31 December 2008

Travel: Trapped in Thailand

A colleague and I traveled to Bangkok on the Monday before Thanksgiving (24 November) for a quick two-day work trip. This quick trip promised to be productive but would still allow me nearly three weeks to finish up all I needed before I traveled back to the US for Christmas. But, like the folks on Gilligan’s Island, we were in for more than a three hour tour.

On Tuesday, 25 November, the People’s Alliance for Democracy Party (PAD) stormed Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok’s international airport. The PAD , the main opposition party in the government with strongholds among the urban population in and around Bangkok, had been waging a campaign of protest for several months, occupying the Government House and forcing the government to operate out of a remote site. The occupation of the airport was by far the boldest move, and they followed it up by occupying Don Muang, Bangkok’s former international airport that now served domestic flights. Thus, there was no way to leave Bangkok by air.

I had flown up on low costs Tiger Airways, which is fine if everything goes right. That means you get to the airport on time, there are no weather issues, you don’t have to change your flights, or protestors don’t shut down the airport. But, when things don’t go just as planned, it is good to have a flight on a full-service carrier, like my colleague did with Singapore Airlines.

On Wednesday the 26th, our initial return date, we both called our airlines. He got through in two minutes and was booked on another flight for the following day. I was on hold for 45 minutes before I gave up (at S$2.75 a minute, which meant the cost of that fruitless call nearly matched that of my ticket). Instead, I booked a ticket with a rival carrier, Air Asia.

Our flights did not take off, however, as the airport remained closed. It became apparent that this could be a prolonged closure, so a number of the carriers arranged with the government to fly “rescue” flights out of U-Tapao Air Force Base, 150 kilometres south of Suvarnabhumi and 200 kilometres south of Bangkok itself. My colleague was booked on a Saturday flight (29 November), but I was unable to get on the Air Asia flight, so I decided to extend my stay.

We actually got a lot of work done while we were there. Every morning, it was over to the Starbuck’s on Sukhumvit (in the shadow of the Sky Train) for a coffee and a 24 hour internet card. We would sit upstairs, drink our coffee, and work and email for 10 hours a day. Without the distractions of the office, it was a highly productive time. But, after a couple of days, I faced a different distraction – finding a way to get home.

I had contemplated a number of options – train down the peninsula to Butterworth just across the Thai-Malaysian border, then bus to KL and fly/bus back to Singapore. Or bus to Phuket and catch a flight to Singapore. Train/taxi/bus to the Cambodian border and then the same to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. I even contemplated the Eastern and Orient Express, which would have taken me all the way to Singapore. But, the trains to Malaysia and flights out of Phuket were full, Cambodia looked less appealing the more I looked at it, and the E&OE went only once a week, so I ended up on an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the far north of Thailand, with a SilkAir flight direct to Singapore.

The train was scheduled for 6.00 pm on Monday, and I gave myself plenty of time to get to the station on the Sky Train and subway. On the way, I noticed that I was the only one wearing red. A saleswoman earlier had mentioned my red shirt (a t-shirt I had to buy off the street) and let me know that it was the color of “the other side”. Red is the color of the government’s supporters, which are located mainly in the north. Yellow was the color of the PAD, with its stronghold in Bangkok. So it did not surprise me that I was the only person wearing red in the entire city. I suppose it’s like wearing Crips colors in the Blood neighborhood. Fortunately, the political situation was not violent, and I made it to the train.

Just before the train pulled away, at 6.00 exactly, the Thai national anthem began playing over the loudspeaker. Every Thai in the station (even the man sleeping on the bench) rose and stood at respectful attention for the duration of the song. It was an interesting sight to close what may be my final stay in Bangkok.

I love traveling by train, and I met several interesting people on the way up. I was in a second-class sleeper, however, which meant I did not have my own room. Moreover, I had the top bunk, which is the smaller of the two. The lights never go off in the second-class sleeper, and you get to hear all the sleepers around you snoring away. With the train lurching and jerking during the four hour delay on the way, it made for a sleepless night. The delay also meant the 13 hour trip turned into 17 hours. Since I had given myself a buffer day, that was okay. And it actually meant I arrived at my hotel at 11.30, not 7.30, so I was able to check in immediately and take that long-awaited nap.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful town in the highlands in Thailand. It was uncrowded due to the airport closures (so many of the flights go through Bangkok), and it was nice to wander through the deserted streets enjoying the cool, dry weather. It was only in the 60s, but you would see locals all over the place wearing scarves and coats. What a nice break from the tropical weather I was used to!

The next day, I got on my flight and almost kissed the ground when I arrived back in Singapore. It was good to be back.
I did enjoy my quick visit to Chiang Mai. I met some nice British expats in the local pub, found some good small galleries and made some nice purchases at the night market. With this in mind, I canceled my planned trip there in February. I will go back to Chiang Mai – it seems like a fantastic place – but I am done with Thailand for a while.

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