31 December 2008

Travel: Trapped in Thailand

A colleague and I traveled to Bangkok on the Monday before Thanksgiving (24 November) for a quick two-day work trip. This quick trip promised to be productive but would still allow me nearly three weeks to finish up all I needed before I traveled back to the US for Christmas. But, like the folks on Gilligan’s Island, we were in for more than a three hour tour.

On Tuesday, 25 November, the People’s Alliance for Democracy Party (PAD) stormed Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok’s international airport. The PAD , the main opposition party in the government with strongholds among the urban population in and around Bangkok, had been waging a campaign of protest for several months, occupying the Government House and forcing the government to operate out of a remote site. The occupation of the airport was by far the boldest move, and they followed it up by occupying Don Muang, Bangkok’s former international airport that now served domestic flights. Thus, there was no way to leave Bangkok by air.

I had flown up on low costs Tiger Airways, which is fine if everything goes right. That means you get to the airport on time, there are no weather issues, you don’t have to change your flights, or protestors don’t shut down the airport. But, when things don’t go just as planned, it is good to have a flight on a full-service carrier, like my colleague did with Singapore Airlines.

On Wednesday the 26th, our initial return date, we both called our airlines. He got through in two minutes and was booked on another flight for the following day. I was on hold for 45 minutes before I gave up (at S$2.75 a minute, which meant the cost of that fruitless call nearly matched that of my ticket). Instead, I booked a ticket with a rival carrier, Air Asia.

Our flights did not take off, however, as the airport remained closed. It became apparent that this could be a prolonged closure, so a number of the carriers arranged with the government to fly “rescue” flights out of U-Tapao Air Force Base, 150 kilometres south of Suvarnabhumi and 200 kilometres south of Bangkok itself. My colleague was booked on a Saturday flight (29 November), but I was unable to get on the Air Asia flight, so I decided to extend my stay.

We actually got a lot of work done while we were there. Every morning, it was over to the Starbuck’s on Sukhumvit (in the shadow of the Sky Train) for a coffee and a 24 hour internet card. We would sit upstairs, drink our coffee, and work and email for 10 hours a day. Without the distractions of the office, it was a highly productive time. But, after a couple of days, I faced a different distraction – finding a way to get home.

I had contemplated a number of options – train down the peninsula to Butterworth just across the Thai-Malaysian border, then bus to KL and fly/bus back to Singapore. Or bus to Phuket and catch a flight to Singapore. Train/taxi/bus to the Cambodian border and then the same to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. I even contemplated the Eastern and Orient Express, which would have taken me all the way to Singapore. But, the trains to Malaysia and flights out of Phuket were full, Cambodia looked less appealing the more I looked at it, and the E&OE went only once a week, so I ended up on an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the far north of Thailand, with a SilkAir flight direct to Singapore.

The train was scheduled for 6.00 pm on Monday, and I gave myself plenty of time to get to the station on the Sky Train and subway. On the way, I noticed that I was the only one wearing red. A saleswoman earlier had mentioned my red shirt (a t-shirt I had to buy off the street) and let me know that it was the color of “the other side”. Red is the color of the government’s supporters, which are located mainly in the north. Yellow was the color of the PAD, with its stronghold in Bangkok. So it did not surprise me that I was the only person wearing red in the entire city. I suppose it’s like wearing Crips colors in the Blood neighborhood. Fortunately, the political situation was not violent, and I made it to the train.

Just before the train pulled away, at 6.00 exactly, the Thai national anthem began playing over the loudspeaker. Every Thai in the station (even the man sleeping on the bench) rose and stood at respectful attention for the duration of the song. It was an interesting sight to close what may be my final stay in Bangkok.

I love traveling by train, and I met several interesting people on the way up. I was in a second-class sleeper, however, which meant I did not have my own room. Moreover, I had the top bunk, which is the smaller of the two. The lights never go off in the second-class sleeper, and you get to hear all the sleepers around you snoring away. With the train lurching and jerking during the four hour delay on the way, it made for a sleepless night. The delay also meant the 13 hour trip turned into 17 hours. Since I had given myself a buffer day, that was okay. And it actually meant I arrived at my hotel at 11.30, not 7.30, so I was able to check in immediately and take that long-awaited nap.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful town in the highlands in Thailand. It was uncrowded due to the airport closures (so many of the flights go through Bangkok), and it was nice to wander through the deserted streets enjoying the cool, dry weather. It was only in the 60s, but you would see locals all over the place wearing scarves and coats. What a nice break from the tropical weather I was used to!

The next day, I got on my flight and almost kissed the ground when I arrived back in Singapore. It was good to be back.
I did enjoy my quick visit to Chiang Mai. I met some nice British expats in the local pub, found some good small galleries and made some nice purchases at the night market. With this in mind, I canceled my planned trip there in February. I will go back to Chiang Mai – it seems like a fantastic place – but I am done with Thailand for a while.

09 December 2008

Travel: Alex in Asia - The Formula One Singapore Grand Prix

While I was back in Singapore working, Alex made his way down from Phuket, through Bangkok and KL. He arrived Thursday, giving me a day to show him around the city-state before we jumped headfirst into the traveling circus that is Formula One. The Long Bar at Raffles Hotel is just around the corner from the Stamford Hotel, Singapore's tallest. So, after the obligatory Singapore Sling, we ascended to the New Asia Bar, on the 70th floor the the Stamford, for a great view of the circuit. The safety cars were circling the track in all its illuminated glory, and we had the perfect vantage point from on high.

We headed down River Valley Road by bus around 6pm on Friday, with practice on our mind. First, a tour of Clarke Quay's finer establishments to show off Alex's Puma Ferrari shoes - Pump Room, Brewerkz, and at the end of Boat Quay, Penny Black (a genuine Victorian pub that was shipped in its entirety to the Lion City).

As we left Penny Black after the sun had set, we were greeted by the sound of 18,000 rpm touring the streets of Singapore - Grand Prix weekend had started. That was such a sweet sound - one I hadn't heard since the US Grand Prix in Indianapolis, the fiasco where only six cars ran the race because of problems with the other 14 cars on Michelin tires (the Bridgestones handled Formula One's highest speed corner - turn 13 in that race, Turn 1 at the 500 - where the Michelins couldn't). It was a sound Singapore has never heard, and it was beautiful.

We quickly ran to the Anderson Bridge (pictured) and into the circuit and got our Kangaroo TV sets, a hand-held system that allowed us to follow the race from the television perspective as well as several in-car views. We settled on the Esplanade Bridge, a high speed sector just before the Turn 14 into the section running along Marina Bay portion. It was great! Alas, the race organisers would close that vantage point for Saturday's qualifying and the race.

After a high-cost cab home (Singapore knows how to price differentiate), we called it a night. I introduced Alex to a traditional coffee house the next morning (kopi kosong and a kaya toast set for him), and we prepared for qualifying. We camped out on the second floor of the Singapore Flyer car park at Turn 5, which gave us great views of the cars coming around the high-speed corner. But, when it took us hours to get out (they didn't quite have the exits figured out on that side of the circuit), we decided to spend raceday elsewhere.

Sunday brought the race. The tifosi were happy to see Felipe Massa on pole, and his World Championship hopes rode high on this first night race in Formula One history. We found grandstands on the opposite side of our Friday night vantage point on the Esplanade Bridge. The race started as we had hoped, with Massa running strong out front. The cars were beautiful under the lights! It was an exciting atmosphere, truly a new experience for F1.

Then the fateful pit stop. Massa pulled away with the fuel hose still attached. You can read in the press what happened next, but it was the end of the race for the Brazilian, and it would eventually cost him dearly, as he finished a single point from winning the championship.

Alex and I migrated to the massive infield section (the Padang, usually host to Singapore Cricket Club and Singapore Sporting Club events) to watch Fernando Alonso drive his Renault to an improbable victory (or was it improbable? Alonso was fastest in qualifying until an engine failure relegated him to the middle of the grid; a crash by his Renault teammate Nelson Piquet, Jr started the series of events that allowed him to the front of the field during the race. But I'm no conspiracy theorist...). We had witnessed history, and although our driver had not won (or even scored points - and don't even ask about Kimi's late race meltdown), it was a great experience!

What a weekend! Monday was a wind-down day (frankly, I was a little down, since the buildup to the race had been so overwhelming), but we managed to see some parts of my home before we headed of to Hong Kong the next day. We were happy to have been part of the first ever Formula One night race, which by all accounts was a huge success. And I will give Singapore credit - it was a fantastic event, run in beautiful surroundings in the heart of illuminated city. This should be a great stop on the traveling circus's calendar from now on.

06 December 2008

Travel: Alex in Asia - Phuket

My brother Alex made his first visit to Asia this Fall (that being a not well-understood term here), wrapping his trip around the inaugural Formula One Singapore Grand Prix. We started the trip in Phuket, but not before Alex stepped into airports in Amarillo, Denver, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Singapore. And my bad advice almost made his stay in Singapore a little longer. He flew Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, Singapore Airlines to Singapore, and Air Asia to Phuket. But, Air Asia does not have interline agreements with other airlines, so he couldn't check his bags through to Phuket. They also don't have a facilities inside security, so even if you fly two separate segments on Air Asia, you have to come out of security (which means Immigration and Customs on international flights), check in, and then go back through security to get to your next flight. And Alex had to do this. Fortunately, Changi Airport is incredibly efficient, especially when uncrowded mid-day on Friday. He was out, up, and back through in less than twenty minutes, and we were on our way to Phuket.

Phuket is an island off the west coast of Thailand, just south of the Phang Nga province peninsula in the Andaman Sea (more on Phang Nga later). It features miles of sandy beaches and all of the kinds of troublesome nightlife one would expect of a beach destination. After arriving at the provincial airport, our hotel car drove us the hour to our accommodations in Karon Beach (a friend of mine runs the Movenpick Karon Beach, and it is a wonderful place to stay - check with me for details). Alex noted the resemblance to hotels he has visited in Hawaii, with the open lobby and beautiful sights, which we took in over a Singha as our rooms were prepared.

We took a tuk-tuk into Patong Beach, the liveliest area on the island. After a look around and a stop for milk and cookies, we decided to call it a night. The next day we spent lazily around the pool - after all, Alex had just traveled nearly 30 hours to get here. No reason to overdo it. We were able to add Chang to the portfolio that afternoon. We opted for a night in the tamer Karon Beach on Saturday, ending at the Sand Bar, where we were the only audience for the band. This meant we could not only request every song, but we were also given singing duties. Good thing we both have jobs, because we'd probably have to go out on the road with these guys, given our stellar performances that night.

The next day was my last in Phuket. Alex would head to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur on his way to Singapore, but I was flying directly back Sunday night. We spent the day on the water, heading up into Phang Nga Bay National Park to see the beautiful rock formations on the way to James Bond Island. This is the island with the iconic rock formation that served as Scaramanga's lair in The Man With The Golden Gun. Our vessel was a slow boat made to look like a junk. I think of it as a junk in the Western sense. The boat was fine, but it was slow, and the voyage was part of a typical tour I try to avoid.

The island isn't incredibly impressive (except THAT A JAMES BOND MOVIE WAS FILMED THERE), and the rock formation is tiny compared to others in the area (a sequence in Tomorrow Never Dies also was filmed in Phang Nga). Although I was glad to see the island, the trip itself is one of those all day ventures that includes a lunch at a far away destination (a "floating" Muslim fishing village that is built on stilts above the water; it survives almost exclusively on tourism) and a swim in the ocean. Now that we know, we would have rented a speedboat for half a day to take us to James Bond Island and back.

It had been a whirlwind weekend, but a good introduction to Asia for Alex. Especially as he was off to Bangkok and KL on his way to Singapore for the race.