Diary of a Globetrotting Family
Bangkok huskies, tween on board, bad air, and we are two for two on crazy late arrivals into Japan
We returned to Bangkok for a few days of sightseeing—but the air quality took an unexpected toll. Still, we loved getting to know Thailand so well, and knew we would be returning to the Land of Smiles. We were optimistic as we took our first visit as a family of four to Japan—but at the rate we were going, by the time we got to our hotel in the Land of the Rising Sun, we were going to be accompanied by the rising sun itself.
The Siberian huskies of Bangkok
The Siberian husky is known the world over for its distinctive silver and white coat, bright blue eyes, and friendly personality. They are also not what you expect to find in the middle of central Bangkok.
Our months in Asia have reminded us of the value of always keeping an open mind. What is possible easily winds up being what has come to pass. During our first family trip to Thailand a couple of months prior, we had visited a cat cafe in Chiang Rai. Later, as we talked about the adorable cats, Jodie did some research and happened upon a husky cafe in Bangkok. For a moment, it sounded like just the sort of thing you find online, take a “huh” moment to let the reality of that fact sink in, and then move on.
“A husky cafe in Bangkok?” said Connor. “I’d really like to go there.”
That “huh” moment needed a few more minutes to sink in.
Connor and dogs have been on iffy terms for a while. As a little boy, Connor adored our aging dog, Ella, but as years passed and Ella wasn’t much for playing anymore, he began to feel like he wasn’t into dogs. Jodie’s parents also have a dog, younger and often more rambunctious. She adores Connor, and sometimes he likes her, but she can be more in the face than he prefers. For the last couple of years, Connor had made it clear that when it came to animals, he preferred cats.
So the last thing we expected was to hear him say—and remind us regularly—that when we next went to Bangkok, he really, really wanted to visit the huskies.
To the Bangkok huskies
After the kids and I got out of the car we hired from the Grab app, the driver left, and the three of us noticed a guard wearing white gloves waving at us. We turned and made our way to a sink behind us. When you visit the huskies of Bangkok, you do so with clean hands.
Jodie had opted to stay at the hotel for this adventure, so she could take care of a few things. Getting in a short line, the kids and I waited our turn to check in—and were all the more grateful we arrived when we did. While we waited, the line grew much longer behind us, full of Bangkok locals and tourists who wanted their own turn with the huskies. Plus, while we waited, we could look over the shoulder of the woman at the checkin counter, and watch a few white and silver huskies playing within a fenced enclosure.
“They’re so pretty,” said Connor, as we went inside the adjoining café.
The husky, explains the American Kennel Club, maintains a “keen but amiable and even mischievous expression.” These “quick,” “nimble-footed” dogs are “friendly, fastidious, and dignified.” As Connor and Aster sipped the strawberry sodas that came with our entry ticket, I realized that my son was showing an interest in a dog whose personality and demeanor sounded remarkably like his own.
In a few minutes we, along with the two dozen or so other people in our group, would be allowed into the large, outdoor husky enclosure. There, we’d have an hour to hang out with about twenty huskies, who had names like Moscow, Panda, Bacco, and Aladdin. Yet the dog in charge, Momo, was not a husky. Yet this smaller dog made no bones that he was leader, or in Thai, poonam.
The sound of twenty dogs chilling
I had no idea what to expect. Twenty dogs? Sure, we were in a large space. Yes, there were lots of staff, who kept an eye on everything from people getting their hands too close to a husky’s face (which a safety video had warned could make the dogs sick), to when to grab a mop and tidy up a doggy puddle.
But large groups of dogs could be a sure sign of absolute barking-mad chaos to come. I braced myself for the noise, for the kids potentially feeling overwhelmed by dog tongues, or jumping dogs, or dogs that kept getting in their faces.
The staff guided us to the fence. We washed our hands again, passed through a gate, and were among the dogs.
And the dogs… chilled.
Twenty huskies padded about in the Bangkok afternoon. Some of them went to a spot they clearly preferred, and lay down on their sides, gladly accepting pats and belly rubs. Other huskies made rounds, spending time with people throughout the enclosure as the dogs simply wandered group to group.
Occasionally, a staff member would ask the kids if they wanted a particular dog to come over. If the kids said yes, the staff member would guide them in sitting down, and gesture for one of the dogs to approach.
I’d never seen anything like it. The huskies were calm, friendly, and playful. But there was no crazy noise. No chaos of barking or chasing. There were simply dogs enjoying the company of their pack and some guests.
As for the kids, they each approached the huskies in their own way. Like the dogs who preferred to pick a spot and hang out in it for a while, Connor liked to pick an area, sit down, and let the dogs come to him. Aster roamed around, pausing here and there to pet dogs or let some come to her, but always she kept moving.
The staff watched out for every guest as well, but some of them, I’m certain, went out of their way to give the children advice. Near the end of our visiting time, one of the staff members came over and gently began directing me and the kids toward an area where a few people had lined up in parallel lines from each other, leaving an open space in between.
“Things will fill up quickly in a moment,” the staff member told us. “You’ll want to be right here for the best view.”
A couple of minutes later, we understood what he meant.
Dashing dog parade
The staff had cleared out the dogs we had been visiting with. At the opposite end of the enclosure, inside a fenced area that kept another group on its own, the staff opened the gate. And the huskies ran, in a sort of dashing dog parade, right down the passage form by the parallel lines of people. The kids clapped and grinned and laughed, even as the last husky bounded past.
Back inside the café, after washing our hands, the kids and I nibbled on french fries (Aster), crab cakes (Connor), and fried chicken (me). We talked about our experience with the dogs, and how surprised we each had been at how calm huskies could be. Once we finished eating, I pulled up the Grab app on my phone to request a ride back to the hotel. As the car approached, the kids and I watched a movie playing on the TV near the door. Of course, it was Clifford the Big Red Dog.
We walked out of the husky café, still thinking of those soft white coats and those loving blue eyes. As we opened the car doors, Connor turned to me. “I now like dogs more than cats,” he said. “The huskies did it.”
An embarrassment of a cruise
The lights of the tall white Ferris wheel took over from the setting sun. Gleams of white and amber twinkled on the gentle waves of the broad flow of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. Entering the long, narrow ship where we would spend the evening, we passed alongside the buffet tables in the middle of the enclosed bottom deck. To our right, a man in a doorway held out a white-gloved hand and guided us up to the bow of the ship, where four tables waited. He seated us at a four-person table along the port side, with Aster next to Jodie, Jodie across from me, and Connor next to me.
As usual, Jodie had found something amazing.
Our time not just in Bangkok, but in Thailand, was almost over. After tonight, we had one more full day in Bangkok before leaving the Land of Smiles for the Land of the Rising Sun.
Tonight, we would sail north, upriver, along riverside promenades, restaurants, temples, and even the gorgeous, gleaming Grand Palace.
“You’ve outdone yourself,” I said to Jodie, and then we leaned toward each other for a kiss.
“Oh my gosh,” said Connor. Jodie and I pulled apart, sat back in our chairs, and wondered what had made our son exclaim so.
“It’s the two of you,” said the eleven-year-old boy. “Your kissing is embarrassing.”
Ah. So it begins.
Nighttime dinner cruise on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River
“Is it weird to see me and Daddy kissing?” said Jodie.
“I get that,” I replied. “Every kid reaches a point where it can feel embarrassing to see their parents kiss. But Mama found us this amazing dinner cruise on the river. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do. I kissed her to show my appreciation for the work she did booking this earlier, and, well, it’s a cruise on a river in Bangkok. It’s pretty romantic.”
Connor’s eye roll put the last word on the discussion.
The ship pulled away from the dock, and we began our cruise through the breezy, warm Bangkok evening. After the bright sun and hot days, darkness comes on quickly in Thailand. We passed other river cruises, some shining with pinks and yellows, and others more modest. Powerful floodlights made the tall brown spire of Wat Arun, or the Temple of the Dawn, rise into the night as if it were midday.
The many colors of Bangkok’s IconSiam mall glittered on the water. Only a few months prior, in November, we had been by the fountains along the front of IconSiam, waiting for the water show to begin—and looking out at the boats on the Chao Phraya and wondering what it would be like to sail those waters.
Now we know.
Throughout the next couple of hours, we nipped inside to go through the buffet line, dining on everything from panang curry with chicken, to fresh seafood. We didn’t say anything else about our kiss or Connor feeling embarrassed. The warm night air ruffled our hair. We ate and drank as the ship wove through the calm waters of the river that passes through Bangkok.
But now and again, I stole glances at our son, as he looked out on a world that was much bigger than he had understood. Sure, there may come a point where he feels very differently about kissing—though not necessarily about my and Jodie’s. But in my fatherly heart, I hoped simply that he always knew he could tell us about what he felt.
Later that evening, as we sat there, I put an arm around Connor’s shoulder and drew him in for a one-armed hug. I gave him a small kiss on top of his head. He didn’t pull away. He didn’t roll his eyes. Then I let him go, and we went back to chatting about the evening, and all our impressions about Thailand, as we passed by the city on the waters of the Chao Phraya.
Opening the curtains on our last day in Bangkok, even from our west-facing window the brown-tinged sky told us it was going to be a hazy day.
I love Bangkok, and Thailand. I love Southeast Asia. But dammit, I really wish the air quality would get better.
From the air pollution of vehicles to seasonal rice field burning, countries like Thailand and Vietnam go through periods where, frankly, their air quality sucks. Local and national governments are trying to work on the problem, but it’s going to take time, effort, and a lot of changes. They aren’t there yet, but I’m glad they’re trying to clear the air.
Jodie looked out the window with me. She pulled up the IQAir app on her phone, which tracks air quality measurements for locations around the world. For Bangkok, the air that day was forecast to stay in the red—or “unhealthy” zone.
Only trouble was, we were going to be outside most of the day, touring the Bangkok Grand Palace on our last day in the country.
Plans up in the air
As we made our travel plans, air quality didn’t come to mind much. After six months of traveling though, and with most of that in Southeast Asia, now we realize that air quality is going to be a big factor in our travel decisions.
If only it hadn’t taken an evening-long migraine to figure it out.
Now, before we go on, I want to take a moment to say that the Grand Palace was worth every moment. The huge statues of curve-fanged guardians enthralled us—especially the purple one, which Jodie and Aster loved seeing. The delicate glass and mirror tiles along a temple seemed like they were guiding our gazes into some sort of realm behind the tiles, even though all they were doing was reflecting the temple complex in front of them.
But our favorite spots? Under the shade of covered promenades, we wandered along richly detailed continuous murals. Massive floor to ceiling panels depicted scenes from mythologies. All together, if you could put each stretch of mural end to end, they would likely extend a couple of kilometers, or at least a mile.
After the palace, we made our way to Old Siam Plaza. The multi-storied indoor complex showcases shops and row upon row of eateries, from dumplings to desserts. It also gave us a respite from the hazy, mucky outside air.
Back at the hotel later that afternoon, Jodie and I took long naps. I took an ibuprofen to ease a headache, and drank a lot of water. But for Jodie, her headache was only just beginning.
Living in Oregon, we have grown more acutely aware of how much air quality can affect our physical well-being and our mental health. During summers where winds blew wildfire smoke into Eugene, we had periods where going outside was just about impossible. In the summer of 2020, devastating wildfires east of Eugene gave us days where western Oregon had the worst air quality in the world. Worse than New Delhi, India, or Beijing, China.
Now, as we traveled in Chiang Rai near the beginning of the rice field burning season, or in Hanoi when its air quality could outpace Beijing’s on a bad day, we had begun to learn that air quality was a bigger factor in our travel decisions than we had ever considered.
Throughout our last evening in Bangkok, Jodie struggled with a horrible migraine headache. As best as we could figure, the bad air quality that day had simply been too much for her. I won’t hold you in suspense though. As the evening went on, the migraine gradually eased, but even the next day she was still shaking off its vestiges.
Still. As we made our way to the airport the next morning, the departure from Thailand was bittersweet. Our entire family loves being in Thailand. But when will we come back? What time of year? Where will we go, and how much will air quality play into that choice?
I guess we’ll have to take a deep breath and see.
Land of what?
My alarm went off at five in the morning. Jodie got up soon after. And when we couldn’t put it off any longer, we started to gently nudge the kids. Their visas for slumberland had expired, and it was time to get ready for a big travel day.
“Wake up,” I whispered into Connor’s ear. “It’s time to go to the land of ramen and sushi.”
Connor’s eyes flashed open. He sat up and smiled at me. Excitement quickly chased away the sleepiness in his eyes as he said, “You forgot onigiri and cuteness.”
Then he bounded out of bed, as did Aster, and we made our way quickly down to the lobby. Just as we were ready early, our driver had arrived early. Hopefully that would be a sign of the way the day would go.
Arriving in Japan
The first time Jodie and I came to Japan, in 2013, with a 15-month-old Connor, winds delayed our flight. Instead of landing at Narita Airport in the afternoon, we didn’t get in until late at night. By the time we had managed to get from Narita to the western Tokyo suburb of Noborito, we had taken two wrong trains, it was past midnight, rain was lashing down sideways, and we had no idea how to find our accommodation.
This time, at least it wasn’t raining.
Our travels to Japan took all day. From Bangkok, we actually flew south, to Malaysia. The flights went smoothly, but our second flight, from Kuala Lumpur to Haneda Airport south of Tokyo, would take seven hours. That’s longer than it takes to fly across from coast to coast in the USA.
Landing at Haneda around 10:30 p.m., we did our best to get through quarantine check, immigration, and customs as quickly as we could. We knew the last train going from Haneda to Tokyo would be leaving somewhere around midnight, and we just might be able to make it. Maybe.
If we could figure out buying the damn train tickets.
Last train to Tokyo
We had three minutes.
Clean, efficient, punctual, and comfortable, Japan’s train networks are a marvel. No matter how amazing the train system is though, it’s still hard to buy tickets from a machine, while dashing to the nearby ATM because you need to pay with cash. Once that’s done, you need to haul two rolling suitcases up a flight of stairs to the monorail platform, and someone else will be wearing a heavy backpack up those same stairs, only she’ll be going up them with a prosthetic leg.
Fortunately, a train attendant helped us navigate the unfamiliar buttons. Jodie worked with him on what we needed, while I pulled out yen. The attendant checked his watch.
With a click, a beep, and a few clings, the machine released our tickets and our change. Hitching up my travel backpack, I picked up a rolling suitcase in each hand and charged up the stairs. I knew Jodie and the kids were behind me. I also knew that Jodie was hustling as best she could, but stairs are simply innately harder for someone who has a prosthetic leg. If I could dash to the train, then if need be I could figure out some sort of interference to run.
I thought I heard Jodie say we weren’t going to make it.
Getting toward the top of the stairs, right across the platform I could see the last monorail of the day, still sitting there, with a few people standing and sitting inside.
“It’s still here!” I called behind me. “Move it!”
Getting to the doorway, I set the suitcases just a little inside. The kids came up over the last stairs, followed shortly after by Jodie. Her trekking pole tapped the floor as she hauled herself across the tiles. The kids jumped past me onto the train.
I watched the doors, wondering how I was going to stop them closing.
Then Jodie stepped one foot onto the train, then the other, and with a look of exhaustion and relief, she took a deep breath.
I pulled the suitcases the rest of the way inside just as the doors began to close.
Breathing hard, I stared out the windows of the closed doors. We’d done it. Barely. While exhausted. But we’d caught the last train to Tokyo.
Wait, which way are we going?
Arriving at the station on the southeastern edge of Tokyo, we learned we had enough time to get tickets for a train that would take us to Shinjuku station, on Tokyo’s Yamanote line. Navigating another ticket machine, we made our way to the platform. If we caught the twelve-thirty train, we could go to Shinjuku, and from there take a short taxi ride to our hotel.
But that’s not what happened.
A train approached the platform. We got on. A few stops later, Jodie said she didn’t think we were going the right way. I disagreed though—it seemed like the stops were matching up the route to Shinjuku.
At least, until they didn’t.
“We’re going the wrong way,” said Jodie. “We’re actually going back toward the airport.”
Getting off at the next station, we found a ticket counter, sought help, and realized our mistake.
Our train to Shinjuku was at twelve-thirty. But we had gotten on an earlier train.
The attendants advised us to get on a train that should soon be heading back toward the Yamanote line. We could get to the Shinagawa station—not quite to Shinjuku, but close enough to work with. As we sat down on the train, the exhaustion hit us. It was now around one in the morning. We’d been traveling for nearly twenty-four hours. The backpack felt heavy. Connor was helping with one of the rolling suitcases, while I handled the other one. He was being amazing, and doing all he could to help. Still, fatigue weighed down all our gazes, and all of us longed to curl up on the futons in our hotel.
We waited for the train doors to close. Then a voice came over the intercom, announcing something in Japanese, far beyond our barely rudimentary comprehension. As people got up and left the train though, we got the message: This train wasn’t going anywhere.
To highway or not to highway
Back at the counter, the agents apologized and explained that there was something on the tracks. By now, it was nearly one thirty in the morning. Trains wouldn’t be an option again until around five in the morning.
Instead of getting closer to our hotel, we made our way outside. Two women came up to us. “There’s a karaoke place across the street,” said one of the women. The other added, “You could go and stay until five, when the trains resume. It’ll only cost about seven hundred yen.”
Well, if it came down to it, that would be five bucks well spent. We thanked the women and assured them we would be okay, that we had a hotel, we just needed to get there. They nodded and went on their way. The late night air was crisp, but not too chilly, as Jodie and I looked at each other. We locked gazes for a bit, then nodded. We’d done what we could. But it was time to call in the cab cavalry.
Jodie pulled up the DiDi app on her phone. A taxi would cost around $60 or $70, she told me. And we’d probably spent around $30 already just trying to take trains. But at this point, all that mattered was getting to the room, safe and sound.
A few minutes later, our black taxi pulled up, and the doors opened automatically—one of those little touches I remember loving about Japan the first time we visited. We tucked our bags into the back of the car. As the kids settled into the back seat, with Aster on the right, Connor in the middle, and me on the left, the children’s eyes brightened.
“The seats are heated!” said Aster.
We might be exhausted, but at least we had warm bums.
In Japan, cars drive on the left, and drivers sit on the right, so Jodie sat on the left-side passenger seat up front. But as the driver settled in, he didn’t leave. He began asking Jodie something, trying first in Japanese, then working in some English.
After a few minutes, some tired laughter, and a few consultations on Google Translate on both his phone and Jodie’s phone, we figured it out.
“The highway?” he was saying. “Or no highway?”
“Is the highway more expensive?”
Jodie and I grinned as we looked at each other. It was late at night, and few cars were out.
“No highway,” said Jodie.
In the back of the car, the kids and I looked out at the city, and we also stared at the strange, muted ads on a screen mounted to the back of the seat in front of me. A half an hour ticked by. The kids, warm as dinner rolls in a low oven, closed their eyes for a couple of minutes.
Then the car turned down a side street. Finally, a few minutes after two in the morning, we were at our hotel.
Driver paid and checkin completed, we followed the desk clerk up a flight of stairs to our second-story room. Our futons were already laid out on the floor’s tatami mats, four in a row, lined up like sushi on a plate. The clerk helped us get settled in, then wished us good night and closed the door as he went back to the front desk.
Jodie and I gave each other big, tight hugs. The kids immediately got ready for bed and slid under their covers.
“It’s like camping!” said Aster.
“Only inside!” added Connor.
And then they were asleep.
Jodie and I shared some silent laughs. Our second arrival into Tokyo had been as crazy as the first. But just like the first, we ultimately found our way and had arrived safe and sound—thanks in no small part to the help and kindness of people we encountered along the way. Was it tricky to arrive? Sure. But as Jodie and I closed our own eyes and let the covers warm us up, we knew it was going to be good to be back.
So we’re two for two on crazy, confusing, difficult, late-night arrivals in Japan. Maybe the third time—and there will be a third time—will be the smooth charm.