May 25, 2024 8 min read

The Traveler, part VI- And Now for Something Totally Different: Asia

Asia was amazing, tough, and scary, as COVID started, flights cancelled, and we were worried about getting stranded.

Our first elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Our first elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Welcome to, “From the Beginning: A Nomadic Tale,” the origin story from one of our writers, and how he started out his life on the road in 2019; at age 64. Norm Bour now has 43 countries behind him, over 50 in total, and is currently in Asia for the year. This series shares how it began and how you might be able to do it, too. Check out his initial story, and his prior chapters.

You can learn more about them from their website, TravelYounger.com, and also his books, including Nomadic Life for All Ages, and his new one, The History and Magic of Northern Greece.


Bangkok: How Long is Long Enough??

Asian (Bangkok) traffic
This was my first taste of Asian (Bangkok) traffic--and I did NOT like it!

Our flight from Singapore to Thailand was our first experience in learning about the intricacies of tourists visas. We thought (hoped?) that we could fly into Bangkok without an exit ticket, but got stopped at our check in gate and told that it was required. We had a Plan B, so had to get one on the spot, and that forced us to specify our exact exit date, not a deal killer. Since then things have changed a bit in many countries, but Thailand still requires “proof of exit” before they (or the airlines), let’s you in.

Bangkok did NOT sit well with me and I couldn’t wait to get out! I found that over the years I have increasingly less tolerance for Large Cities and crowds, and when you add in horrible smog, it became untenable.

We had a small but hip little apartment on the 36th floor of a 42 story high rise which had shopping at ground level, a usable gym, and an infinity pool, which we used a lot. But watching the sun set into a haze of smog took its toll on me. We saw people walking around with facemasks, and we were 100 percent opposed to wearing them. But the people who live there do it for the smog, whereas I thought it was germ protection.

Stay with me, the COVID thing is coming up.

Bangkok was tough for me to handle, so we did some map-questing to figure out where else to go. Chaing Mai was a town that came up repeatedly, a real magnet for the (usually young) digital nomadic community, so that was our first destination on our list for the second week of January.

It was a brief flight, we got a nice room, and when we arrived we scoured through the local attractions and found an elephant sanctuary, which we both agreed to. Since we only had a few days in Chaing Mai, we rented a bike the following day and explored the local temples, and this was my first attempt at driving down the left side of the road. Once I got over the, “this is weird,” feeling, it fell into place without a problem.

The town is pretty small so we walked around and got our feet wet since this was our first dose of “rural” Asia—including the smoke in the air—which was oppressive. We never heard of “burning season,” but you should research it if you plan to go to rural areas outside the big cities in Asia. It is NOT just an Asia thing, but over there they burn the remnants of the last crops to get the land ready for the next one, which is usually different. Regardless, Kat had a hard time with it and it was tough on her lungs.

The view was awesome--when we could see it!
The view was awesome--when we could see it!

The following day we got picked up early for the elephant sanctuary, and shared a small van with about 15 others, many from China. The reason I mention that is because that same day we also did a lengthy hike and climbed to the highest elevations in Thailand, along with thousands of visitors. That is the night Kat got sick.

Really sick.

She had shortness of breath, a cough, and could not sleep. She was in distress and I asked her if we needed to go to a hospital. Initially she said no, but about midnight said she was feeling even worse, and to call an ambulance. THAT was quite the feat, trying to find one by calling the equivalent of 911 in Thai.

After several attempts they got there, took us to the closest hospital just a few miles away, and when we went in about 0200 the place was very quiet, and the only notable thing was the two custodians cleaning the floors quite thoroughly. They gave her an exam, took several tests, and sent us home about two hours later with half a dozen meds. Her feeling poorly was bad enough, but there was another dilemma to face: we were due to fly to Vietnam THAT morning about 0800.

Our visit to the hospital was weird on so many levels, but it seemed quite sanitary and professional. The doctor gave her several kinds of tests—including a nose swab—something we had never seen before. After a few hours we were dismissed from the hospital with a very reasonable $350 or so bill, went home, and tried to sleep. We got a few hours in, but still got up in time to check out and make it to the airport. Meanwhile, Kat looked like walking death…sweating, cold chills, cough…just plain miserable.

We never made that flight to Vietnam, and in hindsight, we were glad of that. It seems that I did not have the proper entry visa, and were denied our flight. The next dilemma: go back to our room and stay in Chaing Mai, or fly back to Bangkok, where we at least had a “home.” We opted for plan B, made it to our room, and there Kat stayed for almost two weeks. Tired. Chilled. No sense of taste, even with the delicious Pad Thai I brought home from the street market.

Vietnam (Halong Bay)
We were able to get to Vietnam (Halong Bay) on our second effort

As she finally felt better a few weeks later, we started hearing about this “virus” that was going around, which was determined to have come from China. It was called “COVID-19,” and as we followed the news, we diagnosed her symptoms and concluded she had it.

And here’s the kicker: Chaing Mai was the first MAJOR sickness area in Thailand. We looked at her medical discharge which said: “patient denies shortness of breath, cough, or loss of smell,” and concluded that the hospital was covering up the diagnosis.

Ankor Wat (Cambodia)
SO glad we got to Ankor Wat (Cambodia)

This all happened the middle of January of 2020, and over the next five weeks, travel in Asia was as unpredictable as anything we ever experienced. Flights cancelled left and right.

We still ended up bouncing into Vietnam, Cambodia and Ankor Wat, and another area of Thailand, and each time had to keep our fingers crossed, hoping our flight would not be cancelled.

flights
The epidemic affected flights as well as passengers

Outside of Asia things were no better. Much of Europe was being isolated and borders closed, and people were being confined to their homes. Streets were empty, businesses were closing, and the world was coming to a standstill.

So, were we concerned about getting back to the US for Kat’s son’s wedding?? Damn right we were!

Can you go “home” again?

Writer Thomas Wolfe wrote about that in 1940, and concluded that going home—to the home you remember—was impossible.

Getting back to the US the first week of March, 2020, was insane and caused me a ton of stress. Every week, every day, we were hit with bad news that jeopardized our plans, but on top of that, this pandemic was killing people all over the world.

Our initial “plan” to go back to Ohio for the wedding, and then return to Europe, was jeopardized since no one had any idea when countries would re-open. Would it be weeks? Months? Speculation was all over, and since we normally paid NO attention to the media, we had to start doing just that.

We left Bangkok the beginning of March, had a very long layover in a frigid icebox of an airport in Taipei, Taiwan, and finally made it back to US soil. We wondered: “Would they even let us BACK? Could we be denied entry?”

As it turned out, we breezed through Los Angeles airport without any hassles. No one greeted us in hazmat suits (yes, it was a real possibility!), and except for walking through a temperature sensor, everything was normal. But being in Southern California during that time for two weeks was anything but normal!

Los Angeles airport during COVID
Los Angeles airport during COVID

Streets, freeways—dead. Life on the surface was trying to find the new normal, but there was an underlying current of fear. We stayed with some friends who were news junkies, and had to listen to COVID news the entire time. A week later we finally did get to Ohio, but instead of returning to Europe, which was not an option, we had to develop a new Plan B.

Kat had a good friend from Canada who was living part time in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, and she invited us down to visit with them while the world “returned to normal.” She shared pictures of the beautiful Caribbean waters and the small fishing village, and we decided that, “Hell, yea,” we would go down there until things blew over.

Our intended two week visit in Ohio got dashed just two DAYS after we arrived, as President Trump announced that the Mexico/ US border would be closed due to COVID. What the hell does that mean?? Can you still FLY into Mexico? Was it only driving traffic? No one knew, but every fiber inside of me said: “We need to get out of Ohio and into Mexico ASAP.”

Since we were staying in her son’s small apartment with three kids, two cats and a dog—and it was still winter—I knew we did NOT want to get stuck there, unable to get to Mexico and hide out. Even though our booked flight was two weeks later, I told Kat we needed to go-NOW– so I rescheduled our flight—something airlines were pretty good about at that time. She saw the logic in it, and we decided it was a prudent move.

 paradise in Thailand
Our last view of paradise in Thailand until we left on our stressful trip to the US in March 2020

The wedding was hurriedly done since we weren’t even supposed to collect in “public places,” and the day after the wedding we headed out for an oh dark thirty  flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Cancun, Mexico.

What happened next was the start of one of the most surreal and fascinating flight either of us had ever taken, and one I have written out several times in other travel sites.


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