Up to this point in my trip, everything had gone fully to plan. I hadn’t yet had any reason to stress out. Day 10 of the trip would put an end to that streak.
When I arrived at the Phuket airport in the morning, the entire place was swamped. Despite the early hour, there were hundreds of people both arriving and attempting to leave. I was again flying on Bangkok Airways and was looking forward to the flight and the two and a half hours I had to spend in the lounge prior to boarding. (I also needed coffee in the worst way.)
However, when I arrived at the desk, the ticketing agent looked at my passport, tapped a few items on the keyboard, and in broken English explained to me that the flight had been overbooked. I had checked in the night before so they wouldn’t force me off the plane. The agent did, however, ask if I would be willing to leave on an earlier flight with a different airline to help ease their overcrowding situation. I ended up missing any airport lounge time (and coffee), but the opportunity to bypass the waiting and get to my destination earlier sounded good too. That’s how I ended up booked on a flight with Air Asia.
Now, I’m not an expert on Asian airlines, but I very quickly realized that the “boutique” experience of Bangkok Airways was not to be found on my new flight. Air Asia is an ultra-low-cost carrier, like Ryanair or Spirit. Nothing is included. Everything is an upcharge. Don’t expect great service.
I eventually got my boarding pass. Air Asia had different rules for baggage weight and carry-ons, but because I was within the limits of my original Bangkok Airways ticket, they allowed me to proceed without additional charges. So far, so good.
Things started to fall apart as soon I got through security. Bangkok Airways included meal service on their flight. Air Asia did not. So, to compensate, Bangkok Airways gave me a food voucher to redeem in the airport once I cleared security. Due to the earlier flight time I only had 20 minutes before my flight started to board. So, after my supporting role in the airport’s security theatre, I hurriedly put my belt back on, strapped my watch to my wrist, and slipped my wallet into my front pocket. When I went to grab my phone, however, it was nowhere to be found.
Trying not to panic, I pawed through my backpack; hopefully my phone had just fallen down into some nook or cranny somewhere. After 5 minutes of searching, going so far as to pull every single item out of my backpack, my phone was nowhere to be found. I rushed back to the security line. Nobody at the line spoke English, and when I mimed my phone, they shook their heads and shrugged. With only 15 minutes remaining until my flight boarded, I decided I would rush to the gate and ask the agent if they could call the ticketing desk on my behalf.
There was no gate agent. There was no gate desk. There was just a door with a bus waiting outside.
I rushed back to security and tried to talk to the guard that was hovering over the “You must exit beyond this point” desk. She also didn’t speak English. At that point, I had no choice but to exit the terminal and go back to the ticket desk. Neither the agent at Air Asia or at Bangkok Airways had seen my phone.
By now, my flight had started boarding, and I had to get back through security. So, I ran back, went through security again, ran to my “gate” and was the last person to board the bus that would take us to the airplane.
Great, I thought. A brand new iPhone Xs, and I’ve already lost it. I guess I’ll buy a new phone when I get to Chiang Mai.
As we boarded the plane, they rechecked our boarding passes and passports. There is a hidden pocket on my backpack where I keep my passport, and the moment I reached into it, I felt my phone. Also, a sense of relief so warm I thought I may have wet my pants. I have no idea why I put my phone in that pocket. I’ve never done so before or since. Nevertheless, I boarded the plane with no food or drinks, but deeply relieved I hadn’t just lost a $1300 phone.
that is The flight was uncomfortable but short. The entire flight was interrupted every 15 minutes in another attempt to upsell to the passengers. Also, I discovered that, in Asia, there is a Coca-cola product either completely brilliant or horrifying in its very existence: Coke with Coffee. Seriously. I have no idea how to feel about that…
The incessant hustling to sell crap was deeply annoying, but we eventually landed in Chiang Mai two hours later. I collected my luggage, withdrew some Baht from the ATM, and headed toward a taxi vendor inside the airport. Much like in Phuket, the Chaing Mai airport was a madhouse. It seemed like people were coming to the city from everywhere. So, rather than brave a mob of people haggling with another mob of taxi drivers who were yelling at a mob of Grab drivers (Grab is kind of like Uber for SE Asia), I went to the desk of one of the taxi companies and prepaid for my ride.
The attendant handed me a slip of paper and pointed out the door. There I joined a queue of people, and another attendant wrote the number 20 on my paper. One by one, a third attendant would yell out incrementing numbers, and the person at the front of the line would go to the taxi that had just arrived. It was a pretty slick system.
When it was finally my turn, a van rode up and the woman yelled, “Twenty.” I walked up to the van. So did a Chinese family of five. There was a moment of confusion as the attendant discovered someone had written 20 on both of our slips. So, rather than send me alone in a van, she sent the family off in the van and told me I could have the next taxi.
The taxi arrived, the driver loaded my bags, and we headed off to my hotel. Along the way, he chatted amiably about the city and fun things to do. He was a great driver. When we arrived at the resort, he unloaded my bags and wished me the rest of a great vacation. And my heart dropped to my stomach once again. My large suitcase was gone. He had only loaded my carry-on in his car.
We tried, as best as our limited language skills would allow, to figure out what happened and what to do about it. He made a quick call to the attendant at the airport, and she confirmed that my suitcase was not there. Apparently, when the van driver had loaded up the Chinese family’s luggage, he had grabbed my suitcase as well. I hadn’t noticed, because I was working out the issue with the attendant. He said he’d follow up with the attendant, handed me his card, and then left.
I checked into my resort, was taken to my room, and proceeded to freak the @#$% out. I tried to take a nap, but I couldn’t. Almost all of my clothes, including my new custom suit, slacks, and shirts, were in that bag. It hadn’t been misdirected by lost by the airline, who surely had the ability to track missing luggage. No, it was in some random taxi somewhere in Chiang Mai. (And, I suddenly realized, lacking a luggage tag with my contact information.)
Eventually, I went back to the front desk and asked them if they could look up the number for the taxi company. Back in my room, I called the taxi company, and attempted to explain the issue to someone who didn’t speak English. After some very choppy sentences passed back and forth, she said, “Driver Bring Now” and hung up.
Hoping for the best, I then managed to take a short, 30-minute nap. When I woke up, there was still no word of my bags. It had been a long day. I was hungry and in need of coffee. I had “lost” my phone and hadn’t had a chance to buy anything before boarding the plane. Then I had actually lost my suitcase. But I needed food and I needed coffee. So, I walked down the road to a nice little coffee shop and had a sandwich and an iced latte while I soaked in the air conditioning.
Finally, feeling human again, I headed back to the hotel. With some rest, food, and caffeine, I was able to think, and I managed to “solve” (in my head) what I would do if my luggage didn’t show up. Almost everything in the suitcase was replaceable. My trip was nearing an end. There was a mall just down the road from my hotel. I could make this work.
Miraculously, when I got back to the hotel, my suitcase was sitting in my room. I had truly believed I’d never see it again. Thank goodness it all worked out as well as could be expected. Once again, I had learned that so very much of fear is really an illusion.