Sunday, February 21, 2010


I was in South East Asia recently. In a few days I visited Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. I was traveling on an Australian passport, and I needed visas for Vietnam and Indonesia.

In the case of Indonesia, I was able to get a visa at the border, which is basically just a shakedown exercise in which I had to pay $25 to enter the country. Indonesia recently had a scandal in which officials were apparently hiding the existence of a $10 visa for up to seven days, charging people the full $25 charge that applies for up to 30 days, issuing the seven day visa and pocketing the $15 difference. The government solved this corruption problem by abolishing the $10 seven day visa, thus making things better for nobody except the government. Thus I had to pay $25 for just a day's visit, although I didn't realise this until I got there.

In the case of Vietnam, I was able to get a visa at the airport on arrival. This had to be approved in advance. This approval can only be obtained through local travel agents in Vietnam. What one does is send one's passport details to a travel agent in Hanoi over the internet (and pays them a fee - I paid $20). The travel agent then sends the details on to the government, which issues a letter to the travel agent saying that the visa on arrival has been approved. The travel agent then e-mails you a scan of the letter, and you bring this with you to the airport. Once you arrive in Vietnam you pay another $25 fee to the government at the airport, and they issue your visa.

This all seems entirely pointless (and the necessity of the travel agent as a middle man strikes me as dubious), but these sorts of shakedown exercises are actually a big improvement on some of the queuing at consulates and other weird practices at peculiar hours that I have been put through to get visas in the past.

In addition, whenever I entered a country I had to fill out one of those silly forms giving my name, address, name of hotel and other kinds of information that nobody is ever going to read. These forms are big on asking where you are staying for some reason. Often enough I haven't finalized this when I arrive, or I am planning on spending three hours in the airport before heading somewhere else, or such, and so I have mastered the art of simply writing down something that sounds plausibly like the name of a hotel in that city. (In cities I visit regularly, I sometimes use the names of real hotels I am not staying at).

Sometimes you have to keep one part of the form in your passport between arrival and exit, with unknown consequences if you lose it. (In the world's shittier countries, the consequences are "pay a bribe", but in truth I wasn't in the world's shittier countries). I entered Singapore a total of five times and had to fill out the form each time. On one occasion crossing from Malaysia to Singapore, I had no pen on me, but somebody else had left one with purple ink on the desk, which I used to fill out the form. When I got to the immigration desk I was told that it had to be blue or black. The immigration officer was sympathetic and actually made a phone call to see if he could accept the purple, but in the end I was sent back to fill it in again. I shouldn't be hard on Singapore specifically, here. By the standards of the region their procedures are smooth, and they provide free sweets. I do wonder what they do with all the forms though. The principal border crossing between Malaysia and Singapore is crossed by something like a hundred thousand people a day. I cannot imagine that anyone reads any of the forms, let alone all of them, particularly given that most of the same information can be read electronically from people's passports.

The other hassle of traveling in this part of the world is all the different currencies. Specifically, every country has one. One has all the hassle of obtaining local currency, not withdrawing too much, spending all or most of it before leaving the country, and not running it with one last thing to pay before they will let you leave the country. (What is it with "You have to pay the airport tax, and no, we don't take credit cards. In fact, we only take Altarian dollars", anyway).

When I first came to Europe, it was like this too. Different currencies in each country. Lots of border formalities. Even sometimes the need for visas. (Australians needed visas for France and Spain as little as a decade ago). Silly forms. Most of this is gone, now. The Euro and the Schengen agreement have made my life a lot easier. The only people with separate currencies and silly forms are largely now the British, and people like the Russians and Ukrainians. They don't bother me as much now that I am a British national and I live here, but they bureaucratic instinct has become strong in this regard. The EU single market does make Europe a much easier place to travel around. In this regard, I wish ASEAN would follow.

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