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On Being One of 100,000+ People Stranded in Thailand

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For those unaware, I have been traveling in Thailand for the past couple weeks (clearly an ill-timed vacation). Few news reports adequately convey the magnitude of what has
happened here in Thailand. Such reports are excellent at telling you the
number of flights canceled, the number of people affected, and the
dollars lost. The statistics are interesting, but they fail to put the
crisis in context—and it is a crisis.

So let's play with the
numbers some more. The Associated Press reports that Bangkok's airports
handle 100,000 passengers every day. It has now been closed for about
five days, and likely for another three days, at least. Imagine if New
York's JFK airport closed for that length of time—in fact, imagine if
JFK and LaGuardia both closed, because that's the volume of traffic
that Bangkok's airports handle. (See stats in Wikipedia to confirm that
I'm right.)

When I first heard news that the Bangkok airport was
taken over by protesters (the PAD), I was amused. How cute, I thought,
a country that's 95% Buddhist has a protest movement. Unfortunately,
Buddhism + political protest = prolonged stalemate. While the PAD
peacefully (or mostly peacefully) sit at the airport, the police just
as peacefully sit by and watch, unwilling to use violent means to
remove them. And the rest of us sit and watch (less peacefully),
wondering what the breaking point will be—and everyone has said for
three days we're at the breaking point.

So now we have a
fascinating human dilemma: What do you do with so many people who can't
leave the country—particularly when there are no major travel hubs that
can be easily reached over land? (Thailand is bordered by Myanmar,
Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia.) Of course, Thailand's cities of Phuket
and Chiang Mai still have functioning airports (and an old Vietnam-era
airport has started to service flights), but there's very limited
service, and good luck trying to find a seat on any international
flight, at least within the next week. Most airlines servicing these
airports are adding more flights if they can, and filling the seats
with their own delayed passengers from Bangkok who have been able to
reach a different departure city. Some countries have nobly rescued
their own citizens with special arranged flights, e.g., Taiwan. (Of
course there were only about 500 Taiwanese stranded, according to
reports.)

I knew I was really stuck when, in an e-mail to stranded Americans, the U.S. embassy in Bangkok included this bargain offer:

Orientskys
is a private jet company who provides international VIP service
flights. Mr. Trevor (director) wants us to let anyone know about his
service since he just got permission from the Thai government in order
to fly anyone who is willing to pay for this VIP service from Thailand
to several destinations, such as Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Singapore.
The cost would be around 25,000 US dollars per trip with a maximum
passenger capacity of 8 passengers with VIP catering services,
including limousine transportation service from Bangkok to U-Tapao
Airport. Just in case anyone might be interested, they can call …
[contact info snipped]

** Please note that this company is
running their own business; their service has nothing to do with the
U.S. government and the U.S. government will not pay for this service.

Thus,
I am at the mercy of Northwest/Delta to get me out of here (not having
$25K handy), and I can tell you they do not feel that this is "their"
problem. Here's what one passenger said, in a comment on an online news
story:

"They [Northwest] pointed out the section on
Force Majeure which in fact is what the situation in Thailand is about.
The clause all but allows the airline without liability to without
notice, cancel, terminate, divert, postpone or delay any flight, right
of carriage or reservation.

Lucky I was able to use miles and
money to reserve a flight to KL on Malaysian Airlines which I hear
flies their Bangkok flights into UTapao now.

Why don’t the
airlines care about their passengers, I asked the purser on our USA to
Tokyo leg of the NWA trip what their job was. She said to get
passengers safely between point A and point B. Trouble is, if you can’t
get to point B – then what?

While PAD is surely to blame for this mess, the airlines, without an emergency plan of operations is also to blame."

I
am rescheduled to depart on Tuesday, December 2, but the situation looks
bleak. News stories have recently emphasized how insecure the airport
has been for nearly a week. On a Bangkok blog, one reader left the
following comment on a CNN news story about the lawless situation at
the airport:

The CNN correspondent makes a very
interesting point. With no control whatsoever as to activity in and
around the entire airport and all its various hideaways as well as
around the large number of long distance aircraft and all the back-up
equipment such as catering, fueling, buses, not to speak of all the
Duty Free Shop items that might have been compromised, etc……it would
seem possible that the International Aviation Authorities will demand
that the entire airport go through a total head-to-toe re-certification
process which could take days or weeks in order to re-assure all the
other connection airports in the world aviation system that no terror
related materials or people (or drug-related or some other monkey
business related) will arrive in their own airports without having had
any checks at the Bangkok source.

At this point you
start to wonder: What's Christmas like in Thailand, and how big is my
savings account to fund a month-long international stay? Or do I just
spill a couple thousand dollars to fly short-notice on another airline?
It's hard to know the wisest course of action, when it's impossible to
predict when the airport will reopen.

Fortunately, the Tourist
Authority of Thailand (TAT) has done an admirable job of taking care of
stranded passengers, given the sheer mass of people needing assistance.
A call to their hotline revealed that a business hotel in the Sukhumvit
area (Imperial Hotel at Queen's Park) was being used to accommodate
anyone for free who had a flight on November 26 or later and could present evidence, plus a passport. (Later, it was announced the TAT would help cover costs for tourists staying at any hotel, up to 2,000 Baht per day.)

The
scene here at the Imperial almost defies description. That the hotel
hasn't immediately morphed into a refugee camp is stunning, but that
probably speaks to the incredible hospitality and hard-working Thai
staff at this very large-scale hotel (I believe it has nearly 2,000
rooms). The clientele who normally stay here (bankrolled businessmen)
have nothing in common with the tourists who now lodge here in much
greater numbers, and the hotel's hostesses—women who look like Greek
goddesses in their long, flowing white gowns and gold sashes around the
waist—politely clean up after tourist and businessman alike, in the
lobbies, in the dining rooms, everywhere. And the TAT runs a staffed
help desk at all hours in the hotel lobby, which is engulfed by people every time I
pass, and overflows with signs and listings of phone numbers (for every
airline and hotel known to man).

All stranded passengers have
been given meal vouchers for buffet-style dining at the hotel's most
basic restaurant on the ground floor. (The hotel has many restaurants,
but mostly high-class ones.) The food is far better than what most of
us would normally eat while traveling (e.g., sea bass, ox-tail soup,
and other foreign specialties). The first day I arrived at the Imperial
and had a meal, they had authentic pumpkin pie available on the dessert
table. I was nearly moved to tears.

So here at the Imperial I
remain for the time being, with free lodging and food, and really
expensive internet access—it is a business hotel after all—$20/hour.
But it's the one connection I have to the people back home (as I came
here alone). And I thank you all for your encouragement, support, and
kind messages. I hope it won't be much longer before I return home.

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