Sunday, April 29, 2012

Long Walk Off a Short Pier

My visa ran out last week.  Thailand's rules are at best convoluted, and at worst, arbitrary.  Reading how to extend my visa is like trying to keep up with the latest version of Windows.  Several sources are out there starting with Thai immigration, moving to such websites as Thai Visa,, and several blogs in numerous languages.  Being the auditor that I am, I tried following what I needed to do and found that each source contradicts the other.  My visa was good for 90 days with the hope that I would be able to walk into a teaching job and get it extended to one year.
"Roy, you are taking this TEFL course at the best of all times," I was told enthusiastically by the school owner.  School would be out for summer vacation starting in March and get back after Songkran on April 13.   That is almost true just as it is true that Christmas is after April 13, sooner or later.  The whole story is that school goes back to session May 15 and no one even wanted to talk to me until the end of April, that is, right about now.  Unfortunately, my visa ran out and I needed to fix it or leave.

There are several options available, each with its convoluted requirements, starting with the first and simplest, the tourist visa.  Anyone coming to Thailand from the US is automatically granted a 30 day visa.  Most other countries give us 90 days or more, but Thailand seems to have a steady flow of income from idiots like myself who find themselves at the end of their time too soon.  My visa is a non-immigrant visa, of which there are two types.  The first is a single entry 90 day visa which is what I had.  The second is a multiple entry that allows me a year without renewal.  Such a visa has to come from either a job or my own business.  Oh, but that business must be owned by 51% Thais with two Thai owners, blah blah blah.
Then again I could get a marriage visa.  For that I need to show that I have had an income of 40,000 baht each month which could amount to putting 40k in my wife's bank account and transferring it back to mine, then the next month sending it back to her's and then back to mine.  Are you keeping track of all this?  I didn't know these rules and didn't care at the time I got here since I was convinced I would be working.
To renew my visa I have to leave the country, get my passport stamped going out and coming back in, and then begging Thai immigration to give me at least 30 days.  The closest place to go is Myanmar to the north, a five hour bus ride.  We wanted to keep Nee employed, so we flew a friend up from Bangkok who would accompany me to the Thai border and see if she could talk some sense into the guard.  We were headed to Mae Sai in Thailand to the Myanmar border.

The ride was dull with only the excitement of the occasional roadside rest and the 3 baht pee.  Again, these were the filthiest toilets I had seen making me wonder where the 3 baht was spent.
A rest stop on the road to Mae Sai
Once there, I had to cross the border.

The Gate to Myanmar
The above picture is the clean side, Thailand.  Crossing over, my friend was forced to stand outside behind a dirty red curtain, while the border guards took my passport.  In his official and intimidating voice, he pointed back and said, "Back there Thailand.  Over here, Myanmar.  You can leave now, stay a few minutes or stay 90 days.  Up to you."  He took 500 baht and kept my passport. 

I figured I may never come back this way, so I asked my friend to join me as I walked into the market, perhaps to find some food.  As we stepped down the steps, we were greeted by two guys wearing boxes slung in front of them filled with cigarettes, knives and Viagra. 
"You want to buy?" they asked me several times, eyeing my backpack which had my laptop and a few more thousand baht, in case I need to encourage a border guard or two.  The two hustlers followed us for several feet until I finally decided that Friendly Myanmar should become a thing of the past.  Typical of border towns, this was another avoidable spot on the earth.

We retrieved my passport and then headed back to Thailand.  The best they would give me was a 15 day tourist visa, barely enough to keep me here with instructions on how to get a marriage visa.  Perhaps I need to take their advice.

Fortunately, just as I was about to give up hope, a chance for a job came up.  I may find myself employed quite soon and they are even going to help me with my visa, so long as my references approve.  Otherwise, I may have to take advantage of another 90 day pass to Myanmar.....or maybe Malaysia. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Baby, You Can Drive My Car, or Truck in This Case

We spent a week in Bangkok two weeks ago, shopping for clothes, eating seafood, visiting friends and family and just having a bit of fun.  If you read my earlier blogs, you know that Nee's house lacked air conditioning so this trip, we added a unit to the bedroom.  You could still bake bread in the rest of the house, but at least we could sleep in frozen splendor.  The home isn't so bad when I can sit in it comfortably.  She has a desk in the bedroom, so I was working on my taxes there...with the AC on, of course.

We came down with the desire to pick up things we had shipped from the US and to buy a car.  Nee's niece had talked a friend of her's to sell us her car, a bright red Honda Jazz, for a fairly good price.  She had even added a natural gas tank as gasoline, referred to as benzene here, has become so expensive.  Benzene runs almost 40 baht a liter whereas natural gas costs about 12 baht.  But the car had over 200k on it so it was voted by the family that we should not buy it.  Instead, we are borrowing her brother's pick up with manual transmission.  I haven't driven a stick for at least 15 years and then it was a VW bus with the gearshift on the right side.

Nee learned to drive a stick here and took to it, though reluctantly, pretty quickly.  It was voted that I not drive as yet because driving in Thailand is quite treacherous and so we had her other brother help with the driving.  When he drove, I sat in the front seat and Nee in the back.  The pick up is one of those extended models with space for storage behind the seats.  Her brother added an additional chair that sits sideways.  Nee seemed content in back.  We drove our 12 hours north to Chiang Mai, with Nee occasionally driving and gaining confidence.  Unfortunately the road was full of potholes so I spent a good deal of time bouncing and having my head crash into the ceiling.  The truck solved the problem for getting Nee to work but I am still having trouble driving it. 

To add to the fun, the weekend we drove back was Songkran, the new year celebration that involves much water.  Sevee, our escorting brother, drove us around Bangkok to see hordes of children and adults with buckets, barrels, squirtguns and hoses filled with water all being directed to any passersby.  We got hit a few times, but our windows were closed.  We also saw other pick up trucks filled with more kids and adults, barrels and buckets of water and they would drive up to anyone and douse them.  As the temperature and humidity made getting wet a pleasant matter, no one seemed to mind.  When I first met Nee she told me about the event which I had never heard of.  Then at the time, I had no idea where Thailand was, either.  The night we arrived home, there was a water orgy going on our street.  Sevee chose to stay dry so Nee and I ventured out to buy pizza.  Several people threatened us with water but my glares seem to be enough to stop them.  Well, most of them.  I did get a bucket of water poured down my back but it came from a sweet-faced five-year-old, so how could I refuse?

Sewitt loaned us his truck, his main transportation and Sevee accepted our offer to fly him home even though he had never flown before.  Thus both sacrificed a great deal for us and I appreciate it very much.

I still can't drive left handed while watching for motorcycles from 360 degrees but that is a problem I will have to work on. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Moving Ahead Slowly

Nee quit her job last week.  That same day, they called her and told her she could have some time off, without pay, to get herself a car.  With that, she decided to take their offer.  She couldn't get to work without a car and taking her so far on a motorcycle was beyond my abilities.  I prefer to have us both in one piece.
We spent Thursday and Friday looking at used cars, some at lots with others supplied to us by our friends in Sun Sai.  Getting out there involved again another two songtauws and then something called a rote peung or bumblebee car.  It turned out to be an old man with a crutch riding a motorcycle attached to a roofed steel-tubed side car with a bench for two to sit on.  I had to help him jump start the bike as he couldn't due to his poor leg.  Our friend said we should pay 10 baht per person except when he saw me the price went up to 15.  We chugged through the countryside at the breakneck speed of 30 kph until we came to the house.

Our friends had called a local mechanic who knew of a couple of used cars he could show us.  Both were older model Toyotas, in good shape though the prices were too high for us.  I wanted to look under the hood of the last car so I pulled what I thought was the hood lever only to find it was an anti-theft lock and the mechanic hadn't brought the key.  He never showed annoyance, though I knew he was.  Thais rarely show anger.
We ended up both riding on the back of our friend's motorcycle, three of us rolling among the banana and mango trees.  She had ridden since she was 17 and now is retired.  She never wobbled or showed any difficulty I had suffered riding alone earlier in the week. 
Next week is the Thai New Year celebration, Songkran, and Nee's employer is closed for the week, so we decided it was time to finally go back to Bangkok and retrieve some of our belongings.  I also need to see immigration as my visa will run out before I might get hired and I need an extension.  Going south is done by plane, bus, train or car.  The plane was too expensive, and I had had a bad experience on a long bus ride here a few years ago; we have no car and thus we decided on taking the train.  It was a slow lumbering ride through miles and miles and miles of rice fields and banana orchards, with towns so small that Mayberry would look like New York City by comparison.  Nee overheard a conversation where she heard that the train was running 2 hours late.  We had already been on for 12 hours so we bailed out at the old airport and took a cab ride to her niece's place.
The next day we had to go honor her deceased parents at an annual ceremony and then were whisked away to the neighborhood with many clothing vendors along the street.  The neighborhood reminded me of Chiang Mai with all the tourists and junk for sale and we were able to find plenty of good clothes to pick up at great prices.
To thank Nee's family for all they have done for us since we started this journey, we took them all out to dinner.  We wanted someplace next to the water and were taken to a restaurant that was built in piers over a man-made lake.  There were piers without cover, more near shore with a Quonset hut type roof and then more rooms out of the weather completely.  We began dinner with beer and some appetizers when I noticed lightning south of us.  Suddenly, large drops of rain came falling that quickly turned into a wind-swept downpour.  Everyone ran for the Quonset hut dining are to start their meal over.  We began to drink beer again when the wind came up and blew the rain well inside the cover.  We all retired to one of the rooms and finished our meal together as a big family.  We also had much beer.
Today, I am back at our house in Bangkok, the one I mentioned before without air conditioning.  We agreed to have it installed today and then Nee ran off with her brother while I stayed home to unpack.  Strangely, going through all the boxes we so carefully packed and repacked last January looked foreign.  I opened one box after another wondering why I would bring such things.  I found sweaters and coats and wool socks and gloves which are all worthless here.  I found out baking gear and cookbooks and now we have no oven.  I found my tools though I have nothing to fix and endless other things I could have just as easily left in Washington and never seen again.  One box I avoided at first, not wanting to break into it until finally I got my knife and cut the tape.  Inside I found what I had missed most about moving.  Not my bike, though it is also sitting in its box here in the living room.  Not my books or tools or anything like that.  I found my baby Taylor guitar.  I pulled it out of the box, opened the case and held it for a time.  I tuned it by ear as my tuner is in a box somewhere.  And then I just started playing.  I am not good at remembering songs so I usually cheat with a book, but I couldn't find them, either.  So I played what I could remember, sang what I knew and lost myself in it.
I gave up so much to be here.  This small box of wood with it taught six strings has brought me back home.  I know I can make it if I have music.
Our neice, Nong, talked her girlfriend into selling us her 6 year old Honda Jazz.  The car has a lot of miles on it but she obviously took great care of it so we decided to buy it.
Now I have a machine to carry my guitar.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Calming My Nerves with Pepsi and Oreos

I mentioned earlier that Nee got a job.  The company is the same one I applied to for a position at the same time.  For me, they decided they didn't really want an auditor, but an accountant.  A pity, really, as the pay, for Thailand, was fantastic.  I had a friend take me to the place one day a few weeks ago on the back of her motorcycle and it took about an hour to get there through much traffic, smoke and the occasional dog.  As I had not ridden on a motorcycle before, the ride was mostly terrifying.  Fortunately our friend is an experienced rider and we had no trouble.
For Nee to get to work, she has to first take a red songtauw to the main market and then hop onto the white songtauw out to Sankampaeng.  The ride takes about an hour and, if you miss the white one, you could wait another 20 minutes or so.  Once at the other end, she has had to hitch rides with whomever she can as the place is another mile out into a rice field.  In the heat, that is not a pleasant walk.  She also gets off at 6:30 in the evening.  After hitching a ride back to town, she has had to wait a half hour for the bus to show up.  To add to the excitement, the last white songtauw leaves at 7:30 and once a week, she will have to work as late as 11.  She almost quit today.
We had talked about buying a car or motorcycle.  Her brother showed us how to drive his truck this weekend, sitting on the right side and shifting with my left hand.  We both succeeded however I decided that driving in Thailand for the first time in a pick up was too much for me.
If you ever watch the travel channel or maybe even have gone to Southeast Asia, you know that traffic is a nightmare.  In Chiang Mai, the volume of cars is much smaller than Bangkok but the randomness is just as bad.  Motorcycles seem to have no rules.  Red lights are more a guideline than a rule.  If you are one to pop the accelerator at the first sign of a green light, you would probably hit someone running the red each time you did it.  People also drive very close, almost just microns away from you as they pass by.  Nevertheless, we decided that I need to spend part of my time off between jobs learning to drive here.  And what better way to start than to rent a motorcycle.
I have never driven a motorcycle.  American cycles are more like two-wheeled trucks with all they engine and pipes.  Asian bikes are really scooters with their tiny engines and tires.  Still, there are so many of them here and riding one made my heart race every time I thought about it.
With that in mind, I walked out of the apartment two days ago to find a motorcycle.  I felt like a prisoner going to the executioner.  Visions of my brother's teenage buddy getting killed by one when I was only 7 flashed in my mind.  I walked into a shop and asked around.  The weather has turned humid and by the time I was at the shop, I was completely damp.  No one spoke English even though they are across the street from a mall.  I mentioned that I had never ridden before and the fellow seemed to understand that as he gave me the universal signal of "we won't rent to you."  Deflated, I walked home after regaining my energy.
Yesterday I walked through another shop and this time I didn't even talk to anyone though I did figure out how to use the accelerator.  I don't even want to consider a clutch so I only looked at automatics.  Then I remembered.  Our friend who gave me the ride also arranges rentals.  I walked to her place today.  She called the shop and they brought the bike to me.  She lives on a narrow deadend soi which was perfect for practice.  She showed me how to go, stop, turn, signal and then sent me out to practice.  I went back and forth for over an hour, checking my mirrors, stumbling in my turns, over accelerating and feeling confidently nervous. 
Chiang Mai downtown is a network of one-way streets, road construction, and other obstacles to my goal.  To get home, I had to first go left into traffic, move to the right lane, take the U-turn to the other direction, follow the road to the next U-turn to put me out into the main street.  Here I had to move again over to my left to go left up my street.  My entire body was dripping wet and I could feel my arms tensing and my heart racing.  All around me were vehicles of every shape and size, each aiming in my direction.  Fortunately, I was wearing a force field.
When you rent a bike in Chiang Mai, it has a big number on it as well as the helmet.  Being a foreigner, I also stand out like a sore thumb.  My friend told me that everyone will do all they can to avoid getting anywhere near me.  You know what?  That actually happened.  Even though I felt like my life would be over soon, I managed to make it home with a stop at the gas station first.  Bikes are rented empty and this one was no exception.  Gas is pumped by someone so he had a bit of a giggle when he had to show me how to open the seat to put in the gas.  On my way out, I over-accelerated again but I made sure I had a fairly clear path.  I parked it at our cycle garage and walked over to 7-11.  I bought a can of Pepsi and took it to my room.  In the fridge were some Oreos, too.  I sat for an hour, calming my nerve and replenishing my blood sugar.  The bike hasn't moved since 1 today.  Tomorrow is another day. 
Oh, and we also started looking for cars.  New and used cost about the same, so we prefer new.  Unfortunately the flood last year wiped out much of the inventory leaving us with a 5 or 6 month wait for something new.  I will see if I can take Nee on the bike, though I still prefer my body surrounded by steel and not just a force field. 

On the Road to Doi Ang Kang

I graduated from my TEFL program yesterday having taken and passed my final exam.  That puts me back into job searching.  Thursday I was taken on the back of my teacher's motorcycle to teach English to a small group of teachers.  The school was next to the River Ping which runs through the middle of Chiang Mai and floods this school every year.  I was told that the school is private but only takes whatever the Thai government gives it to run, not charging students any additional fees.  Buildings were in various states from usable to quite rundown.  Despite that, the teachers had great spirit and were willing to sit with this beginner teacher running through nouns and verb tense.  They also gave me an endless supply of baked goods, coffee, Ovaltine and even some sticky rice.  My teacher can speak Thai and he has developed a good relationship there.  Perhaps if I learn Thai I might have some more similar experiences.

Nee's job is wearing her down because of the hours and commute.  She has thought about quitting already or at least I have tried to talk her into doing so.  She does have the only job at the moment, though, so perhaps she should hang in there.  As our lease runs out next week, we need to find a new place.  We looked out at the towns near her office but there are not apartments.  We could rent a house except that comes with a long-term commitment and often without furniture.  We would prefer shorter leases for now and to not have to invest in another house full of furniture.  We sold or gave away everything we had in the US and hate to have to start all over again.

Her brother, Suvitt, came up from Bangkok to help us look for something.  We have a few options.  One is we have been offered the chance to take over a friend's bed and breakfast and live there.  It would be in the middle of town but the obligation may be more than we want.  We could also move out closer to Nee's job but there aren't any apartments there.  Our final option is to just stay where we are and wait another month until I might get a job.  By the end of April, I should know.

We are staying in a resort in the mountains above the smoky town of Fang.  The evening was highlighted with a dinner of fish, vegetables and bee eggs, the last thing I took only one bite of.  Over night I could hear some very loud lizards screaming for whatever the were screaming for.  I wasn't sure.  Nee told me the lizards are quite large and a bit intimidating.  Fortunately I never saw any.  We spent the morning at a family service for their deceased father, including much food, firecrackers, as they were Chinese, and burning paper money.  The service took place in the middle of their father's lichee nut orchard.

After we had a hair-raising drive back through the twisting roads of Thailand, wondering if this was my last trip.  We made it home and decided to not go into the hotel business and Nee would keep her job.  The trouble is still out to get her to work.  Stay tuned.