Thursday, 6 August 2015

taking flight

We'd wrapped the bikes up in plastic sheeting last night.  I'd attached the pedals onto the insides of the cranks, aligned the handlebars to the frame and deflated the tyres a little.  The rear derailleurs were removed and wrapped in half a plastic bottle before being taped onto the frame.  We taped our little camping stools to the frames to provide a little extra protection, taped polystyrene covers onto the saddles, wrapped the plastic over, applied a large amount of brown tape et.......voila!

We are some of the first at the check-in queue in the morning and the woman who is organising the queue looks at our bikes, shakes her head and says "We can't accept your bicycles unless they are in a box".  Er, that's not what Air Asia's website says.  She looks doubtful and goes off to consult while we hand our passports over to the check-in lady.  She is looking for a visa but we plan to apply for the visa-on-arrival. "Do you have an onward ticket from Thailand?"  Er, no.  We plan to just cycle out of the country.  Meanwhile a man comes back with Mrs. Queue.  He affirms that the bikes should be in boxes.  But that's not what your website says, we counter.  He squeezes the tyres sceptically, like a disinterested car-buyer might prod a wheel with his shoe.  "These are deflated?" Yes, they are normally very hard.  He tells us we will have to sign a disclaimer from any compensation should the bikes be damaged in transit.  I snort.  "Do you offer compensation when the bike is in a box?"  The answer is no.  But he wants us also to sign the disclaimer for any costs incurred if we are denied entry to Thailand.  We sign, just happy to get beyond the first hurdle.

I wheel the bikes over to the oversized-baggage check-in.  The woman asks me to put them on the oversized-baggage conveyor belt, but they won't fit.  "They are oversize" she tells me,redundantly. "Put them over there and sign the paper when you are asked to." Immediately there is a customs officer giving a cursory look at the bikes and then giving me a form all in Korean to sign.  I obediently sign and walk back to a waiting Gayle.  We consider waiting to see if a baggage-handler will come to collect our abandoned bikes but there's still the security checks to go through.  The progress is steady.  There is a minor alarm when I am asked if this is my handlebar bag, once it emerges from the scanner.  Yes, it is.  The security officer opens up and rummages around and pulls out the allen key with which I have to set up our bicycles at the other end.  I look her in the eye and am about to protest when she smiles and puts it back in the bag.  "Okay!"

At the boarding gate we meet the man from check-in again.  He points at our water bottles.  "You can't take those on the plane." He points to the regulations about carry-on liquids.  But we went through the security checks.  We only filled up over there at the drink fountain.  "You can get water on the plane". Is it free? "No." It's a five hour flight.  I stand and drink the water in a rage.  I really don't like this man.  If anyone tells me that airport security measures these days are necessary to stop the terrorists from winning, then I'd argue they've already won.  Flying is now such a tortuous process.  And for some reason I can't help thinking that if a terrorist really wanted to bring down a plane they would find a way to do it, regardless.  But of course, I'm just angry and irrational.  It seems odd to me that while we cannot board the plane with our water all the other passengers get on with lots of bottles of liquids purchased in duty free.  How can that be right?

In Bangkok we join the queue to be assessed by a professional medical team to ensure we are not carrying the MERS virus.  There has been a recent outbreak in Seoul of the fatal virus which has no cure.  We take it in turns to bend down to a little opening where a professional medic puts a plastic gun to our foreheads and shoots us.  High temperature?  I hope not, but the Don Muang airport is feeling rather stuffy.  It feels like we've landed in the mid 1970's.  Everything is brown and dingy.  Bangkok's old international airport has been reopened for Low Cost Carriers.  We pass through immigration and emerge outside to take the walkway over a busy noisy road and down to the train station where there are several food stalls.  We'd read that there was good cheap food here and sure enough, here are the airline staff tucking in.  We stop off at a 7-11 to get drinks and amble back over to the airport.  

Now when we're back inside it feels lovely and cool.  We join the Air Asia domestic check-in queue and are soon handing over our passports.  The lady has just tapped in one of our names when another woman suddenly appears at our side.  "Are you travelling with bicycles?" she asks.  We nod.  "I'm sorry but we are unable to put them on your plane." You are joking?  We are about to go through the plastic wrap/cardboard box conversation when she pulls out her phone and shows us a photo of my bike.  She explains she is the security officer for Air Asia and that the airport security don't like the red thing attached to my bike.  Ahhh, the fuel bottle.  We explain.  It's a bottle to carry petrol for cooking, but it's empty and perfectly harmless.  The woman explains that we will have to go the baggage handling area and explain to the airport security.  She seems very nice and a sidekick appears giving us a "don't worry" spiel.  But then we are joined by two armed men in black uniforms and berets.  One of them arrives on a segway.  Neither of them is smiling.  We all go through the security checks and scanners and out to the boarding gates before going outside and back in to a cargo bay where our bikes are propped up outside an office.  This is the transit cargo security team.  The woman asks me to remove the bottle and show them what it is.  So I open the plastic wrap, unpeel the tape and pull out the bottle.  Our stove pump is screwed into the top, so I unscrew it and show them that the bottle is empty.  What initially raised the alarm was the little skull and crossbones symbol on the bottle.  They even called the explosives guy to come.  And then they couldn't find us.  We didn't check-in.  We explained we had a four hour wait and we went to eat.  Clearly our need for cheap Thai food has caused alarm bells to ring rather too loudly.  The woman explains that security may insist on keeping the bottle but the bikes can go.  I thank her and explain that that is no problem, providing we can keep the pump.  I then have to stand holding the items with her while the airport security guys take photos on their phones.  Everyone is smiles and we think it's all okay. Then the woman goes into the office with them and we wait outside with our personal bodyguards.  She emerges with a grimace on her face and a shake of the head. "I'm sorry but they won't let you take either the bottle or the pump." But why? The pump is harmless.  She tells us that they can smell petrol on both items. We protest.  We have already flown from Seoul with it.  I could set a light to either item and nothing would burn.  She tells us that the 'hazard' symbol on the bottle is the problem.  If only we had covered it up, she laments.  I try to explain that the bottle is only hazardous when it has something hazardous inside it.  We need the pump - it is part of our camping equipment.  So she goes back into the office to argue on our behalf. With no positive result.  She tells me they want to keep both items, fill out a report and send it off.  Where to? Can we come back and claim our belongings later? She shakes her head but offers to give us her name as a contact.  There's also a feeling in the back of my mind that we might have been in a lot more serious trouble if they'd wanted to make things difficult for us.  The security woman from Air Asia has been very professional with us, but the airport guys are either bored witless or just witless.  They probably go around looking for round black objects with a sizzling fuse and the word 'bomb' on them.  Or they just want to punish us in some way.  I am appalled and mad at myself - we could easily have put the fuel bottle in our checked baggage, along with the two cigarette lighters that we are allowed to check in - more dangerous than an empty aluminium bottle. What an idiot.

We have to walk all the way back through to the check-in area, get our boarding cards and then go through the security again.  This time I fill our water bottles and put them in our bags before our flight to Chiang Rai.  No-one sees, no-one knows.  Airport security?  It's laughable.  So why am I almost in tears with anger?  I detest being treated like this.  I hate flying.

Footnote:  A thoughtful traveller suggested we write to Primus with this story.  Their customer service wrote back immediately suggesting either that we try a distributor in Thailand or that they could send us a replacement pump.  As we are now in Laos, we have taken them up on their generous offer of a replacement.  Such great customer service from Primus. Thanks Korine for your suggestion. 

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