Thursday, May 19, 2016

Trip Report: Kolkata to Yangon

6E77, A320 service CCU-BKK, May 1, 2016
In the beginning of May, I made a trip to the other side of the country, to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), to visit the Missionaries of Charity (separate post on that soon), with a good friend, currently living in Delhi. At his recommendation, I took advantage of geography to continue the journey eastward to Myanmar. This post is on the journey from Kolkata to Yangon, via Bangkok.

Kolkata to Bangkok
Indigo Airlines flight 6E77, A320, CCU-BKK

Harry and yours truly at the Travel Club lounge, NSCBIA Kolkata
We arrived at Kolkata's Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport hours before our respective flights (my friend was heading back to Delhi). The Indigo counter was open, with a minimal line. However, one has to get checked in baggage x-ray screened separately. (I can never keep up with this in India: at some airports, some airlines have you do this. Others don't.) Check-in was a breeze. I had reserved an emergency exit row seat (13F) on the A320 (the only aircraft operated India's largest airline by market share) -- an additional cost of INR800, and had also reserved a "NVML" (a sandwich and soft drink), for, I think another INR400. International flights on Indigo have a 20 kg free check-in allowance. 

Harry's A320, parked next to my flight, heading back to Delhi
I picked the slowest line at immigration (an almost infallible instinct, it seems). Security was a breeze. We both headed to the Travel Club lounge on the mezzanine floor (thanks, Priority Pass!), which was decent. I loaded up on some food, and a couple of diet cokes. My friend's flight boarded before mine. At 2015, the Indigo flight was announced, and I walked down to the gate. It was not the zoo I had feared. There was an orderly line, and I was among one of the first onboard. A large group of young men traveling together followed, creating a bit of a ruckus, and delaying the entire process. I could see the frustration levels of the flight attendants rising. The emergency exit rows were both largely empty (there was only one other passenger in my row, at the opposite window), and a couple of times, one of the FAs had to ask one of this group who had decided to take an unauthorized seat in the row. "It's a chargeable row, sir. Twenty dollars." (I'm glad I'd booked it online for 3/4 of that price!) 

The boarding zoo
The flight itself was uneventful. Soon after take off, the meal service began. Those of us who had pre-purchased meals were served first. Indigo has good inflight service, with attentive FAs. Since this was an international flight, a variety of alcoholic beverages were available for purchase. I stuck to my Coke Zero. Purchases could only be paid for in cash, either in Thai Baht or US Dollars. I was fascinated, and a perplexed, that an Indian airline, flying from India, was not able to take Indian Rupees! ("Sorry sir, this is per RBI regulations," an FA explained to a passenger ahead of me, referring to India's central bank. India's currency is not fully convertible on the foreign market.)

I dozed off after the meal, and woke up just before we landed at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport, at about 0050 Thailand time, almost exactly two and a half hours after takeoff from Kolkata.

Indigo is India's premier LCC (Low Cost Carrier), with reliable and courteous service. It was my first time flying them internationally, and I thought they were just fine (some of the other passengers however ... !). I always pay the few hundred rupees extra for the emergency exit row, and pre-purchase a sandwich and drink. For someone my height, the legroom is worth it. The ordinary pitch is below average by international standards, and my knees can feel it! It's important when flying LCCs to pay attention to the fine print, especially when it comes to luggage allowances and other perks that airlines like to upsell. However, getting to Thailand from India for about $120, in decent comfort, was truly unbeatable.

Night in Bangkok's Airports
Suvarnabhumi to Don Muang

Sign spotted at Suvarnabhumi airport baggage claim: what prompted this caution?
By the time I cleared immigration, collected my bag, withdrew some baht from an ATM (all add a 200 baht/$5.6 fee to any amount withdrawn) and purchased a cheap 7-day tourist SIM card from one of many booths in the arrivals hall (man, I'd missed 4G after months of 3G only in India!), it was nearing 2 am. My flight left Don Muang International Airport, some 45km away, at 7:15 am. The free shuttle between the two airports only started at 5:00 am. It could take 50 min to an hour to get there, and that would be cutting it close, especially for an international flight. There was no other choice in the middle of the night, than to take a taxi.

I toyed for a moment with using Uber, however, I figured it would be better to figure that out in daylight hours. At the helpful airport information counter I asked how much a cab would cost -- about 500-600 baht ($14-16). "Make sure you insiste he uses the meter, and do not settle for a flat fee. You also pay an extra 50 baht airport access fee, and any tolls on the way to the driver directly." I headed to the lowest level of the arrivals area, and followed the signs to the taxi stand. There was a lady right in front of me. She went to an area with aluminum railings and barricades, and pressed a button on a coupon generator. I followed suite. A little ticket printed out that told me to go to a particular parking spot, where a green and yellow Bangkok cab awaited me. The driver put my suitcase into the van's trunk wordlessly. Once inside, I told him I wanted to go to Don Muang Airport. He asked if we could settle for 600 baht. I refused and asked him to put the meter, which he did without any hesitation. I loaded up the route on Google Maps, which gave a travel time of 36 min.

A few minutes out, the driver indicated he needed to stop for gas. I nodded. Though he didn't take me off route -- the gas station was adjacent to the highway -- I put my guard up a bit. No one gets mugged or robbed in Bangkok really -- it's very safe -- but hey. My fears were unfounded, and a few minutes later, we were off on an excellent elevated tollway to the northern side of Thailand's capital, as the skyscrapers of downtown whizzed by. We stopped for tolls 3 times, and I think I paid 100 baht in tolls. About 40 minutes later we were pulling up to Don Muang's Terminal 2. The meter read 383. With the 50 baht fee, that brought the total to 433 baht. I gave him a 500 baht note and asked that he give me back 50. He only had 40 he said. Shanya, I thought (a Bombay-Hindi term for a clever cheat). I shrugged, and went inside the terminal. It was about 3 am. I figured I could sleep for 2 hours, before getting ready for check-in.

These seats at BKK is where I was originally
thinking of spreading out. They would have
been a lot more comfortable than
what I encountered at DMK!
From this helpful airport sleeping site, I knew there was an upper level observation deck with chairs laid out where one could sleep. I made my way there. There were few chairs -- most were occupied by sleeping figures, and several were stretched out on the floor wrapped in blankets. ("Who flies with so many blankets?" I thought ... ) I found one empty bank of bucket seats, rolled up some tee shirts into a pillow, and laid down. It was far from comfortable, and about every 15 minutes the PA would blare an announcement (starting with a Thai phrase that got stuck in my head. Something like "Phrom-saaaaa" -- you can hear it right here, at the beginning of this YouTube video). It was also freezing cold. But, I actually slept, and was woken up by my alarm a little before 5 am. I got up, freshened up at the restroom nearby, and headed down to the check-in area.

It was a zoo. The line to enter the AirAsia area snaked around, making at least one if not two loops. It moved fast. First stop, itinerary check, and check-in luggage scan. After that, a chaotic mess of check-in desks. I had purchased AirAsia's "Premium Flex" package (about $40 more, bringing the roundtrip cost on the DMK-RGN segment to $160), which had a separate check-in counter, with a much shorter line. If I had taken the bus from Suvarnabhumi at 5:00 am, there's no way I'd have made the flight! The taxi was totally worth it.

At the counter, I was asked for a printout of my Myanmar e-visa. The immigration line was slow here too. I stopped for a hot breakfast at a McDonald's (yeah), after which it was nearly time to board AirAsia FD256 to Yangon. Premium Flex customers got to board first -- which means we got to get on the bus first, since the flight departed from a remote stand, actually at the other end of the airport! We did get to drive past a variety of different airlines and planes, which was cool.

Bangkok to Yangon
AirAsia flight FD256, A320 DMK-RGN 

The PremiumFlex check-in counter at Don Muang Airport

Boarding FD256 DMK-RGN

 Boarding was very smooth. I had picked what AirAsia calls a "hot seat" (an emergency exit window seat), which, again, let me fit my tall frame rather comfortably. The flight departed about fifteen minutes late. It was a short 1h10m hop over to neighboring Myanmar. I was actually backtracking, since the flight from Kolkata goes over Myanmar. However, Air India's thrice-weekly direct service from Kolkata to Yangon (via Gaya, in Bihar!) was did not fit with my schedule.

I had pre-purchased a sandwich (this is the thing to do on LCCs, if one wants to eat!), which was served soon after take off. There was no soft-drink service here, just water. I slept a bit, and soon enough we were on the ground at Yangon's Mingaladon International Airport, some 25 km north of downtown.

Arrival at Mingaladon International Airport 

Planes lined up at Yangon's Mingaladon Airport 

Qatar A330 departing, with another AirAsia A320 next to us 
Yangon's brand new international terminal was certainly shiny and efficient. There were numerous counters open for immigration. Make sure to have your e-visa print out handy! My bag arrived in no time. I exited the customs area, to meet Kyaw Win, my guide and driver for the day ahead from the fantastic One Stop Myanmar travel agency. However, I was unsuccessful in obtaining kyats from any of the ATMs. I think I tried six of them. Four had out of order or out of cash screens. The two others accept my ATM card, but did not give me an option to withdraw! I tried both Indian and US ATM cards. Thankfully, I had some Euros and dollars in cash, and I changed those into Myanmar kyats. Myanmar is the only place I've been to, where it is official policy to refuse old, crumpled or creased foreign currency notes. One of my fifty dollar bills was refused. The rates, however, were perhaps the best I've encountered, very close to what I saw on Google, with no hidden commissions and fees. And certainly, the policy doesn't extend to the local bills, since several of the kyat bills I got were quite old and faded! I then purchased a SIM card with a data pack from the Ooredoo booth (a Turkish company, one of three, operating in Myanmar since the country opened up in 2012) -- 6500 MMK ($5.5), for 1.5GB of data, and 1800 MMK calling time (which would give me about 9 minutes of calling time to India).

As we set off towards downtown Yangon, slowing soon to a crawl in the city's notorious traffic, I noticed that though the cars drove on the right (like in the US), they were all right-hand-drive cars! Win explained to me that because of import restrictions and taxes, almost all the cars in Myanmar are older, second-hand Japanese models, imported directly from Japan, where they drive on the left! "It was in 1972 that the government decided we needed to change over." He laughed. Somehow this ridiculous driving situation, to me, was a small indication of the absurdity and tragedy of the recent history of this beautiful country.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

No comments: