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A Helluva Long Way to Do Nothing

A Thai Trip Journal, 1989
Part I: Get Your Wings

I grew up traveling... traveling in the "National Lampoon's Family Vacation" sense. Every summer my parents would pack me and my two sisters into the family sedan, and off we'd go: California. Maine. Texas. Louisiana. By the time I was 18, I'd been in most of the continental states. But we never flew anywhere. For that reason, airports instilled in me a sense of wonder and amazement.

I had been up in a plane: one of my father's friends had taken me up for a brief ride in a tiny Cessna. But a real jetliner? Never.

Fast-forward to 1989. At the time, I was volunteering as a tutor for the Cambodian Association of Illinois. I had become interested in Cambodia, and in the plight of the refugees - hundreds of thousands of them - stranded on the Thai border. The Thais were never terribly enthusiastic about allowing people into the camps, but a friend knew a man working for the Thai government along the Thai-Cambodian border, and she felt confident that he would be able to help me if I wanted to visit the camps.

Never one to think things through, I decided that going to Thailand would be just the thing to do.

"You better hope you fly well," said my friend Jeff, in significant understatement. "That's a long, long time on a plane."

I saved as much money as I could, then scheduled a trip in the middle of August. Why August? Looking back, I have no idea. I didn't really plan anything. I didn't prepare anything. I didn't set an agenda. I left with nothing more than a vague assurance that once I got to Bangkok, some guy that I had never met before might be able to offer me some slight assistance. (Somewhere in there is a metaphor for my whole life.)

I did only three things that could be remotely considered groundwork. First, I borrowed my friend's copy of the venerable Lonely Planet guide, "Southeast Asia on a Shoestring." Second, I went to a doctor to get any necessary innoculations and medicines. Third, a week before I was to leave, I took the train to the airport as a practice run.

The airport: Chicago O'Hare, one of the busiest airports in the world. I got off the train, rode the escalator up to the terminal, and then stood there in bewilderment. OK, what do you do when you arrive at an airport? Where do you go? How do you find your plane? I wandered around for an hour or so, soaking up the atmosphere, the romance of busy people going to faraway places. Eventually, I cleverly observed that people walked in and took their luggage to a mysterious place called "Check-In," (and that you had to go to the check-in for the airline you were flying on, not just ANY check-in) and that you gave the wonderful all-knowing Check-In people your tickets, and then they told you what to do next.

OK, I can handle that. I'm ready to go to Thailand.


This article contains eight parts:
Part One: Get Your Wings
Part Two: Orient Orientation
Part Three: The Colonials
Part Four: The Singapore Guys
Part Five: The Least-Laid Plans
Part Six: Doing Nothing at the Border
Part Seven: Back to Bangkok
Part Eight: Ayutthaya, Bang Pa-in, and Home