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Thursday, May 15, 2008


Replacing a passport—easy

Today I got my new passport. Some time back I mentioned in an email to a Thai friend who works in the Australian Embassy in Bangkok that getting a new passport was not easy. Got an email back from my friend who had talked to colleagues in the consular section. They had told her to tell me it was quite easy. Here's what I've been through. Judge for yourself.

I rang the Embassy after I discovered my passport was missing. If you check the dfat website it says you should do this as the passport must be cancelled to prevent it being used illegally. At the consulate they weren't so concerned. They said the first step was to contact the Bangkok Tourist Police and get a police report. But that I shouldn't put my report into the Embassy until I was 100% sure the passport was not going to turn up. Once they'd started the process to replace it, it couldn't be stopped and the costs would still apply.

I did a search on the internet for tourist police in Bangkok and got conflicting information from different sites. There was supposed to be one in Sumkumvit Road near my school. I asked another Australian student who lives in the area. He gave some vague directions. One of us must be mistaken because I did a lot of walking and didn't find it. Rang the tourist police from home later. The woman I spoke to had no patience with my inability to understand her directions and said I should go to the local police station. They could call the tourist police and ask for help with translation.

Went to the police station near my home. Two officers there spoke a little English so between that and my Thai we communicated fairly well. They didn't ask much, filled out a form, took a few baht from me and handed me the form. I couldn't believe that was all there was to it. I suggested they ring the tourist police. They did and put me on after a minute. The officer I spoke to said the form I had was the report.

After I'd turned my room upside-down three times I headed off to the embassy. It's not exactly convenient to where I live. It takes me an hour and a quarter on a good day by public transport to get to my school. The embassy is a little further on from there. The first visit I went in a roundabout way but now I know the shortest route. I always appreciate opportunities to improve my geography of the place where I'm currently living.

I guess since 9-11 the Australian government has become a little paranoid about it's overseas embassies. I've visited Australian embassies in other countries but security here seems a little over the top. There are high bars right along the street front. At the gate you have to state your business and they let you in the gate. You can't take a bag in past this first gate and no mobile phone. I hope they pay those security people well or at least cover them with good insurance because if anyone had a bomb in their bag they're the ones who'd get it. I had to take out all the bits and pieces I needed at the consulate and carry them in my hands. I then walked through an electronic security gate and on the other side I'm scanned by a hand held device and felt up a little. They check everything in my pockets. Then they let me through the next locked gate. All this is done in a polite and friendly manner. No complaints there.

On the other side of the two gates I walk alongside an artificial waterway stocked with fish. I remind myself to be extra careful. The safe way to carry these documents would be in a bag. But they won't allow me a bag. I have lots of bits and pieces. I wonder if anyone's ever dropped their passport in the water. After about 50 metres I enter the building and have to empty everything I'm carrying and everything in my pockets into a box while I walk through another electronic security gate and am scanned and felt up a little again. I have to go through two more locked doors controlled by another security person. And then I'm in. I'm on Australian territory.

I go upstairs to the consulate section and have to take a number. No one else is waiting and there is no one on duty. Guess it's the end of their lunch break. When someone arrived I explained what I was there for and they gave me a form to take home and fill out. The form includes a section to be signed by a guarantor. They also gave me a list of suitable people who I could use as a guarantor and an extra form to fill out to explain how I could be so stupid as to lose my passport.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog I have had my passport stolen on two occasions before. A major difficulty at that time was getting the photo right. Australia has very specific instructions about size and other characteristics of the photo for a passport. I guess in Australia most photographers know the rules and it's no longer a big deal. At the time I got my first set of photos taken in Melaka. I then had to take these into the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, a few hours away on the bus. The first ones were rejected. I was told where to find the nearest photographer. I figured being so close they might have some idea of what was required. But these too were rejected. Back to the same photographer and this time they got them right. Talking to a consulate official in another country some time later I was told that the rules had changed again and were now even more strict.

At the Bangkok consulate I asked if there was a photographer nearby who knew how to take photographs to fit the requirements. They gave me a business card for one down the road.

At one stage the officer I was talking to went away to get some information. While I was standing at the counter waiting (Did I mention it is a high-security counter like a bank?) a few more people came in. An old guy (well, older than me) said 'G'day mate,' and started a conversation. After I'd finished at the counter we had a bit of a chat. He was there with his Thai wife and I discovered he lived in the same general area that I do. He suggested that we could go back together in a cab. I explained that I had to go and get some photos taken. He said they'd wait for me out the front if they got out first or if I got back first I could wait for them.

So, back downstairs, through the two security doors, outside, walk along the waterway, collect my bag and back into the street. Took me a little while but I found the photographer. Said I needed photos for an Australian passport. He took the photos and I waited while he processed them on his computer. When they were finished he gave me six photos (I needed two) in two different sizes. Just to check, I asked if these were correct for an Australian passport. He gave me a piece of tracing paper printed with the size guidelines. One size seemed to fit. All this took quite a while.

Went back to the consulate to wait for my new friend. As soon as I stopped dead outside the embassy I was approached by one of the two security guards cruising the footpath outside. I explained that I was waiting for my friend. He told me he'd already gone. I got the impression he wanted to move me on whatever. What if the old fellow had not already gone? Would he have allowed me to stay there? Does he have any authority to stop me waiting in a public place? Did he discourage the old fellow from waiting for me? How paranoid are they?

Went home and took a look at the form. To be honest, most of the information required on the form is not all that difficult but they do a good job of making it look that way. There are five pages of instructions as well as guidelines on the actual form which takes another five pages. If it's easy why are so many instructions needed? I consider it to be overkill and would find it less off-putting if they made it a little more brief. The actual form, like so many Australian government forms these days, has little boxes and you are required to write one letter per box. I don't know what others think of this kind of design. But to me it sends a message like 'Don't make a mess or you're in deep shit.' What if you make a mistake? What happens if the information doesn't fit in the boxes? I shortened my address so it would fit.

I filled it all in and then came the challenging bit. Who could I use as my guarantor? It has to be someone who has known me for more than 12 months. There is a long list of professions of people who are considered respectable enough to do this important job. Surely I would know someone belonging to one of them. In the past this list has included teachers but they are missing on this one. What have they done to fall from grace? I know many teachers both in Australia and Thailand. On previous passports, in Australia, I'd got teachers to guarantee me. If I was in Australia it would be easy because anyone who has been on the electoral roll for 12 months is acceptable. An Australian living in Thailand could do it for me but generally, I don't mix with Australians, I mix with Thais.

One of the categories listed is 'public servants—current full-time employees of Commonwealth, State, Territory or Local Governments...who have been employed continuously for five years'. I have a Thai friend who works in a section of the Australian Embassy (remember?) and who has worked continuously for more than five years. I sent her an email and asked if she would be qualified. It turns out she is employed on contracts that get renewed every so often. So while she has in fact been there for over five years full-time she is not considered a permanent employee. I rang the consulate to check on this and they said that was the case. I explained my situation to the person on the phone. 'Don't you have a doctor in Thailand?' she asked.

No. How about pharmacist? I know a pharmacist (a few actually) but they are not practising. They teach at universities.

'Well, teachers are OK.'

Not on this list they're not. If you can accept a teacher I'm out of trouble. I also know a qualified accountant but I'm not sure that they're practising or a member of one of the groups listed (Australian groups).

'Wait, I'll check.' She found another list that included teachers and emailled me a copy. So looks like I'm out of trouble. I rang a friend who works at a nearby university and he agreed to sign it for me.

On my next school day I put the forms in my bag and went off to the school where I'm studying Thai. After school I went the stall where I usually eat my lunch. While I was eating a storm hit. A heavy storm. There was no way I was leaving until it finished. I didn't have an umbrella. My bag was sitting on the ground between my feet—safe there I trust. No, it wasn't. After a while I noticed that the water was running through the stall and my bag was sitting in it. The form had got wet through and was unusable. Fortunately the photos were OK.

On the way home I dropped into the university, visited my friend and showed him the form that there was no point in him trying to fill in. I said I'd return after I'd gone back to the embassy for another form.

Back to the embassy a couple of days later, after my next Thai lesson. Go through the same process of the security checks and all the gates and doors, take a number and once again I'm first in line. While I'm waiting a young guy comes in and I'm able to give him some tips on where to go in Thailand. He has another month here. Hope he hasn't lost his passport. I have a different officer this time. She almost reluctantly gives me a second form. Do they have to account for them our something? As she gives it to me she gives me lots of advice about my application like 'Make sure you use black ink. Do you have this? Do you have that?'

Yeah, I'd read all that stuff and I knew what I had to do but the fact that she felt she needed to explain it to me makes me wonder just how many people come in who have done it wrong. If it is so easy, would she feel the need to give this advice?

Amongst all the instructions I had noticed that it says that supporting documents, if in a foreign language, must be accompanied by a translation. I asked about my police report. It's in Thai. Do I need a translation?

Yes, she was helpful and pointed me to a translation service in the next street. Back through all the security, outside, around the corner and wait while they decipher the cop's writing. I'd tried to read it myself and have to admit my Thai wasn't good enough. But they didn't find it all that much easier. The police officer is in the wrong profession. Should have been a doctor.

A few days later I go back to the university and my friend fills in the guarantor's page. For occupation he writes 'professor' which is correct but I wonder if they can cope with this.

On my next school day I put all the papers and supporting documents into a plastic envelope inside my bag. Yes, I've learned a lesson. And the plastic envelope is also a good idea when I reach the embassy because it holds all the bits together once I leave my bag behind at security. Back upstairs to the consular section and take my number.

I get the same woman as last time—the one with the helpful advice. I had wondered about the photos. When I had measured them neither of the two sizes seemed exactly correct. I'd got my professor friend to sign on two to be safe. But they are OK. She checks through the form asking a few questions. She comes to the guarantee section. 'What's a professor?'

In Thai there are two words for teacher. A teacher at a school is known as 'kroo', at a university 'aa-jaan'. 'Aa-jaan,' I answer. She accepts that but writes 'teacher' in the spaces following. There doesn't seem to be a problem that it is a teacher. I assume that means the information I was given on my first visit was incorrect.

In my previous passport blog I mentioned that I had to pay a $200 'fine' for losing my passport once again. This was wrong. They count how many times in total you've lost a passport in the past five years. I was almost there, almost out of the danger zone. It was 2004 when I had passports stolen twice. But three times in five years means a $400 'fine'. That's on top of the $200 fee for the passport.

How can they justify this? Not the fine, I'll come to that later, but $200 for a passport is over the top. Sure it's embedded with electronic information but that doesn't cost $200. I don't believe so. I expect more for that much money. For $200 I want something I can't lose. I want my passport tattooed on my chest or surely they can plant a chip under my skin somehow. They blame me for losing the passport but are they doing their bit? For $200, I expect something better. But what do I get—an easily-lost glorified 32 page piece of stationery.

BTW, last time I opted for the 64 page passport. As a frequent traveller even that wasn't going to see me out for the full ten years, at four years it was already way past half full. But why pay extra for a big one? If it gets stolen it's so much more to lose.

She can't find anything wrong with my application, accepts my money and gives me a receipt. I'm to come back in a few weeks to pick up my new passport.

A few days later my phone rings. It's the helpful lady from the consulate. My application for a standard ten year passport has been rejected. It seems they're not going to trust me with a full ten year passport but will give me a five year one. I need to come into the embassy once again to sign a document to say I accept this. What can I do? Are they giving me any choice?

From what she said, it seems this is a decision made by someone in Canberra. If it was a standard procedure, I expect she would have known about it beforehand. So this is some public servant in Canberra making a high-and-mighty decision that $400, plus the $200 for the passport is not enough punishment for me.

While the attitude pisses me off, this will really make little difference to me. Assuming that I continue to travel as I have in the past, this passport is unlikely to last me for five years anyway. I'll fill it well before that. Big deal.

What can I learn from this? Is there a lesson for me? Should I become as paranoid as they appear to be at the Australian Embassy? Do you think I'm going to go back to Australia and never travel again? No way! I will make my own choices about how I live my life. If I stop travelling it will be for my own personal reasons and have nothing to do with the passport issue.

Can I do something to ensure my passport isn't stolen again? I would suggest that I've already done that. I've gone four years without having a passport stolen. I must have been doing something right? But realistically, what can one do? Several people have suggested to me that I am foolish to carry my passport with me. Well, please tell me where it is safer. I could leave it in my room but rooms do get burgled. Security where I'm staying is pretty good. I need a keycard to get into the building and they have video surveillance. Despite this, it has its weaknesses, I'm sure an experienced burglar could get in. I could ask the office to put it in a safe for me. But that is passing responsibility to someone else. Somehow, despite my poor record, I'd prefer to trust me. On the day the passport disappeared I was wearing shorts with a side pocket held by two velcro tabs. The passport was in that pocket. I didn't think that would be easy for a pickpocket to get into without me noticing. I guess I was wrong because I can't think how else it would have disappeared. Someone suggested it might have fallen out of the pocket. No way. Those velcro tabs don't come undone like that. I have a range of pouches that can be worn under clothing to hold valuables. I chose to not use them because in near 40℃ heat, it's just a tad uncomfortable. I also heard a story on a travellers' forum of someone who was hugged and felt up by a woman (probably a prostitute) in Ho Chi Minh City. When she felt him up she got a handful of his wallet that he had tucked into his underpants. Fortunately she was honest and warned him not to leave his wallet there as someone else would lift it. Let's face it, if they are keen enough and skilled enough, they are going to get it no matter where you put it.

I was aware that the bulge in the pocket of my shorts looked like a wallet, probably more attractive to a thief than a passport. Assuming my passport was stolen, which is what I believe happened, what would the thief get for it? S/he was probably disappointed that it wasn't a wallet with a few hundred dollars in it. That would go a long way to buying a deal of whatever drug is motivating their actions. Assuming they know someone who buys stolen passports, what would they give? I have no way of knowing but I guess the thief might get $10. Not a big deal to them really. It's a much bigger deal for me to lose it. So, when I get my next passport, wherever I decided to hide it, I will put a sticky note in it offering a reward for its return and give my contact details. $100 from me is better than $10 on the black market. But it's better for me to spend $100 in this way than to pay the Australian government another $600. Whoever stole my wallet is small time. The big rip-off merchants are the Australian government.

What is the potential outcome of the government's loser-pays policy? I think in time it could lead to more stolen passports. If more people like me realise they're better off paying a thief $100 to get a passport returned than to be ripped off for a much larger amount by the Australian government, thieves will see there is money to be made by returning passports to the owner. They have a greater incentive to steal them.

How desperate are the thieves? It seems they don't mind if you die so they can steal your property. Bag snatching is quite common in some parts of Asia, usually by thieves in pairs on motorcycles. This was what happened to me on one occasion in Melaka. At the time there was a spate of such robberies in Malaysia. On one occasion a young woman was walking along a busy street in Kuala Lumpur, perhaps a little too close to the curb. A motorcycle came alongside her and the pillion rider grabbed her bag. She didn't want to let go and was pulled to the ground. She died from the injuries she sustained. When I was in Cambodia there was an incident in Phnom Penh. A young Frenchwoman was riding pillion on a motorcycle taxi. A pillion rider on another bike grabbed her bag and she was pulled off the motorcycle. Apparently she was run over and died. Witnesses were in short supply as no one sticks around after an accident in Cambodia. One is warned to always give a thief what they want rather than risk your life but isn't fining the victim encouraging them to do anything they can to hold onto their belongings? This policy could lead to more innocent people being killed.

If the government thinks fining the victim is a good way to prevent theft, why don't they fine people who get their house broken into? And why stop with theft? Why not fine rape victims? Is it possible that could cut down on the number of rapes? Imagine the outcry if the government did this. No democratic government would be brave enough to introduce such a law. But travellers are a small proportion of the population. They can introduce ridiculous laws like this and most people are blissfully unaware. There are no votes to be lost. This iniquitous law is unlikely to be changed no matter who is in power.

This story is not quite over yet. I have my passport but I still have to get my visa from Thai immigration. Not sure how much is involved there. I'll let you know.


I have just reread my account of replacing my passport four years ago. At that time I posted my photos to Australia for verification. Not sure why they didn't suggest that this time. There is nothing on the form that says you can't do that. But if you were in a hurry to move on, it might be an issue.

If you'd like to read about my earlier missing passports, I wrote about the first theft in my March 2004 blog. The links from that page to the months following lead to more of the story.

And if you think I'm careless to lose three passports in less than five years, read this story.

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