Welcome to Bangkok, join the queue

Passengers at Don Mueang airport last week were understandably a trifle distressed after having to wait more than four hours late at night just to get through immigration.

It is hardly ideal that a visitor's first experience in Thailand, especially after a long flight, is being stuck in a packed arrivals lounge for hours on end, especially if you are in a bladder-bursting situation. I get in a foul mood after just a 20-minute wait.

Don Mueang authorities are trying to rectify things and during the week an official proudly announced the wait had been reduced to "only" one hour, news that is unlikely to get the unfortunate passengers leaping about in joy.

The excuses that there were "not enough staff" are just that, excuses, but not a rational explanation. If you want 35 million tourists arriving each year, you need more than half a dozen harassed-looking immigration officers handling them. It's not just at Don Mueang either. Hour-long queues are also common at Suvarnabhumi.

Admittedly, matters are not helped by some of the Chinese tourists who seem to think you always join a queue at the front while making as much noise as possible. Perhaps they should all be sent to England for education in queue etiquette. Knowing how to queue correctly is an essential part of growing up in Britain.

The writer Georges Mikes accurately summed things up when he observed: "An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one."

Standing in line

In the old days people used to joke that no one in Thailand even knew the meaning of the word "queue". Things have progressed over the years, although it would still be fair to say that the Thais have a fairly flexible interpretation of what constitutes a queue.

Something that has contributed significantly to a change in attitude in recent years is the skytrain. Every day of the week commuters form queues on the platforms in a surprisingly orderly manner, although admittedly trying to get off can be bit of a challenge. But as for Siam station, I am convinced it operates daily according to the "Chaos Theory".

Photo op

I had a pleasant experience on the skytrain recently. After boarding at On Nut, there were no seats so I took up my customary position, hanging on to a pole.

As the train pulled into Phra Khanong, there were a lot of schoolchildren, aged about eight, standing in perfect lines on the platform. After the doors opened, nobody got off, but instead of getting on, the kids just stood there obediently in their lines. They had clearly been told by the teachers to allow everyone off first -- except nobody had got off from this particular carriage.

Then I heard an anguished exclamation from a lady teacher: "Nobody's getting off so get on quickly!" Fortunately, they all managed to squeeze on safely just as the doors closed.

The kids looked excited but somewhat bemused, so I asked the teacher, who happened to be standing next to me, what was the occasion. She explained they were from a school in Saraburi and it was the kids' first time ever in Bangkok and they were all a bit overwhelmed by the Big Mango.

She then took her phone out and ordered the nearest students to pose with me on the train, telling them that when they got back home they could tell their friends they met a farang, albeit a funny-looking one, on the train in Bangkok. They dutifully lined up for the pix and I was enjoying it so much, I almost missed my stop. I hope they all had a great time.

U-tapao to the rescue

One of the more bizarre experiences involving departing airline passengers in Thailand occurred back in 2008 when Suvarnabhumi airport was abruptly closed for reasons too ridiculous to go into.

As a result, virtually the only way of getting out of Thailand for a few weeks was at U-tapao. Best known for its role as a base used by American bombers in the Vietnam War, U-tapao suddenly took centre stage again as thousands of tourists descended on the place in a desperate bid to get home.

Despite suffering hours of queuing, watching their baggage being weighed on ancient bathroom scales, tourists came away with a positive view. While they waited in the departures area -- "lounge" was hardly an accurate description -- the passengers were treated to a never-ending parade of classical dancers, singers, assorted troubadours and break-dancing rodents.

They were even entertained by the brilliant Joe Louis puppeteers, a rather strange setting for this award-winning troupe. Even the puppets seemed to enjoy it.

Theatre of the absurd

For many of the stranded passengers at U-tapao, the highlight came when they were serenaded by a ladyboy troupe who had popped over from nearby Pattaya.

They were in all their feathery finery too, with colourful boas, sequins and sparkling bangles and the troupers lip-synched their way in vibrant fashion through a variety of Donna Summer hits.

It was truly a theatre of the absurd, but it went down very well. After all, there are not many airline passengers than can boast they were serenaded onto their plane by a ladyboy dancing troupe. Maybe they should send the ladyboys to entertain the crowds at Don Mueang.

Contact PostScript via email at oldcrutch@gmail.com


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