Serpent Across the Mekong: Flight of the Thai Air Asia FD3255 B737-300 Seat 19E

Chiang Rai-Bangkok

Like most Thai airports bearing the tag, Chiang Rai’s “international” airport does not actually serve any international flights, and it feels rather too large for its modest volume of flights to Bangkok, Bangkok and more Bangkok (plus a daily hop to Chiang Mai).

As for Air Asia, it does what it says on the box. They’ve got a winning formula and they stick to it, so see this old trip report for the full scoop on the FD experience. Today’s flight was on one of the slowly-being-phased-out 737s, but still in perfectly serviceable condition with leather seats and tolerable pitch, and our flight departed and arrived precisely on time and in one piece.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Flight of the Lao Airlines QV601 Xian MA60 Seat 9D

Vientiane to Luang Namtha

Why Luang Namtha, you may ask? Good question. Indeed. the original plan was to go to Luang Prabang, Laos’s old capital, UNESCO World Heritage and the country’s top tourist draw, but the logistics of continuing onwards towards Chiang Rai without two days of put-putting up the Mekong in a canoe seemed formidable, and the wind was finally taken out of my sails by a glowing review on Wikitravel recommending the “best cafe in Luang Prabang, if not all Laos” for, and I quote, “Granola and salad wraps”. Let me repeat: Granola and salad wraps. In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Now I know why the Hmong insurgents still fight the good fight in the remote jungles of northern Laos, and why my only chance was to escape in the same direction.

The online schedule said “MA60”, my e-ticket said “ATR72”. Which would it be? A Lao Airlines ATR-72 took off as I arrived, so I presumed the second turboprop waiting for us was another of the same, but nay: today, I would taking my first ride on the AVIC I Xi’an Modern Ark 60, a reasonably modern Chinese variant of the venerable Antonov An-26 cargo plane. It’s also easily the most obscure aircraft I’ve flown: outside China, Lao Airlines with its 4 planes is the MA-60’s largest customer, and second place goes to “Transporte Aereo Militar” in Bolivia!

Boarding couldn’t have been much simpler, as all pax trooped out the gate onto the tarmac, up the built-in stairs, and aboard the cramped two-by-two seater. Today’s flight was almost entirely full, all falang aside from myself apparently NGO types from a Lao-German forestry program, and the guy next to me their frazzled Lao handler. The garish decor was lifted directly from cheap Chinese buses, and in fact I would swear it’s exactly the same as that used by Sorya buses in Cambodia, causing flashbacks of endless Khmer karaoke. The seat pitch tight enough to keep my knees firmly jammed into the seat in front of me, and while my seat was notionally a window, I didn’t have much of a view since I was next to a propeller pod and its landing gear.

The MA60 noisily spun up its propellers, taxied down the runway and took off smoothly — oddly, this thing seems quieter in air than on ground. The wheels retracted with a clunk, improving my view a bit, and soon we were heading into the hazy clouds, the Vientiane-Luang Prabang road a thin strip amidst the rice fields.

Once in the air, the MA60 quieted down and the flight was uneventful. In-flight service consisted of a semi-dried banana “cookie” and one of those sealed plastic cups of water where the plastic is so rigid that it dents your straw when you try to poke holes into it. The vistas outside got hazier and hazier as we flew north — soon enough, there was naught by gray in sight. Just when I was starting to get worried about whether the pilot could find his way to the airport, the outlines of hills materialized and we U-turned in for a sharp landing.

Luang Namtha’s airport reopened only in 2008 after a total rebuild and the end result, while hardly opulent, is easily up to the job of handling 4 flights a week. It’s a squat little one-story building, with one door for arrivals and one for departures. With no bags to wait for, I stomped right through and hopped aboard a waiting crusty old tuk-tuk, where I was joined by a few backpackers and a Laotian guy in a suit, toting an HP laptop bag.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Flight of the Thai Airways TG404 Airbus A330 seat 40A

Haiku time:

Tee gee four oh four
Seat pitch twenty eight inches
No one hears your screams

TG404 from Singapore to Bangkok is scheduled smack dab in the post-meridiem, which means it’s pretty much worthless for business travel. This has two consequences: as fares are cheap and availability is good, I seem to end up on it whenever I’m connecting out of Bangkok to somewhere else; and because the flight’s passengers tend to be the very definition of “low yield”, TG doesn’t hesitate to field its crappiest aircraft on it. Today, at least, they’ve replaced their previously ubiquitous Airbus A300, held together with baling wire, duct tape and chewing gum imported into Singapore with special permission from the Dutiable, Controlled & Prohibited Goods department of Singapore Customs, with a somewhat less antiquated A330. While I kind of miss the A300’s Commodore 64-vintage sickly beige interior and rotary audio channel selector, which always brought back fond memories of childhood flights when my knees were not necessarily jammed into the seat in front of me, in all other respects this plane is a mild improvement.

Despite Thailand’s generally stunning genetics and the same trowelful of makeup as that used to much success by Singapore Girls, Thai Airways flight attendants are generally not very attractive, doubtless because they received their positions through family connections in the vast, corrupt bowels of this state-owned airline. (A phenomenon easily observed elsewhere in the region, compare Garuda vs Lion or Malaysian vs Air Asia.) The plane is packed to the brim, and while waiting for Porn the trolley dolly(*) to fetch me my inevitable coconutty curry — as they say in Japan: Atsumono ni korite, namasu wo fuku, or “Learn from the stew, blow on the raw fish”, and ’tis a foolish man indeed who eats the “Western” meal selection on TG more than once — I hammer away at my Japanese kanji drills on my laptop like a crack-addled chimpanzee.

(*) Yes, really. It’s Thai for “blessing”.
​​​​​​​

Five Flights in Five Words: SIN-FRA/HHN-TMP/HEL-FRA-MUC-SIN on LH/FR/AY Y

Wordy trip report? Not this.
Five words in every line.
Map and flight list: http://openflights.org/trip/214

LH 779 SIN-FRA seat 55K

Twelve hours in tin can.
Ancient jumbo, even toilet scuffed.
Man, not flying SQ sucks.

Mainz

Beer. Sausage. Beer. Schnitzel. Beer.

Frankfurt Book Fair

Weekdays all work, weekend play.
Bounteous, mostly underaged, cosplayer bonanza.
Next time, bring better lens.

Deutsche Bahn

Unreserved tickets are a pleasure.
But whence famed German punctuality?

Cologne

The Dom: yes, it’s big.
Lounge in Marriott Cologne rocks.

Wuppertal

Suspended monorail for the win.
Even had to buy T-shirt.

Assmannshausen

Everybody else here is retired.
Good wine though. Where’s Tittenmädchenplatz?

Burg Eltz

It’s a pretty castle alright,
but I preferred the hike.

Luxembourg

Arab oil sheikhdom, only European.
Hearing spoken Lëtzebuergesch scares me.
Judd mat gaardebounen with Diekirch!

FR 1921 HHN-TMP seat ??

Ryanair: it’s not so bad
when expecting rubber glove proctology.
(Well, OK, it’s still bad.)

Tampere

Salsa with five blonde pixies,
plus Finnish mixology until three.
It was worth the hangover.

Helsinki

Michelin starred lunchelf shopping,
flourescent minigolfmore wild parties.
Even the weather mostly cooperated.

AY829 HEL-FRA E190 seat 20A

First AY flight in years.
Bumpy Embraer, sad snack pack.
I’ll stick with Star Alliance.

HI Frankfurt Airport-Nord

Albanian shuttle-cabbie brought along girlfriend.
Time-warp motel free on PointSavers.
Decent room, chocolate, decaying fruit.

FRA LH Senator Lounge

Healthy German breakfast: beer & sausage.

LH966 FRA-MUC A321 seat 30F

Bigger than the Helsinki plane.
More time waiting than flying.
Take off, snack, circle, land.

MUC LH Senator Lounge

Munchen wrapped in foggy quilt.
Empty terminal is shaded gray.
Only my flight not delayed.

LH790 MUC-SIN A340 seat 55K

So much nicer than jumbo.
AVOD, decent pitch, great service.
But ending soon? Load 20%…

Conclusion

Patronage and praise much appreciated.
Next time, I’ll try haiku. 

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Doha to Kuwait

QR132 KWI-DOH Y A321 seat 14F
QR137 DOH-KWI Y A320 seat 18ANear-identical planes, identical service. On the tarmac in DOH before boarding, we stood in the bus and watched box after identical box of what was most probably ammunition for the war in Iraq, all marked with orange “EXPLOSIVE” diamonds, being loaded into the belly of the plane. Eek?The A321 had the same seats as the A330, minus the AVOD (and hence no more metal box stealing half your foot space, yay!), while the A320’s styling was more old-fashioned — I thought I was on a B737 at first — but no different in seat pitch or any other amenities.

The hop from Doha to Kuwait or v.v. is only just over an hour, so inflight entertainment consisted of exactly the same Tom & Jerry cartoons both ways. We were served a “refreshment” consisting of a small sandwich, cookies, a miniature Bounty chocolate bar and tea/coffee/juice/water.

Probably the most memorable thing about the second flight was my seatmate Handy Assmat(*), who showed up wearing a pink polo shirt, shorts, flip-flops and carry-on consisting in toto of a tiny Swarowski gift bag and a mobile phone. Fashion faux pas aside, this alone wasn’t enough to qualify for being an Assmat — in fact, I was initially mildly jealous of such fearsome packing-fu and Zen-like disregard for material things — but he soon started chomping away at those dingleberries: first a loud phone conversation informing not only his girlfriend but everybody in the vicinity that he was only in eco because first class was full (which it wasn’t, I might add), and then he proceeded to delete messages from his phone, one by one, throughout the entire flight, taxi, takeoff, and landing. Clickety clickety clickety. And none of the cabin crew, who passed by half a dozen times and clearly saw it, said a thing. (Was it in flight mode? I’m not sure, but how would the flight crew know?) I was even more surprised to see him board the same connecting flight to Singapore… but once on board I never saw him again. Good riddance.

(*) A guy by this name is actually the manager of a Chili’s in Kuwait, and his first name is correctly spelled Hamdy, but it seemed rather more appropriate this way.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Singapore to Doha

Changi Terminal 3 at 3 AM in the morning is positively comatose. Qatar had four desks open and a supervisor watching over it all, but I was the only passenger. My iPod having done a disappearing act earlier in the week, I’d been planning to pick up a new one at Changi, but hadn’t expected all electronics shops in all three terminals to be closed. Lacking a lounge, I picked up a few snacks at the convenience store and attempted to sink into one of the plush-looking seats at the closed Il Lido cafe, only to find that they were actually rock-hard. Next time, I’m not showing up two hours before my flight…

QR639 SIN-DOH Y A330 seat 17K
QR638 DOH-SIN Y A330 seat 18A

I had high expectations for these flights, and due to that very fact was ever so slightly let down. Based on the scuttlebutt on FlyerTalk, the A330 is considered the bee’s knees of the QR fleet, but apparently this applies mostly to the pointy end of the plane: in the back of the bus, the seat pitch is less than generous (32″, says SeatGuru) and window seats on both sides of the plane turned out to have half their foot space eaten up by the AVOD box. The configuration is a rather odd 4-2-4, and while on the way in I had a free seat next to me and could catch a few Z’s, on the way back the plane was packed to the max. Based on quietness of Changi, I’d assumed the plane would be half empty, but no; this flight continues onward to/from Jakarta, and the rear half of the plane — on both flights — was packed with Indonesian aunties in hijabs on their way to work in the Gulf, with virtually no men to be seen. Obviously a more profitable strategy than Etihad’s AUH-SIN-BNE flights.

But what the seat lacked in pitch, it almost made up in AVOD. QR’s “Waves” is one of the best I’ve tried, with 120 movies on demand, another stack of TV shows, an eclectic set of music (mmm, ghazals) and a zoomable in-flight map. The screen is large and the controls very responsive.

Both flights were red-eyes, so the service followed the same pattern: “refreshment” (read: sandwich) after departure, then hot breakfast before arrival. QR doesn’t do hot towels, instead passing out those dinky little disinfectant wipes (boo), but they do give a nice amenity pack with shades, earplugs and even a tiny toothbrush, and even the bathroom amenities are by Aigner. The thing I missed the most compared to SQ, though, was the total lack of water runs: you had to page the crew to top up on your H20, which isn’t really excusable on an 8-hour flight, and unlike Etihad they don’t hand out water bottles either.

Last but not least, QR gets some brownie points for crew: especially on the return flight, the cabin crew were absurdly attractive, with Japanese and south Indian ladies who should be strutting on a catwalk in Paris instead of dishing out omelettes on a plane.

All in all, I would probably have been delighted with QR if only I’d had a little more space for my legs. On any future flights, I’m definitely steering clear of the windows, or better yet, angling for a way to get myself into C.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: ZS754 DMM-RUH Y 737 seat 17F

Dammam‘s King Fahd Int’l is no less than the largest in the world by land area and the terminal itself is scaled to fit, with arrivals, departures and check-in sprawled across four levels and gates numbered from 10 to 125 — perhaps somewhat excessive for an airport that serves under 3 million pax in a typical year. Opened only in 1999, it already looks rather old-fashioned and virtually identical to RUH, which dates back to 1983. We’d arrived a good two hours before flight time, and at the Sama desk we received sequence numbers 001 and 002, our window seats ticked off by pen on a sheet of paper with an airplane diagram.

Our safari chicken consumed (rather tasty!) and planes spotted (EgyptAir plus Saudia, Saudia, Saudia, Saudia and more Saudia), we crossed through security (shoes bad, water bottle no problem) in search of the al-Fursan lounge’s wifi. Alas, unlike RUH and JED they didn’t have one here, so I had to content myself with editing offline. Only after sitting for half an hour did I realize what was so eerie: the airport was incredibly quiet. No crowds of rushing people, no crying babies, no trolleys, no announcements, just silence halfway between a tomb and a library.

Eventually, though, the area near the gate started to fill up and not one but two Sama planes rolled up, and boarding started precisely on time.

We weren’t supposed to be on this plane in the first place: Trsqr had booked us on Saudia, but that reservation fell through for unclear reasons, and he managed to snag some cheap last-minute tickets on Saudi LCC Sama instead. The downside was that the flight time was a good three hours earlier, but on the upside, this now completed both my trinities of all major Saudi airlines (Saudia, Nas and now Sama) and all major Saudi airports (RUH, JED and now DMM); now I just need to figure out a way to fly on Al-Khayala.

My first impression on boarding the aircraft was quite positive: the seats looked new and spiffy, in blue/gray leather with embossed “Sama” logos in Arabic, and surprisingly decent seat pitch, a little better than Nas (trip report). On closer inspection, though, it’s clear that the aircraft wasn’t new (yellowed panels here and there, old-fashioned warning lights, etc), it’s just that the seats have been thoroughly refurbished. The plane was almost full, and the only empty seats in sight were those next to Trsqr and myself. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Sama’s crew had both Filipino and Arabic members, but the uniform was even more conservative than Saudia’s: the women wore a dark blue scarf wrapped around the entire head, revealing only the face, a featureless dark blue coat with a pink shirt underneath, and — the only un-Islamic touch — tight dark blue pants. Reasonably stylish, yes, but attractive, hardly.

The safety demo was run through at warp speed in both Arabic and memorized-by-rote English of the variety that would be indecipherable if you hadn’t already heard it a million times. Flight time was announced with admirable precision as 42 minutes, then stretched out to 45 minutes after ATC kept us waiting for a bit. Once we pushed back, we headed straight to the runway, and the captain got a running start by revving up the engines while still in the turn, straightening out the plane as we picked up speed and took off.

As we took off I spotted one of the more eerie sights I’d seen in Saudi: a series of abandoned farms in the middle of the desert, with dried-out circles where the irrigation sprinklers once rotated and both roads and buildings already half-swallowed by dunes. Just a tiny reminder of how artificial virtually everything in Saudi actually is…

As promised, it was a short flight and the crew didn’t even bother running the drinks cart, instead just walking down the aisle themselves and filling the few orders. Before long, we started our descent, complete with the sequence of tight turns that seems to characterize any arrival at RUH, and touched down smoothly. Back in the Dead Center of the Kingdom…

Bonus: Trsqr’s review of the same flight on FlyerTalk!

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Flight recap

All in all, I was quite satisfied with all the carriers I tried out on this trip.

Jet‘s international product blew me away, being probably the single best economy cabin I’ve tried anywhere, and I’d definitely like to try their J product someday. It’s a real shame that the hassles of Indian visas and airports mean that transiting via India to anywhere else is just not a sensible option…

I had high expectations for Etihad, and they were pretty much met, but I was a little disappointed in the ungenerous seat pitch (esp. on the A346) and the cumbersomeness of the IFE system. On the plus side, service was very good for economy, their hub AUH is not bad and is likely to soon get very much better, and their network is also growing furiously. The main downside really is the total lack of usable frequent-flyer miles usable anywhere other than EY.

Nas in Saudi was exactly what I expected from a low-cost carrier, perhaps even several degrees slicker than most. As miles aren’t a consideration for Saudi domestic flights, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

EY 470 AUH-SIN Y B777-300 seat 54K

Another three-hour layover at a time when I’d really much prefer to be sleeping. I picked up a few bottles at the tax-free, noted to my surprise that Romeo & Julieta No.2’s are appreciably cheaper in EY’s in-flight sales than here (US$11.50 vs US$15 for box of 3), tried and failed to find a local souvenir that didn’t involve dates, and then hacked on my laptop for a few hours.

I’m starting to kind of like AUH though. The two-layered squashed-octopus shape means it’s really compact and easy to get around, and the bizarre blue-green tiles roof-fountain-structure pulls off the rare trick of making a terminal really stand out: there is no way you can possibly mistake AUH for any other terminal anywhere. It’ll be a real shame if the new Etihad terminal here is just another soulless box of glass and steel.

I’d picked my seat on this flight carefully. Conventional wisdom says seats at the back of the bus are bad, because it takes a long time to disembark and because the turbulence is worse, but I knew I’d be in no hurry in Singapore (my Access Card would get me past any immigration queues and I’d have to wait for my suitcase anyway, and turbulence doesn’t particularly bother me — I find it oddly relaxing in a “yay, I’m flying!” way. Etihad’s online seat map showed that the back of the plane has two rows with only two seats on the window sides, so I picked the second to last row: this way, I figured I’d guaranteed full recline, I’d have some useful extra space between my seat, and I’d have a fair shot at nobody sitting next to me.

Once in my seat, I realized that the extra space was virtually nonexistent: on eg LH 747s, it’s enough to stretch out both your legs, but here there wasn’t really appreciably more space than the other rows. And yes, the seat next to me stayed empty, but with a load of no more than 40% there were plenty to go around and a few lucky guys — including the guy in 53K — got a whole three-seat row to stretch out on.

Drink and cracker service rolled around soon after takeoff, but it took close to two hours until they got around to lunch. Here’s the menu:

Asian glass noodle mixed seafood salad

White fish masala, biryani and harissa vegetables
Saffron vegetable lasagna with basil tomato coulis
Singapore hawker’s chicken laksa yong tau foo

Ginger and kiwi fruit mousse
Strawberry coulis

Cheese

Tea and coffee
Hot chocolate

Note to the menu writer: if you’ve got two “coulis” in one meal, one of them atop lasagna at that, you’re trying too hard. Indeed, the crew did the right thing and reduced that down to “fish, vegetable or chicken?”, and I opted for the “chicken” as it just sounded so bizarre. I wasn’t disappointed: the entree turned out to be a collection of tofu, fishballs, shrimp and, yes, chicken on a bed of thick rice noodles with a sauce that was half laksa, half rendang, with coconut shreds, laksa leaf and plenty of spices. I suspect this might be a bit much for people unused to Southeast Asian cuisine, but for me the end result was delicious, and even the noodles had stayed firm instead of degenerating into sogginess. Full points to Etihad for ingenuity!

I watched No Country for Old Men, which isn’t very good in-flight fare because it demands your full attention, but it does certainly deserves its Oscars. I also realized that Etihad’s headphones, which are excellent for economy (solid, padded, cover the whole ear, comfy) also incorporate noise canceling — I’d just gotten a broken set on the DEL-AUH flight, and this time too the wiring was flaky enough that turning my head was enough to flip the canceling on and off.

And then to bed. Even us economy class plebs got socks, eyeshades and earplugs, and even the brown blanket seemed a little fluffier than what you’d usually get in Y. Two seats with a liftable divider ain’t too bad, and while they never turned the cabin lights off, I managed to contort myself into a semi-sleeping position and catch a few Z’s.

The menu had promised us a “refreshment” prior to arrive in Singapore, which I figured would be the same sandwich-and-juice deal as on the RUH flights. But nope: we were treated to cups of frozen-solid Haagen-Dazs instead.

Disembarkation, immigration and baggage claim went fast enough: the only problem was that the handle I used to pull along my diving gear-laden suitcase had been knocked cleanly off. On my previous trip, the same beaten-up old Samsonite had lost a wheel, but off it was to the baggage claim office. Sorting out the claim took a while, and I was told to expect a call sometime within a week — I was thus rather surprised to get a call on Saturday morning for pickup, and even more surprised to get the fixed bag on Monday. They’d even replaced the top handle as well!

EY 316 RUH-AUH Y B777-300 seat 26D

A brutal flight time, as departing from RUH at 5 AM means getting up at 3 AM. Check-in and immigration were uneventful, although I was disappointed (but not very surprised) that the immigration guy couldn’t tell me when my visa expires. Why, you ask? Because Saudi visas don’t state this date: instead, they just have the date of issue and the number of months it’s valid. The catches are that 1) these are Islamic (lunar) months of 28 days, not Western months; 2) business (non-working) visas appear to have a restriction on how many days within that period they’ve valid; and 3) it depends on the visa type if the days start counting from date of first issue or date of first arrival. Gah.

Same plane as last time, but much lower load, maybe 20% in economy. I watched through that creepy safety video again (I think the dead white eyes of the characters are to blame), devoured the sandwich and juice tossed to us after takeoff, and attempted to sleep.