All in all, it’s been one of the finest summers on record...
I’ve spent almost six months, months of uninterrupted sunshine, writing and relaxing in the redwood hills above Boonville, Northern California. I could tell you all about it, the endless social events and the carefree rides on the KLR650 to the coast and up into the hills of Mendocino County, but I won’t. That’s because you probably already hate me and adding fuel to the fires of envy, well, that would do little to improve our relationship.
So, as October began fading into history, Virgin Atlantic whisked me painlessly out of San Francisco, and eleven sleepless hours later, deposited me at London’s Heathrow Airport. My mission in England was simple, I had a full week to complete a few simple tasks, but the more I travel the more elusive ‘Simple’ seems to have become.
Every page of my three-year-old passport was full, no more room for visas and stamps, so I’d made an appointment to obtain a speedy replacement at the UK Passport Office in Eccleston Square SW1. To be honest, over the years I’d lost a certain amount of confidence in government bureaucracy, all governments, but aside from a few issues with my passport photographs, which were in turn too big, too small and too shadowy, the UK Passport Office did exactly what they said they’d do. Four hours and six happy-hour pints of lager after presenting my application form and existing passport, I returned to the office and collected a shiny new 45-Page version.
With my faith in government bureaucracy partially restored, my second task was to obtain a new double-entry 60-Day Tourist Visa from the Thai Embassy on Queen’s Gate SW7. Since leaving Thailand in April, certain things in the Land of Smiles had changed. The government was now a military concern, martial law was still in place and the new General at the helm had announced a serious crack-down on tourists staying in the Kingdom for far longer than would be expected of normal tourists. The Thailand Forums on the internet had been awash with horror stories of people being denied entry, and when applying for my last visa in Vientiane, a Thai official had placed a cautionary stamp in my passport. I do tend to worry about things like that, probably because I’m lucky enough to have very little else to worry about, but such things do concern me. Needless to say, I’d once again been worrying about nothing. After less than three minutes of waiting in the Thai Embassy, I’d handed over my single-sided application form and two correctly sized photographs, paid my £20 and was asked to return the following day to collect my passport and visa.
The last time I flew with British Airways, it was ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’ and Margaret Thatcher was slightly miffed about the recently introduced international emblems displayed on the tails of the fleet. That was several years ago, but when I’d purchased the return ticket to Bangkok, British Airways had been the cheapest carrier available. Arriving at Terminal 5 in good time for my flight, not because I was well organised, but because the reasonably priced hotel I’d been staying in had a very unreasonable check-out time, the smiling assistant at the check-in desk had asked me if I’d be prepared to delay my departure until the following day. ‘Let me think about that’ was my initial response. Nowadays, you seldom board a flight with empty seats, and in order to maximise capacity, airlines overbook their busy flights. Statistically speaking, they know that a certain percentage of passengers will fail to arrive for the flight, but if everybody with a ticket actually turns up to check-in, I guess that the shit hits the fan. To cut a long story short, British Airways offered me £492 to relinquish my seat on that day’s flight. To put this into perspective, £492 is almost as much as I’d paid for the original ticket and was slightly more than my maximum monthly budget when I’m living in Southeast Asia. Foolishly, the ‘worrier’ in me took a few minutes to look for the catch. Delay for 24 hours and receive one month of living expenses? It was a perfect no-brainer, but sadly, my thought process took too many valuable minutes and during that time, a group of happy-back-packers had accepted the deal. Opportunity closed, revert to Plan A.
British Airways no longer claim to be ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’, but judging from this experience, I have to say that they’re still pretty damned good. The 12-hour flight was painless, but once again sleepless, and I arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport exactly on time. With my TM7 landing card completed, and with a shiny new passport to present to the officer, Thai immigration was a breeze. Walking through the Green Channel dragging my 20Kg world behind me I’d officially returned to Thailand, but in my absence, how had Thailand changed?