Escape from Bangkok

With a police escort leading the way, we pulled up to the plane at 22:20 on 4 December, a little after TG flight 6409 was scheduled to depart. Squinting through the glass, I could just make out silhouettes of planes...row after row of them, parked on the tarmac like silent sentinels guarding empty runways and lifeless terminals, their elongated bodies fading into the night.

One by one, each of the eight buses in our convoy parked alongside the Boeing 777-222 that was to transport us to Tokyo. Two sets of doors opened with the characteristic "hshhhh" sound of hydraulic pistons, followed by a queue of listless people moving like weary wraiths in the night, silent for the most part, plodding up aluminium steps and shuffling into the waiting plane.

Boarding was quick; everyone wanted to leave. At 23:10, just 35 minutes behind schedule, TG 6409 took off, filled to capacity with travellers like me who had been stranded in Bangkok due to closure of Suvarnabhumi international airport.

First, Phuket to Bangkok
waiting for busAs I've observed on many previous occasions, one thing you should always expect when you travel is what you can't possibly expect. It's a fundamental law of the universe that holds as true as gravity and superglue.

Even so, sometimes things get out of hand.

While I was in Phuket, the People's Alliance for Democracy ("PAD"), one of the political parties in Thailand, ramped up ongoing political protests by occupying Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, Thailand's primary international gateway. I joked with my friends that we might get stuck in Phuket. As it turned out, the joke was on me.

When it came time for us to return to Bangkok, the PAD had completely taken over the airport, meaning no flights in or out. What started as another amusing sideline in a long string of antics in Thai domestic politics suddenly seemed much more serious.

The immediate implication for us was that we had to decide whether to stay in Phuket and wait things out, or find another way back to Bangkok. Admittedly, being stuck in Phuket might not seem like a bad thing, but being grounded involuntarily anywhere for an indeterminate period of time isn't ideal. I had things to do and people to see in other parts of the world, so I had to leave at some point. I figured the airport siege wasn't going to end quickly, so we booked an overnight bus to Bangkok.


We were fortunate, as we arrived at one of the bus companies just as it decided to add an additional bus trip. For Baht 1,047 apiece, we booked passage on a 24-seat bus for the 12-hour journey. Most of the other buses were already fully booked for days to come.

The trip wasn't too bad, except for the woman in front of me who snored like a mountain gorilla and kept me awake all night. All things considered though, we made the right decision, as the airport remained shut long after we left Phuket.

Enmity and Irony
Though I had plenty to do once in Bangkok, I found myself unable to concentrate.

I wasn't worried or panicked. After all, I've been through this type of situation and other travel nightmares many times, plus I've lived and worked in Thailand for many years so I know the lay of the land.

With each passing day however, the general mood in the city seemed to deteriorate. The government, such as there was one, wasn't doing anything visibly productive; violence, albeit minor incidents, increased; rhetoric became more heated; a few bombs and grenades went off. There was talk of civil war, though rumours always abound in situations like this.

To be clear, I didn't feel that I was in any particular danger, but it didn't seem like there was going to be any resolution to the crisis in the near term, and it seemed that emotion, rather than reason, ruled the day...which is never good.

normal lifeHere's the thing though...if you walked around without being aware of the political standoff, there was little sign of any problem. Taxis drove around as recklessly as ever; people crowded into food centres at all hours; shopping areas like MBK and Fortune Town were packed. Basically, life for the average Bangkok citizen wasn't terribly affected.

The people bearing the immediate brunt of the airport standoff were tourists (who comprise Thailand's largest single source of foreign exchange revenue) and businesses related to tourism and associated commerce and trade.

Hotel occupancy plummeted; tourist centres like the Sukhumvit and Silom areas were relatively empty; travel agents were unable to book any flights; cancellations for the peak holiday season in Thailand poured in from around the world. As a result, the Baht lost value against other currencies; the country's reputation as a safe tourist haven took a severe hit; foreign investment projects were put on hold; and international credit rating agencies put Thailand's national debt and the obligations of many private-sector Thai entities on credit watch for downgrades.

All of these knock-on effects from the protests will have an impact...and definitely not a positive one...on the lives and welfare of everyone in Thailand.

The irony of the situation is this: The PAD was allegedly protesting for the good of the people of Thailand, but the unintended(?) consequences of the protest will hurt the Thai people economically far worse than anything since the collapse of the Baht in 1997.

Thank You Thai Airways
My own escape from Bangkok was probably less stressful and frenetic than that of many other people. Having lived in the country before and having friends to help me was a huge advantage.

Plus, I tend to avoid panicking. Being the first-in-line to get out makes sense in some circumstances, but not in this one. Things weren't nearly bad enough to warrant rushing for the door, and the first people to get out via the emergency flights set up at U Tapao no doubt had to contend with lack of infrastructure and ironed-out procedures, making the experience more painful than it had to be.

At the same time, I didn't want to wait until everything was back to normal, one because there was no telling how long it would take and two, because I figured going through the process of finding my way home along with the 350,000 other estimated stranded passengers would make for an interesting experience.

Life is the sum of your experiences. Just as I will always recall witnessing the mass marches in Manila during People Power, being in Bangkok when soldiers opened fire in 1992, being placed under house arrest by Suharto and his cronies shortly before his downfall, along with many other such (mis)adventures, being in Thailand during these protests is an experience I'll never forget.

On 1 December, I checked around for flights, a process that took a while, since travel agents weren't able to book the special flights set up by airlines to evacuate travellers from Bangkok, and also because the airlines understandably weren't answering phones.

To cut a long story short, the airlines I was able to check...ANA, JAL...were charging exorbitantly high prices. For example, one-way economy Bangkok to Tokyo on ANA was Baht 50,000 (about US$1,400). Even allowing for the fact that the flights were emergency flights, departing from an unfamiliar airport three hours outside of Bangkok, prices like this were...less than reasonable.

As an indication...a normal full-fare, round-trip business class ticket Bangkok-Tokyo-Bangkok on Singapore Airlines is only a little more. 'nuff said.

For that price, I was considering driving up to Chiang Mai, then taking SilkAir to Singapore and catching a flight to Tokyo from there. Chiang Mai-Singapore-Tokyo-Singapore on SilkAir/ Singapore Air was less than Bangkok-Tokyo on ANA.

I'm sure there were valid reasons for requiring a premium to normal fares, but from where I stood, the word "gouging" came to mind.

numberAs a last-ditch attempt to find a reasonable alternative, I went to the Thai Airways HQ building on 2 December. They had a war room of sorts set up, with a main information counter, counters for each regional destination, interpreters for every major language, staff all over the place to answer questions and help, people providing free food and beverages, medical staff on call, free international phone calls, and representatives of the Thai Hotels Association on hand to provide accommodation for stranded passengers.

As soon as I inquired about the price and availability of a seat to Tokyo, a nice woman whisked me away to consult with several people, all of whom were incredibly helpful. Within minutes, I had a seat on a flight on 4 December for Baht 23,810...still expensive, but far more reasonable than everyone else.

I imagine that in the hours immediately following the closure of Suvarnabhumi airport, the Thai Airways office was probably chaotic. But by the time I visited, everything was well organised and running smoothly. The deluge of lost, helpless and frustrated travellers looked relieved and some, like me, even happy.

In short, Thai Airways' service exceeded all my expectations, and made an otherwise agonising ordeal much less painful.

Thank you, Thai Airways.

Departure Time
A couple of days later, I arrived at BITEC, where the check-in facilities for Thai Airways had been set up in a convention hall, about five hours before the scheduled 22:35 departure time. Formalities like baggage x-rays and seat assignment out of the way, I hung out with friends for a couple of hours until making my way back into the temporary terminal at 19:30.

To say that everything went smoothly wouldn't be completely accurate, but things weren't too bad given the circumstances.

As I sat in the "lounge" (i.e., on a chair in the middle of everything), several flights (Zurich, Stockholm, Melbourne, Rome, Johannesburg) were cancelled. I don't know why, but I do know that the people on those flights had to pick their stuff back up, trudge to another counter to wait in another line to go to another hotel to start the process all over again. Even as my deepest sympathies went out to them, I kept my fingers crossed that the same fate wouldn't befall me.

People were strewn everywhere...standing, sitting, lying down, sprawled and contorted. Most were in good spirits. There were, of course, a few loud-mouthed a**holes in front of me, from the UK judging by their speech.

There was no attempt to guide people in a systematic way to minimise crawling all over one another when flights were called, and we were forced to carry all our own bags (which for me meant trudging over piles of people while schlepping over 60kgs) through a narrow passage in the back of the hall.

I wished at the time that Thai Airways had managed the departure lounge as well as the company had their HQ operation, but given the circumstances, it wasn't a big deal.

I eventually made it over, under and around everyone standing between me and the gate (a loading dock at the rear of the convention hall), handed over my baggage, then boarded a bus. Soaked in sweat and exhausted from the effort, I collapsed into a seat, dozed off briefly as we waited for the other buses to fill.

When all eight buses were loaded up, a police escort led us out on to the expressway for our hour-long drive to the tarmac, where we stepped off the bus and onto our plane. Five-and-a-half hours later, we landed at Narita.

(Click here for full Collage view.)

Parting Thoughts
As I think back on the experience, a few things come to mind. For what it's worth:

First and foremost is my admiration and gratitude to the staff of Thai Airways. I'm certain that all of them were put under a lot of stress. In fact, I heard about the stress directly from several staff members I spoke with. A Thai friend of mine observed that people in Thailand respond well in emergencies and are particularly good at providing assistance to those in need. When the tsunami hit a few years ago, the Thais responded quickly too. Perhaps it's the Buddhist influence and emphasis on compassion that runs strong through the culture. Whatever the reason, Thai hospitality saved the day for me.

Second, I know that in all but the most unrealistically optimistic of scenarios, Thailand is going to suffer as a result of these protests. The global economic crisis is bad enough, but these protests hit Thailand at the worst possible time in the worst possible manner. Estimates of the resulting damage vary, but all sources agree it's going to be huge. Just one indicator...Thai Airways is considering suing the PAD for Baht 20bn (about US$560 million) for damages and will be asking the government for substantial financial help. The shockwaves of this protest will continue to smack Thailand for many months.

Which brings me to my next point, or more accurately...a question. What did the protests achieve? As I understand, the PAD's primary objective was to prevent former PM Thaksin and his friends from holding power, as they consider Thaksin to be corrupt and overly power-hungry. The PAD alleged that PM Somchai was a Thaksin puppet, and staged protests to bring down the government. When the Thai courts ruled that three of the parties in the ruling coalition were guilty of corruption, the coalition government was disbanded and PM Somchai forced to resign. Claiming victory, the PAD agreed to leave the airport. Good for the people, right? Perhaps not.

First, the courts were in the process of ruling anyway, and probably would have come to a similar judgment, rightly or wrongly, without a closure of the airport.

Second, the "Democracy" element of the PAD name is misleading at best. Elements of the PAD wish for greater power to be restored to the royal family, not for a spread of democracy; some commentators suggest royal family support for the PAD. The use of violence and threat of economic damage to the country to remove popularly elected leaders isn't democratic by any stretch of imagination, no matter what the PAD may think of those who were elected. In other words, the PAD appears to stand for anything but democracy. The PAD should rename itself to reflect its objectives more accurately and honestly.

Third, there's little reason to believe this is over. The immediate hostilities ceased just before the King's birthday. Whatever people's differences are, most in Thailand revere their King (at least on the surface), and surely it's no coincidence that weeks and months of friction dissipated a couple of days before the King's birthday. Many expected to King to say something about this situation during a speech on the eve of his birthday, but he was apparently not feeling well enough to speak (he's 81 years old), so there was no light shed on his views of the yellow/ red conflict...which is to say that none of the underlying issues have been resolved. In fact, the dissolution of the three political parties on corruption charges is easily circumvented by reconstituting the parties under different names...something which has already taken place before in Thailand and is happening again now. Same people, different party names, same political conflicts. Some time in the near future, the trouble is likely to start again with the same unresolved issues.

Fourth, the polarisation of Thai society into the yellows and reds (PAD vs Thaksin supporters) is not good. In recent weeks, there have been too many instances of antagonism and confrontation uncharacteristic of Thailand. Friends describe to me conversations with other friends, who demand that they pick a side. A "with us or against us" mentality prevails, which is perhaps the one thing that made me the most nervous. Gang/ mob rule, egged on by irresponsible/ disingenuous leaders, fanned by power-seeking moneyed interests...not a positive direction for society. This tone encourages irresponsible behaviour, such as public beatings by PAD members of alleged Thaksin supporters, or grenades tossed into PAD gatherings. A friend who works at an airline conveyed that the PAD left parts of the inside of the Suvarnabhumi airport in shambles...restaurants raided, property damaged, merchandise stolen, airline lounges ransacked. Is this type of behaviour in the best interest of Thailand?

Finally and most seriously, the consequences of the PAD's actions will reverberate and inflict damage like a cascade of free radicals coursing through a sick body. There's no telling how bad the damage will be, but everyone in Thailand, including the PAD protestors, will be hit, and hit hard.

So to go back to my question of what the PAD achieved...time will tell, but as of now, I can't think of anything positive.

If you're interested in more background reading about the current situation in Thailand, here are a few good articles: Asia Times, The Economist, Asia Sentinel.