By Jean E. Rolles
(Ed. Note: After the EWC’s recent alumni conference in Bali several members of the Center community experienced unanticipated travel adventures as a result of the protests at the Bangkok airport. EWC Board of Governors member Jean Rolles posted this account of her overland exploits on the website of Outrigger Enterprises, where she is Vice President of Community Affairs, and gave permission for it to be reprinted here.)
I recently traveled to Bali, Indonesia, to attend a five-day meeting of the East-West Center Board of Governors, and afterwards, some of the attendees and I traveled to Laos for a quick look at that beautiful country. I had carefully planned to leave the group two days early (November 24) so I could enjoy Thanksgiving with my family in Honolulu. All my good plans went for naught, however, as I got caught in the Bangkok airport mess and was stranded for five extra days, trying every which way to leave Thailand and get home.
My adventure began when I arrived at the Bangkok airport about 1 a.m. from Laos; it was only supposed to be a transfer point so I could catch a Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo and on to Honolulu. Instead, I found a wild airport scene of five thousand people dressed in yellow T-shirts screaming and chanting. (The disturbance, I soon found out, was a chaotic anti-government protest that wound up keeping the airport shut down for about 10 days, with full operations delayed several days longer!)
Luckily, I was in the foreign arrival section, so it was closed-off and secure. I was told to grab my bag and run through the back parking lot to the Novotel Hotel, where I would be safe. I took a room and got four hours of sleep and then got up, dressed, repacked, and was ready to go at 6 a.m. for my flight. However, you could not get any information from the airport or the airlines as to whether flights were leaving as scheduled. The front desk told me not to go to the airport because it was not safe, as there had been some shootings, leaving four killed and 25 injured. We were literally locked in the hotel with private guards outside. The only news I could receive about the airport situation was from CNN!
Finally, after two days, I could see not much was going to happen and decided I had to take action to get out of the country by ground transportation to reach an international airport in a neighboring country. The trains to Malaysia and Singapore take two days, and no seats were available. The airlines wouldn’t answer their telephones, so one could find out if they were operating flights out of Thailand’s two other international airports at Chiang Mai and Phuket.
While I was debating what to do, Pieter van der Hoeven, the General Manager of Outrigger’s Serenity Terraces Resort in Phuket, called with the hope of a possible airline seat November 26 at 1:15 a.m. I quickly hired a car with driver and drove 12 hours to Phuket, about 540 miles to the south, not taking time to eat and arriving at midnight, only to find out I did not have a ticket. Pieter arranged for a room for the night, and it was back to the Phuket airport first thing in the morning with Michael Cowan and Suntaree Suksamrit (nicknamed Khun Gai) of Outrigger’s Phuket office to another wild airport scene, this time, with about a thousand would-be passengers scrambling for seats.
It was soon evident that there were no seats available, and thanks to Khun Gai’s negotiating skills, I was able to rent another car with driver to take me 175 miles further south to Penang, Malaysia. I quickly called Hans Allgeier of Outrigger Travel on my cell phone, and he was able to make a flight reservation for the next morning at 8 a.m. out of Penang. So it was back in a car, with a non-English speaking driver, in the rain and dark, racing to an unknown destination across an international border, not knowing if I could enter Malaysia without a visa.
I thought I had been very careful by contracting with the car company to take me all the way to Penang with a credit card, so that if there was a problem, I could cancel my charge. However, it did not work that way. The company agreed they would provide a driver to the border and that another driver from their company would drive me on the Malaysian side, and I paid the full amount. What then happened is that I was driven six hours to Hat Yai, where I met up with a fairly unreliable-looking driver with a beat-up car, who took me to the border control and told me to get out of the car to show my passport. While I was at the control booth, he drove off, and I did not know what to do. So I started walking down the road in the dark and rain.
About 100 yards ahead, I saw the driver with the trunk lid up showing my suitcase to some men who were hanging around a tent. I thought he was selling my suitcase, but in fact, he was trying to sell me! He was negotiating with total strangers to drive me to Penang and was going to keep the money for himself! The new driver was demanding $300. I told him I had paid for the whole trip and had a receipt, so the old driver finally paid him something (and I am sure he was keeping a lot for himself!). So off I went, in the pouring rain and darkness, with a total stranger and no record of the car or driver that ever could be traced. To make matters worse, my cell phone died about this time, and I wondered if I would ever be found alive!
As we drove along, the driver started talking on his cell phone and during his conversation I clearly heard the words “30 minutes” in English. Now my mind was racing, thinking that he was plotting something at a meeting spot down the road and all I had to defend myself was a small flashlight! We drove about two hours and about “30 minutes” from the Penang airport, the driver pulled off the freeway and into a dark lane. Stepping out of the shadows, a man in a baseball cap jumped into the car. The driver called him “my brother,” but they did not look alike, nor were they the same nationality. However, they did drive me to a grubby hotel by the airport, and I was very glad to run into the lobby where there were other people.
My tale doesn’t end here. More adventures to come. The next morning, I was at the airport at 6 a.m. to pay for my ticket, but that became a huge hassle. The price started at $2,000, then jumped to $3,000, and finally, they wanted $5,000 — all for the exact same seats on the same airlines at the same times! Again, I called Hans Allgeier (who was trying to enjoy a vacation in Seattle). Hans and the ticket agent talked back and forth for an hour on my cell phone, only to have my flight to Japan delayed so that I would arrive at Narita after my flight to Honolulu had left. The only way to solve the problem was to stay another night in Penang. I asked the airline agent to help me find a decent hotel, and he had to make five telephone calls, as the town was booked solid. When I finally got to the hotel and tried to check in, both of my credit cards bounced because the banks thought they were getting charges from strange countries. Visa has an out-of-country telephone number on the card and quickly cleared my credit with the hotel. Mastercard only has the local downtown Honolulu number, so I had to go through the automated answering service and had to hold for ten minutes to finally get a human voice to switch me to the fraud department. That gentleman told me he was getting charges from Myanmar and had canceled everything, including the airline ticket that I just spent an hour acquiring! After giving him a geography lesson, pointing out that Malaysia and Myanmar were two different countries far apart, he reinstated my account and airline ticket, and I finally got to go home the next day, November 30 – five days later than originally planned.
It is a difficult time for Thailand. Bangkok is a major airline and cruise hub for all of Southeast Asia, and the airport is still not fully functioning. The rioters stranded over 310,000 visitors and set back their country’s tourism industry for years to come. People left with bad memories, as they had to endure considerable extra costs and inconvenience. Americans were especially upset about missing Thanksgiving with their families. We all lost the entire value of our return tickets, as the airlines considered the events at the airport an uncontrollable, unpredictable “force majeure” situation. I was lucky, as I made it out in five days, while others were trapped for more than 10 days. All the airlines suffered large financial losses, as their planes were trapped at the Bangkok airport, and they could not serve their routes in the region.
The staff at the Novotel Hotel at the Bangkok airport should be commended. The first few days they all had to work double shifts and calm confused visitors who were frightened and angry. Their smiles and understanding words helped immensely to minimize panic. I am very thankful for the help I got from Pieter van der Hoeven, Michael Cowan, and Khun Gai of Outrigger’s Phuket office, and Hans Allgeier of Outrigger Travel. They inspired me to find a way home.