Siem Reap - Luang Prabang
Airline: Vietnam Airlines
Aircraft: Fokker 70
Flight: VN 868
Scheduled Departure: 12:40
Scheduled Arrival: 14:05
My friend and I had spent a few weeks on holiday in Asia, and were in the final days of our trip, before I would go back home to NZ and she back to university in Switzerland. We arrived at Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport about three hours before the flight left – but we needn’t made such an effort to get there on time. When we arrived, the only personnel to be seen were those who were working the snack stall, and all check-in desks were abandoned.
This was an expensive flight compared to the rest of flights we had taken on our trip (ticket was about $260 US each), and accordingly many of the passengers seemed to be quite affluent and experienced travellers (yes, this is me politely saying they were all quite aged). Surprisingly, rather than making themselves comfortable in the seating area opposite the check-in desks, one couple decided to pick a random (and unstaffed) counter and begin a queue, which quickly expanded to stretch almost the entire concourse. After about 10 minutes, some staff members showed up and made preparations to begin check-in – preparations that were interrupted every couple of minutes by a member from the queue trying their luck and hassling the check-in staff to hurry up. Quite what the rush was, I’ll never know, and when check-in finally opened, many of us who had waited patiently were able to make our way to one of the counters before those in the queue realised what was happening.
The start of a line that would quickly double in length
Apparently REP is a great place for travellers to make fools of themselves. Right behind us in our queue were a couple of Chinese families. Their 20-something daughter kept on trying to manoeuvre her trolley in front of us, enabling her to push in, and we were quite ready to tell her to get back in the queue. Fortunately she was stopped by her ability to push her trolley – the ones which require you to push down on the handle. We were in fits of laughter as she repeatedly heaved all her weight against the trolley, desperately trying to push it past us.
Our check-in agent apologised for the delay in processing the queue, and after ensuring her that we didn’t care and to take as long as she needed, she told us about all the Chinese passengers she’d checked in so far who had been yelling at her for taking so long. We had left our trolley behind us with our cabin bags while we dealt with checking in, and when we turned around to take our trolley and get out of the way, the girl who couldn’t figure out how to move her trolley had finally made progress – and had parked her trolley so that the front of her trolley was touching the back of ours. A normal trolley, we could have pulled out of the queue, but alas, this was a trolley that required the handle to be clamped down before it would budge, and with her family members huddled around their trolley, our handle was inaccessible, our trolley stuck. It was with some satisfaction in which I motioned for her to shoo and move her trolley out of the way (which she had great difficulty in doing), and with my friend in hysterics, I only just managed to hold in my laughter long enough to rescue the trolley from the territorial Chinese passengers. Normally I would feel bad for flat out laughing at someone’s face, but the whole situation was ridiculous, and even now, picturing her furiously trying to push the trolley brings a stupid grin to my face.
We then proceeded to pay our $25 USD departure tax, then clear immigration. Departure side wasn’t very large but offered sufficient amenities, and it seemed that all western tourists bar us had made a beeline for the sole coffee shop for a last croissant and café au lait lest coffee shops not be so abundant in Laos. There was also free wifi – something that was lacking at other more substantial airports we had travelled through on our trip so far.
There was no additional security screenings prior to boarding, which was called about 25 minutes prior to take off. My friend decided now would be the perfect time to go the bathroom, and I implored her to hurry, knowing that boarding wouldn’t even take 5 minutes. True to form, all the passengers had boarded, and she was still nowhere to be seen, and the gate staff had started to give me the beady eye. I started to make a big fuss about sorting out my boarding pass and bags, and after a couple of minutes of buying time she emerged and we boarded the plane.
Our ride to LPQ - still in the old VN colour scheme
Cabin crew handed out packaged towelettes before takeoff, and shortly after takeoff a snack was served – it was just a small, unappetising sandwich. I had hoped that for such a steep airfare we would get something a bit nicer, but I guess this is the price for convenience. After about 40 minutes, the pilot told us we were about to begin decent. I thought, hold on! What on earth is this guy on about? It was only 1:20, and we weren’t scheduled to land for another 45 minutes. But true to his word, we touched down 10 minutes later at Luang Prabang International Airport, and by some strange feat our pilot had managed to shave an impressive 35 minutes off our flight time – over a third of the time we were scheduled to spend in the air.
2-3 seating on the Fokker 70
What I really like about these airports is having to board/disembark aircraft through stairs. At home, everything is by air bridge, and it’s no way near as exciting. Visa forms had not been distributed onboard, and after passing a man with a thermal camera to ensure we weren’t running a temperature, we filled out the form, handed over $30 USD and were officially in Laos PDR.
On the ground in LPQ
Kick-ass view from our guesthouse, which was only a couple of km from airport
LPQ seen at sunset from Phou Si Hill
After making our way down from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng where we spent a few days, it was time for the long trek home. After looking online at airfares, there was a huge difference between flying from Vientiane to Bangkok, and from Udon Thani (which is the closest city to the border crossing between Thailand and Laos, and is about a 20min drive out of Vientiane), so we decided to do the land crossing. My friend lives in Europe, so for her it wasn’t a big occasion, but I’d only ever crossed borders on planes, so I jumped at the chance to do it. The crossing was fairly stress free, and we arrived at Udon Thani about three hours before departure of my flight. Originally we had been on the same Air Asia flight later that afternoon, but I had my doubt as to whether I would be able to make an International Connection in just over an hour. Having always flown with the family, who invariably booked everything with Star Alliance, we were always able to connect our bags through to our final destination, and even when connecting from a domestic flight it was always very seamless – we just had to go to the CIQ counter and everything was taken care of. So it was a new experience for me to have to (on the way over) come from an international flight, enter the country, check in, exit the country and catch the next international flight, and on the way home to have to do essentially the same. I didn’t really mind, as the flight had only cost me about $30USD, so I booked on a Thai Airways flight that left about 2 hours earlier.
Udon Thani - Bangkok
Airline: Thai Airways
Aircraft: Boeing 737-400
Flight: TG 11
Scheduled Departure: 15:15
Scheduled Arrival: 16:15
One of the many billboards throughout Laos featuring the 787!
Okay, so here is question I’ve been dying to ask: Don’t the small flight numbers (like 1-50) tend to correspond to the carrier’s flagship routes? I was surprised that our flight was TG11.. and not TG611 or something along those lines..
Udon Thani International Airport is a small airport – it’s only International Flight is a twice weekly service to Luang Prabang) but has adequate facilities for domestic passengers. Because we had been careful with our travels and didn’t want to leave anything to chance, we arrived about 3 hours before my flight was due to leave. We quickly found the Dairy Queen where we quickly munched down a hotdog (our first opportunity all day to eat real food)
I was lucky enough to have done quite a bit of travel around south east asia growing up, and whenever I board a Thai Airways plane I always feel at home – the friendly staff, the uniforms, the cabin interior, the music – everything is always perfect, and everything is always great. This flight was no exception, and staff were always on hand offering refreshments, towelettes, and the snack was delicious. The airfare was a 3rd of that of the Vietnam Airlines flight I had just taken, but the food was infinitely better. The cookie was potentially one of the best cookies I have had. Ever.
My ride to Bangkok
My pack being loaded onto the plane
One thing that amuses me is that on some aircraft, the seats have the ability to not only recline, but to bend forward at an acute angle. I remember freaking out the couple behind me a few years ago on an A300 when I made my seat bend forward, and was surprised to see cabin crew pushing seats forward for some passengers to give them more space getting out of their seats. I’ve never seen this on any other airline – is this common? Is it even safe? Surely some rough landings have seen the seats smash forwards?
p.s. left/arrived on time.. in case anyone was dying to know
Bangkok - Bandar Seri Begawan
Airline: Royal Brunei
Aircraft: Airbus A320-200
Flight: BI 515
Scheduled Departure: 18:00 (I think..)
Scheduled Arrival: 23:55
Actual Arrival: 23:30
After picking up my pack, I made my way up to the check-in row, which was W. W, for those who are interested, is quite the walked from row E, which was where I had come up at, but it’s fun to look at all the different flights and passengers as you make the Trek. When I arrived, check-in hadn’t opened. There were plenty of seats (and a good view, because W is the last check-in row and is by a large glass wall giving a good view over one side of the airport) and after half an hour of entertaining myself (namely by taking photos of my reflection in the ceiling…) Check in opened. There were four counters, and all were dead. I checked my bags in to Brunei (I did have the option to check them through to Auckland, but Royal Brunei Airlines were putting me up at the Sheraton for free)
View from seating area next to check-in row U/W
I asked what type of plane was operating the service, because last time it was an un-refurbished 767 that was packed, but this time around it was an A320. The girl at check-in didn’t know how to say the numbers in English, and she started to write down A320-200 for me, but my hugely limited knowledge of Thai (which covers Hello, Thank you and 1 2 3 4 5) came to the rescue. She was able to tell me my seat number though, and that it was a window seat as requested. I was surprised given that I hadn’t made any seat requests at all, but happy none the less!
There were a few hours to kill, and after wasting some time looking through the huge Duty Free offerings, I discovered the pitfall of travelling by yourself – there’s no one to look after your carry on bags when you need to go to the toilet! I plonked myself down in a seating area where there were a few people and some TVs showing discovery, animal planet, BBC etc, and did some surveying of my comrades. I figure it’s usually best to pick a family rather than just a solo traveller, so I approached a woman who was keeping a stealth watch over her family’s possessions as her husband and son lay sleeping on the seats. Thankfully she was happy to help me out, and she did a very commendable job!
Quiet area to sit down and scout for potential bag sitters
At the gate, there are two computers with free wifi, and luckily one was free for me to use. Unfortunately, there was no shift button, and all my passwords have symbols in them. F&%#! Luckily there was a control button, so I could google “exclamation mark” and copy one across to where I was logging in. They never tell you about the tradeoff between security and ease of logging in when they tell you to make your password difficult..
Boarding commence about 35 minutes before takeoff, and we were all loaded in within 5 minutes. Hot towels were handed out (Sir, please be careful they are hot!) and then a pre-recorded female Australian voice said “Ladies and gentlemen, we would like this flight to be blessed” and then proceeded a 2 minute blessing (I found a video of it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_F84tRGsQVU)
It was such a nice and humbling moment. The whole cabin fell quiet, and it was just a very calm, welcoming and special thing to be a part of. I felt so at ease, and honoured that they would bless the flight for us, even though I did not practice their religion or hold the same beliefs as them. That they would extend the blessing to me and everyone else in the cabin really endeared the airline to me, and made me feel much more welcome than I had ever felt aboard any airline.
We pushed back 20 minutes early, but by the time we almost circumnavigated the airport taxing to the runway, we took off on time.
Generous foot room
Just after takeoff a drinks service started, offering an endless amount of fruit juices, as well as the usual fare – except alcohol, which is of course banned in Brunei. Arrival forms were also handed out, and I managed to score a Royal Brunei pen from one of the cabin crew – and it was a really fancy pen! Definitely putting this one to good use. The pilot then informed us of our flightpath, saying we were about 20 minutes away from flying over Phnom Penh, and then our course would take us over Ho Chi Minh City then straight across to Bandar.
The meal looked delicious, but I’m not the worlds best traveller, and after a mouthful (which confirmed its deliciousness), I had to put it aside because I didn’t feel quite up to eating it, which was a shame because I’d learnt from the trip over that the brownie was also amazing (just as good as the Thai Airways cookie!) and I didn’t want to miss out on it. Each seat had a blanket and pillow, and an amenity kit including socks, ear plugs, eye mask and toothbrush/toothpaste was handed out. I think Versace must have had something to do with its design/development, for though I could find nothing in the kit to confirm it, when staff were handing them out on all legs, instead of saying “amenity kit” they just said “Versace” which made me giggle.
I was seated in front of the exit row, so my seat did not decline. Fortunately, I had a whole row to myself, so I pushed up the arm rests and made a poor mans version of the soon to be introduced Air New Zealand Economy Skycouch. Curled up and facing the seatback, it was really really comfy! If only every flight were as empty as this one! As we began our descent, boiled lollies were handed out – another small thing that really helped set their service apart from other asian carriers.
We touched down about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, and after clearing immigration and customs (side note: coming from New Zealand, where customs is insanely rigorous, it’s quite funny clearing customs where the “goods to declare” lane is closed, and despite your insistence that yes, your bag should be searched for items that may possess a biohazard security threat, you’re casually waved through). Royal Brunei have a holiday/packaged tour company called Golden Holidays, and the free stay at the Sheraton (due to my connection being 12 hours or more) was booked through them. The piece of paper I had told me I would be met by a representative, but alas, there was no one there. There were also no ground agents to be found, despite being told on board that there were ground crew available to help with any questions.
This was my first time travelling internationally by myself – up until now I’d had my friend with me – and I started to mildly freak out – especially after representatives from other hotels who were there to pick up passengers told me that the Sheraton bus might show up, or it might not. At this stage, it was almost midnight. I went to a nearby public telephone and looked up the number for the Sheraton, where I discovered that in order to use the phone, you needed to buy a phone card. The phone card store, which was miraculously open, only accepted Brunei Dollars, of which I had none. There was a DeliFrance restaurant still open (Where the staff all said “Bonjour!” to me when I walked in), and the girl in there told me where an ATM was and said she’d keep an eye on my bags when I went to use it.
It turns out that ATM machines abroad are not as easy to use as ones at home. Suddenly, instead of having the savings account on my card, I could chose to withdraw money from my current account, or my cheque account, or 6 other accounts. Alas, none of them worked, and I had to contend that I may be in for a long wait. After returning to DeliFrance (Bonjour!) to collect my bags, I went to the arrivals waiting area (which was outside) and waited. Thankfully after about 10 minutes a man came up and asked if I was James, and after signing a form he showed me the way to the Sheraton bus. After half an hour, more travellers had joined us, until we were 7 (and all of us kiwis too). Having previously spent a few days in Brunei, I noticed that the route we were taking was in the opposite direction of the city centre, but I kept my mouth shut. After another 20 minutes of driving down tiny streets and up huge hills and in a direction that was obviously not right, another passenger asked where we were going, and we were told we were changing vehicles because the bus had an oil problem. We ended up at a random depot at about 1am, where we then changed into a van, and then finally we were on our way to the Sheraton. By the time I got to my room it was about 1:45am, and I took my first hot shower in over a week then quickly fell asleep.
After a big buffet breakfast, at 10am we jumped into a van and headed back to the airport.
Room at Sheraton Utama. Cheers Royal Brunei
Bandar Seri Begawan - Auckland (Via Brisbane)
Airline: Royal Brunei
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300ER
Flight: BI 71
Scheduled Departure: 12:00
Scheduled Arrival: 03:55 +1
Actual Arrival: 04:05 +1
Flight off to Hong Kong
Ominous smoke that appeared to come from the end of the runway…
Small airport spotted just after takeoff
This time we were given cold towels (which got me wondering how they decided what temperature towel to give out) and whilst the last leg had had the safety announcements and such all pre-recorded, on this leg all were done live. I yet again had a window seat towards the front of the plane which I was very happy about, and for the first time in my life I’d found so many movies on a plane that I was really keen to see that it took me an age to whittle down the list (New York I Love You, Bright Star, An Education, Amelia, My One and Only, Where The Wild Things Are) (
Again drinks were flowing – I had an empty drink bottle with me, and I asked if I could have some water put into it instead of into a cup, and the flight attendant was more than happy to do so – she said she’d come back after she’d finished the drinks service and fill it up for me. True to her word a few minutes later she was back with a big smile on her face and said she’d put some water in it – and when she returned, she told me she’d filled it up completely because it was a long flight and I needed to keep hydrated! Bless.
The meal was delicious (and I ate the whole thing this time, so I can comment with authority) and after being airborne about 90 minutes, the pilot announced that despite the crews best efforts, the inflight entertainment system was not responding and there would be no inflight entertainment on the flight. I wasn’t too bothered, because I had my book and iPod with me, and it was only a 7 hour flight or so. Throughout the flight I noticed more and more PTVs starting to operate, and the flight information & map (and also, an arrow directing where Mecca was for those who needed to pray) started functioning just north of Australia – it looked quite bizarre, because it made our origin the point we were at when it turned out, and the flights final destination wasn’t even on the map. There were also a strange choice of major worldwide cities displayed on the map.. After the meal service we were also given ice-cream which, after a little thawing, was perfect.
“Chicken and potato”
Prior to beginning descent, tea, coffee and croissants were handed out. For meals, I always put my chair back to the upright position, but I didn’t this time, and the man behind me reached his arm along past the window, tapped me quite hard and then told me to put my seat up! Of course, it had to be an Australian to do so.. I might add too, the recline on BI is HUGE! People always harp on about pitch, but I couldn’t care less – to me, recline is the big thing, and recline in economy must have been about 25cm. I got a surprise when I put it back and it just kept on going – much more generous than the 4/5cm NZ domestic give you..
I then noticed that our ETA for Brisbane kept on changing – or rather, did not change – I’d look at it and it would say 33 minutes to go, and 10 minutes later it would say the same thing. The pilot then announced that there had been a major thunderstorm in Brisbane which had closed the airport, and that there was a backlog of traffic for the airport, and that we would be arriving about 45 minutes later than anticipated.
Woah! A PTV that works! Score!
I was amazed at how quickly the managed to turn the plane around – to get us off, to clean it, to heard us all back on and to lift off – only took about 45 minutes. When clearing security to enter the transit area, I was stuck with the issue of having a near full drinkbottle (stainless steel, so I wasn’t about to throw it out) so I had to leave my gear with security and go and track down a bathroom sink to tip it out in. When waiting to reboard the aircraft, I again had the task of surveying my fellow passengers to decide who to ask to babysit my bags so I could go to the bathroom – unfortunately, I picked someone who could speak no English – and someone who was part of a tour, so in about 30 seconds I had ten people standing around me trying to understand what I was saying. We got there in the end though!
The beginning of the blessing
Upon reboarding the flight attendant who had filled up my drinkbottle said to me “welcome back!” which made me smile. The crew were always upbeat and happy to help you in any way possible, and are a real asset to this airline. We were told our flight time would be 2 hours 55min, having us arrive just 5 minutes later than expected. This time not only was the seat next to me empty, but its PTV, unlike mine, was working, so I managed to see a flick. Dinner was also delicious (choice between pasta and a beef sandwich) and flight was great.
When researching travel options for this trip, I developed big concerns about Royal Brunei Airlines. There are a heap of unfavourable reviews online, I’d heard stories about pilots coming over the PA in bad turbulence and praying, there was no way to tell if the aircraft was one that had been refurbished the PTVs or not (and even then, reviews online said often most were not functional), and the flight departed Auckland at the awful time of 5am (and, with the last domestic flight from Wellington arriving at 9:30pm, that’s a lot of time to kill!). However, the price was insanely cheap (Auckland to Bangkok, with a stop in Brunei both ways and a free night at the Sheraton on the return leg) was about $960USD, I hadn’t flown on a 767 in over a decade, and more importantly, I really wanted to see Brunei, and this was the most practical way to do it.
I am so glad I did, because BI were amazing. Sure, their PTVs weren’t the most reliable, but their food was the nicest I’d ever had, the fares were ridiculously cheap, the staff were very friendly and for the first time in my life, I enjoyed the whole experience. I usually dread long flights, but especially on the way back breaking up the journey with a brief stop in Brisbane, and the roomy feeling of the 2-3-2 seating really made the whole trip not only bearable but surprisingly fantastic. Plus, Brunei itself is something that has to be seen to believe – spent 4 days there and loves every second of it. It offers something very unique compared to many of its neighbours, and I’d jump at the chance to stopover there again.
Auckland - Wellington
Airline: Air New Zealand
Flight: NZ 401
Scheduled Departure: 6:00
Scheduled Arrival: 7:00
I wasn’t going to write about this flight, except there were a few random things that happened. The first was that the NZ domestic terminal didn’t open until about 5:25, at which time the flight screens inside the terminal were telling us to go to our gate, which was a bit of a lark.