Carissa Sutter, 126
Owning a pet in Thailand is a big responsibility, which is why our last Country Director made it a point to discourage it. But there was no discouraging me – my whole family is filled with pet-crazed lunatics. The first thing other Volunteers checked in their official Volunteer Handbook was the Peace Corps medical policies and vacation policies. The first thing I looked up was the official country policy on owning pets. I believe my priority was the more rational one.
Why has owning a pet been such an important part of my Peace Corps service? Well, partially because I have never before gone more than a month or two without a pet. I used to joke with my friends that I own pets because I want to appear to be talking to someone – not just to myself. But I did not realize how precisely true that was until I came to Thailand. When I have a little creature staring up at me as I comment on our dinner choices or on how hot it has been, it really feels a lot like I am not alone. It feels like I have a little furry counterpart who happily agrees with everything that I say. Or argues with me because he is such a rebel.
I have learned a few things as a pet-owning Peace Corps Volunteer, and I thought I would share some of my lessons with future Volunteers.
Tricks to Traveling around Thailand With Your Pet
If you’re like me, you may not have a lot of neighbors that you trust to watch your indoor cat. Thai people do not have indoor pets. All of their pets live outside, and many Thai people do not allow their pets to come inside at all. Basically, the pet culture here is exactly the opposite of America – our pets mostly live indoors but go outdoors sometimes, and theirs do the reverse. This would not be such a terrible thing for cats if there weren’t wild animals, hungry dogs, crazy drivers, and cat-haters running around unchecked on the streets.
Because of my inability to find any trustworthy pet-sitters in my area, I take my cat, Chaturon, with me when I travel. I consider this to be a positive practice, because at some point he will have to be comfortable flying about 25 hours or more to the United States.
Chaturon has been ‘on the road’ since he was five weeks old and is as used to travelling as any cat can be. I always carry him in his soft-sided carrier, which is the same carrier that is accepted in-cabin on international flights; he already considers it to be his safe-space. And a good place for a nap.
Never point out to anyone that you have a cat in your bag. Act as if you assume that your pet is allowed everywhere and try not to draw attention to it. There have been more than a few times when I believe bus drivers knew that I had a pet, but they pretended not to know. If they notice your cat, and say “No pets on the bus”, ask the driver if you can pay a fee. I have almost never had to do this, except during my trip to Pattaya. For whatever reason, when I went to Pattaya I had to pay a “fee” of about 300 baht to get him on the double-decker A/C bus and another 200 Baht to get him back home on the rot dtu. No other bus has ever made me pay a “fee.”
Flying with your Pet
As far as flights go, both Thai Airways and Bangkok Air are willing to fly your pet in cargo, domestically. In Thailand, all airlines stopped allowing pets to travel in-cabin a while ago. The first time I flew with Chaturon, I chose Bangkok Air because I did research and they had the best reviews. I had a bad experience with them on our return flight, and I have only used Thai Airways ever since. To be fair, Bangkok Air did their best to put right the mistake they made, and their customer service was exemplary. Unfortunately, I don’t forgive easily.
To fly domestically, just look for flights on Thai Airways that aren’t on Airbus 320 (A320). That is the only type of plane on their schedule that cannot accommodate pets. Once you have chosen your flight, book it and email their customer service department at email@example.com. You will have to formally request a pet-reservation and provide them with your flight itinerary. To save time, also tell them the dimensions of your pet’s hard crate – they’re going to ask you anyway.
Incidentally, you should own two cat-carriers: the soft in-cabin carrier and the hard cargo carrier. The soft carrier can fit inside of a suitcase, folded up, and when you are done flying around you can ship your hard carrier back to your site for an insanely cheap price. It’s definitely worth it.
The airline should get back to you quickly, and they will give you a confirmation code for your pet’s reservation. They will probably ask that you confirm their confirmation by calling after three working days…but I never do. I have never had a problem. And no one has ever again asked for that confirmation number.
When you get to the airport, you’ll have to pay about 70 Baht per kilo (including the carrier) for your pet’s place on the plane. I always lock the crate with a little padlock (available at every village-dalat in Thailand) so that no one can open the gate and let him escape. I have read about this happening to travelers at airports numerous times. Don’t give your pet water or wet food for about ten hours before his flight. No domestic flight from Bangkok takes more than two hours altogether, so your pet should be fine. (I have explained more about this in the “Nitty Gritty” section of this article.)
You will want to get to the airport early or on time, as all airlines have a limit to how many animals they are legally allowed to carry in cargo on a single flight. Your pet reservation isn’t actually a pet “reservation.” Depending on the plane, it is usually two or three animals maximum – so if another pet traveler checks in earlier with a herd of cats, your pet can’t fly with you. The airline will arrange to put your pet on another flight, possibly with another airline, and you will have to try to find your pet when you land. Your pet will not be brought to you, you will literally have to find out (in Thai) where your pet is. This can take up to two hours, since almost no one at your destination-airport knows where your pet is either.
A flight attendant on Thai Airways told me that their airline doesn’t actually have a limit. He said that he’s seen them put up to ten pets on their plane before. I cannot confirm or deny this possibly non-advertised all-pets-can-fly rule. However, they have never made me fly my cat on a different plane.
If you do choose Thai Airways, just go to the check-in counter and they will check your bags and print out your ticket – then hold your ticket hostage while you go pay the pet fee at another Thai Airways counter. They will point you in the right direction. My experience at Suvarnabhumi has been that I go to this other waiting room, take a number, wait 5-10 minutes for them to call my number, then spend another 5-10 minutes waiting for them to enter a bunch of unimportant information into their database before they give me the receipt. Next, I go drop off my cat at the Thai Airways excess baggage area (right next to the security point) and then go retrieve my plane ticket.
Once you get to the gate, advise the flight attendants (before boarding begins) that you have checked a cat in cargo and you 1) want to make sure he has been loaded on the plane and 2) want to make sure the light is left on for him in cargo. I have met with mixed reactions at this point, which range from amused condescension (aww, cute farang has a kitty!) to confusion (of course we put your cat on the plane, we aren’t idiots.)
When your plane lands, either you can expect your pet on the luggage-belt or your pet will show up at excess baggage. The Suvarnabhumi Airport requires that you pick up your pet in baggage claim at the excess baggage area behind the elevators. Wait there for about 15 minutes, your pet will probably not show up before the luggage starts appearing on the belt. The Chiang Mai Airport, the Phuket Airport, and the Krabi Airport all just put your pet on the luggage belt. Make your way to the front of the line, they never fail to come out first.
There are usually pet friendly hotels wherever you go in Thailand. I have not found any in Korat City for whatever reason, and of course I have had a problem in some small towns. Bangkok has a few extremely expensive options (which also have expensive hidden charges for your pet), and the moderately expensive (in comparison to hostels) Ibis chain. I have stayed at all of the locations in Bangkok, but my favorite is the Ibis-Nana. It is on Sukhumvit Soi 4; right down the street from Bumrungrad Hospital, around the corner from the BTS, and is always cheaper than Ibis-Siam. Siam is the most expensive because it is located in front of the National Stadium BTS, in the Siam area, and it is incredibly easy to find. Ibis-Sathorn is the cheapest, maybe because it’s kind of difficult to find and it isn’t very close to the BTS. I don’t like Ibis-Riverside because it is a hike to the BTS and fewer restaurants deliver there; but it does have a really nice view of the river. Chaturon loves nice views.
In Bangkok, there are cheaper options than Ibis and they can all be found on Agoda.com. At first, pet friendly hotels were all far from the BTS; but recently Agoda added more, and one of the new additions is in the center of Ratchawithi Market. This is a great choice for anyone who wants to stay near Bed Station Hostel, a PCV hot-spot.
Sneaking a cat into a hotel is definitely easier than sneaking in a dog, but it is very stressful. If the hotel room has pleather furniture, you have to figure out a way to cover it so your cat doesn’t destroy it. Screens on the windows are also an issue, and windows that face an outdoor hallway. You can’t allow the staff to clean the room (though I almost never let them clean my room when I am in a pet friendly hotel either), and you have to worry all the time that something might happen while you’re away. This is Thailand, not America. They can technically take your pet and throw it out of the room. I do my absolute best to avoid sneaking my cat into hotels, especially because there’s almost always a pet friendly place nearby.
I have a few things that I have put aside to always bring on trips: an empty cardboard beer box cut in half (to make litter box) which can easily be folded up, a litter scoop, and a small brush that comes with a tray to clean up the sand. These things are essential. Obviously the first helps the litter-bag keep its shape, the second keeps the room from smelling, and the third cleans up those little pieces of litter that always end up all over the place. I started carrying a scented candle too, just because it’s nice.
How do I handle the bathroom situation on the road? Well, I have a system that has evolved over the past two years. Very importantly, I pour about a half a bag of litter into a heavy duty garbage bag, place that bag in another heavy duty bag along with his litter-scoop and tie it up. When Chaturon was a kitten, I would carry this bag in my backpack to allow him to go to the bathroom when the bus stopped for a break. Simply take the inner bag out, lay it on the floor of a bathroom stall, and let nature take over. Then if the bag gets wet on the outside or he tears it, it doesn’t matter – it’s going in another bag. I would use the scoop to keep it clean during our travels.
Now that Chaturon is older, for trips less than eight hours (total), he doesn’t need a break – provided I stop giving him water after midnight on the day that we travel. This makes for a slightly thirsty cat, but this is far less of a strain than having to go to the bathroom and not being able to. If you feel comfortable having your cat try to use the litter on a moving bus, they will do it if they are desperate but they will not if they are just extremely uncomfortable. When they are uncomfortable they prefer meowing loudly, continuously, for hours. And honestly, I do not believe that withholding water for that short time actually makes him incredibly thirsty. I always set down water as soon as we get to the hotel and he never goes to it within the first half an hour.
On a separate note – if you live in an area that doesn’t have cat litter, or frequently doesn’t carry cat litter, you can use chicken feed in a pinch. It smells like organic cat litter, and is probably better for the environment.
Traveling with a cat is a tricky business, but it is possible. I think it is very important to start doing it when they are small, and be consistent about taking them with you. When my cat sees me packing my suitcase (which I do for a few days to prepare him), he packs some of his favorite toys with my clothes. Seriously. He understands what is happening, and is ready to travel.