The Migrants at Promenada

Back in August…

Chiang Mai immigration was almost empty this morning, a vast difference from the weekend before Songkran. This time I found a small service desk offering all necessary documents and assistance, they even obliged to translate my apartment’s business card and look up mapped locations on their phone. One of them was male, but also a woman. She misunderstood me when I asked if the service was free. “Don’t think like that! You think just because we Thai people that we cheat you? No, we just try to help you.”

I ordered a cup of coffee and sat at a table by the café, wondering what all of these people do in Thailand. In the retirement and medical line I found a range of elderly to really elderly people. A couple of them looked beaten. Now they’re here, for reasons that are their own.

One elderly man was there with a Thai woman in a tight red dress that showed off her legs and elevated high heels. She was much younger than the man she was with, and a lot slimmer.

An expat and his wife were sitting at a table by the café. I saw them from my periphery. White guy, Thai lady, both in their late forties.

The man told his wife that some of those in line are actually here to do visa work for their clients. Sure saves one a lot of trouble doing it that way.

Everyone around the café was sneezing, due to the restaurant next door cooking a bulk of chilli. Some people laughed about it. Funny what connects a crowd of strangers.

A few of them resembled me. They looked like they’d stood in front of a classroom before. And they glanced at me as if thinking, “He looks like a teacher”. Can a person really sense such things?

I joined the tourist visa extension line shortly before the office opened. A couple of backpackers were next to me in line. Tired-looking ladies, thirty-somethings. I couldn’t help but listen to their conversation.

“I can always tell if someone’s using.”

“Its so obvious, but I guess that comes with experience.”

One of them has been sober for a month and two weeks. I noticed one was wearing big sunglasses. She looked Indian and had an Indian name. Her companion empathised through stories of the addiction that plagued her family. My mind wandered for a while and then came back to the two backpackers. Big Sunglasses said, “I’m a lot better now.”

“Nobody really knows what it’s like to go through it unless they go through it themselves.”

“That’s the truth. I was in a dark place. I didn’t know there was another way to live.”

“That’s what it does to you. You can’t see the way out, so you stay high.”

They were looking at the photo glued to her visa application form.

“You look younger now.”

“Yeah this one here, I was on ice in that photo.”

The line was moving a little. I reached a point in the queue where there was nowhere to sit, so I stood. I was in view of the window facing the office, and the desk where I lost $250 three months before. Immigration Man was right where I’d seen him last. There was a woman shouting in the medical visa queue. I turned to watch. She looked more than a little Chinese. The woman was reprimanding perhaps the oldest and most frail person in the vicinity over her right to use a chair. Her little daughter looked on with a slightly embarrassed face. The man only nodded and held onto his cane. He was bald and had the facial expression of someone who was in a permanent state of exhaustion.

For the rest of the ordeal, I thought about all those people. About how each one of them are at the centre of a unique journey. Together we form a galaxy of narratives, most of which we’ll never uncover. When we’re not thinking about it, the others become background noise. I always shock and embarrass myself at how delicate that noise becomes when I tune in to listen.

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