When I landed in Seoul, South Korea, it was the first time in my life I set foot on Asian soil. It was an exciting feeling. I have never been to Asia before so finally make it meant a great deal to me. The view of South Korea from the window of an airplane suggested that weather in this country was spectacular. It was virtually cloudless, other than some random tiny cloud here and there. I thought – if weather is this gorgeous in East Asia, surely it will be equally nice in South-East Asia, where I was heading to. But then again – I was well aware of the fact that September is the peak of the rainy season in Cambodia so I did not hold my breath. Seeing cloudless, sunny weather South Korea was enjoying left me a little bit encouraged.
Flight from Vancouver to Seoul took well over 10 hours. It was a long, long flight. Pacific Ocean is not a short distance to cover. Seeing the land below our plane delivered the feeling of landing soon which I’m sure every passenger aboard could not wait for. Good thing about South Korea is that once you have reached the east coast, the west coast where capital city Seoul is located is not far away. It also means that wherever in South Korea you are, you’re never too far from the beach. Having this narrow shape definitely has its advantages.
Incheon airport in Seoul is not very large. I was only transiting as my final destination was Siem Reap so I wasn’t hassled by Korean customs authorities and just followed the signs to connection flights. There wasn’t that much to do at Incheon, however connecting to their free WiFi internet was hassle free, unlike the crap experience in Vancouver. I was glad to have equipped myself with the universal power plug adapter which made its first use at Incheon. I only had a couple of hours to kill there and thanks to the internet, my time waiting for the Siem Reap flight flew by quickly. Before I knew it, the boarding was started. I have waited until everyone was in, have packed up my lap top and headed towards the gate to be the last person on board.
The plane wasn’t sold out solid, but I was the unlucky one to have been given the seat right next to two kids. Having just gone through near 11 hours on a plane, I really didn’t feel like being exposed to screaming kids for additional 5 hours. I felt tired and wanted to take a nap. I’ve asked the flight attendant if it was possible for me to sit elsewhere as I didn’t want to sit by the kids, but since this was the flight between Seoul and Siem Reap (aka none of the ports of call were English speaking), my words were not understood.
One person who did understand me was the father of those kids who was willing to aid me in re-seating myself. He however suggested that his daughters are well behaved and generally quiet. That was a bit encouraging, but I was really tired to risk it and it did prove a good idea. Well behaved or not, kids talk too loud and too much disturbing everyone around and while it’s sometimes bearable, it becomes excessively difficult if you’re exposed to it right after a long flight.
Luckily for me, I was able to increase the distance between me and the kids and even ended up taking a brief nap during the flight. Before I knew it, we were landing in my terminal destination for this trip – Siem Reap, Cambodia. And yes, it was pissing cats and dogs.
As I have mentioned, I love the atmosphere at the airports. When you’re at the airport, the change is imminent. I got off the Air Canada plane and followed the International Flights signs at the Vancouver International. I had a few hours to kill, so there was no need to rush, however I still needed to get boarding passes for my Korean Air flights so I wanted to get that off my hands as soon as possible in case it was necessary to go at the opposite side of the airport.
It took me good 20 minutes to get from one end of the airport to the other where international flights depart from. Information panel suggested that my flight takes off form gate 58, which I found, but there was nobody there yet. I simply got there too early. I had no other option but to wait until someone shows up as they would either issue my boarding pass, or tell me where to go to get it.
I have decided to kill the time getting on my laptop and checking emails. I have noticed signs all over Vancouver airport stating that YVR has free WiFi internet. They were advertising it big time everywhere so I found nearest power outlet, plugged my laptop in there and logged on. However after 20 minutes of desperate attempts to get connected to their unsecured network I had no luck at all. It was really frustrating.
I have eventually given up, packed up my laptop and started walking towards where I came from to track someone who looks like they might know what’s going on and ask them why they advertise free WiFi when it’s impossible to connect as system rejects all connection attempts.
And as I’m walking back, I see that cute girl sitting there on her pink Sony Vaio laptop, chattering to someone on a webcam. Since she was obviously on line, I stopped by her and asked if she had any troubles connecting. She said she had no troubles whatsoever so I sat opposite of her, plugged myself into the wall and made an attempt from this location. However, same lack of luck as before. I made no sense.
But I kept trying as that girl kept chatting and eventually I got to some window that was telling me that the host wants me to confirm something on their website and was asked if I wished to visit that website. I agreed and was taken to Vancouver International Airport site where I was asked to click on Agree button to agree with some of their TOS (quite likely confirming that I won’t be using this internet connection to download viruses or porn or what not).
The moment I got on, that girl asked me if I had any luck connecting. I said it just started to work for me and got down to doing my on line business. Being used to cold people from Edmonton, I ignored the girl believing she will be the same as regular Edmontonian, but was surprised after she repeatedly kept talking to me. She was cute and barefoot, so it was awesome. It was just something I am not used to, coming from the city where when you talk to a stranger, you get weird looks. Here I was a stranger to her and she talks to me.
Eventually, I put my work on hold and engaged in conversation with her. She told me her name was Irene and that she was from the Philippines. She lived in Calgary for 5 months but her contract didn’t get renewed or something like that so she had to return back home to the Philippines. I told her about my photography and it immediately increased her interest in my even more and asked me if I was on yahoo messenger, cause she wanted to add me. Seriously, I could already feel big time the difference it makes leaving Edmonton. There was no point for me to linger in the city that turns you into a chunk of stone.
Sadly, I don’t use Yahoo messenger. I once installed it, many years ago and it came with so much bloat ware and spyware and pop ups that it went off my computer before I first used it. Perhaps Yahoo got their act together in the meantime, but this initial experience was good enough for me to keep away. I have always used friendly and safe MSN messenger and have never had issues with it.
I explained that to Irene, but told her that I do have a yahoo email address and gave it to her. She made note of that and also took my Hotmail address in order to add me to her MSN messenger when she gets it installed so we can chat in the future. That’s how awesome people are outside of the corporate lifestyle world. I have just left Edmonton and I was back at living the life, instead of spending it.
Irene then came to sit next to me with her laptop and showed me some of the pictures her brother, who’s a photo enthusiast took. We talked about photography as she was actually well familiar with many aspects of it. I asked her to send me an email to the yahoo address I gave her so I could respond with links to my sites. I did not want to just give her the URL to my personal site which has a lot of nude photography, so I sent a link in an email with appropriate warning.
Right after that, I took a glance at the clock on my laptop and realized it was already 1.40pm and my flight departure was scheduled for 2.20pm. I didn’t have a breakfast so I wanted to go get something before boarding and I also wanted to pick up a bottle of mineral water so I don’t die thirsty on a plane. It was going to be a long, long flight so I had better taken care of myself or else I’d be looking at 10+ hours of pain.
I liked hanging out with Irene form the Philippines, but I really had to go. I still needed the boarding pass. So I said my Good Byes, Irene insisted that I visit Philippines on my travels and let her know so we can hang out in her country and then I took off. I quickly picked up a sandwich from Subway, went to just grab it and go to the place where they sell bottled water so I can dart off back towards my gate, when I noticed on the board that it was only 12.40 – my computer clock was still on Canadian Mountain Time so being in Vancouver put me back one hour.
This gave me an extra hour so I ate my sub in peace, picked up a bottle of water which is BTW extremely expensive within secure area of the airport (grrrr, cause you can’t take any liquids with you as security precautions don’t allow that, so you are forced to buy overpriced water or stay thirsty on the plane) and went back to gate 58 to get a boarding pass.
It was a pleasure to be served by absolutely gorgeous Korean girls. Beautiful, slender and tall, these girls are jaw dropping. I got my boarding pass and was told boarding would begin at 1.50, which gave me a bit over 5 minutes to spend on a computer again.
I knew I wouldn’t want to be the first one to board a plane, so I sat back, plugged myself in and started the laptop for the thirst time in Vancouver. Low and behold, after 15 minutes of trying, no luck getting connected. I was messing around hoping to click on a button that would open a message which prompts me to visit the website but it never happened. I don’t remember how I got there the first time. I tried everything but to no avail. Frustrated, I have eventually turned the computer off and boarded the plane. And it was a nice plane. Korean Air rules in more ways than just by having the most stunning flight attendants in the world.
My first flight was by Air Canada from Edmonton to Vancouver. The rest of the flight was provided by Korean Air with stop in Seoul, South Korea. I wanted to check my luggage right away so I am rid off this burden and can hang out with Lisa and Britney (Lisa’s 17 year old friend). I got in Air Canada line (it doesn’t look like Korean Air has a booth in Edmonton, they probably don’t have this city in their destination schedule) and as I was checking in, I was told by the lady that my flight from Edmonton to Vancouver is delayed, but she can try to put me on an earlier flight. It made no sense to me whatsoever, but I wasn’t arguing. I was there already anyway, so I might as well try to get on an earlier flight. It would mean that I’d have to spend more time in Vancouver, but that sounded much better to me than spending more time in Edmonton.
It was 9.20am when I got a boarding pass for Air Canada flight that departs at 9.50am. I have no idea why that check in lady would tell me that my flight is delayed when it wasn’t scheduled to leave until 11.20am, but whatever.
I was very short on time so I just gave quick hugs to Lisa, gave Britney a wave, promised Lisa to stay in touch over email (I can do it, but she needs to send me her email first – she’s got mine, I’m still waiting for her to email me) and popped myself in line to undergo security check. Unfortunately for me, the line there was endless.
It took forever for me to get my turn and once I went through, the security decided that they need to closely examine my camera bag. I obliged (of course, the only other option is to turn around and leave) but have reminded the young man that my plane leaves in less than 10 minutes. Luckily for me, he understood.
Perhaps I was lucky in a fact that he was a photography enthusiast. He admired my full Canon gear and asked me about what I take pictures of, had brief look at everything and let me go fairly quickly even though I had my tiny bottle of oil of oregano with me. Fluids and gels of any kind are a big no no on aircrafts nowadays.
As he was going through my bag and doing chemical analysis of vapours to make sure I don’t have any hidden explosives there, my name was announced on the speaker system calling me to deliver my ass to the gate or miss the flight. I have reminded the man that I have got to go and luckily he let me.
He sort of cut his job short and took chances for not examining my bag thoroughly, but I’m no terrorist and they really were calling for me. To add insult to the injury, my name was being called repeatedly as I was running through the airport, prompting several people to shout at me – you must be Mark they’re calling. Embarrassing.
I have boarded the plane last minute, we took off without delay and got from Edmonton to Vancouver in about 1 hour and 14 minutes. The flight was relatively painless, except from excessively obnoxious and loud pair of girls sitting across the aisle one row back. They were literally yelling like they’re at the party. I felt tired because of no sleep last night and their shriek made it impossible to take a nap. Luckily it was a brief flight. And I got a complimentary plastic cup of tomato juice (my favourite in flight drink).
Soon enough I was in Vancouver and there was no turning back for me anymore, even if I wanted to. I would never want to. I longed for this moment for so long, going back was not an option. There are so many places to see, so many things to do, so many girls to f….. Sorry, couldn’t help :o)
As I was doing my research on the best priced plane tickets to an interesting destination to start off my worldwide travel, I found out that due to new taxes imposed upon visitors to Alaska, cruise ships sailing that way will be forced to charge additional $50 per passenger, making this cruising option less attractive to travelers. Because of that, many of major cruise line companies made public statements that they will be discontinuing or limiting their Alaska cruises and will instead move their ships to the Mediterranean Sea where demand and income from have been continuously growing. This was supposed to take place at the beginning of 2010.
I’ve always wanted to visit Alaska so when I realized that many of the cruise ships that used to serve this area will not be there as of January 1st, 2010, it became clear that prices for Alaska cruises will go up. Those few ships that will still serve the arctic state will have little competition so they will be able to jack prices up plus there will still be that additional $50 per person fee imposed by the state of Alaska so if one were to take an Alaska cruise, they should do it before the end of 2009 or have to pay significantly higher price.
This prompted me to start looking into available options. I wanted to visit Alaska and take an Alaskan cruise before prices become too unaffordable. But at the same time I thought of combining it with other adventures to make it a roadtrip of a lifetime. I thought of doing the following:
Rent a car in Edmonton
Drive up the breathtaking Alaska Highway all the way to Anchorage – a 3,000 km long journey that would take about 4 days to complete
Enjoy the scenic views and make stops at interesting locations along the way, such as the Liard River Hot Springs
Enjoy the nature and scenery of Alaska for a day or two
Drop off car rental and board a southbound cruise ship sailing to Vancouver
Take a mesmerizing 7 day cruise exposing the beauty of Juneau, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan etc. while it’s still cheap
Spend a day or two in Vancouver, known as one of world’s most beautiful cities (which I have not visited in my life yet)
Rent a car to drive back to Edmonton
Drive across beautiful British Columbia enjoying the mountains
Make a stop at Frasier Canyon known as one of world’s most exciting white water rafting areas
Drive across Canadian Rockies
Drop off rented car in Edmonton and savor the road trip of a lifetime you have just finished
This seemed like the ultimate roadtrip, the ultimate adventure, the trip that combines some of the best and most coveted areas of the world in one go. And because time was against me, I could not put it off as prices for cruise ships were bound to rise significantly come 2010. So I started doing my research to make this roadtrip come true but hit a solid wall when I started phoning up car rental companies.
First of all, hardly any of the worldwide rent-a-car companies has an office anywhere in Alaska making it impossible to drop a car off there. Secondly, the few that do would charge an arm and a leg for drop off at a location that’s different from pick up location. I wasn’t quite aware of this fact prior to this research. I’ve rented a car many times before in different countries, but have always dropped off where I’d picked it up. But because many big car rental places have offices worldwide, I thought it was a no brainer that you could pick a car here and return it there. I was wrong. Unless it’s some kind of special, drop off at a different location will incur an extra cost – often multiplying your initial cost by a large factor. But if you intend to drive across the border and drop it off in another country, that’s when it starts getting ridiculous.
Alaska is a US state whereas I would be starting my roadtrip in Edmonton, Canada. That means I would be renting my car in one country, but dropping it off in another. Most of the time you can’t even do that. Rental terms and conditions restrict the use of a rented automobile to the same country. Crossing borders is not allowed, unless some special arrangements are made or it is a company that specializes in car rentals for people who need to drive internationally. Either way, after many phone calls and no luck finding a company with the office in Alaska, I was eventually able to trace some down, but dropping off a car registered in Canada in the United States state would make it an extremely costly venture. Similar extremes would apply to the car I would rent in Vancouver to drop it off in Edmonton. Vancouver is located in British Columbia, whereas Edmonton is in Alberta. Again – these are two different provinces, hence different license plates and registration cards. A lot of hassle involved so the cost of it would be very high.
The only other option I had was to rent a car for an extended period of time (3 weeks) in Edmonton, drive it up to Alaska, board the cruise ship and pay also for the car to get on board, then get off the ship in Vancouver and drive the same car back to Edmonton. This was an option that was priced a little better than the other one, because it eliminated high international drop off fees, but was still extremely expensive. Cruise ships are intended for vacationers. They specialize in sailing people, not cars. If you want to take a car with you, you’d be looking at a very high cost, which totally defeated the purpose of trying to get on the Alaska cruise ship before prices go up in 2010. And if I were to do it, I would have to shell out a big chunk of cash to have my rented car on board the cruise ship and while it is there, I wouldn’t even be able to drive it, but the cost of the rental for the time while I’m on a cruise ship would still count, hence I would be normally charged by a car rental company for those days whether I’m driving it or not.
In other words, while I’m on the cruise ship, I would not be able to use my rental car, but I’d be paying big bucks for each day of having it, plus I’d be paying super high cruise ship fee to have the car on board. All of that made the cost of my awesomely planned, but impossible to execute roadtrip sky high. The plan was top notch, but it was impossible to carry out unless your pockets are big.
I don’t remember what I went to West Edmonton Mall – the largest shopping mall in North America for that weekend. I was already in the process of searching for flights to Asia from Edmonton and had a pretty good idea of what I should expect to pay should I decide to take that route, instead of going to the Caribbean. When I’m at West Edmonton Mall, I like to go to the Chinese supermarket called T&T where they always have this really great fast food style hot buffet. Food is great, prices are unbeatable and I love Chinese food so I never miss the opportunity to have munchies at T&T Supermarket when I’m at the West Edmonton Mall.
As I was walking out with my belly full after a nice snack, I popped in the travel agency that’s got the office right outside of the entrance to T&T. The agency is called Unity Travel and is obviously focused on primarily serving the Asian clientele. There were two ladies inside, both of Asian descent and most of their signs on the shop windows were written in Chinese characters. The location itself suggested that it’s Asian people living in Edmonton that they specialize in and as such – or so I thought – they specialize in flights to and from Asia. Wow, isn’t that precisely what I’ve been focused on lately?
I walked in Unity Travel despite my overall belief that dealing with travel agents is an obsolete and pricey way of buying travel packages. If you deal with an agent face to face, their commission will have to be included somewhere in the price you end up paying. This is often not the case when purchasing on line as the process is automated and can be done even outside of store hours. But since Unity Travel is so obviously all about Asia which is where I wanted to go, I walked in believing I had nothing to lose. I just wanted to ask to get a general idea on prices I could get through, and I was in the neighborhood so why not. I didn’t think I could get anything comparable to what I saw on line, but they wouldn’t kill me for asking, would they?
I talked to a fine lady whose name is Ivy and judging by the business card she handed me, she may be the owner of Unity Travel. I stuck out like a sore thumb because I’m Caucasian and I walked into a travel agency for Asian people but even though everyone stared, Ivy treated me with respect and answered all of my questions. I basically wanted to know how much a ticket from Edmonton to Bangkok would cost if I wanted to depart at the end of August, or beginning of September. I also asked Ivy to look up the same option with departure from Vancouver, as I already knew flying from Edmonton was gonna be significantly more expensive.
It was already the beginning of August when I visited Unity Travel. And I wanted to score a cheap ticket to Bangkok from Edmonton. I knew I was a dreamer, but the quote form Ivy got my instant attention. She said that if I were to fly on September 10th or later, I could get the Edmonton – Bangkok return ticket for $1,250 all in. My jaw dropped. This is about total cost I’d be looking at if I were to fly to the Dominican Republic at about the same time. With $800 being the base price but $300 in fees and taxes I’d be pretty damn close. But $800 was the cheapest ticket which departed at the end of September. End of August was in four digits. This sounded more than great to me. Afterall, Bangkok is more than three times as far as the Dominican Republic and it’s in Asia. The value for money was definitely there. That’s what I’d call a bargain plane ticket for high season. Ivy also mentioned that because we are already well into August and it’s the high season even for Asia bound flights, that if I wanted to fly before September 10th, it would be possible, but the ticket would be $200 more expensive.
The real breakthrough came when I asked Ivy – just out of curiosity – how much more I would have to pay if I were to buy a return ticket all the way to Siem Reap, Cambodia (a town right next to Angkor Archaeological Park that serves as a gateway to Angkor for all foreigners). I only asked for Edmonton to Bangkok ticket because I knew Bangkok is the nearest major international hub with lots of flights coming in every day. Because Bangkok is served by such a large number of carriers, I believed the price would be less expensive than flying to areas such as Siem Reap. My ultimate destination would still be Cambodia, but getting to Cambodia from Thailand didn’t seem like a big deal hence I asked for the ticket to Bangkok. But now that I knew how much it was to fly to Thailand, I also wanted to know how much extra it would be to go all the way to Cambodia as if it wasn’t going to be that much more, I might as well pay the extra money and be delivered all the way to my final intended destination.
Ivy said that I would be flying with Korean Air and would have to make transfer stops in Vancouver and Seoul. And because Korean Air has regular, daily flights to both Bangkok and Siem Reap from Seoul, the price would not change. So whether going all the way to Bangkok or to Siem Reap, it would still cost $1,250 total if departing on or after September 10th, or $1,450 if departing before September 10th.
These quotes were staggering for me. I didn’t even want to know how much a ticket would be from Vancouver at this point as quotes from Edmonton were more than reasonable. I expected some $3,000+ figures and even more for Cambodia, yet here I was with a quote I would have to pay to go to the Dominican Republic which I originally wanted to do. I left Unity Travel agency office with Ivy’s business card and quotes written on it. I am not an impulsive buyer so I needed a little time to have this settle in my head. Plus there was still a dilemma of whether to go after September 10th and save $200 or before, but pay more. I had to give it a good think-over and was gonna get back to Ivy with what I have decided in a day or two. It is quite possible that Ivy thought I was just a passerby, just someone curious but not really serious when I walked in their office. She treated me professionally but I still had that feeling that she didn’t expect much of me. Caucasian in an Asian travel agency… what the hell was I doing there anyway?
My plan to start off my worldwide travel in the Dominican Republic was falling apart. It seemed too risky to start myself off in a country I’ve never visited before but trying to score a reasonably priced ticket for the Caribbean in summer with departure from Edmonton got impossible. Edmonton is not a very good gateway for international travel in general. There are often great deals to various places from Toronto, Calgary which is only 3 hours from Edmonton is half decent oftentimes as well and Vancouver is the best when aiming for Asia. And Asia it was I started to speculate about more and more with each new day. Trickier or not, even though I’ve never been to any Asian country before and wanted to start off in a place I was familiar with, something was attracting me to Asia and taking my focus away from the Dominican Republic. The fact that the Dominican Republic was a familiar place suddenly seemed unattractive – I’ve already been there before.
I started to expand my horizons and instead of looking for cheap tickets to the Caribbean, I started focusing more on flights to Asia. There was a part of me that really wanted to go to Cambodia. If I were to pull a list of top 10 places I would definitely love to visit before I die out of my head, Angkor Wat would be right there on top of it. And while I did enjoy my last trip to the Dominican Republic, there was nothing in it that would make the top 10 list in any way. Based on this fact alone, I knew that going to Cambodia was inevitable for me. It was simply a “must visit place before I die” and a big dream I needed to make come true. So I kept snooping around to see what options I had to go to Cambodia instead of the Caribbean at the end of August.
Trouble is – islands in the Caribbean Sea count as the most popular sun getaways for many people in Canada so trips scheduled down south are frequent and when compared to other parts of the world, attractively priced. Asia on the other hand – being on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean and being so vastly different from North American counts as one of more expensive destinations for us in the Great White North. And my initial research confirmed all that. Then again, it’s a 6 hours long direct flight that can take me to the Dominican Republic, but it takes three planes and a total of 16 hours plane time to get me from Edmonton to Bangkok, which is the nearest big hub to Cambodia. Pacific Ocean is huge and I would have to go via Vancouver and Seoul to get to South East Asia where I was considering to end up.
Just as with most other international destinations, Edmonton was a bad starting point. Flights to Asia from Canada can be had for much cheaper if originating from Vancouver. So I started looking around for cheap ways to get me to Vancouver from Edmonton and then continue to Asia from there. Since Vancouver is much closer than Toronto and can be done in 1 day from Edmonton, I got back to looking for car sharing arrangements similar to those I have previously ditched when I wanted to fly to the Dominican Republic from the cities on the East Coast of Canada.