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My last two full days in Bangkok were definitely the most activity-filled of the entire trip.  I had booked full-day tours through my hotel for 1000 baht (approx. $25) each and definitely got my money's worth...

Monday morning (January 9), my guide picked me up at 6:20a.m. in the 18th floor lobby of Baiyoke Sky Hotel and escorted me to the minivan downstairs.  We then went to pick up six more passengers at the China Palace Hotel in Chinatown.  I was trying to remember a few phrases of Chinese when the guide was inside retrieving them but they all turned out to be from near Sydney, Australia, and were the first native-English speakers I'd encountered in quite some time.  There was an older couple and then a family with two children of approximately 10 years of age.  They were all extremely friendly which made the day's trip that much more enjoyable.

The minivan headed westward through the already crowded streets of Bangkok and once we crossed the Chao Phraya River we traveled for a ways on the city's ring road before meeting up with Highway 4 (Thailand's longest road).  The skyscrapers and swarms of people gradually gave way to rows of smaller buildings and open spaces with a variety of beautiful tropical trees (mosly coconut palms).  The large number of car dealerships west of the city soon turned to nurseries selling all sorts of exotic plants.  As we got further into the country, it seemed that the predominant shops along the road were selling spirit houses and other front-lawn items (such as huge statues of animals including roosters, deer, and bunny rabbits — just what I always wanted, a 6-foot gopher sitting in front of my home).

The trip to Kanchanaburi took about two hours and I was very surprised by the size of the town when we arrived.  Looking at maps back home, it seemed to me that it would be a sleepy little river village but in reality it's a thriving metropolis with a large city hall and school not to mention heavy traffic along the highway.  If I'd followed my original plan of taking a bus or train to Kanchanaburi and staying at a guesthouse, I'm certain I would have become totally lost.

Our first stop was the JEATH War Museum which stands for the names of the six countries involved:  Japan, England, Australia, Thailand, and Holland.  I guess America is also included in the "A" part as there were definitely American POW's here as well (I had wondered why there wasn't any Americans in the several huge cemetaries here and found out at this museum that their bodies had all been flown back to the States for burial after the war).  The main part of the museum is a collection of photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, and other documents in a bamboo hut similar to those used as living quarters for the POW's while they were building the Death Railway through Thailand to Burma).  You're not allowed to take photographs inside this hut (I snapped a few anyway, particularly of the "No Photographs" sign) but there really isn't that much to see.  Most of our group were disappointed in the quality of the museum but I found the toned-down nature of it fit the subject matter.  Some of the photographs really are rather graphic as the Japanese didn't object to pictures being taken early in the war.

At the museum, there are also some artifacts used by the POW's such as pistols, knives, helmets, water canteens, etc. (primarily towards the front entrance and in another small open-sided hut across from the main souvenir stand).  There's also a large bomb that was dropped in the last bombing raid to destroy the bridge over the River Kwai.

The so-called Death Railway was built to carry Japanese supplies between Thailand and Burma and is 415 kilometers long.  Construction began in September 1942 by approximately 30,000 prisoners of war and more than 200,000 impressed laborers from India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, and Thailand.  Of these, more than 16,000 POW's and 100,000 impressed laborers died from disease, starvation, and "accidents".  It had been predicted that the railway would take five years to complete but the Japanese army forced the prisoners to complete it in only sixteen months.  Construction was completed on December 25, 1943.

We then visited Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where about 7,000 Australian and British POW's are buried.  It's a beautifully maintained and landscaped area just opposite of the town's main railroad station.

Our next stop was the bridge over the River Kwai itself.  The famous David Lean movie, based on the book by Pierre Boule, took many liberties with the story of the "real" bridge.  In fact, no bridge crossed the Khawae Noi but the railway followed the eastern bank of this river towards the Burmese border.  After the movie was released, tourists began coming to Thailand in increasing numbers to search for "the bridge" so the Thai authorities changed the name of the river crossed by the only remaining prisoner of war-built bridge.  The River Maeklaung became the River Kwai; even in this simple move there was a problem in that there already was a River Kwai so the Thai authorities, again with their perfectly acceptible logic, overcame this by having two River Kwais — one a large river and one a small river.  Thus, the bridge spans the River Kwai Yai (large) and the remaining section of railway runs along the eastern bank of the River Kwai Noi (small).

When the Japanese realized that the Allies could bomb the railway from airbases in India, they knew that the eight steel bridges would be primary targets.  To provide an alternate crossing of the River Maeklaung, should the steel bridge be damaged or destroyed, the Japanese rebuilt the wooden bridge that had originally been used to carry construction traffic across the river.  The first air raid here was by the U.S. Army Air Force's 9th and 493rd Squadrons on November 29, 1944, causing some damage to the steel bridge but sadly a bomb fell into the POW camp and killed a large number of prisoners.  Further raids produced little damage to the steel bridge but the wooden one was destroyed in February 1945.  A bombing attack on June 24, 1945, by the Royal Air Force finally destroyed three spans of the steel bridge and breached the constantly-repaired wooded bridge in two places.  Despite the attacks, the Japanese managed to keep the railway operational until the end of the war.

After the war, the Allies sold the railway to the Thai government and in January 1947 the Minister of Communications set out to inspect the line.  Ignoring all advice from the Railway Authorities, the group proceeded northward until their trolly rounded a bend and crashed into a ravine where a trestle bridge had once stood.  The Minister died soon after and this ended the use of the "Death Railway" until the Railway Department reopened the line from Nong Pladuk to Nam Tok in 1956.  This section, of 130 kilometers, remains in service to this day.

The bridge itself is rather small with alternating rounded and squared span supports.  It's also very narrow.   We walked across — the best way is to stay on the center track although when someone passes you coming from the opposite direction, it's polite to step onto one of the parallel wood boards on either side of the track and lean over a bit so the person can pass easily (being careful as a misplaced foot will land you in the river below).  For the most part, most of the tourists understood this but you occassionally got some oaf who would just barrel his way past you (I'm sorry, but these were almost exclusively Germans or Scandinavians — I've formed new opinions on this trip about the rudeness of tourists from these sections of Europe that exceed that of even the French).  I was run-into from behind by one German fellow as I stood on the narrow board taking a photograph; several of my Australian tour-mates came to my rescue but the German fellow didn't even mutter an "I'm sorry" or even any kind of acknowledgement.

Well, the area around the bridge is very scenic with several floating restaurants below and long-tail boats puttering through the river.  I walked all the way to the far bank but didn't descend to the usual collection of food and souvenir stalls.  I made it back to the eastern bank just in time to catch our train, the highlight of the trip.  We made a 90-minute journey on the old third-class train to a small village about halfway up the line to Nam Tok and Hellfire Pass.  The wooden carriage had definitely seen better days but the dilapitated condition actually added to the trip.  I sat on a bench who's seat-board was held up by only two nails; it felt like it was going to fall to the floor with each lurch and bump of the train.  The window had no class, having long since been broken, and the cars were very crowded with tourists at the beginning of the trip.  With each additional stop (I stopped counting at ten), more locals boarded the train including several troops of Boy and Girl Scouts at one of the last stations (they stood packed like cattle in the narrow center aisle).  The scenery for most of the trip was rather flat, with the mountains in the distance, but the last several miles followed the river and was extremely scenic.

Our lunch was at the Pimpaya Restaurant, an open-air place in the small village where we stopped (we were shown the location on a map back in Kanchanaburi but I can't find the name on any of the maps I have).  It was buffet-style and included some Western foods (including terrible "American fried rice") in addition to the usual Thai selections.  My favorite "new" food was the fried banana...  After lunch, we once again boarded our minivan for the long trip back to Bangkok, where we arrived around 4:30 in the afternoon.

After a quick shower (and a phone call to Tim, very inexpensive while I'm still in Thailand), I decided to go up to the 84th floor Revolving Sky Deck to watch the sunset.  It was spectacular and I shot a few photos and some video.  I had thought about walking back to Central World Plaza and enjoying the outdoor market there but was fairly bushed by that time.  Instead, I set out to find a place I could buy a new suitcase among the nearby garment stalls (once again, I'd purchased too many things I wanted to take home).  I didn't have to go as far as I thought I'd have to — only a few hundred yards into the maze.  I looked at ten or so bags before I settled on one I deemed "perfect" which also happened to be the most expensive of the lot (600 baht, or $14.50).  Carting that back to my hotel was also easier than expected as I've mastered the Thai style of gracefully moving through the mass of people and vehicles.  I spent an hour or so repacking my clothes and souvenirs, leaving out what I planned to use Tuesday and Wednesday, ordering room service (a grilled chicken ceasar salad and selection of tropical fruits) before going to bed fairly early.

Tuesday morning, I was once again waiting in my lobby at a very early hour with my guide coming for me at 6:30.  Going downstairs, I was expecting another minivan but this time I was brought to a large motorcoach bus.  I was the first one there and we waited for minivans to bring the other passengers from their various hotels.  My eventual tour-mates this time included mostly Europeans of the rude tourist variety (the Danish sitting across from me and behind me were particularly offensive), although I later became friendly with two girls from London who were sitting in the back of the bus and also with a British fellow and his wife who were currently living in German (and agreed with our opinions of German and Scandinavian tourists, shared with the girls).  The tour guide was a very short woman who spoke relatively good English (better than my guides of the previous two days) but accented every fifth or so word with "Ka" ("yes") that soon became comical.  The British girls and I later began referring to her as "Speedy Gonzales" as well as she would practically run us through our various stops and if you paused to take a quick photo, she would quickly leave you in her dust.

In fact, we visited so many places during the day that we often didn't know exactly where we were.  Most of the time, we were in the provinces of Samut Sakhon, Samut Songkram, and Ratchaburi — southwest of Bangkok.  After some time on the highway, we began to parallel the Gulf of Siam and there were many salt farms on the sides of the road.  The salt harvesting had been disrupted a few times over the past month or so because of the prolonged rainy season; once it rains, they have to start the process all over again because the temperature cools down too much.  Our first stop was somewhere west of these farms at a coconut plantation where they would climb the trees to get the coconuts, scrape out the meat inside and then boil it to the consistency of molasses.  They then made it into various candies which were very delicious.  My biggest regret of this trip is that I was too busy taking photos and didn't buy a bag of this candy.

We then drove to Damnoen Saduak, a city of khlongs (canals), where we boarded a long-tail boat for our journey to the floating markets.  We navigated through these canals for 20 minutes or so, passing many houses built on stilts with their boats stored underneath.  I began to wonder if the market was closed because we didn't see more than a dozen people.  However, the main market was at the end of our journey.  We exited the boats and found ourselves in the thick of it — dozens of items for sell (fruits, all manner of foods and clothing, etc.) both in the canoes being paddled through the market and all along the shore bordering two large covered buildings full of even more stalls.  If you walked along the concrete walkways above the klongs, there were still people with items for sell sitting on tall stilts who would retrieve your money and send your purchases over the gap on long poles.  It was all very colorful and energetic.

There's only one exit out of this market area to the bus parking area and this narrow corridor is filled with even more stalls and the most agressive sellers.  I'd almost made it entirely out of this without buying anything before a very pretty girl stepped in front of me holding a box of Tiger Balm.  I made my usual hand gesture of "no thanks" and started to go past her when she suddenly began massaging my temples and forehead, freezing me in my tracks.  She then massaged my neck, back, arms, and legs — rubbing the Tiger Balm into my skin.  It was the best I'd felt since hugging Tim back at the Phuket airport.  I paid her 600 baht (less than $15) for four jars of Tiger Balm and the refreshing massage.  I guess that then made me an "easy target" because I was almost immediately "attacked" by three small children trying to sell me books of postcards (two practically rode on my legs as I was trying to walk the remaining distance to my bus).  The only way I got rid of them was to walk behind a bus that was backing up; they thought that we were going to get crushed so they ran away from the bus as I narrowly dodged it (my Thai walking skills being useful in avoiding getting hit by vehicles as well).

Next stop was the Thai Handicraft Center Company where dozens of people were carving ornate teak sculptures, wall decorations, furniture, etc.  It was interesting watching the artisans at work but the ultimate goal of this visit was that they wanted you to buy something really expensive (they would ship to your home no matter where that may be).  All the prices here were in U.S. dollars and nothing was cheap (I noticed one small table for $9,500 — not sure if that included the chairs as well — and a cool wooden sculpture/painting with frame for just under $20,000).  Thankfully, we didn't stay here more than 20 minutes or so.

We then made our way to Nakhon Pathom, the oldest city in Thailand and home to Phra Pathom Chedi (originally built by Theravada Buddhists of Dvaravati in the early sixth century).   The present-day bell-shaped structure was constructed over the original chedi in the early 11th century by the Khmer king Suriyavarman of Angkor, creating the world's tallest Buddhist monument at 127 meters high.  The site around the temple offers numerous photo opportunities and the British girls and I were becoming increasingly frustrated by how fast our tour guide was rushing through.  We decided to take our time getting the shots we wanted and so received some icy looks from the Europeans when we finally reboarded the bus (most of these tourists spent most of their time at any stop standing around smoking instead of looking around anyway).

Lunch was next on the agenda.  This was to be at the 70-acre botanical park of the Rose Garden Resort.  Lying on the banks of the Ta Chine River, there's a number of huge restaurants here, along with posh accomodations, a highly regarded golf course, shooting range, etc.  We had lunch in a large banquet hall; the buffet had well over a hundred different items and was the most varied of my entire trip.  What I appreciated was that every item had a name card so I could finally find out what I'd been eating.  I got some very nice roast ham, a variety of other foods (the salad I made was especially nice), and really loaded up at the fruit tables.  I already miss the wonderful pineapple (sapparot in Thai) and watermelon.  I'm not too crazy about the mangosteens but the Tiger fruit is something I plan to seek out at our world market in Albuquerque.

After lunch, we had some free time for photographs (finally) before the start of the Thai Village cultural show.  The auditorium was designed like a typical village with a central floor area in front of the stage serving as the village square.  The show featured traditions, customs, dances, and other entertainment (such as Muay Thai boxing and sword fighting) from all over Thailand — all accompanied by wonderful traditional Thai music.  My favorite part (after the short boxing match) was the post-wedding celebration with a combination of four dances from each of the main regions of Thailand, particularly the Bamboo Dance from the northeastern region.  The finale was a flag dance where everyone was carrying national flags of all nations (the girl carrying the U.S. flag was usually towards the back or the far side from where I was so I couldn't get a good picture of her).

Following the cultural show, we went outside to watch a short but entertaining elephant show (which I filmed but didn't photograph, unfortunately).  I did get my photograph sitting on one of the elephants' knees and followed that with a short ride on one around the pavilion (cost was 20 baht for a photo and 50 baht for a ride).  I was last one back on the bus for our two-hour journey back to Baiyoke Sky Hotel (where the other tour participants would once again be picked up by their hotel minivans).  I spent the time talking to the two British girls who were leaving the following day to spend a week on Phuket.  I gave them some advice about where the best shopping was, how much was too much to spent for a tuk-tuk, tours they should check out, etc.  As we arrived at Baiyoke, they were very impressed that I was staying there and decided they wanted to watch the sunset from the rooftop so I showed them which elevators to take (a total of three from the ground, plus a flight a stairs from the 83rd to the 84th floor).

So, how to spend my last evening in Thailand?  The only thing remaining on my list of things to do was to get a traditional Thai massage so I headed to the SkyTrain station and took it to Nana, knowing the prices were less expensive there (1000 baht for a two-hour massage, compared to over 2000 at the hotel).  Again, I got turned around outside the station and walked down the wrong side of Sukhumvit Road than I thought I was on.  I had been wondering if they changed which side to have street stalls on from night to night when I finally found a landmark I recognized from my previous visit.  Anyway, I found a good massage parlor around Soi 8, I believe, and then had my body twisted into a pretzel for much of the next couple of hours.  The girl was a tiny little thing and spoke almost no English but the massage did seem to relax me and I gave her a 1000-baht tip (mainly because I didn't want to exchange too much Thai money at the airport the following morning).  I even took a taxi back to Baiyoke (which was 300 baht) where I did some last-minute packing and spent the next several hours watching television.  I already miss those Thai commercials...

I didn't sleep much that night because I needed to check out of the hotel at 4:30.  That was relatively easy — I handed the cashier my keycard (her name was Miss Titiporn — that name would get ridicule in the U.S. but is quite common in Thailand) and she scanned it for a list of my extra charges (only $10 for the six phone calls I'd made to Tim from the bathroom phone).  Since I'd prepaid for the stay back in October that was all that was billed to my credit card.

The taxi driver actually came early and I nodded off during the drive to the airport.  He didn't speak any English but handed his hand out for a tip at the end of the drive (it was a free transfer through the hotel) so I gave him my last three hundred baht bills (I had hidden a 500-baht note in my wallet for the departure tax).  I soon found out that he'd dropped me off at Terminal 2 instead of Terminal 1 but it wasn't that long of a walk inside.  The check-in counter at Royal Thai wasn't yet very crowded so I made my way to the front within about 20 minutes.  They checked my two bags all the way through to Portland (although I was later to find out that I had to retrieve them in Vancouver, go through Customs, and then re-check them).  Since I didn't have any more Thai money, I decided to go straight to the gate rather than getting some breakfast so I paid my departure tax with the stashed bill and entered "Duty Free Land" once again.  I paused to browse at the branch of Asia Books and immediately saw a good book on the tsunami (I'd been looking for one since Phuket) so I charged that and another book about living in Thailand (I'm thinking about it).

For once, my gate (32) was at the very front of the concourse instead of being the farthest away.   I walked around a bit before settling down to sit the remaining two-and-a-half hours until departure time.  I did call my sister and then tried to change my America West reservation for the Portland to Albuquerque (via Phoenix) leg.  This was my tightest connection of the entire trip and I was worried that I wouldn't have enough time to go through Customs (I didn't know at this point that I'd do that in Vancouver), get my bags from baggage claim, and check in.  The agent on the phone told me that 70 minutes would be more than enough time and, besides, the alternate flight connections I'd found through their website "didn't exist" (I checked when I got home and they most certainly do fly that route at that time).

When we lined up to board the plane (an aging 747-400), I regonized a voice behind me and was pleased to see Richard — a nice fellow I'd talked to (along with several other Americans) at the Vancouver airport back in December.  We had the exact same flights all the way back to Portland (so I knew I had someone to help if Tokyo was as confusing again).  Unfortunately, we couldn't sit together on the flights but at least we'd have someone to talk to during the layovers.  On this first 8-hour flight, I had a window seat.  The middle seat was occupied by a very large Filipina lady who never quite got the concept that my seat was my little bit of space and I was constantly leaning against the window as she read the newspaper or ate to avoid any further unwanted contact.  She was also bothering the young Thai woman in the aisle seat who complained but couldn't be moved because there were no other seats.  The Filipina wouldn't move so I could go to the restroom or stretch my legs so it was a very long flight for me (the Thai woman spent much of the time either in the bathroom or walking the aisles so she wouldn't be hit by elbows).  The food wasn't even that great on that flight, which is unusual for Royal Thai.

We finally arrived at Tokyo's Narita Airport, greeted by freezing cold temperatures in the jetway (I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, my coat being stuffed into my checked bags) but at least this time I knew where the Air Canada check-in counter was.  I ran into Richard again after getting off the shuttle bus to the main building.  The girl at the counter was training another girl so the process took an excrutiating long time, almost an hour with only a half-dozen other people in front of us at the beginning of it.  We weren't too worried about it because we had three hours to kill before the plane left anyway.  This was where I found out I would have to retrieve my bags in Vancouver but I still didn't know that U.S. Customs was there as well.  Back on the shuttle train to our gate and Richard and I spent the next couple of hours telling each other of our adventures over the past three weeks.

I had wisely requested an aisle seat for the Air Canada flight.  The 777 had a 2-4-2 configuration and I sat next to a young woman from Taiwan.  She spoke very good English but couldn't decipher the Customs form so I helped her out with that.  She was very polite the entire time and even gave me a brief neck massage towards the end of the flight.  Probably the most pleasant seat-mate I've ever had on a flight.  The food on this flight was again rather bland, with very odd combinations.  I don't even remember what the dinner was, but the breakfast choice was either an omlet or a "Japanese breakfast".  I opted for the omlet which was more like rubber than food with some sort of dark-colored goo inside (it looked like jelly but certainly didn't taste like it); the omlet tray also had pees and corn inside of it with something resembling petrified sausage and uncooked pieces of potato.  At least this was served with some fruit yogurt so something was edible if not very filling.  The movie choices were just as bad — "Sky High" about some kids with super-hero parents, followed by "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" which is great for home-viewing but terrible for on a plane's center-aisle screen (I fell asleep halfway through the first movie and woke up during the final gun battle of "Sundance" so I missed it anyway).

After deplaning in Vancouver (again, very cold), we followed the signs with the American flags for U.S.-bound connections.  At the top of a bank of stairs and escalators, our arrival cards were checked and passports glanced at by a very nice Canadian man who told us we'd probably need the entire four-hour layover to make it through Customs because they only had two agents working.  We then went downstairs where the line quickly backed-up, going back up the stairs.  In line waiting for passport control we could see the baggage carousel through a glass wall and I anxiously watched for my luggage, hoping the bag with the souvenirs at least made it this far.  We waited in that slow line for almost an hour, towards the end of which I finally sighted my suitcases.

Finally, it was my turn at the entry counter.  I greeted the agent with a cheerful "Good Morning" which received a sour grunt.  He grabbed my passport out of my hand, leafed through the visa pages, and practically yelled, "Why so many trips to Asia?" "Tourism," I answered to which he said, "Nothing to see," and asked me why I had checked two bags.  "Souvenirs — cheap t-shirts, books, that sort of thing."  Then he seemed pissed-off that my name came up twice on his computer, once as "Mark" and once as "Mark Joseph" (the passport includes my middle name but I certainly don't use it when purchasing airline tickets or making hotel reservations — does anybody?).  He told me, "Sit over there" (I hadn't seen anybody else sit in those seats in the hour I'd been waiting) and "leave your passport here". After a few minutes, he motioned me back over, and wrote a big "C" on my Customs form (I thought this meant "cleared" but I suppose it stood for "check" as the next station directed me to a separate room).  He said, "Get your bags and follow the signs."  I did and went to the next station where they directed me to a person who would check my bags.  He had me place the bags on the conveyer and then opened everything, starting with the overpacked bag with my dirty clothes, coat, and empty backpack.  I was struggling to repack and close that suitcase the entire time he was going through my souvenir bag and camera bag (not to mention opening the duty-free bag of books I hadn't even opened since Bangkok).  He asked me "Why would you want to go to Thailand?" and I told him the beautiful beaches, low prices, and friendly people (stressing friendly).  He then allowed me to put my bags back on the cart and directed me up to the last security screen where I would re-check my bags.  This was run by the TSA and they once again wanted to open my camera bag (which had been taped by Customs as "cleared" just moments before).  When I pointed out that U.S. Customs had just checked everything over, the agent got in my face and said "Well, it wasn't checked by me!"

This probably all wouldn't have bothered me so much if I hadn't spent the previous 20 hours or so on planes with a minimal amount of sleep both before or during, but all of this hassle was definitely wearing on me at this time.  Particularly since the Immigration agents, etc. at all the previous stops had always been so kind, courteous, and helpful and would never risk offending a traveler.  It seemed to me that the image Customs and the TSA were projecting in Vancouver was "Welcome Back to the U.S.A., where we can't understand why anybody would want to go anywhere else and we know we're better than all others and can be rude to you because you can't do anything about it...all in the name of 'Homeland Security'".  Talking to Richard and various other passengers afterwards, they all felt the same way (even though most of them weren't subjected to the additional screening I was).  Last night, I even looked up Vancouver on an online site that reviews airports and most of the comments going back over a year talked about how rude the Customs and TSA agents are there.  It's nice to know that it's not only me.

But I certainly didn't let it spoil my trip in any way, having already adopted the Thai phrase of "Mai pen rai" as my own personal motto and attitude.  In fact, I found it rather entertaining and amusing as well as being a test of how much punishment I could take without becoming visibly upset.  We had a good time while waiting for the next plane coming up with alternate sarcastic remarks to the agents' questions — things you'd never want to actually say to them but would be fun if you really could.

The next flight was on a tiny Dash-8 turboprop run by Jazz Air.  I sat in seat number 1 on the right side of the plane, the first time I've ever sat in the front row of a commercial flight.  It was definitely freezing on that plane and I spent most of the hour-long ordeal either shivering or nodding forward as I dozed off from time to time.  Upon landing in Portland, we had to walk across the runway and then along an outdoor corridor under an awning before reaching the terminal (I wish I had retrieved my coat during the Customs inspection in Vancouver but had deemed it too wrinkled at the time).  I made my way down to baggage claim and my suitcases were the first off of the plane; I didn't have any change so had to use my credit card to charge the $3 fee for the SmartCart (I miss the free ones in Asia) and then took the elevator back up to the check-in counters.

At America West, I presented my itinerary print-out and was told my flight had been delayed and she would put me on a flight on Southwest Airlines but I had to hurry because that flight left at 4:40 (it was probably about 4:10 at that point).  She gave me a voucher and I ran down to the Southwest counter (at almost the opposite end of the wide hall).  The agent there knew nothing about the other flight being delayed and so walked back up to America West to ask about it (as precious time ticked away).  She came back and gave me a ticket but told me I had to check in at the gate after I took my luggage over to be x-rayed.  I presented my bags to the TSA agent there who was upset with me that they were locked (the Customs agent in Vancouver had snapped the lock shut when he was done and I was running around so much in Portland I hadn't thought to unlock them).  She told me to wait at the end of the x-ray tube.  I did and nobody paid any attention to me.  I saw one of my bags come out and it was whisked away on a cart but I waited to see the other bag.  Finally, an agent told me I was done there and I said I didn't see my second bag come out.  He just said "It's probably stuck and will come out eventually" (not very encouraging for it to make the tight connection) but I decided to run up to the gate.  I had to go through security again where I was flagged for a "random check"; I explained that my plane was about to take off and the agent said, "Oh, we'll finish just as quickly as we can."  Well, he took his own sweet time checking through my camera bag (third time within less than three hours) with it's "checked and clear" stickers from two different Vancouver agents.  He even opened up the camcorder, rewound the videotape, and watched part of it!  He looked at the last few photos on my digital camera and asked me who someone was in a picture (just a person selling things at the floating market, but really none of his business).  When he was done, I asked what time it was and he said "4:35" — five minutes to run past 16 gates before the plane left.  When I got around gate C-8, I could here my name being called over the PA that I needed to get to the gate immediately for an on-time departure.  I was out-of-breath and felt like my heart was going to explode by the time I finally got to the gate.  They checked me in, gave me my boarding pass, and ushered me onto the jetway (closing the door behind me); I had to run down the jetway as well so the plane could push back and finally arrived soaked and panting.  No sooner had I given my card to the flight attendent did she close the door and the plane began backing up.

It took me a few minutes to recover.  Luckily, it wasn't a very crowded flight so I had a row to myself.  I dozed off for a while and woke up when we were landing.  We were in Reno, Nevada, and I was momentarily afraid I'd jumped on the wrong plane in Portland as I'd been told this one was going to Las Vegas.  I was assured that they were stopping briefly before continuing on to Vegas and I made a few calls while sitting on the plane, watching them clean the plane and load on more passengers.  It was another hour flight to Las Vegas and then a three-hour layover until the flight to Albuquerque.  I didn't even get anything to drink or any peanuts on the previous two flights (probably came by when I happened to be asleep) and was desperately starving by now (the last time I'd eaten was a partial breakfast on Air Canada before landing in Vancouver).  I found an ATM but couldn't figure out how to put my card into this machine (there was some sort of sleeve on the front that you had to place your card on top of or something); I spent a few minutes trying to figure it out before giving up.

Finally, I arrived in Albuquerque, picked up my bags, and waited outside in frigid 30-degree temperatures for a few minutes (my coat was still in my bag) before hailing a taxi.  The driver wasn't talkative at all and I soon gave up trying to make conversation; he seemed mad that I didn't leave him a tip but I think he overcharged me ($60 from the airport to my house? I don't think so...) and he made no attempt to help me with my bags.

I desperately want to be back in Thailand already.  I miss it terribly — Tim is there; plus there is so much more there I want to see and do.  Everybody I met on this trip (apart from my return to North America) was beyond friendly and the prices are so low there.  I could live comfortably for less than $400 per month there, compared to quadruple that here.  And the weather agrees with me so much more than the cold.

I talked to Tim early Thursday when I got home and again this morning and we talked about when I could return.  She really has the potential to be a real girlfriend rather than just a female friend/companion whom I see only occassionally.  On my next visit, she wants to show me the part of Thailand she comes from — the village of Lamphun which was founded in A.D. 660 and was once the capital of an independent Mon kingdom called Haripunchai until its conquest in 1281.  It's very close to Chiang Mai, a city where many people have recommended that I visit.  She would like to bring her best friends, Laa and Juum, along as well but she also says we can go alone if I want.  "Up to you," I told her — our usual phrase for whatever we do, kind of our personal "mai pen rai."  The next time I visit, I think it could be as long as three months (a single-entry tourist visa is good for 60 days and you can easily get a 30-day extension).  It's so tempting to look into English-teaching jobs there and I could actually take the TESL or Cambridge courses right on Phuket (one school even has a branch in Patong which would be VERY convenient).

During my flights, I began to wonder how difficult it would be to put ALL of my possessions into storage somewhere and then go back to Thailand.  Returning home to the chaos of stuff crowding my home, I began to think about how life would be so much easier if I didn't own all of this crap.  I don't need thousands of CD's, DVD's, books, electronic equipment, etc., etc. to be happy.  I just need to be in a place where I feel comfortable.  And I certainly felt more comfortable in Thailand, particularly Phuket, than I've felt in a considerable amount of time.  I have friends there now — good friends — whom I can talk to, whom I can learn new things with and teach new things to (not just language).  It's so inexpensive and that certainly helps.  I'm not worried about money, but it would be nice to be somewhere where less money actually goes much further.

So, my heart and mind are still in Thailand and I hope these feelings don't fade.  Don't be surprised if I'm back there much sooner than expected...