SQ 375 DXB-SIN Y B777-200 seat 59D

I hate airport transfer desks: they’re always full of people with bizarre problems flying on bizarre itineraries that made my half-paper, half-electronic SQ-SV mutant combo look normal. This time around, a Chinese guy with a dodgy ticket, a very lost-looking Somali housewife and a pair of Pakistani mullahs had to be disposed of before the frazzled Filipino agent got around to processing me, and even my ticket took a couple of phone calls to sort out.

But eventually I had a boarding pass in hand and I set off to check out the Star Alliance Lounge, which based on the amount of LH propaganda lying around probably used to be Lufthansa’s. For an airport the size of Dubai, it was rather ridiculously small, with seating for maybe 40 and most of all of those taken even on this offpeak weekday afternoon. The full bar looked pretty good and they had rather spotty free wifi, but food offerings were limited to a few miniature sandwich-type things, chips and peanuts and the selection of newspapers was heavily Germanic (LH again?).

Back on the bird, which was coming in from Moscow and hence full of Russians knocking back vodka like it was going out of style. Somewhat to my surprise this turned out to be one of SQ’s regional models with no AVOD, and I understood why the people stuck on this thing for 12 hours were intent on getting liquored up. I’d forgetten to online checkin back in Saudi, so I’d ended up with an inner aisle seat way in the back of the bus, but the middle seat was empty and I could stretch out a little.

We took off on schedule and within minutes were back inside that crazy tail wind: I could feel the plane jittering a little as it was pushed forward and the airshow speedometer showed an amazing ground speed of 1138 km/h! Alas, once out of the Gulf the wind slowed down and meal service started. As I honestly can’t remember what I ate, I’m pretty sure it was airplane food, but part of the blame has to lie on Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, an utterly brainless Hindi comedy of the type that makes three hours on a plane fly past. A bit of laptop hacking later a simple breakfast rolled around (choice of muffin or danish with tea or coffee), and before I knew the plane was starting its descent, with a good half hour shaved off the scheduled flight time of 7:15.

SQ494 SIN-DXB Y B777-300 seat 35H

The flight started off ominously: on all seat-back and cabin screens was a freeze frame from the SQ safety video, showing a little girl with an orange oxygen mask on her face and the caption: “Take care of yourself before attending to others.” Kiasu or what?

That aside, it was another day, another SQ 777 — SQ is the world’s biggest operator of the 777 and unsurprisingly it’s also by an overwhelming majority the most common plane I fly. Fortunately life is made marginally more interesting by the fact that SQ has no less than four variants of this. The pedestrian B777-200 is the workhorse of the regional fleet, with neither on-demand entertainment nor decent business seating. B777-300s like this are a step up, with decent entertainment but still no near-flat seats; it’s only the B777-200ER that introduces the Spacebed in biz, and the still rare B777-300ER (aka “77W” in SQ-ese), which I’ve yet to fly, was SQ’s star until the A380 crashed the party.

But today, something a little out of the ordinary happened. We taxied out from the gate and lined up for our turn to take off… and waited, and waited, and waited some more. Eventually the captain came online: an indicator light for a punctured tire was lit. We taxied back to a safer position, waited for the mechanics to show up, and they eventually confirmed that, yes, a tire was indeed punctured. Nearly two hours after pushback, we arrived back the same gate we’d left from. They guessed 45 minutes to replace the tire, so I headed back to the lounge (T2 this time) for a quick bite and laptop recharge.

After barely 10 minutes in the lounge, it was time to try again, and this time we were off for real. I’d finished my first movie (an enjoyable if brainless Egyptian criminals-fall-in-love romp) by the time dinner rolled around. No Arabic catering here either, I’d had the same ayam rendang (chicken in dry curry) umpteen times before, but I’ve had worse.

And the flight continued. The lights went dark, I played with my laptop a bit, tried to sleep a bit, watched the barely entertaining Rush Hour 3, had a fairly bizarre “refreshment” of a croissant stuffed with salsa, tuna and yoghurt, had the lights go off again, and come back on only 30 minutes before landing. Soon we crossed over the northern tip of the UAE, flew past Dubai, executed a U-turn and came down for a landing, the Palm Jumeirah visible in the distance and the insane lit-up spike of Burj Dubai looking like a computer rendering error in the night-time sky.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Singapore

Unusually enough, I was looking forward to the airport more than the flight itself: this marked my first visit to the spanking new Singapore Changi Terminal 3, officially opened just a week earlier. Aviation geek that I am, I’d already had a sneak peek in the pre-opening “open house”, but this was my first time venturing into airside.

Flights to Dubai actually leave from T2, not T3, but the automated check-in kiosk had no complaints and soon enough I was through the space-age Departures portal. And wow: it’s really airy and spacious inside. The greenery isn’t quite as evident as landside though, with glass, steel and duty-free shopping dominating the show. I beelined for the “Krisflyer Gold Lounge” on the second level, where the poor guardian lady puzzled for a few minutes over my SAS gold card and admittedly rather lengthitudinous full name, painstakingly scribbling them out with pencil on paper and triple-checking the result.

On first sight, the lounge looks small, but actually it’s not: the seating area behind the entry desk is only about a fifth or less of the entire lounge. Soup, salad, rice, a main course, and a selection of desserts were available, along with a small self-serve bar and Tiger beer on tap. Most of the lounge is (how to describe this?) “almost-outside”, with no roof other than the top canopy and partial views of the tarmac due to the shades in the way. Comfy chairs, free wifi, a somewhat less than generous distribution of power points, a couple of PCs and a respectable selection of newspapers completed the offerings, and it’s fair to say that this will be my lounge of choice at SIN as long as I have some time to spare.

And how much time to spare, you say? Well, I experimentally determined that you need at least 10-15 minutes extra to get to T2. There are actually two separate Skytrain routes connecting the two, one at the north end (B-E) and one at the south (A-F), with the lounges are closer to the south end (A gates). However, my gate today was E28, literally at the last extremity of T2 right before T1 starts, and in retrospect it would have been faster to go to T1 and cross it on foot! But no, I ended up taking the longest possible way: walk to the A gate, Skytrain across to T2 F gates, walk across from F to the E area, and then the interminable walk from E20 all the way to E28.

A few more T3 pictures for those interested, mostly taken at the open house: http://jpatokal.iki.fi/photo/travel/Singapore/Changi-T3/

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Singapore, Riyadh and Bali

At a squeak over 10,000 miles, this trip is no great shakes when it comes to distance, but there can’t be too many places on Earth with a greater level of contrast than its endpoints.

In the left corner, we have the virtually untouristed capital of a filthy rich, rigidly conservative, strictly Islamic absolute monarchy in one of the world’s most arid countries:


RUH DAFIF Riyadh [King Khalid Airport], SA

And in the right corner, we have the rather less wealthy yet famously liberal, only notionally Hindu and immensely tourism-friendly tropical paradise of Bali:


DPS DAFIF Denpasar [Ngurah Rai – Bali Intl], Bali, ID

I’m going to one of these for work, and the other for play, so my esteemed readers are invited to guess which one is which. Here’s the exact routing courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper:

SIN-DXB-RUH-DXB-SIN-DPS-SIN

That’s SIN-DXB on Singapore Airlines (SQ) Y, DXB-RUH on Saudi Arabian (SV) Y, and SIN-DPS on SQ C.

Index

 

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Le Tonkin, Mohamed Sultan, Singapore

One year had passed since my incorporation, and with the annual report out and a fairly healthy-looking balance sheet, it was time to dig a hole in it. Plan A was Italian-Indonesian fusion joint Buko Nero, but getting a reservation there remains impossible and my virtual secretary had pasta coming out her ears anyway, so we opted for Le Tonkin, a recently opened French-Vietnamese place on Mohamed Sultan.

Mohamed Sultan was until recently Singapore‘s cheapest bar district, but it’s now looking somewhat out of sorts, with the crowds packing Clarke Quay instead. Most of the restaurants in the area serve the local Japanese community, and Le Tonkin doesn’t seem to have caught much wind under its sails — the main reason I decided to give it a shot was a glowing review from a French friend.

I’d made reservations for 7 PM, but on this Friday night we found ourselves the only customers inside, although a few other couples filtered in during the next hour, most of whom headed for the outdoor tables in the miniature back garden. Inside, the decor is straight from Moulin Rouge, all scarlet plush, lacquered black wood, crystal chandeliers and gold paint, slightly crossing the line from funky into tastelessness. The kitchen set the tune for the evening with a complimentary amuse-bouche of a crab and cream cheese wonton in raspberry sauce: tasty enough, but not more than the sum of its parts.

Appetizers

We planned to share a Le Tonkin Selection plate of appetizers, but on being warned it was too small, the lady opted for pan-seared foie gras on apple and fig compote. In the event both turned out to be generously sized: the Selection had some fish grilled on sugarcane, nicely flavored with dill (!), another wonton and a fresh sliced-up Vietnamese spring roll, with wholly unnecessary tiny dabs of foie gras and caviar atop each slice to justify the price tag. Her foie gras was generously sized — I’ve seen smaller steaks in Japan — but not well cut (slightly stringy) and seared a bit too fast to my taste, with the inside still raw.

Mains

I picked the house speciality of Cha Ca La Vong, the classic Hanoi dish of fish drizzled in sauce and cooked on a hot plate, served on a bed of bee hoon (rice vermicelli) and topped with oodles of fresh dill. Tasty, but the portion was perhaps a little on the small side. The lady opted for a creamy seafood stew, which I thought would be a recipe of disaster (it’s how chefs like to dispose of leftovers), but nope, it was big and generous, with scallops, shrimp, salmon, the same white fish as my CCLV and even a lobster tail for good measure. The only oddity was that there was no starch (rice, potatoes etc) served along with it, just the stew!

Dessert

And to top it off, we decided to share a vanilla souffle, which came with orange sauce to drizzle over it. It cost a fair bit and took a while to arrive, but it was impressively sufflated and won full marks from the female half of the jury. (Too bland for me.)

Drinks

The restaurant has a reasonably impressive wine selection, with half a dozen reds by the glass but only a few whites, a bit odd considering that they specialize in seafood. The lady had a New Zealand Chardonnay, I had a Chilean Pinot Grigio, which were both on the fruity side but entirely drinkable.

Overall

Overall, it was one of those restaurant experiences where you can’t really find much fault in anything, but end up slightly disappointed just the same. None of the dishes were particularly memorable, the fusion attempts just didn’t work and, at S$180 for two, it wasn’t particularly good value either. I doubt we’ll be back, and given the restaurant’s awkward location, I give it half a year tops before it disappears.

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Chikuyotei, Meritus Mandarin

Ever since I came to Singapore, I’ve kept hearing about Chikuyotei for two reasons. First, it’s Singapore’s only Japanese restaurant that specializes in eel (unagi), a dish that is quite difficult to prepare properly. Every now and then, hope has overcome bitter experience and I’ve tried my luck elsewhere, always ending up with a slab of fishy rubber coated with excessive amounts of sauce. And second, it has the reputation of being one of Singapore’s most expensive restaurants of any kind: a reporter friend of mine, who often went there on the company dime, used to tell stories of how many zeroes the bill could have at the end of a sake-soaked night. This, too, is a part of the restaurant’s 150-year heritage: the original Chikuyotei is located in the Ginza, Tokyo.

So when a friend of mine offered to return a previous favor and take me there, I jumped at the chance. The rather non-distinct restaurant is tucked away on the 5th floor of the Meritus Mandarin, one of Singapore’s older hotels, and on this New Year’s Eve was only half full, with couples enjoying a quiet splurge and one rowdy group of salarymen whooping it up in the corner.

Chikuyotei’s popularity with Japanese resident in Singapore stems from the fact that they make absolutely zero concessions to Western (or Singaporean) tastes. But unlike its Tokyo forbear, the Singapore outlet has been forced to expand its offerings beyond eel and also offers up a full range of Japanese izakaya (pub) fare: you could probably order noodles and a beer and sneak away for less than S$50 a head, but you could also order five pieces of tuna belly (S$100), some Kobe beef sukiyaki(S$123) or even ask for some wild eel (S$36/100g). Full courses start from S$110/head, but we opted to just get two dishes of Shizuokan farmed eel and a few appetizers, with a small bottle of Suigei (“Drunken Whale”), a slightly sweetish sake, to wash it down.

First up was kankoku-fu negi sarada (Korean-style spring onion salad, S$8), which consisted of chopped spring onion topped with sesame seeds, chili powder and soy-based dressing. It tasted exactly what it sounds like.

Second was ika no uni-ae (squid with sea urchin, S$15), in which a thimbleful of chopped raw squid was soaked in sea urchin roe. I’m not a great fan of either ingredient by itself, and mixing them together doesn’t much improve the result.

And third was konowata (S$10), a new acquaintance for me, served looking like a wad of phlegm dotted with a raw quail egg nestled in a spoon. I poked in a chopstick, licked, and felt ill when I remembered the last time I had tasted this nasty zing followed by a cloyingly putrid aftertaste. I’ve eaten silkworms, beef testicles, raw horse meat and dog stew, but firmly enshrined in my mind as the worst thing I’ve ever tasted is ika no shiokara, a pickle made from sliced squid soaked in fermented squid guts that has even made it onto Fear Factor. It turns out that konowata is almost exactly the same thing, except that it’s made from sea cucumber entrails, not squid. Mmm. Being the chivalrous gentleman that I am, I assisted my dining companion in tearing up the guts into eatable small chunks, then wiped my chopsticks clean and tried not to gag as I watched her slurp it down.

At this point, the restaurant’s sommelier — an acquaintance of my friend’s — showed up and kindly treated us to glasses of white wine, a fruity but dry French Chardonnay from the Loire valley. It was nice gesture, but well versed in the ways of Japanese etiquette, my friend knew we had to order two more glasses to compensate: it was a different (and very tasty) wine whose name this time escapes me, but the glasses were slightly larger and we paid $21 a pop for them. Even in Japan there ain’t no such thing as a free glass of wine…

At last the eel came. First up was the Kansai-style shiroyaki (S$38), plain old grilled eel, served with soy and wasabi on the side as a dipping sauce. It was alright, but didn’t really taste like very much, just vaguely fishy. But then came the Tokyo-style kabayaki (S$52), gently coated with sauce, and it was worth the wait. The meat was so soft it fell apart at the touch, and the skin too was so soft it could easily be pulled apart. I still prefer charcoal-grilled eel, which makes the skin and edges nice and crispy while sealing the moisture inside, but this was still far an away the best I’ve had in Singapore and made it at #3 on the all-time top eel chart.

The final bill came to S$220, which I thought was a pretty darn steep price for a rather modest quantity, but my friend thought was quite alright. “Sommelier-san is opening a new restaurant in Sentosa that will cost at least that much per head, so next time it’s your treat!”

SIN-JHB-XKL-SIN in F: A little tale of first-class travel, Asian style

I rarely if ever travel in F, but as it happened a friend and I had to go from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur with 2 days notice, and everything else was booked up. Due to a quirk of international relations, KTMB’s tickets are charged in ringgit from Malaysia but in Sing dollars from Singapore, meaning that it’s effectively half price to leave from across the border in Johor Bahru (JHB). So that’s what we did, and the total price for two one-way tickets in F came to all of RM230 (~$60).

It being the Friday before a 3-day weekend in Malaysia, the Causeway connecting SIN and JHB was even more jammed up than usual. We were aware of this and hit the road at 20:30 (almost 3 hours before departure), but as it turned out the queues started at Kranji MRT station for the buses to the border! We took a taxi to Woodlands Immigration instead, but getting within striking distance even there proved tough, with our cabbie eventually depositing us at a shopping mall from which we could trek across the parking lot to the checkpoint. The queues for leaving Sing weren’t too bad, everything operating with typical Singaporean efficiency, but there was another bus queue & traffic jam on the Causeway itself; fortunately, we had only a little luggage, so we opted for the cheapest option and walked the 2 km across. On the Malaysian side it finally paid off to be a furriner — the “Other Passports” line was much shorter than the Sing and Malaysian lines and we were through in a jiffy. Another little jog to the terminal, and it was time to board…

KTMB 12 JHB-XKL F “Ekspres Senandung Malam” 23:15

We’d scored seats 1A and 1B, right up front, which in KTMB’s “Deluxe ADNF” are configured as a private little suite, complete with shower and toilet! A little cramped, to be sure, but what was the last time you saw that in First? The seats had already been converted to beds by the time we boarded; and yes, they are truly flat, but the rather unorthodox bunk bed layout with two vertically layered beds leaves a little to be desired, and the bed was just a little short for a tall guy like me. For IFE we had a personal TV screen with two channels, but alas, we got nothing except static out of either one and we didn’t get headphones for the audio either. Tut tut.

Departure was a couple of minutes late, but no big shakes; soon afterward the steward came to bring us amenity kits and take our meal order, our choices tonight being: Fried Rice, Fried Noodles (Mee), Fried Bee Hoon, Tuna Sandwich, Anchovy Sandwich.

Plus a selection of fruit juices. No alcoholic drinks available, but then again, this is a Muslim country. All in all, not quite a match for SQ, but then again, I wasn’t expecting even this for such a short hop and late departure; the poor slobs in J and Y got nothing at all. I took the bee hoon, which was mostly edible; the lady opted for the mee, which wasn’t too bad. Given that the F cabin was less than 25% full, our orders took a rather unreasonable 45 minutes to arrive though, during which time I sampled the joys of the shower. Quite nice, although the hot water took a while to get started.

After the meal was cleared we settled down to sleep. The ride was slightly turbulent and the engines were a tad noisy at times, but there was a rhythm to it all and soon enough we drifted off to dreamland.

A rude awakening came at 5:30 AM when the steward came around to bring breakfast. I’d been hoping for some decent nasi lemak, but no such luck, our choices were limited to the rather un-Malaysian selection of Chicken Burger, Tuna Sandwich and the undoubtedly ever-popular Anchovy Sandwich.

Plus the usual choice of warm and cold drinks. Neither Chicken Burger nor Tuna Sandwich were noteworthy, and my hot Milo was poorly mixed. Grumble.

At 6:10 AM on the dot — we’d obviously made up for lost time at night — we touched down at KL Sentral (XKL). Unfortunately for getting from XKL to our hotel we missed the 6:14 train and, it being a public holiday, the next one only came at 7:03. This, however, did not stop both signboards and staff from announcing non-existent trains that would usually have run if only it hadn’t been a holiday…!

But by 8 AM we had checked into our opulent Oriental Suite (RM168++) at the Heritage Hotel, and it was time to get down to some serious shopping. A veteran of KL, I started my day in authentic style with a Currywurst at Muller’s Imbiss in downtown Bukit Bintang, and then plunged into the murky depths of Sungei Wang…


So yes, KTMB = Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad = Malayan Railways Company, and the Ekspres Senandung Malam is the sole night train plying the SIN-XKL route. Yes, the KL Sentral train station really does have its own IATA code!

A legacy of the British era privatized some time ago, KTMB’s services are much better than they used to be thanks to the introduction of the new sleeper trains and nifty services like e-ticketing (which worked without a hitch), but as a whole the service remains a bit of a quaint relic. Most passengers are people for whom getting there is half the fun, as even the “express” takes 7 hours (compared to 4-5 hours by bus, 3 in your own car and 35 min by plane!)… or people for whom 18 RM (2nd class train seat) vs 20 RM (bus) for the trip actually makes a difference, still a not inconsiderable number in Malaysia.

Anyway, I was going to write more tongue-in-cheek tales of decadent luxury about our return journey by bus, but our plans were rudely interrupted by the realization that all NiCE tickets for KUL-SIN departing on 02 May were sold out

So we put on our thinking caps and booked a Plusliner to JHB instead, still leaving at an uncomfortably early 10:30 AM, but beggars can’t be choosers as the next available seats were at 8:30 (meaning arrival in JHB past midnight).

The NiCE Executive Express buses are the F class of bus travel in Malaysia, with 24 seats in the entire bus (built for twice that), meal service and direct connection into Singapore across the Second Link, all for a price of 50-70 RM from KL (and S$38+ IIRC if departing from Sing). By comparison, the same company’s Plusliners to JHB are C-class on a bad airline; plenty of leg room (at least 50 inches) but no other amenities, period. There are of course plenty of other companies plying the same legs from KL to both Johor Bahru and Singapore, but many are rather dodgy and your bus may leave late if at all, while NiCE/Plus are known for their punctuality. Also, while NiCE buses leave from the genteel charm of the quiet old Kuala Lumpur railway station (not to be confused with the new KL Sentral!), Plusliners and everybody else leave from the festering pit of chaos known as Puduraya deep in heart of Chinatown. The plus side to this (hee hee!) is that if you have a moment to spare you can saunter over to the food markets to sample some of KL’s famous bak kut teh, lit. pork bone tea, which despite the name doesn’t contain a drop of the stuff, but is instead basically a soup containing nothing except meat. 

To make a long story, the trip from KL to Singapore via JHB by bus ended up taking the better part of 7 hours, partly thanks to a traffic jam on the expressway (unusual), partly thanks to the bus stopping for snacks and to fill up. The bus dumped us at JB’s Larkin terminal, several km to the north of the city, where we changed to the Causeway Link buses crawling across the border in the omnipresent and interminable traffic jam between the two cities… sigh. The good thing is that all this cost a grand total of RM 20.20 + 1.30 = RM 21.50 (~$5); but I will still gladly pay the full RM 60 next time to go straight into Singapore next time.