And I mostly just slept.
Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as the infamous song by Murray Head, but it is true. I was pretty tired, having only slept a few hours the night prior in Doha and only a few hours the night prior to that on the plane to Doha. Even with most of my time spent sleeping, however, that didn’t stop me from getting out to see a bit of the city and enjoying the parts which I know I like.
The train in from the airport is incredibly easy and I managed to skip the traffic which was a nice win. Soon enough I was settling in to my room at the FuramaXclusive Sathorn. For a clean, conveniently located (1.5 blocks from a BTS station) hotel and only $55 for the night (~15% of which I get back through hotels.com WelcomeRewards and my cash-back booking portal) I have no complaints at all. It is actually the second time I’ve stayed at the property and I’d go back again at that price point. The location is not perfect – there isn’t a lot around the neighborhood open at night for dinner or such, but I like the hotel well enough and the price is quite fair.
Speaking of dinner, I walked around for a half hour or so, taking some pictures and trying to stay awake long enough that I’d be able to sleep through the night and sortof be on local time in the morning. I was also looking for somewhere to eat dinner. For no particular reason I was trying to find a restaurant rather than a table and stool on the street. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. The street food in Bangkok is fantastic and I’ve always enjoyed eating it. Before too long I was settling in at the stall around the corner from the hotel and adjacent to the BTS station, tucking in to a plate of meat & rice with a beer to wash it all down. Not too shabby for ~$4.50.
The week I was in town was roughly the hottest of the year, and the humidity did its best to match the heat. It was, quite frankly, disgusting. Despite my best efforts to sleep in I was up early and that was actually almost a good thing as it meant I could get out and see a bit of the city before the sun was high overhead, turning the streets into a steam bath and turning me into an incredibly unhappy, sweaty, sticky mess. After grabbing fried dough of some sort for breakfast, I hopped on the BTS and alighted at the Saphan Taksin station, adjacent to the Central Pier, so that I could take a ride on the Chao Phraya ferries.
From my first visit to Bangkok I have loved the local ferry rides. There is an express version of the boats for tourists (I think maybe they speak more English on board, too) but those aren’t nearly as much fun. Packing on to the ferry with monks, school kids and locals commuting to work is a way better experience to me. Plus, the reasonably slow ride up the river offers plenty of time to see city life from that vantage point. It is a great way to get a feel for the vibe of Bangkok. On this particular trip I think the part I was most proud of is that I actually managed to figure out which boat I wanted to be on and get on the correct one the first time. That hasn’t happened on previous visits.
I was on the ferry for about 45 minutes, getting off at N9 (Tha Chang) which is the stop just south of the Grand Palace. The Grand Palace stop is chaotic and crowded, with hawkers selling food, hats, tchotchkes and everything else. The Tha Chang stop is just a bit calmer, but easy enough to get out of without quite such crazy crowds.
Of course, I then proceeded to walk up into the din of the Grand Palace crowds to get breakfast from one of the hawkers there, so it isn’t like I avoided the scene completely, but I did enjoy the walk and the few minutes of not being completely in the center of the crazy.
After breakfast it was back on the ferry, this time headed southbound, and back to the Central Pier station. I basically retraced my route back to the hotel and was in my room, showered and refreshed, about 2.5 hours after I headed out that morning. Just enough time to experience the bit of Bangkok I truly enjoy and also to clean up before heading back to the airport. Three flights to catch that day and I wanted to be there a little early because I was going to be transiting Yangon, Myanmar on two separate tickets and without a visa. I figured I’d need the extra time at the ticket counter. Plus, the massage in the Thai lounge is a nice little perk, too.
Bangkok isn’t really a city I love in Asia. There is good, cheap food to be had and I know my way around well enough but the general vibe of the city isn’t one I love. I’ve had some great visits there – one was for a wedding and we had a fantastic time – but overall I find the city basically a decent place to overnight on your way to wherever you’re actually going, not an actual destination. Fortunately that was the case for me this trip as well (though I’m still not sure where I was actually going).
Competition does strange things, like making the airlines offer better products to attract customers. Hard to say that’s a bad thing, right?? Delta is adding some new benefits for passengers in their Economy Comfort seats on flights on their main transcon routes. For flights between New York City‘s JFK and either Los Angeles or San Francisco customers in the Economy Comfort (extra legroom/recline) seats will now include free drinks, a free "premium snack" and free newspapers.
Like many things in the airline industry this seems to be a case of things coming full circle, with complimentary snacks and drinks returning to the coach cabin in the name of competition. Virgin America already has free snacks/drinks in their comparable offering (Main Cabin Select). American Airlines is going to be competing with frequencies, upping to roughly hourly shuttle service in the coming year as they get their new A321 planes with fewer seats. United is also pushing new configurations out in the market, though no other special features noted.
With only 13 hours in Doha and needing to spend some of that time actually sleeping my options for dinner were somewhat limited. Fortunately I had a number of suggestions for dinner and, as an added bonus, a couple readers who were in town and willing to hang out. With so little time and looking to maximize my tourist exposure we headed directly for the Souk, the center of the public nightlife in town.
My first thought as we navigated into the market, was that it was way too clean. It had something of a Disney feel to it, with everything so clean and in place, but still trying to look authentic. There were a few western chain restaurants mixed in with the local options but it mostly was the local stuff. Still, it didn’t have the same sort of feel as the markets in Turkey or Tunisia, for example. Turns out there is a good reason for that. The Souk in Doha is relatively new. There are bits of the old market still there but the main drag is recent construction. That makes it quite a bit easier to navigate.
We ended up at a Moroccan restaurant, Tajine, and sat outside for dinner, one flight up from the hustle and bustle of the main market area. We sat outside, in the “cool” evening air, enjoying tagine, tea and watching most everyone else there puffing away on hookahs.
The food was pretty good and the company was great. Having normal (at least as “normal” as talking points and miles for a couple hours can be) conversations over a meal was great and getting to experience a bit of the local scene was most welcome. I won’t pretend that I’ve really had a Doha experience, but given my timing I think I did pretty well for myself.
I was only a bit surprised to find a wide range of choices available for award flights from New York to Northern Germany in mid-March. After all, it is the middle of winter and most spring break folks are headed to sun and surf or other more traditional destinations. We had our choice of the non-stop United flight to Hamburg or taking a connection in Frankfurt and flying in to Hannover. Given our initial destination of Hildesheim is much closer to Hannover, plus the better flight time (9pm departure rather than 5:30pm) I figured we’d take the extra travel time. Plus it meant I’d get to experience Singapore Air in their economy cabin, rounding out the full set (I did suites a couple months ago and business a year ago). So, thanks to some MileagePlus points I got us booked on JFK-FRA-HAJ with a reasonable layover in Frankfurt for breakfast and a shower in the Senator Lounge.
We got to JFK a bit early so that we could have dinner. We considered the options in the Swiss lounge in T4 and quickly decided to have a real dinner instead. There is a branch of The Palm in the terminal and, despite some previous bad experiences with other airport steakhouses, we gave it a go. Mostly because it was the only reasonable meal option there. And it was surprisingly good. It was helped by our waitress Victoria who was old-school NYC in a good way. But the food was also quite tasty. And by virtue of sitting there rather than in the lounge we got to see this guy and his sparkly backpack. All sorts of good happening there.
Once on board we were treated to the bonus of having the middle seat between us empty. We almost got lie-flat coach but I was slow to jump into the seat across the aisle. Yeah, loads were light. That was good because the space on board isn’t particularly generous down the back of the plane. There is a foot rest which mostly just got in my way, preventing me from extending my legs under the seat in front of me. And the seats are the articulating ones so the recline slides the bottom forward a bit. Reclining decreases legroom. Yuck.
On the plus side, economy class got amenity kits (socks & a toothbrush) and earplugs/eye mask were available on request from the flight attendants. Also, free drinks with the dinner service, though it was really only beer & wine. Liquor was available but not on the drink cart so the delay in having the FA go to the galley to get it made it a rather unappealing option. The meal was OK. Nothing special, really, either good or bad. I suppose that’s about all one can really hope for in coach these days.
On the plus side, Singapore has quite a selection of movies loaded up on their IFE systems. Most were relatively new releases but there were a few from the archives as well. It took three reboots for my IFE to actually work properly (others around me had similar troubles) but once it got working it was pretty good. The in-flight internet was not working, making me 0/2 on trying that product out with Singapore Air. I’m happy my plan was to sleep and not be working.
Oh, and just because I can, a laviator shot on board showing off my RouteHappy shirt.
Overall I’d say that the timing of the SQ flight was still better than the UA option I had. But seat comfort would have been better on United, especially vis a vis personal space since I can get EconomyPlus for free. The meal was maybe a smidgen better on Singapore Air but with the later departure that matters less. And United’s IFE selection is sufficient for my tastes, maybe even better if you like the classics more than current cinema. In premium cabins there are a many more reasons to favor Singapore Air over United. In economy I’m not so sure about that choice. Especially if you’ve got elite status.
The morning started off normally enough, at least for what I was expecting in Laos. We were in Vientiane and headed out with Green Discovery, one of the local adventure/eco-tour operators, to the forest a couple hours out of town; we were going to play on the zip-lines for a few hours. We had breakfast and hopped in the van where we met our driver, a guide and another guest who was doing a similar trip. It turns out that he hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, and that worked out VERY well for us. I offered him a granola bar from my stash but that wasn’t enough going in to a full day of activity. Our guides insisted on stopping at a small shop on the way out of town.
It was a tiny stand, tucked into the endless row of shops alongside the road leading out of Vientiane, past the airport and into the country side. I don’t know the name. I don’t even really know where it was. Even the driver didn’t really know where we were going; the guide pointed at what seemed a random store-front and we pulled over to park and grab our meal.
A few young women worked the counter, whipping up sandwich after sandwich (they make about 2000 daily) for the throngs who come throughout the day to eat. They weren’t cheap, at least by local standards, probably a couple dollars each. But filled with pate, various meats & veggies and then topped with a couple different sauces (assuming you said yes to the only question asked, “Spicy?”) they were oh so very, very, very good.
I only recognizes a few of the ingredients, mostly the vegetables. That didn’t stop me from chowing down. The French influence in the area is strong, particularly when it comes to food, and this sandwich certainly showed some of that influence.
It was a moment of travel serendipity, one of a few on this trip. No way I would have found the shop on my own and definitely no way we would have gone that far out of town just for a sandwich. Fortunately, we got lucky and didn’t have to figure it out on our own. Alas, it will never happen again. Just one of the many great things that happens when traveling.
The ability to pre-order a meal for inflight dining on American Airlines is expanding in a huge way. The program, launched in a trial mode last October, has expanded to now cover pretty much every flight not operated as part of their long-haul service. The routes covered include American Airlines marketed and operated flights within the continental U.S., and to/from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. This benefit is available for customers in the first and business class cabins.
Back when the service was initially announced I took the website for a drive. It was a pretty good setup and reasonably intuitive interface.
Apparently it was sufficiently well-liked and easy enough to implement that they’re going to cover all flights now. That’s definitely an upgrade, even if it is the same food as before.
In what can either be chalked up as the most insignificant change to catering in a few years or yet another move to destroy a product through minor changes the dinner meal service in BusinessFirst on United Airlines‘ 2-cabin long-haul planes is being trimmed. This time it is the appetizer course being cut, being reduced to one option from the current two. The change takes effect March 1, 2013.
In the grand scheme of things this really is a non-event. The food isn’t that good to begin with and losing one appetizer option isn’t really all that big a deal for most people. At the same time, it is quite easy to see this as another "death by a thousand cuts" move. The catering for BusinessFirst was already downgraded once back in May 2012 to only have cold appetizers. At that time, however, the 2-cabin planes kept a choice of two while the 3-cabin planes were reduced to the single option. Apparently the move was such a rousing success that they’re expanding it to the 2-cabin planes, too. That, or they figure no one cares enough for it to matter.
Such is life in the world where improved service offerings are more rare than they should be.
Adding on an extra segment from Hong Kong to Bangkok as part of our award trip to try the Singapore suites was basically free. Same points and more or less the same taxes. And when first class seats showed up on the new A380 from Thai Airways the decision to grab them was a no-brainer. I was very, very excited to see the different first class products and compare them. Plus, the stopover in Hong Kong didn’t completely suck.
Most of our time pre-flight was spent visiting Hong Kong rather than napping in Thai’s Royal First lounge in Hong Kong. Maybe that was a mistake, though I still think it was some of the best dim sum I’ve ever had, so not a horrible idea. We did shower in the lounge and enjoyed some snacks prior to the flight. There was also an option for menu service but I didn’t really look at the menu so I’m not sure how extensive the choices were. The first class side of the Thai lounge was a small step up from the business class side I’ve generally been on. More space and better booze, but not a dramatic difference like Thai has in Bangkok.
The Thai A380 First Class seat is not a suite with a sliding door, so in that regard it is a minor downgrade from Singapore Air or Emirates‘ offering. Other than that minor difference, however, I’m not so sure there is a lot to separate it. Still a ton of space – my bags still fit under the ottoman – and quite comfy. And it converts to a flat bed which I had quite a nice nap on. I would have absolutely no problem taking this seat on a long-haul trip and would expect to sleep quite well in it.
For passengers in the middle pair of eats the divider console is reasonably wide, making for a large space between the two. And there is a privacy screen which can slide up to the top of the seat edge if more separation is desired.
There is also a small lounge space just forward of the cabin, where Emirates has one of their lavs. There are a few seats – VERY firm cushions – and space to congregate and chat if desired. Not a lot of action there on the short flight we had but I can imagine it gets some use on the longer trips.
And on the other side up front is the lavatory. It is similar to the Emirates first class lav in terms of space – which is to say HUGE – but no shower and not nearly as ornate. There is a sitting area separate from the "business" section for changing, applying makeup and the like.
Also, it turns out that taking a photo of yourself in a mirror without looking completely deranged is harder than it should be.
I had initially tried to order the book-the-cook option for the flight. Turns out there were some issues with that on their website. LOTS of issues, actually, like it mostly didn’t work. Plus we were originating outside of Bangkok so the massive list of choices really was only 5 or 6. Still, we had a rather enjoyable meal on board. The food all tasted like I expected it to based on the descriptions and there were several choices of main courses to please most palettes.
I honestly wish I remember more about the meal but it was a few weeks ago now and I was already pretty much zonked by the time we got to that point in the trip.
The screen is huge. Absolutely tremendous. And they have a tail camera, available throughout the flight. I love that sort of thing.
Beyond that, the selections on the IFE are, as is oft my experience with Thai, limited and mediocre. They were better on this flight than I remember from my prior trips and better than my next flight was on an older configuration. Still, not a ton of choices. I’d be mildly bothered by that if I really cared about having a ton of movies to watch on a plane.
The A380 also included OnAir internet connectivity. Much like the prior flight on Singapore Air, however, it was not in service. I’m not sure if that was a one-off thing or if the systems generally aren’t active yet, but it was slightly disappointing to not be able to try it out.
The service was quite consistent with my other experiences on Thai, which is to say incredibly inconsistent. I know that my pre-flight service was somewhat limited because I was walking around the plane taking pictures and such. But even once I was belted in and we were flying the crew was a bit hit-or-miss. Not bad, really, in any way, but also just not really the "smooth as silk" which Thai suggests their product offers. It was nowhere near bad enough for me to suggest that others would be better to book away from the flights, but there were plenty of small inconsistencies which were unfortunate for a first class product.
The new A380s offer a significantly better hard product in first class than anything else Thai has flying today, with the possible exception of the Jet 77Ws on wet-lease, though I’m not sure even those are better. And their soft product is good enough that there’s no reason to not fly with them. Departures from Bangkok are better because of the spa, lounge and generally better ground handling, but even inbound flights to Bangkok get met by a golf cart and escorted to the premium immigration line. And there’s the little thing where award inventory on Thai is far easier to come by than many other carriers, even on the A380. In short, this isn’t the best product flying at all but it is very, very good and seems to be quite readily available in general. That makes it one of the better options out there to me.
As a small aside, the folks over at RouteHappy asked me to check out the other cabins on the plane as part of the trip, mostly because they were surprised by a rather negative review someone had for the business class cabin. I obviously didn’t get the service from coach or business class but I did get a bunch of photos of the seats.
Business class is a staggered seating option so theoretically 1-2-1 though much closer in seat size to 2-4-2. The seats didn’t look awful to me but I can see how the aisle seats would be a bit exposed to traffic in the aisles. The window seats looked a little tight and the middle pairs seem OK if you’re a couple traveling together but otherwise might be a bit too intimate.
In economy, beyond the awesome colors, the seats look pretty comfortable. Decent amount of pitch and if you can get that exit row upstairs in the back it should be quite quiet and plenty of space. Everyone gets the AVOD system so that’s a win, even if you’re in coach.
Faced with a re-timed flight on a recent trip and no ability to make the originally booked connection in Hong Kong I was faced with a conundrum. Yeah, I could just sit in the lounge and pass the roughly 8 hours but, well, that’s not really my style. At the same time, it was relatively early on a Sunday morning when we landed and I wasn’t sure what would be open or what we’d see. Still, the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs a bit, and maybe even to see a smidge of Hong Kong was too great a draw to resist. Besides, it was a Sunday morning when we landed. Why not head in to town and grab some dim sum?
Our flight landed and we headed up to the lounge for a quick shower before brunch. Little did I know that after passing through transit security at Hong Kong’s airport getting out is nearly impossible. We were passed off to several different agents before facing down a reasonably stern young woman who insisted that leaving the terminal was impossible. Why? Because they’d have to write down the reason we left. I insisted that brunch was a valid reason but they balked. Eventually I dropped in the line that I "didn’t appreciate being held hostage" and that seemed to grease the wheels. We were quickly escorted to the correct elevators and back down to the arrivals level where we were deposited in the immigration line. Rather frustrating but a small price to pay for what we were about to experience.
I had previously turned to a buddy of mine, Ray, who lives in Hong Kong these days for recommendations on easily accessible dim sum for such a trip. He gave me two options, one up-scale and one decidedly not. We chose the latter and were well rewarded. Tim Ho Wan started as a hole in the wall shop in the Mong Kok neighborhood of Kowloon. It also happens to be the cheapest one-starred Michelin restaurant in the world. Alas, getting up to the Mong Kok branch was not going to happen but Tim Ho Wan is now a franchise operation with a number of branches around town, including one in the terminal where the Hong Kong Express train lets out on Hong Kong Island. Delicious, cheap and convenient…sign me up!
Tim Ho Wan opens at 9am. We arrived at 9:10am and got the last two seats for the opening round. When we left 45 minutes later the wait appeared to be about 90 minutes and growing. Apparently this is not uncommon. As I read reviews prior to our visit one of the common refrains was that the wait was several hours. That wasn’t going to work with our schedule. To say that we got lucky with being seated when we were is quite the understatement.
But enough about getting a table…on to the food!
There are only about 30 items on the menu, split amongst steamed, fried rice and vermicelli. Heck, there actually is a menu. That’s not what I’m used to in the dim sum world but not to fret; the ability to see all the offers and plan a strategy rather than just ordering one of everything which walked by on a cart was most helpful in avoiding that ridiculously over-stuffed feeling which often comes from dim sum dining (or is that just me?!?). Fortunately they also have menus in English which meant we were good to go in ordering.
We had shrimp and pork shu mai, beef balls and what I think were spinach and garlic dumplings. They were all ridiculously good.
And then we moved on to the most glorious of delicacies, the one thing that Tim Ho Wan does differently from everyone else: the baked pork bun.
I’ve had pork buns many, many times in many different countries. But they’ve never been baked. I have no idea what possessed Tim Ho Wan’s chefs to decide that baking rather than steaming was worth trying. Nor do I know what made them think that a bit of sugar on the outside to sweeten the dough was appropriate. All I know is that I am in love.
So. Ridiculously. Good.
The dough is a little bit flaky and, as noted above, slightly sweet. Neither takes away from the BBQ pork flavor. I think that not having the doughy, fluffy wrapper made the meat taste even better. Or at least made it easier to actually taste the meat rather than the dough. They were, quite seriously, probably the best dim sum I’ve ever had.
Alas, I have but one stomach to give for my travels. And I had to leave a little bit of room to try the Thai A380 First Class menu later that afternoon. Rough life, huh?
We headed out from the restaurant, having spent around $20 (I think that the return fares on the HK Express train were more than the food!) and having eaten probably the best dim sum I’ll ever have. Though I will always wonder if the original location is markedly different than this branch, other than in atmosphere. It is hard to say that any meal is worth a 3 hour wait. I’m not entirely certain that this would be the one to convince me otherwise. But it was damn good and a great first stop in our quick layover tour of Hong Kong.
Wandering the narrow, dark, cramped, loud, wet aisles between the stalls of fishmongers at Tokyo‘s Tsukiji market is a time-honored tradition. Tourists flock to the site early in the morning; the Tuna auctions start at 6am, with previews open to the public starting at 5am. A breakfast of sushi (and a beer, if you’re so inclined) is a great way to start a day in Tokyo or to work off the after-effects of a late night out on the town. Alas, this tradition will be coming to an end in 2014 as the Tsukiji market closes its doors for good.
The market has been in operation for nearly 80 years and is bursting at the seams. The proposed new market will be 40% larger, covering more than 400,000 square meters of floor space. That’s roughly the same amount of usable space as the Boeing wide-body assembly building in Everett, Washington or the Willis Tower in Chicago. It is going to be HUGE. But it also is not at Tsukiji.
The facility will be built in the Koto ward, a few kilometers away from the current location. The city government unveiled plans late last month for the new site.
The multi-story, multi-building facility will be constructed to support the functions which the site has become known for. There will be dedicated areas for seafood wholesalers, middle-men, fruit and veggie shops and other commercial offices. Construction is not yet started, pending efforts to neutralize toxic substances in the ground at the new site from its prior days as a gas factory.
The wholesale section will be built with observation platforms for the tourists. This will undoubtedly make for easier operations at the market as the vendors won’t be fighting with the tourists for access to the same space. At the same time, however, it notably reduces the intimacy of the experience. And that intimacy is what makes Tsukiji awesome.
I’ve been to the market a few times now, basically every time I visit Tokyo. Wandering those narrow, dark, cramped, loud, wet aisles while fighting off jetlag and trying to remember that I’m in a place of business, not the world’s most interactive tourist site is both glorious and challenging, all at the same time.
I’ve attended the tuna auction just once but that was enough for me to recognize the significance of the tradition and also the major business being conducted in that frantic 20 minutes of shouting every morning.
(More auction videos in this post)
I’ve followed a whole fish through the market, watching to go from auction to wholesaler to a middleman to being sectioned for retail sale, all in just a few hours.
And I’ve seen some awesomely strange animals plucked from the sea and set out for sale.
The market is more about tradition than modern facilities today. It seems to run in spite of itself as much as it runs because of itself. And that is a huge part of what makes it wonderful. I’m sure the new facility will be beautiful. Functional, too. And it will probably make for a better business environment. But it won’t be Tsukiji. And that makes me sad.
I’ll be making at least one "farewell" visit to the market in April 2013. I may have to plan a couple more to help friends and family experience it before it is too late.