The stress, frustration and rage that I felt this passing week in regards to my upcoming visa run to the Cambodian border exasperates me. I’m confused by my response to it. I judge my inability to be impartial to it. I wonder if living in Thailand has made me stronger or it has broken me. I will not leave this country the same as when I arrived.
To be brief, visa runs essentially fall on the dates Thai immigration deems you must leave the country. You are allowed back into Thailand on the same day without having to obtain a new visa. For example, I was given a triple entry tourist visa after not being able to extend the business visa I was allowed for muay thai. A triple entry visa stipulates that I must leave Thailand approximately every two months in a six month term. After the sixth month, I must apply for another visa at a Thai Embassy in a foreign country.
The closest border crossing to Buriram is the Chong Chom (Thailand) / Osmach (Cambodia) immigration point. After passing through Thai immigration, crossing to Cambodia is no different than crossing a small parking lot with child beggars, grown male hustlers, a Cambodian immigration office and two casinos. Looking into the distance, all one can see is a long road that vanishes and the tops of a handful of buildings. It’s desolate. To cross at any other immigration point in the country leaving from Buriram would be a minimum two day affair. On my last crossing to Laos, the bus driver almost left me, at night, at a bus stop, in a town mostly asleep and one I’m unfamiliar with, due to complications issued with my ticket. The original bus station issuing the wrong type in conjunction with a Thai woman wanting my seat almost left me there. You can read about that here.
There are no regular buses that make the one and a half hour trip from Buriram to Chong Chom. All that exists are independently owned casino buses. I began taking one two and a half years ago via a friend in Buriram that vouched for me. The owner and driver of the casino bus took care of me during the eight hour, sometimes longer stay I spent at the casinos. Going with this casino bus driver meant I had to spend the day with the rest of the passengers at the casinos in Cambodia. I never once saw another Foreigner on one of his buses nor in one of the casinos. My walking into the casinos never went unnoticed by the majority of the patrons within.
Although extremely grateful for this man’s generosity, what could be a four hour trip turned into an eleven hour trip that wasn’t fun. I don’t gamble. In addition, every time I went, this man lost money because he never charged me for my seat on his bus. He also bought me food. This is the Thai concept of taking care, and when the man first agreed to extend his generosity towards me, I suspect he didn’t expect to do it indefinitely. Please note, he also would not accept any amount of cash from me.
On one occasion a friend agreed to drive me to the border and I made a trip with her and her girlfriend. They would wait for me in Thailand by the border as I crossed into Cambodia. The entire process should have taken no longer than twenty minutes. They waited in the car we arrived in.
Everything went as I knew it to happen, less the Cambodian immigration official trying to make me pay 1,100 baht ($35.75 USD at time of writing) rather than the $25 USD I could pay, so he could pocket some of the money. I had to politely stand my ground. I didn’t have 1,100 baht with me and I refused to go back to Thailand with one of the hustlers (guys who offer to help you with your immigration paperwork and expect a tip) who seemed to be working with him, go to an ATM and come back. Aside from this being illegal and ridiculous, it would void two months of my visa. I received my Cambodian visa, paid a Cambodian exit fee, crossed through Thai immigration and landed at a military checkpoint on the Thai side of the border. This was normal as Thailand and Cambodia have been having border disputes (military checkpoints are not conventions of all borders).
What wasn’t normal was the military official politely implying that he would not return my passport unless I gave him my telephone number.
And so began the dance I’ve become accustomed to in Thailand with certain men, of specific dispositions who hold positions of power. I had to politely play to his ego, never giving too much, to be deemed a whore and never giving too little, to insult him. In Thailand, the repercussions could be in any range, should he decide to issue any. It would be his decision, fueled by his power and not governed by any law, or rather, one that I have confidence would be enforced. The Thailand I know is discriminatory towards Foreigners particularly to Foreign females (basic explanations of how we’re viewed, here). What of the Tourist Police? What of the Canadian Embassy? Sure, possibly they could be of use, if the military official isn’t well connected, if I’m believed and after something that may potentially scar me for life occurs. If I’m found. And justice? What of the police? Not something to get into in this post, but as I’m beginning to feel more comfortable discussing what has occurred to me here, possibly due to a planned return to the West, expect more posts of my experiences in Thailand, including how the Canadian Embassy dealt with me when I looked to them for help regarding another situation which wasn’t limited to stalking and death threats over a one year period.
My heart races as I type this. As a result, I wonder, who the hell have I become?
Back to the story….
I tried to look neither judgmental nor flirtatious. I told him I couldn’t give him my telephone number as I believed he already had a woman. This plays into the male ego here as it implies he must be a player, which hints that he is either important, handsome, wealthy or any mix of the above. This plays into the Thai caste system as much as it does one’s ego. Reputation is everything in Thailand in ways that are foreign to most people born of the Western world. I was extremely polite and remained relaxed. He continually asked about where I lived in Buriram and a number of personal questions – the words of a military official and the eyes of a leering man. Why not give him a fake number? Because the custom in Thailand is, when someone gives you their number, you call them in their presence. Eventually I was given my passport and I left shaken. He did not receive my telephone number.
Months later and following a visa run to The Philippines came time for another visa run. That was today. I stressed over taking this trip to the Cambodian border alone. I didn’t want to see that official again. I also didn’t want to spend the day at the casino. The last time I spent a day at the casino, I gave my telephone number to a woman who worked there, and she called me relentlessly for months, sometimes up to three times daily. She began to give me attitude, meaning stress her disapproval of me not picking up all of her calls. I didn’t want to deal her. In regards to the military official, by the time the previously outlined situation took place, he had become someone I was accustomed to meeting on my visa runs. I believed he may possibly remember me, as other soldiers remembered me that day. They knew I was a boxer. Note, being a boxer puts me in a weird place in this situation – boxers are among the lowest on the caste system here, the joke sometimes being that the girls who are too ugly to work in the sex industry become boxers. However, as a number of soldiers were once boxers themselves, they often hold an appreciation of a boxer and may treat one with esteem as a result. I have been issued this respect by soldiers in the past. I’ve never met a female soldier. I don’t know if they exist. In short, I felt anything was possible. I had no idea what could or would happen to me. I had no idea how they would, could or did see me. What my value would be/is in their eyes. From my experience here in Thailand, women and children of lower social standing deal with exploitation that has hammered my brain and changed the way I view humanity forever. Not only does this exploitation exist and is rarely discussed in Western media, but it is rarely confronted in Thailand, including by the exploited themselves. Being white doesn’t necessarily put me above these women, it depends on how someone reads me. In a weird way, by issuing me the respect of inclusion in Thai society, meaning allowing me the same respect allotted to Thai women, may be, for some, issuing me no respect at all.
Why not take another casino bus? Because they aren’t necessarily safe for women to travel alone on. But I’ll save that for another post.
I made the trip today with three other people who were there to offer me support. As they couldn’t cross the border with me, the plan was for one of them to meet me between Thai immigration and the military checkpoint and we’d make that walk together. Upon reaching the border and before crossing into Cambodia, I was relieved to see that the military official I was to meet, was a stranger. I crossed the border, had an easy time with the Cambodian official who reeked of whiskey, didn’t deal with hustlers, gave one child beggar some coin, then reached Thai immigration and dealt with a similar scenario to the one I feared. From an immigration official, not anyone in the military. This incident wasn’t as extreme as the first as he didn’t imply he wouldn’t return my passport, but the immigration process was lengthened, the questions of my dealings in Thailand prolonged, and as I have to legally give them my place of stay, he has my address and told me he knew where that was. Again, I was polite but gave him no indication I was interested. The official eventually ventured out of the immigration booth, which I had never experienced before, led me to a table with paper and asked that I write my number on a piece. With my passport in his hand. I didn’t know what to do. He returned my passport seconds before I choked and gave him my number, but not before agreeing to. He asked if I would answer when he called. Passport in hand I politely smiled and said that I didn’t think so. He asked why. I told him because I believed he had a wife already. My answer pleased him.
There was an unforeseen complication with my visa, resulting in me being issued fifteen days rather than two months (fourteen actually, for some reason, immigration at any checkpoint tends to give one to three days less than what the visa actually stipulates). I had spent too much time out of the country while in The Philippines and missed the deadline for my two month stamp to be issued. The issued deadline present on the original visa didn’t correspond to the date I had to leave the country by, as deemed by the Thai immigration official when I landed in Bangkok from The Philippines. I have one month left here in Thailand, which means that I will need to do another visa run before I leave and hope for another fifteen day stamp.
The Thai immigration officer explained this to me. As I was leaving, he called out laughing, “See you in fifteen days!”
Eight hours after the event and I’m sitting here wondering….was the immigration officer flirting or was he abusing his power? He by no means was menacing but his eyes didn’t veil his attraction to me. They burned. And like the military official, the line of questioning began to follow the conventions of Thai flirting, and by flirting you can suss out a woman’s integrity by how she answers (so I’ve been taught, by men). This subject in itself is complicated. Nonetheless, by Western standards, his actions are completely unprofessional but this is a pattern that I’ve seen emerge in dealing with men of power in this country, not limited to muay thai trainers, immigration officers, the military, the police and doctors. But most importantly, I question my read of the situation. The military official implying he wouldn’t return my passport unless I gave him my phone number, that’s a distinct abuse of power, but what of the immigration official? Am I so scarred that I can’t tell the difference between flirting, which I would have easily written off as fucked up but not terrifying when I first landed in Thailand? Or have the years here wizened me? Do I now understand what it really means to be Other and less in Thailand or does it get worse? And as a result, do I really know what it means to be truly vulnerable in a social system that fails to protect the weak and teaches them to smile, not be serious, forget about the past and never deal with things directly? Middle class Thai women have been shocked by my stories, but lower class women haven’t been. Often I receive empathy and advice from those of the lower classes. The advice usually is to forget about it and to avoid that specific person. Little more. Have I been here so long and am I so damaged, that I not only question my responses to what has occurred in issues of power here, I judge them and as a result question my right to feel fear, frustration and rage? Am I extremely fucked up?
I question everything.
Who have I become? I don’t recognize this quivering me.
I’ve realized it’s time as my days here in Thailand are nearing an end, to really get into that which has lead me here, to this place, writing you.
Expect another post, next week.
Sunday, April 30, 2012
For Thailand solo travel and safety tips, in addition to Thailand information you won’t find in traditional tourist guides, please visit my post Tips For Women Traveling To Thailand.