My roommate Greg kindly agreed to drive me to the airport for my flight. Although I had ambitions of leaving home by 8:00AM — wait, why are you laughing? — true to form, with so much to pack in so little space, not unsurprisingly, our actual departure was much later. As I rolled my bags toward the counter and spotted the self-check-in machines, I suddenly remembered what I had forgotten to pack. It wasn’t the mask, snorkel, or fins, six (!) cameras, their chargers, or innumerable batteries. It was the one thing you most need for an international trip, and I don’t mean clean underwear (although, at that point, it might have been welcome). Call an Uber: I forgot my passport!
Monday, January 16, 2017
I’m traveling on United miles, so if I missed the one-hour cutoff to check bags for my flight, it’s not clear when or how I might get to Thailand. Fortunately, this question did not arise, because my driver Jonathan showed some serious skills, getting me home and back in record time. A Christian missionary, he believes everything happens for a reason. Is it a wild coincidence that he needs a trademark attorney, or was a higher power at work bringing us together today? Sometimes life imitates television.
Once back at SFO, there was no line for first class check-in, and with United marking my boarding pass TSA Pre, security was shockingly easy: just remove the metal from your pockets (and any nerdy belt phone case) and you’re on your way. I dropped by the United Club to see whether I could get a bottle of water but they only offered plastic cups. Minutes later, I was on my way to the gate.
When I booked my ticket, I didn’t realize that United was taking its 747’s out of service by the end of 2017. The “Global First” window suites with direct aisle access are as spacious as ever, but maintenance seems to have fallen off a bit. On the other hand, the new Polaris pillows are amazing, and their offer of a tasting of the three reds or whites to help you choose your preference is a great idea. I had forgotten how jiggly the nose of the plane is; working as a flight attendant here must really keep you on your toes (assuming the turbulence doesn’t knock you on your ass).
To Eat, Perchance to Sleep
Hmm, what to eat? Flying to Tokyo, both Western and Japanese menus are available. Last night, I feasted on beef at Korean BBQ — filet, short rib, hanger steak, rib eye — so today I opted for the fish. The first starter was a bowl of warm mixed nuts accompanied by a mini-skewer with a small mozzarella ball, rolled up sun-dried tomato, rolled up basil leaf and kalamata olive. I could eat this all day. The next plate was less successful, however: shrimp and fish fillet seem to have been lightly battered and fried, then doused with a sweet glaze. It might have been wonderful when it was made, but it lost its appeal as a chilled plate. The carrot-ginger soup was earthy in a way that reminds one of unpeeled carrots, and was oddly bland. Shouldn’t carrot soup have some natural sweetness? The salad of cold crunchy greens with house Italian dressing and tiny mango cubes was passable. So far, this new menu does not strike me as a winning formula.
The seared turbot at first seemed to buck the trend. Nicely browned and topped with fresh micro-greens, the texture of the lower part of the fillet unfortunately suffered by association with the bed of mush (labeled risotto) upon which it rested. A plate of cheese and grapes, accompanied by crackers and a glass of port, was a good chaser. The service throughout was excellent, and I was finally too drowsy for dessert.
The philosophy of the Polaris program is that passengers should be able to get good sleep. The ability to recline completely flat and the soft comforter and pillows are definitely more suited to relaxation than what I’m used to in economy or even premium economy. While I could only sleep for a few hours, that time was restful and I didn’t end up with any unusual aches or pains. Friendly flight attendants circulated from time to time offering beverages, and eventually I crammed the bedding in a corner and began the long process of re-caffeination.
About 70 minutes before arrival, I was served a Southwestern omelet featuring pepper jack, a few black beans, and a corn salsa, with a couple of unimpressive sausages on the side. The liquidy filling was surprisingly salty, but otherwise the omelet was a success. With a stove, I could have finished the mix of pallid potato and sweet potato chunks in a hot pan with caramelized onions, but it’s not my turn to cook. Soon I will be switching from Western breakfasts to rice porridge and noodles, with the occasional fried egg.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Across the International Date Line, we arrived at Narita airport in Tokyo in mid-afternoon. I have a little over two hours between flights, which imposes a choice: eat, shop, or shower? I don’t really need to eat, and loaded down with gear I would be better off not shopping, so that leaves personal hygiene. Okay, maybe I could sneak a snack, too.
My second leg is on Thai Airways, so I could anticipate using a Star Alliance carrier’s lounge. Right next to the gate was one operated by the Japanese carrier ANA. After a quick shower with mysteriously pearlescent green shampoo, and a moment to experience a surprisingly hot toilet seat, I visited the snack area. Chilled tea on tap helped rehydrate me, while I tasted the fried noodles (somewhat off — old oil?), and the chicken meatballs (a bit rubbery). At the noodle bar, I tried their pork bone broth ramen. The texture of the noodles was good, but the broth was much too salty for my taste. This is making me looking forward to airplane food.
The Airbus A380 one-ups the 747 by having an upper deck that runs the entire length of the aircraft. With the largest seating capacity in the sky, I wouldn’t want to be at the rear of the economy cabin. Fortunately, through the magic of miles, I’m on the upper deck in business class with another solo window seat suite. The aisle seats have easy access, but window and interior seats require passing through a gap narrower than the width of my laptop, which is narrower than my own width by a few inches. I suspect I’m not the only person who’s going to find this a bit stingy. Still, a little sideways shimmy and you’re inside your cocoon. The cocoons along the window (A and K seats) offer the most privacy.
The plane is surprisingly quiet considering the enormous engines I see out my window, but it’s still loud enough that I have difficulty understanding my soft-spoken flight attendant. Fortunately, the time-honored “pointing at the menu” method was effective and I soon have a little tray of fancy trail mix (deluxe mixed nuts and bits of dried tropical fruit) and a glass of French red. Although the Western menu was fancier, I chose the Thai meal, and found it to be well balanced and mostly very tasty. The bitter melon with egg may be an acquired taste. The hot and sour chicken soup, pork larb, and green curry fish were only mildly spicy, but the young coconut ice cream with fruit cubes still provided welcome cooling. Obviously I need to toughen my palate.
In its more reclined position, the seat offers a rudimentary lower back massage function, but for updating notes on the laptop, the upright position works better. The lay-flat bed mostly worked for me, other than my elbows hitting barriers (I do not sleep like a mummy). Side sleepers and those over 6’ tall may have to bend a little uncomfortably due to the narrowness of the space. Whether due to position or a staticky pillow, I awoke with a huge cowlick on the front of my head.
The Suvarnabhumi airport has the longest terminals I’ve ever traversed. It’s great to stretch my legs after a long flight, but having to racewalk the competition to passport control is a bit annoying. And often pointless, because then we stand around in baggage claim. In this case, I somehow chose the slowest line, so my bags were chilling on the carousel by the time I got there. After a quick stop at the ATM, and not getting any unwanted attention at customs, I was in.
During the flight, the crew had passed out codes to use up to 5MB of on-board wi-fi, which was plenty for checking emails, but I needed immediate access now that I was on the outside because my hosts prefer Facebook messages. For some odd reason, 30-day SIM cards could not have their data turned on for 30-40 minutes, so to expedite my departure, I bought a 7-day card with intentions to upgrade later. Cross your fingers.
High-Rise Apartment in the Sky
Bangkok’s condo development boom is nowhere more evident to one planning a trip to Thailand than on Airbnb. Amateur hoteliers, called hosts, detail their condo’s amenities and house rules, and display beautiful photos of rooftop views, thoughtfully equipped kitchens, and artfully folded towels. One host with numerous listings stated in his profile that Airbnb was his life. Given a choice of condos in new and well-kept buildings all over the city, and at every price point, I selected one a few blocks from where I will be staying with our group, just a block from the Thonglor BTS Skytrain station.
On my last trip, I took public transportation to my hotel, and it would be convenient this time, but at this late hour, I’m very happy to take a taxi. My driver was less happy: when we arrived at the condo, since he didn’t have any change, and I didn’t want to be too extravagant, I had to pay him in small bills and coins left over from my last trip. He left in a huff.
Since it’s my first experience with Airbnb, I’m not familiar with the etiquette. My host left a key for me with the doorman, but I’m not sure whether we will ever meet in person. That could be fun if it happens. Meanwhile, there’s a huge sign in the lobby that short term rentals are forbidden, and at the same time, the guard hands me a hotel form asking for my passport info and check-out date. I don’t get it, but I play along. Soon I’ve got a couple electronic keys and can relax and turn on the air conditioning. (Even at this hour, it’s hot here.)
The condo is a compact one-bedroom, with a lot of sleek black surfaces. Everything seems to be catered for. (360 degree photo on Ricoh’s Theta360 site) After a quick stop at the local 7-Eleven for beverages, and maybe an email or three, it was time for bed. Tomorrow, I’ll reacquaint myself with the neighborhood and try to figure out a way to lighten my load.