Quick Hits: Do NOT take Air China

My love of travel didn’t come out of no where.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have parents who have taken me around the world and see the benefit of exposing their children to the vast diversity of cultures on our planet.  So with that, our guest post today comes from none other than Mom!  It’s a little lengthy, she’s big on narrative, but worth a read to avoid having to go through the horrible experience she just went through.  Here she is:

“I have always enjoyed travel.  The last few decades had seen me in many countries around the world and since my retirement, the frequency of my travel has increased.  I just recently returned from a trip to Bangkok, flying from JFK, with a lengthy layover in Beijing on Air China.  The flights to and from Thailand were so terrible that I need to share the experience with you.”

“As any seasoned traveler would know, one usually chooses an airline based on price and service.  The Thailand trip was actually a vacation package deal including all airfares, international as well as domestic.  The price was very reasonable because they booked us on Air China, which offered the lowest airfares.”  

“Both the outbound trip and return trip each took approximately 15 hours in the air.  Two meals were served between JFK and Beijing.  The flight attendants could not speak English well (I think they probably understood English much better than they spoke it) so with the first meal served, I could only grasp the concept of either duck or beef for choice of entrée–I chose duck.  The duck tasted like the back end of the fowl; it was absolutely offensive.  The accompanying rice was cold and dry.  I ended up eating just a dinner roll with a pad of butter.  The second meal came maybe 8 hours later.  Again, I could barely understand the choice of beef or chicken.  Still reeling by the duck experience, I chose the beef and onion stir-fry.  I had one bite and stopped.  The beef and onion had a slimy texture, the type of slimy food would get just before turning rancid, usually after a day or so without refrigeration.  I was nauseous for the rest of the flight.”

surely 

“Also, for the entire 15-hour flight, beverages were served only twice when the two meals were served.  There were no beverage carts going up and down the aisles for the passengers at any other times during the other 14 hours.  Fortunately, I had an aisle seat, so I was able to make frequent trips to the galley to beg for water.  And when I did ask, the cabin crew had the audacity to give me attitude for asking!  For water!  Food and service on the return flight was no better; I chose not to eat and I was so hungry and dehydrated when I got off the plane.”

“Now, let’s get to the bathrooms on the plane.  With over 200 passengers sharing 6 bathrooms in the economy section for 15 hours, it goes without saying that maintenance of these bathrooms is pretty critical.  I’m not sure of the airline’s policy, but I was not impressed by the condition of the bathrooms on either flight.  There was a clogged toilet in one bathroom and I stepped into a giant puddle of some liquid which I’m assuming was urine in another.  Needless to say those shoes didn’t come home with me.” 

“And that’s not all.  At the Beijing Airport, I chatted with a family waiting for the same flight back to JFK (Two parents, an elderly grandmother, and a 10-year old son). Air China had scattered them all over the plane, not keeping this party of four together.  The father asked the ticket agent at counter for, perhaps, just two seats together so that one parent could be with the young son.  The counter agent couldn’t accommodate such a humble request of finding any two seats together on a Boeing 777.  She told them to ask the agent at the gate for the seat changes.  When they spoke to the agent at the gate, they were told that they should have had the counter agent to change seats, not at the gate. Ultimately, the family was able to switch seats with other passengers so that the child would not have to travel alone without parental supervision.  It was the passengers who resolved the problem.  The airline was no help at all.”

smh

“This brings up the most important issue to anyone traveling and my final note–the airline’s willingness and ability to help during an emergency situation.  Air China could not deal with a simple problem like seat changes for a family booked as one party.  I doubt the company will assume responsibility for major issues like damaged luggage, lost children, or injury.  On an international flight between Beijing and New York with passengers from different countries, the inability to speak fluent English by the flight attendants worries me greatly.  If an emergency arises at 35,000 feet, I doubt the ability of the Air China crew to help me.  I would not be able to understand their emergency instructions.  Knowing the words duck or beef will not help at all.  Personally, I will avoid flying Air China in the future.”

cabin

Gaggan and Above Eleven

We had our first fancy dinner of the trip at a restaurant called Gaggan, which was recommended by a friend of ours.  They define their cuisine as “progressive Indian” and it’s hard to argue with that description.  Very similar to the dinner we had a Komi in Washington, D.C., the meal is various courses with each course being a bite or two of very unique and interesting flavors.  The presentation of each course was excellent as well.  The menu comes in three sizes: large, medium, and small.  We each got the medium menu, which costs 2800 baht.

Overall, the experience was great, but you’ll see as you read on, it was almost completely ruined at the end.  Here are the course highlights:

So as you can see, I cannot stress this enough: DO NOT GET THE OLD FASHIONED. It literally almost ruined what was an excellent meal up until that point.  The drink came out in a smoke filled jar, and when the cover was lifted (very dramatically by the waiter I might add), cigar smoke filled the room.  The drink tasted like an ashtray.  Biggest miss by a restaurant that I’ve experienced ever.  This place would have had an A-, but gets a B instead because of it.

So after that horrible drink, we clearly needed another.  We headed to Above Eleven, another one of Bangkok’s rooftop bars.  This one was located on Soi 11 near our hotel which made for an easy walk back.  Above Eleven didn’t have as good a view as Sky Bar, but it was a really nice place to have a drink.  The rooftop is actually 3 levels there (you need to look a little bit for the staircases which are enveloped in ivy), and the vibe is very relaxed.  The theme of the place seemed to be going for a New York City rooftop with a mix of brick everywhere, couches, white Christmas lights wrapped all around, and lounge-y jazz music playing.   Definitely a good spot to go to unwind, and was a perfect spot to enjoy our last night in Bangkok.  Coming up: On to Laos!

Chatuchak Weekend Market and Lavana Spa

Sunday morning we hopped on the Sky Train and took it all the way to the end of the green line (Mo Chit) to the Chatuchak Weekend Market (also known as JJ Market).  Again, I’d like to point out that the trains in Bangkok are very easy to use.  Get a day pass if you think you’re going to take more than two rides and just so you know there’s a 300 baht minimum if you want to use your credit card.

The Chatuchak Weekend Market is probably the second largest market I’ve ever seen (the largest being the souq in Fez).  Despite the thousands of vendors and tens of thousands shoppers, the market is surprisingly calm.  It’s here that you can get pretty much anything: art, clothes, souvenirs, plants, cow penis, jewelry, etc.  Because the market is so confusing you can get a map of it at the information booths. Be sure to bring your ATM card, which we forgot to do, so that you can get cash if needed because most of the vendors do not take credit card.  Also, it can get really hot and muggy, both inside and outside so be sure to be prepared for that.  You could spend anywhere from an hour to a good part of the day here depending on your purchasing wants/needs.

After some shopping, we decided to really treat ourselves and made our way to Lavana Spa.  Again, I feel the need to point out that no, this is not a happy ending massage parlor.  Lavana Spa is a very western, clean, classy place.  It’s here that we purchased a 90-minute Thai massage and herb treatment session for 900 baht ($30 — so freaking cheap).  Lavana Spa started us off with a cup of tea, they washed our feet and then put us in a massive zen room.  I’m not sure how big the whole place is, but the room we got was about the size of a small yoga studio.  The Thai massage wasn’t like a typical Swedish massage with oils.  The Thai massage consists more of putting your body in yoga positions and applying stretching and pressure to work out the kinks.  The herb treatment is what I think was a heated glove with steamed herbs (? couldn’t really tell because my face was in the floor) which was applied to the body to warm and relax the muscles.  It concluded with a nice bowl of vanilla ice cream (kind of random).

When you’re in SE Asia, with the cheap prices for spa treatments, you really must take advantage of it and Lavana Spa is a good place to go if you want to keep it classy.  Want anything more than that?  Just go out on the street and you’ll find someone within 30 seconds.

Bangkok Food Tour, our own Hangover @ Sky Bar, and Chinatown

After getting about an hour of sleep, we somehow miraculously got ourselves up and headed out the door for the Bangkok Food Tour.  If we had known that we’d be out until sunrise the night before, we would never have signed up for it, but since it was already paid for, we just sucked it up and marched on over.  I can’t imagine what the other folks on the tour thought of us at first when we showed up looking obviously like we’d clearly been partying hard just a few short hours earlier.  But we did end up enjoying ourselves quite a bit and despite being aggressively hungover it was real nice having some great conversations and getting to know everyone else on the tour.

However, my review of the Bangkok Food Tour is this: if you’re already typically an adventurous eater, I wouldn’t bother.  This is not a criticism of the tour itself.  Our guide was great, and like I said, it was actually amazing that we were able to get along and have fun with all the other tourists in our condition.  But for my buddy and I who are already always trying exotic foods on the menu, the food at the stops that we made didn’t really live up to what we already do on a regular basis.  But I’ll give you an overview of the tour anyways and you can decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth the 1200 baht.

The tour stops at 5 local spots and here’s the food that each offered:

  • Pig leg at a Chinese restaurant.
  • Rice Noodle in Yellow Curry with Egg, Coconut, Milk, Peanut, and Beef along with a Chicken pastry at a Middle Eastern/SE Asian fusion place.
  • Thai Salad (very spicy), Deep Fried Chicken with Lemongrass, Pork and Mushrooms at a very local, alleyway place.  This was probably the best of the stops in terms of food and getting to go to a real “local” eatery.
  • Green Custard Buns and Thai Iced Tea at a Chinese bakery.
  • Green Curry Chicken w/ Roti and Coconut Sorbet at an Indian/SE Asian fusion restaurant owned by a member of the Thai royal family who has an affinity for Indian food.

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So like I said, it was a perfectly fine tour, but not worth it if those food options don’t “excite” you.

After that, we napped for a good while and then headed to the Sky Bar at the Lebua Hotel.  If you’ve ever seen the Hangover II (ironically, we went hungover as well), this was the bar featured prominently in that movie and in turn posters of the movie are featured prominently in the hotel’s lobby.  It is easy to see why the movie producers chose this for the film.  Bangkok is known for its multitude of rooftop bars, but I can’t imagine one with a view more spectacular than the one at Sky Bar.  From the bar you can see a solid 270 degrees over Bangkok.  We showed up at sunset and had a perfect view of the sun coming down in the West.  The drink prices are expensive, probably even a little expensive for Western standards, but this is to be expected because the clientele are all wealthier tourists.  But a drink or two is a small price to pay for the relaxing atmosphere, great view, and surprisingly not too packed bar area.  There is a smart casual dress code, so make sure to shower and change before you go.

From Sky Bar we made our way to Chinatown for dinner.  It’s here that you can really find street food central.  The chaos isn’t all that much different from a lot of other Chinatowns around the world, but the difference here is that the sidewalks aren’t for walkers – it’s for all the tables set up for the street food carts.   So essentially the road is full of cars, cabs, Tuk Tuks, and pedestrians (Keep Your Elbows In!).  I can’t honestly say for sure I knew what some of the food was that we saw, but we kept it relatively safe and tried a bunch of different carts featuring food I recognized including:

  • Roast BBQ Pork noodles.
  • Shrimp at this one cart where the cook was putting on a ridiculous fire show with his wok.
  • Pad Thai — the best Pad Thai we had on the trip.  Word of advice: look for the Pad Thai carts that throw a whole fried egg on top of the noodles.

 

All of this food cost 300 baht per person ($1 = 30 baht).

A couple of other quick places we stopped in on our way back to the Landmark on Soi 11.

  • Oskar Bistro: Typical expat bar with a good amount of porch seating to watch the party scene on the streets of Soi 11.
  • Levels Club:  We came in here to see what the club scene is like and this place is the place to go if you want to dance.  You take an elevator up to the second floor club consists of two floors.  Go-Go dancers perform at the front by the DJ and there are multiple bars making the wait for a drink very short.  There’s also a large outdoor porch area if you want to get away from the loud music for a bit.  Folks keep in mind, there are prostitutes lined up along the edges of the dance floor ready to pounce.

WTF – Both the name of the bar and what happened that night.

After a busy, busy day in Bangkok we headed out to see the nightlife by starting at a bar we found through Lonely Planet called WTF Bangkok.  WTF is located on Soi 51, down a relatively dead alleyway.  When you walk in, it’s your typical hipster dive bar with an art gallery on the second floor (which was unfortunately closed).   The mainly expat staff was friendly and our bartender Kris made us feel right at home recommending her favorite Thai beers and a great eggplant/eel sauce(?) dish (and I don’t even like eggplant) from the Japanese restaurant next door that caters to the WTF patrons.

Kris and Brian working at WTF.
Kris and Brian working at WTF.

As the night wore on, and the drinks kept flowing, we began to get really friendly with all the staff working that night, including the friends of the staff who were at the bar, and the chefs from across the street who were regular customers as well.  Thus began our one night in Bangkok (cue the Murray Head).

Needless to say, a massive amount of libations were consumed, so the memory on this one is spotty at best.  As WTF was coming to a close, one of the chef’s, Sam, made the suggestion to all go to a lady-boy bar.  This wouldn’t typically be the destination of choice for myself in any normal situation.  But this wasn’t a normal situation.  This was Bangkok.  So hell yes we were gonna go along to a lady-boy bar with the locals.

Before you get any thoughts in your head, I’m putting this out there: nothing happened with any lady-boys to me or anyone in the group.  Needless to say, the lady-boy bar was very bizarre.  The actual place wasn’t anything special; you could swap out the people in any dive bar with a pool table with lady-boys and that would be the scene.  And to be honest, the lady-boys who ended up hanging out with us were actually pretty friendly.  Even though they were likely soliciting for sex, which we weren’t going to give them, they were still fun to be around.  One of the girls in our group told us that the proper etiquette is to at the very least buy one of the lady-boys a beer, which is what each of us did.

WTF is going on in this picture?  I don't know.
WTF is going on in this picture? I don’t know.

Now I’m completely comfortable with that scene, but I would not have gone to a lady-boy bar had it not been with a group of locals.  I suspect that many of you reading will never end up there.  But I’m glad I did because Bangkok is a city where the societal lines of normality are placed differently than in other parts of the world and it’s something that was worth experiencing.

The lady-boy bar did not consist of the entire night.  We also went and got fried chicken/fried beef from bartender Brian’s favorite street cart, ended up at some random outdoor bar that literally consisted of a bar table and bar stools in a random dark alley, and went dancing again in some random night club down another random alley.  Yes, there was a lot of random in the night.  And because of that, the night ended at 6-6:30 AM.  Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention that we had to be up at 8 AM for the Bangkok Food Tour.  My review of that on the next post.

Tuk Tuk – the Auto Rickshaw

A popular mode of transportation in SE Asia is the Tuk Tuk (pronounced “Duk Duk”), which is an auto rickshaw.  Generally cheaper than cabs if you can negotiate correctly, the Tuk Tuk is a fun way to get around.  But know that your heart rate will be accelerated as you ride on them.  Think of it like taking an amusement park ride without the benefit of a safety bar.  And again my mantra for SE Asia — Keep Your Elbows In!

Bangkok: The Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Wat Arun.

After a much needed night of rest, we set off early for The Grand Palace.  Outside the palace, there isn’t a lot of good English signage to direct you to the entrance, so just follow the ridiculous amount of crowds and you’ll eventually end up at the ticket office.  Be sure to get there early, one, to try and beat the rush a little and two, if you’re in Thailand during their summer months, it will get muggy as all hell.  Another reason to get there early is to be sure you’ll be able to rent a 200 baht audio guide, which was indispensable (when we returned them at noon, they had a sign up saying they were all out).  Keep in mind you’ll need to leave a passport or credit card with them.

The entrance fee to the palace is 500 baht, and when you walk in it’s pure chaos.  Any outdoor signs that say “No Picture”, you can completely disregard because everyone else is.  However, they do crack down on the picture taking inside certain temples, so this post won’t be able to show you some interiors.  Also, there are several places where you can’t wear shoes, so make sure to have socks on if you’re there in the summer because the stone ground does get very hot.  I was also surprised by one thing.  Generally in places with no shoe policies, like the Blue Mosque for instance, the smell is pretty bad.  Somehow, that wasn’t really an issue here and I’m not sure how they got away with that.

What you’ll notice immediately is how much gold there is and how tightly packed all the buildings are next to each other.  It almost feels like you’re in an Epcot Center showcase country, but in this case it’s the real deal.  The highlights:

  • The Temple of the Emerald Buddha with its beautiful illuminated blue Buddha statue atop a golden temple.  The Buddha has 3 robes that are changed each season by the King.  The walls of the room are lavish red, white and gold murals of the life of the Buddha including a Thai version of Michelangelo’s Judgement Day.  The floor is a beautiful Italian marble.
  • Amarin Winitchai Throne Hall inside the Grand Palace displays the impressive gold throne covered by the nine tiered umbrella representing the King.
  • Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall gives you a closer look at a different throne and there’s a weapons museum displaying a multitudes of swords, spears and other military relics.
  • Like the British Palace, you can take your photos with a royal guard who maintains his disciplinary pose.

 

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After our stop at The Grand Palace, and a quick 50 cent mango snack from a street cart, we walked down to Wat Pho.  We made the mistake of not looking at the map first before leaving the palace,  which made our walk there far longer because we left at the wrong exit.  So check to see which direction to leave from before walking out.  The entrance fee for Wat Pho is 100 baht, but it includes a bottle of water, which was very welcome in the 100 degree heat.  There are no audio guides sadly, but there are a good amount of English information signs throughout.

The main highlight of Wat Pho is the giant, and I mean giant, reclining Buddha.  It’s almost amusing to look at because you’re staring at this huge Buddha who’s laying there like he’s just chilling.  The Buddha even has a little smirk on his face I think.  The scene is far less chaotic, and it’s a bit more civilized in that they give you bags to hold your shoes in instead of having you leave them in a giant pile outside the monastery.  Keep your eye out for pickpockets.  Of all the places we went, I could see how this place is the easiest to fall victim to them because everyone is just staring up and there’s not a whole lot of space.  When you look at the Buddha, pay special attention to the feet with the 108 auspicious symbols of Buddha and you can pay 20 baht to drop coins into 108 bronze bowls in the corridor as a way to bring good fortune, and to help the monks maintain the monastery.

 

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From Wat Pho we headed to Wat Arun, but before we did we just happened to stumble upon a great place for lunch (and because we were lost).  Eat Sight Story deck/restaurant is located on the Chaophraya River across the way from Wat Arun.  From there you get a spectacular view of Wat Arun and the parts of Bangkok that you can see up and down the river.  To find it, look for Arun Residences on Soi Ta Tian alley.  The food is decent enough, but it’s priced higher than most places because they know people are going to come for the view.  And the view really is worth it.

From Eat Sight Story, we could see where to take the 3 baht ferry across the river (remember $1 = 30 baht) to Wat Arun.  Sadly, the wat was under renovation so a good portion of it was covered in scaffolding.  The entrance fee here is 50 baht and again there was no audio guide.  Compared to the Palace and Wat Pho, Wat Arun is relatively anti-climatic.  That being said, the pagoda at Wat Arun is one of the more picturesque ones and the surrounding gardens make it a very calming visit after the hysteria at the other sites.

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