Monday, May 7, 2012

Trip Report 1: Bangkok Bound

Night shot of SFO International by Hakan Dahlstrom 

Since I often learn a thing or two from people's travel or trip reports I'm offering one here myself.  I'm not in any danger of Frommer's or Lonely Planet calling to beg me to join their team but I have made enough trips to have learned a few things. No need for some of you to recreate the wheel, as the saying goes - and if this helps anyone, it's worth the time.  It may well be broken up into a few installments, but we'll see how it unfolds as my schedule drags me along this week.

So, here's Part One...

My friend arrived along about 5:00pm as I was doing my final departure review.  As he sat and double-checked our flight information in-between his more recreational web surfing I went over my packing list one last time; trying to avoid minor past mishaps. [If you're new to the fold here I'd suggest reading the post about packing your bags. It may well make things easier for you if you don't already have your own routine as a seasoned traveler.]

Packing for a longer trip (such as this 3-plus weeks in Thailand) begins a week or so in advance, when I put a suitcase or two onto the bed in the guest room and start adding things as I think of them.  Socks, underwear, my swim suit and other things that are OK with some wrinkles can go in early; shirts and other things can wait on hangers until the day of travel. 

Gift-type items can also be packed early. Expatriated friends often have things they'd appreciate me bringing along, such as items covered in the post "As Rare As Hen's Teeth" in January.  Items for established friends are easy enough to pack ahead of time, too.

As covered more thoroughly in the packing post if you expect to meet or make new friends where you're going you might want to take a few small tokens of friendship as gifts along with you. Things that represent your area are often appreciated; scenic calendars of California have worked for me. I'd purchased a half-dozen of them late last Autumn and tucked them away in my office, where they damn near won the game of hide-and-seek.

Expect unusual items to raise the curiosity of the TSA inspectors. I often travel with enough wires and electronic cables for various devices that it usually earns me a tag like the one to the left.

I'm a "roller" more than a "folder" for clothes that will wrinkle. You can find lots of info about both online - including YouTube video demos - but if I take my time and do it properly I've had the best luck with rolling clothing to pack.  If you find you absolutely must take a suit (you poor bastard!) there's an interesting clip below.  Naturally, taking a suit to some Asian countries is akin to carrying coals to Newcastle.

Bags finally packed and ready I checked my carry-on to make sure I hadn't missed anything that would slow me down at the security checkpoint and assembled my junk by the front door, remembering for once to take the Swiss Army knife out of my pocket and put it into an outside pocket of a bag I'd check. I'd rather not say how many I've had to toss into collection bins at security over the last 11 years.

My best friend - who doesn't care to travel but is fine with house-sitting - helped the two of us load into my car and we were off on our long ride to San Francisco International. The plan was to arrive there the suggested two hours ahead of flight time (standard for international flights) and we were a half-hour ahead of schedule when we were dropped off at the curb at SFO.  Pre-printed documents in hand we rolled our way to the EVA check-in counter, were waved over to a premium window that wasn't busy and were on our way to security within five minutes.  A good start, I thought.

This is a good example of NOT traveling light.

An advantage of flying in the off hours is shorter lines at the security check. It's not fail-safe, but from my experience if staffing is as it should be you're more likely to be through the humiliating process faster if you hit there in the late evening.

We had a large group of folks (more than 10, but less than 15) on their way back to Taiwan that didn't seem to understand the process and repeatedly set off bells and buzzers. After struggling along putting things into bins to ride the x-ray conveyor they themselves had to go back and forth through the scanning archway. Finally they were diverted - one by one - through that "hands in the air" body scanner device.  I think they should take a quick snapshot from the waist up of everyone in it and sell them somewhere further along the line; somewhat like they'd do in an amusement park near the end of the roller coaster.  Might afford them enough money to hire a few more employees to speed things up.  Just a thought.

If you're not a member of any sort of frequent flyer point group I strongly suggest you do some research to find the one best for you and sign up. I earn generous points from a credit card deal that's still paying off after a decade, and I tend to stick with EVA for a variety of reasons, so I have quite a number of flight miles with them.

One of the perks is admittance to the business/elite/travel lounge (all located past the security checkpoints), where you can wait in comfort for your boarding time.  There's a lot about those here.

Part of EVA's lounge at San Francisco International

My travel companion wasn't yet an EVA member, but he was given the option of joining me anyway - for a fee of $25.  That seemed excessive to me, but 1) you can't easily put much of a price on comfort, 2) he was on vacation and entitled to some extravagances and 3) the call liquor is free.  My friend doesn't drink, but if someone did they could do up that amount and still weave to the plane.

Knowing there was a meal coming about an hour after take-off I didn't eat in the lounge, but I did have some tea, read the paper and took a dose of "Airborne," a vitamin boost supplement that allegedly helps one fend off illnesses shared by the other 400 souls seated around you on the plane. It may all be psychosomatic, but I take it.  More on staying healthy on planes here.

I watched a man in an aloha shirt, shorts and sandals go back and forth to the Johnny Walker, each time a bit slower and less steady.  I didn't ask, but my bet was on him joining the legion of guys who'd soon be on the beach with a rented admirer by their side and looped by noon daily.  I felt kind of sorry for him when he was denied permission to board the plane with us, but all of life is choices and I guess he didn't think that one through very well. Security helped him choose how to leave the boarding gate area.

Settled into my window seat (I sleep better being able to lean) I looked at my watch as our plane began to back away from the gate right on schedule.  I looked back to my friend across the plane and a row back, gave him the "thumbs up" signal, and we both smiled.

We rolled our way out to Runway 25, and as the pilot gunned the engines and we began to rumble and roar our way North along it my mind raced with anticipation of the weeks ahead. When the heavier vibrations stopped as the wheels left the runway I leaned my head against the window, watching the Bay Area slip away from us until we entered a layer of fog and all went dark.

For the next 12 and a half hours or so we'd sail along at around 33,000 feet through the black night sky; the outside temperature hovering near -6F.  I stayed awake long enough to eat some of the meal they brought around, but I'd already taken the sleeping pill my doctor gives me for such flights, and I went to sleep soon after; waking up as we cruised over Japan.  Most of the people of Sendai, Yonezawa and Nagano far below us were probably sound asleep as we sailed overhead at a ground speed of 500 miles per hour.

A couple of hours before we were due to land at Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei the lights above me on the left side of the plane began to emit a reddish glow, and over the next ten minutes or so changed gradually to pink, orange and yellow, moving across the width of the cabin as though the cabin ceiling was the morning sky.  Soon the cabin was lit normally, and the smell of omelets and congee filled the cabin as the breakfast cart was wheeled through.

Repeating a previously used image for the newbies

We landed slightly ahead of schedule, and it felt wonderful to get up and be able to walk about freely as we set foot in Taiwan, on our way to our connecting flight to Bangkok.

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