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Leaving, Arriving

Parting is such sweet sorrow, but it’s also quite a hassle. Packing for a three-week vacation is troublesome. Should I bring my swimming pants that are three sizes too small? How about my sunglasses? I’ve never worn them before, but maybe it’ll be really, really bright this time and my retinas might get burned out. There’s this outside chance that I might get asked to do a bit of juggling, so I’d better bring those yellow tennis balls that I “found” at the court. Right? So many non life-threatening decisions to make.

Moving permanently is a different beast altogether. In a way, it’s easier. After you’ve packed everything, you just look around your abysmally small apartment to see if anything you’ve accumulated over the past five years, including dust, food droppings, sticky notes with meaningless phone numbers written on them and your passport are still lying in hidden corners of your room. If they are, pick them up and either toss them in the garbage or keep them. There should be nothing remaining. Everything important should be in your 1995 vintage Kelty backpack or your hand-me-down suitcase, given to you by Rob, a Scottish colleague who returned home six months ago.

But, before packing, I have to decide “Do I keep it or haul it out to the trash bin?” That old, moldy coffee maker has to go of course, as do all the condiments in the ‘fridge, including the five year old jar of what used to be pickles. Incense? Gone. All that old scratch paper? Gone. Garish polyester shirts that I bought in the Dominican Republic? Hmmm, they sure pack nice (wrinkle-free) and they kind of make a statement and I sure like the day-glo colors. Keep ’em.

It was problematic, but I finally packed everything that I thought I needed to have for a permanent change of location and life. I finished all the obligations to the university, like paying my final utility bill and cleaning my apartment, and I left. For good. Never to return to South Korea, I waved it a more or less fond farewell. I hopped on the overnight bus from Yeosu to Incheon Airport with no regrets, no tears of farewell and no looking back.

The bus departs Yeosu at 11:10 pm and arrives at the airport at 4 am. Usually, I can intermittently doze off, but I never arrive at Incheon refreshed. As a matter of fact, I always need a transfusion of caffeine. You really have to experience the vast emptiness of Incheon Airport at 4 in the morning. It’s like the Sahara of Korea. Dry. Unoccupied. Trackless. Except for KFC and McDonalds restaurants. They’re open at that ungodly hour. I don’t care for fried chicken for breakfast, so I always order a McDonalds Big Breakfast. I hate McDonalds. Really, I can’t stand it. I live for Burger King, but the BK at Incheon doesn’t open until 8:00 a.m. So, the Mac breakfast has to tide me over. Especially the Huge Cup of coffee. I embrace it.

So it was, then, that I checked in at China Eastern Airline, and left Korea for Bangkok, with a brief stop at Shanghai. Four thirty in the morning is dark, of course, but the sun eventually rose on a smoggy, hazy, foggy, misty morning. What was it? Smog, haze, fog, mist. Seoul, and nearby Incheon, had been experiencing a lot of smog and dust blown over, I suspect, from China. The morning was not illuminating. Here’s a shot of the airport.

Incheon Airport smog

It’s a hazy, misty, smoggy morning at Incheon International Airport.

The plane ride to Shanghai, the only stop, was uneventful, but the view from Pudong airport wasn’t any different from Incheon. Indeed, smog seems to be taking over all of east Asia. The atmosphere seemed to be a mix of fog, mist and smog, but the rising Sun couldn’t dissipate the smog.

Smoggy Pudong Airport in Shanghai

It’s quite smoggy at Pudong Airport in Shanghai around 10 a.m. local time.

I had about a two hour layover at Pudong Airport, so, as I always do in an airport that I’ve never been to before, I walked around the concourse. It’s a stunning-looking area, but the main concourse goes on forever. I would guess the straight-line walk from end to end is at least a kilometer long and maybe closer to two. Lining almost the entire length are duty free shops, where you can buy Chinese-themed items. Stuffed panda bears? Check. Chinese tassels? Check. Chinese tea? Check. Restaurants? Not many. I didn’t go into any of the restaurants or coffee shops, mainly because I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t have any Chinese yuan on me. The businesses will exchange dollars, but the exchange rate is cruel.

Pudong Airport Concourse

The main, very long concourse at Pudong Airport in Shanghai. Walking up and down this duty-free lined passage will give you plenty of exercise.

Stuffed panda bears

Cute cuddly pandas on sale in the Panda Store at Pudong Airport in Shanghai.

Stuffed panda bears

More pandas at the panda “hangout” in Pudong Airport, Shanghai.

Chinese tassels

Chinese tassels, thousands of them, can be found at the duty free shops at Pudong.

Chinese tea

Chinese tea for sale at the duty free shops. All kinds, all tastes.

From Shanghai, it was a four-and-a-half hour flight to Bangkok. China Eastern definitely isn’t the greatest airline in the world. No in-flight movie that I could hear or understand even if I could hear it, and no great food, but the service wasn’t bad, and I had a window seat, which I always enjoy in the daytime. And the flight was on time–extra points for that.

When I stepped out of the climate-controlled, stale, dry air of the plane cabin, I knew that I was in Bangkok when the heat and humidity enclosed me in a suffocating cocoon, but I loved it after the winter temperatures of South Korea. Welcome to Thailand! More on Bangkok later.

Laos-Thailand Trip Report: Beijing Airport

Beijing’s Capital City Airport (BCIA) is a bit of a contrast to Incheon Airport, although it is a huge, bright gleaming facility. On my departure to and return from Thailand, I had the opportunity to browse around Terminal 3, which could be described as cavernous. T3 is kind of in the shape of a 3-bladed propeller, and each “blade” of the propeller, where the boarding gates are located, is very long, perhaps as much as half a kilometer long.

It was my misfortune to spend 6 hours and 8 hours there going and coming back. There are very few restaurant options and only one western outlet, Pizza Hut. The prices are insane, $10 for a medium-sized hamburger and a medium to smallish order of fries, somewhat underachieving in taste, at the western styled Lucky Shamrock restaurant, named Rucky Shamrock on the BCIA website. The website also states that there are a McDonald’s, a Burger King, a KFC and a Roger’s in T3–not so. False info. The Lucky Shamrock, luckily, took US dollars. There’s also a Starbucks in the terminal, and after spending from midnight until 6 a.m. (Starbuck’s opening time) in the terminal, I was really ready for an invigorating, hot cup of coffee or two. Alas, Starbucks does not take dollars, only Chinese currency, of which I had none. There was a currency exchange machine and a booth, (not open at 6 a.m., though I checked it out during the day on my way to Thailand), but the commission that was wanted on any exchange in either place was ridiculous. I don’t remember what it was exactly; I just remember shaking my head in shock and walking away.

On the way down to Thailand, the temperature in the terminal was moderately warm, but the long overnight stay (midnight to 8:30 a.m.) on the way back became an impossible attempt to take a snooze. I found some very nice lounge-type chairs that I could lie down on and probably easily sleep on. However, the temperature was incredibly chilly! I had a long-sleeved sweater, but it was no match for the draft coming from the vent system. Just really unbelievable–I was shivering, so no sleep. There was an hourly hotel right in the terminal, but, again, the prices were incredibly steep.

Skytrax gives BCIA a Four-Star rating, but I’d say, in my opinion, that for stays of over a couple of hours, it’s only about two stars, especially if you have to stay overnight and you’re not rich. If you end up with a long layover at the airport, bring your own snacks, if possible, and definitely bring a heavy jacket if you’re trapped there overnight.

Laos-Thailand Trip Report: Incheon Airport

The weather here in Yeosu has been great lately, with abundant sunshine and temperatures around 6 or 8 C (mid-forties fahrenheit); however, the big factor is that the wind hasn’t been howling, like it usually does this time of year. I even managed to get a few jogging sessions in this past weekend. If it would stay this way the rest of the winter, I’d be quite content. It ain’t gonna happen, I’m sure.

No winter in Thailand and Laos, though. This is the best time of year to visit that area of the world, with temperatures in the 80s (30 C), low humidity and clear skies. It was wonderful when I went there in December and early this month, and it was tough coming back to what I expected to be cold, windy Yeosu. (Like I wrote, though, it’s not that bad right now).

I flew out of Incheon about 1 p.m. on December 19th, after taking the 11 p.m. bus from Yeosu on the 18th and then hanging out at the airport from 4:30 a.m. until the flight departed. Incheon Airport, Korea’s award-winning facility, isn’t all that bad to kill time in–lots of restaurants, internet access and other niceties in this state-of-the-art site.

At the main foyer on the first floor, there is usually some kind of Korean cultural theme or event. Featured this season was a traditional Korean winter scene. At 4:30 in the morning, there are hardly any other people around, and I usually head into McDonald’s for a large coffee. The fast-food joint is situated on one side of the foyer, so this was a very tranquil area at that time of day, especially with the winter scene just outside the boundary of the restaurant. So, here are a few photos of the setup.

Very nice, and, like most other things at the airport, a first-class effort.

I’ll get some more photos of the trip posted when I can, but don’t expect something every day–I have one more week of long work days to go before the schedule settles down. Stay tuned.

In Hanoi

I arrived in Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport with nothing extremely noteworthy happening on the flight here. Viet Nam Airlines still leaves a lot to be desired–just so-so food and absolutely no in-flight entertainment. (They said that the system had a mechanical/electrical failure of some sort.) Mostly the cabin attendants were polite and attentive, but one guy was having a bad day. A couple of older Korean guys sat in the seats in front of me, and they seemed a bit goofy to begin with. The attendants handed out Viet Nam immigration forms to fill out at the beginning of the flight and, a bit later, one of the Korean guys tried to hand his passport and form to the aforementioned attendant, for what purpose–who knows? The attendant waved him off and went about his duties. About ten minutes later, the fellow again tried to give his papers to the attendant, who got a bit perturbed and told him (if hes gestures and tone of voice were any indication) that “I don’t do this–You
do it! Don’t ask again.” The Korean guy didn’t.

Then, one of the female attendants handed out lunch menus and about 30 minutes later our previous male attendants came along with the meals. Only then did the two Korean gents open their menus and proceed to discuss the choices with each other. I imagine the conversation was something like:

“How about the fish?”
“I don’t know. You hungry for fish? The beef might be ok?”
“Maybe. What does the beef come with. Let’s see . . . hmmmm.”

The attendant was really getting impatient by this time.

“C’mon fellas. Order already. Why didn’t you look at the menu before? I only got about 150 other passenger to serve. And look, the bald-headed guy behind you is laughing at ya.”

It was humorous, I thought, but I wasn’t laughing out loud. Really.

The Koreans finally ordered their meals and even managed to choose what they wanted to drink after only a little hemming and hawing. The attendant was surly the rest of the flight.

The Sky Cafe in Noi Bai looked the same as last Christmas. See the post below. (I wonder if they keep the decorations up all year round.) However, the rest of the transit area has changed.

I posted previously about the construction at Noi Bai. It’s finished and they opened up some of the usual duty-free shops–Tobacco/Liquor, Confections, Watches–and the rest of the ample concourse went to souvenir shops. But, every . . . single . . one . . . of them is selling the exact same stuff at the exact same over-pricing. What a waste. Another restaurant or two would have been nice; perhaps an Internet Cafe, bar or whatever would have upped the interest factor, but as it is, nobody used any imagination. Ah, well–on to Vientiane.

Laos Pride

I just called my friend Nai in Laos. The entire family was gathered around the TV, watching the opening ceremonies of the Southeast Asia games and they (and probably most of Laos) were very excited about the event. As far as I know, Laos has never hosted anything like this before, so the country has been quite proud that they’ve been selected as the host country. I hope to take in a few of the events when I head back there on Saturday. The Games run through the 17th or 18th, so I should have a good opportunity to do so. I’m sure Nai will be happy to watch some of the sports, especially his favorite, volleyball; he wouldn’t normally be able to afford a ticket, so I’ll buy. What the heck, I’ll buy tickets for the whole family! It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime event for them, and I wouldn’t want them to miss out on the chance to attend if they want to and if I can get tickets.

Actually, some of the events are free–cycling, golf, billiards, and track and field are some of the freebies. The soccer games, badminton, swimming, boxing, volleyball and others aren’t, but they’re not all that expensive, at least not for the “rich” westerner. 😉 Between 4-6 bucks. It should be a good time. Here’s a photo from 2005 showing Nai, a.k.a., Volleyball Slayer, trying to spike the ball. Notice the smiles and laughter from the spectators. (Click on the photo a couple of times for larger views.)

Volleyball

Pretty much all of my classes have finished the semester and I’ve got most of my administrative duties completed, so the next couple of days I’ll be packing and preparing to go. I’ll be leaving here on Friday night on the 11:10 p.m. (and only) bus to Incheon Airport near Seoul. I’ll get there about 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning and then wait around for my 10:30 a.m. flight to Hanoi. That flight arrives at the Noi Bai Airport around 1:30 p.m. and then I have another 3 1/2 hour wait until the 5 o’clock flight to Vientiane. Long night and day, but for the most part I love traveling and hanging around airports.

Incheon is one of the best airports in the world, but Noi Bai leaves a bit to be desired. However, the last time I was there, a lot of construction was going on in the transit area–it looked like a lot of new shops or restaurants were going to be opening, so I’m certainly curious about what developments have taken place. You all will be the first ones to know, since I’ll probably write a post from one of the restaurants there that has internet service. More later.

Noi Bai Restaurant from last December

Hanoi-Restaurant-w

Out of Korea

Written June 13th.

I saw on CNN a few days before I made my flight to Bangkok that Incheon Airport, outside of Seoul, was rated the overall best airport in the world, beating out perennial front runner Singapore. It’s certainly a huge, spacious, orderly and clean facility, and the personnel are mostly friendly. However, I didn’t do much to improve one security guard’s demeanor.

Earlier, I prepared to go through the security checkpoint. I took my paper money out of my bag and put it into my pants pocket (for whatever reason), and put my loose change and other metal items into my bag. Then I walked into the security area and put my bag onto the x-ray conveyor. The security guard told me to take the coins out of my pocket. I said that I didn’t have any coins. Again he repeated his order. Again I told him I didn’t have any. He was starting to get irritated. ‘Check your pocket and take out the coins,’ he ordered. Just to humor him (and not get into trouble) I reached into my pocket and, much to my great embarrassment, I found a handful of loose change. Wow, did I get red in the face and start apologizing profusely!

Apparently, I had forgotten to check my left pants pocket earlier and the security guy had seen the outline of the coins therein. Even with my apologies he was not happy with me, but he let me through without further incident. Geez, talk about getting old and senile. 😛

My excuse has to be that I had been awake for more than 24 hours. The 11 p.m. bus from Yeosu to the airport takes about 5 1/2 hours, and I find it impossible to sleep on a bus or plane or at an airport waiting for the check-in counter to open. Moral: Double check your pockets.

Friday night was a great time to leave Yeosu, though. All day it was as hazy as could be. You could barely make out the not-so-distant hills and downtown buildings. It wasn’t the dreaded Yellow Dust, but more likely a combination of pollution and fog with an inversion layer thrown in for good measure. Anyway, Incheon was very clear, and as I sit in Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok writing this, it is mostly sunny.

I’ve got a 6 hour layover, but I don’t know what I’m going to do to pass the time waiting for the flight to Vientiane. Just walk around the terminal, I guess, and wait for something to happen. Maybe I can find a security guard to pick on. 😀

More later.

In Transit

It’s now 2 p.m., Vietnam time, and I’m sitting in a restaurant/internet cafe, one of two in the transit area of the Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi. Incongruously, for this Communist country, it would seem, Christmas decorations abound in the restaurant–tinsel, fake candy canes, a plastic tree with blinking lights, and Santas and other decorations attached to the walls. It’s a fairly festive atmosphere, especially with Christmas songs playing in the background–Jingle Bells, Here Comes Santa Claus, Rudolph the RNR and others, but nothing overtly religious. I wonder how much Christmas atmosphere there is in Hanoi itself. In this restaurant in the transit lounge, it’s probably not that surprising since a number of Westerners must wait here for their flights departing out of the country. There were quite a few of us about half an hour ago, but now I’m alone in the place, which is kind of a cross between art-deco and neo-communist chic. As if I would know. (I took a photo and I’ll post it in this entry when I return to Korea.)

Hanoi-Restaurant-w

The flight here was uneventful, though I wouldn’t give Vietnam Airlines the same lofty status I give to Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airlines or Thai Orchid, for example. (No, I’m not name-dropping.) The food was mediocre, the cabin staff kind of stand-offish, and there was no video-on-demand (individual video choice) despite the presence of individual screens in the seatback in front of me. The screens didn’t work and neither did the sound over the headphones, so we were stuck watching “Get Smart” on the overheads without sound. I give them 2 stars out of 5. Maybe I’m getting jaded.

The only interesting things so far have been the restaurant and the immense emptiness of Incheon International Airport at 4:30 in the morning, the time I arrived there. What few people were there at that time were swallowed up by the cavernous departure hall. It seemed like I had the whole place to myself. Next stop, Vientiane. More later.

Fire and Ice

I managed to get through another birthday last week, and my mother sent me an e-card which featured animated fireworks. Coincidentally, Yeosu held a Fireworks Festival the evening before, featuring a contest between teams from 4 countries–Korea, China, the Netherlands and France. (I don’t know who won.) Unfortunately, I had a night class to teach. Afterwards, however, I was able to see some of the higher bursts arcing above the mountain across from my apartment. Here’s one of them.

Fireworks1

Nai has been voicing his annual complaint about how chilly it is at night in Laos (mid-fifties fahrenheit). His family doesn’t have running hot water and he says that when he takes a bucket shower “water is same-same eye.” (Most Lao people have difficulty pronouncing the “s” sound at the end of English words, so here he is saying the water is like ice.) Well, it’s about to get even colder. The weather forecast is predicting temperatures in the mid-forties next week, which is VERY cold for Laos. Luckily, it is also forecast that the low temperatures won’t last for very long. Good thing, because I’m heading there on the 14th.

I got quite paranoid about the recent problems in Thailand, with protesters closing Suvarnabhumi Airport. I was afraid it might still be shut down or closed for safety checks after the protesters abandoned their siege. So, I had my travel agent in Seoul change my itinerary. Instead of flying from Seoul to Hong Kong to Bangkok on Cathay Pacific Airlines, I’m now flying from Seoul to Hanoi, Vietnam on Vietnam Airlines and from there to Vientiane on a rickety old Laos Airline plane. Naturally, the airport authority in Thailand is now saying that the airport will reopen for normal business in just a few days. Bad timing on my part. Wish me luck.

My Transportation to Vientiane

Airplane1

In Thailand and Laos

It’s been an uneventful trip so far. The flight over to Thailand was long, but there were plenty of entertainment options (movies, games, music) on board the China Air plane, though the food wasn’t up to the standards of my usual carrier, Thai Airlines. I learned that the Taipei airport was shut down several hours after my flight left there, due to a Category 2 typhoon that hit the island.

I spent a pleasant Monday evening in Bangkok with my former Moroccan supervisor, John Scacco, and his wife, who invited me to their condo apartment for a delicious home-cooked meal. Then, on Tuesday evening I took the overnight train to Nong Khai, where I met up with Nai.

There has been plenty of rain here in Nong Khai, but not enough to prevent me from going to my favorite massage parlor, Healthy Garden. If you’re ever in Nong Khai, I highly recommend that you visit the place. Another nice business is the hotel that I stay at when I’m in Nong Khai– The Pantawee. Good rooms for $30 a night, free internet, nice cafe, close to the Mekong. Give it a try.

Ok, so today we’re heading into Laos and I don’t really know when I’ll be able to post again. Perhaps in a week or so, hopefully. More later.

P.S. I’ve turned on comments again, in case OGM wants to say something about the Manny Ramirez trade (snicker).

Back in the USA

Yes, I’m back in very hot Montana. The temperatures here in Great Falls and elsewhere in Big Sky Country have been over or near 100 degrees for a week now and the long range forecast isn’t calling for much relief. Global warming? Is there any doubt?

Still, it’s pretty nice. I was worried about the effect of the higher altitude on my jogging efforts, but actually, I’ve been able to jog longer with less effort, knocking off 52 minutes at a stretch with ease. I think it has a lot to do with the much lower humidity. Maybe I weigh less farther from the earth’s core. :)

I’ll get my medical results back this Wednesday, and then I’m hitching a ride to Missoula with my mother. The plane for the Land of Smiles leaves there on the morning of the 23rd. I’ll get into Bangkok early in the morning of the 25th, a time that suits me better than my usual 11 p.m. arrival time. Unfortunately, in order to catch that particular flight on Thai Airways, I have a 7-hour layover at Los Angeles International (LAX). Doubly unfortunate is that in order to arrive back in Missoula in September at a decent hour, I’ll have a 9-hour layover there on the way back. To top it off, almost all of the reviews I’ve read about LAX give it very low scores as an airport to be spending any time in. (Some representative reviews can be found here, and here). In other words, most posters at some of the relevant websites write that it should be avoided at all costs! Yuck. Well, I think I’ll manage. More later.