Feb 232019

We have become deeply attached to our villa overlooking the infinity pool overlooking the sea. We do not want to leave, but our time in Phuket is up and we must move on. Most of our group will stay overnight in Bangkok, providing additional time to relax or to shop. Geneva and I fly out tonight and will have a thirteen hour layover to explore Seoul. Let’s do this.

Friday, February 22, 2019

I was nearly packed up by the time we gathered around the dining room table for breakfast. Suddenly, Fred, who coordinates the Airbnb listing for the owners, came through the front door and introduced himself. We told him how much we loved the place and his wonderful staff, and briefly inquired about the bronze elephant doorknobs, before he dashed off again. Soon we had eaten our fill of breakfast, and taken our last wistful looks. Our van had a fairly easy drive to the airport, and check-in was much easier in Phuket than it had been in Bangkok.

Only after passing through security did we learn that the Bangkok Airways lounge was outside of security. Not wanting to go back through again, we wandered the shops to check out their wares. Shelf-stable goat curry packets anyone? Fire and Fury at 60% off? Once the amusement wore off, I joined the group near a powerful air conditioner until it was time to board. Our flight was smooth and we soon were headed to the exit at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport, looking for our ride.

The coordinator for Thai Happy Taxi had my name on a sign, but there was a long wait for the van to arrive at the curb. Our driver, perhaps frustrated by Bangkok traffic, did not brake gently, making it the worst of our shuttle rides. Nevertheless, we eventually reached the Royal Orchid Sheraton without losing our lunches. This time, our friends staying in Bangkok had spectacular suites at the top of the hotel that seemed to be almost over the river. Geneva and I borrowed floor space to repack our various bags for our flight while everyone else headed to the Sheraton Club Lounge, where happy hour was just beginning at 4:30. By the time we joined them, the party was well under way. At 5:30 a buffet opened featuring small savory and sweet bites from a wide range of cuisines. We sampled meatballs, dim sum, cheesecake, and Thai jellies with our various wines and cocktails. No need to book a reservation or catch a boat, we were in full leisure mode now, and we certainly wouldn’t want to waste this great view. Another margarita? Sure!

The buffet finally closed at 7:30, and we had plenty of help lugging our baggage to the lobby where we said our goodbyes. One last Grab taxi met us just before 8:00. We filled his trunk and front passenger seat with our luggage, and headed to the airport. Before checking in, I had my elephant bag shrink-wrapped to make it more durable. I took advantage of my business class privileges, which included a shorter line through immigration and access to the EVA Lounge. The lounge didn’t have a lot to eat, but then, I wasn’t especially hungry yet. I used the wi-fi to catch up on a few things and lost track of time. Suddenly noticing the clock, I clicked send on an email to a client at 11:18 and ran to the gate.

Fortunately, my plane was still open, and after a flight attendant helped me clear bin space by relocating some small bags I was able to park my roll-aboard and settle in. As we were flying a Korean airline to Seoul, I chose Asiana’s bibimbap for dinner. The beef was nothing special, and the shredded dried fish and sour kim chi might have been a little too authentic. The best bite was a daechucho, described on the menu as a preserved date. It was stuffed with nut meat and candied in a spiced sugar syrup. Still, the main attraction of business class, what you’re really paying for, is the real estate. The lie-flat seat on the Boeing 777-200 allowed me to get some sleep en route to what promised to be a long, busy day.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

When we landed in Seoul it was below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the jetway was chilly. As we headed into the airport, and approached the quarantine station, I remarked to Geneva that I didn’t see anyone working there. Suddenly, a woman popped up and asked me to come over to the desk.

She took a measurement in my left ear and then my right ear. She seemed concerned that I had a “high temperature,” measured at 38.2. (That is just over 100 Fahrenheit.) She asked whether we planned to stay in Korea. No, we explained, we were flying out that evening. Okay, no problem. But we would like visit Seoul. Then there was paperwork. Was I allowed to go to Seoul? Oh yes, but please take this information sheet, with a phone number in case you feel ill. Was she offering me access to Korean health care services? I couldn’t help thinking that our Customs & Border Protection might not offer the same hospitality.

Before heading to immigration, we went to the Asiana Lounge for a bite of breakfast. They had dumplings, stir-fry, and instant noodles; possibly there were eggs as well. And tea, lots of hot tea. I reflected on having had chills during the flight; what was wrong with me? But I wasn’t going to let Geneva roam Seoul alone, so I used a packet of Emergen-C my friends had slipped into my pack, and some ibuprofen. We took advantage of the luggage lockers in the lounge and followed their instructions on how to get to immigration. When we reached that area, it seemed backwards. We had to ask one of the agents, who recorded our names in a book and then escorted us through security, out the “in” door, to immigration. Once we filled out our paperwork, it was only a matter of minutes before a small piece of paper was slipped into our passports and we could enter Korea.

We started by changing a small amount of money, and then heading downstairs toward the train station. We found a travel desk to help explain the train lines, but it was not at all clear. At least we had a map. When we reached the platform, a friendly bystander advised on which line would work best. This would happen at a lot of stations; I think our faces had that “Help me, I’m lost” look for most of the day.

Our first destination was the flagship store of Sulwhasoo, a top Korean cosmetics company whose products are sold at Nordstrom and Neiman-Marcus. Geneva had signed us up for their 30 minute architecture tour that started at 11am, but pretty soon we knew we would be late. Unfortunately, I could not get data on my phone, so my usually helpful Maps app was impotent to help us navigate the streets. Geneva had an offline map app, but it wasn’t so good at planning routes. We finally stumbled into the store’s lobby after 11:30. They puzzled over their list for a few moments before informing us that we had missed our tour not by half an hour, but by nearly 25 hours. It was yesterday. So they kindly walked us around, explaining that Ginseng is the not-so-secret ingredient and showing off the very unusual design of the building. There then followed a long sales session in which I pretended to be interested while Geneva had various lotions applied to her face and hands. Apparently my skin needed some help, too. When we eventually protested that we needed to leave, we were invited to sit for a minute and have some tea. Wonderful hospitality, but not so good for squeezing as much as possible into one day.

Upon leaving, we had a much better idea of the route to the train station. We were on our way to a Palace designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for the English-language tour at 1:30. Unfortunately, we went through the turnstyle to the wrong platform at the train station. Seeing our distress, a family came over and tried to help us figure out how to get to the other platform. The secret was to wait for people with a keycard to open the gates; they seemed to come through every couple of minutes. Pretty soon, we were on the other side, but we knew we weren’t going to make our tour, so Geneva asked the family to help us get to the National Museum of Korea instead. Much debate ensued; eventually I ended up with a photo of someone’s phone showing our new route. We need this app!

When we reached that station, it was clear we were in the right place. There were exhibits along the walls advertising the museum, an underground walkway, and innumerable children. We found the guide for the 2:00 English tour, and we were the only takers. It was incredibly convenient and efficient to have someone take you from prehistory through the centuries, hitting only the high points, in about an hour. She was able to answer nearly all of our questions, and left us with a great impression of the museum. By this time, though, we were getting hungry. We tried some Korean soups at the museum’s Pagoda restaurant. Nothing special, but they would get us through the afternoon.

Geneva was certain we could squeeze in the palace, although her sinuses were not cooperating and we were low on Kleenex. I insisted we had to get to the airport before sundown. After considering transit time, we headed for the subway. The sun was getting low in the sky when our train emerged from underground to cross a bridge, about two hours before boarding time. We made our way through immigration and security and returned to the Lounge for a bite. I also took a long overdue shower, although that might not be the best thing to do when you have a fever. Before leaving the lounge, I gave Geneva a packet of Mucinex drink someone had donated to my backpack; maybe it would help. And then we made our way to the gate.

Our flight departed on time around 8:40pm, on an Airbus A350-900. The business class cabin only has four seats across, with solo window seats for maximum privacy — and minimum guilt about getting a seatmate sick. For dinner, I chose the Korean selection, a Ssambap featuring garlicky bulgogi beef, steamed rice, and spicy bean paste with some lettuce wraps. And after the first round of dessert, they found me an extra daechucho. Then began the long fitful night, when I would wake up with chills, take ibuprofen and put on more layers, wake up sweaty and remove layers, and then the cycle would repeat. After eight hours, it was time to have some breakfast and get ready for arrival.

I had kept a rough inventory of my purchases for the customs form and was ready to go when I suddenly remembered, since I don’t have any special status, that I needed to reinstall Mobile Passport, the Customs & Border Protection app for expediting your return. I paused in the long hallway to take pictures of my passport and of myself to set up my re-entry form. It was totally worth it. When I reached the Mobile Passport line, I was number two, and within moments, I was in the baggage claim area. Business class bags were out first, there was no agricultural inspection, and I was free to return home. I called a Lyft and he beat me to the curb. Saturday traffic also wasn’t too intense. After some light chit-chat, I listened in on my driver’s audio course preparing him to take a truck driving exam. Hmm, it seemed like common sense for the most part. When we arrived, I wished him luck on the exam, dropped my bags, and proceeded to sleep for the rest of the weekend.

After each trip I wonder whether I will be heading back to Thailand again next year, or the year after. Maybe both?

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