Friday, April 20, 2012

Survivor: Chiang Mai Airport Edition

I had every intention of spending last night reading and snoozing my way through a 12-hour train ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.

Instead, I found myself in the Chiang Mai Airport at midnight… alone… and in the dark.

Let's not talk about the creepy pair of eyes to the right.

Long story long, here’s how.


I hopped into a tuk-tuk bound toward the Chiang Mai Railway Station at 8 p.m. and watched the streets of the Old City fade away behind me. I had plenty of time to catch my 9:00 train, so I just enjoyed the warm air whipping around me as I silently bid farewell to the city in which I’d just spent a week.

Following the madness of Songkran — the massive, three-day water fight that celebrates the Thai New Year — Chiang Mai felt wonderfully lazy and peaceful. The atmosphere helped me slow down, catch up on blogging and make many sand-and-sun-soaked plans for the rest of my time in Thailand.

First up? That train ride to Bangkok, followed a leisurely five hours later by a flight from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Phuket. I was excited to be heading down toward Thailand’s beautiful islands and looking forward to relaxing on the train.

I arrived at the railway station at 8:11 and grabbed a seat in the waiting area. I was checking my ticket just to make sure I was in the right place at the right time when a British woman asked, “Are you on the train to Bangkok?”

“Yup,” I replied.

“Not anymore,” she informed me. “It’s been canceled. You need to go get a refund, and then buy a bus ticket.”


The woman assured me that the bus only took 10 hours and would arrive in Bangkok even earlier than the train, so I knew I’d still be able to catch my flight. Whew — close one!

I headed over to the ticket office to get my refund and chose the shorter of two queues. Looking back, I should have chosen the longer queue simply because it consisted of Thai people, whereas the queue I chose contained just one farang couple. The Thai line went quickly, while the European backpackers took their time going over allllll of the other options for getting to Bangkok over the next few days. Tick-tock, tick-tock.

By the time I got my refund and crossed the room to purchase my bus ticket, a bus had already shown up and passengers were piling on. Was that the bus already??

Meanwhile, the bus-ticket counter was unmanned. Fantastic.

I circled the area, looking for someone who could sell me a bus ticket, and asked a Thai man if I was perhaps in the wrong place. He told me to go back to the train-ticket counter and ask. As I tried to explain that the train-ticket man had already told me to come here, I noticed that a woman had arrived at the bus-ticket counter and was being swarmed by fervent, would-be passengers.

And, wouldn’t you know, by the time I beseeched the Almighty Seller of Bus Tickets, she had just given away the last two seats. Finished. No more buses to Bangkok tonight.


As one man desperately tried to explain to this woman that he needed to get to Bangkok in order to make his flight to Kuala Lumpur and avoid overstaying his visa — wildly gesticulating with his passport all the while — I knew it was a lost cause and just asked where I might find another bus to Bangkok. She pointed to the Arcade Bus Station on a map, and off I went.

One overpriced tuk-tuk ride later, I arrived at the bus station along with a shit-ton of other train-and-bus rejects trying to do the exact same thing. I walked from counter to counter, asking each bus company about a coach to Bangkok, and was met with the same answer every time: “No bus. All full.”

No trains. No buses. One not-cheap flight out of Bangkok that I really wanted to catch, and seemingly no way to get there in time.

And right about now was when I wanted to cry.

But first, I needed to make sure I had exhausted every possibility, and to do that I needed the Internet.

The bus station had free Wi-Fi, but neither my laptop nor my phone could pick up the weak signal. My Kindle wouldn’t connect to the 3G network. I hadn’t yet put a SIM card in my phone, so I couldn’t use data to hop online. And the bus station’s bulky, old-school, paid Internet kiosks were either being used or frozen, and all the instructions were in Thai anyway.

Fuck it, I thought. I’ll just go to the airport!

Why yes, Chiang Mai has an airport, and surely I could either catch a flight to Bangkok or just go somewhere else entirely. At that point, I truly did not care. I even thought about going to Bali! I just wanted to get the hell out of Chiang Mai.

The first ride I found was not a tuk-tuk, but a shared taxi that is more like a truck with room for about 10 people.  I was the second person to get in, followed by eight more people… and I was the very last to get off.

I got a really great, scenic, hour-long tour of Chiang Mai for 60 baht as I stewed about what fate might await me at the airport. I’m only being a little sarcastic — I wasn’t in any rush at that point anyway. Whatever happened would happen!

Of course, once I reached the airport at 10:30, all of the airline check-in and sales counters were closed — the last domestic flight of the day was about to leave at 10:45. A man behind the AirAsia sales counter was counting his till, and he kindly informed me that the counter would open again at 6 a.m., which I thought would be cutting things really close. Based on the flight schedule posted at the counter, I figured I could hop on the airport Wi-Fi and lock down a seat on the 8:25 a.m. flight if it wasn’t already full.

Oh, but what airport Wi-Fi? My laptop found nothing but a string of password-protected wireless networks. Can’t we all just get along and share Wi-Fi, Chiang Mai?

My last hope was that one of the coffee shops or restaurants that had a wireless network would still be open. I hightailed it upstairs to the departures lounge and Burger King was right there… with the lights off and the gate halfway closed.

I stuck my head right under that gate and begged an employee in my most desperate, pitiful, backpacker/hobo voice, “Hello, I’m stuck here for the night and I need to book a flight and can I please, please, please have your wireless password?”

And this outstanding representative of the Land of a Thousand Smiles flashed her pearly whites at me as she uttered these precious words:

“Whopper Jr.”

Boom. Saved by the King.

After a few maddening rounds with “Error 500” on the AirAsia Web site, I finally booked a seat on the 8:25 flight to Bangkok. Sighhh of relief.

It was 11:30 by this point, and I figured it just wasn't worth the time and money to try to find a hotel room. Now all I had to do was settle in for the night. At least I had Wi-Fi to entertain me!

As airport employees filtered slowly out the door, I became very aware of how alone I was in the departures lounge. The night custodians cleaned the bathrooms, then disappeared. Every single store and restaurant was closed. I could hear only the hum of the air conditioner and a TV playing off in the distance.

And then, at midnight, the TV — and the lights — turned off.

I could not stop laughing, and the echo of my tired, stressed, loopy giggles throughout the empty airport was just about the creepiest thing ever. So I did what anyone would do — I put on my headlamp and went exploring.

First, I went to the bathroom, just because I had to go. I quickly discovered that the automatic sinks had also shut off, and I had to rinse the soap off of my hands with a bit of my one-third-full bottle of drinking water. I would have to ration that until 6 a.m.

I then wandered around just to make sure everything was closed — I really could have gone for some food — and stopped short when my headlamp illuminated a display of mannequins just outside of a clothing store. There is nothing creepier than mannequins in a dark, empty airport. That pretty much ended my exploring.

I settled in to sleep on a fairly comfortable row of armless seats, using a pullover sweater as a pillow. Looking on the bright side, I realized that the airport at least had A/C and didn't have mosquitoes, making it wayyy more pleasant than the guesthouses I stayed at in Chiang Mai.

It turned out that I was only right about the A/C.

What kept me awake throughout the night was not the discomfort of the seats, nor the mysterious noises I'd occasionally hear from afar, but the incessant buzzing of tiny insects in my ears. I was constantly waving them away, shaking them off and even smacking them against my body just to try to get some peace. I thought it was just a stray mosquito or two that had snuck in through the automatic doors downstairs.

I wound up applying bug spray at about 2 a.m. to the exposed areas of my skin: arms, shoulders, neck, face, feet. I was wearing stretchy yoga pants, since the A/C was quite cool, so I didn't worry about my legs. Ha, I thought, That'll teach those mosquitoes.


I woke up around 4:30 to the sounds of the day's first passengers checking in downstairs, and went to the restroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. All things considered, I had a pretty good night! I had breakfast at Burger King (as a thank-you, and because it sounded delicious at the time), flew to Bangkok and then caught my flight to Phuket with ease.

Throughout the day, I remembered more and more about those annoying mosquitoes I'd battled in the night. First, my feet began to itch as my flip-flops rubbed against a few bites. Then I noticed a bite on my forehead, plus one under each eyebrow. Raised bumps made themselves known on my shoulders, upper back and all down my arms.

But the kicker? The really unforgivable, awful souvenir of that night? A horror-show-worthy display of 27 big red bumps directly on my bum.

Apparently, stretchy yoga pants aren't worth shit in fending off mosquitoes.

In total, I currently have EIGHTY-NINE BITES all over my body. It is by far the worst mosquito attack I've ever suffered, and it all went down during my hazy, zombie-like bout of sleep at the airport.

Was it because I was the only warm body in the whole building and they had to bite someone? Was it because they thought I'd be lonely there all by myself?

I'm struggling not to scratch the bites, of course, since that's the worst thing one can possibly do. It doesn't help that everyday tasks — such as walking, sitting and existing — make them itch like crazy.

But I can't help but laugh my creepy, exhausted, loopy laugh, because what else can you do?

Other than remember for next time that choosing to sleep in the airport can come back, quite literally, to bite you in the ass.


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  1. I almost feel bad for you...but I'm too busy laughing thinking about you exploring an airport with a headlamp on.

    Great article Devon...don't scratch.


    1. Thanks, Steve! Yes, it was a sad situation... but hilarious.

  2. Sorry...I had to laugh also. But what a great story. I think if I was in an empty airport and the lights went off I would literally freak out...

    1. It was a bit scary, and I definitely wouldn't do it AGAIN, but not too bad for one night : )

  3. Omigod, Devon! I couldn't help for laugh a little also until I read the last part - that's a lot of bites. How are you now? I think I'd go in a state of panic. My body doesn't react well to bites. :( Hope you feel better soon. Maybe get a place with A/C at first so you can feel better. ;)

    1. I'm OK now! The bites look a lot better today and are less itchy, but I'm also staying inside my A/C room and catching up on rest. Heal, bites, heal! : )

  4. EIGHTY-NINE??!?!?! That is just madness, but I won't lie - I laughed several times while reading this. I hope you're all healed up and back on the move soon! :)

    1. Things are looking better! : ) I will douse myself in DEET if I ever find myself in that situation again, though. : )

  5. That's EXACTLY how I would describe! "Fun, until..."

  6. Duly noted....Don't spend the night in the Chiang Mai airport....for some reason my girlfriend is completely impervious to mosquitos which makes them love me even more. We'll be in Thailand next April! Was songkran a fun experience?

    1. Songkran was SO fun! Chiang Mai was definitely the place to be, although you have to accept that you'll get completely soaked for four days straight. Seriously — you can't go ANYWHERE without getting wet!

      And I'll never be overnighting CM again, but I do plan to spend a night at Suvarnabhumi as I fly back to the States. I hope it treats me a bit better!

  7. Great post. Unfortunately, my girlfriend is impervious to mosquitos which means that they love me even more...I'm scared about what that's going to mean once we make it to South East Asia on our RTW trip!

  8. You're so much braver than me! I would have hightailed it to a hotel! I cannot stand getting bit by bugs, especially in what is suppose to be a closed airport! YIKES!!

    I'm sooo not an outdoorsy person, definitely NOT a camper! haha

    SO glad you're ok!!


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