Stuck in Shanghai, Stuck in Bangkok

The trials and obstacles of traveling are many, but there are two that will always test any nomad: the delay and the delayed layover. On a long enough timeline of traveling, it happens to everyone. You are sitting at the gate, watching the clock as it ticks closer to boarding time. The hands (or numbers in the digital age) pass the appointed time and you shift uneasily in your seat. You are looking around at everyone else and they are doing the same as you. The hands move closer to the departure time. Strangers begin whispering to each other, pointing at the clock, at the counter, or at the boarding gate. One brave warrior makes their way to the counter to ask the scrutinizing question: “Excuse me, what’s going on? Why aren’t we boarding yet?”

The reply (in broken English): “Delay. Three hours.”

“What?!?” the lady says as I eaves drop. Danielle sits next to me unaware and the man on my left has his earphones in. My heart falls a bit and I think, ‘Maybe he’s talking about the flight to Noyoga.’

“Are you kidding me?!?! Three hours? Why haven’t you told anyone yet?”

The man points to a sign written in Mandarin next to the counter. Underneath is translated-English:

<Flight FM853 to Bangkok is delayed until ______________.>

She storms away and I nudge Danielle, “Uhh, I think our flight is delayed for three hours.”

Her face wrinkles in consternation.

We camp out in the lounge room of a different gate, 213, since there is a TV and I try contacting our guesthouse in Bangkok to let them know there is a delay. The area is familiar. It is the same lounge area we sat in as we waited to board our flight to Cambodia last year.

One hour passes and we are watching the Youth Olympics on the big screen. This year it is being hosted in Nanjing so we get to watch it live on CCTV. I turn around to check the boarding gate screen. It finally changes from “Boarding” to “Delayed.” Wang Yue, a ten-year old looking girl, dominates the balance beam and wins a gold medal for China. She looks like she could have been one of my students…

Delayed passengers of FM853 begin to slowly disperse as they realize the flight will be delayed for an extended period of time. Others have joined us at the TV or are sleeping on the long benches. At the main gate, a group of Chinese men play cards while another woman entertains her son. An American looking man is checking out a Fail Blog on his computer. I walk back to the lounge and sit.

An Italian man turns around and asks, “You headed to Bangkok, too?”

“Well, I want to go to Bangkok,” I reply with a sarcastic smile. He chuckles, turns back around, and continues playing FIFA on his iPad.

Three hours have passed. I text my friend and former boss, JC, to see if her flight will be delayed as well–she is supposed to be departing for Manila at midnight. We trade messages for a moment and we decide to meet once she arrives at the airport. I finish communicating and head to the bathroom. As I enter the bathroom next to our gate, I notice a line of people at the counter of our boarding gate. I run into the bathroom quickly, take care of business, and run out toward the other lounge area. Danielle is still sitting and watching the TV.

“Hey, they are boarding right now. They didn’t even make an announcement.”

She shrugs and we both understand each other. We have lived in China long enough to know how the culture works. We’ve also lived in China long enough to be ready to leave it behind for a while. I drop a line to the Italian man, he packs up his stuff, and we all head to the gate.

Outside, the rain is still pouring down but we board the bus that will take us to the plane out on the tarmac. When we arrive, some of the Chinese families are refusing to get off the bus due to the rain. We shove around them, walk up the stairs, and enter the plane. Finally, at last, we made it.

Two and a half hours later, Danielle and I are still strapped into our seats as our plane sits on the tarmac, waiting for take-off. The Chinese man next to Danielle is sleeping soundly as Danielle and I read our Kindles. I take a moment away from The Count of Monte Cristo to check the time: 12:04.

“We would have been in our beds in Bangkok right now,” I tell Danielle with a grimace on my face.

“I know.”

She is a lot better at accepting the challenges of traveling than I am.

Moments after, the pilot announces that we will be taking off in fifteen minutes. My heart leaps but I have also resigned myself to the idea that China will never let go of us. In concert with this idea in my head, Danielle remarks, “Maybe China doesn’t want us to ever escape.”

Eventually, the plane takes off, everyone is happy, and we reach cruising altitude. The lights are finally turned off. Everyone goes to sleep except for a couple of young Chinese girls who are thumbing through a Thailand guidebook and myself. I’m tired, but I’m unable to stay asleep so I keep reading.

At some point, I finally convince myself to rest and drop into that weird state between consciousness and somnelence–that state where you are aware that your body needs rest but you aren’t able to go any deeper. I wait, and wait, and wait, but it never comes on. I keep shifting around in my seat, hoping that I will drift off…

I’m roused from my semi-conscious state. Dead-silence pervades the plane except for the hum of the engine and the wind as it shoots by just six or seven inches away from my head outside of the plane. I look around and no one is awake. I’m so tired at this point that my body and senses have moved beyond frustration into the realm of transcendence. My body is numb from exhaustion. I catch a glimpse of the world outside the window and I’m captivated.

Below the plane the world is clear and beautiful. City-scapes spread out below us like cracked snowflakes laid on their side and viewed with a magnifying glass. Lines of light snake out from dense clusters of buildings and fade into the distance. On the horizon that is parallel to my line of sight, lightning scatters through the clouds and I watch it travel through the sky for miles and miles. I spot two planes in the distance, their red beacons flashing, as they shoot across the sky. I’m deranged and mad. I’m experiencing the nirvana of the fatuous.

We land in Bangkok at four in the morning (five o’clock Beijing time which helps us gain an hour of sleep for the next day). After arriving at the Plai Garden Guesthouse, we settle into our rooms and finally get to sleep around five o’clock. In preparation for the next leg of our journey, we decide that we will both wake up at 7:30 so that we can get to the airport in time for our flight to Mandalay which departs at 12:00 the next day.

After finishing our morning ablutions, I check my messages. JC’s plane was delayed for seven hours–she had only left Shanghai an hour ago. I chuckle at the misfortune that both of us have been subject to for the last day and prepare for the rest of the coming one. We head to Bangkok airport and arrive with plenty of time to spare. It is 9:18 at this point. Since our suitcases are filled with rocks and bricks, Danielle grabs a trolley so that we don’t have to work so hard lugging our luggage around the airport (<–See what I did there?). We head to the check-in counter for Bangkok Airways.

I walk up to the counter and the man asks me in a Thai accent, “What’s your destination?”

“Mandalay,” I respond. He gives me an incredulous look after thumbing through our passports.

“You don’t have any visas for Myanmar,” he says hesitatingly.

“I know, we are getting them on arrival.” He breathes a sigh of relief.

“Tourist or business?”


“Okay, do you have the documents?” I give him everything we have which includes our flight itinerary, invitation letters, and return flight from Mandalay.

He looks through them for a moment, then looks at me, and stumbles for the correct word to use, “Do you have, uh, the uh…..hold on one moment.” He grabs the attention of one of the other check-in attendants and speaks something in Thai to her. She looks at me and asks, “Do you have the incorporation letter?”

I sigh. “No,” I reply. “Our business associate in Mandalay said we wouldn’t need it.”

“Uhh…,” she responds. I know it’s coming, like standing in the tracks of a high-speed train. “We can’t let you check in unless you have the incorporation letter of the business in Myanmar.”

My mouth half opens and I turn to look at Danielle. She begins the process of negotiation with them, but we both have already resigned ourselves to the conclusion. We know, they know, time to give up the game.

Thus, we spent the rest of the morning in the Bangkok airport trying to contact our employer in Mandalay. After failing to get the incorporation letter in time and missing our flight, we headed back to the guesthouse to finally relax and rest for the first time since the beginning of our debacle which had started 24 hours ago. Our flight is re-booked and we think we have all the proper documents. Let us see where fate takes us in the future.

If you ever have to make an overnight layover in Bangkok, I suggest staying at Plai Garden Guesthouse. The rooms there are inexpensive ($18-$28) and the service is basic, but it is only a eight minute drive from the airport and the staff is very accommodating. They also offer free shuttle service to and from the airport.

Ever experienced a nightmare layover, delay, or other airport adventure? Share below since misery always loves company…


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