A Different Kind of Girl Friend Experience (GFE) Part 3, Thai Customs Welcome to The Land of Smiles
So, on Friday night Steve was jetting west from LAX to BKK with 5 large duffel bags each stuffed with 50 jeans. Everything could not have gone better. Northwest even offered a mileage upgrade to Business Class, and after transiting through Narita, Japan
he landed at Don Muang at 11:00 pm, only 20 hours after he left LA. He got through Immigration and down the escalator to the baggage claim, managed to stack all the bags onto one very overloaded luggage cart and proceeded into the Customs area
looking for Khun Matinee.
That’s when things started to go horribly wrong.
He had no way of contacting Khun Matinee as this was a time when even in Thailand mobile phones were rare, and so he proceeded forward trusting that she would be there with the Chief.
But as Steve got closer to the Declare / Nothing to Declare zone there was no sign of them. He decided to wait with the expectation that they were on Thai time and would show up eventually. But he was now within sight of the Customs officials just 40 feet away down the wide corridor, and they began to look his way and gesture for him to come forward. He tried his best to waste time by taking out his travel documents and his diary and making a big show of transcribing information from one to the other. That took about 10 minutes, but still no sign of Khun Matinee and the big man who was going to get him through Customs. Meanwhile his presence had attracted 3 or 4 more officials and also now a military one who evidently was of a senior rank judging by the crisp uniform and the sharp salutes from the assembled group as he approached them. The officer extended his right hand and gave the emphatic knuckles-up fingers-down hand signal to come forward, and gestured to two of his men to go forward and help wheel the precariously balanced load of bags down the corridor. He pointed to the signs for Declare and Nothing to Declare and looked at Steve expectantly. Steve usually thought things through ahead of time so that he had at least one decent contingency plan, but this time he hadn’t. So he was in a real quandary what to do. He decided that the only viable option was to confidently head through “Nothing to Declare”, smile and wai a lot and hope for the best.
As the two soldiers labored with the groaning cart Steve thought it was all going to work out. But no such luck. As they approached the Customs desk the senior officer barked out an order and two other officials stepped in front of him to block his progress. The officer beckoned Steve to step to the desk and gestured to hand over his passport. After a cursory look, showing it to his assembled team and muttering “Angrit” (English) a couple of times, he handed the passport to one of his lackeys and ordered another to move the top bag from the cart onto the inspection desk.
Steve’s heart began to pound so hard he just knew they could hear it hammering out its staccato beat of guilt. At the same time he felt the stress building and the blood pounding through his temples forcing the prickle of heat on his scalp. The sweat bloomed a tell-tale dark stain on his shirt collar and underarms. Meanwhile the drip down the small of his back pooled at his beltline and made him shiver as it leached into his jockeys and rapidly cooled in the super-chilled air of the Customs hall.
The officer gestured for Steve to open the bag. He did his best to hide his sweaty-palmed shakes as he struggled with the zip-tied closure, but not surprisingly he couldn’t break the seal. So the officer waved him away as he flicked open a 6 inch blued mil-spec blade and sliced open the bag along the zipper line and pulled it apart. Steve got the message. About 12 pairs of Thai eyes leaned into get a look and they all immediately recognized the bright indigo of the new denim and understood what it represented. That set off much muttering and chatter in rapid-fire Thai, with the occasional “Lewi’s” thrown in. Meantime another uniformed official and his entourage of armed assistants had arrived, and based on all the saluting and wai-ing, as well as the impressive array of colorful ribbons across his right breast, he was even more senior than the first officer. And more significantly he could speak English.
“What are these?” he asked.
Steve mustered all the calm and nonchalance he could and without a trace of irony replied, “Jeans.”
The officer gave Steve a lingering inscrutable look as though to gauge just how stupid Steve was or how stupid Steve took the officer to be. Steve realized that he had to play the game the Thai way, so he offered up some comments that confirmed it was only he who was stupid. “These are gifts for my good Thai friends. I have many friends and they always ask me to bring them American things. So this time I brought them jeans.”
The officer did not respond but ordered his men to put the other 4 bags on the inspection table and he sliced them open with a vicious relish that made Steve wonder what else he had used the nasty blade on. The same sight greeted them as they opened each bag…the same sea of indigo. The officer glared at Steve for a few moments then asked the same question, “What are these?”
Steve reflected that there was no point in making up another story so he stuck with his first one and replied with the same stupid innocence “They are gifts also. I have many friends and they love Levi’s.”
The officer ignored Steve’s preposterous claim and told his men to unpack one of the bags. In the middle of the first one was a Macy’s bag in which was a 2 oz bottle of Chanel No 5 perfume that was a gift for Khun Matinee for her anticipated
help. The officer evidently either read English or had the experience to recognize the label and the value of the package, so he set it aside while his men unpacked the rest of the bag. They produced nothing but Levi’s…nothing but lots
His men unpacked the second bag but this time instead of a Macy’s bag they found a package about the size of a large hardcover novel wrapped in plain brown paper. That was a shock to Steve. He had no idea what it was and his mind raced with all the possibilities. The officer hefted the package and shook it to try to sense what it contained (no doubt hoping it contained another “gift” for his girlfriend…his wife could do without), then predictably asked Steve, “What is this?”
Steve shrugged almost apologetically when he replied “I’m sorry but I don’t know.”
The officer again took out his folding blade and this time rather more deftly sliced open the wrapper. When Steve saw the picture and label on the box he almost passed out. It was a self-defense stun-gun device. But the officer did not seem to understand
what it was, or at least not the significance of what it could do. He opened the box and took the device out of its plastic bag. It was about the size of a large TV remote, with a nasty-looking pronged extension at one end. The officer demanded
to know what it was, so Steve demonstrated by taking the device and pressing it against his chest, then spastically writhing around like a deranged epileptic, finally dropping to the floor to feign being zapped and incapacitated by the device.
It was such a convincing demonstration that the soldiers thought Steve really had zapped himself because they all jumped back away from him and some even unshouldered their automatic weapons. Of course not one of them came forward to assist the
supposedly stricken and unconscious Steve.
After a dramatic pause Steve jumped up, much to the amazement of the stupidly gawping soldiers. But Steve had really piqued the officer’s interest who now wanted Steve to show him how the device worked. Suddenly the tone of the situation changed and Steve could sense the opportunity to show some serious greng-jai [deference or even fearful respect] to the officer in front of the junior officer and his men. Steve did a really deep and high wai and then with both hands extended in a kind of ceremonial presentation, offered the stun-gun to the officer with “Sir, it is my pleasure to offer this special American stun-gun to you to help protect yourself and your precious family”.
The officer accepted the proffered package and set it aside next to the Chanel box. He gestured to his men to empty the other bags, no doubt hoping for another expensive or exotic. But all he found was jeans. Steve was somewhat relieved but had no idea how this would play out. As luck would have it a bustle of people coming in from the street side of the customs hall took care of that. It was Khun Matinee with an entourage of decorously dressed Thai officials. After many deep and high wais she introduced Steve and after a short discussion she announced that he was to pay the custom fees. Steve didn’t know whether to be relieved or panicked again….perhaps this was going to be a very expensive trip after all.
The officer had quietly moved the Macy’s box and the stun-gun to an adjacent trolley and then ordered it to be moved. He was not going to lose his windfall to the big man now in control. But the Chief made the presiding official pull out his customs ledger and mark down the total of all the jeans and tally up the customs fees and taxes. It came to an even 12,500 baht ($500 at the 1991 rate of 25 baht to the US dollar), which of course Steve did not have. He only had dollars and AmEx travelers checks. The Chief ordered 2 guards to escort Steve out into the arrivals hall to a Money exchange booth. Steve changed $550 in travelers checks and upon returning to the Customs area laid out the notes on the counter. In a ballsy but perhaps stupid move he asked for a receipt. They did not seem to understand, so Steve asked Khun Matinee to translate…she asked him if he was serious and he replied brightly and yet somewhat impertinently, “Certainly!” Khun Matinee was fuming as she felt she had been duped, but of course she maintained her inscrutable smile.
So at around 2:00 AM Steve, receipt in hand, wheeled the cart out into the arrivals hall and eventually was approached by a wiry and rather agitated-looking Thai fellow bearing a Thai Transit business card. He pushed the cart out to a tiny minivan in the adjacent indoor parking lot just beyond the 7 Eleven. As he left the icy-cooled air of the airport the thick heat of the Bangkok night assaulted his face and body and sucked the air out of lungs so he had to gasp for a moment to get his breath back. Despite the encounter in the customs hall, the sea of raven-haired people in the airport, and the obvious change in culture, this was the real confirmation that he was in a very different environment and that exotic, and perhaps even erotic, events lay ahead.