The boyf and I had the return leg of a BKK-SYD-BKK 1 year open ticket on SQ to use up by late Feb 2007. We bought this ticket last year in Thailand knowing how overpriced airfares out of Australia are. We were tossing up whether to go back to the little Island in the South of Thailand we visited last year before it gets spoiled by large resorts and roads and shops and things (Koh Ngai) or to go to the world heritage listed town of Luang Prabang Laos. Laos won out for a couple of reasons, one of them being an opportunity to fly Lao Air and add another airline to my list.
Our routing was to be:
1. SQ SYD-SIN-BKK,
2. QV BKK-LPQ-CNX (BKK, Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai)
3. FD CNX-BKK
4. CX BKK-HKG
5. QF HKG-SYD
All this in about 10 days. The HKG stopover was a bit of an indulgence as boyf and I love Hong Kong. We used to be able to take weekend trips there from our old home in Tokyo for less than $300 return. I was able to book BKK-HKG-SYD on expedia for about $850, much the same price as most other one-way fares back to Sydney, whether direct or with stopover.
Flight 1: SYD-BKK via SIN
SQ220 8:30 (ish) to 13:30 (ish)
B 747-400 (9V-SMW, delivered to SQ Jan '94)
The morning started early with the alarm going off a bit before 6am. My old man kindly agreed to take the pooch out to his "summer abode" in the suburbs. Seeing as he had to drive into town to pick up the dog, he kindly offered to take us to the airport too. At 6:30am the trip up Crown and O'riordan Streets from our pad only took 10 or 15 mins. We got to the airport at around 6:45 and the place was already fully alive. The SQ check in queue was mercifully quite short. I heard the voice of angels singing when I saw a totally hot, limp-wristed boy on counter 23. Perhaps the Upgrade goddess was going to be kind today, as any gay man knows, the right small talk and showing a bit of leg at check in with another gay man behind the counter expodentially increases the chances of a totally undeserved upgrade...honestly it's worked for me a few times (though now I think about it, more random upgrades have come my way from the benevolence of middle-aged matrons). It turned out the cute guy at counter 23 was in training and the assistant manager breathing down his neck wasn't having any tom-foolery. Nor was boyf for that matter. So the best that that bitch upgrade goddess could manage was a window and aisle seat with the middle blocked. Small mercies I suppose.
Checked in and boarding passes in hand, we decided we needed to get some USDs to spend in Laos. Thailand would be OK thanks to some leftover Bhat from a previous trip and ATMs on every corner, but Laos we had been warned is a different kettle of fish. Speaking of Fish, exchange rates at Sydney-Mascot-Kingsford-Bloody-Smithy are a bit on the nose. We went to the ANZ counter thinking that as ANZ account holders, they might waive the commission or something. HELL NO!!! (said in your best daytime american TV trailer trash accent). Not only did we get something like 3 cents to the dollar, they also took an $8 processing fee from us to add to their multi-multi-multi-zillion dollar profits. To any would-be thief, you can find what little money I have in a sock under the bed. If I'm going to be robbed blind, your meth habbit is probably a more worthy cause than a multi-national company's insane profits.
We then eventually found amongst the overpriced shops and fast food joints the discreet little doorway that leads to immigration and thence the same shops with even more outrageous prices. Immigration and security were very quiet and we passed through both in a matter of seconds...heaven forbid unimportant things like passport and security checks get in the way of passengers' retail time!! Having not had any breakfast, I bought a tiny thimble of Orange Juice for about $5 then went to spend a penny - about the only thing that doesn't cost anything at Sydney Airport.
Boarding started at the scheduled time and it was evident from the fairly small crowd that the 744 wasn't going to be very full. This flight doesn't connect very conveniently in SIN to any European flights, so I guess that's why the loads were quite light. Maybe we were just lucky?
Photo © Glenn Stewart
I noticed as I walked the SQ gauntlet of smiles and hello sirs to my seat that whenever eye-contact is established between pax and SQ FA that they smile as a reflex action (in much the same was as UA FAs sneer on the rare occasion that one is able to catch their eye). I hate to think what sort of pavlovian-esque electric shock therapy those poor girls and boys are subjected to in Singapore before they're let loose on pax to make them smile on cue like that.
All the usual pre-departure stuff and announcements happened. Pushed back about 10 mins late
Long Taxi out into Botany Bay. Screeching halt at one intersection and long wait thereafter. (Captain left his mobile phone on the front tyre while he was giving it a kick on his little inspection back at the terminal and debating whether it's worth going back to fetch it??) We took off.
We flew in a very straight line Northwards after taking off until about Balmian then we turned slightly west and your guess is as good as mine what bland suburbs we were flying over. (Yes I'm a latte-sipping, viognier-quaffing - Chardonnay is so passe - inner city snob). Things got a bit cloudy for a while down below, so it was time to warm up the Entertainment System and have a bit of breakfast. I think i had bog-standard Y-class breakfast of chicken sausage and rubbery eggs. What I do remember is eating an incredibly delicious, moist, warm fruit roll. It was REALLY good.
I prefer day flights to night flights as time seems to go much faster when you're not thinking about how much sleep you're not getting. I switched between gazing out the window at the ever changing landscape of the outback and watching Little miss Sunshine (fair to middling) and playing triva games. I was the only pax playing so I kept being told that the winner is Mr abc in seat 53K (yay!!). Overall, I don't rate SQ's entertainment choices all that highly. It's all very "safe" middle of the road american fluff. Particularly poor is their music selection. All good and well if you like "the best hits from the 70s, 80s 90s and todays latest tracks". Not much for those of us who like electronic music. (As an aside I have a friend who once popped half an e before getting on a VS flight just because their dance music channel is so good). (Actually the real reason he popped half and e before getting on the flight wasd that he discovered it, long forgotten in the bottom of his pocket when he saw a beagle approaching at the airport. Still had a fun flight by all accounts).
There was probably some lunch served and a few more announcements made before we went around in a couple of big circles and landed in Singapore.
With 4 hours before our onward flight to BKK boyf and I sauntered around a few shops, got odd looks from passers-by for using those free foot massage machines all over the terminal then went upstairs to the pool for a swim, a lie in the sun and a bit of plane spotting. An airport swimming pool is a wonderful thing. I felt hydrated after a longish flight and ready to get on the next plane for the 2 hour hop to Bangkok.
Early Evening, on time.
B777-200 (9V-SQC Delivered to SQ Aug 97)
Photo © Raymond Ngu
Photo © Dickson Ching - HKAEC
For some reason this flight from SIN-BKK was full of Japanese pax, both salarymen and groups of old men on "golf" tours. (That's what they tell their wives the dirty old codgers).
There really wasn't anything memorable about this flight except further proof of SQ FA's pavlovian-electro-shock training to smile as soon as eye-contact is made with pax. I accidently startled one FA as she was coming out of the toilet. For a split second she let her guard down as we both got a bit of a fright because she nearly bashed me with the door, but before it had even had time to register in my brain that it could be the first case of SQ eyecontactwithoutsmile, the corners of her mouth lifted (uncontrolably like a cybog??) and she graciously closed the door behind me as I went into the lav that she had left smelling like a field of flowers.
Dinner was airline food. The usual announcements were made. Bells went ping and we landed in at the new BKK airport that I'll call Sav because the name is a bit too long to risk with my awful typing.
First impressions of the new airport came when BF commented that it looks like they opened it about 6 months too early because nothing had been painted and pipes and wires were exposed in the ceiling. I had to explain to the dear philistine that he should shush because some architect had been paid zillions of bhat to come up with such a radical design concept, and that in fact every exposed pipe and wire in the ceiling had been placed very precisely to enhance the artist's post-industrial vision. We managed to find an immigration counter without much of a line (whereas most pax from our full flight were stading in the same two long queues for some inexplicable reason). In a nod to common sense and a snub to the utter stupid futility of the village idiot (and his croneys) "War on Terror" the new BKK airport has done away with those silly eye cameras that always used to be on the blink (pardon the pun) at Don Muang meaning that many pax used to take five minutes to process. Anyone with dreadlocks still holds up the line however as Thailand continues its war on hippies.
Baggage came eventullly and it was out into the arrivals hall of BKK Sav. Chaotic and way too small for an area where a lot of people can be expected to congregate. Again I settled Boyf's grumblings by telling him that this apparent design flaw was also part of the rich architects grand plan to "bring the people of the world together (in close, jostling proximity) as they enter the Kingdom of Thailand. We worked out that to find a normal meter taxi into town (as oposed to an expensive tourist taxi) you have to go down about 3 flights of very groovy travelators. Boyf approved of the very organic lines the designer used on the escalators. (Be warned, there aren't any signs to the taxi rank, I think I read on the lonely planet website somewhere how to find a normal taxi at BKK Sav).
Lao Air BKK-LPQ-CNX and Air Asia Thailand CNX-BKK
After a couple of days in BKK the exciting moment came to get in a cab back to the airport and to fly on Lao Airlines for the first time.
Out flight was scheduled for around 2:30 pm but we decided to get to the airport fairly early because I'd bought out tickets from a dodgy cheap online travel agent in Paris that has a website that looks almost identical to the offical Lao Air website. Lonely Planet forums gave the dodgy Frenchman mixed reviews, some said it was their golden ticket to discounted travel while others said that Lao Air didn't recognise or honour the coupons issued by the dodgy frog. We took out chances with a cheap excursion fair and fortunately after a heartstopping couple of moments of confusion behind the Lao Air counter when i showed them the French coupon, they produced a pair of good old fashioned paper tickets with red carbon paper writing on pink and blue paper.
14:30 ish 16:30
MA60 RDPL-34168 (delivered new to QV Aug 06)
We passed immigration yada yada....
The exciting bit came when we rode the bus out to the distant parking spot out on the apron and to my utter delight, instead of the ATR 72 I was expecting, was parked one of Lao Airlines' two sparkling new MA60s. The MA 60 is a Chinese built twin prop based loosely on an old Soviet AN-something or other. The Lao Air livery looks really good on this a/c. I'm thinking I might just be taking the cherry of the first MA60 trip report on A-net
Photo © Dave Jefferys
I savoured the moment of walking up to the aircraft which had seen only around six months of service since leaving the factory. We boarded by the rear entry and were greeted by a beautiful smiling Lao FA and the co-pilot!! The interior of the a/c was clean and surprisingly spacious for a fairly small plane. 15 rows of 2 x 2 at a typical (for this kind of a/c) 29" or 30" pitch. Lucky for us, row 5 was an exit row with a lot of space between us and the row in front. Unlucky for a plane geek like me, there wasn't a window next to row 5. As the flight was less than half full, I moved back to sit in row 6. Boyf doesn't share my silly interest in aeroplanes so sat in row five like a jilted lover complaining that i was bad company and accusing me of loving planes more than him. Where a hot, sleek, sexy Chinese MA60 is concerned he could almost be right.
Announcements and safety demo were done in Lao and English but no French for the national airline of the former colony. The co-pilot took his seat up the front of the plane and FA took hers at the back. One thing I noticed about the MA60 was that there was a fair bit of cargo space accessible from the passenger cabin. On the other side of the door at the front of the passenger cabin before the cockpit was a space of possibly a couple of metres and there was similar space at the rear of the cabin behind the lav and small galley.
The engines started and the plane bounced around a bit as they were spooling up. I love that feeling in a prop aircraft as the engines start up. The only time I've experienced anything similar on a jet was sitting in the middle of the back row of a JAL DC-10 when engine no 2 started. We zipped along the taxi way out to the runway amongst all the big birds. Right at that moment i wouldn't have traded my cramped seat in this little plane for a first class suite on an EK, SQ, CX, TG widebody for anything. I was beaming like an SQ FA who just made ey contact with a dozen passengers all at once.
The take off roll was far more powerful than I was expecting my most recent prop experiences had been on a MH Dash-6 and another MH F50 - (trip report somewhere in the archives if you care to look). I seem to remember both of those a/c kind of ambling down the runway and slowly taking off. The MA60 was a rocket in comparison.
Once we reached cruising altitude (pilot didn't say what it was though I'm guessing somewhere around 20k feet???) the lone FA first handed out chilled hand towels (disposable type in silver foil packs with the Lao Air Logo) did another sweep of the cabin to collect them, then did another run with a trolley laden with the cutest cardboard lunch boxes i've ever seen. Along with the Lao Air logo were blury printed images of kids playing by the Mekong in the utopian socialist republic. Inside the box was a ham and cheese crossant and a bit of sponge cake. FA also offered te, coffee and soft drinks. From time to time she also popped in and out of the cockpit either to take drinks to the boys up the front or just for a bit of a chat (Lao people seem to love to just stop for a bit of a chin wag).
About an hour into the flight at the jungle thickened below us, the came a very odd noise. It seemed to be coming from the right engine and the best thing I can liken it to is the sound of a wheel on a car where the bearings are starting to go...kind of a grinding noise. I was worried that maybe the bearing in the prop was a about to sieze up or something. FA looked totally unconcerned sitting in her seat at the back of the cabin looking out the window, pilot didn't switch on seatbelt signs of come over the PA saying we were about to crash or any thing drastic like that, so I happily ignored it and went to check out the lav. It was very tastefully decorated in dark hues, had a fraying nylon carnation and a slightly grubby, damp hand towel hanging on the door in lieu of paper towels. All very homely, much like I imagine the lave would be if this was my private plane.
All too soon we started to decend. The grinding noise came and went a couple of times throughout the rest of the flight. Usual announcements were made. As we zig zaged through the hills surrounding Luang Prabang. We flew low over the rooftops and palm trees and landed smoothly on the single, steeply sloping runway at LPQ. Welcome to Laos and Kap Chai for flying Lao Air.
After bidding a fond farewell to the spunky Chinese machine, we walked over to the tiny terminal to enter Laos officially. I had my 30 USD in my hand ready to pay for my visa on arrival as did boyf. Interestingly different nationalities have to pay different prices for visas upon arrival. From memory the forever malligned septics had to pay much more than everyone else. I guess that's the price you have to pay for being the "greatest country on earth". Boyf started gloating when it turned out that his japanese passport got him into to Laos gratis. not sure why, Japan is hardly standing shoulder to shoulder it terms of Socialist Ideals. Boys has vowed never to give up his Japanese citizenship for Australian even if we end up living in Australia for the rest of our lives for ths simple fact that a Japanese passport gets you into a hell of a lot of countries visa-free.
We love Luang Prabang. GO GO GO!!!! It will be spoiled soon. So go now. Already there were too many silver-haired Americans talking loudly and patronisingly in every shop, cafe, temple and restaurant, including a particularly stoopid texan at a table near us one night at dinner who bore an uncanny likeness to Jeb Bush in appearance and outlook if his assessment of their few days in Vietnam on the way up to Laos was anything to go by.
ATR72 RDPL-34137 Originally delivered to Gabon Air 1993
Mid Afternoon. On time
Photo © Streep
Photo © Wolfgang Hut
With great sadness we said goodbye to the wonderful staff and our gorgeous room at the Apsara Hotel and returned to the little airport. As this was an international flight we were told to arrive 2 hours early, which meant rather a boring wait. Some interesting people watching - we spotted the same very camp group of Thai guys and genuinely beautiful ladyboys who we had bumped into the previous day on a trip up the river to the cave temples. Also the Italian woman we previously had nicknamed Pats (after Ab Fab's Patsy stone) due to her OTT hairdo, leopard prints and slapping her long-suffering husband around in public rants and rages.
The flight to Chiang Mai was on an ATR 72. Another aircraft first for me. This one was looking older and a bit tired on the inside, though the outside was sparkly in the new livery. My only real memoris of this flight were that the a/c was noisy - far louder than the MA60 (and it wasn't a particularly quiet beast) and that there were two FAs handing out the same boxed meals and refresher towels. Again, service was friendly and enthusiastic. Announcements were made.
737-300. Reg ended in AU, sorry missed the full id
Seat: What ever you could scramble. This is LCC Air Asia afterall.
Check in counters at Chiang Mai were chaotic. There were long lines for Bangkok Air, TG, Nok Air and 1-2-go. Fortunately we'd arrived a little bit late for our flight so the Air Asia lines weren't too long. The joy stopped there. Air Asia have a stupid 15kg checked baggage limit. Bofy and I both had around 17 or 18 kg in our suitcases. The unsmiling checkin guy in typical LLC uniform (what is it about LCCs and making their staff wear Polo shirts and dangling security passes around their necks?) and demeanour insisted we lighten our loads or pay an excess baggage fee. So started the silly ritual of taking heavy things out of suitcases and putting them in cabin baggage instead right under the nose of the check in staff who for some reason see this as a perfectly logical solution to reducing the weight carried by the aeroplane. Maybe I should post in the Tech/Ops forum asking for an explanation of the amzing physics whereby taking 3 kg form checked luggage and putting it in carry on makes the a/c more aerodynamic and saves thousands of litres of jet fuel every day.
The single large departure lounge was just as chaotic as the check in area as the crowd moved en-masse. Several early morning flights to BKK were all scheduled to depart at around the same time from the same one or two gates. Announcements were made for Nok, TG, Bangkok Air and 1-2-Go but nothing for Air Asia. So we waited. I finally found a screen which said that our flight had been delayed, but no new time was listed. No announcements were made. About an hour after our ETD I saw a red 737 land. It disgorged its passengers and within 20 mins of touching down, pax with connections in BKK were being paged and asked to board first to sit at the front of the plane. The rest of us stuck our elbows out and push our way on board. Boyf and I, both being fairly small and agile, managed to board quicky and sit in row 3 or 4. Many passengers (mostly the septic silver-haired set) were completely bamboozled by the supermarket receipt that took the place of a boarding pass and the lack of seat allocations. Sitting close to the front, I hear several conversations like this one:
Fat woman (W) of a certain age to Husband in ridiculous baseball cap and sensible shoes (M):
(W) Honey, where is our seat number?
(M) I don't know dear, Why don't you ask the Steward?
(W) Excuse me, (speaking loudly because he has oriental features), What Is Our Allocated Seat??
(FA) Free Seating Madam
(M) What did he say?
(W) (Louder because he obviously has difficulty with the English Language) (WHERE DO WE SIT?)
(FA) (Still smiling and polite despite patronising pax) Free seating madam, please take any vacant seat.
(W) (To husband) Did you catch that dear?
(M) I think he said we sit anywhere we like...let me check. (To FA) Excuse me, what my mife is trying to ask is do we have an assigned seat, or do we go ahead right now and take our pick of any seat that hasn't been taken by someone else yet?
(FA) Yes sir, free seating, please take any vacant seat.
(M/W) Okay. Thank you. Have a nice day. By the way your English is very good!
(FA) (with a wan, slightly ironic smile) Thank you sir.
Everything else proceded in usual LCC fashion. Announcements were made. Knees were offering lumbar support to the person in front. Grey leather seats entirely unsuccessful in creating a more upmarket ambiance. Tone further lowered by FAs inflatable 737s and Air Asia bandannas.
Despite the delay, we arrived in BKK with enough time to check in for our CX flight on to Hong Kong.
Early Afternoon. 45 mins late.
777-300 (B-HNM) Delivered to CX Oct 2003
When we got to the gate out on concorse G (a fairly long walk past a lot of shops at BKK Sav) and fianlly managed to find a seat to sit on (scarce as hen's teeth at BKK Sav) our A/C was already at the gate waiting, having already arrived from BOM and before that DXB. However there was no sign yet of boarding. Having flown a similar CX leg a couple of years ago to Colombo via BKK I knew that on-flying pax would not be allowed to de-plane at BKK, but instead would be required to stay on board while cleaning staff do their best to get the aircraft ready for the next lot of boarding pax. On this particular day they didn't do a very good job. The cabin was a mess when we finally boarded about 45 minutes late. Used blankets and pillows on vavant seats, food wrappers on the floor seatbelts not neatly folded on seats as CX usually does. It was really quite disappointing for my favourite airline.
Service, food and Entertainment made up for the poor state of the cabin. I like CX service. Hong Kong people are no-nonsense types. The service is brisk and not as mechanical (i.e. pavlovian/cyborg) as SQ, yet still very professional and fairly cheerful.
Lunch was a yummy vegetarian Indian curry (or a not so appetising Chinese beef and noodly stir fry I think...I always take the Indian option on planes because Indian curries are the one food that improve with a few hours of being kept warm).
CX IFE is also a bit better than SQ's in my opinon. Perhaps not as many channels, but somehow a far more interesting choice.
We made up a bit of time on the flight and landed in Hong Kong half an hour late. Fortunately we parked at one of the gates on the little piers that go off to the sides right at the "front" of the terminal, so it was a short walk to the ever-efficient immigration counters, a very short wait for luggage, and straight on to the Airport Express Train to Kowloon.
Now don't tell anyone, but we stayed that the YMCA just near the TST Star Ferry pier. (Sshhh, village people aside, I don't think YMCA types particularly like wooly-woofters) Our partial harbour view double room was possible the best value hotel room I've ever had in HK. I've stayed in many more expensive places in HK and had rooms smaller than the one we had at the YMCA and usually with a view of a concrete wal or washing out to dry 2 metres away.
The final Leg:
Overnight. On time.
A330-300 (VH-QPF) Delivered to QF June 2004
Photo © Julian Adams
This flight was absolutely packed full. I thought i had pre-assigned AB seats when I booked the flight on expedia, but when we checked in at HKG the woman said that these centre seats were all that were left. At least they were close to the pointy end of the plane, which on the A333 (my favourite AC after the oh-so-sexy MA60) means a very quiet ride.
Announcements were made. We took off. Dinner and drinks were served. I don't really get QF's dinner and bar service. It all seems so ineeficinent and clumsy the order that they do things. on this flight they then left trays sitting on tables for about an hour after most pax had finished eating. This really inconvenienced those who wanted to try to get to sleep quickly. I didn't mind so much as I was having a ball with their Q on demand entertainment system. I found it easy to navigate once i got the hand of it, and found plenty of interesting things to watch and listen to. Enjoyed the very silly Oz film Kenny. Can't remember what else I watched, probably some Kath & kim episoes and a spot of Little Britain or something. I might have had an hour or two of sleep, but i usually can't sleep on night flights, so it's a good thing that the IFE was so good.
Breakfast was te same as just about every other airline breakfast I've ever eaten, and soon after we touched down at Macquarie Bank ooops.. Sydney Airport. We managed to find the immigration counters in amongst all the duty free shops. Boyf again used his Japanese passport to go to the non-Australian line which was much shorter (he has the luxury of choice as a permanent resident with foreign passport he can pick whichever line is shorter). It didn't count for much, because as usual when arriving in SYD, luggage took a good 40 minutes to start arriving. Perhaps they're counting on people getting lost amongst the shops and only finding their way to immigration after a good half hour. Customs and quarantine were as bossy as usual (and like others have mentined, there is a person of undistinguishable gender directing people to the correct queue - I think a woman, probably a scary lesbian truck-driver before getting a job with customs).
So that's my trip to Laos. It was a fantastic holiday with some great flights - especially my fling with the sexy MA60. Of the big three SQ, CX, QF, it's hard to pick a winner. All three deserve their strong reputations and they all do certain things better than the others. QF is the most hit and miss of the three in terms of service. CX disappointed slightly on this trip. And I recommend everyone to try the SQ pavlov test. Make eye contact and they WILL smile.