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The Expat Files

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Working in Thailand


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Part 1: The Legal Process

Getting married to a Thai is easy, and here's how! Just follow this simple 3-step guide.

First, go to the Consular Section of your embassy in Bangkok. There, you will need to have your passport and an affirmation of freedom to marry letter, which they will endorse to prove that either you are still single or any previous marriages have been terminated. If you have been married before, you will also need to supply a divorce or death certificate, depending on how you escaped the first time. To make things easier, the British Embassy website has an example of the letter for you to copy and a list of all the paperwork you need. It costs 2,625 baht (in 2006) to get your freedom to marry verified at the British Embassy, and it is quick and painless.

After getting your letter endorsed by the embassy, you need to get it translated into Thai. There are several translation agencies within a 5-minute walk of the British, American and other Embassies on Witthayu Road, and it costs about 400 baht. Once you've got that, the second step is to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs way out on Chaeng Wattana Road in Laksi district and there have the translation verified. That will take a few hours (if you pay 800 baht for the "express" service.) Again, it’s pretty efficient and relatively painless.

I followed these steps when I officially married Pim so that we were legally married before Tommy was born. So far, it had been easy and we were getting complacent. We now had to take our endorsed letters to the registrar’s office and have the marriage certificate issued. We wandered into the Bangna Registrar’s Office in Bangkok at about 11am and were already hungry, but we figured we'd be out by lunchtime.

Pim was 7 months pregnant and it was very crowded with only about 4 chairs in the whole place, but it shouldn't take long, surely. We had all the right paperwork after all. Everything had gone smoothly so far, and we assumed that the final part would be a 1 hour formality. WRONG.

We spent half a day in there, finally stumbling out at 4pm. It was pure chaos. The small, run-down old office was crammed with happy couples getting married, proud parents registering births, the bereaved registering deaths, the liberated registering divorces and the identifiable getting their ID cards. No-one seemed to know what they were doing and this included the staff.

Upon entering, you are supposed to take a number and wait, but there are 3 different coloured sets of laminated numbers on spikes on a table. Nobody knows which numbers are for which counters and everyone who wanders in grabs one or more off each spike. Some might later work out which coloured numbers they need and replace the ones they don't. This means that the numbers on the spikes are all out of sync, but it doesn't matter because nobody calls out numbers or displays them on an electronic board to let you know when it's your turn anyway. The numbers are like those traffic lights that have countdown clocks. They are supposed to keep you calm but they just add to the frustration because the system doesn't work.

When a seat finally becomes vacant at the desk, you have to be ready to push in front of other love struck couples who still look fresh and obviously haven't been there as long as you. This is not very often. Thai bureaucracy is at it's finest here as pen pushers push pens and then wander with your paperwork over to other pen pushers at other desks to push their pens over your papers once they have cleared enough space on their paper-strewn desks to place your precious documents somewhere in the middle of this mess. They will shuffle papers and look as if they have lost something or they can't remember what they were looking for. After a while, they may sign the papers and then key some information into their computers. The papers are then ready to be carried over to another pen pusher at another desk and the process is repeated again and again and again and........

They have computers for Christ's sake! Why aren’t they connected to a central network? Why are they so disorganised? I have a lot of experience of office management and I can't help feeling that I could overhaul the whole system within a week and have it running efficiently.

There are basically two problems here. The first is that the staff are worried that they will be replaced by computers, and the second is the Thai business “culture”, whereby people just do as they are told in their jobs without ever offering up ideas for streamlining or making a system more efficient. It is not the “thing to do” to challenge a senior member of staff no matter how incompetent they are. There are only three criteria for getting promoted in a Thai company: knowing or being related to a senior member of staff, working in the same office for a very long time without upsetting anyone, or being old. The word “subordinate” is overused in Thailand, both practically and conceptually. It is common for “subordinates” (I hate that word) to sit quietly through an entire meeting in submissive acceptance of whatever their “superiors” say. They may disagree with a dictated new policy or order, but they will not challenge it, implementing it begrudgingly, which can only be bad for morale and efficiency.

This seniority system was clearly in effect here as in the middle of this chaos, sitting at a large desk, was a “senior” female member of staff, who spent the entire time we were there transfixed to the latest soap operas on a TV set she had set up next to her, joyfully oblivious to the mayhem and misery around her.

The staff all looked like they hated their jobs and I bet secretly they have great ideas for upgrading the system, but they never let on because they are afraid either to confront their superiors or to be replaced by a computer.

A Thai friend is Head of IT at a large international bank in Bangkok, and when I told him about the hassle we had gone through and my theories about why such inefficient bureaucracy prevailed, he echoed my sentiments about the staff’s fear of becoming obsolete and the idiosyncrasies of the Thai business culture, but he also added a couple more insights of his own. He suggested that it was a power trip for otherwise useless individuals to have a subordinate walk over to them with their heads bowed, asking them to sign some papers. He also pointed out that you can’t pass money through a computer screen, so opportunities for petty corruption would be limited.

By the time we finally got married, we could have been auditioning for Bride of Frankenstein. We were like two zombies. The Registrar was all smiles and pleasantries, but we weren’t having any of it. JUST GET US MARRIED SO THAT WE CAN GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE AND GO AND GET SOMETHING TO EAT. It was a lovely day.

Paul Snowdon

Marrying a Thai: Part 2 Surprise Wedding

Marrying a Thai: Part 3 The Ceremony

Back to Family Matters


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