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Chaos reigns at Thailand's tourist airlift

AFP  Dec 01, 2008

U-Tapao, Thailand – Not even the dancing girls provided by a local hotel could cheer thousands of travellers as they tried to flee protest-hit Thailand through this Vietnam-era airbase.

"This is my first time in Thailand and I probably won't come back," said Glen Squires, a 47-year-old tourist from England, casting a glum eye over the crowds.

"What they've done is shot themselves in the foot."

Since Friday, the U-Tapao naval base 190 kilometres (118 miles) southeast of Bangkok has been the only way in or out of the country for tourists stranded by an anti-government blockade of the capital's main airports.

Travellers who arrived here found crowds of tired and angry passengers, armed guards, piles of garbage, mountains of luggage -- and an increasingly tense and surreal atmosphere.

Built in the 1960s by the US air force and equipped with just one X-ray scanner for bags, the airbase can only handle around 40 flights a day, compared to the 700-flight capacity of Bangkok's gleaming Suvarnabhumi international airport.

But thanks to the demonstrations, it's all that Thailand has to offer.

"I think it's stupid," said Danny Mosaffi, 57, from New York City. "They have killed tourism in this country, the authorities should go do something. Nobody is going to come here."

Thai authorities say more than 100,000 travellers -- both Thai and foreign -- have had flights cancelled since the occupation of Suvarnabhumi on Tuesday in what the protesters are calling their "final battle" against the government.

Some travel agents bussed passengers down to U-Tapao, which is near the tourist resort of Pattaya, but with information proving difficult to come by in Bangkok, others came on their own more in hope than expectation.

Huge traffic jams built up outside the sprawling compound. Thai soldiers with M16 rifles guarded the entrance to the airport to prevent anti-government protesters from gaining access, as travellers lugged their bags under the sun.

Once inside the terminal, it was standing room only. Travellers were unsure where they should check in. Long queues wound around the lone luggage scanner, where soldiers tried to hold back the surging crowd.

"It's complete chaos and pandemonium," said Bonnie Chan, 29, from San Diego, California.

"We've been given incorrect information from the airlines. The US embassy says they can't help us. We're high and dry. The airlines keep giving us the run-around."

With no departures board available, airline employees held up signs that said "Final boarding call, Moscow," while other staff stood inside the security area and pressed signs against a glass window calling for passengers to board a flight to Hong Kong.

At one point, a group of unruly passengers pushed their way through a door to the security screening area after an airport employee announced the final boarding call for a flight to Taipei.

One woman, caught in the surge, began to scream, and the soldiers forced the doors shut.

"We've treated six patients today," said Nan Soontornnon, 24, of Bangkok Hospital in Pattaya, standing with a doctor and nurse in a makeshift clinic.

"Passengers have had headaches, exhaustion, and other problems, like fainting. But this place has protection from the soldiers -- Suvarnabhumi doesn't," she said.

U-Tapao's only other selling point was when female employees from one enterprising Pattaya hotel, taking advantage of the captive audience, put on a traditional Thai dance performance.

The women later donned red and silver dresses with feather boas, singing: "You'll fall in love in Pattaya. There's no better place to be."

The situation has caused international concerns.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Sunday that the situation was "frustrating", adding that some stranded Australians were "becoming increasingly distressed and we understand that."

But not everyone was unhappy.

Three Russian men started dancing and hugging each other outside the terminal building. Two were shirtless and one had no trousers, while all appeared to be intoxicated.

"Everything is okay," said one of the men, who refused to give his name. "Except nothing to drink. No sex. No food. No money," he smiled.

Chaos reigns at Thailand's tourist airlift
Foreign passengers stranded in Thailand waiting at check-in counters of U-Tapao military airport/AFP

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