Sunday, February 23, 2014

Thailand (Kanchanaburi): Day 5

This was, by far, the longest and most exhausting day I had… maybe even in the last year. It started at 6:45 AM. Pepsi and the driver would be around at 8, and I wanted to have some time to get ready, pack everything up, and maybe even have a little breakfast.

Unfortunately, despite waking up early, I still got behind schedule and was running late. It was nearly 8 by the time I had finished getting ready, and I still hadn't packed up my stuff yet. So I threw on my last set of clean clothes--including my jeans (the day before had had the coolest temperatures of the whole trip, so I figured it could hurt).

The second I stepped outside, I knew I'd made a mistake. It was 8 in the morning, and the heat was already hitting hard. And Pepsi, even though he was usually 10-15 minutes early, ended up being about 10 minutes late. The front desk ladies practically had to beg me to go down to the restaurant to wait. But I didn't want to have breakfast and waste time for when he showed up. Just the previous day, he had told me a story of how a group he had taken a long time ago kept postponing their leaving. They were supposed to leave at 8, and it wasn't until 11 that they all decided to come down together. And then they needed breakfast. So, yeah, I didn't want to pull that on him, too.

Anyway, they finally show up, and they ladies call me back upstairs. I'm already sweating as I get into the van. First up for the day was Erawan National Park and waterfall. It was about an hour away. And when we finally got there, Pepsi asked me if I'd like to swim. I did bring a swimsuit with me just in case, but I didn't feel like pulling it out and changing into it and hiking in wet clothes. Plus, I didn't have a towel with me. So I said no.

After my decision to wear jeans, this was my second mistake. (I was also wearing an undershirt and a long sleeve button-down, but I had rolled the sleeves up. It was the only clean shirt I'd had left.) Let's just say before this hike would be through, I would be soaked from head to toe and was mighty uncomfortable. And besides maybe wet socks, there's nothing quite so uncomfortable as sweaty jeans.

So we start the ascent. When I say hike, I mean it. Not quite Mt. Fuji hike, but it was still going up the side of a hill and/or mountain. The waterfall has like 8 or 9 levels to it, so you have to keep going up to get to each new level. It started off mildly easy with just a ton of stairs (some more steep than others). Then it got a little more difficult. And more difficult still as we were climbing up rocks. Basically, we were trekking through a jungle (with a path), and it wasn't always the simplest path. It was about halfway up to the 5th level that Pepsi decided to tell me he was surprised, as most Americans ask him to stop around Level 3. I was one of the very, very few American who had decided to go as high as I did. Needless to say, that was good enough for me. Come Level 5, I told him I was happy to go back down from there. He said it was probably for the best, as it got even more difficult and more steep from that point on, and I was already about to die. You can even see the exhaustion in my face in some of my pictures. Speaking of…

Monkey looking for some food.
We eventually got back to the van. We had actually come to this first because it would be better to miss the huge crowd that eventually came, so I could get better pictures. I'm also thankful we came earlier because the heat would only escalate from there. So as we get to the van, Pepsi asks me if I'd like to change clothes now, to which I quickly obliged. I just switched to my shorts, which made things so much better. I would have to switch back into my jeans when I got to Seoul the next day, though, because of cold temperatures. But we'll get to that point later.

Despite all of that complaining--much like with Fuji--the end result was worth the hassle. The scenery was gorgeous, and the waterfalls were pretty cool. My one regret is that I didn't change into my swimsuit, because (for starters) the water looked amazing and rather refreshing.

We finished up with that, and then it was time to head for Hellfire Pass. This is the area of the Burma Railway where they had to cut and blow through mountain and rock to make paths for the train. A lot of people died here. Pepsi warned me there would be more walking, but assured me there was only 170-something steps. Oh, good. So after the museum portion, I decided on with the show, and we headed down the wooden path that led to the pass. Honestly, going down was easy. It was the going up that was killer. But the pass itself was pretty interesting, as well.

After all this, it was around noon and already time for lunch. Pepsi had been asking me a lot over the last few days about my thoughts on Thai and spicy food, to which I replied I liked it and didn't really think it was that spicy. I was used to spicy food. Turns out, he was kind of testing waters to see if he would take me to a place not a tourist trap buffet as we'd been going to. It was a local joint off the side of the road where Thai people actually came to eat. Authentic Thai food with actual Thai spices, not the watered down westernized stuff. He was actually really worried that I wouldn't be able to handle the spiciness, because the majority of foreigners can't. But we did it anyway.

We got a handful of different things, but only one that was the average Thai hot. It was wild boar with a red curry/pepper paste sauce (homemade by the owner of the place). Pepsi told me to just try a little first and then I could have more if I wanted. I tried it, and… just as I thought, it barely phased me. I actually didn't even break a sweat, which was a miracle considering I hadn't stopped sweating since leaving my hotel room that morning. Yeah, it had a kick to it, but it was a good kick. But I've definitely had much spicier (unless my tongue has just gotten used to it over the last year). Either way, I actually thought it was the best dish we had at that lunch.

Fish and chicken soup in a coconut milk sauce.
The red one to the side of the fish is the wild boar.

Chicken and noodle
After lunch, we stopped by another small waterfall where tourists come to picnic and swim. That only took about 5-10 minutes tops.

And then it was time for the one thing I was probably looking most forward to… Tiger Temple. It's basically a wildlife resort full of, you guessed it, tigers. And other animals like pigs, water buffalo, etc. But the biggest attraction was the tigers. They raise the tigers from birth to domesticate them… but it's also pretty clear they have them tranquilized for the tourists, since you're getting right down with them for the pictures. Yeah, it was kinda sad to see the Tigers treated as they were… but at the same time, I got to touch tigers. They had a worker hold your hand and take you through to each tiger, sit you down, and another person would take pictures with your camera. Then the guide would take your hand again and take you to the next, etc.

So we left there by roughly 2:30 or 2:45-ish. It would take 3 hours to get from there to the airport in Bangkok, so we were on our way. We did make one pit stop, and Pepsi bought me a snack (a kind of coconut desert. The texture was somewhere in between jello and rubber… somewhat like that old GAK slime from the 90s). It was actually pretty good. 

But then about 5:45, we had finally reached the airport.

And my adventure would finally begin.

OK, so let me explain what happened here. When looking for my exit flight, there were strangely very few solid options from Bangkok to Seoul. Almost all of them had like 12-hour layovers (at minimum) in between, no matter the airline. The best possible time I could get… was a 2:55 AM flight with a 3-hour layover in Macau. It would put me in Seoul by about 2-ish PM on Sunday.

But, as you can probably gather… that still left me at the airport at 6 PM with a flight that didn't leave until basically 3 AM. That's 9 hours. And what I soon came to learn is that you can't actually check in or check your luggage until the counter opens… 3 hours before the flight. So, if you do the math, that means I had to wait in the main lobby of the airport for 6 hours until midnight before I could do anything. I had to sit, for 6 hours, in the busy check-in lobby in over-crowded sitting areas (from which I moved to and from multiple different ones throughout the evening). Also, there are no plug outlets in this area (or, as I would later discover, in any area in the entire airport). This means that when my laptop ran out of battery… that was it. If my phones died, that was it. If my mp3 player died… you guessed it. 

Also keep in mind that all of what happened from this point on happened on top of the day I just finished explaining--the walking, hiking, heat exhaustion, etc. I'd been awake for nearly 12 hours at this point and had done enough stuff that would knock me out on an average day. That being said...

I had 6 hours of sitting and limited battery lives. I bought a 24-hour Boingo Hotspot password so I could at least attempt to grab some wifi on my laptop… though it was terrible wifi that could barely load a webpage. I ended up spending like 10% of battery life just waiting for one page to load. Needless to say, my laptop ran out of battery really fast, even though I did try and stretch it out throughout the night.  I also didn't want to turn my phones on and waste the batteries because I needed them for when I got back to Korea. This basically left my mp3 player, which fortunately had an ebook on there that I was listening to.

I also remembered, after a couple hours, that I'd also brought my 3DS with me, so I played a game for a couple hours. But come around 10 or 11 PM, I was getting exhausted. I was tired of doing the stuff I was doing as well as being tired of doing nothing. I was bored out of my mind. And it didn't help that this huge family of like 20, mostly little kids (I dunno if they were Thai or Cambodian… they seemed Cambodian), were taking up over half the seats around me and being really noisy and annoying. And I was pretty irritable at this point, which also didn't help matters much.

I tried to rest my eyes at various points, but it was hard to really sleep there. When I did eventually stand up to leave, the whole family just kinda paused and stared at me walk away. It was rather awkward. But it was like 11:45 PM and the counter would open at midnight, so I was gonna go stand nearby and wait there.

And then a whole bunch of people--apparently another large family and/or group--had been waiting there, too, and all jumped in front of me before I could get in line. And they (even to the annoyance of the workers there) took up all 3-4 open counters for the flight, not letting anyone else get in and all mingling amongst themselves and flip-flopping luggage, etc.

But I did finally manage to get through. I was pretty starving at this point (no restaurants or anything in the lobby area), even though it was after midnight (and technically after 2 AM Korean time, so my body was doubly tired). After getting through everything, I walked a further distance past my gate and made my next mistake of the night--Burger King. I haven't had Burger King in… I don't know how many years. And I haven't had food this greasy in quite some time, either. But I was hungry, and it was the best option. So I made myself absurdly sick and went back to the gate area.

Now things got even more interesting. My gate was something like D8. However, there was a D8 and a D8A right next to each other, and D8 was closed. It was very confusing. I asked someone, and they told me, as if I were an idiot, that boarding doesn't start for like an hour… so that's the reason the gate sitting area was locked up. So me, along with everyone else for that flight, had to sit around in the hallway area in seats or on the floor. And a ton of people were being really rude and laying across like 4 seats to sleep and not allowing anyone else to sit there. I did grab a seat, though, and managed to maybe get in like 5-10 minutes of not very deep sleep.

The gate opened finally, and we moved to go sit in the waiting area at the gate for ages until they let us through there, too. To speed things up here, let's just say things were annoying even up until we were walking into the plane. This first plane had put me in the Emergency Exit row. There were very few people actually on this flight, so a bunch moved around to sit with people they knew. I ended up having the whole row to myself, and it was an extended row so I had like triple the leg room. This flight was about 2 and a half hours, and I actually managed to sleep through almost the whole thing.

But I was still exhausted as we landed in Macau, and I had a 3-hour layover. I hoped maybe there would be some lines we'd have to go through that would take time, and I wouldn't just be sitting for 3 hours. Nope… it went super crazy fast, and I did end up sitting there for 3 hours. (And some Burger King disagreeing with my system.) Fortunately, I got another half hour or so of light sleep. I played more 3DS and also fidgeted with my laptop until my battery was officially too low to bother with. When the sun finally came up, I looked out the window to see a pretty cool sunrise in the Macau airport.

And then I just walked around the shops a bit when they finally opened. I was super excited to see in one of the Duty Free shops that they had re-released action figures based on the original design of the 80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. I came so close to buying one, but they were just re-released updates and not original figures, so I didn't bother.

And the time finally came for the next flight. This one would be longer--about 3 and a half hours--from Macau to Seoul. I also managed to grab a bit of sleep on this one, too. Though now my sleep pattern is probably all out of whack considering I basically slept off-and-on from 5 AM to 2 PM (Korean time).

The luck fairy must have been in a good mood today, though. Upon reaching Seoul, I was like the third in line at Immigration, meaning I was there and out in about 5 minutes. And my bag was practically the first one out of the carousel, already going around by the time I got there. Which has never happened. But I suppose that's what happens when you're one of the first people to check your bag when the counter opens. I also ended up catching the train to Seoul Station right before the doors closed. But I'm getting ahead of myself now. First… it's cold in Korea, so I had to change.

I found a bathroom and took the big stall to try and fit all my stuff inside. And… my jeans were still mildly soaked. Not only that, but they were freezing from being in the cargo hold for hours. Needless to say, it was incredibly unpleasant putting those things back on. But I had to--I couldn't wear shorts outside. I also put my jacket on, which I had left in my suitcase, as well.

The last thing of note for this story is as I reach the platform in Seoul Station to head back towards Gunpo, a guy comes up and asks if I'm American. We strike up a conversation--he's Korean-American. He'd been adopted in America and had come to Korea to discover his roots. He'd been there 3 weeks and was a bit overwhelmed by everything. So we just chatted about Korean culture and the language and people and all that. He was a pretty friendly guy. He was off to discover Itaewon, which he'd heard about and wanted to check out. He was off the train after a few stops, so we didn't get to talk long, but it was an interesting interaction, especially at the end of such a long day.

And that's about it! I got home right around 5 PM (3 PM Thai time), meaning I had literally been traveling for just over 24 hours straight with maybe 4 hours sleep mixed in there somewhere. It was quite a long day, and I'm sure I'll sleep well tonight.

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