Traveling to Asia / Jet Lag

Why go to Asia?

Laura's sister Beth and her husband Kevin have been spending close to half their time in Cambodia for the last four or five years. They've spent a fair bit of time at our house in between stints in Cambodia (and in between houses), and they've told us plenty of stories about Cambodia. The latest news was that they couldn't be sure how many more terms they'd be in Cambodia, so we decided to pull the trigger and visit them in 2013.

I had never been west of Seattle or east of Barcelona before, and part of the reason is fear of jet lag. It can take up to a week to feel right if you're a severe jet lag sufferer, and I hate it when my sleep is messed up. When I was in college, I found that I needed to get either around 7 to 8 hours of sleep, or else 5 to 5.5 hours. If I got into the 6 to 6.5 range I'd invariably develop a bad headache later in the day. This is due to our circadian rhythm which is reflected in levels of the melatonin hormone. The worse-case-scenario is probably flying to Asia for a week, feeling horrible due to jet lag, and then flying home and feeling horrible for another week! If you can afford to go there for a month, it's less of a factor of course. However, as we get older, our melatonin cycle damps out significantly, so we're never as alert (nor as tired) as we were when we were in our twenties. This effect can make it hard to sleep soundly through the night, or stay awake after lunch, but I had high hopes that it would prevent significant jet lag!

If you look at the map of Asia, it's a short hop from Phnom Penh to Singapore, home of our good friend Yan Hock who has visited us many times, and has invited us to visit him as well. After contacting Kevin and Yan Hock, we needed to visit in February, so we only had about a month to set it up. If you're going to Cambodia and Singapore, you can go around the world either way, really, so we considered connecting through either Europe or Hawaii. Due to the lateness of our reservations, we got some help from a travel agent who hooked us up with Air France tickets through Paris, a city we'd never visited, and one that some people recommend.

The only drawback was that these were "Premium Economy" tickets, so we were out about another $1000 for the tickets. That proved to be one of our best choices we made on the trip. We got in line with the first class and business class travelers rather than the coach people (a much shorter line), the food was much better, and our seats reclined pretty well and were quite wide. As a result, we got pretty much sleep on our long legs. On international flights you're supposed to sleep when it's dark outside, not when it's nighttime by your internal clock. So if you're old enough, your internal clock isn't too overpowering (i.e. your melatonin curve is pretty flat) and if you've been up for a while, you can probably sleep if the seats aren't too uncomfortable.

How old do you have to be to do it this way? I can't speak for everybody, but based on my experience if you're under 40 your circadian rhythm may mess things up for you if you need to sleep at the wrong time regardless of the seat size or tilt. If you're 55 or over, I'd expect a big payoff from better seats, at least for the first couple of days of your trip. In between, YMMV as they say on the internet.


Sofas in De Gaulle Airport According to the Internet, De Gaulle airport in Paris is one of the very worst in the world, and all of my world-traveling friends pretty much agreed with that. Even though we had a pretty long layover, we planned to just hang around the airport on the way over. It's difficult to catch a train to Paris, see some sights, and then find your way back to the airport, but the sofas are pretty nice and quite a few travelers, including us, caught 40 winks there as shown in the picture at left.

Sofas in De Gaulle Airport Why did we need 40 winks at the airport? We didn't have much trouble sleeping on the plane, But the trip from Boston to Paris is relatively short, and we left fairly early in the evening (7:45 on Monday Feb 4), so they only turned down the lights for 4 or 5 hours! We opted to not bother to take off our shoes for this short time, which was a bad idea. Your feet swell up quite a bit doing this and we didn't make that mistake again. Most international flights give you a pair of socks to put on after you take off your shoes.

After switching terminals, doing quite a bit of reading, eating an outrageous 40 euro lunch and an equally overpriced snack, we finally boarded the plane for Phnom Penh via Ho Chi Minh City at 7:20 pm on Tuesday. I do have to admit that it's a pretty nice view when you're flying out of Paris after sunset, as seen at right. (Hint: instead of playing "where's Waldo" you need to play "where's the Eiffel tower" with this picture of the City of Light. And unless you have amazing vision, you'll probably need to click on it to get the larger version.) The true test of how much jet lag would affect us would come when we arrived in Cambodia after that longer flight.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City Airport We got more sleep on the 13-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City, our connecting airport. We did see the city flying in and out, but it's a little less spectacular than Paris at night. The airport picture is appropriate, since that's mostly what we saw. They made us get off the plane and go through a luggage check where they let my half-full water bottle through despite Laura's concerns, but tried to make a guy abandon (or pour out) his $700 worth of French wine, probably bought in the duty-free section of the Paris airport. Needless to say, he was not happy, but we didn't hang around long enough to learn the final disposition of his case. If there's any justice in this world, he should have been allowed to take it though in exchange for a small bribe!

It soon became clear why they made us go though all this. We were herded upstairs, walked past a row of duty-free stores, and then ended up re-entering the same gate we had started at. Doubtless they were hoping to sell us some stuff, but we weren't looking for souvenirs this early in the trip. We made an on-time departure from Vietnam for the short flight to Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Arriving in Phnom Penh Well, when we arrived in Cambodia around 3pm on Wednesday, what shape were we in? There's only this one picture of the event, and I promise that I didn't fuzz it out to make us look better: Beth's camera inexplicably didn't focus on us too well. But I felt good, Laura felt pretty good, and Beth and Kevin were amazed at how good we looked compared to the dozen college students they're used to bringing to Cambodia! I guess when you're 20 years old, flying coach with your internal clock completely screwed up, it's not pretty!

The bottom line is that I didn't really experience anything identifiable as jet lag throughout the trip. When I was short of sleep, I'd be a little tired until the next morning, but that was it. Laura experienced minimal jet lag, and after a couple of days she was fine.

Well, we've revealed the mysteries of jet lag, but while we're on the subject of travel, we'll do a quick recap on the rest of our travel experience, for anyone who might be interested or might be contemplating a similar trip themselves.

But before we leave the subject of travel and Pnnom Penh, I want to mention that the traffic on the roads is a lot like traffic in most of the third world. Pretty much every traffic regulation or convention is optional, and the shortest distance between two points is often the preferred route for pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, tuk tuks (motorcycles pulling a small sidecar with room for 2-4 passengers), cars, trucks, and busses. If you've been there you know what I mean. If not, click on the video and see how things go first on an ordinary street, then on an intersection, and ending with some views from within a tuk tuk. The video is mostly Phnom Penh but the last little bit is from a tuk tuk in Siem Reap taking a trip to the Angkor Temples.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Bus to Siem Reap View from Siem Reap bus On Saturday we boarded a bus for Siem Reap, giving us a good chance to see the countryside as we made our way north. It wasn't a big risk, since we had our tour guides Kevin and Beth with us and they had ridden the bus many times before. I was very comfortable with an Asian bus driver who spoke very little English since I have taken the Fung Wah bus (since shut down for safety violations) to NYC from Boston! The Siem Reap bus trip was roughly the same length and cost, and had the same number of stops, but we found the scenery more interesting than what you see on the trip to NY. Take a look at that building on stilts at right. (I have no idea what it is.)

In general, the roads weren't as good as the roads from Boston to NY. In places they were, but in other places they were pretty bumpy, necessitating much slower travel. The word from our guides was that they are continuously improving the roads and they seem a little better every time they ride the bus.

JetStar Asia to Singapore

Leaving Siem Reap Our excellent travel agent put us on Air France Premium Economy for all the long flights of our trip, but this short jaunt south was on a discount Asian airline, JetStar Asia. We were a little concerned when we checked the web the night before our trip, since there were all kinds of warnings about high baggage fees if we hadn't paid for our baggage early. We couldn't really figure out how to do that, if we'd already done it, or if it was too late, so we just went to the airport to find out. The picture shows Beth and Laura just before Beth's ride arrived to take her back to the Phnom Penh bus.

We didn't have any special treatment in coach, but our travel agent had prepaid everything we needed, so there were no baggage fees of any kind. The plane was a nice Airbus 320 but we were crammed in there like cattle, with very little knee room, and no first class or business class at all, just hundreds of seats packed in as tight as possible!

So was it a bad flight? Not at all. It was only a short jaunt to Phnom Penh, and then a couple of hours over the ocean to Singapore, arriving around 8:30pm on Valentine's Day. The uneventful nature of everything is proved by the fact that we took no pictures at all of this leg of the trip. We connected in Europe through one of the worst airports in the world, and we arrived in Singapore in one of the very best in the world. It's no surprise that we got through there very efficiently; world traveler Yan Hock knew exactly where we'd show up, and was right there to meet us.

Back to Boston via Paris

Going back was straightforward. We just retraced our footsteps, as it were. Go to Air France, check in at the short line, give them our bags with no charge, get through security, put our backpacks and one or two suitcases in our own overhead bin, sit down in our big seats, and relax!

After takeoff, plug in the laptop if desired, as I did to write some comments on a few of the thousands of pictures we had taken! Eat the good food, get an extra glass of wine any time we want, and sleep when they turned out the lights! We didn't forget to take off the shoes, either.

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Page last updated December 25, 2013
Related links: Traveling to Asia / Jet Lag - Prince Sihanouk - The Khmer Rouge Era - Ecotour of the Floating Villages - Water for Cambodia - Angkor Temples and Siem Reap