*This post was originally published on November 14th, 2020, and is being re-published today as the next installments in this series will be coming shortly. I wanted to refresh the memory of those who have already read it, and give some context to everyone else who may be new to Seeking Saudades since it’s original posting date. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!*
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 flights 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 p.m. flight. It was my first solo flight, and the longest one of my life at that. 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 that 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 moment of minor panic. It was brief, but it all started to feel very real to me, and the task of the long day ahead of me really set in.
I checked in for my flight, 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 complementary 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 came even remotely close to working) and messaged my family group chat that I was boarding the plane. This would be 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 of the row put the tray table down beside us and we used the middle seat as an extra storage area and buffer for the duration of the flight. 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 darkened, and I managed to fall asleep for the rest of the flight… Well, at least that’s what I wish I could say. I have quite the love-hate relationship with airplanes; I marvel at their engineering, yet I’m constantly terrified that something is going to go very wrong at any moment. This, in combination with the upright seating position and the noise of the jet engines mean that it’s nearly 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 a.m. to make it to the airport on time, and then proceeded to spend 14 hours without sleep on the plane all while jumping through several time zones, I was absolutely mentally, physically, and emotionally destroyed on arrival. 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.
Before the second leg could begin however, 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 arriving Chinese passport holders 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 more about this virus now: who it affects, how deadly it is, how transmittable it may be, in February of 2020 it was a mystery still being unraveled in real time. It certainly changed my mindset about the possibility of this going global, however this thinking would be relatively short lived as my time in Thailand would come to 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 hoping 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 really 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’re fully immersed, and consciously take a moment realize where you are and what you’re doing. I was treated to one of those moments when I awoke from my sleep on the flight from Korea to Thailand.
I looked out my window and saw a point of land sticking out into the darkness of the South China Sea. There were at least a hundred lights dotting the inky blackness below, what could only be fishing boats trawling the open waters. I glanced back towards the plane’s infotainment screen in front of me and realized that I was flying over the city of Da Nang, Vietnam.
To see Vietnam from the air for myself was a huge moment.
I created Seeking Saudades to document my journeys, tell a few stories, and to inspire others to seek out and act on their own feelings of Saudades — the things you long for and yearn to do in your life.
For me, that’s travel.
In the moment that I realized I was flying over Vietnam, and consciously immersed myself in that reality, I felt like I had actually found my Saudades.
The rest of the flight was relatively routine.
The cabin crew was 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 immigration 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 were 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 I’m kind of glad they weren’t because it would turn out to be the last time life would be “normal” for the foreseeable future, as we would all come to discover
It was about 1 o’clock a.m. when I got through Thai 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 properly read the laminated sign that he was holding up. My brain was distracted, on autopilot, and apparently decided that this guy’s sign looked close enough to my last name so it had to be my driver. He grabbed my luggage and we headed to the parking garage, and it wasn’t until we were on the highway that I had the sudden realization that I screwed up and could be in for trouble. By this point it was too late to do anything about it as the driver 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 that I got kidnapped within 5 minutes of being in the country, I couldn’t help but notice the blast of heat hitting my face when I stepped outside the airport for the first time.
It was -13 degrees Celsius (9 F) in Toronto when I left, and it was 27 degrees Celsius (80 F) in Bangkok when I arrived for a total temperature swing of 40 degrees. Talk about a shock to the body.
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After about an hours journey, I was driven into the basement parking garage of a building and dropped off next to an elevator. I grabbed my stuff, said thank you to the driver and watched as he vanished into the night.
There would be no kidnappings tonight.
I went up the elevator, found the right apartment, and was greeted by 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 by the sheer amount of skyscrapers I saw. The city smelled clean, the noise wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be, and it was far more developed than I originally gave it credit for. The trip was off to a great start.
I was antsy to get out and explore what this metropolis had to offer, but for now , it was time to get some well needed sleep in a proper bed.
Thanks to my exam the day prior, I only had one full day in Bangkok and I wanted to ensure I would be fully rested in order to make the most out of my limited time. And so, I had a quick shower before getting under the covers, and fell asleep almost instantly to the rumbling sound of the overhead air conditioner.
In the next edition of this series, Thailand Travel Journal – Day 2: Bangkok, I explore the city of Bangkok. This day includes a guided tour, a river cruise, multiple Buddhist shrines and temples, and the world famous backpacker hub, Khaosan Road.
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