As anyone who is staying in Thailand is aware, the protests have made day to day life hard for expats and locals alike. Previously its been pretty easy to get a visa extension from the Government Complex in Chang Wattana, but with the Yellow Shirts blockading the area, the immigration offices have “temporarily” closed down and relocated to the 5th floor of the Big C shopping complex in Lad Prao.
What was a 20 minute process, plus the time taken to travel has turned into an all day ordeal as you have to first battle traffic, then venture through the Red Shirt HQ, before being stuck with thousands of Western Expats as well as Laos and Cambodian migrant workers, and indifferent immigration officials who take forever to process anything.
So how does the whole debacle work?
First you’ll need to find the place. This can prove to be a problem as there are two Big C’s in Lad Prao and the one you are looking for is no where near any public transport especially in the April heat of Bangkok. Ask your taxi driver to take you to “Big C Imperial” (or in Tinglish “Imperion Lad Prao”) which is on Lad Prao Road. Trust me, its not as close to the MRT or BTS as it looks!
Leave early, as the place is jam packed with people, and is about as inefficient as it can get, even by Thai standards. They don’t open until 10:30, but you’ll find people lining up from 9am. Songkran is coming up so expect lots of offices to be closed over the holiday period so the lines and waiting times are only going to get worse in the waiting period. Once you get there take the lifts up to Level 5, when I was there two days ago the lifts were out of order, so you’ll have to explore the mall to find escalators that actually take you up to the correct floor. Once you get to level 5 you’ll be greeted by the local red shirt security guards, who will be wearing khakis and black shirts, carrying walkie talkies. Ignore them, as they are used to seeing tonnes of foreigners walking past and aren’t really interested in you. Luckily I was wearing my red checkered shirt at the time!
You’ll be greeted by long lines of Cambodia and Laos workers sitting down in the foyer, ignore them as they have their own process and instead keep going and turn left towards the car park where you’ll be greeted by hundreds of foreigners with absolutely zero clue whats going on. Remember its going to be very busy with all the migrant workers going home to visit their families for Songkran.
Grab the forms if you haven’t got one already and fill them out on the table at the corner of the class windows. Make sure you have absolutely everything you need at this stage, your forms filled out, photocopies of your passport (these cost a few baht at the various photocopiers dotted around the room) passport photos and of course your money. Then take a quick scouting mission around the room to work out exactly what queue you need to be in. They are poorly labeled on A4 print outs, there is a different queue for each type of visa being applied for, in my case I wanted a tourist Visa extension and was in a line shared with those who needed to do their 90 day reporting. Expect to spend about one and a half hours in a line with various people pushing in ahead of the line and generally causing problems.
Once you get to the front of the line the clerk will check your forms to see that they are correctly filled out and you have all the required paperwork. They’ll ask for your immigration fee (mine was 1900 baht), then staple a number to to the cash and give it back to you.
Once you have your number its time to go into the next room, where you’ll see the various counters and a LCD screen. You can pretty much ignore the LCD screen as the numbers being shown on it have no correlation to whats actually going on in the room. Instead find the counter that applies to your visa, grab a seat and a book and expect a very long wait if you have a Non Immigrant Visa or similar. If you have a tourist visa you’ll be lucky as it seems very few people are extending tourist visas at the moment. I only had to wait for 4 people to be processed (which still took about another 30 minutes) before I made it to the front of the line. Others weren’t so lucky however, and had to wait for hours on the day I was there. You’ll finally get the chance to talk to immigration, who you’ll pay your fee and get your change. You’ll need to leave your passport with them for around 30 minutes (perfect to get lunch) before returning. That is unless you were unlucky enough to get there around 1pm. At 1pm the entire place closes down for an hour, meaning you’ll need to wait until then for the process to start up again. That said, with all the chaos going on, the staff were friendly and professional. I don’t envy the workers having to process all these visas and extensions before the holidays.
I was lucky, my visa was ready at around 12:55. I had other mates who went on the same day who got there at 9am, and didn’t leave until 5pm, while I saw others who got there and were turned around as they didn’t get a number before 1pm.
So, if you are planning on extending your visa at Lad Prao, make sure you eat before hand, bring a book (or a kindle) and expect to lose an entire day in the process. In this case I’m thinking a border bounce or a visa run might actually be more cost (and time) effective than actually going to immigration in Bangkok. I’ve read that it might actually be faster to grab a bus from the Southern Bus Station to Pattaya (1.5 hours away) and visit immigration there, before returning than Bangkok, and a lot less stressful.
If you have the ability to go to another office, or send in your 90 day reporting by mail – do it and avoid the hassle of queuing in a non air conditioned building for 5+ hours in the hottest month of the year. The only upside is, if you look carefully enough, you’ll find a place thats selling either counterfeit or second hand Levis for 150 baht a piece.
I’m glad its the last time I’ll ever have to go through this process, I’m planning to go back to New Zealand in late May.