2AM – Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (pronounced soo-wanna-poom because nothing in Thai is pronounced like you think it should be) airport. After delays and 23 hours of flying I’ve arrived and found myself lost in a herd of people who know I definitely don’t belong.
My backpack is strapped tightly across my shoulders with a few US dollars in it. I had coordinated with my bank to pull out Thai baht with my debit card at local ATMs. I immediately needed cash for a taxi and to pay for my hostel. I change a few bucks at a Travelex, but not much more than I need to purchase a Thai SIM card in the next room.
2:30AM – I pass the customs agent free to explore Southeast Asia. At this point, all I desire is to lay down in a bed somewhere seemingly safe. I exit the terminal to a parking deck full of brightly colored taxis and a few ATMs standing against the wall.
Choosing a random machine, I request a few thousand Thai Baht but the dispensing tray doesn’t budge. My card is declined.
“Alright,” I think to myself, “I have an international number to call the bank in case of issues issues. I have a SIM card now, this should be easy.”
But calling turns out to be significantly more complicated in Thailand. I repeatedly attempt to connect with somebody, anybody, with no luck. Just a few poorly translated error messages to show.
3AM – I’m sitting on the floor in a lonely corner of the airport lobby, back propped up against an abandoned traveler information booth. Finally a voice speaks on the other end of the phone and sorts out my issues. Usually you call helplines and you’re connected to somewhere in Asia, so being connected from Asia to the states was neat.
3:30AM – The exchange rate is 35 to 1 so drawing cash felt like the moment in Monopoly that somebody lands on Park Place right after you built a full hotel on it, reaping in bills by the thousands. I step towards the empty taxi line where at least 60 cab drivers are eyeing me down like a pack of barracudas. I’m assigned one and ask him to turn the taxi meter on (I had read that they try scamming you by turning it off) and he refuses. We’re in a wild west standoff for a second as I negotiate in a currency I’ve never dealt with. Eventually he begrudgingly obliges.
3:45AM – We pass a couple toll booths and he motions for me to pay them. It’s dark and I can’t tell what denominations I have so I just throw a bunch of money his way and gives me the change each time. I can tell he’s not a fan.
4AM – He stops on an empty street and points towards my hostel, which I soon find out is locked for the night. Fortunately there was a drunk British guy outside rehydrating after a surely wild night on Khao San Road. He opens the door and I nestle into my new bed, trying not to disturb everyone else in the dorm. My eyes close as I realize my brand new Nike’s are still outside. “Doesn’t matter,” I decide, “someone else can have them.“
7 weeks have passed since my late night introduction to Bangkok, and 2 weeks since returning to the airport to fly home.
Over the 5 weeks spent in Thailand and Cambodia I spent 8 nights in busses, trains, minivans, airplanes and airports. Spent the other 27 in hostels located across 11 different cities, towns, beaches and islands. I met well over a hundred people from 30 countries and a dozen states along the way.
(I also accidentally ate spicy food at least a dozen times, but am still recovering from the trauma so we’ll talk about it some other time.)
Since returning, friends have asked all sorts of questions and I’ve spent a ton of time with them generally processing what the heck happened. Reliving the experience through stories has only served to teach me that I learned more than I expected from moments that didn’t seem all that big in the moment.
It’s funny how, in the moment, I often don’t feel like I’m learning anything. I just know what I’m experiencing, know that I’m stressed or stretched, that something is hard or someone has said something influential. And honestly, I usually don’t discover what I learned unless I take the time to process it well. For me, this primarily means talking it out for a while. It means sleeping on a thought and writing about it the next day.
That was so true on this journey. I know it opened my mind to a world of new experiences and challenges and possibilities, but I’m still discovering what those experiences meant for me today. I’ll probably be figuring them out for a while.
So I’ll do my best to share (some) traveling experiences here in the next few months, and hopefully we can move a smidge farther down the road together. Hopefully you’ll reflect on your own experiences and adventures because this world has boatloads of lessons to teach all of us. Hopefully we’ll all be better because we took the time to discover them.