We bought a camera at Fortune Town.
In fact, we bought a very pricey camera and two equally pricey lenses. It was a grimace and hand over the credit card moment only assuaged a little by the not-insubstantial VAT refund promised at the airport. How it works is you buy the item; the store gives you a formal VAT refund document and, at the sunam bin (airport) you take it to a counter at the far end of the vast check-in hall (your counter is always 500m away from this counter in what’s easily the biggest check-in hall in the world). A wordless man or woman in a bleak 70s style uniform either looks you in the eye and demands to see the goods or looks you in the eye and pauses – to allow you to ponder their power to demand to see the purchases – and then stamps the said form. (Anything vaguely resembling the goods works if they ask.)
You then take the form through immigration and security where a second, not uniformed, person spends 15 minutes studying your form, entering data in a Windows 95 powered machine and, eventually, god willing, hands you the VAT refund – less a pre-defined administration fee. (It’s still more efficient than the EU one when it works.)
All good – and there I was at the second VAT counter. A stamp I had and thus I was after my $500+ refund. The woman looked at my forms, looked at me, looked at my forms, looked back at me and said, not original invoice. What? No … they are.
Copy invoice, sorry.
I looked at them and it seemed they were the copy from the second layer of the printed slip. Why did that make a difference?
(Thai rules matter.)
I pleaded she looked sad for me, so I suggested she ring the store – the number was there. She nodded and agreed. After a minute or three in chatting in Thai on the phone, she said it was sorted and the money would go onto my credit card within 3 months. Credit card? Three months? No…
But it was little use and she gave me a card with a number to call and a reference number if I had any problems. I didn’t for a moment think I wouldn’t.
Two months passed, and I was back in Thailand. There was no money, so I rang the number on the card. It was disconnected. I found a “VAT For Tourists refund” number on a Thai government site and rang it. After going from person to person (you could sense the speed at which the phone was passed), none of whom spoke any English finally someone responded: she screamed and hung up. I rang back and went from person to person. This time I ended up with a nice lady who took my passport number and told me to wait. The line went dead again so I called back and went through the litany of nervy people until I was back with the nice lady.
Declined, she said – you need original invoices. I tried to explain but eventually asked if I could get the ‘original invoices’ was it possible to bring them in – it was, after all $500. There was silence as she seemed to fumble for a response. You could feel the terror coming down the line. You could smell it.
Isn’t that lunch time?
How about 2pm.
Ka… You must come to the 17th floor. I am Khun Celia.
In the next two days I gathered the invoices from home and visited the camera store – I was complete. Originals.
I scanned them – there was no way I was going to hand these over unrecorded.
Thus, on Wednesday next, I called a cab. It was a scorcher – high 30s and rising with nary a cloud – when I set off for the address in Aree listed on the website I had gathered the number from. The entrance on Soi Aree 1 was impressive: large gates and a sign in both English and Thai that said The Ministry of Finance and The Treasury. Behind it, a long drive went past security and a big car park towards a very large building surrounded by several smaller ones. The taxi dropped me at the entrance to the big building and I approached the doorman. In fractured Thai I asked for the VAT Refunds For Tourists office on the 17th floor. I pointed up – and quickly understood there were at the most 5 visible floors. Perhaps the tower was at the back – it was, after all, a massive building surrounded by others. I asked the doorman again and he wandered away without saying a further word so I went into the big foyer. Way down the back – maybe 100 metres – behind wide stairs, there was an escalator door, so I ambled down there, hoping for an easy path to the elusive 17th floor. It said 1–2‑3–4‑5 so I reversed course and walked towards a door on the left side. I walked into a vast room with hundreds of desks, each one manned or womaned by a person in a brown uniform. Uniformly they saw me walk in and as one all quickly ducked under their broad desks.
I left and walked across to another door on the opposite side. I walked in and had an exact repetition of disappearing heads. I was the monster.
Slowly, around desk 282, a girl stood. She crept slowly towards me, head bowed.
Hello, I said. VAT? Tourist? Can you help?
Having found the one brown clad clerk who was willing to risk the farang I was not going to walk away.
She looked at me and asked, in decent English, what do you want?
The VAT Refunds For Tourists office – it’s on the 17th floor.
She wandered away and talked to another person – under a desk – and returned.
We have no 17th floor.
I’d gathered that, so I asked again: where is the VAT Refunds For Tourists office? I asked in Thai too.
She indicated that I should follow her, and we went back to the doorman. After a conference she looked at me.
It’s not here.
Where is it? That $500 was looking elusive and I was wondering if it was worth it but that thought quickly passed when she returned from a second conference with another doorman: it’s in the Revenue building. You are in the Treasury building.
Ok, so where is the Revenue building?
You go out the door and turn left. Then you follow the road for 500 metres.
No, you then turn right and walk 500 metres until you see a Starbucks.
No, turn left and walk past towards a lake and a tall building.
Oh that’s it…
No, that’s the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment. You go past that and then you will see another big building.
No, that’s the Department of Water Resources. It’s behind that.
I thanked her, and she wai-ed and rapidly scurried back to her desk. Heads popped up as I left and walked out. I bet I was the talk of the office for days.
I walked out and there sat a pristine tuk-tuk and smiling driver. He looked at me and I looked at him. How much to go to Revenue? 500B he said, and I told him to piss off. 150B will take me across this vast city in an air-conditioned cab. He smiled and shrugged so I set off.
It was warm. In fact, it was now very hot and this was in a time before that pleasant lady doctor at Bumrungrad Hospital rubbed my head and said, you need to wear a hat from now on. The RealFeel™ said 44 but I’d come this far so I headed on. The tuk-tuk guy called out four hundred. It wasn’t even a starting point so off I trekked, receipts and name in hand, looking for the 17th floor. The first five hundred metres were relatively easy – although my blood temperature was clearly rising – and was eased by a large water from the aforementioned Starbucks. I turned left and carried on under the early afternoon sun. The second five hundred seemed to go on forever and I began to duck from tree to tree all the time looking up hopefully for a cloud that never arrived.
The Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment did arrive though. It had a very large pond out the front, one which looked like it could be rather lovely if tended. Today, however, it was green and stagnant-looking, smelled a great deal and had plastic bags and bottles much like my Starbucks bottle floating in it. It extended to the next building, The Department of Water Resources. I held my nose and eased past the depressing pond in front of the Department of Water Resources. People in brown uniforms went past me in an assortment of tuk-tuks, all bemused, some perhaps could have recently been found under desks. Few – if any – farang probably ventured into this epic government compound. Even fewer took the perp walk from Treasury to Revenue past the stagnant pond outside the Department of Water Resources. You just didn’t, you just gave up when confronted by daunting and comprehendible Thai bureaucracy and dead phone lines.
And lordy, then, though eyes clouded by torrents of salty sweat, I was there. Before me stood a very big building – not just tall but wide in each direction. The sign said Revenue Department and reassured, I wandered into the pointlessly immense three storey foyer.
There, in the far corner was a small desk. The rest of the vast foyer was empty aside from two up and down escalators leading to a small mezzanine with three lift doors. I walked to the desk: Khun Celia? 17th floor? I enquired hopefully and desperately. The nonplussed (as in she didn’t duck) lady at the desk – whose brown uniform had badges of what I assumed were rank – looked at her screen. VAT Refund for Tourists? I added for detail.
She peered and scrolled and peered and searched. 17th floor she said and pointed up to the elevators.
But I need your passport.
It was a trick, I knew that straight away: no passport, no refund …. so, I declined. She looked confused then annoyed, so I offered my NZ ANZ ATM card. It was enough, and I was handed a pass to tag on my sweat infused shirt.
The guard waved me up the escalator, checking my pass carefully to, I guess, ensure I hadn’t swapped it for a fake in the last thirty seconds since he’d seen it handed to me. And then I was at the 17th floor. There were two doors – one said: VAT Refunds and the other said VAT Refunds. I took a chance. I walked into the office and heads dropped below large numbers desks in swift unison.
Hello, VAT Refunds for Tourists? Nothing happened. I said it again and a young man appeared from behind a wall. He looked at my handful of now-grubby receipts and wandered off without a word. I stood for what seemed to be an eon and then – from the other end of the big room came a petit young lady. Khun Simon, she asked quietly. Khun Celia? Please be Khun Celia….
She nodded, smiled and said, you are late. We expected you at 12 o’clock. She spoke slowly in haltingly passable good English but refused to look me in the eye. She pointed to a distant desk, the last one in the room, and we walked down there. You must talk with Khun Pravat, he is in charge of VAT Refunds For Tourists customer relations. The same young man as before looked at me and said something in swiftly Thai. I understood a few words but asked if he could perhaps speak in English? Khun Celia explained quickly that Khun Pravat spoke only Thai. So, the man in charge of customer relations for the VAT Refunds For Tourists spoke no foreign language. At least he wasn’t hiding from me.
Is there anyone else in his department who speaks English? No, he is the whole VAT Refunds For Tourists Tourist customer relations department. (As a reference, Thailand has 30 million tourists a year. Perhaps that was why the number was disconnected? A disconnected number is much like having a desk to hide under.)
Khun Celia, who I’d decided I liked, offered to translate. Good, I think. And it mostly was until it came to the part about me leaving the receipts there and they would get right back to me. I knew that I would never see the receipts or the money if I left them with the man who spoke no English at VAT Refunds For Tourists who was the customer relations department.
This was lost in translation and took me a good five minutes to explain without offending their ‘professionalism’. I got there, by suggesting a middle ground: I would leave the invoices there if a) I could take a photo of the two of them holding them, and b) they would sign the scan of the invoices I had, agreeing that they had these. Thus, I took a photo of the pair, both also holding their ID cards. These I noted on my scan too. They signed.
Khun Pravat and Khun Celia seemed happy with this process and asked to look at the photo which they did so, very approvingly. I promised a copy when I was paid. Selfies – even ones taken by sweaty farangs – always open doors in a country where most people only communicate at meal time via social media. We took a second shot of the three of us smiling with thumbs up. I think this last one was the pivotal deal clincher. My refund now had social meaning.
We bowed with wide smiles. I wished my new friends and their families chok-dee mak (much good luck), and we all touched our hearts and I left. In the foyer I retrieved my ATM card and walked outside.
The man with the tuk-tuk was there so I smiled at him too and got in.
The money arrived on my credit card two weeks later and I forwarded the photos. I have no doubt they are somewhere on Instagram as I type.