Traveling across the earth threw me for a loop. There was not a thought about being on the receiving end of extreme jet lag. When traveling across time zones, odd fatigue and not being able to sleep at night are often a given, but not necessarily to the extent that occurred after this cross-planetary drift.
Playing the role of digital travel agent and looking for the most inexpensive ticket possible to South East Asia, I managed to dig up a one-way flight from Orlando to Bangkok for $605. That included a check-in bag. However, this fantastically-priced fare also forced me to overnight at JFK, a 10-hour layover. As the site Sleeping in Airports confirms, JFK is not a slumber-friendly airport.
I arrived in terminal 3 at 11.30 pm and needed to be at terminal 8 for the 9.25 am flight. It didn’t open until 4 am. Terminal 4 was open. It was the best middle-of-the-night option of all the terminals. There was a chain donuts establishment with a table and airport Wi-Fi that functioned.
Before hanging out by the donut shop, I tried to close my eyes in different areas, but to no avail. The overnight in JFK was sleepless. At around 6 am, I had a cup of coffee before finding my way to terminal 4 by airport train.
While checking in, a rep from Cathay Pacific went out of his way to inquire about my check-in bag that Jet Blue assured would go all the way through to Bangkok from Orlando.
On that long-haul flight I was fortunate to have a middle seat separating me from another passenger. Had I had all three seats to myself, I would have managed some intermittent sleep. With just a standard aisle seat, dozing off was limited.
Upon deplaning in Hong Kong I was met by an airline rep who quickly led me through the airport and to the front of two security lines. Thanks to Cathay’s astute organization, I miraculously made it to the connecting flight to Bangkok with just a 30-minute transition time before the gate closed. There, upon request, an airline rep checked up on my check-in bag and found out that it had also miraculously made it on to the flight.
On that three-hour flight all the seats were full. I spent the time conversing with a Canuck from Montreal who was sitting beside me. After the 17-hour flight, the third and final leg seemed to go by in a virtual flash.
At the airport in behemoth Bangkok, I easily got through customs, got Thai Baht from an ATM, retrieved my check-in bag and departed the airport, all in no more than an hour. This is when a taxi driver told me there was an airport bus that would drop me near the accommodation I had booked. After a 20-minute wait, the bus full of foreign tourists departed and dropped me relatively close to where I would stay in a major tourist zone. The bus ride cost 30 Baht ($.84)
I checked into the comfy $18 guesthouse at around 8 pm. With a voice in my head saying: ‘You have just virtually teleported to a whole different world’, I managed to gather up energy to go out and walk around, and stuff my face with eminent Thai cuisine at the source.
By midnight I was back in the guesthouse room and sprawled on the bed, asleep within a minute. I recall waking up briefly to use the bathroom. Then in an instant, I was out cold again. That was until I heard light knocking, which I dismissed as not being on my door. The knocking did not stop. It got louder. That’s when I realized it was my door. I moved my arm over and picked up the Nokia from the small table beside the bed. It read 12.30 pm. I remembered the check-out sign saying 11.30 am.
I said something. I don’t remember what. The knocking stopped. I got up, got dressed and made my way downstairs and paid for another night.
Since I had slept in a virtual comatose state for over 12 hours, I haphazardly assumed that the jet lag was gone. I imagined that I would go to bed that night and wake up the next morning in a state of circadian zen.
Six or seven hours later I felt exhausted and slept for a couple of hours. During the second night in Bangkok, I lay awake for a few hours. For more than a week I slept in two or three sessions per 24-hour-period, often wide awake at odd hours.
Jet Lag was not the Only Contender
Typically when flying across the globe, a person is only going to miss one solid night’s sleep, not two. This was an odd situation that stemmed from a very good ticket price. And the night prior to travel I almost never sleep well as there is subconscious anxiety about the upcoming drifting session. This was the case again.
I also failed to remind myself that this body was not accustom to enduring dense and balmy tropical heat. I was recently in Guatemala. However, I was never below 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) above sea level. If I had gotten down from its altiplano (highlands), the ambiance would have been full-on tropical, but I never made it lower than Guatemala City.
Walking in the Bangkok heat extracted energy and enhanced exhaustion.
Psychologically I found myself on a very different plane. In the US recently, I could obviously communicate in English. Before that, in Guatemala and Colombia, my Spanish ability was enough to get by in most situations and sometimes even thrive. Prior to that, in Saudi for a few years, I had built up enough Arabic vocabulary to function to an extent.
Here I was in tonal Thailand with an arsenal of around 20 poorly pronounced words. Even though there is typically plenty of English spoken in the tourist zones, this lack of linguistic ability gave me an initial feeling of helplessness.
On top of the circadian crisis and the energy extraction from losing too much sleep, needing to acclimatize to the tropical milieu and feeling linguistically deprived, I was also experiencing a form of mega-urban claustrophobia. I am somewhat exaggerating; however, extra stress can kick in when all-of-a-sudden you have been transplanted into the crowds of a mega city where they drive on the left, even though they were not formally colonized by Britain.
With around 11 million people, Bangkok has the third largest population in SE Asia after Jakarta and Manila.
The Moral of the Story
The moral of the story is that the potential power of jet lag should not be underestimated.
A friend recently mentioned that I should have taken some melatonin while flying, as that is known to help regulate circadian rhythms. I believe that it would have dissipated the effects of the jet lag, but I do not know by how much. Also, it may have been a good idea to buy a more expensive ticket that would not have forced a night in a non-sleep conducive airport.
I noticed signs that the airport at JFK is being redone. I think that is a great idea considering it is an incredibly busy US and world hub.
There is no way I could have prepared for the hot and humid temps that Bangkok and much of Thailand boast. Drinking plenty of water is key but easily overlooked. Overeating is not a good idea for mitigating jet lag. Undereating would have been more desirable. But here I was, having just arrived in Bangkok, where I was being bombarded by interesting and tasty cuisine. My taste buds were salivating like a canine’s, as I was immensely enjoying the sites and smells of Bangkok’s food-laden streets.
Going easy on food consumption was not an option. A consolation is that the food here does not tend to be as filling as western-style cuisine typically would be.
In hindsight, eating on the plane was not a good idea. Eating less should be the mantra when flying and dealing with jet lag. The food on Cathay Pacific economy class was bland at best and consisted of too much animal flesh, in my opinion.
I am on my ninth day in Thailand and now coming off an uncomfortable, 3rd class, 12-hour, overnight train ride to Chiang Mai from Ayutthaya, 1.5 hours north of Bangkok. The train was supposed to leave at 9 pm, but was four hours late. It did not depart until 1:00 am and did not arrive until almost 1 pm.
Having consumed two cups of delicious, locally-grown coffee throughout that next day in Chiang Mai, I was able to stay awake until about 8 pm and wake up around 6 am. I confidently feel that I am now used to this whole different part of the world, its balmy tropical heat, and the Indochina time zone.
I am now out of Bangkok and content with the fact that English has to be the lingua franca, while making baby steps with Thai. It is perfectly okay to only be able to speak a little bit or nitnoy.
In summary, after arriving in Thailand, it took nine nights to be able to sleep through the night without waking up from jet lag.
Have you ever been jet lagged for over a week or more? Leave a comment below.
Here are 41 photos of architecture, train stations, street eats, desserts & signs from Bangkok and Ayutthaya.