The map on the seat back in front of me on a long haul flight from JFK to HK.

Wiped Out After A Journey Across the Earth

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 forced a 10-hour overnight at JFK. As the site Sleeping in Airports confirms, JFK is not a slumber-friendly airport.

I arrived in terminal 3 at 11:30 p.m. and needed to be at terminal 8 for the 9:25 a.m. flight. It didn’t open until 4 a.m. Terminal 4 was open. It was the best middle-of-the-night option of all the terminals. There was a chain donut shop with a table and airport Wi-Fi that worked.

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 a.m., I had a cup of coffee before finding my way to terminal 4 by airport train.

While checking in, an agent 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. If I had all three seats to myself, I would have managed intermittent sleep. With just a standard aisle seat, dozing off was limited.

Deplaning in Hong Kong I was met by an airline representative 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. There, upon request, an airline representative checked on my check-in bag and found out it had also miraculously made it on to the flight.

On that three-hour leg 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 went by in a flash.

At the airport in behemoth Bangkok, I easily got through customs, got Thai Baht from an ATM, got my check-in bag and left 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 comfortable $18 guesthouse at around 8 p.m. That’s when a voice in my head said:

You’ve just virtually teleported to a whole different world.

I gathered up energy to go out and walk around, and stuff my face with Thai cuisine at the source.

Ubiquitous street eats, hawkers and walkers outside at night in Thailand's steamy capital. From the post: Wiped Out After A Journey Across the Earth.
Faces and ubiquitous Pad Thai, Cost: 30 Baht ($.84), Soi Rambuttri, Bangkok, Thailand.

By midnight I was back in the guesthouse room and sprawled on the bed, asleep in seconds. I recall waking up briefly to use the bathroom. Then in an instant, I was out again.

Then I heard light knocking. I dismissed it as not being my door. The knocking didn’t stop. It got louder. 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 p.m. I remembered the check-out sign saying 11:30 a.m.

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 the jet lag was gone. I imagined I’d 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 in the early morning hours.

Jet Lag Wasn’t 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 great ticket price. And the night prior to travel I almost never sleep well as there is subconscious anxiety about the upcoming drifting day. 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 had recently been 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 different plane. In the US, I could obviously communicate in English. Before that, in Guatemala and Colombia, my Spanish ability was enough to get by in most situations and even thrive.

Prior to that, in Saudi for a few years, I’d built up enough Arabic vocabulary to function situationally.

Here I was in tonal Thailand with an arsenal of around 20 poorly pronounced words. Even though there’s English spoken in tourist zones, the lack of linguistic ability gave me an initial feeling of helplessness.

On top of a circadian crisis and energy extraction from losing too much sleep, I needed to acclimatize to the tropical heat.

In addition, I felt linguistically deprived while experiencing a form of mega-urban claustrophobia.

I’m half exaggerating. However, extra stress can kick in when all-of-a-sudden you’ve been transplanted into the crowds of a mega city where they drive on the left, even though they weren’t 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 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 don’t know by how much.

Also, it may have been a good idea to buy a more expensive ticket that wouldn’t have forced a night in a non-sleep conducive airport.

I noticed signs that the airport at JFK is being redone. What 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 temperatures that Bangkok boasts. 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 bombarded with interesting and tasty cuisine. My taste buds were salivating like a canine’s in reaction to the sites and smells of Bangkok’s food-laden streets.

Lots of people and some food stalls outside in the urban night.  From the post: Wiped Out After A Journey Across the Earth.
Example of a food-laden street, Bang Lamphu, Bangkok, Thailand.

Going easy on food consumption was not an option. A consolation is that the food here isn’t as filling as western-style cuisine.

In hindsight, eating on the plane was not a good idea. Eating less should be the mantra when flying across time zones. The food on Cathay Pacific economy class was bland at best and consisted of too much animal flesh, in my opinion.

I’m on my ninth day in Thailand and 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 didn’t depart until 1:00 a.m. and didn’t arrive until 1 p.m.

Having drunk two cups of delicious, locally-grown coffee throughout that next day in Chiang Mai, I was able to stay awake until 8 p.m. and wake up at 6 a.m. I confidently feel that I’m now used to this whole different part of the world, its balmy tropical heat, and the Indochina time zone.

Being out of Bangkok and content with English as the lingua franca, I hope to make baby steps with Thai. It is perfectly okay to only be able to speak nitnoy (a little bit).

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 photos of architecture, train stations, street eats, desserts & signs from Bangkok. and Ayutthaya.

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