AirAsia

AirAsia is the pioneer of regional low-cost airlines in Asia. The Malaysian-based company started taking off as a popular air carrier in the region around 2001, and now it is the largest low-cost airlines in Asia. In addition to their main hub in Kuala Lumpur, AirAsia also has a couple of subsidiaries, Thai AirAsia based out of Bangkok, Thailand, and Indonesia AirAsia based out of Jakarta, Indonesia. They currently provide routes that cover 400 destinations in 25 countries.

My first exposure to AirAsia was during my Southeast Asia trip last year. We were planning on visiting several countries and traveling independently, so low-cost airlines came up as considerations for the travel. Most of the travel segments were pretty short distance (less than four hours), so we didn’t care as much about special in-flight service or extra-comfort (which would be more of a factor if we were traveling long distance). The primary factors considered were safety record, timeliness, and cost. Anyone traveling in Southeast Asia region with these factors considered would include AirAsia as an option. We looked at AirAsia routes for the travel itinerary that we’re planning, and found that it would work for two of the segments (Bangkok – Phnom Penh, and Singapore – Jakarta), but not for the other segments. Primarily because of the scheduling and routing — you get the low cost by traveling AirAsia but you’re paying in terms of longer travel times or inconvenient departure times (some of the routes would require us to transit in Kuala Lumpur in the middle, so a direct flight that would take only 3 hours may end up to be a more than 8 hour-trip). It’s pretty similar to what you find in the US with low-cost airlines like Southwest Airlines. Great service and great price, but at times may be inconvenient travel itinerary.

One interesting planning fact I learned from my cousin Kristi who had used AirAsia to visit several destinations in the region is that you can get ridiculously low fare if you can and are willing to book the flight way in advance (up to one year in advance). They would have limited seats that were deep discounted (more than 75% off), but with condition that you have to do advance purchase, and it’s not refundable/exchangeable. In some cases, the price was low enough that some people would go ahead and purchase the tickets even if it might mean they couldn’t use it and would have to waste it.

Another interesting tip to know is that the price is low because there are many things that are offered as ala-carte options to purchase (like extra luggage weight and in-flight food service). Today many US carriers impose extra luggage fee and charging for in-flight food service, and that received negative feedback from the customers. I guess that’s because people are used to having those services as part of what they’re expecting from air travel that taking those away (or charging extra for those) naturally would cause negative reactions. With AirAsia and other low-cost carriers, the low expectation is set upfront as a consequence of getting the airfare at lower price, so then their customers can opt to pay more to get the extra convenience (e.g., for us we paid a little extra for luggage weight allowance so we didn’t have to worry about getting too close to the standard limit and getting penalized for overweight).

The actual travels on AirAsia were actually quite uneventful. It was interesting to observe that when we checked in, instead of given the boarding pass in the typical ticket-size print outs, ours looked more like a grocery/store receipts. I guess either way it has barcode so it doesn’t really matter — and they don’t have to get specialized printers to print those.

Both our Bangkok – Phnom Penh and Singapore – Jakarta trips left and arrived on-time. The flights were quite normal and somewhat like a typical flight experience for frequent flyers — courteous flight attendants who at a couple of occasions walked the aisle to offer in-flight food service for purchase (we were not allowed to bring our own food items to the flight). There were no in-flight entertainments, though for the short flights, this didn’t really matter.

The photo below was taken at Changi Airport in Singapore before we left for the last leg of our trip. I noticed the AirAsia tagline on the plane’s livery, ‘Now Everyone Can Fly.’ For us, we were fortunate enough that the cost of the air travel really didn’t factor in as much into the planning of our trip. But I could see how this tagline would ring true for many people who previously wouldn’t be able to afford traveling internationally when the choices available were limited to the major international airlines.

Air Asia

Suvarnabhumi Airport

The Suvarnabhumi Airport is the main international airport in Bangkok, Thailand. The airport is pretty new; it was opened in 2006 as a replacement of the Don Mueang Airport. The airport today is one of the busiest airports in Asia, particularly as a gateway for tourism to Thailand and the nearby countries.

When we arrived at the Suvarnabhumi Airport, my first impression was very good. The international terminal was modern, clean, and comparable to some of the better airports I had visited. Though there were many Indonesians on the Thai Airways flight I took from Jakarta to Bangkok, once we got to the terminal, it felt like we were in a western country’s airport as there seemed to be a lot more westerners/Europeans than Asians. When we got to the immigration line, it was interesting to observe there were so many Eastern Europeans there — it seemed that Thailand has become a popular destination for tourists from Eastern Europe.

The airport is located quite a ways east of the downtown Bangkok area. If you know where you’re going and your destination is within walking distance from a Bangkok Skytrain/metro station, there is a train system conveniently linking the airport to the metro system. That’s probably the cheapest and actually the most predictable way to travel time wise. Alternatively you can hire a taxi like we did. You can find the taxi line easily, but if possible you want to have the address of your destination written down, preferably in Thai. Our taxi dispatcher was a bit confused looking at our hotel direction, but was able to determine roughly where we were going. Our taxi driver attempted to talk to us in broken English, and Kristi tried to start a conversation in the car, but the two of them ended up confusing each other, so they ended up stopping the conversation and just used hand gestures to communicate. Our hotel was located in the southwest side of Bangkok, so it was quite a long distance to get there. It was Sunday night, however, so the traffic was not bad at all.

On the day when we’re supposed to leave from Bangkok to continue our trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, our hotel manager generously offered to have the hotel’s car taking us to the airport instead of our original plan of taking the SkyTrain. It was around noon, so we got caught in downtown traffic for a bit. Fortunately we made it to the airport with plenty time to spare.

After checking in the luggage, we actually had some time to kill. We decided to go to a lower level of the airport building to look for food since we had not had lunch. There was one floor that was full of restaurants serving quite a diverse set of cuisines. Walking through there felt more like being in a shopping mall than being at an airport. We found one restaurant that seemed to have authentic Thai food, so we decided to go with that as our last meal in Bangkok.

The photo below was the dish that I ordered for lunch, pad thai with Mekong River prawns. I wanted to try pad thai during the visit, but our schedule was so packed the day before, so there was not a time to look for authentic or street-side pad thai. The one we had at the airport was surely more expensive than what you could get on the street, but I must say they did good job with the dish, and it had quite a nice presentation with a thin layer of egg used as a pouch (rather than typical shredded eggs on the dish). And the Mekong River prawns were quite good, fresh and sweet.

Pad thai

Jim Thompson House

After our whole day full of activities in Bangkok, on the following day we had the morning time to do one last activity before we have to head to the airport to continue our journey. We decided to visit the Jim Thompson’s House Museum, which was easily reachable from our hotel by SkyTrain.

Jim Thompson was an American ex-pat who came to Thailand when he worked for the CIA. He ended up staying in Thailand and building a business empire selling Thai silk products. In the early 1960s, when he was in Malaysia for vacation, he disappeared and was never found. Today his house in Bangkok is a museum as a tribute to his life and his art collection.

The visit to the Jim Thompson House included a tour of the interior of his house. We were not allowed to take photos inside, but it was interesting to learn about some traditional features of Thai homes that were incorporated into the house. Things like having the home elevated to deal with possibility of flooding, and having a board to cover the bottom part of an entrance — believed to help prevent bad spirits to enter the home because there is a belief that the spirits travel on the floor surface. The home was a nice, cool oasis from the hot and humid day in Bangkok. It was not air-conditioned but it had very nice air flow throughout the house. It reminded me to some old homes in Indonesia.

Another interesting aspect that was similar to tradition in Indonesia was the rule to take off our footwear before entering the home. The Thai believes in keeping the house clean, so we were supposed to leave the dirty/dusty footwear outside and enter the house barefooted. It was interesting that within our tour group there were a couple of westerners who apparently didn’t feel comfortable with that rule, and they decided to just forego the tour and left.

The photo below was taken at from the gravel entry way outside the home. This is where visitors wait for their house tour to start.

Jim Thompson House

Sanam Luang

Sanam Luang or the Royal Field is a large area not far from the Grand Palace in downtown Bangkok, Thailand. This large field has a long history. Starting during the reign of King Rama I in the 1780s, the field was the site of important royal events and ceremonies, specifically royal cremations. Starting the early 20th century, the area was opened as a public park. Throughout the years, it was used as the site for festivals, public recreational activities, and even more recently the site for demonstration against the ruling government. At night, the area served as temporary shelter for homeless people, and there were also big flea market operating in the area.

During our night bike tour with the Grasshopper Adventures, we passed Sanam Luang area on our way back towards the Grasshopper Adventures office from our last stop at Wat Pho. It was interesting riding on the bike and seeing on the grass fields many people lying on mats. It was kind of peculiar — seemed like you had people relaxing at the park, but at night. Later on I found out that these folks were likely homeless; they work during the day elsewhere in the city, but they didn’t have a place to stay at night, so they stayed at Sanam Luang because it was lighted and there were other people, so it’s somewhat a ‘safe’ place to be. And then not far after passing that area, we found ourselves riding on sidewalk that kept narrowing because there were flea market vendors setting up their display on both sides of the sidewalk, and with many people walking around checking out the display, we had to be very careful riding our bike through there (at one point one of our bikers fell onto a vendor’s display mat; I wasn’t sure if there was any damage on the goods that the vendor was selling, but fortunately it didn’t cause any big problem). Now looking back I thought it’s interesting to compare that to the National Mall area in downtown Washington, DC. They’re kind of alike, though I don’t think we see as many homeless people in the National Mall area (you could see some of them at other public parks in DC), and there is no flea market there. As I googled around before writing this blog post, I saw a couple of articles about Sanam Luang saying that in early 2011 the area was closed and cleaned up, and now it’s illegal to stay overnight, stage demonstration, or sell stuff in the area. So it’s back to its previous beautiful state, but I guess it’s not as culturally interesting as it was in the last few decades.

I took the photo below from my bike as we rode through the flea market. There was a little ‘traffic jam’ and we were stuck for few minutes at this location, allowing me to take a quick snapshot capturing the atmosphere there that night.

Sanam Luang Flea Market

Wat Pho at Night

Sometimes you can go to the same place during the day and at night and get different perspectives or experience different atmospheres. Such was our visit to Wat Pho during our full day in Bangkok, Thailand. We visited Wat Pho in the morning when it was open for the public, and the temple complex was quite full with visitors and worshippers alike. The complex also hosts a school teaching traditional Thai massage, so you have students and guests for the school on the grounds as well. As mentioned in a previous post, we even met scammers who tried to get us diverted to take tours elsewhere.

That night we came back to Wat Pho as part of our night bike tour with the Grasshopper Adventures. This time around it felt like we’re visiting a different place. At night the temple was closed to public, the building where the large statue of the Reclining Buddha was also closed, and the only people around were night guards. The Grasshopper Adventures obtained special permission for our group to stop at the temple grounds and walk around inside for about half an hour or so with our guide. The buildings were illuminated, but otherwise everything was quite dark. We had to resort to our little LED headlights and followed Tami who also brought a flashlight with her. It was pretty cool to go around the grounds with the whole place for ourselves, and in some areas, with complete darkness and only Tami’s flashlight and our headlights lighting the path or portions of the wall, it felt like we were inside some ancient temple during an archaeological expedition. Totally different feeling compared to our visit earlier during the day, when most of the time we had to contend with the crowd in looking at some of the more popular features of the temple, and during the hot sunny day looked for shaded area to cool down.

The photo below was taken while we were checking out the large stupas inside the Wat Pho grounds. You can see our group at the bottom of the ornate stupa that was illuminated at night.

Wat Pho at Night