Stefan flies into Bangkok only to find that he’s missing an exit stamp in his passport from a previous visit. He makes the mistake of getting pissed off… keep a cool heart in Thailand.
A few years ago I visited Thailand on a brief holiday and liked it so much I immediately made plans to return for a much longer trip.
In September 2004 I arrived in Bangkok, young and excited about the three month backpacking trip that lay ahead of me. After some time on the islands down South, I headed North to the border with Laos and crossed the Mekong at the Chiang Kong / Huay Xai crossing. In Laos, I met two Danish girls who I spent the next month with, traveling around Laos and Cambodia. I hit it off really well with one of them, Camila.
After seeing all the usual places backpackers visit, we decided to go back to Thailand for a few more weeks on the beaches before going back to our home countries. The Danish girls took a flight to Bangkok two days before me and we arranged to meet on Khao San Road later in the week.
When I arrived in Bangkok airport on a flight from Cambodia, however, there appeared to be a problem with my passport. Without any explanations, the customs officer called her superior who took me away to an office. In extremely broken English, he asked me why my departure card was still in my passport and why there was no exit stamp from when I went into Laos a few weeks before. I was a bit puzzled but explained I must have forgotten to pass by immigration in Chiang Kong. He seemed to get very irritated and started giving me looks.
He took my passport away and made me wait on a chair. Eventually a young and pretty Thai Airways stewardess was brought in to translate for us. More questions followed: why did you not get the exit stamp, how did you manage to leave the country without passing by immigration, what were you hiding and why?
I started getting irritated too, not understanding what the problem was. I complained that I was being held for several hours now and with a little aggression suggested they arrest me or let me go – I’d done nothing wrong. This always seemed to work in the movies but the stewardess got very concerned and urged me to calm down.
“This is very bad,” she said. But I couldn’t understand the problem and refused to chill out.
In Europe, you can drive from Finland to Portugal without showing your passport once. I couldn’t understand the big deal about some missing ink in a passport. Documents were produced in Thai script that I had to sign. After much protest from me, the stewardess translated the document and since she seemed trustworthy, I signed.
The stewardess left with Camila’s email address and said I would have to go downtown to clear this all up. Fine, I thought. I was held in a room in the airport for a further eight hours while immigration officials gave me very menacing looks and examined my passport while filling in more documents. I was starting to get worried and very tired.
I was taken down town around 4am, relieved, until I was led into a place labeled “interrogation room”. In reality it was just an office with a few Thai officials sleeping fully clothed on top of their desks – quite a surreal sight. When they put shackles around my wrists and ankles I started getting really freaked out. I was thrown into a cell with about a dozen people sleeping on the floor. One guy was awake and I asked for a blanket but he refused to give me one. I couldn’t sleep but anyway people started to wake up. It was now almost 6 am.
A Danish guy explained that he had been in another prison for several months for using fake traveler’s cheques. He looked starved and not in very good shape but was friendly. He rolled cigarettes from magazine paper which produced green flames when he lit it. What the fuck was I doing here? Based on the documents I was given, he explained I would have to get processed through the system first.
Apparently I was in the IDC, the immigration detention center in downtown Bangkok. “There are thousands of people in cells upstairs.” He told me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
A bit later I was taken out of the cell and had my picture taken from all angles. Then moved into another office where a drunk Thai official attempted to take my finger prints. He kept screwing up and shouted louder and louder in anger every time, blaming me. By then I could hardly stand and was trembling due to lack of sleep and food and the shock at what had happened the past 12 hours. The official then asked for a bribe, saying he could get me out of this situation.
Amazingly, he just took of my cuffs and walked me out in to the city to a cash machine. I already knew there was nothing left in my account and my heart sank when I was not able to produce a satisfactory bribe.
“You are in big trouble now” he declared but in sympathy, took me to a noodle stall and bought me some food and a drink. I couldn’t eat it, too nervous thinking about what would happen next.
Back in the detention centre, I was taken upstairs into a cell with over a hundred people, all sitting on a dirty concrete floor. Ninety percent of them were black Africans and the rest were what looked like Arabs, Indians or Pakistanis. Terrified, I was shoved into a corner with some nice enough black guys who spoke French to me. My fear of being the little rich white kid disappeared pretty quickly when I realized people seemed too miserable to pay me much attention.
Evening came and I slept on the floor squashed between two black guys. I woke up in the morning with people shouting “Belgium! Belgium!” To my amazement, Camila was standing outside with Mr Dricot, an official from the Belgian embassy. The stewardess had contacted Camila as I requested and she seemed to have sprung into action pretty quickly.
Both Camila and Dricot looked more shocked than I felt, but they assured me later I was looking very scared and confused. Camila was crying as I explained to Dricot through the bars of the cells what happened. Amazed, he demanded from the guards they let me out and complained even more when they shackled me again but to no avail.
My relief at Camila being there was indescribable and I couldn’t stop thanking her for showing up to help me. After more than 48 hours in this place I was so desperate but all in all held up pretty well.
Back in Laos we had all read The Damage Done by Warren Fellows, about his stay in Bang Kwang prison. We had heated discussions about whether or not it would appropriate for backpackers to visit foreign prisoners in Thailand. I felt it quite ironic that now, a few weeks later, we found ourselves in a Thai jail and I was being led away in shackles.
Dricot drew a lot of respect from the Thai officials and he was extremely kind and helpful toward Camila and myself. I imagined this was not an average day at the office for him but he achieved a lot in a very short time. We heard that I had illegally left the country and that I would have to appear in court. The officials assured us that I would have to pay a small fine and get deported, but there would be no prison sentence. They would take care of things as soon as possible.
I was shocked at even hearing the words “prison sentence” but at least things seemed to be progressing. Camila and Dricot offered to get me some food but it was the last thing on my mind. Nevertheless, she returned with some apples and a bottle of water and forced it all down me. The Thais said money would come in handy in the cells so I called my dad who transferred money to Camila via Western Union.
That same day I went to court and just said kap (yes) to anything the judge asked. I felt completely drained of all energy in this surreal situation and everything was over in 10 minutes. An hour later I was back at the IDC. Dricot arranged for me to be in a more comfortable cell.
The layout was the same as before, but there was a separate room within the cell for which you had to pay extra to some tough looking Iranian guys who obviously ran the show. They were friendly enough after I had paid the going rate for staying in their section and explained the rules:
“While you stay with us, nobody will touch you. Anything you need, just ask.”
Apart from the Iranians, there was a friendly and welcoming South African and guys from Laos, Belarus and Senegal, a colourful mix of people. Our cell was still open and there was constant noise and action from the Africans outside. People would come in to buy stuff from the Iranians who ran a shop from inside our cell – paper, pens and envelopes to send letters, candy, drinks and cigarettes were all available. They were very well organized, had a lot of authority and paid other cell mates to clean our cell for us.
It was a lot more relaxed than the previous cell I was in and, 3 days after leaving Cambodia, I finally found some calm. The Iranians placed food orders with the cleaning crew who got us anything off the streets of Bangkok. I ordered fish curries and bottles of Pepsi and, as in most developing countries, we shared food among us. It was the highlight of our day and with everyone chatting away and complementing each other on their choice of food, it almost felt like being with friends.
The penniless Africans were less lucky and fought over the rice and brown watery sauce that was provided once a day. I was puzzled at how the Thais, with the best cuisine in the world, could make such disgusting food. It looked like it couldn’t keep a stray dog alive.
Life in the IDC consisted of sleeping on the concrete floor, on a mat if you could get one, with a pillow if you could afford one. The lights were on around the clock, 24/7 and there were no windows. It was extremely hot. People were let out of the cells once a week to another room with pay phones. From there they would call relatives with the little money they had saved up.
Everyone swapped stories about why and how they were here and how ridiculous their situation was. Bobby from South Africa woke up on the last day of his holiday in Thailand to find his passport and money stolen by the girl he was with the night before. When the police suggested it was his own fault for sleeping with a prostitute, he lost his temper, already too pissed off at having missed his flight home to be taking more shit from a Thai cop.
He was then arrested for not having a passport and had been in the IDC for 3 months, waiting for a seat to become available on the only flight he was allowed to be deported on – the weekly direct flight from Bangkok to South Africa. His wife and kids back home were not amused.
An elderly Australian man who couldn’t afford the ‘deluxe’ room I was in explained how he got stabbed in Chiang Mai and had all his money and passport stolen. After surgery he was taken from the hospital and brought to the IDC for not having a valid passport. The wound in his stomach did not look good and he too had been there several weeks. The Australian embassy had not been very helpful.
A German guy arrived after me but his embassy whisked him out after two days with typical German efficiency. He spoke no English but I managed to understand him saying ‘this is inhuman’. The Belarussian guy found it amusing I was Flemish. He was busted with a fake Belgian passport. He said:
“If they ask me to speak Flemish, I just make some sounds – nobody knows what it sounds like!” Obviously this grand plan of his didn’t really work since he too had been there for several weeks.
I began to notice a common thread in our stories and things started to make sense – we had all pissed off the immigration officials. In Thailand, there is nothing more important than ‘keeping a cool heart’. You should never show strong emotion in public but I had done just that when I created a scene at the airport. Right there and then they must have decided to throw the book at me for making them lose face.
Most of the other people in the cells were staying in Thailand illegally and had been picked up off the streets when they couldn’t provide valid passports or visas. Most of them were Africans in search of a better life and had no intention of returning home, hoping to get official refugee status from the UNHCR. Most of the Iranians, too, were in this situation and they were not too concerned with being there if it wasn’t for the 3 month waiting list.
Lonely Planet says overstaying your visa results in a 5$ per day fine at the airport but neglects to mention that if the immigration goons discover an overstay before you make it to the airport, you are probably in deep shit since overstay IS a crime. Several people I spoke to in the IDC were in that situation.
After my court appearance Camila came to visit every day and we chatted for 30 minutes from behind the bars. She brought food and drinks and surprisingly people never tried to take them from me. I shared what I could. Once all the paperwork was done, Camila booked me a new ticket home and assured me that after the weekend I would be leaving. After 7 days in the IDC I was taken to the airport and I could finally put my arms around Camila who came to wave me off.
I feel bad complaining about what happened to me, considering the situation of most people I met in the IDC. I was very lucky to have money and a helpful embassy at my disposal. While I was there for only one week, other people had been there for months on end for even lesser offences than mine. In other cells there were apparently so many Burmese packed together they have to take turns standing up – there wasn’t enough space for everyone to sit down.
I accept that I was partly responsible for what happened to me. And I still respect the Thais, they are fiercely proud of who they are and they live in a wonderful country. Sometimes backpackers take them for granted but it’s asking for trouble to break their written and unwritten rules. The Thai police are not the same people that serve you food or work at your hotel. They are corrupt, stone-faced shit kickers with a lot of power.
Although it was traumatic at the time, I have to admit that I got lucky. A few years later, while leaving Thailand on the Malaysian border, I noticed a sign that read:
Leaving the country illegally can result in prison sentences up to three years.