RTW2007: Bangkok part 2, wherein our juggling journalist is hard at work enjoying free spa treatments, finding out how Thai millionaires live and gorging himself with four Italian meals in one weekend.

I was supposed to arrive at Bangkok about an hour before my friend Z, but due to the take-off delay got there only 15 minutes before, and as the plane parkedwaaaaaaaaay at the other end (why does TG discriminate against itself like this? they did the same in Don Muang too!) I ended up catching her — literally — just before Immigration.

This visit, though, was work. I was on assignment, or more specifically three of them: review the Amari Watergate hotel, with a focus on its new spa; write an article about Ari, my favorite neighborhood, and eat at as many Italian restaurants as possible in Soi Langsuan. (I know, it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.) I’d actually spent the better part of three months at the Amari a few years ago, and it was still a very good hotel, albeit in a mildly awkward location. Recently renovated, the Executive Lounge continues to have the best breakfast views in town, and I’m reliably informed that the spa was pretty good too. As for Ari and Italian chow, I’ll let my stories speak for themselves:

And that, as they say, was that: another 30251 miles in economy class notched on my belt, with surprisingly little pain at that. Picking your long flights carefully helps, and having a laptop with insane battery performance helps even more. Next time, it might be time to up the tempo a little and try flying around the world on low-cost carriers.

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TG925 MUC-BKK A340-600 seat 31J

With the exception of Frankfurt, whose biggest failing is its extreme popularity (and which isn’t that bad in my book either), I’ve always found German airports a pleasure to use and my maiden visit to MUC, and its recently launched “Star Alliance all under one wing” Terminal 2 at that, was no exception. It’s hardly an exciting airport, but there’s glass, steel and big signage everywhere. Passport control to leave Schengen took about 10 seconds, the lady checking passports not even bothering to interrupt her conversation with her cubiclemate, and once out of the EU I beelined for the Senator Lounge.

A major plus for LH lounges has always been their spread of food, and today MUC held the banner high: today there was a choice of half a dozen salads, an array of cold cuts and cheeses, Bayerische leberkase (which means liver cheese, looks like meatloaf, and bears a disturbing resemblance to Finnish sausages tastewise), various breads and soft pretzels, crispy dessert concoctions, and a full bar including two kinds of beer on tap. The downside, though, is the wireless internet, which they (or, rather, T-Mobile) are just giving away at 8 euros per hour. Would it kill them to, say, drop one of the salad dressings and use the money saved to free up the net? But at least they have comfy seats with built-in power plugs, so I could wait out the projected 15-min delay for my flight and recharge my iPod as I did so.

Of course, once at the gate it wasn’t a 15-min delay (it never is, is it?), but closer to an hour’s wait. I’d been glad to see from the outside that the plane we were about to board was smallish, but had four engines: in other words, it was the somewhat uneconomical but long-range and, most importantly, brand new A340. At BCN, they’d already confirmed that I had an exit row, but after walking past some delicious-looking business class pods that caused me to (almost) feel a pang of regret at not paying US$750 to upgrade, I was surprised to find that my seemingly unpropitious row number was, in fact, the first row in Y and an exit row bulkhead at that, with oodles of space. I’d even begun to hope that the neighboring seat might be empty as well… but moments before the doors were closed, the huge guy I’d seen already at the gate resting his arms on his own stomach plopped down next to me. He offered to swap his window with his aisle, which I obviously rejected — and for once I thanked the big, chunky, inflexible divider between us, which kept him from spilling onto me. I did feel a little sorry for the guy though: he was way too big to open up the table or even reach the in-seat controller, so he just sat there for the entire flight, staring at the route map.

Speaking of route maps, the ThaiVision variant on this is one of the spiffiest in-flight entertainment systems I’ve seen to date anywhere. Not only was there a huge spread of movies and music (I watched “Last King of Scotland”), but they finally had an updated, interactive version of Skymap, including goodies like half a dozen views to choose from and live navigation data. Alas, the interface for it was a little buggy, with the zoom and move buttons working only sporadically. (8 hours into the flight, I figured it out: pressing and holdingthe Channel up/down buttons zoom in and out. But the program still crashes and hangs sporadically.)

 

LH4481 BCN-MUC A320-200 seat 5D

And then back to The Prat. Once through check-in and security, the airside shopping mall side of things seems quite modern, if sadly lacking in mailboxes. Fortunately, the kind lady at the (well-hidden) Info desk promised to take care of my postcards, and I could devote myself to eating olives in the Spanair lounge. Alas, these pickled globules were pretty much the highlight, as there was no wifi, only a few power-equipped PC spaces and not much in the way of available seating. Somebody earlier on FT praised the lounge as being of one of the few to still use announcements, but I’m not sure what’s to celebrate: I’ll take a nice quiet monitor of flight status info over trilingual (Catalan, English, Spanish) announcements of every Spanair flight to some corner of the peninsula.

A momentous flight: as my qualification period for KrisFlyer started on 1 May, this is the first one I’m putting on my KF account instead of SAS. Lufthansa made a pretty good pitch for themselves though: it was just a 2-hour flight, but I wazs positively surprised to receive a free sandwich, a chocobanana granola bar thingy, a drink, and refills on each to boot. See, SAS? This is what you should be doing too.

As LH crews tend to do, I was spoken to in German, but as the questions were on the level of “Kase oder Schinke?” I obliged and tried to Deutsch them right back. Counting SMSes, this means I’ve used five languages — English, Spanish, German, Finnish and Japanese — today. Hooray for multilingualism!

 

RTW2007: Barcelona, wherein our anchovy-eating adventurer goggles at Gaudi, tucks into tapas and clumsily clobbers Catalan.

I’ll start with a confession: before this trip, I had never visited Barcelona before, and in fact the entirety of my Spanish experience was limited to a visit to Madrid almost 20 years ago. Plan A was Dubai, cancelled on account of intolerably hot weather this time of year, but despite everybody I talked to urging me to visit Barcelona my impression prior to visiting had, somehow, been largely negative: dirty, crumbling, expensive, full of scams and ripoffs, and above all filled with ravenous pickpockets. A friend of mine had originally been so taken with the city than he moved there for a year, only to come back halfway through cursing at perfidious locals who robbed him and his apartment on countless occasions. What terrors awaited this blond boy?

Touchdown at the delightfully named El Prat was uneventful, with the plane rolling past the ghostly construction site of the enormous new south wing before parking at a bus bay next to lots of other bizarro low-cost carriers. Bags took over half an hour to show up, but there was still half an hour to midnight left when they did and I grabbed the Aerobus to the city.

Barcelona’s hotels seemed packed the week I was there (only much later did I realize that it was the week before the F1 race) and the place I picked after extensive deliberation, Hotel del Comte, seemed to get top marks for everything except one: everybody who had 3rd-party booking there had problems. Alas, their own website was saying full, so I secured some cheap rooms at lastminute.com… and arrived at the lobby just after midnight to find that they had no record of my reservation. Fortunately, they did had a room available after all, and when I got in my jaw dropped. I’d paid barely 70 euros a night, which got me a just-renovated room with flat panel LCD, spotless glass and marble bathroom, free wifi and views out onto a trendy bit of L’Eixample, 50 meters from the Metro stop and a 10-minute stroll to Placa Catalunya.

Dragon opposite la Boqueria Facade of Casa Batllo House on la Rambla

The next morning was a perfect day, around 25 deg C and sunny, and as I went out on a stroll I fell in love. A bocadillo de tortilla de patatas (potato omelette sandwich: sounds weird, tastes great) for breakfast, some juice from the absurdly cheap grocery to wash it down and then a ramble down La Rambla, which is quite possibly the prettiest pedestrian boulevard I’ve ever seen anywhere. The architecture in Barcelona is gorgeous, but it’s not pompously overboard in parts or incredibly grimy in parts like Paris, and the whole Modernist Gaudi-Miro aesthetic gives it all a delightfully whimsical feel. Add in some fresh sea breezes, the crazy array of street performers and that carefree Hispanic spirit where everybody jaywalks when there are no cars coming, and you’ve got a city that’s a pleasure to explore.

Sagrada Familia, perennially under construction Gracies at the Sagrada Familia

I spent my first day on the Gaudi trail, starting with the mildly anticlimactic Sagrada Familia, which is surely the world’s most popular and expensive construction site. It’s been going on for 125 years now and projections are saying it’ll take another 20 years at least, which just seems kind of ridiculous: it’s big, but it’s not that big, and Vegas casinos ten times the size are thrown up every few years. Then again, Vegas casinos aren’t working based on the reconstructed scribbles of a famously loopy architect who died 80 years ago and whose drawings were more visions than architecturally tested computer models…

More to my liking was Casa Batllo, which would surely be one of the world’s more interesting apartments to live in, but the 16.50e they wanted for a peek inside was a bit too steep for my taste. La Pedrera (aka Casa Mila), on the other hand, was hosting a free exhibition on music in the Third Reich, which made a good excuse to take a quick look inside and confirm that Gaudi knew how to design interiors as well. And finally, the next morning, I made a sweaty hike up to Parc Guell, which I shared with half the tourists in Barcelona. This theme seemed to continue at the Miro museum, where over half the visitors seemed to be elementary school kids running around — enough to ruin a better museum, and Miro, never one of my favorite artists, wasn’t much improved by it.

Parc Guell Spiral at Casa Gaudi

One of the more depressing findings of the Spanish-speaking portions of this trip is that my command of the language is far rustier than I’d thought. Written Spanish I’m more or less OK with, although reading Cervantes in the original like I used to would be pushing it, but understanding spoken Spanish is more of a challenge, especially when lisped with a Castellano accent, and speaking it back an even tougher proposition.

In Barcelona, of course, things are made a bit more interesting yet by the local language being not Spanish, but Catalan, a mutant offshoot that sounds very much like Spanish and French mixed together. For example, “departure” is Salida in Spanish and Sortie in French, but Sortida in Catalan. The obvious Romance-ness of Catalan does make it fairly comprehensible (“processant nova informacio”, announced the Metro when trains were delayed by a few minutes), especially once you work out the weird Esperanto-ey spelling where x is “sh” and tg is “kh”, and ad slogans like “sempre fais el que sento” are perfectly comprehensible when you pretend it’s mostly mispelled Spanish (sempre siempre = always, el que = lo que = that which, sento = siento = feels) with the odd French word thrown in (fais = does). And there are great place names too: Prat! Dot! Gorg!

Being the linguistics nut I am, I find the present European trend to promote previously suppressed dialects in official contexts an endless fount of amusement, but from a more practical point of view it all seems like a terrible waste of time and energy. As you can easily verify by consulting the usage instructions or disclaimers for any pan-European product, Europe’s already got more than enough languages, without people attempting to revive ones like Gaelic and Breton that already had one foot in the grave. Speak whatever kind of gobbledegook you like at home, but learn English, mmmkay?

Idle bitching aside, English worked pretty well most of the time (usually better than my attempts at Spanish, which were taken in good humor), and the food was great, at least if you can deal with Iberian scheduling (good luck finding a restaurant open for dinner before 9 PM). I steered well clear of tourist haunts and instead fed myself at the markets and the daily under-10-euro sets of cheap little neighborhood restaurants, which netted me sublime jamon serrano (air-dried ham) sandwiches, big boxes of macedonia (fruit salad) for a few euros a throw, some mighty good cheap paella, stupendous freshly grilled anchovies and a couple of mediocre gazpachos. At La Perinaca, purveyor of stupendous anchovies right across the street from my hotel, the 9-euro dinner menu even included half a liter of rather drinkable Catalan wine. Leave the tapas for the tourists!

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KF847 HEL-BCN MD-90 seat 1C

Not many changes at HEL were visible, but lots are afoot. The Helsinki Hilton Airport will open in another few months, work on the expansion of the non-Schengen wing is well underway, and even the long-awaited rail link is nudging forward and might start construction next year, for theoretical completion in 2013.

Check-in was quick and painless, security was neither — with only one point open, there was a long queue, and for the first time on this trip, I even had to remove my laptop from its protective padding. Once on the other side, with last-minute souvenir duties taken care of (reindeer meat? check. Moomin toy? check.) I headed for the SAS lounge, where I was positively surprised to find an approximation of real food in the form of meatballs and potato salad, plus free wireless. Alas, the meatballs were still frozen on the inside, but you get what you pay for…

More MD-90s, this time in Blue1 colors. It’s a four-hour flight to BCN and the only service that doesn’t cost money (yet?) is using the bathroom. Those salads were looking and those pizzas were smelling surprisingly good, but most of my fellow passengers seemed to stick to liquid refreshments. (Counting the number of glasses on his table, the hardy fellow in Seat 1H was up to 7 Jack & cokes before two hours were up.)

I can’t remember the last time I’ve caught myself staring at an SAS group flight attendant’s shapely … — but then again, I can’t remember the last time I flew an SAS flight where the average age of the crew was below 60. This is evidently one of the advantages of running sister airlines that don’t have to hire legacy staff.

 

RTW2007: Helsinki, wherein our carnivorous crusader wrassles with smoky elk, bear balls and Ukrainian transvestites.

A week full of bear meatballs, smoked elk, blood sausage, juniper schnapps and a solitary surprisingly decent veggie tortilla later it was time to escape the Eurovision 2007 hype building to a fever pitch — the semifinals would be held the day after I left, and you couldn’t swing a sequined tutu in central Helsinki without hitting three people, at least one of whom would be a Ukrainian crossdresser, showing off their Eurovision tags.

(Yeah, that’s it. If you want to actually read about Helsinki, you could do worse than check out a previous visit.)

SK572 CDG-ARL ?? seat 21F

CDG Terminal 1 is a deeply, deeply weird airport. From the brand new CDGVAL station, I entered on the lowest level of the barrel-shaped center, then walked around half the circle to find the SAS checkin. From there, an inclined, transparent tube with an escalator crossed across the barrel, just one of half a dozen tubes in the interior, depositing me on the other side. Here I had to get my lounge card and passport inspected, before being allowed into the duty-free shop section, where I got to walk some more radial shapes until I eventually managed to find the elevator up to the lounges. The pure white tunnels with rounded edges and colored mood lights looked promising, but the “iCare” rent-a-lounge used by SAS was remarkably crappy and full of cursing Adria pilots stuffing themselves with bags of crisps, the only form of sustenance available. Wifi cost money and there were no power plugs, but there was one lovably quirky feature: the cylinder-shaped TV room was equipped with personal headphone plugs build into the backs of the seats lining the edge, although with only one solitary TV in the center, the point of this escaped me entirely. Perhaps there was none, and it was just like everything else in T1, a thoroughly obsoleted vision of the future that felt like walking around a real-life rendition of Kubrick.

I left the lounge and then realized that the passport inspection I now had to go through again was the line separating Schengen (my flight) from non-Schengen (the lounge). Back on the treaty side, I headed for Satellite 7, reached by a way-cool giant travellator that first dips down, then levels off underground and then zooms back upward again. If (when?) they ever close T1, I’ll be glad to pay 10e just to enter the “CDG T1 Experience” — especially if they replace the few remaining human attendants with giant, unblinking red lamps with soft, reassuring voices. (“Let you into the lounge? I’m sorry, Dave, but I’m afraid I can’t do that. This free booze is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it. Your flight is delayed — I can feel it. My mind is going.”)

And as for the flight, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve been wavering for a while, but from this moment on it’s official: I’m leaving SAS Eurobonus. It’s a 2:20 mainline flight from Paris to Stockholm, and I’ve been a card-carrying SAS Eurobonus member for the better part of twenty years and a gold member for three. So here I am, my knees firmly pressed into the seat in front of me in the last seat on the bloody plane, the captain announces that flights into and out of Arlanda will be unpredictably delayed because air traffic control’s on a wildcat strike (not SAS’s fault, he says, and hence doesn’t apologize), and now they want me to pay three euros for a glass of ing water which I can’t even bring on the ing plane myself because of the ing EU-wide liquid regulations.  you very much, SAS, and a little  you to Arlanda ATC and EU regulators as well.

RTW2007: Saint-Malo, Mont Saint Michel, Lille, wherein our oysterous organizer racks up TGV miles to brave the piratical prices and rampaging hordes of Brittany and Normandy.

If there’s one thing the French do well, it’s trains. I boarded my TGV straight at CDG Terminal 2, met up with my friend N (of previous trip fame) onboard and, without even stopping in Paris, chugged directly to Rennes, the springboard into Brittany. A quick change there, one more hour on a regional train that was, if anything, more space-age than the TGV, and we landed in Saint-Malo, famed former corsair (that’s French for pirate, arr) hub and today one of Brittany’s top tourist draws. The walled city, or Intramuros, hosts what is almost certainly France’s highest concentration of creperies per square inch, with the little remaining space being taken up by expensive seafood restaurants and hotels, all of them overflowing with blue and white nautical kitsch.

Boats in the harbour Thoroughly awe-inspiring oysters

After a perfunctory tour of the city wall, with the collusion of my friend we set about on the main theme of the trip, that is, eating. On the menu were galettes (savoury crepes), scallops, cider and, above all, oysters. The coast of Carcale is one of France’s if not the world’s top oyster regions, and even fancy restaurants were selling them fresh for under a euro a piece. But N pulled off the culinary coup of the trip by spying a take-out window, offering big, chunky size #2 oysters for a scarcely credible 6 euros a dozen. On request, the shop even shelled them, laid them on an iced tray, threw in a sliced lemon and wrapped the whole thing in crinkly gift wrap plastic, without charging a cent extra. Until this day, I hadn’t been much of an oyster fan, but these, indeed, were something else.

The next day’s agenda was a day trip to Mont Saint Michel, a remarkable demonstration of what the French could come up with when threatened by something scary enough, like my forbears the Vikings. As a set of models inside the complex demonstrated, the Mont was once just a pyramidal pile of rock, which over the centuries was carved and constructed into a pyramidal fortress-cum-abbey. Surround it by some of the world’s most formidable tidal flats, replete with quicksand, and even the most determined berserker will opt for an easier target instead.

Mont Saint Michel and a parking lot Queue for l'Abbaye

Today, though, Mont Saint Michel’s defenses are wide open and the island is thus rampaged by ravenous hordes of tourists on a daily basis. The rather inaptly named Grande Rue, in particular, was so crowded you had to squeeze past all the Japanese tour groups snapping away at chefs in pseudo-medieval costumes whipping up omelettes, sold at 30 euros a piece (if you could manage to get a reservation). We then had to queue some more for the privilege of paying 10 euros to get into the Abbey, which was worth the visit though — after the Revolution, it was turned into a prison, and the cargo elevator operated by prisoners trudging inside a giant human hamster wheel could have been straight out of Sade’s demented fantasies. For lunch, we picked one of the less popular restaurants on the ramparts (which, on the eve of May Day, meant one which actually had two seats free) and tested the famed Mont Saint Michel omelette (fluffy but bland), the famed local sheep (near-inedibly stringy) and some more oysters (excellent).

The next morning we climbed back on the train and zipped through Rennes, Paris and past CDG another hour north to Lille, at the fulcrum of the Paris-London-Brussels train lines, where N is finishing up her studies. I was expecting a grimy industrial town filled with car factories and workers in overalls, a sort of proletarian Brussels, but nope, Lille’s cupcake-pretty central square wouldn’t look out of place in the 1st arrondissement of Paris and there were a lot of fancy boutiques, chic cafes, hip bars and fancy restaurants selling the same Carcale Bay oysters for five times the price. Unfortunately, it being May Day, almost all of them were closed and it took some serious legwork to find a place to eat dinner. It was packed to the rafters, of course, and we waited among an hour before we finally got a distinctly mediocre meal redolent of Belgian blandness wafting over the border. (There was one reminder of France though: the beer was tasteless.)

Lille Europe TGV station Coq Hardi at Grand Place Flowers and lovers

My last day in France dawned to warm and cloudless. Just for yucks, I tried Lille’s cute little toy metro for the few stops to the Lille Europe TGV station, surely one of the more striking modern train stations out there. A lunch of a stuffed baguette and Orangina, a few pictures of the French couple canoodling inside the modern sculpture outside (my kingdom for a telephoto lens!), and then it was time to wave buh-bye and hop on the TGV again.

AC870 YUL-CDG A330 seat 12C

And now, after Vancouver and Toronto, I completed my trio of Canada’s largest airports by visiting Montreal-Dorval-Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau. After the whole Mirabel fiasco, where Montreal invested umpty-ump dollars to build a state of the art airport in the middle of nowhere with no transport links and which is now used only by cargo and charters, I was expecting Dorval to be pretty sucky, but in fact it was a perfectly decent modern airport.

It’s always a pleasant surprise to expect a crummy B767 and get an only slightly scuffed A330 instead. Better yet, I’d been granted an aisle bulkhead seat, so I had decent legroom and could even try to stretch my legs out into the aisle (if at the risk of getting run over by carts).

AC is scrupulously bilingual, but this flight is (unsurprisingly) the first one where French goes ahead of English, and even the crew seemed to assume right off the bat that I’m francophone — which has yet to happen to me in Montreal.

I’m positive the “beef” entree I opted for today, a vaguely Chinese sorta-stirfry with noodles, was the same as the one I didn’t take on the NAS-YYZ flight…

 

RTW2007: Ottawa to Montreal, wherein our carping commentator burrows deep underground into the radiation-proof yet thoroughly paranoid Diefenbunker.

My week in Ottawa and Montreal passed in the usual hurly-burly of business meetings and family reunions, but one excursion is worth a mention: a trip to the village of Carp, pronounced ”Kearp”, home to the Central Emergency Government Headquarters, better known as the Diefenbunker. Built during the height of Cold War paranoia, this super-reinforced four-story underground bunker is where Canada’s government would have huddled had Armageddon arrived. It was finally retired as obsolete in the 1990s, and as their last task, the Feds ransacked the place, ripping out not just their super-secret Captain Crunch decoder rings but even the bunk beds in the barracks and the umpteen-ton generators each the size (and several times the weight) of a small car. But shortly before it was scheduled to be demolished, it was listed as a historic site and handed over to a dedicated bunch of local volunteers, who then spent the next decade reconstructing it into its 1960s prime. And “reconstructing” here didn’t mean slapping a few posters on the wall: for example, they “had” to haul back in those same umpteen-ton generators to restore the engine room, located on the 4th level below ground.

So one of the volunteers took two and half hours off his Sunday afternoon to give a guided tour going over the complex in lovingly obsessive detail (“…and these cafeteria chairs, produced from Outer Wumpscut, Manitoba by my uncle’s cousin Bob, are exactly identical to those that were used in the 1960s!”). And it really was something else to walk in through those doors and realize that, if nuclear holocaust had actually occurred, this claustrophobic cube of gray bureaucracy would’ve been the only place left standing in Canada. War games maps (some of them authentic) showed predicted impact sites for Soviet nukes: every Canadian city of significance (including metropoli like Thunder Bay) had a couple of megatons keyed in, and much of the endless prairie would have been contaminated by the fallout clouds from the hundreds of megatons aimed squarely at North Dakota (just what were the Yanks hiding there?). The only fly in the ointment was that pictures were not allowed: not because there was anything of military importance left, but because the volunteers tried to supplement the already steep entry fee by selling pictures. Boo.