Notes from plane seats and the odd airport lounge


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Asia » Thailand
January 13th 2020
Published: February 2nd 2020
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HE SAID...
We weren’t meant to be travelling to Thailand and Laos, but a series of events fortuitously conspired to send us to the northern climes of these two Southeast Asian countries.

In November 2017 we booked a trip to Colombia. We were scheduled to travel in April 2018, and we were excited. However, a client asked us to undertake a major project in the first half of 2018, so we had to cancel Colombia. We were lucky enough to travel to Eastern Europe later in the year, and our adventures in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were fantastic, so we didn’t regret the change of plan.

In September 2019 we booked a trip to Colombia. We were scheduled to travel in March 2020, and we were excited. However, a client asked us to undertake a major project in the first half of 2020, so we had to cancel Colombia – again! We were lucky enough to find a small window of time to travel to Thailand and Laos in January 2020, and this is the very adventure we’re about to embark on.

Fortunately we don’t believe in ‘signs’, so we’ll definitely continue our efforts to get to Colombia. But let’s put Colombia aside (for the second time in two years)! We love Thailand, and we’ve always wanted to travel to Laos, so we’re seriously excited about this trip. I’m especially looking forward to our days drifting down the Mekong River in a long wooden slowboat.

The lead up to this trip had been almost perfect. I’d managed to tie up all of my work deadlines, to the point where I had time on my hands to pack and prepare. On the morning of our flight, I sat in the swing chair in our garden and read for an hour, with Jasper and Oliver (the kelpies) at my feet. I was reading A Dragon Apparent – Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by Norman Lewis. Lewis travelled through Indochina in early 1950 during the so-called ‘twilight’ of the French colonial regime. He witnessed the three countries as they were before the devastation of the Vietnam War.

I was fascinated by Lewis’ musings as he travelled through Laos, but the following recurrent themes made me second guess the contents of my pack:
• It is hot in Laos (‘a grey-green frothing seen through a heat-mist’)
• It is especially hot in Vientiane
• It is off-the-scale hot in Luang Prabang.

Lewis described the heat-based lethargy he experienced in Luang Prabang as ‘a wasting away of the energy, and a seeping paralysis of the will’. Had I completely underestimated the temperature that awaited us? Unfortunately, there was no time to re-organise my pack. I reassured myself that Lewis was travelling in a time when the supply of electricity was not reliable in Laos, so he probably didn’t have access to air-conditioned accommodation. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best…

However, there was a far more sinister theme that recurred in Lewis’ writing – the prevalence of malaria. It was something we hadn’t ignored, having packed an ample supply of powerful insect repellent. I reassured myself that Lewis was travelling in a time when there wasn’t ready access to vaccines in Laos, although to this day we are still struggling to produce an effective malaria vaccine…

After an hour on the swing chair with Lewis’ book in hand, it was time to get ready. We bundled Jasper and Oliver (the kelpies) into the car and dropped them at the nearby boarding kennels, then returned home to complete our preparations. I was replying to a few last-minute emails when my Zen-like serenity was shattered. A client emailed to ask if we could submit a quotation for a major project, and the deadline for the quotation was January 29. We returned on January 30. We only had one option – to prepare and submit the quotation while we were travelling.

Panic set in. We had to gather the files we needed to prepare the quotation, and then transfer them to a flash drive. We had to organise referees, certificates of currency, activity schedules – things that are easy enough to organise at home but difficult overseas. To make matters worse, it was a hot day (29 degrees), so all the rushing around made it a little uncomfortable – to say the least!

We left home around 2pm and headed straight to the cattery. We had to drop Mia (the feline) off before 3pm, and she wasn’t happy about it. She immediately disappeared under a specially prepared upturned basket and hid herself away from the world. Not even a double bowl of cat food could lure her out from her self-imposed exile.

We dropped our car at the undercover security parking area, caught a shuttle bus to the airport and had our obligatory selfie with Nathaniel, one of the resident bronze-cast Tassie Devils in the airport’s baggage claim area. On checking in we discovered our flight had been delayed. Visibility was so poor at Melbourne Airport (due to smoke haze from the devastating Victorian bushfires) that only a single runway was in operation. Our flight was delayed 90 minutes, and we had to circle over Melbourne in a holding pattern for 30 minutes before we could land, so we arrived two hours later than expected.

It was 9:30pm when we finally touched down at Melbourne Airport. Despite being behind schedule, our international flight to Bangkok didn’t leave until 12:30am, so our travel plans remained intact. We breezed through customs and made our way through the international terminal. In keeping with a tradition we’d started the previous year, we settled at a table at Bar Pulpo by Movida and ordered sangria copas (one red, one white) along with plates of crispy fried potatoes with spicy brava sauce, leek and Mahon croquettes, and conserved baby garfish and olive tapenade on toast. It was a great way to while away the time as we waited for our nine hour flight to Bangkok.

We left Melbourne at 12:30am, and despite grazing on a selection of tapas plates only a few hours earlier, we were ready for dinner. From a selection of two meals, we opted for the chicken in green curry with bamboo shoots and steamed jasmine rice, and it was sensational. I then slept for most of the flight, which is rare for me. I usually catch up on my travel writing on long flights, but it was way past my bed time.

Luckily I woke in time for breakfast! From a selection (once again) of two meals, I opted for the stir-fried chicken in chilli bean sauce with stir-fried egg noodles and vegetables, and it wasn’t too bad. In fact, it was quite good. Unfortunately, Ren opted for the mushroom omelette with chicken sausage, hash browns and sautéed spinach, which was borderline inedible…

I have to say I wasn’t overly enthused by Thai Airways. The service wasn’t great, and there wasn’t a lot of care forthcoming from the cabin crew. I think we’ve been spoilt by the likes of Singapore Airlines.

We touched down at Suvarnabhumi Airport (Bangkok) at 5:30am, and we were seriously excited. We were about to embark on our Thailand and Laos adventure.

Vale Neil Peart
On a sad non-travel note, Neil Peart died less than a week before we embarked on this journey. As the drummer for Canadian progressive rock band Rush, he had a huge influence on me musically. I joined a band called Pantheon when I left university, and we were (for all intents and purposes) a Rush cover band. I’ll never forget the challenge and excitement of playing songs like Xanadu, Natural Science and Spirit of Radio. Rush’s guitarist (Alex Lifeson) changed the way I approached guitar in a band environment, and Neil Peart changed the way I thought about rhythm and structure in music. One of my favourite passages of music is the guitar solo in La Villa Strangiato, which is so perfectly complemented by Neil Peart’s drumming. I don’t like the song itself (it runs for nine and a half minutes), and I don’t like the studio recording on Hemispheres. However, the live version on Exit…Stage Left has a two minute section that will forever send shivers down my spine. Geddy Lee moves to keyboards / foot pedals, Neil Peart transitions into a soft 7/8 rhythm and Alex Lifeson builds an exhilarating atmosphere with his volume control and lyricism. While his solo is amazing, it is Neil Peart’s drumming through this section that will always ignite something in my soul.

A musical genius. A beautiful mind. A tragic life. Neil died from brain cancer at the age of 67. I can’t put into words how significant his influence has been on my approach to writing and playing music.



SHE SAID...
What better way to start the New Year than to do something that makes us happy? The second half of 2019 had been less than awesome for us, and it’s easy to get bogged down in frustration and pessimism when it seems the universe is conspiring against those you love. I’m sure that everyone can relate to those moments when dramatic events make you question life, its purpose… and I suppose, everything really. It’s not a great feeling, and quite frankly, can be hideous.

It’s no secret that travel brings us much happiness, and I’ve always found it to be an excellent way to reorient our minds and regain our balance. It’s also a great way to gain new perspectives by reminding ourselves that our issues are miniscule in the scale of things, and that the world is a far bigger place than just us and our tiny orbit.

So here we go – setting off on a new adventure in January. I’m usually a much bigger fan of travelling in March (or later in the year). Even though January is better from a work perspective, it’s still the holiday period and generally far more expensive and crowded, and it is also peak bushfire season at home. But faced with the possibility of not being able to travel at any other time of the year, we didn’t wish to look a gift horse in the mouth.

We had a busy morning getting Jasper and Oliver to their kennels and then driving Mia to her cattery. As usual it took us a couple of hours to appease our guilt at leaving them… Jasper is old and clingy, and Mia has trust issues with anyone outside our family. Oliver is the only one who doesn’t cry or get distressed. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – he is always so happy to see the kennel owner and her dogs. If he ever runs away, we’ll know where to look first! 😊

True to form, even though we were super-organised and were packed and ready a whole day before our flight, work emails continued to pour in on the day of departure, and it was a rushed and stressed closing down of the house. One particular email asking for a quotation meant Andrew would have to do some work on our first few days in Bangkok! It certainly wasn’t an ideal start to the holiday, but it’s an unavoidable part of having a consulting business.

Our 6pm flight from Hobart to Melbourne on Virgin Airlines was delayed for 90 minutes due to poor visibility and high winds at Melbourne Airport. The smoke from the Victorian bushfires was blowing south and blanketing Melbourne. We weren’t really worried about missing our connection to Bangkok, as we’d allowed five hours between connections for just such a situation. However, with Melbourne Airport only operating one runway, we wondered if our onward flight would also be delayed. We left our fate in the hands of the travel gods… plus we’d visited Nathaniel (the Tassie Devil at Hobart Airport) and taken our usual photo with him. He was our good luck charm for international travel. 😊

I was asleep before take-off in Hobart and awoke to Andrew looking out the window at a smoke filled Melbourne – it was heartbreaking to see my beloved city choked by such pollution. Our luggage had been tagged directly to Bangkok, but we still had to get our boarding passes for our second leg issued at Melbourne Airport. With the Thai Airways service desk only taking a minute to issue them, we breezed through security and automated immigration. I really love Melbourne International Airport! Sydney Airport needs to seriously up their game. 😊

We had been looking forward to settling in for a few sangrias and a serving of patatas bravas at Bar Pulpo as we usually do. However, we still felt obliged to do the circuit of restaurants and bars… just in case a new place had popped up since our last visit 10 months ago. But seeing as our gate was directly opposite Bar Pulpo, we didn’t need any more convincing. We ordered the conserved baby garfish and olive tapenade on toast, and a leek and Mahon croquette. We tried the white sangria this time, which wasn’t nearly as nice as the red version. Even though we love the food and drinks at Bar Pulpo, the staff have always been disinterested and useless. If we weren’t a captive audience with limited options, they really wouldn’t get our repeat business. Andrew commented that my brother (a hospitality specialist who runs a tight and efficient ship) should come in and whip these guys into shape!

Our second and last leg from Melbourne to Bangkok was with Thai Airways. I haven’t flown with them since the 1990s and they still remain middle of the road for me. The Airbus A350-900 plane wasn’t the most comfortable, and while the first meal of Thai green curry was fiery and superb, the accompaniments were weird and needed close examination to ascertain their identities. And it only got worse from there. For the next meal I opted for the western breakfast – a mushroom omelette – because I was craving something fresh, but the fruit salad consisted of disgusting unripe melon cubes. And the less said about the grey omelette and fake ‘potato mash’ that had been reconstructed to look like potato wedges, the better. 😞

On the plus side, despite being surrounded by at least twenty babies and toddlers, we both managed more than four hours of solid sleep. I woke with just over three hours to go on the nearly nine hour flight. I usually pick one album to listen to on repeat while I sleep, and my album of choice this time was Jungle’s For Ever. It drowned out all other distractions while I slept. The fact that we boarded the flight at 12:30am Melbourne time probably helped too, as the whole plane seemed to be sleeping, even the little ones.

We had booked this trip with only weeks to go, which is very unlike us. I usually have months to research and plan our travels, but with the Christmas and New Year shut down periods, we barely had time to even pack properly! Okay, I may be giving into a bit of hyperbole here… but given I really love the research and planning process, I really missed it this time. On the bright side, we got to ask friends and family for recommendations. There’s a foaming sea of information out there on the mainstream tourist attractions of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and because we’ve already experienced most of the usual highlights, we wanted to seek the slightly offbeat things that are usually harder to find.

Laos has far less tourist information floating about the internet than Thailand, but luckily it’s a favourite destination of Australians, so we were going over-armed with enough recommendations to fill twice the length of our short trip!

We have been very excited about returning to Thailand, and I’m very much looking forward to Thai food and Thai massages! However, we also have that addictive beast of ‘first-time excitement’ accompanying us. We are beyond thrilled to be finally heading to Laos for the first time, and to experience this quiet country that has sat just beyond our line of sight for far too long.

I have to admit I was shocked that there was so much I didn’t know about Laos. I vaguely knew it was a former French colony that became a communist country; I knew that Buddhism is the predominant religion; and I also knew it is a landlocked country with the dubious honour of being the most bombed country at some point (during the Vietnam / American war)… but I knew nothing about the people, food or culture.

I read up on Lao food, and while most of it sounded similar to Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian food that I already love, there are pertinent differences. For example, the Khao Soi (a favourite yellow noodle curry soup from Chiang Mai) is made in Laos without the creamy coconut milk. My initial impression is that Laotian food is vibrant, fresh and packed with chilies, lime and herbs (like mint and coriander) that I love!

I’m now seriously looking forward to eating the breakfast dish of Khao Piak Sen (rice noodle soup), Tam Mak Hoong (green papaya salad), Laap (minced meat salad with toasted rice powder also called laab, larb or larp), Khao Jee Pa-Tay (filled baguettes, the equivalent of Vietnamese Bahn Mee), spicy Jaews (all manner of smoky chilli dipping sauces) and sticky rice. I’m drooling just writing this!

However, I’ll certainly be keeping away from the raw meat and fresh blood dishes! Yes, fresh pig, goat or duck blood is apparently a delicious addition to a common and very popular dish of fried meat and herbs called Paeng Pet. And then there’s the addition of cow bile to some dishes too… I’m quite adventurous when faced with new and different food choices, but errr, thanks but no thanks. 😖

I have already had a big sleep on this nine hour flight, and as we near our destination (with just over an hour to go)… I think I can squeeze in one more snooze! We have been travelling through the night and will be landing at 5:40am, and I want to give myself the best chance of adjusting to the local time. 😊

See you in Bangkok!

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2nd February 2020

And, off you go!
I know you'll have a great trip to Thailand and Laos and I'm looking forward to hearing/reading about your adventures there. I'd like to visit southeast Asia too, but from what you mention about Laotian food "blood dishes," I know it would definitely be a problem for me just to look at it much less eat it. However, I would have no problem living on rice alone if need be, LOL!! Great photos of the adorables: Jasper, Oliver and Mia.
3rd February 2020

Re: And, off you go!
Thanks Sylvia. We miss our little furry ones so much when we travel... wish we could take them with us! Please don't be put off by my comments about blood in some dishes - all Southeast Asian countries offer a wide range of very delicious salads, stir-fries, curries and grilled food. I absolutely love the food in that region :)
3rd February 2020

Looking forward to it
Looking forward to reading about a new country
3rd February 2020

Re: Looking forward to it
Thank you Chris. We hope to post a blog every week :)
3rd February 2020

I love Thailand
I have been thinking about returning to Thailand, and this may be the incentive I needed. Happy Travels.
3rd February 2020

Re: I love Thailand
Thanks Melanie. Thailand is an easy country to love :)
4th February 2020

It would have been a bummer if you had gone to China on this trip instead if Southeast Asia. But you should be OK where you are now. /Ake
5th February 2020

Re:
Yes, it certainly wouldn't have been a great choice. There were still quite a few concerns as there are many flights from China into northern Thailand and Laos (as into Australia) in the Chinese New Year holiday period, and just afterwards when school and work re-commences. But all we can do is avoid certain areas and wash our hands obsessively :)
6th February 2020

The excitement of visiting a new country
Looking forward to your blogs! I'm quite interested to hear about Laos. I hope it wasn't as hot as Norman Lewis said it was!
7th February 2020

Re: The excitement of visiting a new country
Thanks Lori. We are seriously excited about Laos. New country excitement is pretty to beat! :)
10th February 2020
jasper and oliver

Loyal family members
Even though they will miss you they know the rhythm of your travels and know you will be back happy and refreshed, renewed and happy to see them.
10th February 2020
jasper and oliver

Loyal family members
Even though they will miss you they know the rhythm of your travels and know you will be back happy and refreshed, renewed and happy to see them.

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