In February of 2020, I went on a family vacation to Thailand. As most of you know, this was shortly prior to the global shutdown to limit the spread of COVID-19. Although the virus was on our minds, we were luckily able to experience the beauty of Thailand relatively without issue. Aside from the early implementation of health measures in airports, and a few more people wearing masks out in public, it was pretty much life as usual.
Still in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, and with little signs of global travel returning to normal, I thought it would be a good idea to take a trip down memory lane and recount my 7 days of travel; my first to Thailand, and Southeast Asia.
Day 1: In Transit Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) via Seoul, South Korea (ICN)
I remember this being a very long travel day. The entire trip would consist of 2 different flights: one 14 hour 20 minute leg from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, and one 6 hour leg from Seoul to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. There was one 3 hour layover in-between and by the end of the journey a total of 20 hours would be spent in the air.
I arrived at Pearson 3 hours early for my 1:35 pm flight. It was my first solo flight, and the longest one of my life at that. See, this trip was a family vacation that took place during my reading week at University, and unfortunately I had an exam the day our flight was supposed to leave. I couldn’t get my exam moved so we had to push my flight back by a day. My parents decided that they would continue on and make sure our Airbnb didn’t go to waste, and as such I was left to traverse halfway around the world on my lonesome. While I had done quite a fair bit of travelling growing up, I always had someone else to rely on to make sure the correct documents were in order, we got where to we needed to be on time, and that I didn’t forget to pack anything.
So when my brother’s car pulled away from the curb and left me at the departures gate, I had a brief moment of panic. It was nothing serious, just a moment where it all started to feel very real to me, and the long day ahead of me really set in.
I checked in, fumbled with the baggage drop off, and went through security fairly quickly. At this point in the pandemic, nothing had really changed in terms of air travel, at least in Canada, so all I really noticed were a few more staff members wearing masks, and a couple more bottles of hand sanitizer than usual. I headed to my gate, sat down, and began the process of killing time. I charged my electronics, watched some TV, bought some snacks, ate lunch, and watched the planes out the window take off and land. Just before boarding, I changed into my sweatpants and hoodie, took a sleeping pill (which never even came remotely close to working) and messaged my family group chat that I was boarding the plane. This was the last contact I would have with the outside world until landing in South Korea.
Once on the aircraft, an Air Canada Boeing 787-9, I made my way to my seat. I had booked an exit row about halfway down the cabin, and to my delight the middle seat was empty. That feeling when the doors close, and nobody is sitting next to you is a magical feeling. The gentleman sitting in the far left seat and I put the tray table down beside us and used the middle seat as an extra storage area, and it was wonderful. Two armrests AND the window? Boy what a day.
We taxied onto the runway and took off right on time. Within a matter of minutes we were flying over the Muskoka region in central Ontario, and were treated to a view of frozen lakes and snow covered forests.
In no time, we reached cruising altitude and the cabin crew were hastily handing out the in-flight service. I’ve yet to have a delicious meal on an airplane, so all I’ll say is that the ice cream desert was an effective way to clear the palate.
The lights dimmed, the window shades became shadier and I fell asleep for the rest of the flight like a baby. Well, that’s what I wish I could say. I have quite the love-hate relationship with airplanes; I marvel at their engineering, yet I am terrified that something is going to go very wrong. This, in combination with the upright sleeping position and jet engines blasting in your ear mean that it is impossible for me to sleep on a plane. While if given the choice I prefer to fly long-haul, it doesn’t mean that the experience is necessarily enjoyable for me.
So how did I spent the next 14 hours you ask? Several movies, a couple of TV shows, and an unforgivable amount of virtual Poker. Being in the exit row helped though. I was able to stretch my legs all the way out, get up and move around every couple hours, and use the bathroom whenever I wanted. Naturally though, seeing as I woke up around 8 am to make it to the airport on time, and then proceeded to spend 14 hours without sleep on the plane, while jumping through several time zones, I was absolute mentally, physically, and emotionally destroyed. I actually felt pretty refreshed when we landed in Seoul but by the time I boarded my next flight I was disoriented, confused, and ready to pass out. But first, I had a layover to attend to.
Getting off the plane in South Korea came with a wakeup call: COVID-19 was serious, and the Koreans weren’t going to take any chances. There were temperature sensors, questionnaires, and most jarring of all, the airport staff dressed in head to toe hazmat gear. They would check passports and funnel Chinese nationals and travellers into their own respective line with another set of barriers to pass. Up to this point, I hadn’t been wearing a mask, and neither was most of my flight. But the second we saw all this commotion, most of us reached into our carry-ons and pulled out a mask to wear. It felt like something out of a dystopian novel and quite frankly was kind of scary. Although we know a lot about this virus now: who it affects, how deadly it was, how transmittable it could be, back then it was a mystery still being unraveled in real time. It certainly changed my mindset about the possibility of this going global, however this would be short lived as my time in Thailand would eventually give me a false sense of security. But more on that later.
It was 4:30 pm when I cleared health inspection and security and besides a trip to the bathroom, my priority was to head to my gate to check up on social media and touch base with my parents. They had been in Bangkok now for almost a full day and were sending pictures of them out and about exploring the city. I was excited to join them, but dreaded the 6 hour flight that would be needed to get me there.
It was after this point that most of my time at Seoul Incheon became a haze. I walked around for a little while to pass the time, but spent most of the layover sitting at the gate dozing in and out of sleep praying I wouldn’t miss the flight. When it was finally time to board, it turned out that there was some sort of problem with my luggage and so I was pulled aside. Between the language barrier and sleep deprivation I had no idea what was going on, and lucky for me they sorted it out without needing my help. I figure I must have forgotten to put one of the baggage tracking stickers on my luggage, but I’ll never know.
The flight from Seoul to Bangkok was fairly empty, enough so that the two men sitting beside me got bumped up to first class and I had the row to myself. Finally able to stretch out into a somewhat comfortable position, and at the end of my brain function, I passed out just before take off.
One of my favourite parts about travelling are those times when you are fully in the moment, and realize where you and what you are doing. I was treated to one of these moments when I awoke from my sleep and looked out my window. I saw a point of land sticking out into the darkness of the South China Sea, and a bunch of fishing boats trawling the waters. I glanced at the plane’s infotainment screen and noted that I was flying over the city of Da Nang, Vietnam. I never thought I would actually make it to this part of the world, and to actually see Vietnam from the air for myself was a huge moment for me. This blog is called Seeking Saudades to document my journey, and inspire others to seek out and act on that feeling of longing, and yearning for something you truly love, like travel. In the moment I realized I was flying over Vietnam, for just the briefest of time, I felt like I had actually found Saudades. It was wonderful.
Snapping back to reality, the rest of the flight was relatively routine. The cabin crew were kind enough to leave me some snacks and water while I slept, and later gave me Thai immigration forms to fill out. This was also a point of stress for me as I had always just copied what my parents had written down, and the last thing I wanted to do was get this far and run into trouble at the customs booth. It wasn’t long before we landed in Bangkok and with a renewed energy I was excited to get off the plane. Unlike South Korea, there was an absence of COVID-19 checkpoints, and health inspection was based primarily on the honour system. Thailand was less serious about the virus at this point, and that would continue to be a theme throughout my time in the country. In hindsight, they probably should have been more vigilant, but at the same time I’m glad they weren’t at this point because it would turn out to be the last time life would be normal for the foreseeable future, as we all know.
It was about 1 o’clock a.m. when I got through immigration and met up with the driver that my parents had set up for me. I was so excited to finally be in Thailand that I forgot to actually properly read the sign that he was holding up. My brain was distracted, and on autopilot, and decided on its own that this guy’s sign looked close enough to my name. He grabbed my luggage and we headed to the parking garage. It wasn’t until we were on the highway when I had this sudden realization, and by this point decided it was too late to do anything about it. The driven didn’t speak a word of English, and the only Thai I could remember was “thank you”.
Other than thinking about how to explain to my parents I got kidnapped within 5 minutes of being in the country, I couldn’t help but notice the blast of heat when I stepped outside for the first time. It was -13 C (9 F) in Toronto when I left, and it was 27 C (80 F) in Bangkok when I arrived. Talk about a shock to the body.
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After about an hour drive, I was driven into the basement parking area of a building and dropped off next to an elevator. I said thank you to the driver and off he went. No kidnapping tonight. Up the elevator I went to meet with my parents after an incredibly long day of travel. We exchanged stories, I made some food (Ham & Cheese), toured the apartment, and went up to the roof for my first look at the Bangkok skyline.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit I didn’t really do that much research on Bangkok before I arrived, and so I was surprised with the sheer amount of skyscrapers there were. The city smelt clean, the noise wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be, and it was far more developed than I gave it credit for. I was antsy to get out an explore what this metropolis had to offer.
For now though, it was time to get some well needed sleep in a proper bed. Thanks to my exam, I only had one full day in Bangkok. So I wanted to ensure I would be fully rested in order to make the most out of my limited time. I got under the covers, closed my eyes, and fell asleep to the sound of the air conditioner.
In the next edition of this series, Thailand Travel Diary – Day 2: Bangkok, I explore the city of Bangkok including a guided tour, a river cruise, multiple Buddhist shrines and temples, and the world famous backpacker hub, Khaosan Road.
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