Mon, Dec 01, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Tourists crowd little-used Thai base to flee country

‘CHAOS AND PANDEMONIUMUnruly passengers bound for Taipei shoved their way through a door to the security screening area after the final boarding call

AFP AND AP , U-TAPAO AND BANGKOK, THAILAND, MANILA, SYDNEY AND MADRID

A passenger waits in the departure hall at the besieged Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok, Thailand, yesterday.

PHOTO: AP

Not even the dancing girls provided by a local hotel could cheer thousands of travelers 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 about 190km southeast of Bangkok has been the best way out of the country for tourists stranded by an anti-government blockade of the capital’s main airports.

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 with the 700-flight capacity of Bangkok’s gleaming Suvarnabhumi international airport. But thanks to the demonstrations, it’s the best Thailand has to offer.

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.

“It’s complete chaos and pandemonium,” said Bonnie Chan, 29, from San Diego, California.

With no departures board available, airline employees held up signs that said “Final boarding call, Moscow.”

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 selling point for U-Tapao was when female employees from one enterprising Pattaya hotel, taking advantage of the captive audience, put on a 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.”

Meanwhile, foreign governments were racing yesterday to evacuate their nationals.

China had arranged for seven charter flights to retrieve its stranded nationals, believed to number 2,000 to 3,000 people, Xinhua news agency said.

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has ordered her foreign department to account for hundreds of Filipinos among those stranded in Bangkok and asked that they be brought home to Manila from the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Australian airline Qantas would provide extra flights to Thailand, “but that is dependent upon getting access to the airports and getting flights in,” Smith told national television yesterday.

Other carriers which have confirmed they will send flights to U-Tapao include Cathay Pacific, EVA Airways and Malaysia Airlines.

Meanwhile Spain will reportedly send three planes, two military aircraft and a chartered plane.

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