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Unfortunately, we missed the United Airlines tour bus back to town, so we took a service bus instead. While walking round a shopping arcade, I noticed an Air New Zealand office, so on a whim I called in to make sure all was well for our flight to Bangkok. I discovered that it had been cancelled. The Air New Zealand staff investigated other possibilities for us, and found that the most likely option was to get to the airport quickly, and attempt to catch a Continental Airlines flight to Sydney, connecting with a Qantas flight to Bangkok. So we went straight back to the hotel, collected our bags, and caught a taxi to the airport.
Chaos was the order of the day at the Continental desk. We were not, of course, the only people who had been offered this routing opportunity, and so we were many milling around the desk. Various Continental staff expressed doubt at getting us on the flight in Business Class, or at all, or said that the only problem would be loading meals on the flight for us. None of this greatly concerned us. Anyway, we could not use the tickets we had without them being reissued for the new itinerary. As they were on Air New Zealand ticket forms, we had to go to the Air New Zealand desk for reissue. On arrival there, having left my wife and son by the Continental desk, their staff suggested another route: Air New Zealand to Melbourne and Thai International to Bangkok. Although these are undoubtedly better carriers, they would not be new to us, but still, that was the route we would take. Air New Zealand seemed unconcerned by any inconvenience which Continental might now incur. Our tickets were changed, our boarding passes issued to Melbourne, and our baggage checked to Bangkok.
It was now something of a race: the Air New Zealand flight was leaving in only a few minutes. We still had to clear immigration, which involved filling in a short form, nevertheless inconvenient, and going to a bank to pay departure tax. We managed it, and were able to get to the departure area just as we were being paged. I have never been paged over the public address system before, and have always thought of people who are called for a flight by name as being sloppy and unprofessional. I now know that this is not necessarily true.
My only regret at all this was that we would not get a chance to look at the Club Pacific lounge at Auckland. It is said to be one of the best airline lounges in the world. I couldn't say, because we were in such a rush that we didn't have a chance to see it. We didn't get to see the duty-free shops either, which was a pity because this was one place we had hoped to buy some things as gifts for the friends we would be staying with when we got back home.
On board the flight, the usual champagne was offered, but I chose juice in preference this time. Our family seats were not together: I formed the distinct impression that we were lucky to have seats at all. There was one pleasant surprise, however. This was one of Air New Zealand's 747-200 aircraft, which have recently been refurbished. One effect is that now, the Business Class cabin is in Section A, at the very front of the airliner. The most exciting feature is that during flight, this section is almost completely silent. No wonder this is where First Class is usually found.
Incidentally, it was unusual for this flight to be run by a 747 at all. Normally, a 767 ran the route, but as there was not a convenient 767 available, this 747 which had apparently just arrived back from Tokyo was used instead. Just as well, I feel, for if it hadn't been, we probably wouldn't have been found seats on it at all. However, I do want to know who they put in First Class, since Air New Zealand's 767 fleet only offers business and economy. Now, however, the excitement has gone, for Air New Zealand now run 747s on this route most of the time. The service now advertises First Class too.
Even so, the meal service was good, and the video entertainment provided some very good material. At one point, while the meal was being served, the face of Rowan Atkinson appeared on the screen in the guise of Mr. Bean. Soon, the whole of the cabin was in uproar at the images on the screen. The passenger next to me said he believed that this had been the most widely watched programme on New Zealand television the previous year, being the second of two similar programmes broadcast a week apart. Those who had seen the first part, he said, told their friends not to miss the second part while taking care to see it themselves. Its major advantage in-flight is that it is largely visual in its appeal, and so can capture the interest of those many passengers who do not wear headphones on flights.
Soon, it was time to land at Melbourne, a huge, sprawling city as seen from the air. Just before landing, the attendants came through the cabin handing out Australian immigration documents. Should we fill them in? I asked the cabin staff, pointing out that we did not have Australian visas. They suggested we should fill them in anyway, in case we were delayed. This did not inspire confidence.
On arrival, we followed the transit arrows, and came to a desk which had one terminal and one officer. We found him, and so did thirty-four other passengers in the same position as us. They couldn't cope with that, so we were left hanging around for a few minutes. Eventually, we were dispatched to the Qantas lounge to await events and boarding passes. Out of the window, we could see a large Thai International 747, presumably due to set off soon for Bangkok. Soon, things were sorted out, though in fairness not really to a level that would suit most seasoned travellers.
We set off for the airliner, boarded, and were welcomed aboard in the usual manner. However, there was something not entirely attractive about the decor. The interior of the cabin was decidedly gloomy, and this impression was not improved by the layout. On our left were windows, but on the right, a large partition, as the Business Class section in this part of the airliner did not stretch across the whole width of the cabin.
There was a long flight ahead of us, and I really don't remember much about it. Presumably, we ate and slept, drank and watched videos. One cartoon I found amusing was about a baby which kept on frightening a mechanical toy. This is the sort of thing that sticks in the memory, even though it is completely pointless.
I don't thank Thai International for furnishing us with bowls of peanuts. They look attractive to infants, but are potentially fatal because they can cause young children to choke. So I was obliged to eat two bowls as soon as they arrived. This wouldn't have been too bad if they had been fresh.
Thai International has undoubtedly one of the best reputations in the world. I am sorry to say that although they were adequate, I would not put them in that league.
After arrival in Bangkok, immigration ran smoothly. Then, it was the general melee of an international arrivals hall. Apart from the fact that we had no local currency and were about to be ripped off by an official tour operator, all was well.
I was able to collect money as a cash advance against a VISA credit card. VISA cash advances are very useful in countries where this is possible. Generally they are more convenient than travellers cheques, and cost about the same.
I waited, hoping that a card I hadn't used for about eighteen months would be honoured, used for the first time to advance about two hundred pounds equivalent. Thankfully, there was no problem. Incidentally, I am intrigued by the policy of a credit card company which does not bat an eyelid when a previously inactive card registered to a Birmingham address is used completely out of the blue to gain a cash advance in Bangkok, but sees fit to detain me in a store just outside Liverpool where I am buying GBP 25 worth of records and tapes for about twenty minutes, simply because the card has been used several times in that town but is registered in Birmingham. Such are the mysteries of banks. Yet I digress, for at this point we are still in Bangkok.
After reserving and paying for a tour for the following afternoon, we set off for the Asia Hotel, a very large building in central Bangkok. It has good rooms and services, and many shops and arcades too. However, I understand that this is just one of very many good hotels in Bangkok. Again, we were very tired after a long flight. All we had were hot drinks before retiring for the night.
Over the next couple of days, we did what tourists often do in Bangkok: we took a temples tour, seeing the solid gold Golden Buddha and the immense Reclining Buddha. We also visited the Rose Garden out of town, where we saw a demonstration of working elephants and a show depicting Thai culture.
I wasn't very taken with Thailand. More precisely, I wasn't taken with Bangkok, because really that was all we saw. Bangkok is a large, dirty city, superficially very like Mexico City. However, I liked Mexico City; I didn't like Bangkok.