of papers. Instead, she already had a queue number and passport pickup receipt. Which was puzzling, as the embassy hadn't yet opened and passport pickup wasn't available until 2:30pm.
"Will they let you pick up your passport early?" I asked, knowing this particular embassy's unwavering dedication for process.
She replied with "I hope so. I dropped it off Monday and sort of forgot to pick it up Tuesday afternoon."
"But today is Monday," I replied.
"I meant last week. And my flight leaves at 11:00 this morning, so here's to hoping!"
I'm sure you are the super with-it backpacker who's ducks are lined up well enough to make North Korean flag wavers jealous. But this all-too-often encountered stereotype is why backpackers are often shunned and sequestered like modern day lepers. Sure, it sounds romantic and bohemian... but it's become an overdone trope and signals exasperation of things to come.
I don't know that anyone has ever been refused service from an embassy for looking like a dirtbag. But I can assure you that this sign is prominently displayed at the embassy in KL. I can't say for certain that you'll be singled out for special scrutiny if you don't show up pleasantly dressed. But would it kill you to wash the Chang t-shirt while you wear a button up and something other than pajamas for two days? I didn't think so. Clean up a bit. Use it as an excuse to send your mom a nice looking selfie. For a change.
Fill out the application in advance.
I've been to this embassy twice now. It's a busy place. Always. Too damned busy to have you filling out forms on the counter like you're filling out a packing slip at the post office. In fact, they may not let you in the embassy without completed forms, as the guard desk is staffed by an official making sure you have all your paperwork before you go in. I saw him turn people turned away, but I can't say for certain why it was. I can say that not having the application form properly filled out wastes your time and the time of those behind you. Just do it, dammit.
It's a checklist, not a list of helpful suggestions.
Sometime in the last six months, a miracle happened. Rather than putting forth minimal effort and bristling at the prospect of change, someone -- we'll call her Fucking Hero -- at the Royal Thai Embassy decided to switch from low-level functionary to highly motivated team member. Using her extensive institutional knowledge, F.H. assembled a helpful checklist of items required to make her job easier. She then took the unusual step of making the document not only publicly available, but a required document itself. That means it was no longer list of things to check, mind you. But an actual, put-a-tick-mark-here-and-sign-the-damned-thing checklist. And all was right in the world. Well, on this street corner in Kuala Lumpur, at least.
Now use the damned thing. Print it out. Sign it. And assemble the asked-for forms and documents in the order they appear on the checklist, affixed with a handy paperclip. You'll be in and out faster. As will everyone else behind you. So please, just in case it's me behind you next time?
Copies mean actual, physical copies.
There's always one asshat who's completely pissed by the whole process. This time it was Dude-It's-Not-The-80s-Put-Your-Polo-Collar-Down (we'll call him "Dude" for short) hell-bent on not providing a copy -- as in a photocopy -- of his passport. "I'm leaving my passport with you until tomorrow. Why do you need a copy? Can you just make a copy?"
If ever there's a way to increase your risk of not getting your visa application approved, it's pointing out the inefficiencies of the system to someone also trapped in the system but getting a paycheck from the system. It didn't work for Dude -- he was turned out to find someplace to make the photocopy -- and it won't work for you.
Pay in exact change.
As of this writing, the cost to apply for a visa 150 RM, or about $37.50. Yes, you have to pay upon application, not receipt. No, you don't get your money back if your application is turned down, which likely won't happen unless you've been a bad traveler somewhere else. Yes, you'll need to pay in Malaysian money. No, they don't take credit cards. And no, they don't have an ATM you can use. Bring money. And make sure the bills aren't damaged. Malaysian money is plastic, but a shitty plastic that forms creases and wrinkles. One of my 10RM notes ($2.50) had a burn mark that some helpful person taped over with Scotch tape. Nope. That was unacceptable. The embassy person didn't care for the creases, either, but finally accepted them with only the hint of a scowl. Don't push your luck. Bring nice, new money, please.
Uber is your friend.
I'm developing quite the hate/hate relationship with Uber in Bangkok. Fortunately, drivers in KL aren't quite as averse to technology and seem quite able to follow the directions to the little blue dot that represents where I'm standing.
You may be tempted to take pubic transportation, like the monorail, to get to the Royal Thai Embassy. Yes, the monorail looks close on a map, but I assure you it is not. And since this is Kuala Lumpur, you'll be hot and sweaty (like a backpacker) when you arrive from your hike. Be smart. Uber it. Or take a taxi. I like Uber. They always have air conditioning. Which you'll need. See: Kuala Lumpur.
Show up extra early
By the time the gate opened at 9:30, there were over 100 people waiting in line with us. We, being smart and arrived early, had only 15 happy people in front of us. The level of happiness, however, was indirectly proportionate to queue number, if rumblings and exasperated sighs from behind us were any indication. And for good reason. The office only accepts visa applications during a two-hour window. After that, it's come back tomorrow. Hence our rationale for showing up about an hour early. Did I mention we're smart?
Don't get pissed when Thais go first.
I thought the apoplexy was going to do the guy in. It was obvious he was quite proud of his "FIRSTS!" line position, never wavering from the spot for a moment save the occasional turn of the head to sneer at us poor slobs who clearly weren't as on top of our games. So when the Thai Embassy personnel started combing the line a few minutes before opening time to pull Thai nationals out of line and in a brand new line in front of him, he was displeased.
Short lesson: Citizens of the country of the embassy always get special treatment. Birthright doth have its privileges. You'll find that handy when you're visiting your own country's embassy when you're abroad. Don't forget like this guy did.
Fly out late.
Picking up your passport from the Royal Thai Embassy couldn't be easier. Because we showed up just a few minutes before 2:30p the next day, we were stuck way in the back of the line, behind at least 70 other people all waiting for the same thing. But the functionaries inside the embassy Part 2 down to a science, and we were back in an Uber a half an hour later.
It was a quick 30 minute ride to KL Sentra, even with moderate mid-afternoon traffic. 15 minutes later we were on our KLIA Express train, which pulled into the airport about 30 minutes after that. Our flight wasn't until 6:30, but I had baked in time to deal with the incredibly inefficient Malaysian immigration. Why getting out of this country is much harder than getting in, I have no idea.
So color me shocked when we found plenty of free agents to check us out of the country. Maybe they've gotten their shit together? Or more likely, not all that many people leave the country at 4:00 on a Tuesday afternoon. I'd almost be tempted to book sooner next time, but then I remember this is Malaysia we're talking about. Nah, I'll stick with my late departure, thanks all the same.
The moral of the story,
Well... there isn't one. But I couldn't miss a chance to write another thrilling tale about dealing with visas and embassies. It almost makes me miss the whirlwind travel we went through last year.
No, on second thought, I kinda like writing this from the desk of my hi-so condo in Bangkok rather than hoping my laptop doesn't get crunched when the guy in front of me pretends his airline seat is a barcalounger. Plus, there's beer in my refrigerator.