Thursday, May 03, 2012

Pattya Trip, Dealing with Thai bureacracy while soaking wet

With only one day left of the water festival there in Pattaya—where I’m told it lasts a full ten—my buddy Don convinced me that it would be best to use the rest of that day to get all the paperwork and medical requirements out of the way. We wouldn’t be able to get anything done the next day, the last day of the festival, since it is a non-working Thai holiday with all government offices closed. Like most everything he “suggests,” it sounded good to me.

Now that we had our scooters rented for the duration of our stay (and for less than $5 a day by the way!) we needed to get licenses to make it legal for us to drive them.

A little bit on scooter licenses there: The streets, highways, and byways of Pattaya are filled with tourists scooting around on rented motor bikes and I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that 99 out of 100 of them have no Thai license, which makes them illegal to do so. The dealers who rent them out don’t ask to see ANY license for the most part; so, as long as one has the cash they’ll hand over the keys, that is after all forms are signed of course. Don opined that the cops in the Pattaya area won’t much hassle anyone about licenses, but he said the cops in areas away from the tourist places will definitely ask to see one, and it better be Thai.

Regardless, I thought it would be the bees’ knees to have a Thai license to add to my current collection of drivers licenses. Also I wanted to see what it would be like to go through the hoops so to speak. So, that’s what this post will be about. Well, that, and to describe the travails of being continuously assailed by half the water wielding population of Pattaya while tooling around town on a scooter during the height of The Sangkang Festival.

First, I needed a letter of recommendation, an affidavit, if you will, from a Thai, avowing that they vouch for me for residency purposes. The hotel would suffice for that. They’ve done it for Don for many years and since I’m a good guy they did it for me too! Basically, it was another "Don bennie."

While we were all still down at the bar on Beach Road waiting for the scooter guy it occurred to us that we would need a way to keep our papers and passports dry while zipping around on the bikes while constantly being splashed and dashed by water. For only a buck a piece I bought three waterproof plastic holders, one each for my two girls and me. It pays to think ahead. Of course it helped that we were accosted continually by wandering merchants, each pausing to thrust their wares into our face, such as these waterproof pouches. Don did his thing and got us all a great price on them. I love it when he "does his thing," makes life cheaper.

With passports and residency letters ensconced safe and dry in my new pouch I began the first of many hair-raising scooter trips through Pattaya, always made a bit dicey by the act of trying to stay just a few feet behind “daredevil Don.” I think sometimes he forgot that I was back there, and with me not knowing where the heck I was going, I became obsessed with trying to keep just off his back tire. That was not exactly a safe thing to do all things considered, especially the way scoots are maneuvered over there. Sometimes we drove down the center line between two moving narrow lanes of cars, other times we charged down the curb side, all depending on which side was available. It scared me to death, but everyone else seemed nonchalant about it, so I went with the flow, or tried to. More than once I had to jam on the brakes, stopping only an inch or two from Don's back tire.

On that first day, to make what I considered a precarious scooter driving situation even more so, was finding myself the object of attack in the one sided war being waged against us as we made our way up the streets. Supposedly, out of safety concerns, scooters are off limits to these water attacks, but like many rules in Thailand that one is almost completely ignored. The attacks were ruthless, continuous and we had absolutely no defense against them, other than ducking or speeding up in a vain attempt to throw our attackers’ aim off.

There was only one moment that I came close to dropping the bike in all that “wet fun.” Usually Don would draw off the worst of the assailant’s assaults and I’d be able to veer away or at least get prepared for a particularly heavy soaking, but one particularly aggressive girl jumped out from my left unexpectedly and got to within a couple feet from my side. Her weapon of choice was a large plastic bowl filled with ice cold water which she threw as hard as she could directly into the side of my head. Her timing was perfect; the frigid water got under my shades and completely blinded me while I sped along at almost 25 kph. Stunned, I slammed on both brakes at once, fishtailing to a stop on the water slicked pavement. The wonder is that I didn’t crash when I lost my vision for that second or two. Don saw none of it and when I regained sight I saw that he was 50 feet away and disappearing fast. Catching back up became my primary concern and I full twisted the throttle to power after him. As I took off I noticed peripherally about twenty party people, now silently watching me, perhaps expecting me to be angry. I gave them a friendly wave trying to stay in the spirit of the festival and called out, “It’s cool. I’m good.”

Our first stop was immigration. I kept getting wet spots on the documents. By the time we got there both of us were dripping wet, soaked to the skin. In hindsight we should have carried dry towels in our seat carriers so we could at least dry our arms and hands.

I’ve done immigration in other countries and was expecting the bureaucratic worst but I needn’t have worried. Everything was made ridiculously easy. We reported to the front desk where a lady told us we needed to go outside and get some photos made as well as have an ID form package put together. She sent us outside to a small office where two other foreigners were already having their paperwork accomplished. A beautiful desk clerk (my God, so MANY beautiful women there!) told us in pretty good English that she would fill out all the forms for us for 50 Baht (about $1.50). I couldn’t get my money out fast enough. She took our photos and told us we could wait in a pleasant covered area where we could have bought drinks and snacks if we had a hankering for such. Ten minutes later we had our forms and went back into immigration where the receptionist accepted our paperwork and bid us to take a number and have a seat. I settled down for a long wait, but in about 20 seconds Don was paged. Ten seconds later they paged me too. The lady (another looker) had the both of us processed in less than ten minutes. She told us that the finalized forms would be ready in about 45 minutes if we wanted to wait.

‘What!’ I could not believe how smooth and painless these supposed bureaucrats were making all this.

Don checked the time; it was after 3:30 already because of our late start. But, he urged that we could go ahead and get our medical done real quick down the street and still have time to come back to immigration to pick up our finished forms.

The first clinic he knew of just down the street was closed for Sangkran. No problem, he led the way down to another that was open. Strangely to me, we were asked to remove our footwear at the door. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever been in a place of business in bare feet. Don and I gingerly entered and walked across the polished marble floors dripping water. We told the receptionist what we needed and she said it would just be a few minutes wait. We continued to drip water into the molded plastic chairs in the front waiting room. An ancient dried up husk of a man, obviously a retired American, came in just behind us, coughing and struggling for breath. I hoped to heaven that whatever he had I wouldn’t catch. I hoped he was a smoker and was dealing with emphysema or something else self-induced like that, anything but something infectious. (My prayers went unanswered. Both Don and I ended up with chest colds, coughing our butts off in the plane all the way back to Clark.)

The doctor was cool. He greeted me in slightly accented English having worked in the US for years he said. After we chatted for a minute or two he began the exam. First thing he did was hold up the orange cap to his pen and ask me what I thought about his green pen. “It’s a nice pen Doc, but it’s orange.” He checked my vitals and after less than five minutes he was done. The secretary already had the forms filled out for his signature and we battled our way back through the water wars to immigration.

Good as her word, the immigration beauty saw us come in and had our forms ready to hand over to us neatly folded in an envelope.

“Okay,” Don declared as we walked back out to our bikes, “all we have to do now is to drive out to the drivers license place the day after tomorrow. If you think this was easy, wait until you see how fast you get your license.”

That will be my next post, followed by the fun we had the next day at the culmination of Sangkran. Dang. So MUCH to talk about on this trip.


Ed said...

All I can say is that this water thing is bizarre. I keep trying to imagine it happening over here and just can't.

Was the purpose of this trip partly to do with maintaining good standing in the Philippines so you can remain there?

PhilippinesPhil said...

Sangkang IS unique in the world. It happens at the height of hot season and marks their new year. You ARE correct that we could never do something like this back there. We'd kill each other with road rage or just kill each other because Americans have grown so aggressively mean with each other. In Thailand though, the spirit is just fun and playful. If not for the fact that I was trying to do some personal business I wouldn't have minded it so much. The next day was a WHOLE lot more fun. I think I'll cover that next. And no, the trip was purely for tourism. I am a permanent resident of the Phils, so I do not have to come and go to renew my status. Good point though. Next time I live here, I will do the balikbayan thing as it will make coming and going a WHOLE lot cheaper. As a resident they really put it to me in fees and taxes every time I leave, so screw em! I only need the balikbayan stamp once per year to make me legal after all.