Tim Foolery

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Air Asia Economy (RGN-DMK)

Our last shorthaul flight on our trip to Myanmar had us leaving Yangon on Air Asia to Bangkok. I had never flown Air Asia before but I usually try to stear clear of low cost carriers because you can often get stuck paying a lot more in fees (carryon, checked bags, seat assignments, etc), than you initially plan. We really didn’t have an option for this trip as the flights to Bangkok on Thai (our preference) or Myanmar National Airlines all left dramatically later than we wanted. We wanted to spend the afternoon in Bangkok and a 15h30 departure from Yangon would help us out in that regard.

We decided on Air Asia because the flight times were the best we could find, plus the air fare was very reasonable. Air Asia wasn’t flying into BKK,  but DMK (Don Mueang International Airport) instead. It looked to be a bit closer to the St. Regis anyway and our goal was to enjoy Bangkok, so we booked it.

Our driver from Yangon, earlier in the trip, picked us up at the domestic terminal and drove us to the international terminal. It was very generous and included in the price we paid for the tour, but it really wasn’t necessary the distance between the terminals wasn’t long nor was it convoluted.

We had about two hours between the time our flight from Heho landed until we left for Bangkok. Yangon has a contract lounge and with your Priority Pass you can gain access. That is of course, unless you run into the people we did at the airport. The women working the lounge wouldn’t accept our Priority Pass. She said that we weren’t welcome (that’s a quote). I figured I could just pay for access then bring it up with Citi or Chase once we get back home. No deal. We saw another passenger enter by showing some sort of pass (not a printed lounge access card, but a credit card sized pass). He was a young man of European descent. No clue what the issue was, but she kept the lounge locked up like Fort Knox.

There was a lot of empty space and not a lot of seats in Yangon, and almost no power outlets. We found seats near the gate and sat for about 90 minutes. Interestingly enough, while we waited, we met an American couple from my home state…and the woman actually went to the same college as me (20 years prior, but I went to a small school and the only other Americans we ran into having this connection with us was quite exciting).

We boarded the plane and quickly found our seats near the last row. The retired Oregonian travelers were seated in the row behind me. The man in the middle seat next to me was a very tall African man. He had two large Fosters Beers, one of which was half consumed and the other was chugged between the time we were on our take off roll but before we hit cruising altitude. As we boarded we saw a tall European (could be North American) board with a rainbow clown wig, a big red nose and a big horn that he’d honk from time to time.

Pretty tight pitch on this Air Asia flight – awful uncomfortable.

Interior shot of a moderately packed A320.

Before we reached 3,000 meters the flight attendants began service. The flight to Bangkok was less than 50 minutes, but a small snack box was served to all 180 people on board their Airbus A320. The pitch was quite tight and the African dude chugging his Fosters (and silent burping and blowing his beer stink on me) was manspreading like a motherfucker. The seat width is tight on this plane, so it really felt like he was trying to play footsie. It was a rough 50 minutes.

We landed and the Oregonians were asking where we were staying and they lost their minds when we said the St. Regis.  They were staying at an Ibis because they got a rate of 70USD per night. The St. Regis was 140USD. Big percentage difference, but an even bigger quality difference. I love the cheap luxury hotels in Bangkok.  They wanted to split a cab with us, which was probably the last thing in our list at that point. Luckily their phones weren’t working, so we told them that our hotels were in opposite directions, then once off the plane, we ran like Olympic Sprinters to ensure we didn’t have to discuss cab sharing again.

We had forgotten how tight the cabs are in Bangkok too. There would have been no way our suitcases, their backpacks and ourselves would have fit into one of those cabs. Whew.

If I had a choice between Thai and Air Asia, I’d choose Thai. For such a short flight with reasonable airfare and departure time, Air Asia was perfectly acceptable. I would definitely fly them again, if the need arose.

What do you think of Air Asia? Is it worth the hassle to save a few bucks or a few hours of vacation?

Myanmar National Airlines Economy (HEH-RGN)

Our time in Myanmar had come to a close. The final portion of our trip would have Mike and I split from John and Ryan who would continue on to Mandalay, while we headed to Bangkok for 36 hours of luxury hotels and meals.  We all were flying out of Heho (the airport that serves Inle Lake) at around the same time.

We were taking a new airline for us, Myanmar National Airlines.  This state owned and flag carrier of Myanmar has 21 planes, with six more on order and serves 31 destinations in five countries (China, India, Singapore, Thailand and of course, Myanmar).  Most of their fleet is made up of various versions of the top wing mounted ATR 72.  They have a few Boeing 737s, two Embraer E-190s and even four Cessna 208 Caravans.  Our flight to Yangon was on a new ATR 72-600

Like our other intra-Myanmar flights, we arrived at the airport and our guide wandered off with our passports and our luggage. We stood around like confused tourists, because, well  we were confused tourists. Our guide returned with our boarding passes and we walked to the gate area. Several flights were leaving around our departure time and the various gates just led out to the tarmac. It didn’t matter which gate (really, just doors) you left from, you end up on a walkway plane side.

Myanmar National Airlines Check-In Area, complete with the dry erase departures board.

Asian Wings Check-In Area.

The rest of the terminal…

I love big walls of clocks for some reason. I love seeing what time it is in different parts of the world, wondering what people are doing in that given city at that exact moment. The big board of time in Heho was a little off…

The gate area at Heho had an old world LED Clock…what’s wrong with those times?

We boarded our plane, from the rear door and took our assigned seats. Like with our trips on Air KBZ, the aircraft door closed and we were moving without us even noticing. Not sure how a small prop plane like that can be so smooth and relatively quiet, but it was.

Some pretty great plane spotting at Heho Airport.

Our chariot from Heho to Yangon. Myanmar National Airlines ATR-72 600.

The plane was pretty new and wasn’t dirty and gross like many of United’s planes, especially the small quick hop planes for flights about an hour long. The flight to Yangon was about 40 minutes and as we passed about 10,000 feet, the flight crew jumped into service.

Interior Cabin of our ATR 72-600. Clean. New. Comfortable (for a very short haul).

Pretty abysmal pitch on this flight, but for the short time aboard, we survived.

We had a breakfast box with a pain au chocolat and a type of fruit cake. The chocolate croissant was typical airline fare and the cake had an odd, super sweet flavor – I had a single bite.

Breakfast box served on our extremely short flight.

Our carb-tastic breakfast pastries. The chocolate croissant wasn’t all that bad, but I think my expectations were pretty low based on this presentation.

As we come in for a landing, the flight attendants brought around baskets of pizza candy, which I initially thought would be some funky tomato or pepperoni flavored candy (it is Asia…), alas, it was just a hard candy shaped like a slice of pizza and flavored like fruit (or even cola).

Pizza candy was our pre-arrival snack.

It just looked like pizza, but tasted like chemicals…

We landed in Yangon, right on schedule and left the plane as quickly as we boarded it. The passengers for the next flight were chomping at the bit to board and get in with their journey.  Of course, they couldn’t do that until the ground crew in Rangoon replaced a shit ton of oil in the port engine. I am no airline mechanic, but this seems like a lot of oil (they weren’t changing the oil, they were adding oil).

After landing the ground crew came with a ton of oil for the engine…that doesn’t seem right to me.

In general, unwound have absolutely no hesitation in flying Myanmar National Airlines again. The service was quick and efficient (I would have been fine with no service, it was a 40 minute flight for God’s sake). The airplane seemed safe (except for maybe the oil issue, I found upon landing).  These flights throughout Myanmar are the only real way to get around the country when you are on a short vacation – you can’t waste all that time driving or taking the train that often has inexplicable delays.

Food of Myanmar

Myanmar is a country nestled between India, Thailand and China.  It is at a cross roads of culinary delight.  The textures, flavors and the spices (both from a flavor and a heat standpoint) of these three countries make them home to some of my favorite cuisines.  I knew nothing of Burmese food before we started planning this trip.  I had never been to a Burmese restaurant and come to think of it, I don’t believe I had even seen a Burmese restaurant in the United States.  I chocked that up to the isolationism of the totalitarian regime.  There were few refugees from Myanmar making it to the United States – the influx of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s spurred the growth of Little Vietnams in various cities as well as expanding the American palate to embrace these non-American flavors including Vietnamese Fish Sauce, which you’d be hard pressed to find before the refugee influx.

Despite never eating Burmese food, I was extremely excited to have 10 days of basking in the culinary bliss that I just assumed would be an amalgamation of Indian, Thai and Chinese.  I was looking forward to trying curries filled with various types of protein (beef, pork, chicken…I wasn’t expecting the Burmese to have anything too exotic like dog or snake in their curries).  I figured we would switch between eating these great curry dishes to eating noodle soups, each with a varying level of spicy and flavor.

I was mistaken.

Well, that’s not 100% true.  We did eat curries with more traditional proteins (beef, pork and chicken). We did get noodles from time to time.  The food was not the heavenly blend of food from the three neighboring cultures.  It really was a relatively bland effort.  We tried different preparations of the food as we moved around the country and as we did, we would find a slightly different take on the same beef or fish curry.  Nothing I had wowed me. I didn’t create an ever lengthening list of things to try again or to track down back in the US.

That being said, we did have one dish that I really enjoyed and would order it again in a heartbeat, if I could find it again.  Shan Noodle is a dish from the Shan province in Myanmar.

A lunch buffet with numerous curries.

We went a little wild at the buffet.

My first Shan Noodle from 999 Shan Noodle.

A great shrimp spicy noodle dish served as breakfast at the airport.

A series of Burmese food.

I’m enjoying a Myanmar Beer, which was a staple lunch drink for me.

Chicken Curry wrapped in a banana leaf.

Grilled Spicy Fish.

The best meal in Myanmar, a Shan Noodle Family Recipe.

The chef/owner of Myat That Kavng Restaurant.

While we only had one meal that was bad (I think the beef had turned, but the hotel restaurant at the Pristine Lotus cooked with it anyway), most meals were bland, yet perfectly sustainable.  We weren’t able to find the flavorful food the locals eat.  Our guide, who was a local, said that we were indeed eating the local food, which was disappointing.  I was hoping we could find the Myanmar equivalent of the delicious peasant food of France or Germany or the wonderfully nuanced noodles the Vietnamese people eat.

One of the main goals for me, when traveling, is to explore the local cuisine. One of the main things I look for when planning a trip is the food. I was disappointed in that aspect of our trip to Myanmar.

What is your favorite dish from Myanmar?  Do you have a Burmese restaurant back home you like to visit?  Other than Shan 999 or Myat That Kavng where should I have eaten on my trip to Myanmar?

Favorite Places and the Resulting Lost Opportunity

One of the key benefits of travel is the ability to frequently try new things. One of the key detractors of travel can be the lack of consistency, lack of the known, the comfortable. When traveling, you can be met by newness every time you turn a corner. That newness, that unexpectedness is both the most exciting part and the most nerveracking part of travel.

When you find a place that you love, be that a restaurant with great food, a bar with excellent service, a bookshop with friendly and knowledgeable staff or a boutique that has the perfect gift, do you find yourself returning to that place time and time again when you visit that city? I do. When in LA, I visit The Lobster (Santa Monica) in Toronto, I dine at Barberian’s. When in Portland, we eat and drink at Departure. In New Orleans I always get an Absinthe from a dive bar abutting the cathedral. These are my go to places. They have special meaning to me and I love sharing these experiences with my travel companions.

The problem with these familiar places not only shines during travel, but while home. Every time you visit one of your regular haunts, you miss the opportunity to experience something new and magical. You feel comfortable, but you don’t push yourself to try something new.

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Paris (if you follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Google+ you already know that). We returned to Le Marais (4e Arrondissment), the same neighborhood we stayed in during our first visit in 2011. We stayed in a different hotel this time. We ate at different restaurants this time. Three of the four nights we were there, we stopped by a small cafe on Place Saint-Catherine and ordered a bottle of rosé. Each day we were in Paris it was over 30C each day, so a late night rosé was quite refreshing. We had the same server each night. Our final night we stroll up, take a seat on the Place and our server came up, took my hand and pulled me from a welcome handshake into a big bear hug. He asked, in French, if we would like a bottle of rosé tonight. He was welcoming. He was happy to see us. Yes, he was making money off of us, but he appreciated our loyalty.  We appreciated the sense of home despite the fact we were more than 6,600 kilometers from our actual home.  We will return to this cafe on our next trip to Paris.

Place de Vosge – Le Marais.

What are you missing? Does what you get from visiting the same place out weigh the possible opportunity for something better elsewhere? When you travel, what do you push for? Newness with each experience, or a level of comfort?

Balloons Over Bagan

When one thinks of Bagan, they often think of the sunrise over the pagodas and temples, with a slight smokiness in the air – observed from a silent hot air balloon.  We decided to experience this very touristy aspect of Bagan – and we loved it.  Our guides suggested we use Balloons Over Bagan (BOB) as our balloon operator.  They came highly recommended for their equipment, safety, native English speaking tour guides and quality tour product in general.  BOB was not inexpensive – it cost us $300 per person. I don’t know if others were less expensive, but in this case, I’m not sure I’d like to go with a local operator to save some money where you could get stuck with a less safe experience.

Our trip started at 04h50 when BOB’s bus pulled up to our hotel.  Other guests at the hotel were waiting for other operators, but we were the first picked up.  We take the old rickety bus to a couple other hotels and then finally to the launching point.  We arrive at around 05h30 and were greeted with some tea and biscuits to accompany our safety briefing.

Our chariot arrived before 05h00. It was as comfortable as it looks.

Our safety briefing was held in the round with tea, coffee and cookies.

The guides with BOB were highly trained balloonists who work year round flying these balloons all over the world.  Our guide was from the UK and he was knowledgeable and personable.  We were assigned a balloon and waited for the canopy to expand.

Our balloon was the first to lift off that morning.  We were also the last one to arrive at the launch point, so our team was by far the most efficient.  We were airborne 15 minutes before some of the other balloons too.  The view of us slowly floating away from the launch site was beautiful.

We were the first to take off – we quietly lifted away from our fellow Balloons Over Bagan guests.

We were airborne for about 90 minutes and flew up to about 1,200 feet which allowed us to most breathtaking views of the temple areas.  When you think of Bagan and the view from the balloons, you probably think of the fog surrounding the trees and the temples.  That’s not actual fog, it’s smoke from the various fires the locals are burning. Some of it is from fires in the fields – burning the field to improve the health of their fields.  Other fires, and according to our guide, many of these fires, are actually the locals burning their trash.  These trash fires caused a bitter smell in the air.  It did make for a pretty view though.

Three balloon operators were flying our morning. Despite the sheer number of balloons it was still whisper quiet.

Our hotel – the Bagan Lodge, from the air.

Towards the end of our flight, the balloon leaves a heart shaped shadow on the ground.

We hadn’t decided to take the balloon ride until the day before we arrived in Bagan and we were fortunate enough to get space on a balloon.  If you plan on going to Bagan, you must take a hot air balloon ride, don’t stop to think about it for a second, just do it.  Book your reservation early to ensure you don’t miss out.  Our guide was Stephen Kinsey – if you can get with him, do it.

Have you taken a hot air balloon ride before?  Where did you visit?  Were you freaked out a little bit before you took off?  Would you take one of these trips again?