PSA: You need a visa to go to Australia! This is a very important announcement for anyone reading and thinking of ever going. This minor detail will also come into play later in this story of our 24-hour journey from the Thai Islands to Northern Australia.
Our journey begins at 8:30am on June 26th as we wait for the janky white van minibus to pick us up from our hostel in Koh Lanta. We had booked our trip to the islands to start in Krabi and end in Koh Lanta because (theoretically) it was a shorter journey to get back to Phuket from Koh Lanta than Krabi. But once again…this is the off season and nothing is easy. There is only one ferry running from Koh Lanta to Phuket and it leaves early morning, but our flight is not until 8pm. So our hostel receptionist recommends that we go by minibus. However, the minibus can only pick us up at 8:30. So we set out in a packed bus for a 2-3 hour journey back to Krabi. We did not know that this was the route we were taking and found it quite comical when we ended up mere blocks from Hogwarts Hostel…the place we vowed to never see again.
We were told to get out of the bus and wait for another bus to come that would take us to the airport. But we were given no exact waiting time. So we sat and sat and finally asked if we would have enough time to run to 7 Eleven and get some snacks for the long day and night ahead. We quickly got snacks and made it back to the random storefront we were dropped off at and loaded our stuff on to a bus and settled in for the ride. Well the ride ended up being only 5 minutes and we found ourselves being instructed to get off with our bags. We then waited with another group of tourists who had no idea what was going on until we were sorted out by destination and loaded on to another bus (this is the last bus, I promise). This time we settle in for real for what is about to be a 4-5 hour bus ride with ants crawling everywhere and no AC. Some might consider this a special version of hell.
We were the only passengers with Phuket International Airport as our final destination. The rest were headed for a beach some distance beyond the airport. I read the road signs as we got closer to the airport and readied myself and my things so we could quickly get off. It’s a good thing I did, because as the airport came into view, the bus driver started to pull over on the highway. As this is happening, I think Carly and I both murmur a faint “noooo” of disbelief. He was probably just pulling over to check something, right? He had to be. But wait…he’s getting out of the car and opening the van door. Sure enough “airport” is announced and he’s unloading our bags. “Hi, sir. How exactly do we get to the airport?” He just points across the highway to the building. We feel every eye in the van watching us, waiting to see what we do, as they pull away. For a few seconds, all we could do is stand there and think “of course.” Followed by maybe a thought or two of “thank God we are leaving this country”… We collected ourselves and ran across the first stretch of highway with our bags trailing behind. We reached the median and waited as traffic cleared again and then hauled all of our stuff up the car onramp entrance to the airport as cars drove past. It honestly felt like a scene from a movie or a prank show.
Once we figured out how to finally get inside the airport, we had about 4 hours to kill before we could even check in to our flight. So we found the only real restaurant in the airport and had a leisurely long lunch/dinner while dreaming of Australia.
The time comes to check in to our flight. We wait in line for about 30 minutes before finally reaching the front. Our bags are on the scale, our documents have been passed over, and the attendant looks at us and asks, “You have visa for Australia?” I don’t think it processes at first, and we respond by saying we are from the U.S. We don’t need a visa, right? But wrong, we do. And we honestly had no idea. Nowhere did we read that a you had to apply for a visa before going to Australia. We were convinced we had even checked. Or maybe we only checked the Thailand and New Zealand visa requirements and thought Australia fell among them? Australia is a commonwealth and you don’t need a visa to go to the UK. Why should we need one for there? But, as I’ve already mentioned, you do. And with that, we were asked to get out of line so she could help the next person who actually is going to Australia.
They say if you want to learn a lot about a person you should travel with them. Preferably to a “difficult” place or one where you will probably face some obstacles or stress-inducing moments. I would consider this one of those moments. And I must say, I learned a lot about Carly, and I learned a lot about myself. And we are a couple of bosses. I know what a younger me would have done. I would have broken out in to tears the second the word visa came out of that woman’s mouth. I would have cried and thought the world was ending and my whole trip is going to be ruined and I can’t even begin to fix this –this is too big to fix. I don’t know if it was our work background that conditioned us to be calm and collected when dealing with unforeseen circumstances and “crisis” management, but we looked at each other, had a minute of “are you kidding me?! How f*%@king stupid are we?” (There might have been a few more expletives) And then we got to work. We got them to get us on to wifi, verified that we did in fact need a visa, and found an online agency that could get us one within 24 hours for only $10. But we didn’t have 24 hours. We had 2 hours until our plane to Singapore left and then only a two hour layover until the plane to Australia. Carly received the confirmation emails that our applications had been received and to reply in 24 hours if you had still not received the actual visa. Australia is three hours ahead, and it was already after 9pm on a Saturday night. She replied anyway asking them to rush both of ours as we had a plane to catch. Then we made the decision that we could not stay another day in Thailand and to at least make it as far as Singapore. Maybe we would receive our visas by then. If not, it was a new place to explore and there were probably a lot more flights out of that airport to Australia anyway. If we didn’t get them in time, we would have to find a hotel or hostel, book a whole new flight, and most likely miss our Great Barrier Reef tour that we had on the schedule for our first full day. It was possibly going to be a very expensive mistake, yet there was nothing we could do but accept it. So we did. And not a single tear was shed.
We did deal with it by going to the airport BurgerKing so we could drown our sorrows with coke, iced coffee and fries (and take advantage of their free wifi to obsessively refresh our email tab). The time came for us to check back in with the airline and still no visa. So they checked our bags to Singapore and sent us on our way.
That two hour flight to Singapore was simultaneously one of the longest and shortest flights of my life. My iPod was acting up and randomly played a couple of key songs, so I had a feeling my brother was looking out for us. As we were landing, I had fully accepted that we would be spending the next day in Singapore and even started to look forward to this unexpected stopover. It’s the journey, not the destination, isn’t that what they say? But we still ran off that plane and to the nearest wifi zone. To my actual surprise, a girl named Megan pulled through, and our visas had been processed. I was in absolute shock. God is good, miracles do happen, faith in humanity was restored. We rushed through immigration, collected our bags, checked in to the flight to Cairns, and made it back through immigration in about 25 minutes. That left us plenty of time to explore the Singapore airport (which is amazing, by the way). At 1:10am, we boarded the 6 hour flight to Australia and passed out. We arrived a little after 10am still in disbelief that we had made it. It was a long 24 hours that probably took a year off of my life.
Lesson learned: always double check visa requirements.