Asia’s calling (again)

I write this post from around about 40,000 feet up in the sky. The last time I looked out of the window it was broad daylight – half an hour of My Family and an hour of Hustle later and it’s pitch black; a bit of a surprise, but then it is now just past eleven at night Malaysian time. The AirAsia plane I’m sat on left Paris at ten this morning, and it’ll be a little before six tomorrow morning when I reach my destination, Kuala Lumpur.

I am no stranger to travel within Asia, but this trip is still something of a landmark one for me. For a start, despite having made six separate trips to south-east Asia in the just under three years since my first journey this way in the spring of 2008, it is the first time I have flown with low-cost carrier AirAsia. Incredible, really, and a bit of a fright when you think about how much I have in all likelihood unnecessarily spent in over-the-top fares on full-cost carriers.

For the unititated, AirAsia are essentially the Ryanair or Easyjet of, you guessed it, Asia. But there is a critical difference in that, as well as the labyrinthine network of routes that sweeps in just about every direction across the continent, by virtue of their Air Asia X arm they also run flights to Europe, Australia and, if I’m not mistaken, these will soon be joined by fares to America too. The route that I am taking, from Paris to Kuala Lumpur, is only 13 days old; their canny marketing execs had it start up on Valentine’s Day. Paris, city of lights, city of romance – clever, huh? (Doubly emphasized by the couple I have just seen full-on making out two rows back).

Theirs is a classic no-frills service, but a friendly one – as with Ryanair, for example, you pay your base fare, add on taxes and card payment fees (though there is no charge levied for check-in and, even more surprisingly, there is no insistence on online check-in; more on that later), and then if you want the privilege of eating on board, you get stung for more on top. The difference with AirAsia, stemming I guess from its evolution into a long-haul airline, is that meals are available to pre-book at a discount (as well as being sold on-board at the higher price), as are ‘comfort kits’. This contains the blanket you would expect to get free (or rather included in the fare) on a full-service carrier, plus an inflated neck pillow and an eye mask. If you shudder when other full-cost airlines lack individual TV screens in favour of everyone-watches-the-same big screens, then take a seat at this point because, in the same vein as Ryanair and Easyjet, AirAsia lacks any sort of screen at all. However, I have discovered today that they have hand-held entertainment devices to rent for the duration of the flight – they are shortly going to join the ranks of pre-bookable add-ons, but for now they are available for 35 Malaysian Ringgit (about £7).

Which isn’t bad when you think about it – okay, so add-ons like that of course do their bit to up the overall cost of your flight, but when the fare is so much lower in the first place then you can’t really complain. If you can live without a screen in your face, then so much the better – I for one am perfectly happy with a few downloaded BBC programmes on iPlayer on my laptop, and a book by my feet. I would be happier if the charge time on my laptop battery wasn’t so crap, but then, having done practically zero planning for this trip, I’ve got the Rough Guides for Malaysia and the Philippines to get flicking through too – so who needs Hollywood anyway? What does make AirAsia stand out for me, though, is the difference in the cost of those add-ons between AirAsia and, say, Ryanair. Check-in with Ryanair (love them as I do) already costs me £6 every time I fly with them – I can’t see Michael O’Leary only charging a pound more for the rental of an entertainment device not dissimilar to a slightly chunky iPad (part of me wants to be surprised that Ryanair haven’t launched them already, but I suspect the truth is they wouldn’t take off on the relatively short journeys run by that airline; another side-effect, I guess, of a budget airline branching out into long haul).

The sceptic in me doubts this relative cost difference is the result of anyone’s deliberate choice to keep things that cheap – rather, the relatively lower cost of living in the south-east Asian countries that make up the bulk of AirAsia’s network. That much is obvious in the cost of the pre-booked meals – about half the price on the return leg from Kuala Lumpur to Paris than in the opposite direction, where the food is presumably bought and cooked in France, with the associated higher production costs. Perhaps this is all to be expected, but there for me there is still a novelty factor to a budget long haul airline.

On a practical level, clearly the real shaving of the cost of taking a flight from France to Malaysia comes bound up with how many people you manage to squeeze into it. Legroom is incredibly tight – I am now six and a half hours through my twelve and a half hour flight and, while it is bearable, I am feeling pretty much how I would normally expect to be feeling in the last couple of hours of a flight with a full-cost airline (I normally fly with Thai or Jet Airways) with just a crucial couple of inches more room to fidget around in. Staff are very pleasant, check-in and boarding were smooth and the flight so far has been a dream (let’s not jinx anything though, I’m a nervous flyer!) My first meal serving of nasi lemak was delightful though very small, and every meal comes with a bottle of mineral water. On-board prices are more than reasonable from where I’m sitting: think RM9 (about £1.80) for a crossant, pain au chocolat and hot coffee, or €6 (£5.25) outward and RM12 (£2.40) return for a two-meal service identical to the one I pre-booked. Mineral water is RM3 (£0.60) a bottle, cans of pop RM6 (£1.20), and tea between RM5 (£1) and RM6 (£1.20). Certainly a lot less than the €11 (£9.60) I paid at the airport for a tasteless wrap, orange juice and espresso.

In the silly league, Malaysian Ringgits are clearly accepted for payment on-board and, while they do accept US Dollars, British Pounds and Euros too, these last three can be used in notes only. Nor do they accept cards so, while I’m more than going to survive with the drinks that come with my meals, I am left unable to purchase anything extra that might tickle my fancy, despite having about €10 in my wallet in coins. But hey, you learn for next time.

Unlike Ryanair and Easyjet, who run strictly single-class flights, AirAsia offer Premium class at a significantly higher fare than economy. Think business class rather than first, though they are spacious, and the occasional flashes of light from the segregated Premium area of the cabin suggest that they have a shared big screen – they certainly don’t have individual ones. Again if my memory serves me correctly, I believe Premium is advertised online as offering lie-flat beds – not bad for a budget airline.

So those are my thoughts on my first AirAsia experience – so far a very good one (but then we’re not there yet). I have another five flights with them before I touch down again in Paris in a fortnight’s time – let’s not wish away my holiday though, please! – so I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say yet. But the other reason this trip is a bit of a special one for me is that it’s the first one since my first in April 2008 (when I also ventured to Vietnam and, on the spur of the moment, Cambodia) that isn’t entirely centred around Thailand.  Because while I love Thailand, and harbour as I still do plans to emigrate there in the coming year or two, I don’t want to get stuck in the rut of visiting nowhere else – because there is just so much to see. So this time I will still be spending a week – the majority – of my break in my beloved Land of Smiles, but I first have an overnight stop-off to meet friends in KL, then a few days in the Philippines. And so too at the end of my trip, I have a few days to while away back in KL before returning to croissant-and-vino land.

In many ways, this trip is more scary than any I have done before, but that’s just because it’s more of an adventure – and with adventure comes not just scariness, but more importantly excitement and the sense of something new. When I first went to Thailand, I was booked for my first four weeks on a group tour (and a big one; there were 53 of us), followed by a couple of weeks travelling independently and then a further four week programme in Vietnam. Both remain to this day two of the best things I have ever done, and they were certainly the best introduction I could have hoped for to the two countries, but they are not something I would repeat in Asia at least, where I now feel very comfortable each time I return.

Especially so in Thailand, where I met my ex on that first four week programme, and kick-started a two year relationship that meant I was never travelling truly independently – not really – on the several occasions I came back to visit him during our difficult long-distance relationship. My three-month stint last summer was my first trip there without him, and in itself was an important milestone for me in proving that my love affair had really been with him and not just Thailand (in reality, I think it showed me it was more with Thailand than it was with him!) But that trip remained one that took me only to Thailand, despite good intentions to strike out elsewhere. So this time I am travelling to two countries I have never visited before and know very little about (as well as some down time in good old reliable Thailand). I have a lot of learning to do, but then that’s what travel is all about, and it would quickly become pretty damn dull if you didn’t get yourself to new places from time to time.

With all of this on my mind, you would think I might have done a lot of planning to prepare myself. But as if – hence the Rough Guides in the seat pocket in front of me. The next couple of weeks is going to be interesting, both in terms of travelling with AirAsia a little more and on following a very special journey for me personally – and I can’t wait to share all that with you. But first, it’s midnight Malaysian time, and I’m getting some sleep. Night all.

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I like France really

After my whinge last time, a reminder of one of the reasons why I do love living in France really:

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Are the French stupid?

Tramway at Commerce, Nantes

Tramway at Commerce, Nantes

From time to time I come to think that the French aren’t a very intelligent people. I am not one to stereotype, but here it is just too easy. Take today – after spending the afternoon battling for my sanity with vacant-headed pupils who don’t (or refuse to) understand the simplest of instructions, even in French, I come to my ride home.

The bus journey is always bad enough, with kids jostling and bashing past each other without the first bit of consideration that there might actually be other people in their way. But they’re kids so, much as it gets tiresome putting up with them day in, day out, I’ll let them off the hook.

No, when it really gets my goat is when I make it to the tram and the adults – if you can call them that – are at the same game. What is it with French people and standing around the doors on trams? Do they have some sort of fetish that no-one has told me about? There are few things that can be more infuriating – or just plain laughable, depending on the mood I’m in – than the stupidity that leaves twenty or thirty people pressed up against each other and the glass of the tram doors while, just a few feet down, there’s plenty of free space – and even empty seats – that nobody has had the foresight to move down and occupy. Of course this happens in other countries too, but I have never seen it to such extremes as here in France. In spite of the numerous calls from drivers, conductors and signs on tramway platforms pleading ‘don’t stand by the doors, move down the gangways’, they seem to have a serious fear of doing just that.

It’s the same deal trying to get off a tram – the process of natural selection appears to have at some point left the French without the brain cell that enables the rest of to realise that the quickest way to get on a tram isn’t actually to block the doors en masse, stopping anyone from getting off and therefore by default delaying everyone getting on. No, instead they genuinely seem to think that positioning themselves right around the doors is going to get them on and away more quickly. They’ll stand there, metaphorically scratching their heads wondering why it’s taking everyone so long to get off, and then as soon as there’s space, they’ll push and shove each other to get on as fast as they can.

The notion of queueing being a very British habit must also ring true, because there’s no expecting the French to respect the fact that someone else has been at the tram stop ten minutes longer than they have – they’ll still barge their way to the front as if there’s no-one else there. In fact, for a country so obsessed with politeness (think, addressing everyone as ‘sir’ and ‘madam’, saying ‘pardon’ at every given opportunity, greeting a shop’s entire customer base when you come through the door, and shaking hands with or kissing every member of a large group of friends whenever you see them, however casually) – for a country so obsessed with this sort of thing, the French can also be downright arrogant. Yes, that’s another stereotype that at times seem right on the money. This is a country supposedly founded on the principle of fraternity, and therefore presumably also solidarity, and yet it seems pretty dog-eat-dog most of the time.

I am equally the sort of person who gets irritated by others randomly stopping in the street. If I am in the street, then generally it’s because I want to get somewhere, not because I want to stand around and pass the time of day – if that’s what I’m going for, then I’ll usually find somewhere more attractive than a grotty pavement to do it. I am also the kind of person who doesn’t tend to dawdle along; instead I want to get where I’m going, not waste time. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with taking your time – but don’t take up the entire pavement between your group of friends, only to move at a snail’s pace and stop the rest of us from getting anywhere. Now, I know France isn’t the only place this happens; far from it – but seriously, the number of people who just wander aimlessly around, stop at a moment’s notice (giving the rest of us little choice but to fall over them) and proceed to stand around, get in the way, gaze at the sky, check their phones (texting/talking AND walking can be done at the same time – it’s possible, trust me!), have a chat, turn around and go back in the other direction, wander over in a diagonal line to a shop window, have a quick glance and then go back in the opposite direction in another diagonal, but nice and slowly so no-one can move around you….well, you get the picture.

Of course, I am neglecting to mention the many fantastic things about France. But sometimes the frustration induced by their don’t-really-give-a-damn attitude just gets too much, and it’s on those occasions that I am glad I have this blog to vent to. I guess that’s part of the beauty of living somewhere relatively long-term; getting to see that all those stereotypes you spent so long rubbishing are actually spot on. Anyway, back to more uplifting themes next time!

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The road to Saint-Nazaire

Between 35 and 50 minutes by train from Nantes, Saint-Nazaire makes for a pleasant coastal getaway from the city, and is definitely worth a drop-in on any visit to the area. While not immediately striking as being overflowing with character or the usual charm of French seaside towns, it has its appeal in a long, open promenade along the sandy beach affording great views out to the Atlantic. Of particular note are the seemingly fishing-related shacks on stilts at the far end of the beach. And if you’re wondering what the photo of two very deep footprints is all about, this is the spot where I got sucked into what someone of a more exaggerative disposition might easily call quicksand. Sinking, sinking…

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Across the river

Taking a trip to Trentmoult doesn’t make you feel as though you’re going very far. And in truth, you’re not – it’s just across the Loire from the centre of Nantes. A ten-minute ride on the ‘Navibus’ ferry (included in my monthly tram pass, which also gets me bus and train travel – bargain!) dumps you what can only be a few hundred feet up-river from where you boarded, at Gare Maritime, on the other side. You can still see Gare Maritime – it really isn’t that far at all – and yet it feels so separate. A real sense of quiet villageyness rules the place.

There isn’t that much to see, save for some pretty almost-but-not-quite-Balamory-style colourful houses, but it makes a nice spot for an afternoon’s wander followed by lunch at one of the two or three quayside eating options – La Guingette (famed for its tapas and board game tournaments, but equally good at seafood dishes) comes with a recommendation here, and it’s also rated by Lonely Planet as the second best ‘thing to do’ in Nantes. Can’t be all bad.

Save time for a poke around the Indochina-themed Comptoir des Quais little-bit-of-everything shop a little way down the road, back towards the ferry’s landing point. There’s also an organic veg market in the ‘village’ on a Saturday morning.

La Guingette, 20 Quai Marcel Boissard, Trentmoult, Ile Feydeau, Nantes
T: (00 33) 02 40 75 88 96


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Paris – times two

I am no longer a Paris virgin; the city of romance is the latest to be knocked off my ‘yet to get to’ list. In fact, while a month ago I had still not been, I’ve now already made two short visits. And, stereotypically, I have fallen in love with the place.

Visit one was the less planned of the two – a few unexpected places became available on a school trip, so I ended up as one of the three adults accompanying 10 students – dream numbers or what? And while I say students, the truth is that they are all aged 17-20, so they hardly needed close supervision. Let’s call this the more educational of my two trips to the capital – taking in the Louvre, the Père Lachaise cemetery, Notre Dame cathedral and so on. Of course, this being my first time, a gaze at the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tour were also obligatory. This was also the cheaper of the two trips (though neither were expensive) – free travel there, back and around, free accommodation and breakfast – my only expenses were on a couple of meals and a ticket to a comedy show. Free is good.

Visit two was all about the steak, the sorbet and the sangria – and damn good it was too. This time was a weekend break, planned for some months now, with two university course mates, one still in the UK and one on placement with the CBI in Brussels. CBI-girl’s boyfriend was kicked out of his central Parisian apartment (walking distance from the Champs d’Elysée) for the weekend, to allow us to take over. Free walking tour, a visit to the Sacré Coeur basilica and a general wander around the Montmartre area, and of course more gazing at the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower (this time by night – pretty) ensued. Plus possibly one of the nicest meals of my life.

L’Ecurie, a cute little place in the 5ème arrondissement, came by recommendation from CBI-girl and her boyfriend, who chose it for a romantic new year’s eve dinner and ended up being paired up with two British couples (CBI-girl and her boyfriend are German, but both study in the UK) – oddly, one of the couples ended up being there on our return to the restaurant. The word divine is overused, but it’s well justified for this place – in equal measures for the food, lovingly prepared to order (literally – we were sat opposite the chef, and he was keeping a close eye as we munched on our entrée, to see when we would be ready for round 2) but also for the service – which is simply unbeatable.

Now this is by no means silver service, and the staff spent most of the night running around like blue arsed flies, but they were clearly passionate, and passion like that rubs off and really makes the atmosphere – which makes the place, no more so than here. Having failed in our attempts to get to the top of the Arc de Triomphe by night, we turned up half an hour early for our 9pm table reservation, and the whole place was full – but we ended up being plied with sangria and antipasti plates, all on the house. The staff’s jovial nature – they clearly love running the place – meant that even though we ended up waiting past nine, it was a pleasure.

Then to the food – a delicately flavoured, not overpowering blue cheese salad, just enough to whet your appetite, followed by a nicely rare bavette (which translates only as ‘flank steak’, it seems) in a mustard sauce, and plenty (perhaps one too many) house-speciality chips. Accompanied of course by more sangria – and all of this was amazing, and had already sealed the deal on the place for me, but it was the sorbet that stole the show. A trio of flavours – a scoop each of mango, pear and raspberry – that were just out of this world. Without a doubt THE best sorbets I have ever tasted. Words don’t come close to describing them – flavours that were literally alive, the pear one in particular like eating a whole fresh pear (but of course a million times better – it’s sorbet!)

Three courses for 20€, up to 24,50€ with a jug of sangria to share and an espresso to finish. Not a bad intro to Paris, I’d say.

L’Ecurie, 2 Rue Laplace, 75005 Paris
T: (00 33) 01 46 33 68 49

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The language of Eurostar

I am beginning to feel like St Pancras is my second home, such is the frequency with which I am seem to be travelling by train from Nantes to London of late. But there is one part of a Eurostar journey that is still very bizarre – the not knowing whether the woman next to you, or the bloke you are squeezing past on your way to the buffet, or the one who’s blissfully unaware as he stands in your way while you try to get your obese suitcase into the luggage rack – the not knowing which language they all speak. French? English? Both?

It is strange enough having announcements made first in English and then in France when you depart London, and then in the reverse order once you’ve crossed the channel – but words that would normally instinctively escape from my mouth, whether they are ‘sorry’, or ‘no problem’, or ‘do you mind getting the hell out of my way before I drop this suitcase on your face’, take a moment’s thought – not even because I might have to say them in French (which invariably takes a split second longer to formulate than my native English, as is only natural), but because I have to take a decision as to whether to use English or French.

My general rule is this – I’m not as anal as Eurostar when it comes to making announcements in a certain linguistic order depending on location in relation to the channel, so I will usually use English unless I’ve heard the person speaking French already, in which case I’ll opt for French. If they’re wearing a beret I’m clearly also likely to err in that direction.

Of course, the best thing is when you get an opportunity to be just a little bit of a show-off and instantaneously flick between the two. Two such opportunities of late – one when an overly up-herself British woman returning from Paris to London, massively stressed out by having two heavy suitcases (and already having whined to some poor Mexican bloke ‘yes, I KNOW it’s coach number one, but why aren’t they getting ON!?’ as we queued at a small bottleneck of passengers struggling, ironically, with their cases at the entrance to the train) practically accused me of stealing her seat. This was moments after the train manager had asked her to move one of her suitcases from the corridor at the end of the carriage – he had started in English and then for some reason moved into French, to which her irate response was ‘I DON’T speak FRENCH, can you HELP me please!’ As she accused me of being chief seat-stealer, I told her in English ‘no, have no fear, I’m just standing here to let people past’ – and then proceeded to have a conversation in French with the train manager, who was a few people away from me as I stood next to this god-awful woman, to ascertain whether my suitcase in the corridor was also posing a problem.

Second such opportunity was just this evening, when I conversed with a British woman who was struggling to find the buffet car as I walked in its direction – she ordered her bolognaise in English, and I then ordered my food in French and had a nice chat with the buffet staff. This British woman wasn’t all that unpleasant though, so it wasn’t nearly as smugly enjoyable as showing up the foul woman a few days before, though. Now that felt good.

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