Welcome mat out for freed Thai bar mother

AFTER waiting for more than an hour at Melbourne Airport, they catch a glimpse of their mother as the customs door opens.

They run at her, shouting "Mum" as one, and hug her while she cries. Annice Smoel, 36, looks stunned as a battery of cameras capture her reaction when she sees her daughters after being stranded in Thailand for 18 days.

The Victorian woman faced a possible five-year jail sentence for theft after two of her girlfriends hid a pub towel in her handbag as a prank.

After days of publicity about her case, and support from politicians, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Victorian Premier John Brumby, Ms Smoel acknowledged the media storm that helped bring her home. Her husband, Darren, and Australian solicitor, Bernard Murphy, agreed.

"Three days ago we were dead in the water … we tried all sorts of official channels, getting nowhere, making all sorts of representations, engaging lawyers and doing everything the way you are supposed to do it," Mr Murphy said.

"Then, when that didn't work, we came to the media."

Mr Murphy, chairman of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, said Ms Smoel had spent three nights in a Thai jail and could have waited months for her case to be heard.

He said politicians from all levels offered help as they responded to the story of a "ridiculous" and "over-the-top" reaction to the alleged theft of a used beer mat from a Phuket bar. Thai authorities saw potential damage to their tourist industry and were ready to make a deal that culminated in Ms Smoel's early release, Mr Murphy said.

Speaking at a press conference, Ms Smoel said she had not talked to the women who had played the practical joke during a trip to celebrate her mother's birthday.

"No one meant for it to go this bad," she said. "It was a dumb thing to do in a country where you don't do dumb things. The girls had been drinking. We were having a good time. They didn't mean for this to happen."

Ms Smoel said she was innocent but had pleaded guilty to ensure she could return home quickly.

Seated with their parents, Ms Smoel's daughters, Zhian, 12, Daisy, 11, Zoe, 8, and Lilly, 6, heard at the conference about a surprise, planned Disneyland trip interrupted by their mother's detention.

They held stuffed toy elephants — replicas of a Thai national symbol — but their mother said she would not return to the country or even eat Thai food, in celebration of her return.

Mr Murphy said that officials told Ms Smoel as she was leaving Thailand: "You can come back any time."