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

Luang Prabang, Laos

Our next stop was the country of Laos to a little city called Luang Prabang.  If you’re heading there from Bangkok, leave plenty of time to get to the airport and deal with all the flight check in and security (2-3 hours).  The flight is only a few hours and remember to bring cash for the arrival visa ($36).  You’ll also need a photo for the visa which you can either bring with you or they’ll copy one out of your passport for $1.

You’ll immediately notice the difference between Luang Prabang and Bangkok as you drive away from the airport.  Luang Prabang is less busy, less modern, and noticeably more peaceful.  The people are also more friendly, and not in the way that they’re trying to sell you something.  They have more of a quiet politeness that isn’t overbearing, but accommodating at the same time.

Of the three countries, Laos was hands-down my favorite part.  It’s impossible not to feel relaxed in the zen-like ambiance of the town.  It’s a backpacker’s paradise, and while there are tourists there, it’s not overrun with them.  And those tourists that are there tend to be the hippie, mix in with the culture type.  With the 11 PM curfew in the country, there isn’t a huge draw for the spring break party crowd.  Note: The curfew doesn’t mean that you can’t be outside past 11 PM.  It just means that businesses have to closed by then.

Businesses and people in Laos accept Thai baht, but it is a little bit of pain, so try and use whatever baht you have quickly and head to the ATM.  The Laotian money is the kip ($1 = 8,000 kip).  It’ll probably take you a little while to get used doing conversions with thousands at first.

Our hotel was The Le Bel Air Resort.  This is place is really nice; we arrived to a refreshing cold towel and lemongrass tea.  Located a quick 10-15 minute drive from the airport, the Le Bel Air sits on the bank of the Nam Khan River.  The resort itself is made up of several bungalows of varying sizes depending on what you want to pay for, but all the options are very affordable.  And while the bungalows themselves look rustic, they’re actually quite modern.  Each are equipped with A/C, HD TVs, and patios overlooking the river.  The hotel offers free shuttles to the center of town as well as free bikes to borrow.  The service there is also exceptional.  We essentially had our own personal staff member, Mr. Un, who was attentive and helpful.

 

Getting into town is quick, it’s about a 15 minute walk, but there is one drawback to The Le Bel Air.  In order to get to town, you have to cross a very scary, rickety wooden bridge.  The center of the bridge is for bikes only, and the pedestrians have to walk on the side.  It’s a straight-up Indiana Jones crossing.  I’m not afraid of heights, but this bridge is very unnerving (especially at night).  The planks aren’t very stable and will move when you step on them.  Here’s a little video to show you what the walk is like:

Bamboo bridge
Bamboo bridge

Alternatively, there is a bamboo walking bridge that you can cross, but it costs 500 kip, and is only available during the dry season when the river is low.  So as much as I hate to say this, I would recommend staying at a place closer to town if you don’t like heights.  Again, I hate to say that because The Le Bel Air is such a nice place and the hotel does offer a free shuttle, but that is a bit of pain because the shuttle isn’t run regularly and it has to take a major detour around the river to get to the center of town.  So from a time-saving standpoint just walking to town is a lot quicker and easier, but a lot of people would not be comfortable with that bridge.

My next few posts will cover the sights and sounds of beautiful Luang Prabang, including elephant riding, Kuang Si falls, and rice whiskey tastings.

 

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!