Habiba and I arrived at the airport in Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi International, in plenty of time for our flight at 6:30. We were due to fly to Guangzhou, the city we’d passed through on the way out, stay there for eleven hours and fly on to Incheon in the morning.
As we waited to check in we observed a family at the head of the queue who were taking a long time. A white man and his Asian wife seemed to be having some problems; the man seemed uninterested while his wife was much more agitated. After a good while they moved off with their suitcases. As we approached the head of the line, Habiba noticed someone apparently in tears after being similarly turned away.
And then it was our turn … to be rejected. A couple of other westerners told us to come to the China Southern Airline desk nearby because they were having the same issues.
The issue was that we didn’t have a visa for China. We didn’t think that was a problem – we’d passed through on our way out with minimal difficulties, Chinese Immigration just took us to one and checked us through. The problem now, though, was that Guangzhou airport closes overnight so that anyone with a transfer spanning two calendar days needs a visa. And, China being the paranoid, oppressive dictatorship (emphasis on dic) that it is, doesn’t just let any old innocent traveller in.
We were screwed.
By the time the plane left at 6:30, there were thirty other foreigners, all on their way to Korea, camped out in front of the China Southern desk. The guy who was manning the desk was clearly uncomfortable, but tried to keep up a good-natured front. Everyone was demanding that he do something for us, that he talk to his boss, that he make his boss do something for us, that he call his boss back to reiterate our demands.
The airline first told us that they couldn’t do anything for us – we should have got visas and now we had to make our own arrangements; the Chinese embassy opened on Monday morning (when the vast majority of us had to be back at work). Then they told us they could put some of us on another flight. No one wanted to make a decision as to who should go on this other flight and, some time later, the airline decided for us: the Canadians could travel on the flight (everyone loves Canucks). The rest of us were still screwed.
Long story short, the last in a long series of grudging concessions made by China Southern was that they would put the rest of us up in a hotel on Saturday night, get the Chinese embassy to open specially for us to issue us with visas, then put us up in China for a night and ferry us back and forth in Bangkok and Guangzhou – all free of charge. By this time there were only seven of the non-Canadians left – the rest had all gone off to buy stand-by flights.
This was at about two in the morning – ten hours after we arrived at the airport. The poor guy on the desk had been there throughout and had been due to clock off at 10 pm. We foreigners had spent all that time sitting in front of the desk, arguing with the guy or wandering round. We chatted with some of our compatriots – half were Canadians, most of the rest were Americans, with two Britons (the one who was not me was married to a Canadian and had two Canadian children) and one Irishwoman.
A number of us took a fairly wait-and-see approach to the whole thing. Two or three others (Americans, as it happens) were much more proactive. A woman called Ta-Leah was an early leader, calling the US embassy and so on; another woman made repeated threats of legal action. I pitched in to the general argument with airline – some time in the early hours when they were making the final offer, I tried to point out that paying for all those free-of-charge compensations must surely add up to about the cost of a plane ticket with another airline. But apparently not.
Everyone was astonished that a) Guangzhou Airport – a large, international airport – closes overnight and that b) neither the airline nor any of the ticket agents had taken any pains to point out that the airport closes at night. Some people had, so they said, contact travel agents and even China Southern to ask about just this issue and been told there wouldn’t be a problem.
I left Habiba in the middle of the night – she had to check in first thing, so there wasn’t much point in her coming to the hotel – and was ferried along with the six Americans to a plush hotel, the Miracle Hometel, a few minutes’ drive from the airport. It was one of those places where everything comes in little, specially made packets – disposable toothbrushes, sewing kit, shower caps etc. The Americans all doubled up to share rooms; as the odd man out (isn’t it ever the way?) I got a room to myself.
We all gathered in the morning after a rather lacklustre breakfast to wait for our transportation to the Chinese embassy. Ten minute after our pick-up time of eight o’clock, we discovered a pair of taxis had been waiting outside for us.
We arrived at the embassy a little while before we were supposed to be there – nine. It all appeared to be closed. Eventually, one of the Thai staff members came out – a young woman who seemed friendly, although she didn’t have much English. She was part of the security staff. She told us to go in and make use of the facilities if we needed it. I needed it.
A while later, a Chinese woman arrived and took us up to a waiting room where we filled in visa applications. For some reason, all American visas cost the same, so they all got themselves 12 month, multiple entry visas. I supposed I could have applied for the same, but I didn’t want to push my luck – I got a three month, single entry visa. They processed the visas pretty quickly.
We had the rest of the day free – at least until three, when we were going to be taken back to the airport. I wanted to use the internet. The internet facilities at the hotel cost, I was told by a member of staff, 236 baht an hour – that’s more than £4. I decided I would venture out while the others slept or swam in the hotel’s pool and find a cheap internet place. So began an adventure within an adventure.
The hotel was in a quiet area, populated by deserted office buildings and light industrial units. I walked out to the main road and turned left. A while later I stopped for a break from the heat at a 7-Eleven. Mmm. Air-conditioning. There was a hospital next to the convenience store, and a hospital across the road … as well as another 7-Eleven. Also on the other side of the road was a temple with a market in the grounds. This looked like a busier and more promising area for my search, so I crossed over the footbridge handily built there.
A short walk down the side street next to the temple-cum-market brought me to a game café. There were about eight or so PCs inside, mostly being used by young kids to play kiddish games – Japanese-style, pop star RPGs. Or something. The woman of about fifty who was in charge didn’t speak any English, but ‘internet’ is pretty much the same in any language. At my urging, she wrote an address or directions for an internet cafe on a piece of paper.
Armed with this I figured out that I needed to cross the main road again. (Obviously, I don’t speak any Thai, much less read any, but I asked people outside for help.) The next place I asked for directions was the hotel by the 7-Eleven I dropped into – medical staff are highly trained and so would be more likely to speak some English I reasoned, not unreasonably.
The nurses at reception told me to wait once the understood what I was after. After a short wait, a man of about thirty or forty, who I took to be a porter, came out to meet me. I was to follow him. He got on a moped and I got on behind him. (This part is the adventure within the adventure within the adventure.)
The guy rode along the main road in the direction I’d walked to get there (ie, away from the hotel). Thais drive on the left, so there wasn’t any problem crossing the road. He stopped at a couple of place down a side street to ask for directions. The buildings were all three or four storey terraces, making the side street into a kind of shady gorge. The ground floors of these building were reached by a few steps going up and were occupied by modest shops of various kinds – chemist’s, covenience stores, hairdressers, at least one other game café. Some ground floor shops seemed to be open but empty, or occupied by furniture that could have been someone’s living room.
After a while, we arrived at an internet café a short further distance along the main road. But – this somehow wasn’t the place I was looking for. It said ‘Internet’ on the window, there were guys inside using the internet, but once my porter spoke to the owner or whoever it was who was on duty there (he was actually stationed in the chemist’s a couple of shops down), we got on the moped again and moped off.
We headed back the way we came, back down the canyon of a side street. After more shouted conversations between the porter and random people, we went back to the internet café and that’s where I used the internet. I thanked the guy and gave him 20 baht – not much but I felt it was the least I could do. He refused it at first, but then accepted it and seemed a little disappointed. Maybe.
I e-mailed Habiba to let her know what was going on, then I e-mailed people at work for the same purpose. Then I walked back to the hotel. It wasn’t that far – 10 minutes’ walk at most. I stopped off at yet another 7 Eleven (there were three within a few minutes walk of each other) and bought some snacks for lunch and the flights.
I ate noodles watching BBC news. Then I went out and bought some more snacks – these ones some small packs of crisps costing 5 baht each (about 10p). I later handed them out to my students back in Korea.
Back to the airport. Of the seven of us I was second last to check in. The check-in attendant told me to wait while she checked Ta-Leah in. Then she checked me in. When I asked what the problem had been she told me I hadn’t been booked on to the flight. Wonderful.
I exchanged some money for Chinese yuan and queued up to go through security. I was the first of the seven of us to arrive at the gate, and the others didn’t turn up for quite a while. I started to worry about them. However, they got there and the flight took off – late – and we got to Guangzhou at about eleven as the airport was closing down for the night.
We wandered around looking for someone who was supposed to help us. We had been given a name, but that didn’t do much for us. A guy called Gregg and I split off as the others talked to some women who wanted to take us to a hotel (not in a dodgy way … I think). We found some Air China staff and they phoned someone and we finally got some transport to our next hotel.
Somewhere on the China leg of our journey, I got talking to Rhondda (don’t know if she has Welsh ancestors). She told me Habiba and I were very much in love. I agreed, and thought back to when Habiba and I had held each other’s hands and spun around by the China Southern desk at Suvarnabhumi Airport. She told me about an audition she has for an acting course next month. She’s taking a day off work and flying to California over a weekend for a ten minute audition. I hope she does well.
This place was in what seemed an older building – or at least an old-fashioned building. It had columns and what I’m sure were supposed to be opulent furnishings. The overall effect was of somewhere cheap and tired. It was dimly lit, cold and damp.
We were taken to our rooms. A few moments later, one of the hotel guys knocked on my door – he had a bottle of water for me – and an armful of bottles for the others. He leant into the doorway and murmured, ‘You want massagey?’ I told him I didn’t.
At half past five the following morning, someone brought a ‘breakfast’ of cheap banana flavour muffins and cartons of some milky drink to our doors. Ten minutes later we got wake-up calls.
At the airport, we were told that none of us, apart from Ta-Leah, had been booked on to the flight. Which, after everything, was kind of hilarious. After some more complaining they checked us on to the flight. And – finally – we flew home. A day late.
From the sunny climes of Thailand we arrived in a Korea that was cloaked in snow. I had more fun waiting for me later that Monday, but that’s another story. (And all this has been more of a slow motion rewind than a fast forward rewind, but never mind.)