Thursday, September 26, 2013

Customer Service, Logic and the American Embassy in Bangkok

It seems that the American Embassy in Thailand is one of the largest in the world.  Given that it is run by the federal government, I assumed there would be a certain amount of bureaucracy when I discovered I had to visit to get fingerprinted.

Making an appointment on line was fairly straightforward.  I was optimistic that the visit would also go smoothly.  I wasn't happy that it was going to cost me $50 to be fingerprinted, but needed them to get my CA teaching credentials.

I was a bit stressed when I arrived for my appointment because I arrived with minutes to spare before my appointment.  The taxi driver seemed disappointed when we arrived at the Qatar embassy and I wouldn't get out of his car.

First I stood in line at an outside booth.  After forking over my passport and a copy of my appointment ticket, I was given a security badge and told to wait in another line in front of the door.  I waited there for about five minutes and then was allowed into a small area where I confirmed that I had none of the restricted items on me.  No packback, camera, cell phone, etc.

I was directed to the fourth line and watched as my purse was put through an x-ray machine.  As I was preparing to walk through the x-ray, I was stopped.  The guard asked what electronics I had in my purse.  Oh crap, Mr. Kindle.  I assumed there would be waiting and it wasn't on the restricted list so I brought him along.

I was politely told that the list of restricted items had changed and I could not bring my Kindle in.  Nor could they hold it in the area where they were putting cellphones, cameras, backpacks and other items from non-Americans visiting the embassy.

I asked what I should do, since I had come to Bangkok for this appointment.  I was told I should go outside and give my Kindle to someone on the street.

"Excuse me?" I asked with total confusion.

 "Yes, just go outside and ask someone to hold it for you, then come back."  the Thai employee replied.

"You mean, just hand it to anyone on the street?"  I asked in disbelief.

"Yes, a man walked that way and then came back without his camera. You can do that, too."

"But I don't want to lose my Kindle."

"No, no, you'll get it back, just give it to someone to hold."

Now, I trust Thais as much or more than I trust Americans.  But there is no chance that I would trust a stranger on the street to just stand there and hold Mr. Kindle until I came back an hour or two later to collect it.  But, as the employee pointed out I had no choice if I wanted to get in the Embassy.

I headed out and asked the first security guard outside the building.  He didn't speak English but pointed with great vigor down the street so I started walking that way.  I asked another embassy guard a block up the road.  He didn't speak English either but his gestures encouraged me to keep going in the same direction I was headed.

I spotted a high rise office building and thought perhaps they would allow me to store it in their reception area.  I was incorrect.  And, it was pretty clear that I was not the first American to ask them to hold an item and they were not amused.  They brusquely told me to keep walking to the market, a few blocks down the street, and give it to someone there.

I kept walking.  I chatted with two more security guards who both kept waving me down the road.  As I approached the market I saw a man standing next to a card table.  He immediately approached me and in English asked if I needed to store something so I could go in the embassy.  It seems he was a clever entrepreneur who was taking advantage of the new, tighter restrictions at the embassy.  For 100B, about $3.20, I could leave Mr. Kindle.  He gave me a receipt and I hotfooted it back to the embassy to start standing in line again.

While I waited in line I overheard a young guy having a similar discussion with embassy security about his backpack.  Seems he had flown in the night before and his wallet and passport were stolen.  I explained the mystery of the "give it to someone to hold" and also gave him the 100B he needed.  I figured it could be a scam but if it was he was working really hard for very little money.

I finally got back into the building and through security an hour after my appointment time.  I was waved in the general direction of another building on the compound and told to go there and check in.  I waited in line again (line #7) and was excited to get to the head of the line and explain why I was there.

You can imagine my reaction when he explained that they don't do fingerprints but could give me a map to the one police station in Bangkok that could do them.  "But when I made the appointment it said on the website that you did them."  "Maybe we used to but we don't now."

He went on to explain that I would need to contact the FBI in Washington to request the proper cards for fingerprinting and that I need copies of at least 4 different documents in order to be fingerprinted.  At that point I was so frustrated I thought I'd read over the Thai police requirements he'd given me later.

I figured as long as I was there I might as well get pages added to my passport since I'd need them sooner or later.  I was directed to the cashier to pay the $82 fee.  I asked if they took American Express since I only saw signs for Visa and Mastercard.  And after all, it is AMERICAN express.  And I wanted to pay the AMERICAN government.

The cashier said she didn't know if they took American Express.  She said sometimes they do.  How does that work?  She asked me to wait while she checked.  Several minutes later she came back and said it worked.  Yippee!

Then I was told to slide my receipt and passport through a slot in a window.  That made me nervous, since I had no receipt or proof that I'd left it there but since I didn't have a choice, I shoved it in the window and as instructed headed to the waiting room.

Forty five minutes later my passport was returned and I was on my way back to collect Mr. Kindle.  He was there waiting and after I forked over the 100B, he was safely back in my purse and I was headed back to the hotel.

I needed a nap.

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