My flight out of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport leaves at 13:55.
I arrange through my hostel for a van pick me up at 11:00 since it will apparently take upwards of an hour to reach the terminal. This gives me plenty of time to wake up early, check out some sites, eat some food, and relax as I wait for my ride.
Alarm set for 5:30, I head off to a relatively early night's sleep (probably just at things are getting started in the streets outside my room).
The morning doesn't start well.
No, it's not because my alarm didn't go off; and no, it's not because I didn't get myself out of bed – it's because my phone's time has not updated to local time since I left Nepal yesterday. Instead of waking up at 5:30, I wake up at 6:45 (yes, Nepal's time zone is UTC+5:45).
Okay, not a huge deal.
I lost an hour and fifteen minutes, but I still have enough time to get out and make something of my morning. A quick complimentary breakfast and a 55 baht taxi ride later, I am at the Grand Palace – and so is everyone else now visiting Bangkok.
Making my way to the front of the ticket line, I learn that the 500 baht entry fee exceeds the amount of cash I have. Well at least the outside of this place looks nice? Maybe without all these people?
Defeated, I spend the next ten minutes looking for a cab that will take me back to where I just came from for the same 55 baht that I just paid instead of the 300 baht everyone seems to insist on telling me it’s going to cost.
I finally find a taxi who agrees to use the meter and lo and behold – 55 baht on the mark. It’s like somehow I knew.
Back at my hostel, I wisely spend my final few baht on a morning liter of beer while I wait for my ride to the airport.
My ride shows up right on time and I become the first of six other passengers on their way to the airport that morning (although one would leave us along the way after forgetting to bring his passport with him).
Despite our being on-time, the driver appears to be in a race to the airport as we barrel down, lights flashing and horn honking, on every driver ballsy enough to be minding his or her own business when we charge up behind them.
Fortunately, one of the passengers onboard our suicidal shuttle service’s ride of terror happens to be Thai and she does us all the favor of telling the driver to quit driving like such a jackass.
This helps, if only slightly.
We manage to arrive at the airport still alive, and I, still with a couple of hours before my flight leaves.
I make my way past the departure screens and fail at this round of “try to find your flight on the departure board without stopping as you walk past.”
A friendly Thai Airways employee greets me at the check-in counter which seems surprisingly empty. No matter, there are literally dozens of Thai Airways counters in Bangkok’s BKKXXX airport and I’m probably just at the wrong one. Hopefully this welcoming smile will extend to me being checked into my flight as well.
I’m asked for my flight number and as I pull out my phone to check…
”Oh, shit. I’m an idiot. I missed my flight.”
”I’m sorry, Sir, what?”
I answer by placing my head on the counter with a deep exhale.
You see, I actually arrived in Bangkok from Kathmandu yesterday at around 18:00 and am on what I thought was a twenty hour layover. Turns out it was only a sixteen hour layover.
Since I left the airport to spend the night in Bangkok, my brain dismissed the fact that I was between flights when I looked at my flight details. This means I was looking at my departure time from Kathmandu instead of Bangkok (and that another part of my brain was too turned-off to realize, “Hey! That’s the same time your plane left yesterday – coincidence?”).
It turns out that friendly smile at the counter doesn’t translate to me magically receiving a boarding pass for another flight to my destination. Instead I’m directed to the Thai Airways ticketing office.
Inside the ticketing office (just past all the check-in counters), I sit and wait for my number to be called as I mentally kick myself in the balls for something that could so easily have been avoided.
But worrying about what’s done isn’t going to do any good; when my number’s called I throw on a smile and hope the representative I’m about to meet with is in the business of helping people out.
My newest adversary tells me that because of my ticket's class (i.e. it was cheap), there is no way to change my flight and I will have to buy a new ticket on the next flight (which is today at 23:00), or for the next day's flight in the morning (the one I should have been on today).
Buying a new ticket is not an option (because money), but I indulge this woman's fantasy and ask how much the cheaper of the two tickets is. She writes down a number in baht (that's Thai currency in case you haven't caught on) that I then convert to roughly $600 US. Yeah, that’s definitely not going to happen.
I try some pleading, but this woman isn't having any of it and so I leave the ticketing office defeated.
The one thing I have going for me is that I am booked on Thai Airways and Bangkok is their hub; there are plenty of other employees to plead my case to.
Time to get to work.
I head past three rows of check-in counters (all of them Thai Airways) until I find a row of Thai Airways counters with relatively little movement.
A girl sits doing whatever it is airport employees do at their overly hidden computer screens, and I decide that she will be the one who will help me out of this situation.
“Hello Sir, how can I help you?”
“Well, I missed my flight this morning, and I am hoping that you can help me get on the 23:00 flight tonight.”
“Sure, may I see your passport, please?”
Surrendering my passport, I begin a wait long enough for me to suspect that somehow this airport still employs dial-up internet. But eventually, after a lot of key clicking and even more silent waiting, she finds what she needs.
“Excuse me, Sir? Because of your ticket's class, unfortunately you need to purchase a new ticket.” Not what I want to hear.
“Okay, but isn't there a way for me to pay a fee and get on the flight?”
“No, Sir. Because of your ticket's class, it cannot be changed. You will need to buy a new ticket.” Although she's saying the same thing as the previous employee, she isn't saying it with nearly as much “tough shit” in her voice. I decide to keep pushing.
“I literally can't afford to buy another ticket. There isn't any way for me to get switched to that flight?”
As I attempt to not to let the conversation end she continues to fall back on my ticket's class, and I take the conversation in circles waiting for it to reach its escape velocity and launch us in the direction of me getting on this plane at 23:00 (without purchasing a new ticket).
After about ten minutes of this I get my wish when she says, “Have you picked up your luggage yet?” Although I hate checking bags, I wanted my trekking poles for Nepal and since these could conceivably be used to hijack a plane, into the cargo hold my backpack went.
“No, I have not. I assumed my bag flew without me this morning.” Good thing she is the third person I'm talking to and the first one to mention that my bag may be floating around somewhere in the Bangkok airport.
“No, your bag should have been taken off the plane if you weren't on the flight. Let me look for it, come back here in thirty minutes.”
Well it's not me getting on the next flight, but it is something? I tell her alright and head off to the ticketing office for another round of trying to get my flight changed.
My plan this time around? Talk to a new representative who is more keen on helping me onto another flight without surrendering a huge chunk of change.
Phase One is successful as my number is not called by the same representative (and this new potential savior is also, importantly, not seated next to the location of my first failure).
As we move into Phase Two, things start looking grim as I again receive the now irritating line, “Because of your ticket's class, it cannot be changed. You will have to buy a new ticket.”
Again I plead, “There isn't any way for me to get my ticket changed?”
“Well, since you bought your ticket from Japan, we will need to ask our Tokyo office if they will allow a change. But they never do.” This previously withheld course of action interests me as it does indeed seem possible to have my ticket changed. However, I am also confused.
Why does Thai Airways in Thailand have to ask someone in Tokyo for permission to change a ticket? Shouldn't the Thai Airways ticketing office in Bangkok, their hub, be the ultimate authority on these issues?
I try asking for an explanation, but it essentially results in me being told, “We have to ask Tokyo.”
“Okay, well can you please try doing that?” I ask in a newly constructed tone of voice attempting to hit on an ideal friendliness to desperation ratio.
The woman silently acknowledges my request by commencing what turns out to be literally ten minutes of feverish typing. Is she typing out this request in three languages? I seriously don't know how this can possibly be taking so long, but I'm not in a rush so I patiently wait for her to finish.
“Okay, I've sent the request. Come back and check with me in two hours.”
Two hours? Well at least I have opened up another potential avenue to getting on a plane tonight.
By now the hunt for my baggage has reached the required thirty minute mark and I return to my friend at the check-in counter.
“Do you have good news for me?”
“Your bag flew on the plane this morning.” To be honest, I prefer this since now I have one less thing to worry about dragging around the airport, but I also think that (maybe?) I can use this as leverage. You know, like the airline shouldn't have done that? I'll save it for later.
“Okay, so how about getting me on that 23:00 flight tonight?” We again begin orbiting our conversation's end and I again stall – continuing to press her about getting on tonight's flight.
A man who appears to be a supervisor of sorts sits at the desk next to her and they occasionally exchange some words in Thai (no, I don't speak Thai). He avoids eye contact with me as if his life depended on it.
Perhaps getting wise to my tactics, or perhaps in a genuine effort to help me out, my newest friend finally tells me that she and the people currently at the airport cannot do anything for me. “You need to come back to this desk at 20:30 and talk with the people here then. They are the ones who will be checking people in for tonight's flights. You need to talk to the flight manager for the 23:00 flight.”
“Okay, will you be here then?”
“Will he?” I ask as I point to the supervisor-esque man in the next seat.
“No. Nobody here now will be here at 20:30.”
“Alright, well can you tell me the name of whoever I need to talk to when I come back?”
She talks briefly to Mr. Supervisor. “No.”
“No? Well can I least have your name so I can tell the 20:30 people who I talked to?”
“Then how are the 20:30 people going to know who I am?” I had built up what I felt was quite the rapport with this woman and I didn't want to start again at square one when I returned.
“They'll know. We will leave them a note.”
I had very little confidence in this supposed note, but I my issue had again been snoozed and I had no choice but to return at 20:30. In six hours.
I still have a bit of time before my two-hour waiting period from Ticketing Office Woman #2 expires, so I do what any rational person would do and I go looking for sympathy at the bar.
Once settled, I get on my phone and start searching for flights.
There are two airports in Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi Airport (Bangkok International Airport) and Don Mueang International Airport. I'm at the former, but I'm finding flights tomorrow morning around $180 US from Don Mueang (45 minutes away via taxi).
If I end up not getting my ticket changed (for a reasonable fee) and I have to buy a new ticket, I will probably end up leaving from Don Mueang on Vietnam Airlines – meaning I need to make a stop in Hanoi before continuing on to Japan. With the way things are going, it looks like this is what will happen.
After making friends with a bloke from Manchester and scoring a free beer it's time to pay visit number three to the ticketing office.
This time I skip getting a number and go straight up to my possibly-soon-to-be best friend.
“They said ‘no'.” Not what I want to hear (but also what I was expecting). “You are going to have to buy a new ticket.”
“I realize that because of my ticket class, and because I missed my flight, and because Tokyo said ‘no' (why we have to ask Tokyo for permission, I still don't understand) you can't change my ticket, but there has to be someone here who has the power to switch me onto tonight's flight. Who is that person?”
She gives me a look that says “give up already”, but refers me to tonight's flight manager. “He won't be here until around 20:30.”
Being told of this mysterious and all-powerful “flight manager” for a second time is a good sign that this person may in fact be my best shot at getting out of here today.
I thank her for her time and head off to do the other thing that any rational person would do when stuck at an airport in Thailand – get a massage.
I spend the next several hours getting my feet massaged, drinking overpriced beer, and wandering the corridors of the departure lobby as I eagerly anticipate my next round of begging.
At half past eight I head back to the counter to find a massive line of people. The screens above the counter now read “Standby Passengers” and “Crew Check-in” – could these all be standby passengers? I hope they're not trying to get on my flight.
A Swedish couple indulges me in conversation as the line shrinks at a frustratingly slow pace. Fortunately, they quell my fear of a crowded flight by reminding me that Swedes love vacationing in Thailand (most of the people in line are quite Swedish-looking – aka not going to Japan). I let them go ahead of me with the hopes they can soften up the man sitting behind the counter.
When it's my turn, I approach the counter trying to act as positively as possible. I explain who I am and when I don't see a light go off in this man's head, I pull out, “I think there should be a note here about my situation. The people working here earlier in the day said they would leave it for you.”
Another blank stare. Great.
Once again I explain my situation and after some typing and some waiting I hear the same thing I've heard all day, “Your ticket cannot be changed, you have to buy another ticket.”
“Okay, but the people who were working here earlier told me that you could help me and that you could put me on this flight tonight.” Hoping I wouldn't have to say more, I look at him and wait for a reacting. He takes my passport back off the counter and begins typing once more as the line behind me continues to grow.
Is it just me or are airport employees incredibly adept at avoiding eye contact?
I can't say whether it is intentional or has just become second nature for them, but I can't so much as even glimpse this mans pupils as he hammers away on the keyboard and chats with the woman beside him.
“Do you want a window or aisle seat” he says to me without looking up.
I feel like that shouldn't even be an option I should have at this point, so I proceed with extreme caution. “Aisle, please.”
A few more clicks and a boarding pass pops out of the machine on the desk. Holy shit – I'm on the flight.
He says something to the woman next to him, hands her the boarding pass, and instructs me to speak to hear. I offer him my thanks, but he's still busy not looking at me.
“Okay” the woman starts out. She appears to be friendly enough, but I must tread carefully at this point – we're approaching the endgame. “So he put you on tonight's flight and is going to charge you the minimum change fee.”
I'll take it. I don't even ask how much it is, since it can't be more than the alternatives (or could it?).
Apparently she's not capable of receiving payments so she takes me across the aisle to the oversize baggage check-in. Turns out this counter also lacks the necessary equipment to process payments. We head back across the aisle and she writes me some sort of bill.
“Take this to the ticketing office (oh great, my favorite place), and pay over there. Come back with your receipt and I will give you your boarding pass.”
Sounds simple enough. I head off back across the aisle, past the oversize baggage check, and continue another fifty or so meters to pay my fee.
If only things were that easy.
I take a number and am soon called to speak to my third ticket office employee of the day.
Handing him my paper that was filled out by the check-in woman, I can tell that he has no idea what he is looking at. He begins asking the people sitting around him who are equally oblivious to the intended purpose of this scribble.
“I was told to come here and pay the minimum change fee for my flight.”
“Minimum change fee? There is no minimum change fee. (Looking at another employee) Minimum change fee?” He shrugs his shoulders and repeats himself to me. Can I see your passport, please? He goes to work on his computer and soon I head the all too familiar, “You're going to have to buy a new ticket.”
“No, I don't have to buy a new ticket. I was told I would just need to pay the minimum change fee.” This doesn't seem to remind him what that fee may be, and so he goes back to speaking with his coworkers. He soon grabs another piece of paper, writes a number in baht and hands it to me.
“This is the minimum change fee” he says. I look at it, plug it into my phone, and am dissatisfied with the $390 conversion result.
Deciding that these people cannot be trusted, I ask for my paper back and head back to the standby counter.
“They don't know what the minimum change fee is over there” I inform the woman who had directed me to the ticketing office in the first place.
She gives a labored sigh and gazes in the direction of the ticketing office.
By now it's 22:00 – thirty minutes until boarding. “Well you can't miss this flight too, or you'll really be in trouble” she says to me as if this isn't blatantly obvious.
“I know.” I say to her in a tone of “I have no idea what tone to respond to you in”.
Why she doesn't just walk over there with me – maybe some 100 meters away – I will never know. Instead, she looks at the still busy supervisor (flight manager?) and then back at me. Then, she does something incredible – she hands me my boarding pass.
“I will tell him to waive the change fee. Don't miss your flight.”
The only thing stopping me from jumping over the counter and kissing this woman on the face is the frantic gathering up of my things so that I can make a break for security.
Twenty minutes and one more passport stamp later, I'm strolling onto my flight (which turns out to be only 20% full) where I have three entire rows to myself.
Life is good.