Now You See It, Now You Don’t
My tale concerns that inimitable strip of tarmac in the swamp on the edges of Bangkok. Suvarnabumni International Airport, seemingly pronounced as suwan-a-booom by locals. Gateway to the Land of Smiles, “The city of angels, the great city, the
eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a
city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma". Or something.
Thailand’s principal airport receives its share of criticism, but I like the place. It can’t be denied that it’s a striking piece of architecture, seen sprawling like a giant pond-skater, straddling the tawny puddled fields as one approaches from the air. On the ground, having disembarked your craft, you walk seemingly for miles through cavernous, neo-gothic cathedral-like halls before arriving at various points of process. Troops of impassive, doll-faced stewardesses serenely glide past in the opposite direction as one quickens pace in a futile attempt to beat rival passengers to the Immigration lanes.
I have a particular bond with the place, as I first arrived in Thailand on its very first day of operation – my knotted anticipation and excitement tempered and soothed by the wonder of its sleek, graceful forms as I passed through its vastness. I have never dined in the fabled cheap food court that both Thais and Farangs-in-the-know have availed themselves of. Food outlets in air-side Departures gives the traveller’s wallet a good keestering from all directions – 300 baht for tom yam kung, anyone? But at least there are decent dining options to be had, and if ever a tom yam came close to being worth 300 baht, that one was.
But anyway, enough of this waffle and posturing – I know Stickman and his readers are busy people – let me get to the point of the submission, namely another tale of intrigue and skullduggery at the hands of Thai officialdom. But let me start by saying it was my fault. That’s right, Somchai, Meester Falaang set the impending wheels of doom in motion by his own hand…
I have developed a healthy paranoia for being late to airports and missing flights. In my time, I’ve been chased by an irate foreman over wet cement on a construction site while clutching a heavily-laden case to my chest in a bid to make a departing flight after being hopelessly let down by public infrastructure. And I don’t think the people who had to witness me set about and smash a public telephone to smithereens in utter, Basil Fawlty style rage at Heathrow Terminal 3 will ever forget it. Nor will the air-stewardess who saw the look on my face after being told on arriving 3 hours early for my flight to New York where I was due as best man at my brother’s wedding, that in fact my ticket was a mis-print and BA no longer flew to New York from this airport and they’d only had one other case like mine in three years. I was once even plucked out of a queue for an urgent business flight at Amsterdam Scipol by airport police as an (innocent) suspect in an Easter-egg theft. In November. I should buy a lotto ticket, right? Anyway, You get the picture…
That’s why you’ll find me cruising to Suvarnabumni at the crack of dawn, bidding to arrive 4+ hours early for my return flights back to Farangland after a fortnight of jollity. The approach expressway is empty, the queues for my flight are non-existent, hell, I’m already drumming my fingers on the desk when the first bleary-eyed check-in girl opens her lane. That’s just the way I like it. Spouses, friends, colleagues not ready to depart on my schedule? See you at the destination. I should say that my nature is calm and my timekeeping lax in pretty much all other areas of my life. Just not this area. Big bird leaves and I’m on it.
So it was at the end of my third trip to LOS, I was in reflective mood as the meccano and taut cloth of the terminal building faded into focus through the morning haze. It had been a satisfying but strange trip (having travelled alone) and I’d had the usual mix of enjoyable and peculiar experiences and various degrees of pleasurable company. Check-in was a doddle and so was Departures Immigration – I think this was the last time I experienced the quaint practice of being relieved of the 500 baht cash departure tax before it was instead added to your airfare tariff.
Going through to air-side departures, I gazed a while at the empty thrones used for the opening ceremony and thence to remain in-place and empty in perpetuity and then regarded the huge sculpted epic scene from the Ramayana “The Churning of the Milk Ocean”. It beats the Sbarros Pizza ‘performance art installation’ at JFK. I then set forth into the duty free and shopping mall, hearing the voice of Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi “We must be cautious…you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany” A bit melodramatic – its as sterile as a Stepford Wife’s tiled kitchen floor. I hate shopping malls and bland boutiques and this pushes all my buttons – my eyes have glazed over after 30 seconds. I drift to the very far-end of the departures terminal, about face, and go back the other way, pass the mid-point and continue on to the terminal’s far reaches on the opposite side. Eventually, you sort of reach a ‘city limits’ where the outlets peter out and give way to a few administration units, service bays and empty lots. Finally, you reach a no-mans land with a few rows of empty steel benches. I recall an area even beyond this, which I could only liken to ‘the helopause’ at the boundary of the solar system and interstellar space and it was to here I wandered over, checked my watch (still 3.5 hours till departure!), before choosing a clean spot on the large expanse of floor where I lay down prostrate on my back and put my hand-luggage under my head as a makeshift pillow.
I closed my eyes and my slow breathing was only disturbed by occasional distant footsteps and whining sounds emanating from various bits of machinery. Eventually, I nodded off to sleep for some time. It was only a very light sleep, and on waking, I sensed all was well and not much time had elapsed. My hand luggage remained under my head, my phone clock showed still over two hours to departure…pocket money…passport…boarding pass…boarding pass…boarding…
Small pang in pit of stomach. Passport is flicked though several times – I always place the boarding pass inside, folded around the cover. Pockets are turned out, also hand luggage. The floor area nearby is scoured until I realise that the boarding pass is lost. The beginnings of a creeping sense of dread comes over me. I dimly recall somebody once telling me they did the same thing and it’s the worst thing you can do if you’re already air-side…but then I calm myself, positive thoughts and practical actions are required. I retrace my steps back to the exit from Immigration (the mid-point along the huge mall / walkway). I scour the floor along the way and at the exit zone. I then proceed on in the same direction until I reach the opposite side of the departure area. No dice. I go back to the Immigration exit, and mention my lost boarding pass to a security officer. She quickly checks with colleagues and says ‘Please go to Thai Airways desk in the Transfer Zone.’
I say, ‘So you found my pass?’
She sort of nods and says ‘Transfer Zone…’
I feel a sense of relief and a spring in my step returns as I make my way to the Transfer Zone. The Thai Airways desk is easily found and I explain my situation.
‘Yes sir, you need to go to the Thai Airways desk downstairs. Just go right here down the hall to second escalator…etc’.
I don’t get a firm sense of assurance that my pass has been found and begin to feel uneasy again. I go to the next Thai Airways desk and explain the situation.
‘Ok Sir, a boarding pass has been found. Please take a seat’. The young lady smiles sweetly and I now get a reassuring glow, the impression of a routine occurrence being dealt with by polite indifference.
I take out my James Ellroy book and immerse myself in the American underworld. A few short chapters flick by and time passes. The nagging nervousness about my boarding pass returns, not helped by the grisly, black-humoured prose and mounting body-count in the Ellroy book. The Thai Airways girl and I swap glances periodically, colleagues come and go, and eventually a jacketed man arrives and has a protracted discussion with the girl. A couple of expressionless looks in my direction somehow settle me. Progress. The man departs. After an age, I go over and ask about my pass.
‘No problem sir. Here is a slip, you need this to get past the gate security. Your boarding pass will be on the gate.’
I look at the print-out docket. ‘Ok, you’re not giving me a new boarding pass?’
The jacketed man appears again. The girl smiles ‘Don’t worry sir, they have your boarding pass at the gate. The jacketed man nods and smiles at me.
I smile back doubtfully, depart, and make my way to the gate. I have again that horrible gut-wrenching feeling that you get when you’re in a position of complete uncertainty, the same feeling when you’re running late for a departing flight. Dammit, this is precisely why I get here so early! To avoid the gut-wrench! I HAVE to be at work tomorrow. I curse myself for the tenth time, calm myself again and allow that at least I bought myself time to deal with this situation. If I only had two hours(!) after coming through Immigration, I’d be screwed right now. Why the hell did the Thai Airways girl take so long to send me on?
On the long hike to the gate, I remember passing a guy in his mid-thirties ranting loudly into his cell-phone in despair. His Thai girlfriend had evidently pulled a number on him – from the overheard snatches, it sounded like the ultimate number – and his life was unraveling there and then. Buddy, I’d love to slow down and rubberneck your despair, but I’ve got problems myself…
I arrive at pre-gate security. My fears are allayed somewhat as my magic piece of paper doesn’t get me the Little Hitler jab in the chest with a baton as I sheepishly shuffle through the x-ray zone. But, maybe I relaxed too soon. I descend the ramp to the gate entrance. Fellow passengers are queuing up, and half of them are already on the other side in the waiting area. After all my over-cautiousness, I still didn’t have any time to spare!
At the gate entry point, I presented myself. ‘Hi, you have my boarding pass?’
The Immigration officer and female Thai Airways official both simultaneously make that ‘Aaaaaahhhhhhhh’ sound that only Thais can make sound so unsettling.
‘What’s the problem?’ I ask with mild dread.
I notice their perplexed expressions and what seems like inscrutable wordless communication pass between them. My gaze moves to a counter-top and I recognize…my boarding pass.
‘There’s my boarding pass, I can see my name there.’
As I point at my pass, I clock a look of…is that disappointment?…on the Thai Airways lady’s face. My attention is distracted by fleeting hand movements.
The Immigration officer smiles. ‘Sorry – you no hab visa receipt, hab to go back to Immigration…or…’ He blinks at me quizzically.
I process what he has just said. ‘Back to Immigration’ – miss flight. ‘Or’ – he means ‘there’s a way out of this, and it's gonna cost ya’.
Just then my brain subconsciously does a slow-mo analysis of the fleeting hand movements I was distracted by as he was speaking. It’s like one of those corny visual flashbacks in a movie like Ocean's Twelve…actually make that Ocean's
Thirteen. Somewhere cogs turn in my head and the results of the analysis come back – ‘Thai Airways lady, left hand’. I glance at her clenched hand and see a paper stub corner poking out. Her technique was half-assed. Her dexterity
Next, my mouth moves of its own accord: ‘I just saw the lady remove the stub from the back of the boarding pass.’ (There was a folded pocket on the rear of the boarding pass where the Immigration receipt was placed).
More puzzled glances.
‘Shit’, I think. ‘Now I’ve torn it, loss of face for them, etc’.
There follows a long moment of impasse. Then, I see another Thai Airways girl quickly bend down and my visa stub is magically and mysteriously picked up off the floor! She gives it to the Immigration man.
‘Ok, you go’, he says blankly and waves me past. I’m muttering barely inaudibly as I’m allowed to pass through. But I gag myself and bite my lip – that was a close shave… and sure beats missing the flight. I’d
survived sixteen days of low-level scamming attempts from girls, touts, taxis, hotels and friendly strangers, but was nearly felled at the last fence by a representative of the national air carrier!
Twelve hours later, as we park at Heathrow, my name is announced on the plane just before we park on the stand… WTF? I’m told to ‘contact ground staff immediately as I leave the plane’. My heart flutters as I wonder who’s died. I get off the plane and a cheerful young Asian man greets me and informs me that my bag was taken off the flight. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll fast-track you through Immigration, then we’ll go to Baggage Services’. As good as his word, he opens secret doors, pulls back cordons and we leapfrog the irate hoards and walk right up to the passport control desks. Just as I’m thinking ‘this guy is one slick dude’, he whispers, ‘Say you have a connecting flight at Gatwick’ as I’m only feet away from the desks!
‘Great, I thought you had authority to do this…!’ I quickly lie about a fictitious connection at another airport and luckily I’m waved through.
At Baggage Services, I’m told that my bag was removed as standard procedure – taken if the airline believes you might not board the flight. I fill in a form and the bag arrives at my front door the next day. Nothing is missing from the bag.
I notice my porno mags have been roughed up, and a hand-sock puppet (long story) has had the eyes pulled off.
My temples are a little greyer and I’m a little wiser. For Christ’s sake, don’t lose your boarding pass!!
And if you steal an Easter Egg, eat the evidence :>>>
Very nice story indeed. Yeah, I'm another who arrives early at airports. They're places I really hate, so I like to give myself enough time to overcome any obstacles that may present themselves..