"Tracks To Romance"
March 22, 1985
Another American traveler pointed out to me that my visa for Thailand was good only for two weeks, not the two months I had thought. Having learned this unexpected detail only the day before the visa was to expire, it was all I could do to catch the next express train out of the country.
Because of one of those bizarre quirks of foreign bureaucracy that I'll never quite learn to appreciate, one could not obtain a visa extension for Thailand in Thailand. Rather, one had to go to another country to obtain a new visa, at one of Thailand's foreign consulates.
On the 36-hour train ride to the quite unMalaysian-sounding town of Butterworth (a vestige of Malaysia's days as a British colony), I discovered, to my pride's relief, that a large part of the packed train was made up of other foreigners likewise hurrying off to Malaysia for Thai visas. Indeed, I learned that the same train was continually rushing dozens of new visa aspirants to the otherwise lonely fishing village of Butterworth. It was to the point anymore that any Westerner who stepped into the Bangkok train station was automatically directed to the ticket window for the southbound express.
Now maybe I was wrong, but I certainly couldn't help wondering if the Thai king's treasury didn't have a veritable genius when it came to figuring out how to make the railroads and foreign consulates pay for themselves. At $20 for each visa, it wasn't too difficult to understand how the consulate in Butterworth (actually in a nearby island city called Georgetown) could be housed in such a magnificent mansion.
Still, his majesty's treasurers were mere amateurs compared to others far more experienced, like the Italians, who could make you smile broadly no matter how many traveler's checks fell prey to your signature. So I decided to let the others do the huffing-1 would settle down and make a point of enjoying what otherwise seemed to be a very special sort of journey.