December 3, 2008 / 11:04 AM / in 9 years

WITNESS: Leaving Thailand? Mind your pees and queues ..

<p>Thin Lei Win joined AlertNet in June 2008, becoming the first AlertNet journalist to be based in Asia. REUTERS/Handout</p>

Thin Lei Win is a Bangkok-based correspondent for Reuters’ AlertNet service, the humanitarian news network. In this WITNESS piece, she describes first-hand the hassles experienced by thousands of travelers who were stranded in Thailand because of the political crisis.

By Thin Lei Win

U-TAPAO, Thailand (Reuters) - Having spent days helping report on the woes of foreign tourists trying to leave Thailand in the wake of the airport blockades by anti-government protesters, it was my turn to experience the hassles first hand.

My long-panned trip to Indonesia via Singapore was looking increasingly unlikely last week after People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) supporters seized control of Bangkok’s main airports, cutting off air traffic and leaving tens of thousands stranded.

For a time, I flirted with the idea of a grueling 10-hour, 900 km (560 mile) road trip to Phuket airport in the south, or an overnight 700 km rail journey to Chiang Mai in the north, but there was no guarantee I would make my Singapore connecting flight.

Then a window of opportunity opened.

As costs mounted for dealing with the estimated 250,000 people stranded by the airport blockades, Thai authorities opened a sleepy Vietnam war-era military base around 150 km (93 miles) southeast of the capital.

U-Tapao suddenly became Thailand’s main international gateway, so I decided to head there.

The first thing that struck me after an uneventful three-hour drive to U-Tapao was the crowd -- there were thousands of people crammed into a small complex that just a week ago was handling only a few charter flights a day.

People were everywhere -- businessmen, backpackers, holidaying families, taxi drivers, airport officials, soldiers, hotel staff, buyers, sellers, brokers and volunteers -- all primarily engaged in one activity ... queuing.

They were queuing for food, for the toilet, to check in. In fact, it seemed many people were queuing without really knowing why or what for.

By the time I found a queue for Singapore Airlines at around 2:30 p.m., more than 100 people were in front of me -- waiting for the check-in counter to open for a flight only scheduled to leave at 7 p.m.

Despite the heat, the crowds and the general slow pace of activity, people were in a good mood, perhaps excited at the prospect of finally going home.

HARDSHIP AND WOE

Passengers compared notes on how long they had been stranded (being based in Bangkok, I scored poorly) and tried to out-do each other with tales of hardship and woe.

All the while, airline staff plied us with water to keep us hydrated in the oppressive heat. Other staff kept checking and re-checking our details, wary of anyone sneaking into the queues that snaked everywhere.

The check-in opened, but with only two counters and no computers, it was slow going. By the time it was my turn, another hour and a half had passed.

The process itself took only a few minutes, an example of how low-tech can still be efficient. My boarding pass was filled in by hand, a bathroom scale was used to weigh my luggage and an old-style scanner checked my bags.

Formalities complete, my stomach rumbled and I approached a free food stand set up in a corner of the car park.

On offer was ice-cold water, steamed rice with stir-fried chicken or fried rice. The food was simple but delicious.

Did the airport do this, I asked a young man with curly hair and dark sunglasses who was handing out the food. No, he said, this was from people in area who wanted to help the stranded tourists. Only in Thailand...

At the front of the terminal, a local brewery had set up tents and was giving away bottled water. Small beer and snack shops were doing brisk business.

We had to go back to the check-in area at 5:30 p.m. for immigration and boarding, and here again low-tech won the day.

Two friendly policemen sat at a small table, looking through immigration forms and stamping passports. It took about 30 seconds to get the stamp -- usually it takes a few minutes at the modern airport in Bangkok -- before I was waved through to the security area.

There was more queuing as we waited for our bags to be checked and then even more queues and waiting for the bus to take us to the plane. Our tickets were scrutinized again before we were allowed on the plane, which was delayed a further 20 minutes from our scheduled departure before finally taking off.

I finally made it to Singapore at 10.30 p.m. -- eight hours after arriving at U-Tapao. As the plane stopped at the gate, I could almost hear a collective sigh from everyone on the plane.

All I could think of, however, was how I would get back to Bangkok in a week’s time.

Editing by David Fox and Bill Tarrant

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