Thai Protests Strand Thousands of Tourists

Once inside, the occupied airport seemed more like a carnival than a protest. While some demonstrators in camouflage uniforms patrolled the airport wielding metal rods as weapons, others were decidedly upbeat. One man wore a mirrored cape and Batman mask, while a compatriot brandished a Thai flag. The two posed for photos in front of the arrivals board, where dejected backpackers took in the long list of canceled flights to far-flung destinations. Still other protesters camped out in the terminal, sleeping on mats, chatting and listening to portable radios.

Elsewhere, weary tourists tried to rest behind abandoned check-in counters, sleeping on conveyor belts, in steel baggage carriers and even in plastic tubs designed to hold luggage. For their part, protesters made themselves at home in the cramped airport bathrooms. Men washed their faces and hair in sinks, while others lounged on the tile floors, re-charging their cell phones in the bathroom's electrical outlets. When the lines at the women's bathrooms grew long, they simply moved to stalls in the men's rooms.

Many airport restaurants were closed but a few coffee shops and convenience stores were open. At a Starbucks, it was business as usual -- with a twist. "Jingle Bells" played from the store's speakers and passengers sipped lattes, while outside, in the balmy tropical heat, demonstrators hefted a sign that read "Bandit government, snatch from people, go to hell."

And then there was the food. Demonstrations in Thailand, a country in which people are proud of their fiery cuisine and snack whenever possible, are never complete without savory vittles. Women cooked huge vats of minced chicken with rice and gave out dishes to protesters and tourists alike. Men handed out cans of sweet, iced coffee. And everywhere, roving demonstrators beckoned tourists to sample fried rice in white Styrofoam containers. One protester even hauled a mechanical juicer into the terminal and handed out cups of fresh orange juice.

In the afternoon, airport buses began hauling tourists to Bangkok hotels. Travelers lined up at escalators, some waiting hours to get on buses. As the day came to a close -- and the occupation of the airport reached the 24-hour mark -- most tourists had gone and news filtered out that the prime minister would be granted a meeting with the king, the revered Bhumibol Adulyadej, who enjoys universal adoration in this country of 65 million.

And news also emerged that Thailand's Army chief, Anupong Paochinda, had called on prime minister Somchai to step aside. The suggestion carries enormous weight here, where there is a long history of military interventions.

But Somchai refuses to quit, and the demonstrators refuse to leave until he does. Much will depend on Somchai's meeting with the king tonight.

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