It was under very unusual circumstances and with little explanation that I found myself sitting in the Don Mueang International Airport customs area surrounded by half a dozen official-looking airport people talking about me in Thai. Periodically a voice came crackling out of a walkie-talkie mounted on a security guard’s shoulder, and the group would go into conference for a few moments before he cocked his head to spit out a one-word response into the device. The issue at hand seemed to focus on what they were supposed to do with me.
Just a few minutes before all of this surreal confusion, I’d been sitting with Emily and Liv at Gate 34 waiting for our flight to Chiang Mai. Our family had flown into Bangkok from Cambodia and had already gone through the transfer customs process before our connecting flight. Now Brian was walking around the terminal with Ali while the rest of us read our books at the gate.
Suddenly a woman leaned over me and asked in heavily–accented English if I was O-riv-i-a Car-rich. I snapped back to reality with the immediate knowledge this wasn’t good. Airline representatives seeking you out before a flight don’t usually bring good news. “No, but she’s my daughter,” I said as both Liv and I looked at the woman in confusion.
“I very sorry but there is problem with her bag.” Liv, the rule-following child she is, looked immediately panicked and began unzipping her carry-on backpack, clearly worried she’d somehow violated airport regulations with her Pooh Bear, pencil case, notepads and Littlest Pet Shop collection. “Oh, no, no, no it for checked bag. Madam, you need come with us.” She gestured to a young man standing behind her.
I spent several minutes trying to text Brian and get him back to the gate. Due to the apparent urgency of the situation, it was decided the woman would stay with the girls until he got back. Walking with the young man I wasn’t able to glean any information about the situation, either because he didn’t speak much English or simply didn’t know.
After ten minutes of sitting in the customs area and listening to the group talk around me, two airport security guards walked into the room and gestured for me to follow them. As we walked through a series of brightly lit hallways and secured doors, I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a glass wall. Two guards were in front of me, two representatives of AirAsia were immediately behind me, and a guy in a fluorescent yellow vest was behind them. What in the hell was going on? Where were they taking me and why? What on earth could be the problem with this bag?!
Suddenly my heart skipped a beat as the movie Brokedown Palace flashed through my mind. Two young travelers get arrested in Thailand and sentenced to harsh prison time after a large amount of marijuana is inexplicably found in their luggage. Were we unwitting mules for a drug cartel trafficking across the Cambodian-Thai border? Had some criminal working inside the Siem Reap airport maliciously sabotaged us? That’s what I get for purging a bunch of worn out clothes and shoes from our family’s supply of travel gear, I thought. I’d made room for a kilo of cocaine. Fantastic!
If the situation didn’t already have me on edge, the severity of it all escalated in my mind when the guard opened a door leading out to the jet tarmac. The roar of engines and the clanging of our footsteps on the metal mesh stairs as we made our way down the side of the building drowned out the loud hammering of my heart inside my chest. Another guy in a yellow vest joined our group when we reached the pavement. We followed him past trucks hauling luggage carts and underneath the wing of a massive airplane. After crossing a road for passenger shuttle buses we came to a large metal-caged room directly underneath the terminal building.
There in the middle of the cage, illuminated on a table under a bright fluorescent light, sat one of our bags. The airport security guard who had been waiting for us stood up and gestured wordlessly at the bag’s 3-digit lock. Brokedown Palace, here I come. With slightly shaking hands I turned the dials to what I hoped was the combination and successfully popped open the latches. Released of its confinement, the top of the over-packed suitcase immediately rose several inches. Was it really that full when I packed it?
The guard opened the case and began moving things around as I stood there attempting to wake up from what felt like a very realistic nightmare. On top of it all, this was unfortunately the suitcase we’d used to pack our dirty laundry. I put my focus on worrying the guard would pull out a pair of underwear rather than my real fear he would pull out a planted brick of some unknown narcotic.
Eventually the guard’s hands emerged with two small black boxes. He handed them to me unceremoniously. What were these things? Hard drives? Batteries to something? Is this seriously why I had to go through all this? I looked back at the guard, waiting for some instructions. He just nodded and waved his hand at me as if shooing me away. I turned to the one guy who’d spoken to me in English earlier and asked, “This is it?” He exchanged some words with the security guard and turned back to me. “These cannot be in checked bag. You must carry on plane.”
Completely bewildered with the logic behind this country’s cargo rules, I started the walk back across the tarmac with my posse of Thai men. Under the jet wing and through a labryinth of hallways to Gate 34 we go. I got back to Brian a bit shaken by the whole experience, having seen my life as a wrongly-accused prisoner in a Thai women’s penitentiary play out before my eyes.
The two black boxes turned out to be portable cell phone chargers, showing my ignorance on our family’s technology gear. Why these two seemingly innocuous devices were too dangerous for the cargo hold but acceptable for the airplane cabin remains a mystery. Suffice it to say, battery chargers will never go into our checked bags again.