Thursday, June 12, 2014

Out of the frying pan, into a similar albeit slightly higher quality frying pan



When foreign dignitaries who drew the short straw and ended up stationed in North Korea are given 'sanity leave' every few months to calm down in a less mental country, they wouldn't ship them to Somalia would they? So I probably should have chosen somewhere other than Thailand for my eagerly-anticipated escape from the ongoing nightmare of Southeast Asia's armpit.

My first experiences after landing in Phuket were the unhappy ending to a typically stressful day spent transiting in Manila, my least favourite city east of Cairo. But the next day things brightened up and this island didn't turn out to be anywhere near as awful as I'd always assumed it was going to be, having deliberately avoided its lure on every previous trip to Thailand before buckling under an attractive promo flight that would take me to roughly the area I wanted to be.

While the Philippines keeps providing new examples of why it would be a bad place to settle down and hope in vain for a stress-free life, Phuket has reminded me why Thailand is such an appealing option for expats, even the ones who aren't bitterly divorced senior citizens with loose morals. Thailand wins the contest by a long way, though it does help that I'm 500 miles away from Bangkok right now or it could be a closer call.


What have you got for me this time, Manila?



Have you always wanted to enjoy the degrading convict experience without the hassle of actually having to commit a crime?

Just legally extend your stay in the Philippines by more than six months through the proper channels and then ask to please be let out. Our convincingly hostile staff will make you feel like authentic scum as they manhandle your thumbs


Having the nerve and sheer cheek to DARE leave the Philippines for a nice holiday abroad will usually land you in hot water with the officials, whether you're a local forced to provide extensive documentation to prove you're not planning a bright new career as human traffic or a foreign tourist who's similarly guilty until proven innocent via Dickensian criminal profiling technology. Every time we've tried to leave this country we've slammed into the immigration barrier on the way to boarding our flight and been told at far too late a juncture that we don't have a 27B/6 or other fictional-sounding requirements I would have assumed to be a parody of bureaucracy before I spent time living in Orwell and Huxley's nightmares.

The first time, last April, we just managed to make the flight after I completed a patronising form agreeing to be a guardian for my 25-year-old adult girlfriend and taking freedom out of the equation by hastily booking a return flight for our formerly freeform journey. My country didn't need to see one of those when they let me out three years ago. Of course not, I was a 25-year-old adult.

The second time, earlier this year in January, we didn't manage to make the flight. That was despite the assurance of unhelpful airport staff who mistakenly believed that blind optimism was a substitute for basic maths and knowledge of Philippines traffic when we had to dash around Cebu to get my exit clearance document to prove I hadn't been up to anything illegal during my stay (or if I had, it had at least been dealt with the usual underhanded way without any of that pesky paperwork or justice).

So you could say I wasn't totally optimistic that everything would be tickety-boo when transiting in Manila and preparing to board our Thailand-bound flight this time around. Fortunately, fate got the compulsory stress out of the way a few days earlier when my girlfriend's new passport that she'd been guaranteed would be ready in time for our flight date when applying a month earlier astonishingly wasn't ready on time. I don't know why 26 years of living in this country and dealing with its unreliable services have left her more optimistic than me about agreements and dates meaning anything at all. Maybe it's the only way these people can survive.



Here's the receipt for my last visa extension. If they'd lumped all those spurious 'fees' under a single payment for the same amount, I'd somehow feel less cheated. Having the extortion itemised just makes it worse


As it turned out, her passport only arrived a couple of days later than promised, with the comfortable window of a single working day remaining before our flights were due to leave, otherwise they would have needed to be trashed and booked again later, since there's no prospect of me going on ahead and my girlfriend catching up. Even now, with several international trips under her belt, my presence is still required at the immigration counter as validation of her true intent to travel as a tourist rather than sneaking off to find work opportunities in a country where income is actually sufficient to cover the cost of a modest living. The guy even compared our respective passport stamps and asked to see photos of us together on her phone, just in case I was some good, white Samaritan she'd coerced into helping her. Apparently they sometimes want to see your romantic email exchanges too, I look forward to that in the future.

But the joke's on them, as she is actually hoping to find work opportunities in the background of our travels, if she can find an employer who's prepared to arrange the necessary visas and a salary that would actually make spending time away from her family worth it. Personally, I'd be much happier finding desperate excuses to extend my visa and spend my days in a Thailand island condo than go back to natureless Davao and exhaustingly seek out an apartment in a mythical location close to amenities and away from the noise from karaoke and jeepney mechanics before settling for whatever's close to the supermarket again. But my life is not my own any more.



Cebu Pacific 'flight deals' are a reliable microcosm of what to expect in this country generally


Don't worry though, Philippines - you've made the whole enterprise so ludicrously frustrating with the need to have every birth certificate, degree record, work clearance and other supposedly official documents double-authenticated by different government outfits after waiting in line for hours outside undermanned offices, there's bound to be something she's missed that will scupper her chances of ever earning a reasonable income. We'll come crawling back before long.

Spending so long in the Philippines might at least have been useful for lowering my standards from life and human interaction. By contrast, the scheming taxi drivers, exchange rate theft, cat-calling prostitutes and leaking air conditioner we had to deal with within an hour of landing in Phuket felt like a warm welcome.



I do love Thailand a bit

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