First person: stuck in Bangkok

2008-11-30 00:00

Former Maritzburger Margaret Jack is among the tens of the thousands of travellers stranded in Bangkok by protests that have shut down the city's airports. She reports from the frontline on her Facebook profile:

I was travelling from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at 21:20 on Tue 25th Nov, to Bangkok, to catch a connecting flight to SA. When the Cambodia flight arrived in Bangkok the captain announced that the airport was closed but we should disembark anyway.

In the airport, shop staff were sealing off their shops and packing away more expensive items.

Many Thai Silk (ie airline) staff and airport staff were milling around and talking on walkie-talkies.

It turned out that the Yellow Shirts (PAD) had stormed the airport in an effort to force the Prime Minister to resign. Non-Thai Silk flights left Bangkok, even as late as 2am I heard but we were kept in their airport.

This was later discussed as evidence for Thai's collusion with the PAD and indeed, there was ample time to warn many flights not to fly into Bangkok.

There was scant information given about what was happening and what the plans were to deal with us: apparently some 3,000 people. I managed to spend the night in the Thai Silk business class lounge,where snacks were available and the bar was opened to help oneself…

However, in the morning we were asked to leave the lounge and go to the cattle seats in the departure lounge, something we were reluctant to do as it looked very uncomfortable there.

Food and water were eventually supplied but only in the cattle seat area although authorities allowed some hunter-gatherers from the business class through to that area and back again.

We were moved through customs, picked up our luggage and all left the airport building to be outside where there was a PAD rally going on.

This was where we waited for the busses that were to take us to Bangkok.

It was a huge push and highly stressful, particularly where the bus I was standing outside drove away empty for no apparent reason. Rumours were plentiful, what with everyone talking on cell phones to friends and relatives all over the world who were contacting embassies and travel agents and contacts in Bangkok and anyone else they could think of.

Millions of rands must have been spent over this period on cell phone calls. By this time, gangs and allegiances had been formed, and no-one wanted to be split from this source of camaraderie and support and this was a highly positive part of the experience. We were moved again and eventually got on a bus we thought was bound for Bangkok. Instead we were sent to a huge holiday resort outside the town of Pattaya, home to a thriving commercial sex trade.

I eventually got to my room around 6:30pm, 21 hours after my flight left Cambodia.

The room is fairly grim and seems to have been closed for some time as it has a mouldy smell and the carpet feels a bit damp. Sometimes it does not get cleaned until 2 in the afternoon and one day it was not cleaned at all. I say cleaned but a stranger's discarded tooth-pick broken in half that has remained in the corner of the room since I arrived is testament to the cleaners' haste.

However, I have a roof and a bed, and meals are prompt and plentiful, if not particularly fancy. Complaints have been frequent but mainly fall on deaf ears as many of the hotel staff speak only Thai. In fairness, coping with something like 1,000 extra guests at very short notice is difficult.

Communication with Thai Silk staff happened initially through white boards and they had no news. Then the military airport, U'tapoa, 40 minutes from where I am staying was opened on Friday. A meeting was called on late Friday afternoon to finally break some news of getting home.

The meeting for 1,000 was held in a room that had chairs for 200 and the Thai staff were 20 minutes late. It was quite tense and extremely frustrating. The first two planes left on Friday night for Tokyo and Paris.

Anyone to a selected range of Asian and European destinations could take those flights if they agreed that they would pay their own way home from there. My gang consisted of five Swedes and one Australian, and the Swedes all left, without balking at the cost of getting from Paris to Stockholm.

Others, however, and seemingly irrationally, remained, waiting for their destination of choice, for example London. The delightful and resourceful Swedes left, and the Ozzie and I felt rather abandoned, depressed and had some beers.

At the Saturday meeting, five departing planes were announced, one of which was to Sydney.

At that stage, I was so anxious to get home that I asked my brother to find out cost and availability of flights from Sydney to Jo'burg: I was willing to fly eight hours to Sydney to wait in the airport and catch another 16 hour flight home.

Things were getting urgent. But at $2,500 for the flight, this was too rich from my blood and the South Africans I had now met urged calm and reminded me that Thai had an obligation to get us home. Inhale. Exhale.

On Sunday, 12 planes left, and this time I decided to go to Kuala Lumpur (KL) or Hong Kong (HK) and make my own way home. But the airport at U'tapoa was under increasing pressure as the only open airport in Thailand and never designed for public convenience.

One heard it was hell there and due to large numbers of travellers I had to make a very quick decision to book myself onto one of the KL / HK flights.

So I ran to the only active internet café to check on connecting flights, as one had also heard that flights from those cities were fully booked as they had taken up the slack of the absence of Thai.

And the internet café was closed, don't you know…. When it eventually opened (15 minutes late), the flight out of KL was scheduled for only two hours after I was due to arrive.

I thought it was risky, given the possible late take-off from U'tapoa because of the chaos, but I decided to go anyway and hope someone could make a better internet booking in the interim.

Stern talk from one of the South Africans reminded me that if this failed, I would be without accommodation, food, and a system of sorts that still cared for me. I could be stranded again.

And so I wait. Now there are very few of us left and we are hoping for tomorrow, Monday 1st December. It is irrational, but I really want to get home.

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