7 Countries, 7 Nights : An Asian Adventure

Last month I had to make a trip to Singapore to take care of some work there. Yes, people actually go to Singapore for reasons other than mileage runs. I was able to get a favorable routing on Cathay Pacific that allowed me to stopover in Hong Kong one way and to take advantage of an overnight connection in Bangkok on the return. I planned a whirlwind itinerary around my stopovers that gave me a final result of seven consecutive nights in seven different countries.

My ride to the airport dropped me off nice and early around 845pm for the 1145pm flight. I was supposed to meet up with a friend who works for Cathay Pacific at Toronto around 9pm, so I headed straight to the desks to check in. The lines were very short this far in advance of the flight, so I used the Economy Class desk rather than the Business Class/oneworld Sapphire one. The agent working the counter was pleasant enough and checked me in quickly. My carry-on bag was slightly over the 15lb limit (I was going away for 7 days after all), but not sufficiently so that it was a problem. I was handed my boarding pass, invitation to the British Airways Executive Club Lounge and a map that gave directions from the counters to the lounge and from the lounge to the gate. Very thorough and impressive.

As I walked away from the counter, I spotted my friend coming in and established contact with him. We chatted briefly and he told me that the flight was horribly oversold today and they would need 25 denied boardings at C$400 cash each. I was very tempted to take the money since I didn't need to be in Singapore until Thursday, but my nonrefundable hotel reservations would sadly negate most of the gains, so I declined. Meanwhile, he had to rush to meet the incoming flight so I headed off to the lounge and arranged to meet up with him again at the departure gate.

The new British Airways lounge at Toronto is located by gate C24, just across from the glass partition separating general departures and the transborder area. I headed to the newsstand and picked up the new edition of "Airways" before heading over to the lounge, where I presented my invitation and was welcomed. The lounge itself was deserted as the last BA departure was just about to push back, so I had a choice of pretty much any seat - the only other denizen was a guy reading a newspaper in the smoking room. The decor of the lounge itself was very elegant with lots of reds and blues and there were a number of comfy chairs located by the windows which had an excellent view of the tarmac. I ensconced myself in one of those and helped myself to a Bacardi-Coke from the well stocked self-service open bar.

Time passed quickly as I sat by the window nibbling on some cheese and crackers. Due to the late hour, there was minimal surface traffic outside, and that too was dominated by Air Canada and Air Transat, with a pair of JetsGo MD80s festooned with the infamous lime green smiley face thrown in for good measure. The only interesting movement was the SATA Air Azores A310 pushing back after its weekly visit. Other passengers trickled in periodically and the lounge was packed to the gills when I went to freshen up around 1030pm.

Finally, just after 11pm, the lounge attendant informed us that boarding had commenced. We all gathered up our respective luggage and began the long silent march down to C29 where B-HXM awaited us. Looking out onto the darkness of the tarmac, I was almost awed by the A340, but one look at the oversized hairdryers hanging from the wing brought me back to my senses. What a lovely aircraft spoiled by such a pathetic power plant.

My friend was already working one of the boarding lines, so I attached myself to the end of it and slowly inched myself towards the jetway. Along the way, my travel documents were checked twice and my boarding pass stamped to presumably certify their validity and authenticity. I finally made it to the front where my boarding pass was taken and I was wished a pleasant flight.

As expected, the aisles were blocked by various passengers struggling to hoist their carry-ons into the overhead so I had a chance to take a quick look at the new Business Class seats as I waited to head back to Peon Class. The seats looked rather comfortable, but I can see why the concerns about people sliding off in the horizontal position came about. The coach seats were also of a new design from my last CX trip, with the advanced StudioCX system having been installed in the interim. I settled into my aisle seat next to a young lady from Hong Kong at the window. The amenity kits had already been placed into the seat pockets and consisted of the usual CX fare of an eye mask, socks, toothbrush and elastic chain. There was a pillow and blanket on the seat, which I strategically relocated under the seat in front of me and settled down. Seat pitch was a bit tight for my size, but I was able to stretch my feet into the aisle so there was no problem per se. Needless to say, the flight was completely full in every class, with nary a spare seat available.

Doors closed on time at 1145pm and we taxied out to the runway. Captain Kevin Houghton introduced himself and his crew as well as informed us of the 6h30m flight time to Anchorage. This being my first ride on an A340, I was eagerly waiting to see if the underpowered engines were noticeably different during the takeoff roll. I guess the relatively light fuel load played a role in my first impression, but we were airborne quick enough and climbed normally out into the darkness of the Ontario night.

Once we leveled out, the IFE system began screening the news while the crew passed out menus and prepared for the supper service. As the crew came around yet again with hot towels, I leafed through the IFE guide and identified which movies I wanted to watch and set myself a tentative schedule of sleep/wake to enable me to watch them.

The meal service commenced from the rear of the cabin, so I quickly headed to the washroom to freshen up before the meal commenced. I must have been gone 5 minutes at most, but when I returned to my seat I couldn't help notice that an old Chinese lady had occupied it instead. Unfortunately, I speak no Chinese and she allegedly spoke no English, so every attempt on my part to communicate that she was in my seat was met with a stubborn blank stare that only old Chinese women can use effectively. The woman in the window was kind enough to translate for me and after a quick exchange informed me that the old lady claimed that the Flight Attendant had told her to take this seat.

I was not amused and headed back up the aisle to locate a Flight Attendant who was quickly approaching this row with the meal service. To my total surprise, she told me that YES, she had told the lady to take my seat and that I would have to relocate. Evidently, the old lady was a wheelchair passenger who had been seated in a window seat next to another wheelchair passenger, which was not permitted for safety reasons. I picked the wrong moment to go to the lav, so my seat was selected as the sacrificial lamb for the involuntary swap.

My new seat was to be 70A. This is quite positively the worst seat on the aircraft. It is in the absolute last row of the aircraft beside the galley and does not recline fully as a result. Additionally, the tapering of the fuselage at the rear reduces the available seat width by almost an entire inch, and the legroom is correspondingly reduced as well due to the proportional increase in space occupied by the IFE system box.

With no real option, I squeezed myself past another ancient Chinese woman into the window seat and uncomfortably surveyed the mess that the previous occupant had left. Thankfully her amenity kit was still sealed as was the headphone packet, but the floor of the seat had an unfolded Chinese language newspaper untidily folded, and the seat pocket had a plastic bag filled with what appeared to be biscuit crumbs.

To make matters worse, this row had already been given their meal, so I rang my call button to alert the Flight Attendant. She arrived quickly enough and I asked if she could bring my meal. She smiled politely and promised to bring it by once she was done with the service. Fair enough. So I waited. And waited. And then they came around to do the Tea service. So I asked her again to please bring my meal. She smiled politely again and promised to do it once she finished the Tea service. So I waited. And waited. And then they came around to collect the used trays. So I asked her AGAIN to please bring my meal. She smiled politely again and promised to do it once she finished clearing the trays. So I waited. And waited. And then gave up hope.

In the meanwhile, the ancient woman next to me had fallen asleep and was snoring loudly. I tried to rouse her so that I could get out into the aisle and go to the galley myself to scavenge for food, but she snored on. So there I was, high over the Canadian prairie, trapped in a cramped seat, tired and hungry, surrounded by Chinese newspapers and with a jackhammer running in my right ear. I was not a happy camper.

Thankfully, the IFE system soon began its second cycle and I was able to channel surf to locate my movie choice. My pick was "Bend It Like Beckham", the story of an Indian girl in London who aspired to be a soccer player. What a fabulous movie. I spent a few years growing up amongst the Indian community in Hounslow and excitedly spotted a number of my old familiar haunts in the film. Movie done, I napped for an hour or so and then awakened as we commenced our descent into Anchorage around 215am local time.

This was my first trip back to the United States since my rather unsavory incident with the INS in April and I was understandably nervous about the brief transit here. Before touchdown, announcements were made for passengers to prepare to deplane with only passports and to leave carry on luggage on board. I had taken a number of precautions to avoid any trouble with US authorities and had anticipated this, but my hands were literally shaking as we descended through the darkness and touched down smoothly at Ted Stevens International around 230am local time. Anchorage was fairly bustling considering the late (early?) hour, with freighters for UPS, Singapore Airlines, SAT, Kalitta, Korean Air and NCA lined up on the tarmac. We pulled into gate N8 between the NCA cargo 747 and a Korean passenger 747 and the disembarkation commenced.

The legal status of passengers during this stop is a somewhat grey area referred to by the US Government as International-To-International Transit (ITI). Since CX has no traffic rights to/from ANC, technically the passengers aboard the aircraft never actually enter the United States. However, since CX operates OTHER services into the US, they are required to electronically upload passenger data to the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) and the INS must verify the accuracy of that upload to ensure that CX meets its overall APIS accuracy targets. They do this by simply scanning the physical passport information of each ITI passenger into their system and reconciling that against the APIS upload at a later time.

Unfortunately, since my passport is issued by an Embassy, it is not machine readable, meaning that the INS officer has to manually enter my information into the system. I hung around till the end of the process and then presented myself. The bored officer didn't give me a second look as he reluctantly typed in the information and sent me on my way. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and headed immediately to the payphones to leave a message for my lawyer that all was clear. I also called my mother in India to wish her a Happy Birthday and a couple other calls to folks concerned about my ANC transit.

Calls made, I wandered the terminal in search of some food. The cafeteria was bustling and I was intrigued by the concept of a "Reindeer Dog" on the menu. On inquiry, I was informed that it was indeed a reindeer meat sausage, which meant that I absolutely had to try this. It was excellent and unsurprisingly tasted a lot like venison. My hunger pangs temporarily satiated, I wandered over to the gate where the Asiana 747 had just arrived for a similar refueling stop en route from the East Coast. I quickly bored of that and then headed over to look at the Delta 757 parked in darkness a couple gates over. By now, it was quickly approaching our departure time and I returned to N8 to discover that they were waiting on only 3 passengers, including me. I rushed aboard and back to my jail seat, with the doors closing about 5 minutes behind me. The new crew introduced themselves, the safety demo was screened and we headed off to the runway at a brisk clip.

I had been pleasantly surprised by the A340's performance on the first leg, so what followed was totally unexpected. Our flight time for this leg was a relatively lengthy 11:55, meaning that our fuel load and takeoff weight had correspondingly increased as well. As we accelerated along the runway, I felt the first signs of the infamous sluggishness. Then we lifted off. And just seemed to hang there as we climbed slowly and painfully into the sky. Good grief. This thing was having more problems getting up than Bob Dole without Viagra. At that moment I realized just what an underpowered piece of shit the A340 really was.

We finally leveled off after about 30 minutes and the crew came around with a beverage service. I tried to strike up a conversation with my ancient seatmate, but she used the old blank stare routine. I swear, that look had to be of Ming Dynasty vintage. Suitably chastened, I turned my attention back to the IFE system and tuned into "Wind talkers" starring Nicholas Cage. Meanwhile, the jackhammer snore had started up again. Jeez, how can she sleep so much?

That done, my next movie was "About A Boy" starring Hugh Grant after which I decided to grab some significant shuteye. This of course was easier said than done considering the overly cramped quarters and the running soundtrack from my seatmate. I tossed and turned for a while, but eventually managed to get a decent 4 hours. I awakened absolutely ravenous, having consumed only the Reindeer Dog and the lounge snacks in the preceding 24 hours. Thankfully, my seatmate/jailer had gone AWOL and I took the opportunity to escape from my corner and head to the lav to freshen up. On my way back to the seat, I stopped by the galley and asked if they had any kind of mid-flight snack available. To my surprise, I was politely told that they had run out of the instant noodles, BUT they would be serving breakfast in another 90 minutes. Disappointed, but satisfied with the answer, I headed back to my corner right before the jailer returned and tuned into some sitcoms.

A few minutes later, the jailer was restless. Having slept incessantly since Toronto, I guess even she was feeling the strain of this "night without end". She flagged down a passing Flight Attendant and they exchanged some words in rapid fire Chinese. To my horror, the FA returned a few minutes later with a steaming hot cup of noodles for her. I was wild. To calm myself, I switched the PTV over to the airshow. We were almost over Taiwan by now, but I noted that we still had almost 3 hours of flying time left. Our ground speed was an absolutely pathetic 458mph. Argh. That damn A340 again. They should all be broken up and parted out as lawnmowers.

Finally, with about 90 minutes remaining in the flight, the crew commenced the breakfast service. The menu listed our choices as an Omelet or Congee. I consider myself to be a very accommodating and adventurous eater, but I draw the line at congee. That is positively the vilest substance to have come out of China since Marco Polo exported the bubonic plague. Of course, with my wonderful luck, they were serving from the front of the cabin and by the time they reached row 70 the only option left was... you guessed it... CONGEE. I was almost delirious with hunger by now, but I politely declined the entrée and asked for an extra bread roll instead, which I consumed like a wild animal.

As we droned onwards, dawn broke, transforming the blackness of the seemingly endless night into a delightful series of colors, beginning with a deep violet and progressing into a fabulously brilliant shade of orange as the sun first peeked out from over the horizon and then emerged with its full glory to bless a new day. We commenced our descent north of Hong Kong and descended through a low cloud base over the water. The sheer volume of maritime traffic has always fascinated me and I watched spellbound as we approached and finally landed at Chep Lap Kok just around 640am.

As we taxied towards the terminal, the Captain came over the PA system and informed us that we would be docking at Gate 1, which brought a muffled cheer from the FAs on the jumpseat behind me. For those unfamiliar with Chep Lap Kok, Gate 1 is located right beside the immigration counters and saves what could be a 20 minutes walk from some of the gates at the far end. The airport was very quiet at this early hour and we pulled in beside a 744 just arrived from Europe.

My carry-on was still stowed in the bin above my old seat, so I decided to wait until most of the crowd had cleared before attempting to retrieve it. I was one of the last passengers off the aircraft and wearily made my way towards the immigration desks, glad to be able to finally stretch my legs. The lines were nonexistent at this early hour and I breezed through without a problem. The customs officers were picking some arriving passengers at random to X-Ray bags, but they lazily waved me through without a check. Finally, I emerged into the arrivals hall in Hong Kong almost 23 hours to the minute after checking in at Toronto.

SanDiego1K had very kindly given me a one time pass to the Health Spa at the Regal Airport Hotel and I decided to proceed over there to rejuvenate myself before heading out. On the way, I stopped by an ATM and withdrew an appropriate sum of local currency. The Spa is located on the 3rd floor and was easy enough to find. The attendant on duty there collected my pass, issued me towels, locker keys and a pair of shower slippers and directed me towards the changing area.

The Steam Room had just opened, but I’ve never been a fan of that and headed straight to the showers. The water was warmer than I’d have liked, but the shower was extremely refreshing and I emerged a refreshed man with the fortitude to take on a new day. As I dumped my towels in the laundry basket, my hunger pangs struck me again and I resolved to get some breakfast before going anywhere.

When I misconnected in Hong Kong last year, CX had put me up at the Regal Airport Hotel with breakfast coupons for the excellent buffet offered at the Café Aficionado on the lower level. The breakfast is a little pricey at HK$158 (US$20) for the buffet, but I knew that my ravenous self would be able to do it justice and I made a beeline for it. The coffee shop was quiet at this early hour with the only other patrons being some uniformed Flight Attendants for what appeared to be one of the regional Chinese airlines and a couple of Korean Air pilots. I was quickly seated at a corner table and a cup of coffee was delivered as I headed to check out the spread.

The culinary offerings were extensive with everything ranging from Noodles to Salmon to Eggs to Fruit available. I gorged myself on this veritable feat for a good half hour, savoring the Dim Sum especially. I don’t know what it is, but Dim Sum simply tastes better in Hong Kong – even the mass produced stuff on the buffet.

Now that I was appropriately stuffed, I headed upstairs and took the walkway back to the Arrivals Area. I had booked myself into a hotel just across the Chinese border in Shenzhen for the first night, so my first stop was the counter for the Long Win Bus Company, which was unfortunately not open yet. The A43 bus leaves every 20 minutes on a 45 minute run to the Sheung Shui KCR station, from where the border crossing at Lo Wu is only 4 minutes away by train. The bus fare is HK$28 (US$3.50) and the train fare is HK$20 (US$2.50), making this not only the quickest, but also the easiest and most economical way to get to Shenzhen from the airport.

I purchased my ticket and boarded the bus, making sure that I was able to snag the front row seats on the upper deck for the view. It was a lovely morning in Hong Kong and we had a great view of the aircraft taking off as we drove away. The ride passed quickly as we headed across the Lantau Island Link bridge and then onto the highway before arriving at Sheung Shui. I purchased a standard ticket to Lo Wu and grabbed the first train headed in that direction. The KCR trains are pretty decent for a local transit service, but one look at the crowds at Lo Wu waiting to get back convinced me that they got quite crowded at peak hours.

I disembarked at Lo Wu and followed the crowds past the large signs that say “TO SHENZHEN” with the appropriate directional references provided by arrows. Our first stop was the outbound Hong Kong immigration counters where the crowds were split into those with HKG documents and foreigners. Immigration was a breeze and I emerged on the other side of the counters in the middle of a bunch of duty-free shops. There was a small walkway to China which I followed, noting with interest the large, prominent sign warning “NO PHOTOGRAPH”.

My first stop on the Chinese side was the visa office on the upper level. There is a tiny sign directing you there which is very easily missed, but fortunately I had done my homework in advance and knew to proceed upstairs. There are two offices there, one issuing visas for the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone only, and the other issuing a full-fledged regular Chinese visa. The Shenzhen SEZ visa restricts the bearer to spending 5 days in the Shenzhen SEZ area and costs HK$100 (US$12.50), versus the regular China visa which is HK$180 (US$22.50) for a 6 month single entry or HK$300 (US$37.50) for a 6 month double entry. However, while the SEZ visa takes less than 20 minutes to process and requires nothing more than a simple form, the China visa needs about 2 hours to approve and must be accompanied by supporting documents and photographs. Citizens of most countries are welcome to use these visa offices, but a board listed those who must apply before arrival, most notably the UK and Pakistan.

My itinerary called for just one night in Shenzhen, so I chose the first option. Accordingly, I obtained a visa form from the dispenser machine on the side and filled it in. There were 4 counters in the office, with 2 assigned for application submission, 1 for passport return and 1 for groups, and things ran pretty smoothly. The office was pretty crowded, mainly with East Europeans, and the man at the counter warned that it could take a while for them to clear the backlog. He quickly verified the validity of my passport, handed it to a girl sitting by a computer behind him and gave me a plastic token with a random alphanumeric combination printed on it in lieu of a receipt.

I wandered around the dingy upper level for a minute or two, taking care not to stray out of earshot on the off chance that my random alphanumeric combination was called early. Finding absolutely nothing of interest, I returned to the office and began telepathically messaging the lady behind the counter to process my passport quicker. It almost felt like a bingo game as the lady called out “B17”, “A28”, “C41”, etc…, each followed by a squeal of joy and someone rushing to the front of the room waving something in the air. Thankfully, my number was called after about 15 minutes, so I paid the fee and collected my passport suitable endorsed by the appropriate authority.

Back downstairs, I skipped the Duty Free and headed directly to the immigration desks. The line here was again split by nationality, but there were only 3 desks open for “Foreigners”, each with a long line in front of it. I picked one at random and spent my time filling in the arrivals card while we slowly inched forward. Finally, I reached the front and handed over the documents to the unsmiling woman who stamped and returned them without so much as looking up at me. Customs was X-Raying all bags, but that took all of 15 seconds without any problems and I finally set foot onto the soil of mainland China.

My hotel tonight was to be the Forum InterContinental, located just 300 yards down the street from the Joint Inspection Building. It was clearly visible from the exit, so I didn’t bother to break out the maps and decided to go visual instead. I walked past the imposing Lo Wu Commercial Plaza, took a quick left, crossed a pedestrian bridge and found myself in the hotel driveway.

Uniformed porters immediately rushed up to try and grab my rollaboard, but I politely declined and headed straight to check-in. I thought that I had reserved an excellent rate of HK$620(US$80), but it turned out that the actual rate was quoted in Chinese Yuan, making it an even better value at RMB620(US$73). The girl at the desk was very polite and efficient, but gave me the disappointing news that my “Deluxe” room would not be available for another 30 minutes.

I wasn’t particularly agitated since it was still only 11am, but I was pleasantly surprised when she handed me two coupons for the Lobby Bar so that I could kill the half hour painlessly. I wasn’t really in the mood for alcohol yet, but a couple of ice-cold Coca Cola worked wonders to re-hydrate me after spending the last few hours in the heat and humidity. I leafed through the South China Morning post for a while and the girl from the desk came up to me soon enough and informed me that my room was ready.

As I waited for the elevators, I perused the plaque on the wall which listed all the heads of state that had stayed at the property over the years. A very impressive list, ranging from George Bush the elder to vague dictators of some African country I had barely heard of. The elevator up to the 22nd floor was quick enough, and I headed down the corridor to my room.

The room itself was very nice, with a full size window overlooking the city of Shenzhen. There was a fruit basket containing the standard generic offerings, 2 bottles of complimentary water and an envelope containing a welcome note from the manager. The TV had about 30 channels, but only a handful in English including CNN and HBO.

I napped for a couple hours, awakening around 2pm. A quick shower and I headed out to explore. First stop was the imposing Lo Wu Commercial Plaza across the street. This is a seven level shopping center that puts conventional malls to shame. I’ve been to both the Mall of America and the West Edmonton Mall, and although both of those are larger in terms of square footage, they don’t hold a candle to Lo Wu Commercial Plaza as far as selection and prices go. Interestingly enough, every vendor in the Plaza quotes prices in Hong Kong Dollars rather than Yuan. If you are paying in local currency, you must add an 8-10% surcharge.

I spent a few hours exploring the Plaza, my only purchase being a pair of fake Cartier sunglasses for the rather reasonable price of HK$50(US$6.25). The original asking price had been HK$120(US$15), but I was proud to have been able to negotiate it down. Bargaining here has gone hi-tech. In the past, language barriers meant that customers and shopkeepers essentially yelled and gesticulated at each other in mutual non-comprehension until one gave way. Nowadays, the shopkeeper types a number out on a calculator and hands it to you. You then hit cancel, type in your offer and hand it back. This continues until an acceptable midpoint has been reached and cash is exchanged for goods. Amazing how technology has even simplified this aspect of life.

Now that the plaza had been thoroughly explored, I headed into town and wandered through backstreets for while, simply trying to get a feel of the city. Soon enough, twilight was upon us and I decided to grab a bite to eat and head back to the hotel for an early night. Along the way, I passed a small hole-in-the-wall barbeque shop that was displaying some very interesting wares in the window. I popped inside and managed to communicate that I wanted to try some duck. The price was very reasonable at just HK$80(US$10) for the whole duck (neatly chopped up to go) plus 3 cans of Asahi beer.

Back at the hotel, I discovered that they had delivered turndown service in my absence, complete with a plate of fresh cookies on the bedside table. I looked out the window at the neon signs of bustling Shenzhen and realized with great irony that this was still an allegedly communist country. Granted, this was probably not representative of most of China, but the sheer extent to which commercialism had penetrated here left me almost speechless.

I kicked back and channel surfed through the limited English offerings as I consumed my duck, washing it down with the beer. A couple of cookies made a perfect ending to a hectic day and I was glad to climb into bed around 11pm.

Woke up as the sun was rising and I relaxed a while before heading out to grab some buns for breakfast from a nearby bakery. Back in the room, I watched Monday Night Football with Chinese announcers, but gave up at halftime with Seattle leading San Francisco. I never thought I’d actually be wishing for a John Madden soundtrack.

After a shower, I packed up my stuff (making sure to put a spare bottle of water in the front pouch of my bag) and checked out. It was a horribly warm and muggy day, and I was drenched in sweat by the time I reached the Joint Inspection Building down the street. I followed the familiar signs for foreign nationals and arrived in the departure immigration control area.

There were about 25 desks open today, with only 2 of them assigned to foreign nationals and the remainder to locals. As a result, the lines for foreigners were about 100 deep, while the officers at the other desks literally sat around doing nothing. To make matters worse, the departure card dispensing machines were broken, meaning that each person could only fill out the form after they reached the counter, causing even more delays. I stood in a line for about 15 minutes, progressing very slowly, until someone who appeared to be a senior officer showed up and read the riot act. They immediately opened up 2 more counters, had some low level peon hand out cards to all of us in line and then set a stack of cards on the table by the machines for future arrivals. Things speeded up considerably as a result, and I was through to the Hong Kong side about 15 minutes later.

Hong Kong immigration was significantly less painful, but the KCR station was teeming with people heading into the city. Not wanting to be stuck without a seat for the 40 minute ride, I decided to splurge on a First Class ticket for HK$66(US$8.25) instead of the regular HK$33(US$4). It was a very wise move, with the regular compartments filling up quickly. The ride itself was comfortable and fairly painless, with the compartment never getting much more than half full.

I alighted at Kowloon Tong and made my way to the MTR side of the station where I purchased a single journey ticket to Sheung Wan for HK$10(US$1.25). My routing required that I change trains twice, from the Kwun Tong line (Green) to the Tseun Wan (Red) line at Mongkok, and then again to the Island (Blue) line at Central. The transfers could not have been easier. There are illuminated signs inside the subway car that inform riders of their current location, upcoming stations and even which side the platform will be on. There are also announcements in both English and Cantonese advising of interchange points. Finally, unlike most other cities, transfers are actually conducted on the same level by simply walking across the platform, rather than having to take stairs or escalators.

The ride to Sheung Wan took about 25 minutes including wait time and I followed the signs for the Shun Tak Center exit. The Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal is located on the third level of this building and there are plenty of signs pointing travelers in the right direction. The Shun Tak Center also has a mall in the lower levels, offering a wide range of shops. There are automated luggage lockers located at the northwest corner of the building, offering storage for pretty reasonable rates.

I decided to grab some food before setting sail, so I headed over to one of the local eateries rather than eat at the McDonald’s located right beside the ticket counters. The cafeteria I picked had a lunch special of “Goose Rice” for only HK$28(US$3.50), which I ordered. It was served together with a bowl of insipid broth and a cup of soy milk, neither of which I particularly fancied. The entrée itself was very tasty and filling though – well worth its reasonable price tag.

Appetite satiated, I headed to the counter and purchased my ticket to Macau from the TurboJet counters. The cost was HK$130(US$16.25) for a one-way in Economy Class. There was Super Class available for HK$232(US$29), but I didn’t really care to pay the extra money for a slightly larger seat and a plate of sandwiches. Tickets are issued for a specific sailing, but passengers are allowed to standby for any other sailing at no extra charge. Services operate around the clock, at 15 minute frequency by day and 30 minute at night. Night fares are also about HK$40(US$5) higher.

My ticket was for the 115pm sailing, but the time was just shy of 1pm so I figured I could try for the earlier one on standby. I headed quickly down to passport control where a very bored immigration officer stamped me out of Hong Kong. At the gate, I noted a long line of standby passengers already waiting for the 1pm sailing and decided to head directly to the 115pm sailing’s gate rather than try my luck there.

The gate area was typical of an airport waiting room with lines of chairs for passengers and a podium for the boarding agent. Once the 1pm had sailed, an agent came over to our gate and began handing out seat assignments. This is done by removing a numbered sticker from a chart and placing it upon your ticket receipt creating a makeshift boarding pass.

TurboJet operates 4 different types of equipment on this route, with our sailing due to be operated by a TriCat. The TriCat interior is laid out aircraft style with seats arranged 14 across in a 3-4-4-3 configuration on the main deck. The upper deck is for Super Class passengers. My seat assignment was for 34K, a middle seat in the last row. There were overhead bins available to stow luggage, which I utilized before taking my seat. Seat numbers were also color coded, with the color representing the nearest emergency exit.

The seat itself was pretty comfortable, with a pitch of about 34 inches and a recline comparable to that found aboard airlines. The seat pocket featured a safety information card, a Duty Free catalog and a TurboJet magazine which featured information about their various services and destinations. As we taxied out of the dock, the safety video was screened on the TV screens located at the front and middle of the cabin. Finally we entered the open harbor and opened up the throttles, the acceleration being quite impressive, especially in comparison to the Airbus 340.

During the ride, the cabin attendants came through the cabin handing out Macau arrivals cards and offering a variety of duty free items and refreshments for sale. The prices were reasonable, but I really had no use for either so I passed. There was also a news magazine and a Macau tourism documentary screened on the TV screens. Journey time was a quick 55 minutes and we arrived at the dock in Macau exactly on schedule at 210pm.

I retrieved my bag from the overhead and was the last passenger to exit into the Macau Ferry Terminal. I followed the signs to the arrivals area and cleared Immigration without a hassle. Customs was also a breeze and I emerged into the arrivals hall by 220pm.

The currency of Macau is officially the Pataca, abbreviated as MOP and consisting of 100 Avos. The Pataca is pegged to the Hong Kong Dollar at a fixed rate of MOP1.03 to HK$1, but both currencies circulate at par in Macau. In fact it is possible to go an entire trip to Macau without ever handling the local currency.

When researching Macau hotels, I had found a great Internet-only rate of MOP300(US$37.50) on the Holiday Inn website. The hotel boasted a free shuttle from the Ferry Terminal, so I followed the signs to the relevant area and found the expected green van waiting patiently. The driver was very friendly and immediately set out on the quick 5 minute ride.

The peninsular area of Macau is very small and so pretty much everything is within walking distance of the attractions. The Holiday Inn itself was located in the middle of a tourist area and had a casino on the first floor. I presented myself at the desk to check-in and was immediately escorted over to the Assistant Manager’s desk where I was invited to take a seat while he processed my registration. A waiter brought me a cold towel and a glass of juice as I waited. If only every Holiday Inn could be this nice!

Registration complete, I was handed a folio with my key cards, a coupon for a free cocktail at the bar that evening and the Assistant Manager’s business card with an invitation to call on him if I had any problems. He introduced himself as Edgar Montinola Berzosa and accompanied me to the elevators before taking my leave.

My room was on the non-smoking 25th floor and was a typical Holiday Inn room without a view. Again, there were 2 complimentary bottles of water in the room, as well as a small fruit basket. The TV here had more English selections, so I relaxed with CNN for a while before taking a quick shower and hitting the streets of Macau.

Armed only with a tourist map, I wandered down Avenida Do Rodrigo Rodrigues towards the Casino Lisboa and then further down Avenida Almeida Ribeiro. I stopped off at the post office to get some stamps for postcards I was mailing, noting with interest that most of the employees had signs saying they spoke Cantonese and Portuguese, but English was in short supply.

I spent a while wandering around this area, doing some shopping and looking at the various Portuguese churches that are sprinkled around this part of town. As twilight approached, I stopped off at a local bakery and picked up a Macanese specialty of a Fried Pork Chop Bun and headed back to the hotel.

The “Frascati” restaurant in the hotel had an advertisement in the elevator touting a weekday special of a Macanese-Portuguese “semi-buffet” dinner for only MOP68(US$8.50). This intrigued me, so I headed off there around 9pm and inquired about the “semi-buffet” concept. Evidently, this means that you get to order your entrée from a selection of 4 house specialties, but you can help yourself to a wide selection of appetizers, soups, salads and deserts. I picked the lamb as my main selection and it was quite excellent. Macanese cuisine is a very fascinating hybrid of Chinese and Mediterranean influences and I thoroughly enjoyed the meal.

After dinner I headed out to sample the city by night. It seemed that every street corner had a travel agent, a juice stall and a hooker. Alas, the hookers were neither as cheap as the travel agents nor as fresh as the juice. After being solicited about five times in two blocks, I decided to head back to the hotel and turn in early.

I awakened bright and early with the intention of heading out across the China border to Zhuhai for some shopping. A quick call to the concierge desk to check on logistics had them not only give me the requested info, but also set up a late check out. I headed out around 930am and grabbed a cab to the Barrier Gate at the northern border. As I was getting into the cab, the doorman handed me a printed card with the hotel address written in Chinese, advising me to keep it for the way back. The ride took about 10 minutes and the cost was MOP30(US$3.50). There was a fairly large crowd at the immigration counters, but the lines moved quickly and I quickly passed through to the other side and set off on the short walk through no-man’s land into China.

The Chinese inspection facility was much more modern than the Macanese one, and sported a large gold sign proclaiming it to be “GONGBEI PORT”. There was a Duty Free shop located at the entrance with very reasonably priced international brands. I browsed a bit, but decided not to buy yet.

On entering the actual facility, I spotted a sign saying “VISA OFFICE” and headed over there. This counter was for the “Full China Visa” and they directed me towards the Zhuhai SEZ visa counter which was located one level above. Similar to Shenzhen, this visa allows you to spend upto 3 days in Zhuhai Special Economic Zone and costs only HK$100 (US$12.50). Unlike the bustling office at Luohu, this one was manned by a single guy who appeared to have been napping when I walked in. He was extremely friendly and efficient though, and I had my passport back with the appropriate endorsement within 5 minutes.

Back downstairs, I headed to the now familiar “Foreigners” line and took my place behind a small group of Koreans. While waiting, I was approached by an elderly Chinese woman with what appeared to be a package from the duty free shop. She whispered to me that she would give me US$50 in cash to carry the package through Customs and hand it over to a guy on the other side. I politely declined, but she persisted, raising her offer to US$75. Finally, one of the Koreans said something to her in Cantonese and she backed away muttering under her breath.

I cleared formalities without any further ado and emerged once again in mainland China. The concierge had told me about an underground shopping plaza located right across from the inspection facility and I headed down the stairs. The stalls had barely opened at this early hour, so I decided to scout around for some breakfast first. One thing that caught my eye was a familiar portrait of Colonel Sanders, except with signage completely in Chinese. The girl at the counter spoke no English so we had to communicate by pointing at pictures, but I finally got myself a Crispy Strips Combo with a Pepsi.

Appetite satiated, I hit the plaza to shop around for various gifts. The prices here were significantly cheaper than in Shenzhen, and I was able to pick up some decent stuff including jade and leather as gifts. I then wandered the waterfront for a while and took a quick stroll into the nearby urban areas. Finally, around noon I decided to head back.

Exit immigration was painless again, and I was very amused to see a old Delta Air Lines sticker on the door of the Immigration Supervisor’s office. Market penetration at Gongbei border crossing in China… Leo Mullin must be thrilled! Once my passport was stamped, I noted with interest that the Chinese entry/exit stamps seem to use a very poor quality ink compared to most other countries. The red ink had, in all four cases, smudged onto the facing page.

I walked back towards Macau past the crowded Duty Free shop and entered the dingy building that serves as the Macanese Immigration checkpoint where I filled out my arrival card. To my surprise, the officer at the counter spent about 10 minutes going through each and every stamp in my passport (and there are quite a few) before finally nodding and stamping me into the country.

I headed straight for the taxi stand and climbed in to the first cab there. I didn’t expect the driver to speak English, so I handed over the card with the hotel address. To my surprise, he smiled and said, “Oh, don’t worry. I speak good English!” as he drove off. We chatted a bit as we drove along the waterfront, and he pointed out the Causeway to Taipa Island as well as some other local landmarks. Traffic was a lot lighter than earlier that morning and the fare came to only MOP25(US$3) this time.

Unfortunately, my shopping in Zhuhai meant that I had exceeded the limited capacity of my rollaboard. As a result, I had to break out my "backup bag", a canvas tote that folds up nicely into the lining of the larger bag. I strategically repacked and hurried through a shower with the aim of catching the 130pm courtesy shuttle to the ferry terminal. Checkout was quick, and Edgar was there again to thank me for my business. We discussed my impressions of Macau while I waited for the shuttle, which arrived a few minutes late, loaded me up and immediately headed off on the 5 minute ride to the terminal.

At the terminal, I headed immediately for the ticket window on the upper level where I purchased a one-way to Hong Kong on the 2pm sailing. I asked whether they wanted me to check the extra piece of luggage, but the lady of the window said that due to the light load today, I could carry it aboard if I liked. Outbound immigration was cursory and I headed off to the gate. Along the way, I heard an announcement for the final call on the 145pm TriCat sailing, so I quickly asked if I could get on that instead. Sure enough, it wasn't a problem and I was assigned a window seat on the left side with both the aisle and middle seat open. As I trooped aboard in a quick trot, the crew closed the hatches behind me and we pushed off before I had even located my seat. We cleared the Inner Harbor quickly and accelerated nicely again as we entered the open water.

The ride back to Hong Kong was very similar to the outbound journey and we docked at the Shun Tak Center 1 minute early. Immigration was painless as usual, although the poor officer had misplaced his "PERMITTED TO REMAIN UNTIL" date stamp and had to hand-write my clearance with an embarassed apology and shy smile.

First step was to grab lunch, which I felt very guilty buying from McDonald's but it was the most convenient option available now that I was burdened with 2 pieces of luggage. I was fascinated to find that traditional breakfast items such as the Sausage Egg McMuffin's were on the menu as all-day options, including Combo Meals. Lunch complete, I headed down to the MTR and caught the first train over to Central where I navigated the maze of tunnels and headed over to the Airport Express side of the station.

The "In-Town Checkin" counters were crowded, so I took the opportunity to head over to the Cathay CTO next door to pick up a paper timetable for a friend who collects them before buying my ticket from the Airport Express machine for HK$100(US$12.50). For those unfamiliar with the system, you need to purchase an Airport Express ticket simply to access the checkin desks. The ticket is then validated for travel to the Airport on the Airport Express train. I headed over to the onew`orld Sapphire desk and checked in. The agent was very pleasant and tagged my bag to Singapore, as well as issued me my boarding pass and an invitation to the WING/PIER complex at Chep Lap Kok. This was to be my first visit to those hallowed portals and I accepted this holy grail of lounge passes with an appropriately respectful bow before safely stashing it away in the inner pocket of my jacket.

Now that I was checked in, I headed back down through the interminable tunnels to the MTR station. A friend of my dad's had scored an excellent deal on a laptop at a shop in Mongkok Computer Center, and I had decided to head over there to see if I could replicate his luck. The MTR deposited me at Mongkok station and I emerged from the relevant exit into the hustle and bustle of a typical Hong Kong evening on Nathan Road.

The Mongkok Computer Center is a 3 story building located about 2 blocks off Nathan Road and has about 150 different computer vendors there, selling everything from complete systems to peripherals to software. The prices are quite unbelievable by Western standards and I have never been disappointed by the quality of any purchase I have made from there over the years.

I wandered the narrow, crowded corridors for an hour or so picking up flyers and comparing prices, until finally deciding on the system that I was interested in. A further 30 minutes of questions about warranties and servicing followed by a brief bargaining session, and finally the deal was done. I even managed to get the salesperson to throw in a free case and ethernet cable. All in all, I was extremely pleased with the deal and I wound up paying just about half of what I would pay for a similar system in North America.

Proudly clutching my new baby, I headed back into the cauldron of Nathan Road, browsing some stores for a while and grabbing a snack from a corner store. I had no clue what the snack was, but it looked like fried squid or octopus and I ordered it by pointing at a picture menu. Needless to say, it was excellent.

As darkness fell, I headed back underground to the MTR and went over to Central to catch the Airport Express. The train was empty at this hour and I settled down comfortably with an entire compartment to myself. The ride was typically brisk and we pulled into Chep Lap Kok station after just under 25 minutes travel time.

I retrieved my boarding pass and prized lounge invite from the safety of my jacket pocket and headed through the immigration checkpoint. My exit stamp was endorsement number 8 for the day, a new record for even my well-used passport. I was then faced with the most pleasant dilemma that a traveler ever has to face.... Wing or Pier. There was no gate posted for my flight yet, so I decided to sample the Pier to begin with. Accordingly I headed down to the train and journeyed to the outer reaches of the concourses where this oasis of tranquility was located. And that is when things began to go horribly wrong....

I descended the escalator into the lobby of the Pier and was immediately accosted by the greeter who welcomed me and asked to see my lounge invitation. I presented it and began walking towards the inner sanctum, when I heard him say, "Excuse me, Sir".

I turned and asked if there was a problem. Evidently there was. My flight was scheduled to depart at 3am on the 17th, and it was still 930pm on the 16th. According to his interpretation of the rules, my entitlement to lounge access would not begin until the same calendar day as my flight, which would be at midnight.

I argued the point with him briefly, but I have long learned that debating with an Asian who thinks he is just doing his job is probably the most pointless activity that one can engage in. I asked about the possibility of using the showers briefly, but was again politely rebuffed. Alas, my glorious entry into Xanadu would have to be delayed for another 2 hours.

As a oneworld Sapphire, I am entitled to use the lounge of any partner carrier on the day of travel, so if Cathay were going to be asses about it, I would simply try another partner. Accordingly, I headed to the British Airways/Qantas lounge where the very polite attendant swiped my card and welcomed me in with the warning that they were closing at 1130pm. That put me close enough to my midnight deadline for parole into the Wing, so I was satisfied.

This lounge was quite crowded, with twin 744s leaving for London in the next hour, but I managed to find myself a comfortable chair where I settled down with a magazine, some finger sandwiches and a Bacardi-Coke. I asked one of the attendants about the possibility of grabbing a shower, but there was a waiting list for these that was way too long for my liking, so I decided to wait for the Wing instead.

Time passed briskly as I relaxed and nibbled and sipped and read. Almost too soon, the attendant was making the final calls for the second Heathrow flight and I grabbed my stuff and headed out with the last of the stragglers. Since I had time to spare, I made a beeline over to the SAMSUNG free internet terminals for a bit and posted indignantly on Flyertalk about my experience with the gatekeeper). At about 1145pm, I decided to head over to the Wing. And there my indignation turned into fury.

To begin with, the attendant insisted on seeing my boarding pass, oneworld Elite Card and passport before allowing me into the elevator. Fair enough, I was very dishevelled and desperately in need of a shower. He collected the pass and I headed upstairs making a beeline to the washrooms. I get to the showers and I see a sign up saying "closed for cleaning". Ah well, I'll have a drink first. Nope, bar is closed. How about relax in the Reading Room? Nope, its been roped off. How about a snack at the Noodle Bar? Sorry, closed. So I go to the ticketing counter and ask where exactly I should seat myself for the next 3 hours. The reply? Gate 7. "We are closing at 1215 sir - you have to go downstairs now".

So let me get this straight. Cathay gives me a lounge invitation that isn't valid until 12am, but also isn't valid after 1215am? And then wants me to camp out by my gate for 3 hours before my flight? Is this some sort of sick joke?

Back downstairs, the only flights left on the board were the trio of 3am Cathay departures to Taipei, Osaka and Singapore plus the Ethiopian Airlines flight to Bangkok and Addis Ababa. To make matters worse, our flight was due to depart from a remote parking bay. Obviously, the sins of a past life were suddenly catching up to me en masse with a vengeance.

I spent much of the next couple hours alternating between the internet terminals and napping on the floor as the janitorial staff vacuumed around me. Finally around 215am, I headed to the elevators and descended to the holding room for the remote gates. A quick headcount revealed 7 of us sleepily waiting for the three flights. Around 225am, three buses pulled up and a matronly woman marched out and called out names. The first 4 of us were herded into the Singapore bus, 2 others into the Osaka bus and the last remaining passenger into the Taipei bus. Inside was another CX agent who explained that these flights run primarily for cargo and are usually restricted from carrying more than 40 passengers. Our aircraft were accordingly parked over by the Cargo facility on the opposite side of the field and we would be driving out there.

The ride across the tarmac in the dead of night was a wonderful experience as we navigated between dormant aircraft and along the perimeter until we reached the Cargo terminal. The trio of Cathay 777-300s were parked there being loaded up for their respective journeys and our bus deposited us beside B-HNE. For the trivia minded, this airframe was actually the first 777-300 ever built and was Boeing's prototype for type certification as N5014K. We boarded through the airstairs located at door 1L and had to walk all the way through this long aircraft to get to our seats. For balance reasons, all passengers had to be seated in the rearmost cabin for take-off and landing.

In addition to the 3 other passengers on the bus, there were 4 Flight Attendants being deadheaded to Singapore to cover a flight the next day who were already on board, thus creating a passenger load of 8 aboard an aircraft that seats almost 400 under normal circumstances. They stayed out of the way and unobtrusively took seats towards the rear. I immediately settled myself in a 3-section by the window and lay down after raising the armrests and fastening my seatbelt. The crew came around to take pre-departure drink orders (a first for me in coach!) and hand out the amenity kits. I wolfed down my orange juice and fell asleep before the engines even started up.

I slept through most of the flight, and awakened only as the captain was announcing our descent into Singapore. The crew had thoughtfully left a landing card in my seat pocket as I slumbered, so I freshened up quickly and completed it as we were on short finals. We touched down on runway 1R just after 620am and quickly taxied to our gate at Terminal 1.

Since I had meetings in Singapore in the mid-morning, I was now in desperate need of the shower that I had been denied the previous night in Hong Kong. Accordingly, I decided to try my luck at the British Airways/Qantas lounge here, which I knew had the appropriate facilities (unlike CX's lounge in Singapore). The lady at reception was somewhat surprised by my request, but my dishevelled appearance and oneworld Sapphire card did the trick and she let me through with a smile, pointing the way to the showers.

The shower stalls here were small, but more than sufficient for my needs. I picked one in the corner as it appeared slightly larger than the others. A fresh towel in a sanitized bag was placed on a wooden bench inside, and there were hooks on the wall for clothes. There was also a small alcove before the shower stall, with a small sink. Toiletries consisted of two dispensers on the wall of the shower, one each for shower gel and shampoo.

The warmth of the shower was invigorating and I emerged into the lounge 30 minutes later feeling a completely new man. I grabbed a quick cup of coffee and a breakfast bar from the breakfast bar and headed out with a heartfelt thank-you to the lounge attendants.

Immigration was a breeze and my bag was already placed next to the carousel by the time I arrived to pick it up. I emerged into the awakening arrivals hall at Changi just after 7am and followed the signs to the MRT station. This is actually located in Terminal 2, so I caught the train between the terminals which took a few minutes.

The MRT Changi extension is brand new and the station was even more gleaming and spotless than the rest of Singapore. Unfortunately, the ticket system had me totally confused and I had to seek assistance from the man in the booth, who very kindly showed me the ropes. They had recently transitioned to a card ticket system, but you had to pay a S$1(US$0.65) refundable deposit for each single ride purchased, and then get a refund at your destination. A highly convoluted and inefficient system in my opinion, but then again no one ever argued that Singapore was a logical city.

The ride to City Hall station took just about 30 minutes, with the carriage filling and emptying at alternate stops. After alighting, I followed the signs to the SunTec Center and wound my way through a maze of tunnels until I emerged right across the street from my hotel, the Conrad Singapore.

There are good hotels in this world, and then there are great ones. The good hotels take pride in meeting your every need. The great ones are able to anticipate your every want. The Conrad Singapore is one of the great ones. The moment I walked through the door, I was greeting by a gentleman in a suit who introduced himself as Andrew and escorted me to the front desk. As soon as he saw my Hilton HHonors Gold VIP Card, he told me that I should use the Executive Lounge upstairs to check-in and dispatched a girl to accompany me there.

Upstairs in the lounge, the agent at the welcome desk had already been alerted about my arrival and greeted me warmly by name. I took a seat across from her desk as a waiter brought me a cold towel to freshen up and asked if I would like a drink. My checkin was processed briskly, alas with the sad news that the room on the Executive Floor that they had blocked for me had still to be cleaned. However, I was free to use the Executive Lounge until that time.

I told her that I had some meetings in the morning and inquired about the possibility of storing my bags until I returned. She pressed some sort of button under her desk and a bellman soundlessly appeared at my elbow about 20 seconds later. He tagged my luggage and gave me a receipt, assuring me that it would stored till my return. I thanked both of them and headed back down the elevator where I set off for my meetings.

Business complete, I returned to the hotel right after 1130am and was again met by Andrew, although this time he greeted me by name and told me that my room was ready. As he escorted me to the elevators, another minion appeared at his elbow with a folder containing my room keys as well as a welcome letter from the manager. It was obvious that the well-oiled machine was delivering the clockwork service that they are reputed for.

The room itself was nothing supremely large, but definitely spacious and tastefully decorated. There was a fantastic view of the "World's Largest Fountain" at SunTec Towers from the window. To my surprise, my luggage had already been delivered to the room and was sitting in the corner. Andrew spent a few minutes explaining the various features of the electrical and communications systems, which included a complimentary in-room copy/fax machine and high speed internet for a charge.

Once he had left, I collapsed on the bed for a nap and was awakened about an hour later by a friend calling to ask if I was free for lunch. I told him to head on over, and showered quickly while he was en route. We headed off to a nearby food court to eat, and I tucked in to the delicious food. These organized food courts have become a staple of Singapore dining in the last few years, replacing the more traditional and highly tumultuous hawker plazas.

After lunch we chatted in the room for a while, then headed out as he showed me around the local area. He headed home around 6pm and I headed up to the Executive Lounge to see what the complimentary reception was like. Among the snacks on offer were Shrimp Canapes with mango chutney, Lamb Samosas with minty yogurt sauce, Unagi rolls and Chicken Satay. Needless to say, it was all delicious and I was highly impressed.

Back in the room, the housekeeping staff had delivered turndown service in my absence. Unlike most hotels, this consisted of a lot more than simply folding back the covers and throwing a mint on the pillow. The covers had been turned down, the TV turned to face the bed with the remote control on the pillow, a plate of chocolates had been placed on the bedside table along with some magazines and the Conrad Teddy Bear had been tucked in under the sheets with only his face showing. Finally, there was a cloth spread on the floor by the bed with my bedroom slippers neatly laid out on it so that I would not have to set foot on the floor when changing into them. What an absolutely wonderful touch. If God lives in the details, then the Conrad Singapore is truly heaven.

I napped for a couple hours, awakening in time to head down to the food court across the street where I had a delicious Korean dinner of Bi Bim Bab for the bargain price of S$7(US$4.50). The SunTec fountain was performing its daily laser show, and I watched part of it briefly before heading back upstairs and collapsing into bed absolutely exhausted.

Despite having turned in early, the lack of sleep from the previous night had caught up with me and I slept like a baby until past 8am. I awakened and relaxed with the Straits Times that had been slipped under my door before taking advantage of the lovely bath salts and rubber ducky in the bathroom.

Residents on the Executive Floor have the option of breakfasting either at the buffet in the lounge upstairs, or at Oskar's restaurant downstairs, or with a Continental breakfast via room service. I chose the first option, and headed up around 9am. I was very impressed that the staff were already recognizing me by name and showed me to a nice corner table by the window. A tray was brought to me with a selection of newspapers (I picked the International Herald Tribune this time round) and my coffee order was delivered as well.

The buffet was absolutely delicious, featuring the most fantastic Eggs Benedict that I have had in a long time. There was the standard breafast fare available ranging from smoked salmon to bacon to croissants to potatoes to pancakes. I enjoyed the meal thoroughly and the lounge attendants provided service worthy of the top restaurants in the world, keeping both my coffee cup and my water glass filled.

Appetite satiated, I finished packing and then headed back up to the lounge to checkout for my 145pm flight. The girl at the desk asked if I would be needing a cab, to which I replied in the affirmative. By the time my elevator opened on the ground floor, a bellhop was standing patiently to carried my bags to a waiting taxi. Even in departure, the Conrad Singapore delivered service above and beyond. I simply cannot praise this hotel enough.

The Conrad is located very conveniently for the highway to the airport and the ride took barely 15 minutes and cost a mere S$17(US$10). The cabbie made polite conversation all the way down to Changi and deposited me at Terminal 1 right after 1130am.

The lines at the Cathay Economy Class counters were horrendous, so I checked in the Business Class desk. I enquired how full the flight to Bangkok was and the girl told me that they were oversold in coach but wide open in Business. She typed around for a minute and asked if I would be interested in an operational upgrade. Since it was such a short flight, I declined with thanks and laughingly told her to pick a more deserving person. She laughed and said I was the first person to have ever declined an upgrade, while handing me a boarding pass for 32C along with an invitation to the Cathay Lounge.

On the way to immigration, I stopped off at the CX ticketing desks to ask about changing my flight the next day to an earlier one that would give me slightly longer than a 65 minute connection in Hong Kong. This was accomplished swiftly and painlessly, as was immigration. I stopped off for a few minutes at the Duty Free to buy a bottle of Black Label for the excellent price of only S$38(US$22) before heading to the CX lounge.

The lounge was deserted and I relaxed with a Heineken and a plate of finger sandwiches. I also took this opportunity to scribble some postcards to friends. Around 1pm, I headed out to the post office, only to discover to my dismay that the Terminal 1 post office was closed and that I would have to head over to Terminal 2 for stamps. Fortunately, the train arrived quickly enough and the post office was right nearby, so I was back in Terminal 1 by about 120pm, just in time to proceed to gate D40 as boarding was in progress.

I was one of the last to board B-HND and settled down in my seat next to an Australian couple heading to Bangkok on vacation. I found it very interesting to note that the FA's stressed the death penalty for drug smuggling into Thailand during their welcome announcements. We pushed back on time and were airborne quickly enough with a flying time of just under 2 hours. Every single seat was filled in steerage, but only 3 seats in Business Class.

About 30 minutes out of Singapore, the crew came around with the lunch service. I picked the Lemon Chicken with Steamed Rice and it was quite exceptional. Definitely one of the better airline meals I've had. This was followed by a service where cups of Movenpick Ice Cream were handed out to all passengers. Delicious.

The trays were cleared about 20 minutes before landing and we descended into a lovely afternoon at Don Muang. I have always been amused by the golf course that runs between the parallel runways, and today was no exception. We taxied briskly to our gate and I was one of the first into the concourse.

First stop before immigration was the currency exchange, where I converted some leftover British Pounds into Thai Baht. Then it was on to the Visa-On-Arrival counter, where I quickly filled up the form and handed it over with the requisite THB300(US$7) fee. The VOA counter works like a conveyor belt with about 8 people in a row stamping assorted things on your passport until you collect it on the other end about 2 minutes later. The beauty of this system is that when lines at immigration are backed up badly (as they were at this time), it is often quicker than the regular counters.

My bags were just emerging onto the conveyor as I arrived there and I quickly retrieved them and cleared customs. The Royal Thai Customs Officers were looking very splendid in their "Love Boat" surplus uniforms, but they did not bother me as I emerged into the human zoo that doubles as the arrivals hall.

I had been alerted by a friend that the lines for conventional taxis tend to stretch for almost an hour at this time of day, so I headed over to a counter that advertised a Mercedes sedan service into the city for only THB650(US$15) including tolls. I paid at the counter and was handed a voucher valid for travel to the Royal Orchid Sheraton. The chauffeur met me as I entered the public areas and carried my bags to the waiting car. We were on our way within minutes, and I relaxed in the airconditioning as we drove past the other tourists steaming in the afternoon sun waiting for cabs.

The drive to the Royal Orchid Sheraton took just over 40 minutes using the highways for the most part, and I was safely deposited at the hotel just before 430pm. The lobby was a bit of a war zone because of renovations in progress, but they took good care of me and had me checked in within minutes.

I had been upgraded to a corner room, but unfortunately they picked the corner located right next to the elevator shaft that was being renovated. The sound was pretty bad, but I wasn't planning on sticking around to listen to it. The room had a fabulous view of the river and the city though. I was just about to head for a quick shower, when someone knocked on the door with my complimentary fruit basket and bottled water, along with a note of apology from the manager about the renovations.

I finally headed out from the hotel around 6pm and began walking down towards Patpong armed with only a tourist map. I took my time walking, soaking in the atmosphere of the city as I wandered down Thanon Siphraya. I was extremely impressed by the friendliness of the Thai people I encountered - everytime that I pulled out my map, I was immediately asked by a passer-by if I needed directions or assistance finding something. Thanks to their help, I finally arrived at Soi Patpong about an hour later and set off for a stroll through the night market that was just getting set up.

The sex trade in Bangkok is booming and I was accosted every few meters by a representatives offering me assorted services. Most of them were touting their "Contemporary Massage" parlors which offered such variations on traditional massage such as the "Body Massage With Oil" and the "Sandwich Massage". Others offered me "free previews" of the women available, and yet others offered a half price "Happy Hour" before 9pm. The more savvy ones had "menu cards" available for my perusal, laminated booklets that look just like restaurant menus, except that these displayed pictures of each of the girls along with their areas of expertise.

I politely declined their offers and emerged unscathed onto Thanon Silom on the other side. Since I was beginning to feel a bit peckish, I decided to grab the BTS Skytrain and head across town to Sukhumvit to get some dinner there. Accordingly I ascended the steps to Sala Daeng station and bought a one-way ticket to Nana from the machine.

The train arrived soon after and I was deposited at Nana about 15 minutes later, including a change of lines at Siam. Thanon Sukhumvit was bustling as usual and I wandered down the main road for a bit, with occasional forays into the side streets to check out an interesting store or vendor.

One of my favorite things about Bangkok is the abundance of food stalls and carts by the side of the road selling all sorts of wild and wonderful things for really cheap. The best ones have skewers of assorted meats that they grill for you on request, usually for prices ranging from THB2(US$0.04) to THB10(US$0.20) each. A finnicky eater is best served by not asking what animal the meat comes from, primarily because most of these vendors seem to differentiate between meats only as either "Chicken" or "Not Pork", with the latter encompassing everything from Elephant to Rat, both inclusive.

I spent a long time happily wandering between vendors and sampling their wares until I was nearly stuffed. By now, I had almost reached Asok BTS station after passing by numerous bars which offered cheap alcohol and girls, mainly filled by assorted "farangs" (Thai slang for foreigner) and dirty old men. I was not particularly impressed by the quality of girls. Their hygeine was highly questionable and kinda reminded me of Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates - as in "you never know what you're gonna get".

During my wanderings, I also stopped by a cart selling grilled insects and asked for a sample. I had been determined to try these after reading about them in a magazine, and instructed the vendor to give me an assortment for THB15(US$0.30) of everything except cockroach. I was pleasantly surprised by them - most of them were nice and crunchy and tasted a bit like oatmeal biscuits. I think my favorite was grasshopper, but I'm not completely sure.

Finally, after about 2 hours, I decided to head back to the hotel. I grabbed the BTS from Asok down to the southern terminus at Saphan Taksin station, again with a change of trains at Siam. I emerged from the station to find a baby elephant walking through the lane accompanied by a priest who appeared to be selling bananas. I rubbed my eyes for a second to make sure I wasn't hallucinating, and then quietly slunk away in the other direction to look at my map.

I guess I must have looked sufficiently touristy and lost, because I was immediately approached by an English speaking cab driver who asked where I was heading to. I gave him the hotel name and he offered to take me there for THB300(US$7). I immediately sensed a scam and laughed in his face, telling him to go pick on some other unsuspecting "farang" instead. To his credit, he responded with a broad grin and immediately lowered his price to THB150(US$3.50). I countered with THB50(US$1.20) and we bargained for a bit before finally settling on THB80(US$1.90).

There was pretty intense traffic on the drive back to the hotel and we wound up striking up an interesting conversation. He even gave me his mobile phone number in case I ever needed to buy anything in Bangkok, assuring me that he could get me the best deals on everything from girls to bootleg CDs. The ride took about 15 minutes total, and we parted on excellent terms after I gave him a very generous tip for the fun ride.

Back in the room, I relaxed with a beer from the minibar and some of the more exotic fruits in the fruit basket as I watched the bustle of the city and the river at night. I finally turned in for the night after setting a 630am wakeup call for my 945am flight.

I awakened just as the sun was beginning to make its presence felt amid the smog of the Bangkok dawn sky, and quickly showered before heading downstairs to checkout. I was intrigued to find that my folio had a warning to all international passengers on the reverse, alerting us to a THB500(US$12) departure tax payable in cash at the airport. This information being duly noted, a taxi was quickly arranged to take me to the airport and the rate of THB400(US$9) including tolls was negotiated by the bellhop.

The drive to the airport was peaceful at this hour of morning, and we arrived at the international terminal just after 8am. I checked in at the Business Class counter and my bags were tagged all the way through to Toronto. I was also given invitations to both the Cathay Business Class lounge in Bangkok as well as the Wing/Pier complex in Hong Kong. Today, at last, I would triumphantly enter those palaces.

I paid my airport tax and headed through immigration without any delays, heading straight to the lounge. It was pretty crowded, but I found a corner and settled down with a cup of coffee, some sandwiches and a newspaper. After a while, I headed over to the computer in the corner where I logged on to FlyerTalk Chat until the lounge attendant informed us around 915am that boarding had commenced.

I trekked all the way down to gate 53 where I cleared security and was one of the last to board B-HXD. I had been assigned the aisle seat 38C, but a sweet Thai lady asked if I was willing to switch for the window and I consented. We pushed back on time, but the captain announced that our flight time would be longer than usual at just over 3 hrs because of unexpectedly strong headwinds. Of course, in my humble opinion, this was because the A340 is an underpowered piece of crap and any real aircraft would have been able to keep on schedule.

The flight itself was pretty un-memorable. I listened to generic airplane music, ate generic airplane food, leafed through a generic airplane shopping catalog and watched generic airplane entertainment. The only memorable event was an overflight of dearest old Kai Tak, now abandoned but forever etched into the memory of all those who were fortunate enough to experience her. I fought back a tear as I looked down upon the former runway 13/31 and checkerboard, thinking back to all the thrills that she had provided to legions of travelers from every corner of the world.

We touched down on a lovely sunny afternoon and taxied to one of the gates at the absolute end of the airport, parking next to a Cathay A330. I deplaned and embarked on the long trek to the train station that would then transport us to the arrivals area.

When purchasing my laptop a few days ago, I had forgotten to buy the appropriate adapter plug to enable me to use it in the rest of the world. Fortunately, I remembered that a shop in the landside departures area stocked them, so I decided to head out through immigration for a few minutes and buy it there during my 3 hour connection. As usual, the immigration officer barely glanced at my face before stamping me into Hong Kong and I breezed through customs and up the escalator to the departure level. There, I was able to locate the adapters I needed and purchased them for the total cost of HK$70(US$9).

I headed back through outbound immigration and the lady at the desk asked how long I had been in Hong Kong. I replied completely honestly that it had been about 5 minutes and explained my reason. She chuckled and chided me for my brief visit, adding that I should try a longer visit next time. I smiled and assured her that I would, and she provided me with my fourth Hong Kong exit stamp of the week.

With plenty of time to kill, I strategically made plans to visit both the Wing and Pier to optimize my experience. My first move was to test the waters at the Wing. I presented my invitation and was welcomed inside with a smile. Already, I had reached one step further than my last futile attempt at penetrating the inner lair.

Upstairs, I took a quick walk to the men’s room to freshen up before heading back downstairs to the luggage room and stowing my bag. I asked the girl at the desk about protocol for re-entry and she stamped the rear of my boarding pass to indicate that I had surrendered my invitation already and was to be allowed access. That done, I headed down to the train and set course for the Pier.

At the Pier, I descended the escalator and presented the stamped boarding pass for access, again receiving no hassles as I was welcomed in. I made a beeline for the Noodle Bar, where I ordered a bowl of the daily special Dan Dan Noodles, an excellent concoction of noodles in a spicy peanut broth. I relaxed in the corner with my noodles, some dim sum and a Bacardi-Coke as I watched the arrival traffic on one of the runways. Ah, this is the life.

Next stop on my club-hopping tour was the Northwest WorldClub, which I accessed with the aid of my KLM Royal Wing card. The buffet here looked very appetizing and I helped myself to a nice plate of satay that I proceeded to devour while making some phone calls.

From here it was back on the train and back to the Wing, where I grabbed some sandwiches from the Long Bar and a cup of Haagen Dazs ice-cream from the Short Bar as I relaxed with a magazine. Our flight was due out from gate 4, so I was able to keep an eye on the progress of the boarding procedure from my vantage point one level above the concourse.

I finally trooped aboard the aircraft right at the tail end of the boarding process and took my assigned bulkhead aisle seat 30G. Our aircraft today was B-HXN, twin sister of the aircraft I had flown on my outbound leg from Toronto, both having entered service with Singapore Airlines before being sold to Cathay.

We pushed back on time and were quickly airborne for Anchorage with an absolutely full load. As the crew came around with the menu cards, I decided to pop out my PTV and kick back. It was at this moment that my worst nightmare came true.

To my absolute horror, not only would my seat not recline, but my PTV was not turning on either. I quickly checked the music system, but that too was dead. Panic rising in my throat, I tried to ring the call button, but it remained mute despite my frantic urgings. Finally, the overhead reading light had also gone AWOL, leaving me facing the prospect of spending the next 17 hours sitting upright in a broken seat devoid of all electrical systems.

Hoping against hope that this was not going to be the case, I decided to hunker down and eat before making an issue about it. My meal choice was the special selection from Yung Kee Restaurant, “Braised Spring Chicken with Preserved Turnip”, and the excellent food kept me distracted for the next hour or so. Once the trays were cleared though, I flagged down a FA and alerted her to my predicament. She tried playing with the buttons in vain and then summoned the Inflight Service Manager. She too tried everything from jiggling the buttons to resetting the entire IFE system for the aircraft, but alas my seat remained as dead as ever.

The poor Service Manager was highly apologetic, but explained that there was absolutely no other seat available on the aircraft in any class, so she was totally helpless as far as accommodating me elsewhere. I told her that I understood, and I would try and make the best of the bad situation. I settled down with a newspaper and started reading, but soon the cabin lights were dimmed and I was no longer able to do that either. I sat upright in my seat and stared into the darkness until I fell asleep from sheer boredom.

I slept restlessly for about 4 hours and then awakened with the cabin still asleep and over 3 hours still left to Anchorage. I freshened up and then went to the rear galley where I struck up a conversation with the crew there. They were extremely welcoming and I spent a fun few hours there until we began our descent into Anchorage. On the way back to my seat, I was stopped by the Purser who handed me an envelope containing a handwritten apology note signed by both the Service Manager and the Captain for the seat problems, as well as US$50 in Duty Free shopping vouchers. This was indeed the way to handle things with class.

We landed in Anchorage just around 10am on a beautiful fall day and taxied briskly to gate N8. The inspection procedure was the same as on the outbound legs and I actually drew the exact same officer who had cleared me the previous week. He was not pleased at having to input the data again manually, but seemed to recognize me, asking “Weren’t you here last week?”. I replied that I was on my way back now, to which he nodded and sent me on my way.

I spent the layover here eating another “Reindeer Dog” and buying a copy of the local newspaper to read on the next segment. I was touched to note that the Purser passed me on her way to customs and again apologized for the inconvenience. Finally, boarding was called and I headed back aboard the aircraft at the tail end of the process.

The captain for this segment was the same Capt. Kevin Houghton who had flown me Toronto-Anchorage the previous week and I recognized his voice during the pre-flight announcements. The temperature was low enough that we were forced to de-ice before departure - my first de-icing of the season. Thankfully, our flight time on this leg would be just under 6 hours, meaning that after the brunch service I would only have to kill time for about 4 hours before we arrived.

Brunch was served soon after takeoff and I tucked into the excellent Dim Sum offering with Vermicelli. I then relaxed with the Anchorage newspaper for a while, before making some purchases from the Duty Free catalog with my vouchers. About 2 hours into the flight, I fell asleep and awoke somewhere above Thunder Bay.

I freshened up and returned to my seat just as we commenced our descent, touching down around 9pm. My friend was meeting the flight and he greeted me warmly and walked me down to Customs, where I was quickly stamped into the country without any hassles. Bags arrived on the conveyor a few minutes later and I emerged into the cold of the Toronto evening. Seven countries, seven nights. Another whirlwind trip had ended. Home       Trip Reports Index       Whine And Cheez Index       Discussion Forums

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