I am on flight MU586 en route to Shanghai. I am sitting in seat 35D of a Boeing 777-300ER. I am in an aisle seat and on my right is an Asian couple, asleep under the light blankets given out by China Eastern Airlines. Sitting in front of me is another couple, but of the Caucasian variety. They look like backpackers.
The Boeing 777 is a twin aisle jet with 3 seats on either side and 4 seats in the middle. Being in seat 35D puts me on the left side of the middle, and close to first class. On my left, near the windows, is a ton of Asians, and most of them are sound asleep. In fact, while we only left LAX a few hours ago at 11:30 AM, almost every window shade is down while many of the passengers attempt to sleep or watch movies on the headrest monitors.
I find it interesting that it's the middle of the afternoon and no one wants to be able to look outside. It's been a while since I've flown internationally but the unanimous decision to shut out the light feels familiar, which I'm fairly certain is because the same thing happened on my flight to Hong Kong in 2011.
I like natural light and I just tolerate artificial light. When I'm home I wait to turn on any light until the lack of incoming sunlight makes it difficult to read. I would rather stumble in the dark in the morning than turn on some ungodly light bulb and blast my eyeballs with that horrendous yellow glow.
I wonder if the avoidance of sunlight on this flight comes with practice, or experience. Maybe it's their way of preparing themselves for the time zone difference. If I have to choose between a plane-wide unnatural aversion to natural light or a conscious decision to prepare the mind and body for being on the other side of the world, however, I'll go with the latter.
Before I left, people were asking me if I was excited, or stating how excited I must be.
I never know how to appropriately respond to thoughts like those. In a sense I am excited, but when I go on trips I don't know what's going to happen so I don't have anything to get excited about. I have no expectations, just an open mind and an optimistic attitude.
So if I'm not excited about flying halfway around the world, what am I feeling?
Contentment, mostly. I feel "in the moment." Since I don't have a clue as to what each day will bring I stay focused on what I'm doing and what's going on around me. I prefer to observe, listen, and act rather than daydream about a place I'm completely unfamiliar with. There's so much going on in any given moment all of one's senses can be completely occupied by absorbing and processing one's surroundings. Right now I can look around me and see dozens of people living out the movies they call their lives. I can smell the scent of clean cabin air, constantly being recirculated, cleaned, and cooled by the aircraft's ducting and air conditioning system. I can hear the quiet murmur of conversations, cabinets and tray tables being latched and unlatched, and the humming sound of the two GE90-115B turbofan engines. I can feel the barely adequate cushioning of these airline seats supporting my butt and the tactile click of each key I press. I can taste the ice cold water I'm sipping in between thoughts.
I will admit I also feel my nerves.
It's been a few years since I traveled solo. I don't feel scared or nervous, per se, just an awareness of the uncertain and how it gives me a slight feeling of discomfort, but since I am comfortable with being uncomfortable in situations like this it does not bother me, it only heightens my senses so each moment feels more vibrant.
Halfway Through The Flight
I took a break from sitting to take a piss and wash my hands. (I'm not washing my hands because I took a piss, I specifically went to the bathroom to also wash my hands because I don't like the feeling of dirty or sweaty palms.)
The bathrooms are at the rear of the plane, near two of the emergency exits, and since the emergency exit doors have windows on them I walk over to the door on the left side of the plane and flip the shade open.
A burst of bright white sunlight shoots into the cabin and I feel a faint warmth radiating from the window.
As my eyes soon adjusted I'm greeted by an endless expanse of white clouds and the ocean below with clear blue skies above. When I put my face up to the window and looked to the right I can see the wing barely moving up and down in the turbulent-free air. As I look further to the right I can see the setting sun as we follow it over the horizon.
Next, I walk over to the right side of the plane and flip open the shade on the opposing emergency exit door. Unlike the left side of the plane there is no radiating warmth from the sun, so the glass is partially frosted. I slide my index finger across the glass and ice collects on my fingertip before melting almost immediately.
I'm listening to a podcast with my earbuds in as I resume looking out the window when I hear the rattling of the bathroom door next to me. I keep staring out the window as my peripheral vision catches someone exit the bathroom.
It's a woman, and she leans over next to me to look out the window as well. She has long, dark hair and light skin. I don't think she's Asian, but I haven't looked yet to confirm. I hear her say something, but since my earphones are in I can't make out what she says.
I pause the podcast and remove the earbuds before turning to her.
"What was that?" I say.
She turns to me as she points out the window, "I was just admiring the view with you. Everyone has their windows closed so it's nice to come back here and be able to see outside."
Definitely not Asian.
I laugh, "Right?! It's like 4 or 5 o'clock and everyone has their lights off, windows closed, and is trying to sleep."
She laughs, too. "It's so weird."
It's 7:22 PM on a Monday
It's been almost 4 years since I've been to China, but I immediately recognize the smell. Every major city I've been to has a distinct smell to get used to and the smell is rarely pleasant. (I almost typed "preasant" – not the part of Asian culture I was hoping to pick up.)
I say "rarely" but in my experience "never" is more applicable.
I left LA 15 hours ago at 11:30 AM. It's 3:22 AM for me right now and I feel it, especially with this cold I started coming down with before I left.
I'm in the international terminal at Shanghai waiting for my flight to Bangkok and I can hear Christmas music in the background. The sound of jet engines running and the chatter of Chinese is all around me yet I pick up on the faintest sound of American Christmas music. My heart begins to hurt and I can feel the sadness welling up inside me.
Pain is one of the most powerful channels though which sensory experiences can be amplified and holidays bring back a lot of pain for me. It's not necessarily any memories I have related to the holidays, but what the holidays represent… what I lost… missing her…
My therapist suggested I steer away from that topic in journaling this trip if at all possible so I think it's best if I try something new and actually take her advice this time.
THERE ARE SO MANY ASIANS HERE!
Three more hours until my flight… Can't wait to pass out on the plane.
I got some shitty sleep by my gate waiting to board the flight to Bangkok. I would fall asleep concerned about missing my flight and then wake up in a panic thinking, "Oh shit! I missed my flight" only to look at my phone and see that 5 minutes had passed.
This happened at least 6 times.
I slept some more on the flight and at last reached Bangkok around 2 AM local time.
I go through immigration and customs, grab $100 USD worth of Thai Baht (roughly ฿3300) and make my way out to grab a taxi.
When I walk outside and see a long row of parked green taxis down the length of the terminal I figure this should be simple enough, but as I approach a taxi directly in front of me, the driver leaning on the side of it makes eye contact with me and points to his right. I'm not sure what he's pointing at but I assume if I just walk in the general direction someone else will recognize the facial expression for "Where the fuck am I supposed to go?" and point me to a more specific location.
After passing a couple dozen more taxis I make eye contact with a Thai man in uniform slouching down in a chair on the terminal side of the road. He recognizes the "Where the fuck am I supposed to go?" look on my face and waves me over.
As I reach him I ask so eloquently, "Taxi?"
He points to his left, where there are a series of roped off "lines" (aka designated paths where people line up if it wasn't 2 AM). All he says to me is, "Number."
Confused, I reply, "Excuse me?"
He says, "You need number."
More confused, I tilt my head like a lost dog, squint with my left eye, and ask, "Taxi?"
Frustrated, but laughing anyway, he sits up in his chair, and with much more animation, points at machines in front of the roped off paths and says to me, "You need a number, a ticket, for taxi!"
In a blinding flash of grocery store deli brilliance it becomes clear, "Ooohhhh – I have to get a ticket from the machine to give the driver!"
He nods his head enthusiastically, proud of this young, dumb American for grasping such a simple concept.
I confidently walk over to the first machine, filled with satisfaction from my first major victory in this foreign land.
I reach the machine and I stare blankly at the screen. There are no buttons. It is just a touch screen with no selectable options except for the instantly recognizable blue circle with a stick figure wheel chair in the center.
Appropriately feeling like a mentally handicapped person I look back at my first teacher (who was watching me to make sure I didn't get lost again) and I helplessly shrug my shoulders.
He makes an exaggerated gesture with his left arm, as if the machine is in front of him and he's touching the screen with his index finger.
I look back at the screen, shrug my shoulders again, and simply touch the screen.
The machine prints out a ticket with a number on it.
Hesitantly, I grab the slip of paper and look back at the old man who is now smiling and clapping.
I walk back over to him and show him the ticket.
There is a bright sign each of the parked taxis and since my ticket says 36 on it I look at the old man with the ticket in my hand and ask, "So I go to 36?" as I point to the taxi with 36 lit up above it.
My teacher nods and points to the 36 parking spot, "Yes! Yes!"
I approach the the taxi and the driver greets me, offering to put my stuff (a backpack and drawstring bag) in the back of his van, but I decline and throw it in the back seat before climbing in.
"Where do you go?" he asks.
"Uhh," I articulate. I pull out my phone and glance at what I had pulled up on the GPS. "The Bangkok Marriott."
This is the Bangkok Marriott, and it is this beautiful
He responds, confused, "The Bangkok Marriott?"
I pull up the map on Google and show him the location. He has trouble understanding what I'm showing him so he asks me to call the hotel. I do and hand him the phone. I have no idea what he says to the woman on the other end, but I assume he asked her for directions because as soon as the conversation is over he starts driving.
With a curious and genuinely pleasant tone for 2 AM, he asks me, "Where you from?"
In response to his question, my thought process goes like this: Santa Ana? No, too specific. LA? No, I'm not really from LA, I just flew out of it. North America? No, who the fuck says they're from North America? The U.S. could work, but that's pretty general, too – plus I'm sure it's already obvious I'm an American…
"California – I flew in from California."
The driver gets stoked as fuck, "OHHHHH! CA-LEE-FOR-NEE-AH! Great place, yeah?"
The conversation continues for a bit, but whenever I asked him a question he would just laugh and say, "Uh-huh" so I sat back in my seat and enjoyed the passing scenery.
It's a little past 2 AM now so the roads are quiet and there is little traffic.
Some observations so far as my eyes take in the quiet city lights:
- I forgot the steering wheel is on the right side here. It takes a few times seeing the driver get in on the right side before getting used to it, and I'm still not used to seeing traffic in the opposite lanes.
- The billboards here are massive. They remind me of something out of a sci-fi movie. The first time I saw one I just stared in awe – they make the surrounding buildings look like shacks, and there is no shortage of them along the highway from the airport.
- The lighting near on- and off-ramps isn't always great so rather than having reflectors embedded in the road there are blinking LED's.
We arrive at the hotel, and damn, I was expecting nice, but it was still above that.
I told myself I wasn't going to stay in hotels during this trip, but I figured I'd at least check it out and if the price wasn't too bad I certainly wouldn't mind passing the fuck out in a great bed after 20 hours in shitty plane seats.
I walk in wearing a black v-neck, broken in jeans, and a backpack. I approach the small Thai woman at the front desk with a smile.
She looks back at me and smiles, "Passport, please."
I take my passport out and hand it to her.
"Are you checking in, sir?"
"How much is a room for tonight?"
"Let me check."
I put my stuff down and take my phone out of my pocket.
"Sir, the room will be five thousand."
The number catches my attention, and I ignorantly ask, "That's in Baht, correct?"
She giggles, "Yes, sir, not dollars."
Google tells me ฿5000 is about $140. I think for a few moments if a bed is worth $140 when I can stay at a hostel for a fraction of that.
I look up a few hostels in the area and ask the woman about them. She offers to call one and find out if they're open.
She calls and lets them know I'm on the way. I thank her, pick up my bags, and leave the hotel.
The hostel is close enough for me to walk. I cross the main street, Sukhumvit Road, and make my way down Sukhamvit 38 Alley, the "street" the hostel is on.
Many of the streets branching off main roads are labelled as alleys, though they are not alleys in the way I would normally imagine an alley. There is regular traffic, many shops, high end residences, typical offices and businesses, and apartment complexes.
When I arrive at the address of the hostel I find it is located at the end of what I would normally consider an alley – a narrow path (less than 6 feet wide) between two buildings, about 50 feet long, and at the end of the path, on the right, is the entrance, with a sign above it reading, "Hi-Sukhumvit Hostel."
As you walk under a white concrete arch, through two large wooden doors, there is a variety of plants, small trees, and bushes on either side, which have clearly been there for a while as they have grown on and around the surrounding structure. Five or six feet past the arch is the entrance to the lobby. As I walk in there is a large table to my right with eight chairs spaced out equally around it, and a room beyond it with a couch and cushioned chairs.
I look to my left and see the front desk, clearly constructed from wood that has seen better days.
There is an Asian kid, probably in his 20s, sitting behind the desk. He puts a big smile on when we make eye contact. "Hello, sir," he says with a heavy Thai accent.
I end up getting a room for ฿1380 (about $38) for 2 nights. He offers me a bed in a dorm style room, but with it being 3 AM I didn't want to worry about waking everyone up as I unpacked and got ready to pass the fuck out.
I pay for the room, he hands me a key card to enter the stairwell, and a key to get into the room. I'm in room 403, which is on the 4th floor. I get to the room and toss my stuff on the bed. There is a sheet on the bed and rather than placing blankets or comforters on the bed there are two thin sleeping bags, though "sleeping bag" might be a generous term to describe the items laying in front of me. Thankfully (or not) it's 90°F outside so warmth is not a concern.
After taking a shower on the 4th floor's community bathroom I take the disgusting clothes I've been wearing for the past 24 hours and throw them in the sink with some shampoo from the dispenser in the shower. I do my best to clean and soak the clothes before wringing out most of the water and hanging them to dry on the wooden drying rack in my room.
I blast the A/C (thank for air conditioning) and climb into bed.
Typical city noises accompany my fall into sleep. Finally.
Have you ever been to Thailand? What was your flight there like? Where did you stay once you arrived? Comment below and tell me about it!
- RICK TASTIC GOES TO CHINA… FOR THE WEEKEND – THURSDAY NIGHT
- RICK TASTIC GOES TO CHINA… FOR THE WEEKEND – FRIDAY NIGHT
- RICK TASTIC GOES TO CHINA… FOR THE WEEKEND – SATURDAY NIGHT
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