The 6 Travel Lessons I Learned "The Hard Way"

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“Hindsight is 20/20″
For the girl who recently misplaced her glasses and had to purchase new ones in Thailand, oh how true this was!
Thom and I, in Raro last
year, our first time
overseas together.

It’s been a long while since I’d been on a real ‘international trip’; last year Thom and I went on a 5 day holiday to Rarotonga (which is ultimately run by the New Zealand government) and I’d made an emergency trip back home to Canada at the beginning of 2011… but I hadn’t been on a solid overseas adventure since April 2009 when I went backpacking through Australia for a mere two weeks!

I’ve been expat-ing it up with a new life in New Zealand that I love fore the past 3.5 years, but it was so refreshing to rekindle that love of exploration and the unknown, even if it was just for 10 short days in Thailand.

You may read this and think that I’m ‘out of practice’ or even just inexperienced, but I sure did some learning in my days 10 abroad! And at the end of the day, that’s what travel and life are really all about to me.I signed Thom and I up on a unique tour, the debut of the Teacher Xpress trips, a newly created New Zealand based company that creates deals for teachers to travel affordably during school holidays (when airfare and accomodation prices are obviously extremely over-inflated). It was seriously the best time I could’ve asked for. Amazing people, great experiences and memories, and important lessons learned – albeit the hard way.

Without further adeiu, I hope my blunders may perhaps give you some help foresight if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

6. Carry small bills

When travelling to a country where bartering is customary, we quickly found out you’re better off to either request small bills if possible, or get your 1000baht from the ATM changed before you make a purchase.
I wasn’t necessarily the best barter-er. You could tell when someone wasn’t going to go any lower, and when they cringed but still gave you the lower price to make a sale. One of my first purchases was a handbag, while we were waiting for the train in Kanchanaburi. 190 baht, I asked for 150. I can’t remember the exact back and forth, but i think we settled on 170.Thom had my money in his wallet. Well didn’t I feel like a dick when the smallest we had was a 500 note. I even said I’d pay the original price. But she wouldn’t have it, she’d made a deal.

I still got caught with big bills while bartering, but instead of handing over my money straight away, I’d promise to come back (and go get smaller bills to match the price we’d agreed on).

They were not overly happy with me not giving them the money straight away, but I felt better than getting change, and seeing that defeated look while they handed me change.

I also learned tell when I’d not gotten such a great deal as well, as they’d quickly accept my offer. Tricky business, that bartering is. My big heart hates trying to rip off someone who may have so much less than me, even if they are trying to rip me off.

5. Pack power converters – don’t rely on getting them there.

Undeniably an amateur mistake, in the hustle and bustle of packing up my entire house in the weeks leading up to our trip at the end of a very busy term, and shifting houses two days before we left the country, in my mind I think I relied too heavily on I thought I read that suggested hotels likely had converters. Yes, I had lots of excuses, but ultimately I know this was just my own laziness. So when I hadn’t come across my converter before we left, I didn’t stress over it.


Our waterproof/shockproof Lumix lasted us all of two days. I’m sure we could have even borrowed one from someone in our group, but after long days, late nights and early mornings, I was admittedly lazy and happy enough using my iPhone to capture our memories. Luckily, it takes decent enough photos when you don’t zoom, but I’ve yet to print them and really test the quality.
Hindsight says this was a rookie mistake that I easily enough won’t make next time!

4.Have an alcoholic beverage/something spicy with your food

I was SO excited to try real live authentic mouth-watering Thai food! I was so looking forward to trying streetfood too, but I just didn’t know to get, and lots that I walked by, quite frankly didn’t appeal to me. In the end, fruit was the extent of my streetfood extreme (for this trip).
Exploring new food options
Most nights, a casual drink accompanied dinner. I quite liked Singha beer from the moment it touched my lips on the plane, before we were even landed in Thailand. Following that, I also liked the large bottle and relatively small price. So far as I can remember, the only night that I did not have any sort of drink, was our last night in the country.
I’d finally got to catch up with a friend from Teachers College in Dunedin, who was now teaching at an International School in Bangkok. As expats, they suggested a popular chain restaurant in one of the many malls, which all of their Thai highly rated.I’d not tried a mango salad, and figured it was my  last chance for a while. I can’t recall what I’d originally decided to get, but whatever it was the waiter quickly air-drew a big X over the picture to indicate they didn’t have it.

So I hurriedly pointed to some Golden Fried fish at random, to accompany my mango salad. I also splashed out and opted for some sort of Fish Balls (as in balls of fish – not gonads…) to share for an appetizer, as James had already ordered Spring Rolls.

Turned out, I was the only one to try my Fish Balls – which I seem to recall tasting curried, but also resembling a pork texture. I was not a fan, but tried another to give it (literally) a second chance. I did enjoy my mango salad and scoffed down my deep-fried fish without a second thought…

I am all too
well-versed in nursing
In the middle of the night, I heard the rest of the gang bustling about in the hallway as they returned from their last hurrah. I was sleepily aware of a queasy feeling in my stomach, but rolled over and squeezed my eyes shut hoping to force myself back to sleep. Then at about 3am, after I returned from yet another mad dash to the toilet and ‘purchasing’ a truly overpriced but necessary bottle of water from the mini-bar, I diagnosed myself with food poisoning. I’d never had it before, but it was the only logical explanation.
In the morning, Thom kindly informed me that he reckoned my fish was not properly cooked. “But it was deep-fried” I thought to myself, assuming that any bugs would be killed at such a high heat?
 My hindsight now tells me I should have ventured across the road to find the rest of our group who were out drinking!

3. Don’t tell a flight attendant that you’re feeling unwell… before  the plane takes off

I’d spent most of the morning of our last day in Thailand, in bed feeling sorry for myself and willing myself to drink some water. I managed to make one more trip down to MBK to purchase a new case for my phone before we left in the afternoon. On the way to the airport, I ate a bit of popcorn as my first meal of the day at 4pm. Peculiar choice, but it was the first thing in sight.
Upon arriving at the airport, we were advised to get food on the Thai side for Thai prices, in order to avoid the overpriced monstrosities on the other side. I couldn’t stomach the smell let alone the thought of something cooked at that point. I opted for a honey-lemon smoothie thing, thinking it might settle my tummy and offer some still needed hydration.
As we weaved our way through the maze of the oh-so-serious immigration line, my stomach churned (and to be honest I was seriously regretting my choice of gym shorts as I examined my exit options for a toilet – I saw none and seriously feared suffering food-poisoning consequences in my pants, in public!).

It was a mission, but I got on the plane, got to my seat (at the back, near a toilet even) and then, for some reason, I opened my big fat mouth and told the flight attendant that I needed the toilet, as I’d had food poisoning the night before.
Alarm bells went off for her, and off she rushed to tell her manager.
I had an nearly instant vision of hindsight at this moment.

2. Don’t get off the plane UNLESS you’ve got written evidence that they’re not allowing you to fly AND/OR you’re given confirmation that there is room for you on the next flight

A bad situation quickly escalated to a worse situation as the flight attendant asked me to make my way to the front of the plane to speak with her manager. I ‘swam upstream’ in the crowded aisle as the people in the front rows found their seats and settled in. The rest of the staff questioned how I was feeling, as we were about to embark on a 10 hour flight. I assured them I was fine, but just needed the toilet (not mentioning my fear of needing the toilet mid-take off).
We had a doctor travelling in our group, who even vouched for me telling them I’d be fine and gave me some sleeping pills. I had concidered a trip to the pharmacy to get my own before I left Bangkok, but I was secretly scared to take them, and then need to go to the toilet and not wake myself up. Did I mention this was a 10 hour flight?The captain was now involved and was adamit I needed to see a doctor before flying. It was a full flight and the staff wouldn’t be able to properly take care of me if I got worse.

It’s all a bit of a blur from there, as I started feeling entirely too nauseous for my liking, my mind now uncertain how I’d get home, what a foreign doctor would be like, questioning all of these unknown details. The next thing I knew, my stomach rejected my feeble attempts to feed it and was doing the international sign language sign for “I’ve just vomitted in my mouth”.
Way to go, Kate. They’re obviously not going to let me fly now!
Thom was remarkable in keeping calm and reassuring me that this was not the end of the world and I, and we, would figure everything out and be fine. Ian, the organiser from Teacher Xpress, was brilliant as he loaded us up with contact details for his Thai friend, as well as Bannawat our fabulous tour guide.
Later, speaking to the insurance company, the guy told me I needed to get evidence from the airline that I was on the plane before it took off, for my claim. I had to show that I’d been checked in and then removed.
Well here’s where tecnicalites really kicked me in the arse. Did they remove me, or did I volunteer to get off and seek medical attention? We fought and argued in broken English with a flight manager of Thai Airways for what felt like ages.We finally did get a printout of me being off-loaded, but they in no way would take responsibility for me not getting home. He informed me that they could only suggest I see a doctor, and that since I’d shown ‘signs of weakness’ I must have admitted to being unable to fly.

Ok, we’ve got what we need, but now we need to get home. Hours have passed since our plane left without us. Some random sales guy was quite happy to try selling us new tickets… “I can send you to Shanghai, China… but you’ll have a 10 hour layover there, and then on to Auckland” – are you kidding me!?

Then he was telling us there were no seats available for 3 days…. and then he’s telling us the next seat we can purchase is on the 23/7/12. Perhaps I haven’t mentioned all this was taking place the evening of 12 July – so he was suggesting we stay another 10 DAYS! Our trip was only 10 days total – how well would this doubling go down with our jobs we were scheduled to return to on Monday!)
Had we not been exhausted and confused, it would have probably been beneficial to talk with the lady in the ticketing office about availability on tomorrow’s flight. Instead, we pursued our mission to get that damned piece of paper saying we were off-loaded – something that she had absolutely nothing to do with. Oops.
Perhaps, ‘next time’ we’ll have some additional clarity in such a situation.

1. Research ‘how to make a reverse charges/collect call from your destination BEFORE you find yourself in a high stress situation

This was something that had never even remotely crossed my mind prior to this ordeal.Standing back in the airport, feeling absolutely disgusting, the Thai Airways lady was trying to tell me how to go about seeing the doctor. She was saying it was going to cost me extra to be escorted to the airport doctor.

I do learn from my past mistakes. Having written off my beloved automobile, Pipi a short two weeks before our departure and getting stuck with a $240 towing bill because my insurance companyhadn’t arranged the towing for me, my first instant was to ring my insurance to inform them and have them advise me on what to do next because I was well aware I was entering unknown territory and did not want to be left high and dry.Afterall, this moment was the reason we pay for (what always seems to be at the time) stupid travel insurance! They were going to work for my hard-earned money now.

My travel insurance card, with my customer number on it, said to ring the number toll free. In my current situation, trying to google on my iPhone (I don’t think I’ll ever not travel without that again!) I relented to just putting my credit card in the webphone to get ahold of them and get things moving.

The flight attendant was impatiently waiting for me to get to the doctor.The travel department for my insurance company is conviently open between 8am – 5pm, Monday to Friday, you know when you really need them, and as it was nearly midnight on a Thursday, I got the “if this is an emergency, please stay on the line” message, as I waited to be transfered t0 international assistance.

Easily forgetting all the while that this call is ticking away and adding up on my credit card.
No photos were taken in the hours of
this event, but this depicts my waiting frustration
* I found out upon my safe return home, this initial call cost me $92.59 NZD* We had purchased a Bangkok SIM card for next to nothing, and had bought 1GB of data for the 10 days we were there, because it was the same price as 20 minutes of internet at the hotel! Since we didn’t know anyone, we didn’t have much need for extra credit, so there wasn’t much on it to begin with. And furthermore, we were leaving the country. Until we were stranded.

I tried asking the sales man how to ring overseas and he obviously misunderstood and told me to dial 007 (we learned this was to get out of the country and quickly chewed through ANY remaining credit we might have had). Now we couldn’t ring the guys Ian had given us.

Karl, from International S.O.S. in Sydney was brilliant and so helpful, it was refreshing having a second positive voice in my ear when both of us were getting frustrated. That reassurance that we were getting somewhere, doing well, multi-tasking and making progress was so appreciated. He would ring us back when we needed him. He organised a translator from their Bangkok office to help us out. He put me through to a doctor on their staff to do a phone assessment for my claim. He booked us accomodation at a nearby hotel and told us exactly where to go to get the shuttle. We even had a few laughs while we waited.

We ended up staying the night in a hotel, arriving at the airport the next day to sit across from the manager’s desk while we literally ‘stood by’ to fly stand by. With a half an hour to go till boarding closed, they said there were 5 seats left. Ever the optimist, I had everything on my body that could be, crossed and just silently repeated in  my head “please let us both get on this plane” over and over and over again until, we did in fact get on the plane.How does the story end???

We made it back home to New Zealand and our brand new flat in stunning Ahipara, safe and sound only 4 hours later than we’d originally intended, despite our 24 hour delay!

None of these experiences have put me off travel or Thailand in anyway.
The entire trip was absolutely amazing, and I am very happy to say that although dramatic at the time, the whole ‘off-loading’ experience is now something that I can look back on and laugh at my poor misfortune, yet again. It sure made for a good story though, don’t you think? 

Despite lots of “could’ve should’ve would’ve” thoughts with my now perfect reflection on the situation,  we are armed with so much new knowledge that I cannot wait to put into practice in our future travels.
I’d love to become a dive master in Koh Tao eventually, and spend some time living in Thailand. You can bet I will get my fix of street food then… but obviously accompanied by something spicy AND a large alcoholic beverage ;)

What travel lessons have you learned the hard way? I’d love to hear!
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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Tom July 29, 2012, 1:57 am

    Ahh you’re definitely right about the plug converters! I had the same experience when I went back to the UK with my bf over Christmas. I thought we’d be able to get a plug converter no problem, but it turned out to be extremely difficult and we found it in a random market after visiting every big-name store we could thing of!

    I’d never tell the flight attendants I was sick unless I was on the verge of fainting, though. My stomach was tying itself in knots on two flights I took getting back from Turkey to Manchester and making rather funny sounds. Luckily I made sure I had an aisle seat each time and was able to frequently hurry myself off to the loo. Not a pleasant couple of flights!

  • CanucKiwiKate July 29, 2012, 7:57 pm

    What gutted me most was that I even had the adapter from when I went back home and all my stuff was now kiwi-plugs.

    I don’t even know what I thinking, telling her. I DID faint on the way! I had a few beers between the airport and the first meal, ate, went to sleep, and woke up feelin yuck… was standing in line for the toilet and then the next thing I knew, some ladies arms were around me. Luckily there was then no one in the toilet, I was sick and then felt heaps better – but no idea what that was about.

    Thanks for reading, and for your comment, Tom! :)

  • Graham September 27, 2012, 8:03 pm

    Hi Kate!

    I’m also a Canadian living the life of an expat right now—here in Congo. I lived in Cambridge, NZ for 6 months back in 2005, so I can fully appreciate the beauty of that country.

    I’m currently on a trip around the world and one lesson I’ve learned the hard way is to always learn the basics of a language *before* going to the country that requires it. Trying to learn Spanish in South America, and subsequently French here in Congo has proved to be a frustrating task because I just want to be out there exploring!

    Loving your posts! I couldn’t find your email or Facebook anywhere, but shoot me a message at if you’d like to keep in touch (ya’know, being fellow Canuckiwi world travelers and all).



  • Kate Clarke September 28, 2012, 1:25 pm

    Hi Graham!

    Yes, the language one was something I definitely learned the hard way when a friend and I went to Honduras for a few weeks in May 2008, to volunteer at a childcare facility, and through the volunteer programme they provided 2 days of language lessons – which turned out to be mainly verb conjugating rather than conversation Spanish. I could ask for directions but for the life of me could not understand what they told me. At the time I thought it was lucky we had two girls with us who spoke fluent Spanish – I now realise I would have had to learn pretty quickly without them, and now I wish I had learned!

    Thanks for pointing out my lack of contact info – and in lieu of that, I have just created my Keep in Touch page at

    Looking forward to connecting with a fellow Canuckiwi world traveller!


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