Jan 142005

San Francisco to Bangkok (Wednesday, January 12, 2005 – Friday, January 14, 2005)

As anyone who has traveled with me would suspect, I was repacking my luggage up until the moment I left for the airport. And still, I left without a few items I wanted to have with me. I knew that trying to travel “light” would be a challenge; time will tell whether the challenge has been met. (Let’s just say I need to buy some shorts and pants real soon now.)

Singapore Airlines

I used 90,000 United miles to book my trip in business class. The first leg was on Singapore Airlines, in “Raffles” class (the meaning of the name eludes me). Service begins at the check-in counter with a short line and a “Fast Pass” to a side door at the security check. The Silver Kris lounge is hidden away just inside the secured perimeter, behind United’s Red Carpet Club. In addition to biscotti and small sandwiches, there was a self-serve selection of canned fruit juices, sodas, bottled water, and an assortment of large bottles of alcohol. And two computers with internet access. The lounge is low key, but passengers doing business on their cell phones are a distraction. Fortunately (?), I had to listen to some continuing legal education material on the Internet, so I was able to screen out the chatterboxes in the lounge (and on the big screen showing CNN).

We flew on a two-class Boeing 777-200 “Jubilee.” I don’t know whether our seats were the latest in sleeper technology, but they were pretty incredible. They include grounded U.S. style (3-prong) AC outlets for laptops, but the airline requires that you remove your battery when using them. Tip for travelers: make sure you shut down or hibernate (not stand-by) before removing your battery or unplugging to avoid losing your work.

Slipper socks and lots of hot towels, too. But you really want to know about the food. It was a bit inconsistent. There was the usual choice of champagne or orange juice before take-off, and then the beverage service during ascent, but the excitement began when a cart came up the aisle offering beef and chicken satays heaped with chunky peanut sauce. The sauce was more Indonesian than Thai in character, modestly hot, and smelling strongly of cumin or similar spices. Very tasty. The two sides, slices of onion and cucumber served on dedicated skewers, were undistinguished but provided a cool contrast to the peanut sauce.

A while later, our tray tables were set for lunch, including enough metal knives for a carnival act. We indicated our choice between a mahi mahi preparation designed by Nancy Oakes of San Francisco’s Boulevard, or a teriyaki beef patty served on a hamburger bun; you can guess mine. But first up was a rich cream of mushroom soup. A cart covered with soup bowls came up the aisle. In each were perhaps half a dozen sauteed (?) mushroom slices and (according to the menu) some bits of duck meat. Our server poured the soup itself from a large stainless steel pitcher. The flavor and texture of the soup were excellent, but the mushroom slices were cold, which I think detracted somewhat from the experience. We had rolls (mine was a bit tough), but the large crouton mentioned on the menu arrived well after my soup had been drained. (They didn’t really expect me to wait, did they?)

The main course arrived and immediately I was concerned: the aroma of the fish was not what I have come to expect from eating mahi mahi in Hawaii and San Francisco. While the flavored butter on the fish was tasty, the slightly mushy texture suggested that it had been frozen. (The accompanying green chile potato pancake was way too salty.) I suppose this is to be expected from airline food, which must be produced in large quantities in advance. I’m not sure I would have fared better with the burger; it’s too bad they didn’t have either of the other two items listed on the menu: Korean-style braised chicken or wok-fried marinated pork chop.

I tried two wines with lunch, a California blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Grenache (Jekel 2001), and an Italian Barbera (“La Luna e i Falo” 2000 Terra da Vino). Both were unobjectionable but, perhaps due to refrigeration, seemed as restrained as a passenger in an economy class seat.

The next course offered three cheeses, along with grapes, walnuts, crackers, and a choice of fruit. One cheese was relatively firm (Edam?), another was a soft goat cheese, and the third was similar to Camembert. All nice, and better than the 5-year-old port that accompanied them. I passed on the ice cream (banana walnut gelato) and was served a small filled chocolate with my tea.

About 4 hours later, we were offered some snacks. In addition to a banana (which had no stem; why? security?), I took a tuna bun. This was a seamless bun that contained a tuna salad with cooked corn kernels. After studying it for a while and finding no cuts, I concluded that it must have been made in the same manner as the baked char siu buns sometimes served at dim sum houses. Clever and inspirational, if a bit high carb.

About 2 hours before arrival in Seoul, we had a “light meal.” It began with a salad of mixed greens and asparagus spears bordered on one side by three poached scallops and on the other by three blood orange segments. The scallops had a mysteriously sweet and sour flavor, somewhat reminiscent of marinated artichoke hearts. There was a small amount of gel beside each one, but when tasted alone, I couldn’t pick up what it was. Very nice, considering that they were ice cold. (I should mention that my recently installed crown, a gold onlay, still is extremely sensitive to cold. Ouch. Ouch.)

The main course was a choice of two noodle dishes or bulgogi — easy call! The beef was flavorful, but it hardened up a bit after serving. I’ve seen this at P.F. Chang, and I’m not sure what causes it. On the side was an almost-caesar salad (all but the wimpy dressing). I must have mis-heard our server on the dessert; it was something like apple cobbler with chocolate shavings on top, not “Tiramisu cake.” Good, and good green tea, too. All in all, a success.

Oh, and for those of your curious about those “Singapore girls”… for the first two-thirds of our journey, it seemed that we had mostly male servers in our cabin, but the women took over with the light meal. They reflected the diversity of Singapore, with ethnically Chinese and Malay faces represented, all of them unfailingly sweet and polite, at least on my aisle.

Upon our arrival, I was caught up in a group of fast-walking gentlemen, all of whom split off for immigration while I headed toward the transfer security check. This, and checking in, took forever. A group of passengers diverted from Tokyo got to cut in line due to the short time before their next connection. Perhaps because I was accommodating and cheerful, I got a pass to the Singapore Airlines lounge. It was amazing, like a palace compared with the one in SFO. I didn’t peek around the corner to see the “slumberette,” but it is clear that Singapore wants to cater to business travelers flying through Seoul.

Thai Airways

There were almost 3 hours between my flights, so I had a bit of time to explore Seoul’s Incheon airport, which I had researched on the web (hoping for a welcoming lounge). But… now that I had a comfortable place to sit and a copy of Internet Explorer all in Korean, it was hard to hoist my heavy pack again. The spicy pineapple pork was good, vegetable and kim chee fried rice not bad. How about an ice cream and a piece of pie? (I resisted.)

Our flight departed at 9:00 PM local time. The 55-seat business class cabin was nearly full, with many languages being spoken and a couple of backpackers looking out of place. The seats were quite ordinary (they turned out to be hard on the knees during a long snooze), but the service level was intense. Slippers, headset, blanket, menu, beverage, hygiene kit, contest form (now this is a raffle: a free flight). It was rare not to have someone offering you something.

Both of the red wines seemed thin and acidic; perhaps it was the contrast with the Blue Diamond Smokehouse Almonds, manufactured by World Food Co., Ltd., of Pusan, Korea. The only Thai-sounding dish on the menu was pork fillet in red curry (it was either that or the kalbi; I didn’t want to gamble on fish again). The appetizer of grilled, marinated prawns, served chilled (ouch), was lacking in the flavor department. The small tub of Korean Hot Pepper Paste came in handy. The vegetable terrine consisted of vegetable bits in a quarter inch layer of a rubbery white substance of unknown composition. No dairy taste; it’s a mystery.

The pork curry was much better. While the meat was a bit tough, presumably because it was a low fat cut, the sauce was thick and spicy. The rice and string beans, on the other hand, could have been taken from any other airline meal. Overall, I think Singapore did a better job. (I fell asleep and missed the cheeses and the chocolate mousse.)

Around 1:30 AM on Friday, January 14, 2005, I left the oasis of business class and headed for immigration.

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