How we got out of Thailand

As some of you know, my wife and I were recently in Thailand.  We were, in fact, there while People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) closed down the airports in Bangkok.  Once that happen, we (a long with 349,998 people) were pretty screwed getting back home.  The following is a rough account of what we went through to get home.  It is a bit long, but enjoy it anyway.

By way of an introduction, the following is a map of roughly where we were and where we went.

Tuesday, November 25th – The Fun Begins

PAD takes over the main airport in Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi, as well the older Don Meung airport.  They have a bit of a throw-down with the cabbies at the airport.  This involves golf clubs, sticks, and whatever else everyone get their hands on.  They demand to know when the Prime Minister is returning to Thailand, which turns out to be Wednesday.  I figure that the PM will come back to Thailand and work things out with PAD.  Oh so wrong was I.

I cannot begin to imagine what it was like for the people at the airport waiting to fly out.  Truly terrifying.  But then again, PAD people were dressed rather festively and they did set up a bunch of food stalls.  It might have been fun… for about 5 seconds.

Wednesday, November 26th – What, me worry?

So the Thai Prime Minister returns to Thailand, but instead of flying back to Bangkok where the welcome committee was stationed, he flew to an air force base near Chiang Mai.  We had seen this base a week prior.  The PM states he will not dissolve the government and he called on PAD to leave the airports.  Stop or I’ll say stop again!

Hoping that this would resolve itself, we did nothing to prepare for what was coming.

Thursday, November 27th, Before Lunch- Thanks for the help, United

We woke up early, checked the news, and realized that things were bad.  We were not going to be able to fly into Bangkok in order to fly out of Bangkok.  We were currently holed up in the wonderful Layana resort on Koh Lanta.  Seeing that things were bad, we called United to see what they could do.

Me: Hey things are looking bad in Bangkok!  Can you route home via either oh the Phuket or Krabi airports?

United: Sure.  We can route you out of Bangkok on the 1st.

Me: But.  Um.  You see, that bit about Bangkok isn’t going to work out.

United: Well that may be true, but the policy says we have to route you the exact same way you are currently routed.

Policy über alles at United.  Yes, they refused to get us out of another airport.

So we called United in Thailand.  They didn’t get the same memo that United in the States had.  They said they could get us out of Singapore, but couldn’t get us to Singapore.  We would be responsible for getting ourselves to Singapore and they would get us out.  Thanks for the effort.  Since we didn’t know how to get to Singapore yet, committing to getting their seemed a little risky.  We asked them to hold the tickets and we’d get back to them.

We started researching ways to Singapore.  All the flights were booked.  There seemed to be a few train seats, but that would involve:

  1. A 5 hour minivan ride to the train station
  2. An overnight train through Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur
  3. An all day train ride from there to Singapore
This did not seem so appealing.  The resort staff found another option: a 5 hour van ride followed by a 19 hour VIP van ride.  (What constitutes a VIP van, I’ll never know.)
I happen to notice that we got a confirmation email from United.  Instead of holding the tickets for us, they ticketed them.  So, we called United and pleaded with them to get us back on our original Dec 1 flights out of Bangkok.

Thursday, November 27th, After Lunch- There’s always Malaysia

During lunch we realized that we had made a mistake.  Even if the airport was cleared out on the 27th, there was little chance that we’d actually get home on the 1st.  There were too many people stranded, no equipment in the area, and we still had no idea how to get back to Bangkok.  So we decided to try once more with United to get a better flight, and if that failed, try to figure out a way to Singapore.
So we called United once more.  I discovered there was a flight from Phuket, only 5 hours away, to Munich.  I wanted on that flight… bad.  The oh-so-incredibly-not-helpful lady from United said that they could not book us on that flight because we were traveling on free reward tickets and they couldn’t change the routing.
Me: So let me get this straight.  There’s likely to be a coup with a lot of bloodshed and United is unwilling to help its passengers get out of potential danger?
United: We cannot reroute your ticket.
Me: Again, you are telling me that you will not help your customers get out of harm’s way because of administrative policy.
United: Yes.
Me: This by you is customer service.
United: I’m sorry, sir.  I hope you understand.
Before throwing my phone out the window, I hung up.  Again, United let administrative stupidity stand in the way of doing the right thing.
So we were back on our Singapore plans.  In the midst of working with the Layana staff to figure a way there, the General Manager said, “Why don’t you go to Langkawi?”  My wife responded with, “Can you spell that?”  Langkawi is an island off the coast of Malaysia.  There is boat service from Koh Lanta there.  From there we could fly to Singapore.

First thing first, we were confirmed on the boat.  Hurray.  Next up, call Silk Air, a part of Singapore Air and book the flight.  No answer.  Load their website.  No good.  Call their HQ in Singapore and buy a ticket.  No answer.  Try their website again.  It partially loads but we discover we can only by a one-way ticket to Langkawi from Singapore and not from.

Enter Air Asia, the Southwest Airways of Asia.  Actually, the comparison to Southwest is unfair.  I have had plenty of pleasant, innocuous experiences on Southwest.  Air Asia a bit like what Total Bastard Airlines would have been like if it actually existed.  Air Asia is a point to point carrier.  They do not allow you to book multi-city routes.  Keep this in mind as it comes into play on the 28th.  Because I cannot book a multi-city route, I have to buy a ticket from KL to Singapore and a ticket from Langkawi to KL.

First up, 2 tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.  Great, they are available.  They don’t seem too expensive, awesome!  Click purchase… enter your Verified by Visa password.  What?  No, no, no, no, no!  I just want the f’ing tickets!

According to Visa, Verified by Visa is:

In addition to our other ways of preventing, detecting, and resolving fraud, we offer Verified by Visa, a free, simple-to-use service that confirms your identity with an extra password when you make an online transaction.

According to Ian, it is a complete waste of time.  First, it looks like a phishing site.  Second, it requires you give Visa some data that they already have.  Third, you have to remember a long password which has some off strength rules.  Fourth, if you don’t enter the right password quick enough your entire transaction is cancelled, and when you are trying to buy tickets to get out of Thailand, that gets very very fucking stressful.

So, I reset the password and low and behold there was a problem with my transaction.  The card was reject or something… the error messages aren’t very good.  I go sprinting out of the General Manager’s office back to our room, grab my wife’s MasterCard and run back, hoping that that tickets are still available.  I noticed in my stressed state, I reversed a digit in the card number.  I fix that and the transaction goes through.

Now, book tickets from Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur.  Available.  Great!  Enter Visa bullshit.  Transaction rejected!  Did I mention that best feature of Verified by Visa?  Every time you run across a site that requires it and you complete a transaction, it triggers the fraud monitor of your issuing bank.  They immediately lock you card.  (I know this because I had to deal with this bullshit a few months ago when I was buying other airline tickets in Thailand.)  Ok, steady now, don’t panic.  Using the wife’s card we get our tickets.

While I call United, my wife books us some hotel rooms.  Hey, there’s a Sheraton… and a Weston on Langkawi!  Nice.  Even better, the St. Regis in Singapore is relatively cheap!  Sweet!

And by 7pm we had our escape planned.  Boats, planes, and hotels.

End of story?  Oh, you know me better than that.

Friday, November 28th – No, really, we are supposed to stop in the middle of the ocean

And so we depart Layana in the morning.  We said goodbye to all the super helpful staff and headed to the pier.  The ferry operator had our reservation, kinda.  A few thousand baht helped them remember.  We got our tickets for the 3 (3?!) ferry rides that were ahead of us.  When I say tickets, I mean little white stickers with LK written on them.  Cunning using of craft products.

We board the first “speedboat.”  It looked more like a shrunken tugboat.  We sat on top and it was a pleasant enough ride.  We headed north and east around the top of the island through the mangrove.  Very green and quiet.  Except for the horrible racket the engine kept making.

We got a lovely tour of some of the nearby islands.  There are definitely some place I want to go back and check out.

After swapping boats in Hat Yao, we were off again.  This time our boat was about two school buses wide and two school buses long.  It looked more like a tube a cigar would come in than a boat.  But it did haul ass and that’s all we were looking for.

We were sitting above deck when it started to pour.  Forced inside, we sat in the stale air, rolling from side to side unable to see more than fifty feet on either side.

And after a while, we stopped.  Near a huge hunk of rock with no visible signs of life on it.  Stopped.  Eventually, a long boat arrived carrying new passengers for our boat who looked like drowned rats.  Yes, our boat made scheduled stops in the middle of nowhere.  At least it was on time.

After three or so hours we arrived at Koh Lipeh, the last stop before Malaysian waters.  Standing on a floating dock, a seemingly random guy asked for our passports.  Before we knew it, he hopped a long boat and took off for shore.  Leaving us.  In us a few hundred yards off shore.  On a rusted junk heap of a mooring.  Waiting.

Our speedboat arrived and the urged us to get on.  Not without our passports.  More waiting.  More arguing.  The guy returned claiming that he had got our passports in order and that the captain would hand them over to customs in Malaysia.  Then and only then, we’d get them back.  Lovely.  I felt even better when I saw our passports disappear into a knock-off vinyl Converse bag (it was missing the second “e”) and then the captain grabbed said fake bag and tossed it into a compartment by his leg.

So we boarded the boat.

Captain One-Glove was wearing sunglasses far too dark considering the rain.  He had a grin that clearly read, “I am going to totally mess with the Westerns.”  There were about 20 of us on the boat, all Westerns.  He mashed the throttle all the way down and we were off like a shot.  In 3 to 4 foot seas.  We caught air on alternating waves, slamming down so hard you thought you’d eat the seat in front of you.  It was pissing down rain and the spray from the waves was coming in hard.  We were soaked within minutes.  I started laughing, because, frankly, there was nothing else to do.  My wife wasn’t as amused.

An hour later we arrived, battered, bruised, with ears ringing, at Langkawi.  After some more monkey business with our passports, we hopped a cab, headed to the Sheraton and tried to relax.  The incredibly cheap Johnny Walker Green Labels’ helped.

But we aren’t done yet.

Saturday, November 30th – Oh, you wanted to make that connection?

I’ll skip ahead a bit.  In the afternoon, we headed to the Langkawi airport.  It was nice enough.  We tried to check in.  They let us check into the flight to Kuala Lumpur, but not all the way to Singapore.  They said, as a point to point carrier they are not responsible for any connections, including their own.  They said that that language is all over their website.  Whether it is or isn’t became very irrelevant.  They said we should have left at least 3 (3!) hours to make the connection.

And of course, the flight to KL was late leaving.  Very late.  Very very late.  In fact, it seemed like we were only going to have about 45 minutes between flight.  Which would have been okay, had we not been warned that they close the ticket process 45 minutes before the flight leaves.  Basically, we were going to touch down in KL at the last possible second to get boarding passes.

Oh, yeah, and we weren’t flying into KL’s main international airport.  We were flying into Kuala Lumpur Low Cost Carrier Terminal.  (This actually was a blessing in disguise.)  The LCC, as it is know, is essentially a cargo airport where the government built a bus terminal for flying buses.

Once we were let off the plane, I did my best OJ Simpson and sprinted through the airport trying to get a boarding pass.  I was with another woman who was doing the same thing.  Meanwhile, my wife was trying to get the bags and was going to meet up with me.

This lady and I found the right ticketing desk and were running so fast we basically slammed straight into it, rocking it just a bit.  The nice Air Asia lady gave us boarding passes, huzzah!  But then told us we had to go to a different gate to check in our bags, once we got them.

Did I mention the luggage policy?  One carry-on.  7 kilos or less.  No exceptions for Westerns.  None.

I con’ed my way back into the restricted luggage area with my wife.  We grabbed the bags and ran to the luggage check in.  Where no one would look up to help us.  Finally, we got someone’s attention.  He refused to let us carry on the bags.  He attempted to print us luggage tags to check the bags.  And then the tag printer ran out of labels.  Meanwhile we are absolutely losing it as the plane is about to board and we still have to clear customs.  Finally he prints the labels and slaps them on the bags.  We run to a different counter to check the bags.  We are vaguely told to slide the bags down a conveyor belt.  On the other end, I can see two baggage handlers laying on the belt.  We yell at them to see if they can get the bags on the plane.  One smiles and gives us a big thumbs up.  That smile worried me.  It said, “Don’t worry.  There’s no chance in hell your bags are going to make it.”

We sprinted through customs and made it to the gate just as boarding was about to begin.

We arrived in Singapore an hour later.  And so did our bags.


We spent a day and half running around Singapore and really loved it.  Great eating town.  Bought a copy of the Makansutra and tried to find the best chicken rice we could.  (We ate at 5 Star.)  Finally, on December 1st, we boarded United 804 for Tokyo and then back home to Dulles.  Four days after we were supposed to be back, we were home.

Some closing awards to those who helped and those that did not.,

The Good:

  • Layana Resort – good rooms, incredible staff, great beach.  A real winner, especially in a crisis.
  • St. Regis in Singapore – The nicest place I have ever stayed.
  • Chicken Rice and Chili Crab – Singapore knows how to eat!
The Bad:
  • Air Asia’s point-to-point policy is a killer.  Give yourself at least 2 hours between connections, if not three.
  • Kuala Lumpur’s LCC – It’s an ugly terminal with little services, but it is small enough you can run from one side to another in a minute, which was a damn good thing.
  • The Sheraton Langkawi’s Spice Trader restaurant.  Clearly, they traded all their spices away as our meal was one of the blandest things I have ever eaten.
The Ugly:
  • United Airlines’ ridiculous routing policy.  I do not care if the tickets were mileage rewards, you simply do not exercise all options available just because of an administrative foible.
  • United Airlines’ Thai ticket office.  Told us one thing, did another.  Got to love that.

Finally, I have to say, after all this, I consider us to be lucky.  We found a way out of the country and it worked.  I truly feel for the hundreds of thousands people whose travel was impacted because of this.  More importantly, I feel for the Thai people who have yet to find some form of political stability.  Today, the Prime Minister was kicked out of politics by the courts and the government has been dissolved.  The fear of massive bloodshed was not realized.  Hopefully now the Thai people can find some way to build a more stable government.  When they do, we’ll be back because we just got a taste for Thailand and want more.

16 thoughts on “How we got out of Thailand”

  1. Dude. Seriously. That is QUITE the story. Thank God you and your wife travel a fair amount and could work the system, what little there was. I was going to call you for the story but this works. Welcome Home!

  2. Eee gads what a fiasco. If we ever go to Thailand it will be with you and Sarah because David and I would NEVER get out of that country in those circumstances. NEVER!

  3. You should’ve just taken a bus or van to BKK, then another one overland to KL, flying out of there. Not as great a story, but far less stressful, heh.

  4. Roland –

    We did consider a van to BKK, but the reports were that that journey had become a 19 hour one instead of the (slightly) more reasonable 10 hours it usually takes. Ah well, live and learn.

  5. Thanks for posting Ian. That’s pretty much what I expected you to be going through, though I assume it could’ve been worse if any of the connections were missed — or you didn’t have web access, your phone died, the bottom of the “convers” bag split open, etc.. …when there’s that many points of failure…

  6. well done guys, the story is a great read. Unfortunatly we are still stuck on Koh Samui, Thai airways have just continualy bumped our flights and given us absolutly no information, we have one member of our party has a mediCal condition for which he is going to run out of drugs on Friday. The UK embassy has been xompletley uselless as have the UK government. JUST WANT TO GO HOME

  7. holy wow. not sure to laugh or cry, but your write up has me rolling. I told Sarah, next time try the Route 66 Museum in Clinton. may be all the adventure you want!

  8. OMFG. That is the most incredible travel story ever!! Lordie! Please tell me you will write United and use your exceptional writing skills to show how they put your lives in danger!

    Also, my favorite sentence in your tale: “Cunning use of craft products.”

    So very glad you’re back safe and with quite the adventure tale!

  9. All I can say is – Holy Missed Connections, Batman! I’ve had to deal with some hairy travel experiences myself, including having an airline “lose” my wife, but this one takes the cake. Glad you guys were able to make it back.

    With all those negotiations you had to do, you probably have enough foreign policy experience now to qualify for Sarah Palin’s cabinet 🙂

  10. That was great adventure story dude, in that time of politics strike, going to Singapore to get a flight is a good way. and the most important thing, you got home.

  11. I have a friend I work with that lives in Singapore although I’ve never been there he has never, not once complained in any way about the Government there. I find it interesting because after reading your account you would think the people would talk about it. Perhaps it’s the culture… they are just accepting of what happens. Glad I didn’t have to deal with your ordeal. Makes one value having an ample credit line and a few good pieces of plastic so you can move from place to place.

  12. Been to Phuket City twice now, first time was in June 2005, then back at New Year 2008. What a phenomenal place! It supplies for everyone: if your looking for cozy Thai people there is masses of them, if your looking for great food there is quite a little and night life is rich. If you want a low-priced holiday, you can have it – if you want a costly vacation, you can have it also. My mom is really in love with the place and has just bought into a bar over there. My children love it too. What a wonderful place to celebrate New Year!

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