Travels to Laos — flexibility is king

Written by admin on December 15, 2008 – 12:37 pm -

Air travel isn’t what it used to be and leaves some people questioning whether or not it’s worth the hassle to take to the skies. I’m not of that persuasion nor will I ever be. But I have to admit that some trips are easier to take than others, especially when they entail multiple stops and unanticipated changes.

Here is a quick report about my current trip from the road, or airport, or hotel as it may be.

On our way to Asia, we stopped in Seoul and spent a night there to acclimate to the time difference. My friend and I managed to do some sightseeing, walk through a shopping area that caters exclusively to natives, take a fast swing through the National Museum and head back to the airport for a flight the following afternoon.

Our two-for-the-price-of-one-tickets on Asiana Airlines more than made up for the cost of the layover detour through Seoul. The airline service was among the best and most gracious we’ve ever encountered. If we hadn’t been forced to make additional changes to our onward itinerary, we would have been less stressed during our stopover in Seoul. But it has been a good lesson in flexibility (as if we needed the challenge).

Because of internal politics and airport closings, rather than going to Bangkok from Seoul, we flew via Singapore. Not anticipating that leg of the trip, we had done zero research. We were lucky enough to be able to book a room at the city’s newly opened St. Regis Hotel. It’s one of the most spectacular city hotels I’ve visited in years. Thank you Starwood for allowing us to redeem points that covered the cost of our stay (with butler service and all) right off of Orchard Road.

For anyone into the Christmas spirit, the city’s decorations are breathtaking. The airport road is lined with Disney characters — it makes you wonder whether or not you’re in a foreign country. After driving a few miles, the holiday decorations glow and glitter. But they aren’t the least bit gaudy and seem to inspire people to spend money. People from all over Asia head to Singapore for R&R as well as excellent medical treatment.

Singapore is famous for its written rules and regulations that don’t even permit people to publicly chew gum and there’s zero tolerance for drug use. There is no litter nor do you see broken down cars with mufflers roaring. Owning a car is expensive — the government has a lottery system for auto permits and then imposes taxes that prevent anyone other than mega-millionaires from owning more than one.

The one full day we were in Singapore, we hired a taxi to give us a tour of the city. We weren’t interested in seeing only tourist attractions and lucked out when we discovered our driver was a fountain of information and could have worked for the Chamber of Commerce. He committed to chauffeur us for an hour. But after three hours, we asked him to take us back to the hotel. Prior to driving a taxi, he’d worked for the government and wasn’t ready to financially or mentally retire.

During that three-hour tour, we saw most of the city, walked through Chinatown where the original houses have been preserved and upgraded and now house upscale boutiques. We learned about Singapore’s population and its importance as a shipping port as well as being a major financial center. Many multinational companies have headquarters here since Singapore is one of the safest places in the world to live and has excellent schools. Violent crime is essentially non-existent and people of any and all religions peacefully coexist.

The city is growing by leaps and bounds. It has an opera house, on-going cultural events and (for better or worse) will soon have a theme park. in addition to a casino. Its economy isn’t experiencing the same downturn and there’s still employment to be had.

International cusine is available from every corner of the world. Anyone who wants to sample many, head to an indoor or outdoor food court and enjoy food from multiple countries. The city is the quintessential mixing pot for people of all nationalities. What we would have given for an extra day to be able to explore more. The idea of not rushing was becoming a fantasy and how we wanted to really unpack for real.

The Hanoi layover
The next morning we departed for the airport at 7:30 a.m. The Singapore Airport is huge and even though we thought we had the correct departure terminal, we found ourselves in the wrong one and raced via the sky train to another terminal where we were on the next plane to Hanoi.

Our layover was five hours because of our forced rerouting. Spending five hours in any airport is no one’s idea of heaven. The Hanoi airport is one of the least exciting and how we would have loved to have gone into the city (we would have had time to have some clothes custom-made), but we didn’t have a visa to exit the airport.

The transit lounge in the Hanoi airport is tiny. Even though the airport professes to have WiFi, I was only able to receive and send email — it felt like the old days of being on a dial-up modem. I couldn’t even access Bonjour Paris.

Our flights and trip has been changed so many times and changed again –  thank you Imperial American Express Travel Service. This trip would have ben impossible without a good travel agent’s help. Additional flight changes were received today since one of our flights has been canceled and I suspect there will be more.

Finally, Laos
I am writing this from Laos, which is one of the most inspirational countries I’ve ever visited. The adventure has just begun. There’s no question I’ll be in a more Zen place after spending time in Buddhist temples and experiencing a totally different culture and a way of life and being.

In the meantime, here are two not-so-new lessons I’ve learned:

Don’t count on being in constant touch. There is no guaratee about getting an Internet connection or receiving and sending emails via a Blackberry.

Confirm every on-going flight. Travelers may complain about air travel in the US and usually with valid reasons — but when in developing countries, plaster a smile on your face, learn how to say please and thank you in the local language and leave your type A personality at home.

Karen Fawcett is president BonjourParis

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