Monday, July 4, 2011

Getting a Chinese Visa in Bangkok from Khao San Road

On Monday morning—the Fourth of July—while my fellow Americans were planning afternoon barbecues and picnics, I was determined to get to Bangkok's Chinese visa processing center before the 11:30 a.m. cut-off time.

I wasn't going to mess around with a bus or taxi this time. No attempts at shortcuts. No dallying over yogurt, fruit, and muesli with Facebook. I sped through breakfast then walked over to the river to catch the river taxi south, along with all the school kids in uniforms and office workers in business-wear.

I knew I'd get there this time, because I was fortified with the luck of the Thai zebra. Or at least, I was wearing one on my T-shirt.

Step One: Ten-minute walk to the Banglamphu Pier.
Step Two: Catch the Chao Phraya river taxi south about 15-20 minutes to Central/Saphin Taksin.

Just about everyone piles off at Saphin Taksin, and even if I didn't know it by sight by now, I'd watch for the big bridge where everyone gets off the boat.

I walked off the pier and up to the Skytrain, which is an above-ground train, like a monorail. I hurried ahead so I wouldn't have to wait in line behind everyone else. I took the Skytrain to where it connects to the metro.

Step Three: Take the Skytrain to the metro, about four or five stops.
Step Four: Follow everyone else down into the metro.

Bangkok's new metro is gorgeous and easy to understand. Ten minutes after boarding, I got off the train at Phra Rama 9 station. My instructions, gleaned from this blog, were to go up the metro escalator, make a U-turn, and walk 400 meters to the first corner (Soi 3), where I'd go left, then go in the first building with the shiny silver pillars.

This was exactly right, but I'd add two landmarks to the instructions. When I came up the escalator, I found myself in front of Fortune Town Mall, which has a Pizza Hut near where you get off the metro and if you're walking in the right direction, you'll eventually pass a huge Tesco Lotus supermarket on your left at the other end of the mall.

That's good. It means you're on the right track. And if you hate the heat like I do, you can duck into Fortune Town and walk inside down to Tesco Lotus.

Step Five: Exit at Phra Rama 9 station. Go up escalator (either one). Make a U-turn.
Step Six: Walk alongside Fortune Town mall, past Tesco Lotus, to the first street corner. (Ignore parking lots.)
Step Seven: Go left onto Soi 3 (first street corner).

And there were the shiny silver pillars, as promised!

I went into the pillar building, through the metal detector, and up the stairs one flight to the Chinese visa center, which is NOT located in the Chinese embassy.

The US price for a visa is an unfortunate 4760 Thai baht. That's $159 in US money. Ouch. I didn't even want to go to China this trip, but it was necessary if I really planned to go into Tibet. Which I didn't know if I could go to Tibet yet, given that only Chinese tourists were currently allowed in due to the 60th anniversary of the invasion subjugation supposed liberation of Tibet. Was I really considering going into an occupied country on the United States Independence Day?


I took a number. #547. Currently serving...let's see. Oh. #350.

I elbowed my way to a counter and transferred my fictional itinerary ("Xi'an! Beijing! Shanghai!") from the one printout I'd made onto the multiple copies required, then glued my photos on as instructed. I sat down in an uncomfortable plastic seat and ran down my iPhone battery, bored and web-surfing while the numbers changed at a glacial pace.

I hadn't brought my Kindle, not thinking about the visa processing center as the DMV, or the possibility of sitting in a room for three hours, so I pulled out my map of Bangkok and studied it.


Oh. I am an idiot. I grinned and laughed aloud. A few people near me edged away.

The metro I'd just ridden? One stop back it intersected with the khlong boat, the one I take ALL THE TIME from near Khao San Road to the shopping district. I'd taken three tries and three silly roundabout attempts to get to the Chinese visa center, when I could have zipped here in a flash if I'd just bothered to look at the map one of the 10-20 times I'd taken this boat in the last few weeks.

Step Eight: Forget all I wrote above.
Step One: Walk from Khao San Road to the khlong boat taxi at Wat Sukhat.
Step Two: Take the boat to Asoke/Petchaburi, changing boats when everyone else does at Pratunam.
Step Three: Walk about 50 feet from the pier to the metro.
Step Four: Go one stop to Phra Rama 9.

Now go back to the stuff about the U-turn and Tesco Lotus.

The Chinese visa center did indeed close its doors at 11:30, right on schedule, but it continued processing applications until noon, when finally, there was a mad rush for the queues. Numbers no longer mattered. I caught on a second after everyone else and ended up at the back of a line, but at least we were finally moving.

When it was my turn, the woman behind the counter said I could apply for a double-entry visa for the same price as single, but that multiple entry visas weren't being given out at the moment. So she checked "double" and carefully examined my papers, took my money, gave me a receipt, and told me to come back on Thursday.

Clutching my receipt, I headed back to the metro, to change to the khlong boat for Pratunam, which has a huge shopping mall full of cheap, crappy clothing.

And in the spirit of the holiday and in keeping with something I do every time I go into a mall in Bangkok, I promptly got lost in the warren of aisles and floors. Sometime towards evening I managed to extricate myself from the madness and caught the khlong boat back to Wat Sukhat, then walked the few blocks back to Banglamphu.

Where I promptly rewarded myself. Mango-and-sticky rice followed by a foot massage, to the accompanying sounds of a Thai singer crooning "Coward of the County" and "The Gambler." Surprising, but a nice switch from the usual "American Pie" and "Hotel California."

Happy Fourth of July.

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