Sunday, August 31, 2008

One more thing!...

I forgot to add that I plan on staying in Bangkok just this one Sunday night. Tomorrow evening, if the rail service has been restored, I plan on taking an overnight train to the border city of Nong Khai, from which Vientiane is only a dozen or so miles away, thereby meaning I would be in Laos a day earlier than planned. All the better, for I didn't have enough time to visit the UNESCO buddhist-temple haven of Luang Prabang. Now, with an extra day in Laos, this may just be possible. In any case, I am to be in Bangkok for 3 nights (September 5-8) after visiting Laos.

OK, now I'm off to board my plane to Bangkok (Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, or "The City of Angels," in Thai).

Day 6: Thailand, indeed :)

Well, it's weird how things have transpired.

Yesterday, I was almost positive that, with the closure of Thailand's main airports and railways, that I would not be getting into Thailand, period. Well, things have changed, and hopefully for the better.

Originally, I was due to depart Phuket at present time (i.e. as I am writing this I was to be landing there, actually). However, once I got to Changi Airport in Singapore and finally found the right terminal (Terminal 1, after a pointless attempt of taking the free budget terminal bus to the budget terminal and back), I realized that the flight was canceled, much as I had expected. I didn't expect neither a refund nor any type of compensation. My plan was to ask for a ticket to Kuala Lumpur, from which I would be able to fly to Laos. Laos is the best alternative place based on my plans, because I had (and still have) a flight for Hanoi, Vietnam, that departs Bangkok on September 8. If, for any reason, that flight were to also be canceled, buses go from the Lao capital (Vientiane) to Hanoi for just $20 (roughly 24 hours). And if things got quiet in Thailand, I would be able to get to Bangkok quite fast from Laos over land. So that was the plan.

Well, things turned out to be much quicker and cheaper (and I hope all for the better). I was offered a flight to Bangkok that leaves in just 130 minutes. I thought it was a joke, but apparently the airport in Bangkok is open indeed. The catch was that I had to pay the difference and check in my luggage (a rule that came into effect in June for AirAsia flights that I hitherto thought I was immune to, for I purchased my tickets back in February and was not to be affected as a result by these changes). In any case, AirAsia credited me S$70 (the price of my promotional Singapore-Phuket fare) and also agreed to cancel my ticket, upon my request, from Phuket to Bangkok, since my new Singapore-Bangkok flight obviated the need of a flight out of Phuket. My total credit was about S$102, so I had to pay the difference of S$50 (about $36 USD). And that would mean I would be in Thailand a few hours from now.

Now I have booked my hostel and am writing this blog post from a free internet cafe hotspot at Changi Airport, which is a joy to be in. Hopefully Thailand is a lot quieter than last night. The last I read was that the Thai currency, the baht, is at a 9-month low to the U.S. dollar due to all the political tension and uncertainty, but the Thai Prime Minister has dissolved parliament and has called for snap elections, thereby hopefully acquiesing to the protestors' demands and taming the tumult that has raged on these past few days.

I don't promise pictures of the scene in Bangkok, but if it is possible, I will post one or two pictures. Bangkok should be safer now. And I am fairly lucky to be going there at all, having been certain that Thailand was out of my itinerary for sure. And after hearing the couple in the queue in front of me--how they were flying in from Australia to Singapore just to get to Phuket for a wedding, and having those plans canceled and requesting help from the Australian Embassy in Singapore--I feel too lucky, perhaps. Now that they credited both my tickets (to and from Phuket) and having found this free internet hotspot, things can't be better at the moment.

So there I head off to a place (i.e. global hotspot) that is crowded with journalists. My hostel costs only $4.50/night.

P.S. Singapore yesterday was fun. I met a girl named Yuliya in person after meeting her online and we went for a walk on the embankment of Sentosa Beach. A nice, expensive place (and a correspondingly beautiful woman). She is actually from Vladivostok, Russia, which I plan on visiting, if all goes according to plan, from October 26-28. But I am kind of bored in Singapore already. It's a nice place, but knowing that I will be in the center of things in Thailand sure makes the trip that much more risque and "sexy." :)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Thailand?! Tomorrow? Yeah, right...

Not that I don't want to go, but it's unlikely that my flight will leave Singapore for Phuket (Thailand) as scheduled tomorrow. Why? Well, it's been closed by protestors, as have 2 other airports in the staunchly Buddhist country. This is a major snag, for I had a flight to Bangkok out of Phuket, and then to Laos from there, and then to other places... I don't know what gonna happen know, but it's unlikely that I'll depart tomorrow, at least that's what I think. Oh well, time will tell.

Below is an article I found in today's edition of the Wall Street Journal documenting the recent maelstrom in the kingdom:

"Thai Protests Spread, Shut Airports
By JAMES HOOKWAY and STEPHEN WRIGHTAugust 30, 2008; Page A5

BANGKOK -- Waves of antigovernment protests spread beyond Thailand's capital Friday as clashes between police and demonstrators intensified, forcing the closure of several regional airports and disrupting rail services.

The escalating political confrontation threatens to destabilize the popularly elected government of Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and could begin to undermine the country's economy, especially the vital tourism sector, which is vulnerable to any prolonged disruption of air travel.

The latest round of demonstrations began Tuesday, when opponents of Mr. Samak attempted to seize a state-run television station and about 30,000 protesters took over a number of government buildings, including Mr. Samak's official headquarters at Government House. About 10,000 people were still occupying the grounds of the prime minister's office Friday night.

The protesters, led by a group called the People's Alliance for Democracy, are demanding that Mr. Samak resign because of his close connections to Thailand's ousted former premier, telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who is in Britain seeking political asylum to evade criminal corruption charges in Thailand.

Mr. Thaksin, one of Thailand's most divisive political figures, introduced populist politics to the country and served five years as a powerful premier before being ousted in a military coup in 2006. The antigovernment protesters accuse Mr. Samak, who was elected after the restoration of democracy in December last year, of acting as proxy for Mr. Thaksin. They strongly oppose Mr. Thaksin and Mr. Samak's populist brand of politics, which has attracted a huge following among poorer rural Thais, contending that it is undermining the influence of Thailand's traditional ruling establishment -- the widely revered monarchy, the civil service and the armed forces.

Friday, demonstrators clashed with police on several new fronts, widening the battlelines. About 2,000 demonstrators marched on Bangkok's police headquarters Friday in the center of the capital after law-enforcement officials tried to break up the protest at the Government House. Police warded them off.

Other demonstrators closed down three provincial airports -- including those at the beach resorts of Phuket and Krabi in the country's south. Canceled flights stranded thousands of local and foreign travelers as Thailand gears up for the beginning of its peak tourism season. Tourism accounts for about 6% of Thailand's economy and is a major earner of foreign exchange.
Rail workers have also gone on strike, deepening the sense of crisis now engulfing Thailand's government.

Thailand's stock market closed slightly higher Friday, recovering from early losses after morning clashes between police and protesters didn't escalate until after trading hours.
But the benchmark stock index has fallen more than 20% since late May, when the People's Alliance began its campaign to force Mr. Samak from power.

Mr. Samak, facing the sternest test of his seven months in power, told reporters he wasn't ready to declare a state of emergency to try to contain the demonstrations. But he said he would reassess the situation Sunday.

"I'll not let the situation get worse. When it comes to a certain point, I'll take care of it," the 73-year-old Mr. Samak told reporters after two meetings with the country's military chiefs to discuss the rising tension.

Thailand's political unrest is beginning to hurt the economy, the head of the central bank's domestic-economy department, Amara Sriphayak, said Friday. "We're monitoring the situation, as the politics affects confidence and tourism," Ms. Amara told a news briefing. 'The extent of the impact will largely depend on [whether there is] violence.' "

Days 2-5: LA, Looong Plane Ride, Singapore

Day 2: Waking up the morning of Wednesday, August 27 wasn't something I looked forward to. For one, Jim's parents offered me a nice place to sleep--it was comfortable and the room had Internet (what more could I ask for?!). But the main reason I didn't want to wake up was obvious: who wants to look forward to two plane rides, especially trans-Pacific ones. And especially out of LAX Airport.

LAX has the infamous reputation of being one of America's hell-hole airports. Service there is abysmal; actually, I don't think it existed at all after last year's incident (read: standing hours trying to board a plane to Tokyo with no one notifying any of the passengers that there are actually three lines in one due to a lack of personnel... and, as a result, making the flight by a matter of minutes and having to worry if the luggage made it). I expected much of the same this year, if not worse.

To my surprise, even after arriving later than I wanted to to the airport (but still within the 3-hour time frame suggested for international flights), I whisked through check-in. There were none of the big, never-ending queues I encountered last year. It seemed like a whole new airport. A staff member who saw me immediately pointed me to an online check-in counter. Within 10 minutes, I had my boarding pass, medical emergency contact form, and receipt in hand--not to mention by bag checked in. Unfortunately, I accidentally stuck my luggage tag on my carry-on luggage rather than the checked in bag, so I was praying that the bag would not get lost. If it did, this would cause unknown logistical problems, for by the time the bag would be located and delivered to me in Singapore, I would probably be in Phuket, Thailand, and so on and so forth.

Having made it to the flight terminal, I met a girl who was doing the trans-Siberian journey like I was. Only she was going on it ASAP: her flight was to Tokyo and then to Shanghai, from which she planned on going to Beijing and taking the train all the way to St. Petersburg, with spots in Ulaanbaatar and Moscow, as well as a few other Russian cities. By the time we started talking, I didn't realize that it was time to board. Boarding was swift and efficient. The smile on my face was obvious when I got my free copies of the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times to read on the plane ride (courtesy of Northwest Airlines).

From the Financial Times, I gleaned the latest news and was surprised to learn that Russian President Medvedev had decided to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries. Not that I didn't think Russia would do it--I just didn't think it would come so fast. In any case, it was to be expected sooner or later, just perhaps not this abruptly.

Day 3: Upon arrival at Tokyo's Narita Airport, I watched CNN and fell asleep; by the time I woke up, boarding had begun for flight #2: Tokyo to Singapore Changi International Airport. Just as I was boarding the plane, Japanese TV started showing a special documentary on Kim Jong-Il and his many wives. Despite the fact that I didn't understand anything, I was finally able to see what his kidnapped South Korean wife looked like: she was amazingly beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that I did not want to board flight #2, which, unlike the first nearly 11-hour-long one, was only about six-and-a-half hours. Oh well, too late, as I had already stepped on the plane. I quickly forgot about the North Korean dictator documentary when I was given another free edition of the Financial Times and a local English language Singapore daily, aplty named Today. It was from these two papers that I found out about the tumultuous protests currently taking place in Seoul and Bangkok, both over citizens' unhappiness over their governments' actions. Normally I would not care much, but I am visiting both cities--and Bangkok fairly soon (in less than a week). Although the protest there is non-violent (at least as far as I know), anything may happen. Let's all hope cooler heads prevail and Thailand will be able to avert another coup.

I soon fell asleep again. Unlike the LAX-Narita (Tokyo) flight, which was full, the plane to Singapore was smaller and only about 60% full. No one sat next to me (woo hoo!), which allowed me to lie down horizontally and fall asleep.

Day 4: Customs at Changi Singapore was a breeze. The airport was amazingly convenient and large, especially for a country of just over 4 million people. Due to a 50% night surcharge levied after midnight on all taxi rides, I decided to wait for an airport shuttle. An hour later and I was checked into my hostel.

Waking up just hours later, I decided to finally explore Singapore. My impressions, in short, are like those of many other people: Singapore is a clean, civilized place. There are four official languages: English, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay, although English and Mandarin are by far the most widely spoken. My hostel was located in Little India, which was mainly populated by Tamil people, I assume (based on the fact that Hindi signage was rarely seen, unlike Tamil, which was ubiquitous). Prices weren't bad. A good meal of Thai seafood fried rice, an iced cofee, and a shrimp on a stick thingy cost me S$6 (less than $5 USD). I got lost on the way back to my hostel, which was a blessing: on the long way back I saw many places that I otherwise wanted to see anyway, such as the Parliament Building and the city-state's main thoroughfare, Orchard Street. The city, as a business capital in South-East Asia, was obviously not a poor place: poverty, as well as beggers, was rarely seen. Mobile phones and cars were in abundance. It felt like a Western city, more or less.

Note: I just found out that Ramadan is coming up. I don't know what this means, but I hope food is served in Malaysia at least in some places during the day-time when I will be there in a few weeks. I don't wanna starve (I'm on vacation, dammit!).

Oh well, maybe even if food even served it's not that bad: I'll have no choice but to save money. And what's even better is that my money situation is better than expected: I've only spent $36 in LA and $48 in Singapore total so far (and that includes an up-front prepayment of 2 more nights of accommodation). Nice.

Definitely a nice, smooth start to my trip.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A quirky moment...

I forgot to mention the "highlight" of my highlight at LA's Union Station... Some guy who claims he is retired and before used to purportedly work for Exxon-Mobil sold me a gold chain. He claims it is 18k-gold and said the pawnshop offered him $70 for it, but he didn't have 2 forms of ID, as they required. And he really needed some cigarettes and a drink. So I refused for $20, refused for $15, and for $10 I obliged. Even if it's a scam--which it likely is--this may help me swindle the bribetakers in places like Laos or Russia. Time will tell...

The good news is that a chain has the 18k probe on it. Hopefully this is real. But, again, it probably is fake, at least that's what my experience and intuition claims.

Days 1-2: Los Angeles, California

An 8-hour wait was the "highlight" of my stay in Los Angeles, apart from the fact that my friend Jim's parents allowed me to stay at their place in Pasadena and invited me over for dinner. The 8-hour stay at Union Station was the obvious choice: with a lot of luggage, it wasn't convenient to walk around and experience LA, which I had done last year before my flight to Narita Tokyo anyway.

In any case, the weather here is terrific as usual. Pasadena is great--and the downtown area in a place I would definitely like to visit again.

Anyway, I'm off to LAX in a moment... my plane to Singapore leaves in 6 hours.

Enjoy the blog. This is the first post (a.k.a. introduction). Henceforth, I'll make sure to include pictures in my posts. And I'll try to update it as often as I can.