Month: December 2018

Air China J: KMG – RGN

7 Dec 18

Check-in & Lounge

 

By this point, Mr Y had told me to visit Yangon multiple times. However, I already held a flight ticket out of China to Australia on China Southern.  These sort of changes usually involve getting nothing in return for my sunk costs.  I decided to have a look at the various flight prices.  While I wasn’t happy with the cost to Yangon from Kunming, a small schedule change on China Southern meant that I could have my ticket refunded in its entirety.

Further, I was able to secure a cheap ticket from Yangon to Australia on Malindo Air business class, which was actually cheaper than the economy options on Singapore, Thai, or Malaysian. Fine. 2 of the 3 components of this adventure were far better than expected.  I made the change and found myself suitable lodgings at the Chatrium Yangon.

At the airport, the mass of travelers had spread themselves to all check-in queues.  Several people were in front of me at the business line. I snapped a photo and sent it to Mr Y, who had a number of uncharitable comments to make at the expense of Kunming provincials and their literacy. (To a Shanghainese, Yunnan is the equivalent of ‘Flyover Country’ in the US.)

The queue of apparent illiterates

I found myself getting aboard his train of thought as I found myself declining the service of black-market FOREX touts soliciting business from the queued travelers.

Nonetheless, I passed through the near-empty exit immigration and security. There was no need for VIP/biz class express privileges. There were less than half a dozen of us travelers being processed at one time. Within minutes, I was in the cavernous but sleepy international departure wing of Kunming airport.

I visited VIP lounge number 1, a contract lounge used by Air China, Thai, Cathay Dragon, and others.  The decorator’s taste could best be described as grandmotherly.  Hot water machines were in abundance, and there was a small offering of sandwiches, soda, bottled water, and cupcakes.  I took a bottle of water and brewed some Pu’er tea. 

After about 45 minutes, an attendant informed me that my flight had begun boarding.  Gate 70, mine for today, was only a short walk from the lounge. I arrived to find that most passengers had already boarded.  I thus took my seat and wasn’t disturbed by a full planeload (as this was an A319-100, there weren’t many of us).

On Board

 

Having boarded, a flight attendant welcomed me with a hot towel and a platter of beverages to choose from.  This seemed excessive for a cabin, so far, with an occupancy of one. Rather than ask me beforehand, she presented me with a choice of water, juices, and champagne. Naturally, I opted for champagne.  While my prior flights on China Eastern struck me as perfectly decent, their service omitted this most civilized pleasure.

Bourgeois Delight

Later, two more gents boarded, giving a business class load of 3/8 for this flight.

The plane itself was in decent condition. I noticed a touchscreen monitor to control cabin lights, but the cabin itself was very “base model.” My seat was a mechanically controlled, rather than electronically. The center console/table between the biz seats looked dirty but was in fact just “aged.” Nonetheless, my seat was comfortable enough for a 2-hour flight.

Eminently man-spreadable

I was presented with an overly substantial lunch that I wasn’t entirely up to eating. The food was fine, but it was too much.  There was garlic bread, meat rilettes, Yunnan-style sour fungus (more appetizing than it sounds), the chicken & mushroom main course, steamed rice, and fruit.  The quantity would have sufficed for an intercontinental J service, if you count the fruit as dessert.  My lunch was edible and forgettable.

The kulak class meal

I did finish off the champagne.  It seems as if they only keep a half bottle (375ml) on board.

I found the service quite good.  Notably, I can’t comment on the FAs English skills.  Once it was obvious that I could speak some (rudimentary) Chinese, the crew exclusively used Chinese to communicate with me.  I was delighted for the practice.

Arrival

 

Arrival in Yangon was easy.  Immigration was completely empty. No passengers. I was the first off the plane and the first to pass immigration, which had a dozen desks manned for…no one. Oh, US airports could learn something…  Customs was a non-issue. My friend advised me to walk through, as they wouldn’t dare to stop me. That was a new experience. (I was concerned, as they want you to declare gold/jewelry/valuables that are entering temporarily, which is a tad…invasive and problematic from a definitional point of view. E.g., does my computer count because of its original retail value, or not so much due to use/physical wear/tear?)

Overall: The flight was quite good.  The price was higher than I prefer to pay for a short regional (Economy was $180, plus another $80 for my second bag or $280 for business, hence my location), but this route is an effective duopoly between China Eastern and Air China. 2 hours of “real world” Chinese practice has some value, and I did enjoy some unexpected free champagne, so I am pleased with what I received considering market prices.

My First Time on a Mainland Chinese Carrier: China Eastern to Kunming

 

Bangkok BKK – Kunming KMG; $250, business class, 26 August

 

I didn’t know what to expect in terms of routing on my way to Kunming to BKK.  It turned out unexpectedly that Kunming is a “focus city”[i] for China Eastern (MU). Cool. Also, they were selling a business class ticket for the same price as a Thai economy ticket. Well, I was sold.

 

That said, MU has a reputation that is most succinctly described as “shitty.” Given the relative complaint ratios, MU could be thought of as United with Chinese Characteristics – pilots smoking in the cabin, unruly passengers, dingy planes from the Reagan/Deng Xiaoping era, inedible food, et cetera. Did that deter me? Of course not!

 

Circa 1:30 pm, I caught a Grab[ii] car from the Millennium Hilton to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport. I enjoyed the no-hassle fair price of paying 450 baht (billed to my US Amex, btw) versus haggling with a Bangkok taxi driver.

 

I went to the business class counter where the MU ground staff efficiently checked me in at the empty Biz class counter. She explained that MU uses the Thai Airways business lounge and pointed out the one closest to my departure gate.  Quelle surprise! I was expecting some mediocre contract lounge with cold coffee and staff that despises you. I was not expected a non-allied (Thai is Star Alliance, MU Skyteam) carrier’s home airport flagship lounges.

 

I changed my last remaining Thai Baht to Chinese RMB and breezed through premium security. Making my way to the lounge, I enjoyed a Thai chicken curry, a couple of Singha beers, and these delicate Thai desserts – mung bean paste molded into the shape of other fruits – peaches and cherries. Well done. The internet connection in the lounge allowed me to easily do some light browsing and whatsapp chatting. 

View of the Thai Airways business class lounge in Bangkok

At boarding time, I made my way to the gate just as boarding for biz class passengers was called.  I found myself on a perfectly adequate plane – certainly not a museum exhibit from the 80s. That said, it wasn’t a brand new delivery, either. The crew offered me a pre-departure drink (water or juice, I opted for water) and a warm towel. So far so good. I found the seat pitch to be suitably generous for the domestic and regional flights that these aircraft serve.

Seat pitch on China Easter's 737 business class

After take-off, I decided that a Tsingtao beer was in order, which required ice as it was warm.   The propaganda in the above newspaper drove  me to drink. This moment marked the beginning of my adjustment to particularities of life in China. 

Tsingtao beer with a glass of ice on my flight

Inflight service consisted of a Chinese chicken dish with rice, veggies, salad, fruit, and dessert.  This blows away what you get on non-JFK/BOS/WAS to LAX/SFO US premium class services. I love those mung bean desserts shaped into miniature fruit. 

Business class meal on China Eastern Bangkok to Kunming

 

IFE was on overhead screens, so I needed to check my phone to know where we were (GPS vaguely works in airplane mode).  I did enjoy what I think were views of the Mekong river in Laos.

A big river in Laos, maybe the Mekong

Upon arrival, we parked at a remote stand. Economy passengers went into a bus, and Biz passengers into a van. I have come to be thankful for that van. (Stay tuned for my intra-China adventures).

Business class bus KMG

Baggage collection turned out to be interesting. I noticed that myself and a few others all had their bags.  Surprise: we unhappy few who remained were all biz passengers.  I was tempted to make a joke about class warfare/flying in kulak class to the PRC. We commiserated and discussed the next step. I thought back to my arrival in Bali, and went over to another belt. There, I found our bags spinning around all alone. I waved my new acquaintances over while holding up my recovered chattels. 

 

A brief wait in the taxi queue, I was in a cab, and 40 minutes later, I crossed the threshold of my home for the next four months.

[i] A city that’s not quite a major hub, but is a significant point in a carrier’s network.

[ii] Like Uber, but in SE Asia. There is a long and storied history of those companies’ cutthroat competition.