Dec 312012

I suppose I should have a better reason for returning to Thailand a sixth time than chilly Bay Area nights and wanting to stock up on delicately fragrant green tea. Of course, the food is excellent, the temples are beautiful, and the occasional unpredictable chaos teaches a lesson in patience. Call it a rut, call it a mid-life crisis, call it an attempt to find meaning: when traveling, there is a better chance I will look up from my many screens and really be in the moment. An opportunity maybe, just maybe, to answer the question: “Who should I be and what should I do when I grow up?”

United Global First

I didn’t get my customary two hours of sleep before heading out to the airport due to seemingly endless laundry, sorting, packing, and re-packing. No sooner had I zipped the last bag than the shuttle driver called. The ride to SFO was smooth, and check-in was a breeze, but the “Global First” Lounge kept us waiting until 8:00 to get our caffeine and, hey, where are the bananas? This is a pretty lounge with lots of nice artwork. It would be quite serene but for the whirring engine sounds: we can see the noses of planes through the lounge’s windows.

My seat was both a window and an aisle seat. And a massage chair, a recliner, and a bed. The icons on the seat controls are somewhat opaque, and the tray table is challenging to extract, but the overall design is quite handy. (The pairs of seats in the mid-section do not appear to have as many storage cubbies.) While this class of service is very expensive, you probably could fit four to six economy passengers in this amount of space, so from the real estate perspective, I can see why they charge so much. Thank goodness for frequent flyer miles.

Lunch was a bit hit or miss: the appetizers were a spring roll and coconut shrimp that had been reheated, but full crispiness was not restored and the oiliness was not fully offset by the tasty gingery mango chutney. A rich tomato and roasted red pepper soup redeemed the kitchen, and a salad of spring mix with balsamic vinaigrette, while nothing special by restaurant standards, was a huge step up from the decaying iceberg lettuce often served in economy. My main course selection was the beef with bulgogi sauce. Nicely meaty, not overcooked, but where was the garlic? If you’d told me it was a demiglace I would not have suspected any Korean connection. Having filled up on warm nuts, a roll, and several glasses of Dry Creek Vineyards Meritage 2007, I had to skip the cheese course and the ice cream sundaes and go straight to sleep.

After several hours sleeping off a hangover, I decided it was time to do my Thai language lessons. Before takeoff, I had confirmed that the airline headset worked with the headset jack on my phone. Now, however, my phone informed me that my microSD card was damaged and/or empty. After a couple of weeks of setting up this new unlocked phone (Sony Xperia arc S on 50% off clearance at my local Sony store) with my music library, translation apps, and so forth, this was a big problem. I was able to back up the card on my laptop using the card reader, and then miraculously, the phone took the card back and read it as though nothing had happened. Maybe this kind of flakiness explains the trend toward removing card slots from newer phones?

Turns out you can barely hear yourself repeating the words after the speaker when using noise canceling headphones, but hopefully the listening will help me recognize common questions. It was embarrassing to realize on my last trip that someone I couldn’t understand was asking me my name. It’s the first question in this book. (Hangs head in shame.)

For breakfast, I opted for the cheese omelette with sides of pork over the wonton noodle soup or dry cereal. The omelette texture was good, with inoffensive melty Swiss cheese. The pork patty looked like a slider in search of a bun, bland but fairly lean. The ham appeared to be actual meat rather than a formed loaf. With a little fruit and a croissant, I think this will hold me for a while.

Incheon Airport, Seoul, Korea

With only 75 minutes scheduled between my United and Thai Airways flights, I did not leave much time for enjoying the local (airport) cuisine. Actually, it was a bit of an accident that I booked this particular flight to Bangkok, which has a stop in Taiwan; I meant to book the later nonstop. Whoops. Well, I should arrive 45 minutes earlier and perhaps that will help beat the rush to the passport line. In-flight weather reports for Seoul varied from 19 to 23 degrees, and there were small piles of dirty snow along the runways as we taxied in.

Because I was flying in business class, I received a pass to the Asiana lounge, which apparently hosts passengers in premium cabins on all Star Alliance carriers. The first impression is stunning: a long wall of blond wood bookcases featuring thick cloth-bound volumes and tasteful artworks. I didn’t see anyone reading these books; CNN seemed to draw more interest. I tried the parmesan crusted Korean pork, but couldn’t really tell it from ordinary tonkatsu. A few cans of green tea later and it was time to board.

Royal Silk Business Class

The Airbus A330 is used primarily as an economy hauler, but Thai has a small business class cabin catering to those who prefer a bit more service. The seats have individual controls for the headrest, footrest, and massage unit, but the more interesting buttons are the ones that convert the seat from its usual position to reclined or flat. Unlike a true sleeper seat, however, flat is not completely parallel to the floor, but instead angles into a large cut-out in the seat in front of you. It’s a bit cramped for the feet, so tall people probably need to adjust the footrest. At least you can wash up in style: the restrooms feature faux woodgrain panels and cloth towels.

The crew is planning to serve hot meals on both legs, so we should be well fed. When our appetizer tray arrived, I was pleased to see little bits of bibimbap toppings: shreds of seasoned beef, cucumber, pickled radish, kim chee, and hot pepper paste. All of these were great, and the Korean brie was good too. Oolong tea was a nice touch. But – the main course of grilled prawn with bulgogi sauce was disappointing: the shrimp were medium-sized at best, and quite unexciting. I was able to get my garlic fix on the side with warm garlic bread.

Taoyuan Airport, Taipei, Taiwan

We were scheduled to have one hour in Taipei, which seemed too short to do any serious eating. Due to a crew change, we exited the plane and passed through security, then through the shopping area and back to the gate. There really wasn’t much time for any fun (or even figuring out the free wi-fi). While waiting, I chatted with a few other passengers who had been on my flights. Turns out they will just be in Thailand briefly before heading out for Laos or Cambodia.

The appetizer tray for second dinner was quite spartan compared with the first dinner, but the grilled scallops were tasty. I was more adventurous with the main course: gingery sliced pork and hunks of softened tendons. Between naps, I watched parts of “Mr. XXX-Kisser” on my neighbor’s video screen. The plot involves the use of gifts, favors, and flattery to get sales, so you can guess what the missing three letter word is.

New Years’ Eve at Suvarnabhumi Airport

Upon landing at the airport, our jet taxied to the middle of nowhere and we deplaned into buses for the long ride to immigration. Miraculously, the lines were very short, so even allowing time to change some money, we still managed to beat our luggage to the carousel. The taxi stands downstairs issue a large multilingual sheet of paper explaining that you pay the fare on the meter, plus a 50 baht airport surcharge, plus any expressway tolls. My driver insisted that the expressway was not necessary at midnight, and we made it to the hotel in good time. Good thing I wasn’t staying downtown, as the traffic there was quite snarled by the evening’s festivities.

Hotel Rex

The only room left was a smoking room facing an extremely loud club. It’s 2:23am (New Year’s Day) and they’re still going strong. The noisy air conditioning system partially drowns it out. I might need to use earplugs…but then how will I hear my alarm? Hopefully everything will be better tomorrow when the revelry has ended and I start eating great local food.

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