If you’ve been holding your breath waiting to discover what faux pas occurred at the Bangkok Airport Transit Desk during my most-recent trip, you can now breathe easy.
A GOOD DISASTER MOVIE ALWAYS BEGINS WITH A YOUNG CHILD, or family, having a good time in their own back yard, uplifting music trilling blithely away in the background—innocence personified. My disaster story begins with an innocent quick trip to Bhutan.
“Anal” is not a word people usually use to describe me: I’m fairly low maintenance most of the time. I’m so low key and such a master procrastinator that when people do describe me, they might use a different form of the word anal, perhaps a noun describing the correlative area of anatomy, and they may punctuate their point with a scatological adjective for good measure. I’ll spare you more specific details.
But let’s imagine I’m an innocent in this story. Let’s say I’m about to take a 16-day journey and landing in five countries. We might, if we are judging, also call me a tad crackers. Who—except maybe those daredevils Sue and Dave, who take their own helmets on vacations, for pete’s sake—would do five countries in two weeks?
“Speed travel” is not my usual style of travel, I prefer “watch-the-rice-grow” travel, so let me explain the logic. There is a good reason. The initial idea for this trip was merely to visit Bhutan. But you can’t just up and fly to Bhutan. It’s another one of those places you can’t get to from here. You have to go somewhere else and then take one of Bhutan’s national airline flights into Paro. Bhutan is close to Myanmar, so I decide to visit Myanmar, also, because it has been on my To Do list way before they changed its name from Burma. And also way before they coined the term bucket list. But you can’t fly to Bhutan from Myanmar. You can get to Bhutan from Bangladesh, and you can fly into Bangladesh from Myanmar. Fine, that’s three countries.
You could fly back to Bangladesh on your way out of Bhutan, but you could also fly a bit further and closer to home if you flew out of Bhutan and landed in Katmandu. That seems a much nicer option, especially since Nepal is one of my most-favored, rice-watching spots. But if the flights are full, you can’t get out on the day you plan, and you might have to spend the night in Katmandu. Fine. That’s four countries.
On your way from Bhutan to Katmandu, you might need to stopover in Luknow, India. It’s a technicality, I realize, but stopping off in a country is being in a country in my mind, especially if there’s a Starbucks in the airport. So…that’s why I land in five countries in 16 days.
Initially, I had wanted to head to Bhutan first, just in case any “unforeseen nonsense” started going down, like missed flight connections or malaria, at least I’d get to visit Bhutan and the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. However, when you visit Bhutan, you must go with a tour company, and the one I used, Bridge to Bhutan, was fully booked the first week of the dates for my trip, making it mandatory to visit Myanmar first.
Generally, I do very little travel planning. Maybe I buy the guidebook. I look at photos to see where I might want to head. I check out a couple hotels maybe. Never restaurants—they, or wonderful street vendors—always seem to appear whenever you need one. Sometimes, I simply wash up in some town and see what happens next. These days, I just read Kelly’s blog and go where she goes. But when I do plan, I go anal. And that’s why I don’t plan or don’t like to plan. It’s too much work if you do it properly. And if you plan, you gotta do it properly or there’s no sense doing it, and to do it properly, you go anal—you figure in every detail you can imagine. I know some A-type travelers who love planning as much or more than the actual journey; but to me, it’s just not fun. My brain simply does not savor ratcheting up into that frame of mind, that degree of competence.
And worse, once you have a plan with all the details, you are then confined and limited if or when “something else”— some option or tangent maybe you couldn’t even plan for—presents itself to you while you’re out there in the world. Like, say, an Angelina-Jolie-look-alike crosses your path, she has a thing for old geezers and carries a vial of Viagra in her daypack, but you have a plan and itinerary and no time for tangents. Apparently, my brain slips much easier into daydreaming than planning. Usually when I travel, I simply wait for the “something else” to present itself, and amble down that road. Usually it’s an island or a river or a mountain or a mud hut; it has never been an Angelina-Jolie-look-alike with a thing for old geezers and carrying a backpack full of boners.
Sidetrack du jour: if you’ve been reading my blog and noticed the widget, you know at this very moment, I was supposed to be on my next watching-rice-grow Big Trip, starting days ago, 26 May. I’m now writing this sitting at my desk at home. I have no plan. I have umpteen options, I’m having difficulty making choices. Again. (note to self: research if this is a symptom of Adult ADD, insanity, early-onset something, just laziness?) In my defense though, I have not been doing nothing about it. I have made choices and plans for this trip, and then I get up the next day thinking, “do I really want to go there?” And then the process stalls. I make another plan. Next morning: same thought, again. Here’s my list: Cuba, Bahamas, Mexico, Britain, Scotland, Madagascar, Zanzibar, Cape Town, Malta. And, of course I’ve even considered simply going back to my fallback place: Bali. And even doing both Amsterdam and Bali. And get this, I even considered going on one of those geezer boat trips down the Danube through Eastern Europe from Prague to the Black Sea and ending up in Bucharest (note to self: are you really getting so jaded with travel that you’d even consider doing that…and pay a single supplement to do it?) But yeah, right, I probably seem like that guy carrying a briefcase full of hundred dollar bills, and no car dealer in town has a red Bentley convertible with the Dubai Luxury Package and 20-inch wheels to sell him. Nobody’s feeling sorry for people with problems like this.
Back to Bhutan: my planning for the trip to Bhutan began with air flights. And then I started planning my ventures in Myanmar. Turns out, to get anywhere by land in Myanmar is a major endeavor. The roads are a disaster. The word “speeding” has no translation in the Burmese language, the closest adjective is “inch-worming.” To travel like 50 miles would take you maybe twelve hours; and to fly, merely half an hour. If I had more time, I would prefer to travel by land, see the country, the people. With only two weeks, I had no time to waste whole days traveling if I wanted to see Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan, and the U Bein Bridge in Mandalay. So I had to arrange air flights between these places. No mean feat, really, since flights don’t run every day. Are you beginning to feel a little empathy for me, at least?
And because I had so little time, it was necessary to line up hotels in all these places before leaving, because you don’t want to land in a place like, say, Dhaka in Bangla-freakin-desh, or even Mandalay, and not have a place to stay for the night. By the time I was ready to depart on my trip, I had all my ducks in a row. I not only had all my air flights arranged, I also had hotels lined up. And in Dhaka, I even had a one-day tour reserved. And in Bagan—a major coup!—I had secured the very last spot on the last balloon flight of the season. OK, I admit, it does feel comforting knowing you’ve got your shit together before you travel. Should we play a little of the theme song from Rocky here?
But this is where the true anal part comes in for me. I had a file filled with papers of my whole itinerary mapped out day by day, with receipts and reservation numbers, all my flight tickets, tours and hotel reservations organized by their respective cities and dates; I had them numbered, I had notes and phone numbers on each reservation and document. You see, I can go anal if I’m forced into it. I have all my documents in a see-through plastic folder organized by date: my air ticket to BKK first on top, and then the air ticket from BKK to Yangon, together with my hotel in Yangon. Then my ticket from Yangon to Inle Lake, and my hotel reservation at Inle Lake. One after the other for the whole 16 days. I number and order them in the order I’ll use them, so I don’t have to figure out what is what when I’m out in the world, or in front of an immigration officer who looks like a prison guard out of Cool Hand Luke with a semi-automatic slung over his shoulder.
To begin the trip, my Etihad flight takes off at 2130 and lands in BKK at 0630. I sleep poorly on planes, but I can’t use that as a good excuse for what happens next. I had to change planes and pick up a boarding pass at the transit desk for my second flight out of BKK, which would take me to Yangon, Myanmar. In order to do that, you have to walk the length of Suvarnabhumi International. And find the right escalator up to the second floor, and then walk another length of terminal.
It could not have been further away, but it’s not difficult, just time consuming and frustrating because when you ask directions for the Bangkok Air Transit Desk, everyone appears to know where it is, but they wave their hands and tell you to keep going “that way” so you do, and you don’t find the transit desk. Until, finally, you do. At the transit desk, they ask for my ticket from BKK to RNG (RNG for Rangoon, apparently nobody is changing the three-letter airport code to YNG for Yangon, your luggage could end up in Youngstown, Ohio). I pull out my plastic file with all my flight and hotel reservations. Such a tidy packet with everything I need in the order I need it. The flight ticket from BKK to Rangoon is right on top—god I’m good. I hand over the reservation and feel pretty smug I took time to be this efficient—the people who say there’s good and bad in everything may have a point.
It’s 0730 in the morning. I’ve had no coffee. I’ve had very little sleep, and it was restless-sitting-up-economy-airplane-seat sleep. But I’m a seasoned traveler. I know how to handle myself in foreign countries, in foreign airports, in tuk-tuks and taxis, in kasbahs, and sacred temples. I imagine I will soon be sitting my fine arse down in the Starbucks in Suvarnabhumi International and downing that double espresso or cappuccino that I now need fairly desperately.
And the next thing you know, I am. I’m even pulling out my laptop and checking email. Oh, I forgot to mention the deal with visas. For Myanmar, you have to get online before you leave, preferably a month or so before, and apply for the visa online. They warn you that after they “investigate you” (they don’t mind backpackers but don’t want vermin), you may or may not be given a visa, and if not, “you will not be told why,” and they “will not reply if you ask why.” So it’s a rather tenuous feeling to hold your air tickets in your hand and not know whether or not you’ll get a visa. However, Myanmar grants me a visa. But they don’t send you a visa, they send you a “visa acceptance letter” stating that you’re not vermin, which you then must show to immigration when you arrive. This visa acceptance letter was the next item in my file after the air ticket to Yangon.
For Bhutan, you must first set up an itinerary with your mandatory, rather-pricey tour company (they don’t want backpackers or vermin), and then once you’ve paid for the tour, your tour company sends you a letter also, stating that you’ve been accepted to receive a visa—which you show to immigration officials in Paro, who then stamp your passport with a visa when you arrive. That letter lay further down in my file, under maybe six air flights and five hotels.
If this were a disaster movie, right about now you’d begin to hear low background music depicting impending danger, maybe something like the bassline theme from JAWS.
Just before landing at Yangon International (are you ready for that “unforeseen nonsense” going down?), I discover that my folder with all my hotel reservations—all my flight reservations, my tours, my visa acceptance letters, all numbered so carefully and seeping smugness—is missing. This is where the disaster movie begins to turn scary in my mind. What the bejesus have I done with my file? It’s gone. Just gone. But how? Where? This is not right. This is just wrong. I check my bags. I check both bags again. And again. This is not like me at all. I may forget to take my favorite travel knife, the one I’ve carried for 25 years, out of my carry-on and repack it into my checked luggage before boarding my next flight and then have security appropriate it (once!), but I don’t lose stuff. The only thing I can come up with is that I pulled a careless rookie move and left the file at the BKK Air Transfer Desk.
You can imagine in your mind a cool, seasoned traveler losing his cool right about now. Cue the music from Alfred Hitchcock’s knife-slashing scene in Psycho here. Literally everything needed to continue the trip is in that file. If I don’t show the visa acceptance letter, I can’t even enter Myanmar when this plane lands. If I don’t have flight info or tickets, I go nowhere. Losing your cool here means imagining sleeping on the green plastic chairs in the transit lounge in Yangon International for the next two weeks, or being deported unceremoniously, or being imprisoned for impersonating a seasoned traveler.
But thank god for some innate travel savvy I’ve developed over the years (or is it “organizational genes” handed down on my maternal DNA?): everything in my bag has a place, and if removed, it always goes back in the same place. This means I always know where things are and don’t have to search for them. My Mountain Smith carry-on fanny pack has a hidden pocket in the back where I always stash my air ticket, because it’s easy to get to at check-in, and I don’t have to look for it. And luckily, before leaving BKK Air Transit Desk, I innately stashed my visa acceptance letter to Myanmar (next document in the file) along with my air ticket to Yangon in my secret pocket, which meant at least I’d be allowed to enter Myanmar—let’s begin blasting a few bars of “Hallelujah” right about here in this movie.
Perhaps there is another reason to forgo planning things out so thoroughly: anything could go wrong. This might sound weird or inconceivable to some people, especially hardline Type-A personalities. But it seems every time I try to plan things out, something always, and I mean always, goes wrong. If I simply float in the breeze, I end up somewhere collecting another sunset with a cold glass in my hand and a smile on my face, maybe in a hammock. And no dang headaches. Except for that time I was aimlessly driving my VW campervan down the Pan American Highway searching for surf and the perfect salsa, and the border guard (the one without the AK-47) in El Salvador hammered me with the back of his hand because I was bitching about having to pay another bribe just to cross the border—fun story for another day.
I take a taxi from Yangon International Airport to the Merchant Art Boutique Hotel. This is no five-star hotel, but it’s far from a dive. I knew I would stay here as soon as I saw it online: I reserved the suite with the view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Someone could use my reserving this hotel as a powerful counter argument to my not wanting to plan. When I travel, I love finding a hotel with a view. I probably would not have ended up here if I hadn’t planned in advance. And I am not disappointed one bit with the Merchant Art Boutique Hotel: I’m a few minutes’ walk away from and have a view of the most important and arguably most beautiful site in Yangon. And oodles of space. Spotless marble floors. Lots of sunlight. Interesting contemporary art hung on the walls in the rooms and halls. Not the most luxurious furniture, but I do have a fridge, a hairdryer, a robe, and a kettle for coffee.
Another bit of luck, along with a tad more anal-ness-slash-organization: I had saved all the emails and documents regarding my hotel reservations and flights in a folder on my laptop. When I ask the concierge, they are happy to print all of the documents for me. I organize them again in their proper order, label them with appropriate numbers, slip them back into another plastic file. Shakespeare says it with panache once again: “all’s well that ends well.” But if you remember from a previous story, a few days after I leave Yangon, I fall right into another disaster in Bagan. Perhaps I will write that story soon—but, hey, don’t be holding your breath: I have other decisions to make, remember.
If this were a movie, we would begin rolling the credits now, let’s say along with a little Bob Dylan, maybe “Blowin in the Wind” or “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Perhaps we’ll run some blooper outtake scenes: the one where they catch me googling Angelina Jolie photos by Annie Leibovitz, the one where I pee my pants when I discover the missing file, the one where the gecko poops in the soup, the one where my thong gets stuck in the airport escalator.
Caveat du jour: you may not be able to purchase the soundtrack to this movie on Amazon.
You can find more entries to DP Photo Challenge here: Spare
You can find more entries in Lucile’s Photo Rehab here: Photo Rehab