The Sabbatical II:  Asia


Monday, September 9, 2013:

The flights to Asia are not pretty.  No matter where you’re coming from, you’re looking at at least 15 hours of traveling, and that’s IF you book a direct flight from the West coast.  East coasters can tack on 6-8 hours, Europe is no better, and anywhere south of us in the US, forget it.  I think it’s such a haul to get over here, it’s impossible to spend a week, you need at least 2 by the time you lose a day, and factor in all that travel time and recovery from it. 

I was in Thailand and Cambodia for my more thorough investigation of course in 2008.  This time I had the Bhutan trip booked, and you had to book your own airfare into Bangkok and out of Beijing.  When I looked, tickets weren’t all that bad, about 1200 bucks, but for whatever reason Air China was not letting me book a direct flight to Thailand from SFO.  It let me book a direct flight from Beijing to SFO on the return, but not on the way there.  I was mad, of *course* there are daily direct flights!  I think I would have had to change airlines, and that was likely the issue.  So, no matter what, I was looking at about 24 hours of traveling to get there. 

Now, Asia has some caveats for Americans.  It’s very exotic, if you’re into that kind of thing, but chances are if you’re coming to Asia, the exotic factor is probably the factor.  Like nothing else, apart from its inescapable third world appearance, it’s just so different.  The architecture is wildly different, the people look different, the culture is completely foreign.  Nothing in your American background can prepare you for this kind of difference, it’s night and day. 

Having said that, there are a few caveats coming here that one needs to be prepared for in advance or else Asia’s very foreign-ness can turn you against it. 

  1. 1. People. There are hordes and throngs and massive, massive numbers of people.  These people also probably live with their 17 extended family members in a 600 square foot shack somewhere in the miasma.  No, they have no concept of personal space.  If you lived with 17 other people constantly in your business, you wouldn’t either. 

  2. 2.Lines are not organized, they’re chaotic shove-fests where you will be touched by other people and their things on all sides of your person in a mad-dash, free-for-all to the front.  Don’t get trampled and killed, because it’s possible.  And forget being polite, toss that out the window because they have no concept and you’ll be there all day.  This is bound to be wildly offensive to the most callously worn traveler, and if you’re like me and need your solid 3 feet on all sides, forget it.  You can turn around, huff, make eye contact and give the evil space invasion face while making direct eye contact with the offenders, but they have no idea what you have your underwear all in a bunch about.  No clue.  And you can’t murder them.  Not even the Chinese woman who keeps shoving her purse into your back for half an hour while you try to keep at least 8 inches from the person in front of you.  Murder here is a crime, too. 

  3. 3.The Chinese are pissed off and shout constantly.  At least, it seems this way.  Although walking home in Hayes Valley through the projects on a daily basis, so do the black folks.  Volume is permanently set to eleven, and they talk so fast and so forcefully that they simply must be angry at the universe all the time.  Yes, they may be.  Or it may just be a cultural thing.  You can get a light indoctrination when you visit chinatown in San Francisco.  Just try to stay out of lines, your ear drums will thank you. 

  4. 4.It’s filthy.  It’s the 3rd world, but be prepared for shoeless people, beggars, roving packs of un-fixed mangy feral dogs, feces and garbage in streets, and pollution.  It’s about as gross as Vallejo. 

  5. 5.Scooters are a horrific, terrible pestilence that are swarming like massive flying cockroaches from every direction coming inches from your body, even on the sidewalk.  It’s just like being in Rome.  Except they use the sidewalks, or, rather more than the Romans do. 

  6. 6.The food is not what you eat.  You could starve, or you could just try new things.  That’s why you travel, right?  Ok, so maybe that toothless woman barefoot in a babushka cooking an unknown meat product on a skewer is too adventurous for the average traveler to try, so in any big city you can do the abhorrent and stop at an American food chain and have something familiar.  Or you can just try stuff.  Within reason, of course.  I don’t do bugs or mysterious meat products.  I try to go with things fried and cooked in front of me, without anything fresh on there from which I could get a little E. Coli along with my pad thai.  But, branch out, you’ll feel like you conquered the world.

  7. 7.Eating is often a mess of GMNs (Gross Mouth Noises, for those of you who don’t know me).  While this is about the most offensive transgression known to mankind in the history of the world, it is unknown to be a cardinal sin here in Asia.  Eating, particularly in some cultures, is meant to be a slurping, noisy, lip-smacking, chewing experience to be shared with anyone in earshot.  In fact, you can even continue the oral aural delight for a solid half an hour after the meal by noisily sucking your teeth clean.  Delightful!  You cannot punch people, steal their food, throw it in their face, or scream.  You have to ball your fists up, or take your ativan, and get over it.  Yes, you may leave for your day of sightseeing in a shriveled little constipated heap of nerves, but you’ll relax once the chemicals kick in. Better living through chemistry.  

  8. 8.I had left this list off last night at 7, but after spending a day in the Bangkok mall MBK this afternoon, I’m reminded of yet another Asian-ism that can kill you: Shuffling.  This involves making noise as do so many other moral transgressions on this list.  This one involves your feet.  You are free to drag your feet, or more specifically, your shoes (no matter what kind! The louder, the better!) as you walk, letting everyone know where you are behind them.  This particular habit occurs in small pockets of every other ethnic/racial/tribal/religious/culture/sect as well, but in much smaller numbers.  So much smaller that I can hear a shuffler approach and think “asian” and be right with about a 95% confidence interval* (*actual data are pending my moral transgression epidemiology article which is in pre-review).  These are easier to avoid: you check your cell phone for something extremely interesting and wait for them to pass you.  This only gets tricky in asia, when another is replaced almost immediately by the previous. 

With all this in mind, you can relax and enjoy your trip to Asia!  While most Americans travel because they want to seem exotic, and have some visions of themselves as globe-trotting, open-minded, adventurous explorers, in reality they want to be shielded from most of the worst of it.  As an American who likes to travel but also has a fondness for creature comforts of the developed world and an aversion to the things in the list above, I’m increasingly ok with that concept.  No, I don’t necessarily want to backpack through Thailand by myself and sleep in hovels without internet access or clean water.  And I’d like some safer food options (I still can’t bring myself to ever do American chains, ick), but I will still try the street stuff every day, just being mindful of that ever present E. Coli. 

You don’t come to Asia to be in a familiar place, you come to feel exotic, so be exotic.  And you can slurp your Asian breakfast, too.  Nobody but the other Americans will be offended, and you may even be able to block out the noises of those doing it around you.  Your mother will never know!

I lived just fine through my 12 hours flight to Beijing.  Then I got into Beijing and even made it through customs and security and to my gate with time to spare for my 1.5 hour layover.  We were shuttled onto a series of busses and transported to our waiting plane  to board on the tarmac for the 5.5 hour flight to Bangkok. 

It was the Bangkok flight i worried about.  At this point, I was approaching terminal exhaustion, and very worried that since I can’t sleep on planes, have no more reading material and a laptop that was dead as a doorknob, I’d die in the seat.  It was a plane with a 2, 4, 2 configuration, and I got an aisle seat in a 2 row, next to an Asian woman whose husband was apparently sitting in the 4 row next to a shaved-head American dude who offered to switch with her.  I certainly wasn’t about to offer.  2 is better than 4.  I leaned my head back and at least closed my eyes, that horrible jumpy dance in the seat of neck pains ever 60 seconds and seeking out a new, less comfortable position ensued, and then, miraculously, once we were at our flying altitude, the woman got up, vacated her seat and moved to the 4 row to be next to her husband, leaving me with two whole seats to myself on this very full flight.  I was amazed.  She smiled at me and I tried my very best to give her a smile back communicating both my gratitude and exhaustion at the same time.  I then spread out and did the neck/back/butt/leg pain reposition dance every 90 seconds just in 2 seats.  More amazingly, I think I might have dozed off for a few minutes because I missed the dinner and beverage service entirely, and lost an hour somewhere.  God bless that woman, wherever she is now. 

Once I arrived in Bangkok, at 12am, I got through customs and immigration and found my way to the taxi stand.  Trip Advisor forums said that after rush hour, tell the driver “no highway” and you can save yourself 70 Bhat highway surcharge that the taxi passes on to you.  I did so, but beg to disagree with Trip Advisor: pony up the additional 70 Bhat, and it’ll shave 30 minutes off that long ride. 

I got to the downtown For You Residence and checked in in the middle of the night to the very nice night manager who let me know I had a “very long day.” And I went up to my clean, serviceable room, turned on the AC, popped a sleeping pill, and passed out for 6 hours. 

Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet Sept 9 - 30, 2013

Disclaimers for Asian Travel