Singapore (well more like Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

At 2000-ish words, this warrants its own post. I’ll even bust out the taglines:

Visa-Gate & the ‘Embassy Says No Detour 2011’

You’re probably sick of months of my cooing over everywhere anyway. I know this is what you really want, my disastrous/hilarious border faux par tales. Fill your boots. This is on par with the whole Bolivia/Peru debacle.

This is my quest to obtain a Myanmar visa. (WTF is Myanmar I hear you asking?) It’s the country next to India/Thailand/Laos, previously known as Burma. It’s the road less travelled, and much as I hate it when people say this, but it’s a cliché for a reason, namely as it’s often useful – “It’s like Thailand was 50 years ago.”

The first thing that comes to mind after WTF is Myanmar, is obvously the oppressive infamous political regime, and the plight of politician & Nobel Peace Prize winner; Aung San Suu Kyi. Yes I had to look lots of this up, but I can at least spell her name from memory. Debatably, to visit Myanmar is the route of all evil according to some boycotters who believe it is ‘tantamount to condoning the regeme.’ Others believe outside tourism helps and it’s one of the world’s most intriguing places. Discuss. My reasons are as simple as 1) Pure old fashioned Curiosity 2) I read Tony Wheeler’s Bad Lands and want to go hot air ballooning in Bagan, so it went on The List.

Ultimate Rooky Mistake warning coming up: I book flights before I get my visa. They are cheap(ish) £150 with AirAsia. What can I say, I got the fear. They might sell out? Plus I was a little carried away having one of those ‘organise your life’ mornings in Airlie Beach.

It’s fine though, I have a whole week in Singapore to sort out the teeny tiny technicality of a visa. To cite my own Facebook quote 14/9/11 “how hard can it be….?”

Day one in Singapore and I’m up at the crack of dawn. I shimmy on down to the Embassy near Orchard Road. I’ve filled all the forms, I’ve photocopied my ID, got my passport pics. I know the drill after Sydney. (Ironically even China was easier than this turned out to be.) I wait in line for an hour, it’s a bit confusing. Everything is in Burmese. I can’t read Burmese. It’s ok though; I’m distracted thinking about what I’m going to buy at Forever 21. I stumbled upon it near the MRT and yelped with pure joy, right before texting fellow addict Elaine. I’m going straight back there soon as this little task is over.

It’s my turn; I bend down to the little window and present all my docs smiling nicely until I’m brutally rebuffed with the following words:

“No visa. No. Visa only for Singapore residents.”

Say what now?  (There is NO mention of this ANYWHERE on the website/embassy/online by the way. I looked it up repeatedly. )

For a few mins I wonder if it’s personal.  I did have a short- ish skirt on, but oh come on it was about 35 degrees out. I think perhaps ‘Embassy says no’ man thought I might corrupt his great Nation/terrorise the monks or something. I argue the toss for 5, I try the ‘really, are you sure?’ approach. If we were in any other country in the world I would of course bust out the dollars, but it’s Singapore , their dollar is probably higher than the UK’s right now! They are all about the rules. Bribery is not how they roll here. So I leave it. It starts to thunderstorm as I walk across the city home. You have to be kidding me.

I mull it over. It was bound to happen eventually. Everyone who travels for a year misses a few flights. Silly billy, but no biggy. Plus part of me is secretly pleased; it means I can hang out with Mark and Matt (Surfers Paradise) 6 days early as we’re all meeting in Bangkok. Yep, raise your eyebrows all you want. I’m excited.

Except, I do kind of want to go to Myanmar!

Right before he told me to stop holding his line up and get the hell out of his embassy. ESN man told me to ‘pop’ to Bangkok – they hand out visas like they’re going out of fashion there. I like it how he said ‘Pop there?’ Like it’s next door?! (Its 1233 miles away.) Much as I like BK, I’m there in a month anyway, it’s a 4 day round trip away, I can’t really be bothered. Forget it.

This leads me to my lightbulb moment. Ahh but ‘What about Kuala Lumpur….’

Now, never before have I googled something to death as much as 1000 variations on the following question:

‘Is it possible for non – Malaysian residents to apply for an express Myanmar Visa in KL? Will it be a waste of time/money to trek all the way there and find it’s the same rule as Singapore?  How much do I really want to go to Myanmar?’ (Google didn’t really help with the last one.)

The results of Trip Advisor/Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum came back with the following:

‘Misc people try to ring/email the KL Embassy, but to date we haven’t heard of anyone having success getting through’….(I can also vouch for this.) You can definitely get 1 day visa at various Thai border points but these are subject to the whims of an ever troubled country who can whip them away at any moment.

As a quick aside – If you hit upon this blog after googling such a question, (I’ve tried to include SEO key words as possible so you know the answer) Yes!!! (Correct as of Sept 2011) UK citizens can apply for Myanmar visa in Kuala Lumpur! I’ve spoilt the suspense in my post now, but for happy travels for those in need are more important. Pass it on.

Back to the story. So after a day of agonizing I decided what the hell, I have 6 free days, nothing ventured and all that, what’s a little 380 mile round trip detour for £30. I won’t be defeated by some silly two-named playing hard to get Nation.

I catch the MRT, and then a bus to the Woodlands check-point near the Singapore/Malaysia border at Johor Bahru. I remember Danielle and I doing this trip 3 years ago and it being such a scary adventure. I don’t even bat an eyelid now; the 7 hour sleeper train is the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages! The station man looks doubtful when I ask for a ($40) £20 second class sleeper. He actually used the line ‘hang on I’ll show you a picture’…you can tell he wants to add the word ‘princess’ on there. I laugh and tell him its fine, I know what I’m in for, but he upgrades me to a luxury class cabin. Things are looking up.

KL is not as hard work as I remember it either. In fact at 6am it’s rather lovely. I feel like an early morning commuter as I switch to my dollars to Ringgits and marvel at how extraordinarily cheaper it is here. An LTR train to Ampang Park plus a 30 min walk along a dual carriageway like road, and I’m outside the Embassy at 7am like an eager beaver. It opens at 9am. I settle in with my book on some little plastic chair that an old man digs out for me. We’re outside in an open courtyard, there are families all sat around reading the Burmese newspapers, writing notes for the community notice boards, generally gossiping like washer women. How delightful. In a stark contrast I pass the UK embassy on the way. Ours is a high walled, armed guards, ivory tower fortress.  No one sat around tipping PJ Tips, reading the Guardian there.

I rehearse my options for a back story whilst I wait. Disappointingly I’ve also spotted a sign on the wall saying ‘express visas’ are two working days. Dam, I need to get back to Singapore tonight so save paying for a hostel here/I have no change of clothes etc. My tactics are:

1)      I’ve come all the way from Singapore….woe is me.

2)      Flattery/a bit of National pride – oh you’re Malaysian Embassy is so much better than the nasty man at the Singapore one….

3)      Cold hard cash. This is Malaysia. Surely there’s an ‘extra processing fee’ I can pay. Al la Cambodia….

The other issue is that being the sketchy country that it is, Myanmar is none too keen on Journalists, Filmmakers, Bloggers etc. They have apparently been known to Google background checks on visa applicants and decline ‘Meeja’ types on the spot. Great. Pretty much game over again for me then.

Then an extra unexpected spanner in the works. The cashier desk opens. It’s a girl! Call me sexist but I was expecting a guy to make the important administration decisions for a land with such strict immigration policy. Intuition tells be bribery/fluttering eye lashes is not as likely to work on her. I re-strategise and run with:

Me: “Can I have an express visa for today please by any chance?”… Secretly I’m grateful she’s even taken all my paperwork through to her side of the glass window, and not thrown it in back in my face. She even gives me some glue to do the sticking my passport photos down jobby and some tip-ex to pimp up my Singapore form and make it Malaysian. Very kind of her and it’s all very Blue Peter. She could have sent me to the back of the queue and made me fill out another. We’re on a level, I like her already. Until…

Her: “Two day express visa. Ready tomorrow. You don’t fly until 28th. No rush.” (I had to give her a copy of my AirAsia flight confirmation)

Me – In my head: “Yes love, but I’ve got a Singapore Grand Prix to get to!” Had it been a guy, I was totally going to play this card, but I didn’t think she’d appreciate.

Me – Out Loud: “Oh, tomorrow, really? (Knowing full well…) “I came all the way from Singapore on the night train” – accompanied by tired puppy look.” Followed quickly with: “It was really scary (Yeah right, in my luxury sleeper upgrade) I’m a girl, I’m on my own, and I’m scared of the big bad city.”

She’s also about my age. I had a whole emergency ‘boyfriend/friend left me’ yarn I was more than prepared to launch into if I needed to go for broke, but you have to save busting these out till the very end don’t you. Thankfully I can save this for another day.

Her: (Whispering) “Come back at 4pm today.”

It’s one of my proudest moments.

I spend the rest of the afternoon trying not to get too giddy in the sunny KLCC Park settled on a bench at the foot of the Twin Towers. I stuff my face with all the cheap Dairy Milk’s/Wrigleys I can get my hands on (back in Singapore is expensive/illegal.) I get chatting to Nurel. She’s 18 and from Sarawak Borneo. We spend till 3pm learning Malaysian and talking about boys. Hilariously she teaches me ‘Saya nama Kim’ (self explanatory) and the incredibly useful ‘Saya Contakan Awak’ (I love you.) How popular am I going to be! We hug it out/exchange facebooks, and I head back to Embassy land an hour early at 3pm just to show willing. Might as well make a day of it.

You know how it ends. I am the proud owner of Myanmar visa. I stared at it all the way back to Singapore in disbelief. Myanmar – you better be the best country I’ve ever been to. You’ve been warned.

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An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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