Sat. Jan 17th


Awake, awake, awake.  Fiddling on my phone keeps me in bed an extra 10 minutes. I should consider teaching in a rural island community–the break from technology and the Internet would do me good. As much as it can be a blessing, I feel it sometimes stops me from seeing what’s right in front of me. But for now, it’s a useful tool for a last-minute checklist. 
Always running late. The trash didn’t get taken out, but the apartment is clean and I seem to have everything I need for my trip. In the end I opted to bring my computer, which hopefully will be worth the weight and worry if I can keep busy and edit photos and videos.  I meant to leave 10 minutes ago, and while the bus station is close by car, I don’t need a stressful repeat of my journey to Seoul two weeks ago. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in traveling, it’s that one mistake in connecting transportation is like a butterfly flapping its wings: you never know what disastrous repercussions can come from something so seemingly small. 

Boseong may be a small town, but there are always people bustling about.  The 직통 (direct bus) to Gwangju is filled with students, farmers, and a few of my fellow foreign teachers. Seats aren’t assigned, and I’m lucky I managed to get one–several people end up standing in the aisle. I doze a bit, but am awoken by a very pungent, very Korean smell… Someone’s decided kimchi is an appropriate breakfast food…

Gwangju’s U-Square Terminal is buzzing with traffic. People either seem to be hurrying off to catch the next bus out, or pacing impatiently with time to kill.  I sit in a coffee shop and watch giddy groups of high school girls, lone soldiers in their early 20s, and multi-generational families weave around one another.

All of Korea has turned gold as winter settles in. It’s warm enough that snow is only found dappling the highest mountain caps.  We pass by small traditional villages nestled in valleys, and the occasional cluster of high rise apartments.  Coffee prevents me from sleeping, but Korea keeps my eyes busy and encourages my mind to wander.  We make a brief pause at a rest stop, where I’m the only foreigner in sight. Even without a map, I can ways tell how far I am from a major city by how shocked people look to see me.  The closer to Seoul, the less startled children and the elderly are when I come around corners.

Incheon airport is quieter than expected. People’s faces seem calmer, and the crowd appears less foreign.  I am able to find a charging station, where I power up my various electronics–much to the annoyance of my Korean neighbors, who were expecting me to use an American socket. Sorry!  Soon check-in opens, and I present my passport and itinerary. It’s a smooth process: no one questions my backpacking backpack as a carry on, and I find the security line around the corner is short.  The bulky and unnecessary body scanners so popular in the USA are nowhere to be found, and people are efficiently passed through. The man checking itineraries doesn’t even make me bother showing my Alien Resident Card. No one is harassed unnecessarily, or made an ‘example’ of…very different from what I’m used to seeing back home.

Except this man.  This man is being man an example of–by me.  Don’t be this guy.


I am one of the first people to arrive at my gate. Even after returning with a green tea latte, I find nearly all of the charging stations are still available, and I won’t be annoying anyone by taking one.  All of my electronics interconnected, I am able to genuinely relax as I watch the sun set through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Planes slowly taxi in and out of various gates, carrying people to and from every corner of the world.  Time seems to fly by, and before I know it, they’re calling us to board. Again, Incheon surprises me with its effeciency. Within 15 minutes, every passenger has boarded the plane and people don’t seem to have any difficulty finding their seats. Korea, I’m impressed. 

Korea sinks away beneath us, and a vast network pans into view below. Seoul glitters in golds, oranges, and olive greens, its fingers reaching out from the city blurring its borders with neighboring towns.   Even the small coastal islands (normally missed in daylight) are easily spotted, twinkling brightly in the dark.  If you look closely, you can see the slow, rolling shimmer that is indicative of the 50 million lives thrumming away below.  We can see all the way to what I think is Suwon (Daejeon would be too ambitious) before we turn into the Eastern Sea and head to China.

Secret iPhone photos.

8:00pm (9:00pm KST)
Our descent into China is black. My eyes are searching for something to lock onto outside the plane. I can sense our movement as the plane begins to descend, but I can only see the reflection of the cabin in the black window. The wing and turbine behind me are blurred–a brown, smoggy haze seems to have settled over them. I initially hope that it’s only clouds, but bright flashes whipping past as we descend tell me otherwise. The smog of Shanghai is definitely real.
Suddenly, a ribbon of light descends from the clouds next to us. A lone lit highway can be seen winding its way across the eastern shore, eventually guiding us to the city. Our landing is smooth, though our plane taxis around the tarmac for several minutes before finally stopping, far away from any terminals. In one movement the entire plane stands, everyone pretending to calmly gather their things all while eyeing the exit door, seeing who will make the first move and who can get off the plane the quickest. 
As the aisles fill, there is an announcement in Chinese from one of the flight attendants. I see other Chinese passengers looking confused, and slowly retaking their seats. There is no translation into English or Korean–this is outside of the flight attendant’s normal recitation, and, possibly, her vocabulary.  One by one, passengers are once again seated, bags in hand. A low, confused murmur ripples throughout the plane, but is quickly silenced by the presence of the police officer that has boarded. The eyes of every passenger are trained on him as he and his associate slowly walk the aisle, checking seat numbers against their list. They stop at a passenger near the exit row, just a few rows back from where I am seated. A hushed conversation is held as 150 pairs of eyes look on in apprehension. A small, 60-some-year-old Asian man with a Korean passport is asked to stand. He gathers his items on command from the officer, and amid hushed silence the three of them exit the plane.  An awkward pause, followed by the flight attendant making her practiced announcement for disembarking.  Most of the confusion is expressed via questioning eye contact as passengers gather their belongs and we are finally allowed to leave. 

We step off the plane and are ushered onto a bus, which (after a solid five minute drive to the nearest building) abandoned us outside an entrance to the basement of the terminal.  Wandering through cold, fluorescent-lit hallways, we find ourselves in an awkwardly empty transit room. Transfers were  herded through ropes and told to find their own way down a vaguely marked hallway, while arrivals were divided and sent elsewhere. Walking with an equally (if not more) confused Thai family, I found my way to a stand-alone security check point. Our bags scanned and wands waved over our bodies, we were then free to go. I took the lead as the family struggled with their children and belongings.  A few more dark, empty halls finally led to an escalator, which brought me to the main terminal. Unfortunately, my gate was back down two sets of stairs, again in the basement. Florescent lighting made everyone appear unfriendly, despite the comfortable conversations I could head floating between all the international travelers. The walls and floor were cement, and the room was cold with a heavy scent of old smoke.  I found an unbroken charging station and managed to grasp a few moments of contact with the outside world. Applications like Facebook and Snapchat are blocked in China, yet I still received delayed real-time notifications from a Facebook group chat on my phone. An attempt to respond left my messages “undeliverable”.  It feels creepy to watch the conversations between my friends carry on without me as I am stuck sitting in silence in Shanghai.

We are finally leaving. The Chinese are not fond of queuing. People stood in an anxious mass at the gate. People shoved themselves onto the bus, which took fifteen minutes to get to the plane.  We were held up at a stoplight, waiting for passing traffic that never came. People actively shouldered one another on the tarmac to be next to board the plane. Once on board, we wait uncomfortably in our seats for take off.–we’re delayed by another ten minutes for aircraft to clear. The pilot begins to move the plane forward, only to stop and wait for another ten. Slowly, eventually, we make our way to the runway and are able to take off, leaving China behind.
The city below differs considerably from Seoul. There are fewer lights, and they are laid out in a more ridged grid. The few lights that do twinkle resemble slow, tired Christmas lights more than a vibrant living city. As we rise into the night sky, the haze slowly returns, first wrapping itself around the wings and eventually enveloping Shanghai below. Blooms of silvery light glow up though the hazy clouds, inverted shadows of the cities hidden beneath. We ascend further until the clouds have be come too thick, and the cities dim to black beneath us. 

2:00am (4:00am KST)
We finally begin our descent into Thailand. The country glows a soft blue around the coast, not unlike the waves of a beach lit by bio-luminescent plankton. The lights of the cities seem to inhale and exhale deep, slow, sleepy breaths. I’ve made friends with the girl next to me–coincidentally, she also teaches in Korea, and is originally from a small town in Ireland that is next to Dingle, where my friend set up a new B&B this past year.  She also has plans to visit Koh Tao, but we may or may not connect there.  When traveling abroad, the only predictable element is unpredictability, as even the most meticulously crafted schedules can change.  Exhausted, we meander through immigration, baggage claim, and customs together before parting ways in search of our respective friends.

3:00AM (5:00AM KST)
Just like my arrival in Korea, I find myself having my first taste of Thailand on the street in the middle of the night. Tang and her friends manage to find us a small table beneath the overpass. The area is bubbling with excitement as people flushed from dancing all night eagerly search for food and friends.  We push our way through the hot sweaty masses and manage to find a table, where we order an amazing spicy noodle and chicken soup. Tang shows me the rack of unlabeled Thai spices present at every table, explaining the flavors each one will add to my soup. Chili powder, sugar, ground peanuts, and fish sauce are a staple at nearly every food establishment, even on the streets. My noodles achieve the perfect level of classic Thai spiciness, and taste amazing after such a long day (and night) of travel. Welcome to Bangkok.