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Terminal Man – the true story

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaThe name is Bond. James Bond. And I’m headed to pick up a Visa on Arrival.



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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Chaos at airports - the future of Visa on Arrival?

The future of Visa on Arrival...?

ASK ANY SEASONED traveller, and he’ll tell you Asia is all about crowds, jostling tourists, the frisson of excitement as the clamour gets louder and bodies press together expectantly as people elbow through some sweaty marketplace. It is about the unexpected, the journey, not the arrival. Nowhere is this more evident than at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport where planes often shun the air bridge to offer you the thrill of a scenic bus tour from parking apron to terminal, taking in all the sights – and, yes, traffic – as you marvel at this smooth, muscled, mega-structure. Why rush you in unseemly haste through the airport? It’s called hospitality.

And so it was I came to gawp at Bangkok’s Visa on Arrival (VoA) section early one morning, brandishing my Indian passport (much loved by immigration officers worldwide who like to pore over it and ask probing questions to get to know me better and to ensure I have got over jetlag).

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I picked up a form, which was simple enough, and thanked the kind lady at an unmarked table who gestured vaguely in the direction of the ‘noise’. I felt the excitement mounting. Anyone who has not undergone the VoA experience, must take time to savour its many charms and homey appeal not unlike that of a heaving, beer-soaked football stadium where friendly strangers may come up and discuss your mother, and sister, in blushingly intimate detail.

Right now, Thailand seemed an elusive Palestinian mirage. This is how the first immigrants on Ellis Island must have felt as they inched toward the Land of the Free. Things may have been faster if they were heading to the Home of the Depraved. Much more fun.

Lacking any narrow ‘S’ queue to maintain orderly lines, the broad holding area is a convivial press of bodies where new alliances are forged and others abandoned as visitors attempted to calibrate their movement in order to arrive at a sweet spot where the tide might carry them forward.

{This is how the first immigrants on Ellis Island must have felt inching toward the Land of the Free. The Home of the Depraved may have been quicker...

South Asians rub shoulders with burly Kazakhs, Chinese and Saudis. I made eye contact with a beefy gent from Tashkent who was having some difficulty reconciling the arrival experience with the TV advertisements, and a toothpick-thin Chinese student, and together we tapped into the current, trying to emulate others cleverer and more skilled at sidling past slowpokes employing minimum exertion and maximum innocence, to maroon many in a hapless eddy.

An hour later I handed over my passport, two photos, and Bt1,000 and was given a ticket number and directed to an adjoining area. Then came a wait of another 50 minutes as numbers were slowly called. I was loathe to leave my newfound friends behind – such is the bond that had developed – and I felt hot eyes trained on my guilty shoulders as I walked off into Amazing Thailand.

In India, a visa on arrival can be processed online four to 30 days before a visit. The US$60 fee is paid online via a credit card and an ETA form is issued to present at immigration. That cuts out some of the arrival fun alas, but in Bali (US$35) you can savour lengthy VoA queues – this is normal for regular visa-free passengers too – as you wait an hour or more to reach a counter. Then you queue up again to get past an x-ray machine. This unhurried approach allows you to step into your holiday slowly. It is civilized. It’s called hospitality.

In Vietnam, VoA (US$65 and up) is handled through agents, and at Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, the country’s busiest airport, you’ll enjoy an hour or more peak time for this special privilege. Don’t be a spoilsport and visit at off-peak hours. It’s no fun building a brand new facility that visitors simply whoosh through. Stop and savour things and make your hosts feel good about all this hi-tech investment.

On an Indian passport I can get a visa on arrival in Malaysia. But this only applies if I am travelling to Malaysia from India, via Singapore or Thailand.  I cannot fly in via Hong Kong where I live. It’s a brilliant IKEA manoeuvre that ensures you get to see everything.

Now why doesn’t Hong Kong have visas on arrival for people travelling via Ouagadougou and Baghdad and Damascus? It would be educative and make the world a smaller, friendlier place.  And why rush people through an award winning US$20b infrastructure development? C’mon Hong Kong, slow down… and show these people some real hospitality.

If you wish to avoid the ‘welcome’ and be on your way as fast as possible, aim for the straightest immigration queues (curved ones indicate there’s a problem ahead), stay away from kids, and look for women officers who tend to process passports faster than their clunky male colleagues who still type laboriously with one finger. On the other hand, if you want the full tour, come join me and dive into the scrum. Far better than a Bear Grylls adventure.

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