November 3, 4 and 5
The Trans-Pacific Commute
Another wasted day at the office. It's become an annual ritual of mine, going to work with my 25-pound backpack in tow, whittling away the hours until catching a flight to some faraway place. This year, Susanne and I were going to Southeast Asia, and our flight to Bangkok was to depart from New York at 9pm. We had to get to New York from Washington, of course, so after sitting at work for six hours, thinking of Asia and pondering the possible adventures ahead, I slipped out at 3pm to meet Susanne at Washington National for the short flight to JFK. The hour hop to New York passed quickly, but it was only the first of over 24 hours of continuous travel time.
Getting to Bangkok ain't easy. Our Cathay Pacific flight would travel from New York to Vancouver in five hours, refuel for 90 minutes, and then continue on to Hong Kong - another 14 hours give or take, depending on the head winds. We'd then have another hour to spare before launching skyward again for the 2 1/2 hour flight to Bangkok. Do the math: 1+5+14+2.5 hours + layovers adds up to one long, cranky, sleepless commute.
The Cathay 747 was comfy enough - I even had the fortune of an empty seat to my right. But for whatever reason, perhaps punishment for past sins or good old fashion travel jitters, I couldn't fall asleep. Oh, for a few minutes here and there I'd nod off, but for all intents and purposes I spent the entire transpacific pond hop tossing and turning in my thin Economy Class seat. But hey, what do I care, right? I'm going to Thailand! I'm going to Laos! I'm going to Vietnam! - I think. Actual itineraries aside, excitement and anticipation pre-empted any real sleep on that particular flight. I had even done my best to stay up as late as possible, til 8am Washington DC time the next day, just to begin my sleep patterns on Bangkok time (exactly 12 hours ahead of DC). No dice. Awake like a longhaul trucker on crank. So I did my best to lay back, close my eyes and listen to La Boheme on the inflight audio system. And I waited for 14 hours.
5am Bangkok time, Wednesday morning, somewhere between Russian Kamchatka and the islands of Japan. Susanne was now awake and the cabin crew was serving the passengers a breakfast choice of omelets or beef congee - ground meat in boiled rice porridge. Earlier on the New York to Vancouver flight, I thought about how we were to spend over three weeks on Asian soil, I decided to begin the trip with an open-minded spirit. "Beef congee, please." Bad idea. Cold hamburger scraps over grits. This time, I opted the easy way out and enjoyed cold omelet instead.
Around 7am, our plane descended from its airborne perch over the South China Sea into Hong Kong harbor. I could see the marvelous karst mountains that buffet the city as we approached the runway - my first in-person view of the Far East. This trip was Real now, with a capital R - time for vacation to begin. We had just spent 24 solid hours in the darkness of night, thanks to flying piggyback with the changing timezones. But now I could finally see what was ahead of me - a whole new chunk of Asian continent to explore.
Our flight was a few minutes late so our scheduled one-hour layover became a lot less leisurely than I had hoped. Nonetheless, we managed to make it to our Bangkok flight just in time. This 150 minute flight should have been a cake walk, but anticipation got the best of me as I counted every minute of the flight, viewing our progress on the in-flight map projection. Look! We're over Vietnam. Look! We're over Laos. Look! We've entered Thai airspace. I could see that Susanne didn't need my play-by-play commentary, but I knew she was just as excited as I was. By 9:40am, we were on the ground in Bangkok.
Customs at Don Muang Airport was a breeze - ten minutes tops, half of which was spent walking down a hallway to the wrong immigration queue. We caught a taxi - a brand new Mercedes - that brought us to downtown Bangkok in about 30 minutes. We raced along a new expressway passing billboards for Intel Pentium chips, Motorola pagers and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I felt as if I were driving along I-4 through Orlando. Was this what modern Thailand was all about? 15 years of 10%+ economic growth per annum had made this nation into one of the Asian Tigers, but was this Tiger now as American as Tony the Tiger? And with the new economic realities of the recent Asian economic hangover - including the 40% devaluation of the Thai baht - was this trip to be a vacation in a land of financially depressed Western aspirations? Only time would tell.
Our taxi deposited us in front of the Peachy Guest House on Pra Athit Road, just east of the Chao Praya river's Tha Pra Athit watertaxi stop in Bangkok's Banglamphu District. The Lonely Planet guide, our perennial travel bible, had given the Peachy Guest House a peachy review, but upon inspection the hotel had all the ambiance of a rundown cannery row bar, with only a terminally bored hotelkeep manning the place. Thanks, but no thanks. We walked 30 feet up the road to the New Merry V Guesthouse. The rooms were by no means better than the Peachy Guesthouse (at $7 a night, how good could they be?) but the open air foyer was filled with travelers eating breakfast and planning their adventures as if they were visiting a Starbucks as part of their morning commute. New Merry V would be our new merry home for the next few days.
We knew from the start that today had to be a write-off. It was Wednesday, I hadn't slept since Sunday night, so we were determined to take it slowly. We focused on administrative needs instead - namely, planning our itinerary for the next 21 days. Back in Washington, I had consulted with a Bangkok travel agent named Sasha over the Internet for well over a month, so we decided to pay him a visit and buy some airline tickets. We probably could have easily used one of the many travel agencies in Banglamphu, including one at the guesthouse, but we were eager to settle the issue of whether Sasha was an expat farang living in Bangkok or if he was a Thai who just happened to be named Sasha.
Sasha, it turns out, was a Thai Who Just Happened to be Named Sasha. His English was fluent and flawless, yet with a sharp Australian accent. Sasha had spent some time in Queensland, Australia, so he was no less easy to understand than any other Aussie. And so with the flick of a credit card and a quick signature, we signed for our purchase: an honest to goodness excursion to Cambodia.
Yes, Cambodia. Susanne and I had tossed about the idea of a visit to Phnom Penh and Angkor for about six months. Initially, it seemed like a grand idea - the UN-brokered peace process was on track, Pol Pot was on the run and almost in the hands of justice. But then almost overnight in early July, Cambodia's slow but steady steps towards peace were derailed when Hun Sen, the second prime minister of Cambodia and former prime minister as appointed by Vietnam, overthrew first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in a violent coup d'etat. Phnom Penh was overrun with street-to-street gun battles, Ranariddh supporters were summarily executed, the airport nearly destroyed by shelling. Newly democratic Cambodia was again reduced to senseless anarchy.
Needless to say, the bloodshed of July shifted our minds towards Plan B: a short trip to Hanoi and Halong Bay, the beautiful karst mountain islands featured in the film Indochine. There was no way we'd go to Cambodia as long as the gun ruled the streets, but yet the dream of visiting the land of Angkor never drifted far from our hearts. Today, Cambodia is still in the hands of Hun Sen and his supporters. Yet the violence had passed and Phnom Penh had returned to normal - exactly what "normal" meant, I wasn't entirely sure. Only the tourists were staying away now. I decided to correspond with Phnom Penh residents by email, and they assured me that normality had returned to day-to-day life. Though we still opposed the Hun Sen regime, Susanne and I concluded that this was a chance to visit a nation in transition. Whether this transition was from bad to worse remained to be seen, for it certainly wasn't unprecedented in recent Cambodian history. But we decided that here was an opportunity we couldn't let slip by. Common sense and the US State Department Travelers' Advisory be damned, we were ready to tread the high wire that separated adventure from insanity.
After leaving Sasha's office, we returned to the guesthouse to shower and relax. We soon discovered that our new residence lacked hot water, but after nearly 48 hours in the same clothes, even a cold shower was blessed relief. We grabbed dinner at a restaurant along the Chao Praya river, not too far from the guesthouse. Susanne and I ate pad thai and green curry chicken as motorized sampans and ferries left their wakes crashing below our riverside table. The curry was quite delicious, but the pad thai might have been a mistake - I forgot pad thai had uncooked sprouts in it. We compensated with extra doses of Pepto Bismol before going to bed.