Sunday, November 18, 2018

Traveling in Thailand, Day 1: Flying to Thailand

Today was a long day, but weeks of preparation definitely paid off.

I headed to the airport at 10:30am (thanks Maia!) and was feeling nervous on the way.

Did I forget something?
Will the car get a flat tire? Will I miss my flight?
What if I get confused or lost in the Beijing airport? What about in Bangkok?

Regardless of my slight anxieties, I got to the SEATAC airport in Seattle without issue and embarked on the longest day of travel I've ever had. About 10.5 hours to Beijing, 3.5 hours layover, then 6.5 hours to Bangkok.

Beijing was surprisingly smooth and easy to navigate. When I got off the plane, I just followed signs (that included English) for international transfers. They did a quick security check, which included the most thorough pat-down of my life (like, awkward-to-make-eye-contact-after level thoroughness), and I was on my way to the next gate. Luggage was transferred automatically, so I didn't have to pick up my checked bag, though I'm not sure that applies to all cases.

There isn't really much to do in the area of the airport where my flight to Bangkok was, so I just sat and waited. Since I use Google Fi, I was able to use my phone automatically - no local SIM card necessary. So, I checked in with friends and family.

After landing in Bangkok (BKK), I headed directly to immigration, per recommendations I'd read online. Contrary to what I'd read, there was virtually no line, but that might be because I arrived a bit after midnight. Without a single word exchanged, the immigration officer took my passport and papers, gave me my visa stamp, and I was on my way in about 3 minutes.

The luggage pick-up area is right behind immigration, Because I'd gotten through immigration so quickly, I had to wait a bit for my bag. More nervousness, of course, about whether it successfully made the plane transfer. But, it had.

Customs was a breeze because I brought so little with me and had nothing to declare.

I'd read a decent amount in advance about currency exchange. Here's what I found in-person. There're a ton of currency exchange kiosks in the baggage claim area, including teller desks and ATMs. There're also a ton outside and they're all the same company, so it doesn't really matter where you exchange money. My ATM card happens to reimburse any ATM fees, so I went ahead and used the ATM to get cash so I'd get a better exchange rate. I'd read recommendations to make sure to have smaller bills for taxis, so I tried to request an odd withdrawal amount (4900 THB instead of 5000), but it didn't go through. After switching to just requesting 5000 THB, it worked fine. For the smaller bills, I just asked asked at the exchange desk, and they were happy to change a larger bill for smaller ones.

After customs and exchanging currency, I headed down one floor and outside to the taxi area (there're plenty of signs, again all with English). There, I learned that you have to go to a line in front of taxi kiosks. You push a button on the machine and get a ticket that tells you which taxi stall to go to.

Now, taking taxis is something I'm really glad I read up on before arriving. My taxi driver tried every trick I'd read about.

Before getting in the car, I asked if the meter works. He confirmed this was the case. He turned it on when I got in the care, but seconds later, I noticed he'd turned it off. I asked about that immediately and he said he'd do a fixed price of 500 THB to my destination in the city. Although a flat price sounded appealing, I declined, feeling that the meter would be more fair, even if I had to pay more. So, he turned the meter back on at that point.

He indicated in a mix a Thai and a few words in English (I don't speak Thai, aside from a few words picked up from studying in the last couple weeks) he wasn't certain how to get to the destination. I don't think this was a deliberate effort to charge more (e.g. by taking a longer route), but I went ahead and pulled up a map on Google maps to provide a route. This might have made things easier for both of us.

At toll booths along the way, which passengers pay, he wanted me to use my smaller bills. I was reluctant as I was sure he'd later say he doesn't have change, so I said I prefer to use the larger ones. This gave me additional change for paying a more exact price.

Once we got to my Airbnb, the total came to 265 THB, a far cry from the original 500 THB he wanted to charge. As a courtesy, I rounded up to 300 THB, which seemed more than typical as I'd read in numerous places it's common practice to round up to the nearest 10. At that point, he said there's a 50 THB service charge for using the meter. I didn't buy that, but I went ahead with it and added 20 THB (which I had from the change given at the toll booths).

So, I arrived at the Airbnb, checked in, and.. time for some sleep! I don't sleep well on planes, so I was pretty exhausted.

I hope this helps anyone else feeling anxious about getting to Thailand! It's kind of what I would have liked to have read prior to my trip, but obviously things worked out well for me.

Good luck in your travels!