RTW2007: Fukuoka, wherein our analytic adventurer admires the amazons of ASFUK and has pork bone soup for second breakfast.

Tonkotsu ramen at Ichiran, Fukuoka

Immigration was painless and Customs, unusually, didn’t even bother to open my bag. I hopped on the shuttle bus to the domestic terminals (there are three) and engaged in Japanese speed-reading to figure out that my flight to the non-major destination of Komatsu must be leaving from T1. Female Japanese airline staff tend to be selected for more than just bean-counting ability, but the Ms. Tanaka who awaited me was gorgeous even by ANA standards; more interestingly yet, her nametag proudly proclaimed that she was working for Airport Services Fukuoka, abbreviated “ASFUK” in big capital letters. Oh my.

I’d completed the gauntlet by 8:20 and my flight left at 10:15. This meant there was only one thing to do — head into the city and sample Hakata ramen noodle soup! The subway was right below the terminal, and 15 minutes later I was outside Nakasu-Kawabata station, reading the instructions on the vending machine outside Ichiran: “Just get the basic ramen and go in.” I deposited my 650 yen, got my slip and ventured in. There were a few customers this early Sunday morning, but I took my seat along them in my little curtained partition and handed over my slip, receiving a questionnaire in response. Would I like my noodles firm, standard or soggy? Would I like my soup thin, standard or thick? Would I like my soup mild, standard, or spicy? And so on. I circled all the “standards” and handed over my form, and within minutes, a Japanese Industrial Standard Hakata tonkotsu ramen appeared, faithfully replicated from the platinum-iridium copy kept double-locked in a Parisian vault right next to the official kilogram. I sampled, I slurped, I drained it to the last drop. Delicious. Back in Japan!

TG648 BKK-FUK A300 seat 34K

The plane turned out to be the flying museum piece I expected, a crunky old Airbus (the oldest in Thai’s fleet, if I’m not very much mistaken) with all the aesthetic charm and usability of a Commodore 64. I can understand Thai flying these domestically, or even making the occasional hop to Singapore and back, but medium-range redeyes with these things is pushing it. But then again, flying to FUK instead of KIX/NGO/NRT saved some time and (for NRT/KIX) a pretty painful transfer, so beggars can’t be choosers…And it could’ve been worse. The flight was around 70%-ish full, but my neighbor jumped across the aisle, leaving me with two seats to use. After a “light meal” that consisted of a pastry and a cup of juice, I strecthed out diagonally and, much to my own surprise, slept for ~3 hours of this 4.5 hr flight.Breakfast was big but bad. Yogurt, fruits and juice I could deal with, but the centerpiece was a “crepe omelette” gruesomely splattered with a vomitous white sauce so foul I could only eat one — I can’t remember ever running across literally inedible airline food before. What happened at TG catering, which is usually pretty good?

The sky over Kyushu was cloudy as we flew in, only the shapes of a few hills peeking through the mist. I girded myself for the battle that awaited.

RTW2007: Bangkok, wherein our intrepid explorer sits on a bus, crams himself with Thai chow and goes flying from a new shopping mall.

Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok

Before this trip, I’d just spent six weeks in India, dealing with difficult customers and managing to contract amoebic dysentery. After I arrived back in Singapore, I had a little over 24 hours to sort out a couple of months of accounting, personal and corporate taxes, my remaining shreds of social life, pack for the next 6-week trip and head back out to Bangkok, where I’d booked my RTW from, and where this story starts.

After a shamefully long absence, this was my chance to pop into Thailand for all of eight hours and pop my Suvarnabhumi — Bangkok’s new airport — cherry in the process.

First impression: Wow. It’s big, it’s thoroughly modern, it’s funky (well, at least if, like me, you like steel, glass and raw concrete) and it’s just on a whole different level from Don Muang, where the only funk is the strange smell. Parts remind me of Incheon (the neverending travelators), parts remind me of Kansai (the two-layer arrangement of arriving and departing pax, separated by a glass wall), parts remind me of KLIA, only larger (the humongous departure hall). And there are Thai touches here and there, although it certainly doesn’t whack you over the head with them, and that too appeals to my Nordic-Zen sense of minimalism.

Unaccountably, Immigration was using the stupid “one queue per desk” model, and I was stuck in line for a while as the loud guy in front of me, in an equally loud Hawaiian shirt and too many Thai stamps in his passport, was raked over the coals. I didn’t find the infamous post-Customs arrivals crush too bad, although signage was pretty lacking — it took a bit of wandering around until I found my way to Departures (to check in for my connection), and a lot of wandering around until I finally found the shuttle bus stand (is it just me, or is there no signage at all for this?). Signage for the train in the basement was there though in the lifts and all around, just covered up in tape waiting for opening day…

Once I did find the bus stand, the spiffy new “express” shuttle showed up almost immediately and ferried me to the bus terminal, which was surprisingly nice. No sign of bus schedules though, and English signage there was a bit spotty, but asking around a bit confirmed that bus 552 was indeed going to On Nuch, and soon enough I was on my way. (Great to see construction on the Skytrain extension on Sukhumvit taking shape, by the way!)

The bus passed by the enormous Bang Na Central shopping mall and I kicked myself for not seizing this opportunity to save an hour and head there instead. But no, I trundled on to Skytrain terminus On Nut and, pleasantly surprised to find my stored value card still functional, zipped along to Chid Lom and Central World, which half a year after my last visit was still a work in progress. At least the FoodLoft upstairs was now open (mm, phad thai). I decamped to Paragon and whiled away a pleasant few hours in megabookstore Kinokuniya, where I deliberated between notebooks labeled “Sheep Note” and “No Jam, No Stress” (I opted for the latter, as this profound message was being conveyed by a mean-looking robot) and the basement’s mofongous gourmet supermarket, where I picked up a few packets of Fishy Nuts(tm). Then a bowl of kuay tiow naam with pork balls from the stall with the longest queue and a taxi back, which also provided a good chance to check out the progress of the airport link — long stretches already have the viaduct up and they seem to be moving at a good clip on the missing bits too, although there’s apparently still a gap at RCA where the Nasa Superdome was? Once we got on the highway, signage for Suvarnabhumi was comically plentiful, my favorite being back-to-back signs announcing “Suvarnabhumi 14 km” and “Welcome to Suvarnabhumi Airport”. The final approach by night, though, is seriously awe-inspiring — the vast airport spreads out on all three sides, bathed in a sea of light, with the blue-lit hulk of the main terminal building looming ahead.

One thing that struck me, though, is how packed with people the airport appeared on this perfectly ordinary Saturday evening — did they really have this many pax in Don Muang too in its hayday, and can the check-in facilities cope with any more expansion, or are they going to build an entirely separate terminal? It’s not uncomfortably crowded, yet, but it quite doesn’t have the same feeling of vast space as KUL, ICN and KIX do.

Exit immigration was painless and I finally realized why everybody compares the terminal to a shopping mall — the airside area looks just like Paragon, with blinding white walls, designer lighting and fancy boutiques, and I overheard a middle-aged couple whisper, in genuine awe, “this airport is beautiful”. I’m tempted to agree. But having already done my fill of that in the city, I made a beeline for the TG lounge, which also has vast depth and slightly too many people for comfort. Fortunately the PCs are misconfigured so that the network keeps flaking out randomly, so people leave in disgust after a while — a bit of poking around revealed that they’re set to connect to the nearest network, so whenever somebody brings in a laptop with peer-to-peer wifi enabled, bam. I set “aotwifi” as the automatic default and p2p into manual, and now at least two of them work OK.

All in all, for me Suvarnabhumi is looking pretty good, and once the airport link is up and running I’ll be as happy as a clam. Fixing up those cracked runways and such might be nice though…

Earthquakes, Gamblers, Pirates and Oysters, Around the World in 60 Days

It all started with an excuse. I “needed” to visit a conference of marginal utility (but serious potential for fun) in Puerto Rico, which would be located 11913 miles away from Singapore if there was a non-stop flight, which there of course isn’t.

Golden tea pavilion at Hakuza, Higashi-chayamachi, Kanazawa Riviera Casino

Pier at Saddleback Cay Thoroughly awe-inspiring oysters

As soon as I’d convinced myself that a round-the-world ticket would be the best way to accomplish this, the mathematical perfection of this Great Circle curve started to acquire fractal cruft: stops in Japan, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas on the way there, a visit over to the Bahamas since it’s almost right next door anyway, a detour to Canada, and to France, Finland and Spain on my way back to Singapore. The full route, courtesy of OpenFlights:

SIN-BKK-KMQ-NTQ-TYO-SFO-PHX-LAS-SJU-CLT-NAS-YYZ-YOW-YMQ-CDG-ARN-HEL-BCN-MUC-BKK-SIN

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