Arriving at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport from sleepy Luang Prabang in Laos, I had no idea of the chaos that was to unravel over the coming hours.
My first indication that something was amiss was when I saw the huge taxi queue that snaked its way into the arrivals hall. The queue was not moving and the normal scrum of taxis was non-existent.
Thai officials at the airport were claiming ‘a taxi strike’, but in reality thousands of yellow-hued anti-government protesters were descending on the airport.
Within an hour the airport had ground to a halt and bemused and ill-informed tourists did their best to cope. The Thai authorities seemed either unable or unwilling to confront the problem. I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of police officers standing around smoking cigarettes and chatting.
They made absolutely no attempt to prevent the demonstrators entering the terminal or removing the taxi touts who were now preying on the stranded tourists, by charging up to 10 times the legal fare for a taxi into Bangkok.
Despite the chaos, uncertainty and potential danger, most tourists were stoical about the deteriorating situation. Some airlines were quick to get passengers into hotels, although some people were being shipped to hotels in Pattaya, more than 100 miles from Bangkok.
British tourist John Wallace and his wife Sally from Manchester told me: “We don’t want to go to Pattaya. We would rather stay in Bangkok, but we have been given no choice.”
Inbound tourists struggled to find transport into Bangkok and were soon finding onward travel difficult. Honeymooners Kerensa and Steppi Magnusson from London told me. “There are no flights now to Chiang Mai and we tried to book a train up there tomorrow but all the trains are fully booked”
Kevin Healy from London was due to fly to Tokyo to meet his pregnant wife but the flight has been cancelled indefinitely. He said what was most annoying was the lack of communication from his carrier (United Airlines) and the Thai authorities’ inability to cope with the situation.
“My wife will now have to fly back here alone, but we have no idea when.”
Approximately 60,000 foreign tourists arrive every day at Suvarnabhumi airport. It is now 6.30pm and the airport is completely closed. With the government unwilling to confront the protesters, the airport looks unlikely to reopen in the next few days. The army appears extremely reluctant to get involved and it appears that only the resignation of the Thai prime minister will alleviate tensions.
Airlines and tour operators are now working to provide accommodation for stranded tourists. However, although there appears to be no shortage of rooms in Bangkok, some tourists are being sent to the resort of Pattaya (the commonly held belief here is that they have been able to negotiate more favourable rates there).
The crisis is also affecting domestic and regional tourism as availability on trains and buses dries up. Domestic and regional air services are also shutting down and, as Bangkok is the region’s major hub, this crisis is proving disastrous for tourism.
The passengers left stranded at the airport have been getting little or no information. Airport staff have gone home on the instructions of their companies and supplies are running out. The TVs have even been switched to the gardening channel.
When I visited the swish tourist police office in the airport yesterday, there were a huge number of officers sitting around doing nothing. When I asked why they were leaving stranded inbound tourists at the mercy of taxi touts charging up to 10 times the legal fare, the senior officer laughed and went to watch the TV with his colleagues. I’ve never seen a more inept airport management system.