I’ve been itching to write this post since I got my Philippines visa stamped back in early May. I was very upset and stressed over the entire ordeal. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
I first visited Philippines in 2011. It ended up becoming my greatest trip till date. The photos I took, the places I visited, and the experiences I had made for a series of blog posts that became very popular — especially among Filipinos! So popular that Philippines is now the third highest country driving traffic to my website. I’ve gotten hundreds of comments, e-mails and messages on Facebook from Filipinos thanking me and praising me for giving Philippines a visit.
When I left Philippines in 2011, I knew I wanted to go back and thought about finally doing it earlier this year. The initial plan was to visit Philippines first and then go to South Korea from Manila. I even got a great deal on a Cathay Pacific flight going from Bangalore → Hong Kong → Manila and the return from Incheon → Hong Kong → Bangalore for around Rs. 32k. Unfortunately in April, some idiot in North Korea decided to issue a bunch of threats to their wealthier neighbour and bragged about dropping bombs there and starting a war. Of course, the situation was made worse by Western media, who made a bigger deal out of it than the South Korean media did.
Still, I kept thinking “what if…” and I was considering cancelling the South Korea portion of my journey. I ended up doing so when I began my visa processing work and found out that Philippines has since opened up a consulate in Chennai, and my passport would have to go there first and then go to New Delhi for my South Korean tourist visa. With under three weeks left before my departure date, I called up Goibibo and sadly cancelled the South Korea portion of my flight. I had to shuffle dates, make fresh bookings to Manila and all-in-all I lost around Rs. 5000.
But my misery wasn’t over. In 2011, I got my Philippines visa done through Thomas Cook, who after charging Rs. 1000 as their service fee, got my passport stamped and sent back from New Delhi in just a week’s time. I went to the same Thomas Cook branch in Koramangala, only to be told that all visa applications are now done at the MG Road office. But just to be sure, they called up the Thomas Cook office in Chennai. Then the guy tells me: “Thomas Cook can’t do Philippines visa”. I’m like, “what?!”. I went back home annoyed and decided to visit the MG Road branch of Thomas Cook the next day for better clarification.
When I went to the MG Road branch with all my documents (as specified on the Philippines Embassy website), the Thomas Cook staff told me I may have to provide an additional document. Annoyed that I had to come back again the next day, I asked her if she was sure Thomas Cook could handle the Philippines visa processing. She assured me “of course,” but when I told her what the guy at the Koramangala branch told me, she decided to call up the Chennai office to confirm. She herself was shocked to hear that the Chennai office said they no longer handle Philippines visa applications.
When I asked her what was the reason, she told me they wouldn’t say but it was a blanket “no, we don’t do that anymore” and that the applicant (me) will have to go in person to the Chennai consulate and apply. Which was ridiculous to me, because I didn’t have to deal with all this the last time! Instead, she suggested sending my passport to the Philippines Embassy in New Delhi. When I asked her how long that would take, she told me 7-10 working days. Which was too risky for me because I saw the number of passports the MG Road branch sends to New Delhi every day — it’s in the hundreds, and to various embassies! Add to that, now the service fee for sending it to New Delhi had gone up to Rs. 1700.
I told her I need to think about this because for that kind of money, I can go to Chennai myself and get it done in a day. When I got back home, I felt frustrated over the days lost and all the running back & forth. I called up the Chennai Philippines consulate to check if I needed to apply in person and I was rudely interrupted by a lady who worked there to be told “of course I could use agents like Thomas Cook!” and there was no need for me to come.
But I didn’t feel like wasting any more time, so I packed up my bag, carried copies of every document, carried extra photographs, and decided to go to Chennai by bus that very night.
I reached Chennai at dawn and called up my cousin brother Nitesh, who offered to pick me up and take me to his place to rest before going to the Philippines Consulate on Mount Road. I didn’t want to bother him, but given I barely slept in the bus (due to the nervousness), I accepted his offer. After breakfast, Nitesh dropped me at the consulate and was nice enough to wait for me, thinking that all I had to do was just drop all my documents and come back later to collect my stamped passport.
I purposely came early so that I could be the first applicant. But as soon as I entered the consulate, I sensed trouble. First of all, none of the staff were Filipinos — and there was only one old lady present. I soon figured out this was same grumpy lady whom I spoke to on the phone yesterday. And boy, was she grumpy! This was 9am in the morning and she kept talking to herself about how the traffic gave her a headache, how much her back aches and how much she hated her job as she looked through the applications! Then as the other two staff members — a man just as old as her and much younger woman — quietly made their way in, she took her frustrations to their ears on how she had enough of this work and would quit. Those two just listened and barely said anything because I sensed this was the daily norm here. The Consul General in this three-room office, also an Indian, had yet to come in.
When it was time to begin accepting applications, the grumpy old woman with a strained look on her face asked who came first. Nervously I approached her desk and handed over all my documents along with my cover letter. In the letter I had stated I had been to Philippines before and my blog had become so popular there, and that my purpose of visit was to see the places I couldn’t do in 2011. The cover letter listed my itinerary, with all the places I intended to visit and I even attached the domestic flight tickets I booked. Did she bother to read the cover letter? Nope.
First she did was ask me what I did. I told her I freelance and I had provided two bank statements showing I had more than enough money to fund this trip. I also provided my return ticket along with whatever income tax statements I could provide until 2012. When she asked what the purpose of my visit was, I told her to it was purely sight-seeing. She then had the balls to ask: “why?” I couldn’t believe this woman, and I began to wonder if she had even been to Philippines. I told her I would visit Boracay and tried to show her the PAL Express flight I had booked to Caticlan. But she moved on. And after flipping through all my documents, she asked me where my hotel reservations were?!
I told her I hadn’t booked them yet as I would only do that after I got my visa. She shouted “no!” and told me to come back after booking hotels for all 20 days I was going to be in Philippines. I got really frustrated and told her that it wasn’t even a requirement stated online on the Philippines embassy website! I even told her all these documents were cleared by Thomas Cook… and then she shouted back: “Who is giving the visa? Thomas Cook, or me?!” and then threatened to reject my application if I didn’t go away!
I stayed silent, but stepped away knowing she has the power to abuse her responsibilities. I went back to my chair upset and sorted out my documents she had mixed up. I looked at the other two staff members who gave me a sympathetic smile and when I softly spoke to them saying, “what is this?,” the old man gave me the hand gesture as if to say: “it’s ok, just wait… we’ll do something”.
I sat there and saw how this grumpy old lady treated every other applicant after me. There was a well-to-do father and son who went up next. I assumed “well-to-do” because both of them carried iPhone 5s and the father was sending his young son to Philippines for a pilot training course. But the way that woman spok… sorry, shouted at them. They had all the documents and the father did all the talking, as softly as he could, despite the grump lady’s tone of speech. He too knew who was clearly in charge here and probably had enough experience dealing with “government staff”-like behaviour in all his years in India.
Then there was a guy from ONGC, who was going to Manila for a chess tournament and needed a 21-day visa for only a week-long stay. When the woman saw that he had a U.S. business visa and a Schengen visa in passport, she shouted at him asking why the hell he is applying when such Indian passports get 14-day visa-on-arrival (even I knew that!). He paused, but still insisted on a 21-day visa “just to be sure”. At this point even I was rolling my eyes in disbelief. Then he asked if he paid “extra” could he get his visa “fast”. She told him that he had to pay Rs. 3000 extra, a sum total of Rs. 5400 (PHP3600 / US$98) in order to get his passport stamped in one day.
I sat there thinking if this was the norm at this consulate. A few agents lined up next. Some of them seemed to have interacted with this woman and humoured with her even though she spoke to them in the same ‘shout-y’ manner. Some were applying in the last minute and a few had missing documents — which would make any visa issuing officer angry.
Then came some real cases.
There was Naval officer who came from Cochin and had to fly the very next day to Philippines to see his girlfriend. He told the grumpy lady bluntly that was his reason. She made suggestive remarks asking how he met his Filipino girlfriend and what she does for a living. I’m not going to tell you what he said — because it’s none of her goddamn business to know all that! All his documents were in check and she hesitantly accepted the application for the same day release. And yes, he had to pay extra as well.
Then came a male applicant who said his purpose of visit was tourism and that he would be staying in Manila with his Indian friend there. When the grumpy lady asked him if he plans to visit any other place, he said no, “just Manila”. I called “bullshit” on this immediately because: a) there’s nothing in Manila that requires 21 days of sight-seeing; b) he probably has some other intention for travel. He too was told to come back with a whole bunch of documents from his friend in Manila because that is the norm if he is being hosted by someone already there. Hearing this, I’m glad I didn’t mention that one of my readers, Janet, had offered to host me during my time in Manila. I didn’t want to burden her with paperwork when I could easily book myself in to a hostel or hotel room — something I told her I would do if her place seemed too far away. More importantly, I didn’t want the grumpy lady to make derogatory remarks about my friend, who in reality is older to me and has a respectable job at a university, which pays her well enough to own her own house!
Then came another male applicant who said his purpose of travel was “sight-seeing” — in Manila. At this point the grumpy lady remarked, “…why would you want to visit this dump?!”. Okay, time out. It’s one thing when Filipinos complain about Manila. It’s another thing when foreigners (especially in the West) project Manila as a “third world city” on purpose, while ignoring the parts of Manila that look like any ‘developed’ international city. But a non-Filipino staff member at a Philippines ‘government’ office in another country insulting Manila? I’d really love to see where she lives in Chennai.
But then, when the grumpy lady asked where this applicant would be staying, he had mentioned the same “friend” the last applicant did. When the grumpy lady asked him if he knew the previous applicant… this guy said “no”. Pretty much every one suspected something fishy and the grumpy lady rejected his application and told him to inform the previous applicant (who was still lurking outside) his visa application was rejected as well!
So there, turns out there are a few jackasses from India trying to get to Philippines. Odd thing was, these weren’t the illiterate, low wage earners who are most often the ones trying desperately to get in to a country and then work illegally. Both men claimed to work in software companies in India and provided every other valid documents, including a return flight ticket. I wondered what these people were intending to do in Manila. I remember reading about traffickers in Thailand who cheated Indians by promising jobs in Australia and getting them there. Possible the same “friend” in Manila was using the Philippines as a gateway to Australia? Who knows.
Anyway, the old man who asked me to wait now sat in front of grumpy lady. Then I approached him, but before I could say anything, the grumpy lady shouted and asked me what the hell I’m still doing here! I pointed to the man and told her he said he’ll look at my application. But the old man told me “you go,” and I could tell from his eyes that even he’s scared of her. Ugh!
I gave up, walked out and told my cousin what went down inside. Both of us were furious, but we decided it was best to go home and come back later, instead of shouting at her. I rushed back to my cousin’s place, went to hostels.com and made 4 separate hostel bookings. I used hostels.com because you only need to pay 10%, and if I cancel, they refund the 10% to your website account and you can use the same for future bookings. But I still chose some hostels I was planning to stay at anyway.
Once I took print outs, my poor cousin, who was already lacking sleep because he works the night shift, took me out to lunch before dropping me back to the consulate. By this point, it was past 3pm and as soon as I entered the consulate, the grump lady shouted and asked me why I came back! I told her I had all the documents and she told me time for submissions was over and that I have to come back tomorrow morning at 9am. I pleaded with this
creature woman but she kept shouting “NO!” and told me if I didn’t leave, she would reject my application. As per norm, the other two staff members stayed silent and looked down.
My cousin who was in the room this time opened his mouth and asked her why she was acting like this, but I told him “forget it” and escorted him out. She ordered us both to leave. I was very upset and walked away holding my clenched fist intact. I really felt like shouting vulgarities at this woman and trashing the office, but I didn’t — that’s not me. I was now forced to spend a night in sweltering hot Chennai. The heat, this woman… “argh, get me out of here!!!!!!” — is all I could think about.
I had no choice, one more day in Chennai it was. I forced myself to sleep that night but all I could think about was how next morning would act out.
I woke up early and as soon as my cousin came back from office, we went to the consulate. Again, I was the first applicant. This time, I stayed silent and just handed over my documents. Today was a Friday and I was going to fly next Friday. This time the grumpy lady said nothing after she saw my hostel bookings, and accepted my documents. When I asked her how long it would take to get my visa stamped, she said I would only get it next week. I told her couldn’t afford to spend the entirety of the weekend in Chennai. The grumpy lady said if I wanted it today itself, I would have to pay Rs. 5000 — or pay for courier charges and expect it “maybe” by next Wednesday or Thursday. I got irritated because I know the Philippines Consulate website states 2-3 working days, but it was as though she wanted me cough up the money! I demanded a receipt just so I know this “extra” amount isn’t a bribe, and she assured me I would get one. Then I was told to come after 3:30pm.
As angry I was to pay Rs. 5000 for a f**king 21-day tourist visa(!), I just couldn’t afford to cancel my tickets again. By now I had spent so much on flight tickets and other bookings.
Confident I would get my visa by 3:30pm, my cousin dropped me off at the consulate after lunch and we wished each other goodbye. I really couldn’t have survived this ordeal had it not being for Nitesh helping me out.
Anyway, so I go in thinking the passports are all signed, stamped and ready for collection. Once done, I could get to the bus terminal, catch a bus going to Bangalore immediately and be back in Bangalore by 11pm.
Were the passports ready? No. Because the Consul General has to sign the visas individually. Where was the Consul General? He was out. The only reason I got answers to all my questions was because now, there was a Filipino embassy personnel sitting in front of the grumpy lady. Oh, and grumpy lady wasn’t so grumpy now. She had a smile on her face — but with angry eyebrows (picture that). This was in front of the Filipino man, a senior staff member sent down from New Delhi I presume.
I swear, I so felt like complaining to him about this vile woman and how she treats the applicants here, but I stayed quiet. Because she then mentioned to her junior and that old
coward man they had to learn how to do certain functions, since she won’t be there next month. Was she really quitting (or getting fired)? I just hoped so.
Then when the Filipino left, the grumpy lady joked with her staff asking why there weren’t any agents today. Then it finally hit me. This is most likely the reason why Thomas Cook’s Chennai office stopped handling visa applications for Philippines — because they didn’t want to deal with this grumpy lady! Who knows how many of Thomas Cook’s staff members had to face this woman’s verbal abuses. In my two days coming here, I rarely saw a travel agent from a known name. You know, Thomas Cook, SOTC, Kuoni, etc. Instead, it was largely local travel agents who were willing to put up with this crap as every business matters for their living. Who knows.
Now it was past 4:30pm (Consulate closes to public at 5pm). The Consul General finally shows up, and when it was time, the grumpy lady finally took all the passports and took it to his room. More waiting. By now, a few of the familiar faces from yesterday showed up to collect their visas as well. I sat there quiet, but growing increasingly frustrated, because it was getting late for me. Past 5pm, the passports come back out and were scattered all over the grumpy lady’s desk. She and her junior call each applicant by name and give them their respective passports.
When it came time for my passport, the grumpy lady joked with the same angry eyebrows, “don’t give him his passport!” and asked me why I wasn’t smiling. I stayed silent and just looked her in the face, all the while reminding myself: “I-don’t-hit-women”. She told me I should be happy I got my visa finally. (“Oh, you want me to touch your feet, b***h?!”) Once she handed over my passport, I reminded her about the receipt, and she then wrote me one and handed me that as well.
As frustrated as I was feeling, I was equally relieved having my passport with the Philippines visa in hand. Outside the office, I double-checked just to ensure they didn’t screw my visa up, and only then caught an auto rickshaw to the bus terminal.
The traffic was picking up, but I finally reached the bus terminal and immediately hopped on the first bus leaving for Bangalore at 6pm. It wasn’t until the bus left the terminal that I sighed a sense of relief. I called up my cousin and thanked him again. I tried to catch some sleep, but the slow-moving traffic in the city brought back my irritation.
And it got worse. Maybe I should have asked what the maximum speed of the buses were before getting on one — because the bus I was in was terribly s-l-o-w! When the bus stopped at a rest stop at 8pm, the other passengers confronted the driver and asked him why the bus was going so slow. The only reply from the driver was the equivalent of “just because” in Tamil, and a shrug of the shoulder.
Long story short, it was past 2am when I finally reached home. I was hungry, tired, frustrated, upset and couldn’t believe the ordeal and the money I spent for a freaking single-entry tourist visa that only lasts 21 days! I spent less than half that amount for a 30-day tourist visa to Singapore with a validity period of 2 years! The whole experience made me consider this would be my last time visiting Philippines. I also prayed all that I intended to see this time would work out just like it did in 2011.
Even as I wrote this, I had to pause occasionally to rid the annoyed look on my face, because recalling this experience only brought back bad memories. I wasn’t expecting a red carpet welcome, nor do I have a sense of entitlement for a Philippines visa, but I was certain I would have been treated differently had I dealt with a Filipino consulate staff member. At least s/he would have verified my application by visiting my website to see what I wrote about their country, just so they know I wasn’t lying in my cover letter.
It’s very frustrating, for me, to know that there are 151 countries (full list) that now get 30 days visa-on-arrival in Philippines… but India isn’t one of them. Geriatric western sex tourists? Sure, no problem! If you are from Burkina Faso, Lesotho or Rwanda, sure, walk right in! But Indians have to pay Rs.
2400 2560 for 21 days — before departing? Oh, get this, but Philippines passport holders get visa-on-arrival in India!
If this post goes viral and if anybody at the Philippines Tourism Board sees this, could any one of you tell me why India was singled out? Is it the “Bumbays” that came a lot time ago and ruined our image there? Or is it the money you can make from visas?
When I first saw an ad for “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” on National Geographic in India last month, I felt happy. Happy that the campaign I really liked is finally being targeted at new markets such as my own country. At the same time, I thought about the visa process Indians have to go through. All this when Thailand, which is much closer, is so damn easy for us visa-wise.
I have said it repeatedly — on my website, on Reddit discussions and travel forums — Philippines is an amazing country! Probably the most geographically beautiful country in South East Asia with some of the nicest English-speaking people in the world. But to see and experience Philippines in all it’s glory, 21 days is not enough. An archipelago of over seven thousand islands means you have to catch a few flights within the country to get around. Package tours will not boost numbers as there is little of Philippines’ variety you can truly experience in 5 days and 4 nights. You can do that in Singapore, Thailand, or even peninsular Malaysia — not Philippines.
For those who think I’m just being bitter or exaggerating, here’s my receipt:
The only reason I didn’t name that grumpy lady in this blog post is because she may no longer be working at the Philippines Consulate in Chennai. If so, good riddance! Sorry, I’m all for respecting elders and all, but there’s only so much shit I can take from somebody. Being a pain-in-the-ass has no age limit!
Should this discourage other Indians who wish to visit Philippines for every good intention? No. If you don’t wish to deal with the Chennai consulate, just apply a month in advance and send it to the New Delhi Embassy, or some other consulate — Philippines now has three consulates outside of New Delhi.
Edit: When I shared this story story on Facebook, two of my friends who also visited Philippines this year faced the same irritating hardships at the Chennai consulate.
Anyway… so I left Bangalore past 2am on Friday, May 17th. From Bangalore to Hong Kong, the flight was Dragon Air. This was the first time I was flying with them. I wasn’t really impressed with the plane, the seats or the in-flight entertainment.
I found the gate for my Manila flight and sat down to do some work online.
The take off was a little bumpy, but the flight over the South China Sea wasn’t as beautiful as it was when I flew from KL to Manila back in 2011. Granted, the distance isn’t much either.
As soon as I saw all this, and when the announcement was made that we would be landing in Manila soon, I forgot all about that vile woman and the experience I had at the consulate. I was just happy to be back in the Philippines!
Once out of the airport, my reader-turned-friend-turned-host Janet came to receive me. I decided to stay at her place whilst in Manila as she had a spare room at her 2-bedroom house. She had also suggested going to Tagaytay, a place I had never considered visiting, as it wasn’t that hard to get to from Bulacan.
Unfortunately, her place was quite far out from Manila city and the traffic in the evening meant it took me longer to get to Janet’s home than it did to fly from Hong Kong to Manila. Still, I was grateful a reader of my blog was offering to host me. Janet also wanted to convince me Filipino food isn’t that bad.
Janet requested me not to upload photos of inside her home as there were still some interior work yet to be finished.
As good as her cooking tasted… sorry my Filipino friends, I just don’t seem to find Filipino food (in general) all that tasty. Sorry :-/
Anyway, this is the first post in this Philippines 2013 series. I know it’s a bad start, but it gets better. The next post will be about our day trip to Tagaytay, then my visit to Boracay, followed by a day in Angeles City to go to Mt. Pinatubo. The second week consists a visit to Legazpi, Donsol and finally Coron, before returning to Manila. But as you’ll see in the coming weeks, the delay in visiting Philippines would prove to be bad timing for me and a few of the places I visited.
Next post in this series:
Philippines 2013: Taal Lake Volcano and Peoples Park, Tagaytay