Flight 5/15: Bangkok to Singapore

This post is part of the Ultimate Flight Marathon multi-part series, where I review each of the 15 flights I took during 3.5 weeks of intense traveling in the late spring of 2016.

Airline: Tigerair

Date: May 13, 2016

Type of plane: Airbus A320

Duration of the flight: 2 h and 25 mins

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General info: Tiger Airways, operating as Tigerair, is a no-frills airline and a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines. It operates flights to 40 destinations across Asia. Our flight was an evening flight from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport to Singapore’s Changi, a.k.a. the best airport in the world. Above other things, Changi has some fish ponds, three movie theaters, a sunflower garden and even a butterfly garden (that we sadly didn’t get to visit).

What was special about this plane: It was your standard Airbus A320, but the layout was a bit different than what legacy carriers have. There were 180 economy seats instead of the usual 150, and no business class at all. The plane was new and clean, with comfy blue leather seats.

Highlight: There were a couple of Buddhist monks boarding the flight with us! I was surprised to see them flying, as I thought monks had to live a more modest earthly existence… then again, flying with low-fares airlines is pretty much the most modest way to travel nowadays anyway, as it’s often even cheaper than taking the bus.

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Bangkok’s main airport has some nice decorations.

What I would do differently next time: Tigerair doesn’t provide any entertainment on board – not even big shared screens. So I would make sure that my laptop battery was well charged instead of practically empty…

Food served: None was given for free (not even water), as is typical 0f no-frills carriers. Luckily we were not hungry at all, as we had just visited the Louis’ Tavern CIP First Class Lounge at Bangkok airport’s Concourse A that served pasta, puff pastries and cookies.

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Thanks for yet another lounge visit, Priority Pass!

Turbulence: None. Yay! I’m not a fan…

Price: We bought a one-way ticket from Bangkok to Perth through the Tigerair website, which included a 12-hour layover in Singapore. The price of this entire ticket was around $180 per person so about $90 per flight. This whole ticket could have maybe been been cheaper since we had to pay $20 extra for checked-in luggage that we didn’t even have. For some reason Tigerair’s website didn’t allow me to book the flight without luggage – maybe because our second flight was with Scoot Airlines and not Tiger? Who knows…

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Some parts of the Singapore airport are so pretty!

Miles earned: None, though I could have earned some Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer miles from this flight: Tigerair awards KrisFlyer miles to people who buy their Flexicombo fare. However, I didn’t think it was worth paying an extra 50 Singapore dollars (around $37) just so I could earn a measly 60 miles. Even if you get the Flexicombo fare and the miles, these Tigerair flights won’t count towards elite qualification. This means you can’t get silver or gold status with Singapore Airlines by flying one of these low-fares subsidiaries. As is mentioned in the terms and conditions, “Only KrisFlyer Elite miles earned on Singapore Airlines, SilkAir, Star Alliance partner airlines, Virgin Australia*, and Virgin Atlantic^ will count towards KrisFlyer Elite Silver and KrisFlyer Elite Gold membership.”

Overall experience: OK.

 

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Get ready: Dirt cheap flights to the French Caribbean are comiiiiiiiing!

Last week I received an email from The Points Guy that said Norwegian Air was starting cheap flights from New York to the Caribbean in December.

“Hmm, that probably won’t impact my life in any major way,” I thought automatically. After all, the only Caribbean island that I fly regularly to is Guadeloupe, a relatively obscure and little-known island in the French West Indies. It seems to be the destination that all major airlines forgot even exists, and it can cost upwards of $700 to fly there from New York. Not cool, especially for me: I currently split my time between New York, Guadeloupe and Finland, as my work, love and family are in these three places, respectively – one of the dilemmas of being a globetrotter! 🙂

Here’s a picture from Gosier Island, off the coast of the “continent” of Guadeloupe (which is actually composed of two big islands together). You can be athletic and swim out to Ile du Gosier from the mainland in about 20 minutes, or take a quick boat for $3 roundtrip. Love that place!

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Sooooooo…. I opened The Points Guy’s chain email without much fanfare. You can only imagine how I felt when I read the blurb about these up-coming Caribbean flights.

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EEEEEEEEKKKKKKK!!!! I COULDN’T BELIEVE MY EYES!!! GUADELOUPE IS ON THAT SCHEDULE!!!

The thrice-weekly flights from NYC to Gwada are starting at just $79-$99 one-way, an incredible deal even from the world’s leading low-fare airline. This means Guadeloupe will go overnight from being just about the most expensive Caribbean destination to get to, to the being the cheapest. Whooooooooa!!! MAJOR NEWS!!

It turns out Norwegian chose Guadeloupe and Martinique because the airline can fly unlimited between the USA and the EU under the Open Skies agreement, and these new Caribbean destinations are officially part of the EU. Sneaky sneaky! As for now the flights are a winter trial, and the airline will see how they go before expanding their Caribbean service.

So get yourself over to Norwegian‘s website and grab some bargain fares to escape up-coming gloomy winter! The price doesn’t include checked-in luggage, so check out my tips for packing light.

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Aren’t those prices just crazyyyyy?? And those are for direct service! The flight only takes 4.5 hrs from NY to Pointe-a-Pitre. Incroyable! Being used to the $700-1000 roundtrips that require changing in Montreal, Miami or St. Martin and take all day (and sometimes require an overnight layover), this is pretty unbelievable.

Here are some more scenes from Ilet du Gosier to motivate you to book a trip before all those cheap fares are snatched:

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See you in the French West Indies! Let me know if you are interested in a tour of the islands – I’m thinking of starting small-group tours that show you the best of Guadeloupe within a few days for those on a tight schedule.

Au revoir!

Favela Life in Brazil

With the World Cup mania going on full speed, everyone’s eyes are now on Brazil. This has gotten me to think about my most recent trip to the sunny country and about one of my most memorable experiences there – the week I spent staying in the favela of Pavao near the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.

While I was immersed in the colorful life of the favela – a slum for lack of a better word in English – I was bombarded with questions from foreigners and Brazilians alike: what’s it like to stay in a favela? Is it dangerous? Scary? How do you move around there? How do the locals react when they see you?

That’s why I decided to do this video that shows me making my way from our home on top of the favela down to the street level and back – a full 400 steps each way, navigating the narrow labyrinth-like pathways. The round trip generally takes about 15 minutes. Imagine if you had to climb up 400 steps just to get home! Insanity. But it definitely keeps the residents in good shape.

If you are still wondering what exactly a favela is, check out this good article that explains why no English-language word really characterizes it perfectly:

Why We Should Call them Favelas

And if this video convinced you that you really want to stay in a favela yourself on your next Rio trip, that’s easily done. Just book a room from Fiona, Pavao’s lone Brit: https://www.airbnb.com.br/rooms/841135

 

 

 

 

Weekly Wednesday Video: West African Dance Party

I woke up today convinced it was Tuesday. But would you believe it – turns out it’s Wednesday! Again! Wasn’t it just Wednesday?

Well, who I am to fight it. It’s time for my Weekly Wednesday Video! So let’s travel virtually to Senegal’s Casamance region where I witnessed a wild dance party during my West African roadtrip last year. The fiesta took place in Oussouye, a small town that loves to bust a move. This particular time the celebration was in honor of someone’s birthday, I was told. Who wants to do the same for my birthday next month??

Casamance has in fact been on my mind for a number of reasons lately. One is that I just wrote an article for The InterDependent about how the United Nations is starting a sanitation campaign to build more toilets. As you may remember, in Casamance I visited a family that lived in a tiny town without a single toilet.

Yeah, that was quite an experience. I had been in Bouyouye for a couple of hours by the time I discovered the situation. I had looked into every nook of the little clay house I was staying in, and poked around the yard’s various corners. I just couldn’t see it.

“Where’s the toilet?” I finally asked my weekend’s host, Jeannette Diatta, 40. The cheerful mother of six school-age children pointed at the sky-reaching Fromager tree in front of me.

“Just go behind there. Nobody will bother you.” She handed me a bucket on water for cleansing, as is the local custom.

So off I went, climbing over the wide roots of the so-called elephant tree and wading through piles of brown leaves in search of my own makeshift latrine. Finally I found a spot where I could comfortably go about my business while leaning on the trunk of the tree for support. I tried to be careful not to step into other people’s leftovers, should there be some, but luckily I didn’t see any.

Later on that day I realized why – there were rows of happy little piglets running all over the town that is the full-time home of about 300 people. A human’s dump is a piggy’s treasure. I secretly felt relieved the Diatta household wasn’t serving pork that day for dinner.

During my travels in more than sixty countries on six continents, I have come across many types of latrines: the low porcelain squat toilets of India, a hole in the wooden floor a’la Mongolia, the no-wall group stalls of old Beijing and the high-tech Japanese toilets that give you an automated butt rinse.  But my visit to West Africa last year was the first time that I came across people without access to any kind of a toilet. In Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagos Islands, I even saw locals nonchalantly pooping on the side of the road.

Little did I know how typical these folks actually were: According to the UN, there are 1.1 billion people in the world still defecating out in the open, some 15 percent of the world’s population. To read my piece on what the UN is doing to change this, click on the photo below.

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While West Africans may not all have toilets, they’ve sure got the moves. What did you think about my video of the Casamance dance party?

Central American Dreams

While many of you were freezing in the Northern Hemisphere this winter and dreaming of tropical places like Central America, my friend Mira and I were dreaming in Central America. Well, at least Mira was. I was busy snapping photos of her taking naps in random locations around Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras over our three-month trip. And wow, this girl sure can sleep! She is hands down the most relaxed travel buddy I’ve ever had. 🙂

So if you are looking for inspiration for your next relaxing holiday, take a look at this video. You just might see a destination or two where you’d like to take a snooze yourself.

Have you ever gone on vacation where you spent a lot of time sleeping? What’s your favorite place to take a nap?

A case study of Jamaica: Yeah man – it’s not for me

Last time I wrote about how some countries are a good match for you, for reasons you often cannot explain. You just feel some kind of a connection with the place and its people. Luckily it happens quite often for me. I’m currently in El Salvador and whoa, this place was love at first sight! The ever-present Latin music, the ubiquitous street food vendors (love the delicious pupusas!) , the beautiful beaches and waterfalls, the outgoing friendly people… what’s not to like??

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But this time I’m actually here to tell you what it’s like when the opposite is true and you cannot get into the swing of things at all. For me this has occurred in a couple of countries, but most strongly in Jamaica. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

You see, Jamaica is one of those places whose mystical name conjures up images of good times and paradise beaches. It’s a country that (it seems) almost everyone dreams of visiting at some point – everyone except for me.

playa I never had any particular interest in Jamaican culture, and I just might be the only non-Bob Marley fan left in the world.

stuffNot that I ever had anything in particular against Jamaica, it just wasn’t very high on my list of places to visit. Maybe somewhere below Angola, right above the Canary Islands (where I’ve actually already been as a kid and I think that was enough…).

And yet I found myself in this island nation famous for rastafaris and reggae a couple of years ago, after the Guyanese immigration forced me to buy an onward flight ticket at the Georgetown airport. During the five minutes that I had time to think about what to do, Jamaica seemed the most logical place to fly to, as I was on my way to Cuba. (My initial plan was to take a bus from Guyana to Brazil and go from there to Venezuela, from where I could have flown to Cuba for pretty cheaply. Thanks to Guyanese immigration insisting on seeing an onward a flight ticket, that was not an option…).

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Arriving at the Kingston airport in Jamaica, I was a little less than excited. Kingston doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a friendly and safe city, quite the opposite. Before arriving in the country I happened to read an article about how armed robbers were constantly attacking the city’s hospital, in broad daylight. Police was begging for them to stop, as now the hospital staff was afraid to come to work out of fear of getting held at gunpoint. Nice. Nothing like this type of news to get you excited about arriving someplace new.

I wish I could say that I wandered around Kingston for a couple of days, and it turned out the rumors about it being dangerous were entirely wrong. But I didn’t actually stay there long enough to find out. Pretty soon after arriving I decided to head out to safer areas of the country, and only spent a couple of hours in Kingston, switching buses. From what I saw, the city definitely seemed interesting (I saw bustling markets and many street vendors) but it also seemed worthy of its bad reputation. (I spotted quite a few shady looking characters, and some guys who had clearly indulged in something stronger than the herbal essence that’s every rastafaris favorite past time. Kingston is also the first place where I actually resorted to hiding some cash in my shoes, in case I got robbed. Luckily I didn’t. That only happened later in my travels, once I got to West Africa).

As for my verdict for the rest of Jamaica – naah. Still not my favorite country. That might be because I ended up spending my week in the most touristy spots – Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negril. They were just way too Americanized for my taste. I felt like I was in Florida but with more rastas around. At the same time I was afraid to venture too far out due to security concerns.

beach Granted, Jamaica did have beautiful beaches, with Negril’s white-sand beach with its turquoise water being my favorite. But I have traveled to enough countries where a nice playa just doesn’t cut it anymore (as much as I am a self-proclaimed beach-o-holic…). The place needs to have something more than that, some kind of character, culture or soul. And Jamaica just didn’t have it, or if it did, I simply couldn’t find it.

That might be because locals are often effectively banned from being on the same beaches with visitors. It also didn’t help that most of the Jamaicans I managed to meet in the touristy areas were “rent-a-rastas”, i.e. young dreadlock-donning guys looking for a Western sugar momma. Turning them down every five minutes got to be pretty boring after the first hour. Their aggressive responses were also not too uplifting (“Why, you don’t like black people?!”). All this made me feel like I just needed to get out.

But of course it’s not Jamaica’s fault that I got stuck in the touristy spots that hardly show the best side of any country. Had I allotted more time for sightseeing, I could have explored the mountainous region surrounding Kingston or gone volunteering on an ecofriendly farm run by real followers of the Rastafari religion, not rent-a-rastas, like one traveler I met. I probably would have had an entirely different experience then.

And naturally my week wasn’t terrible. I did eventually meet some nice,  chilled-out locals on the Negril beach and spent hours with their adorable puppy.
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I also cannot deny the beauty of the country, from mountains to rainforests to beaches. Even my Dunn’s River Falls waterfall experience improved tremendously after the tour group of about 200 Americans finally left the area. The sight of all of these folks holding hands and shouting “Yeah man!” together with their Jamaican guide just didn’t do justice to the waterfall that has been dubbed the world’s most beautiful. (In my opinion it was nice but didn’t even come close to Guyana’s Kaieuteur, and many others I have seen.) tourists

All this said, it would be okay to go back to Jamaica if I had some local friends or Couchsurfers to show me the ropes or if I simply wanted to lie on a pretty beach for a week. But it’s not the best place to travel to independently if you are looking to get to know the culture while staying relatively safe.

Either way, I can’t go back to Jamaica before I get my visit to Angola out of the way (which might take a while, considering how expensive that country is!)…

Have you ever visited a country that you didn’t care for much? Why was it that you felt this way? Would you be willing to give the place a second try?

The Art of Traveling Light

A few weeks ago I wrote about the five unexpected benefits of traveling light, and in the end promised that I’d share my own packing tips with you soon.

My apologies that it took a while for me to get back to you on that, but here I am, ready to address all your questions and packing concerns with:

 Mirva’s Ultimate Guide to Traveling the World with a Carry-On

Before you get started, here’s my disclaimer: this information may not be suitable for mountaineers, hikers, skiers, winter enthusiasts, campers or globetrotting opera singers.  This advice is geared for typical travelers who are heading to those predominantly warm destinations – Australia, Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean  – and who plan on mostly sleeping in hotels, hostels or private homes, not outdoors. Also, some of this advice may not apply as well to guys as it does to girls. Sorry about that.

Still, this post will include information that may also benefit those above-mentioned groups and several others. Just remember that anything you read here should not be taken at face value – what works for me may not work for you – and is best used as a guide that can be modified to suit your needs.

Everyone has their own “must-have-items” while traveling, so please do not get offended if I have left out the one item without which you absolutely cannot live. For each his own! That said, here is my advice that comes from 10+ years on the road.

The Three Things You Think You’ll Need, but You Really Do Not

1)      Jeans

This may come as a shock for you blue jeans lovin’ folks out there but these heavy, cumbersome and hard-to-dry pants are the first absolute no on my packing list. You know how much space those take out of your little bag? And you know how much they weigh? A lot. Let’s face it, you plan to chill on the beach for the majority of your vacation anyway and jeans do not belong in that scene at all.

I realize you may want to bring a pair with you ‘just in case’, but I am telling you – it’s not worth it. Instead bring a few of the following: light-weight khakis, a thin pair of black pants, capris, shorts, sweatpants, skirts, dresses, leggings or even jeggings –basically anything is better than a pair of jeans. And if you are one of those countless people who just cannot imagine life without jeans, then fine, bring one pair. But make sure that it is of the lightest fabric you can find and be prepared to wear it whenever you are on the move: changing cities, flying somewhere or sitting in a bus for 30 hours. At least that way the jeans won’t take up precious space in your bag. Just don’t come complaining to me that you’d rather be wearing shorts or a nice dress in this heat! In all my travels around Asia, Australia, Latin America and now Africa I have never once wished I had brought jeans with me. Instead, long skirts are my staple travel wear (perfect also for countries where you shouldn’t show much skin). Whenever I get cold, I just wear leggings underneath.

2)      Sleeping Bag

I used to travel with a sleeping bag at all times though I wasn’t planning on doing any camping. I just brought it along in case the blankets in my hostels would not be warm enough or I’d take a night bus where the AC was on full blast. How many times did I actually roll the sleeping bag out of its case? A handful, at the very most, and even then I used it mostly just to get at least some use out of it.  Thus hauling a sleeping bag around for months just in case was hardly worth it. Nowadays I travel without one and have never regretted it. Every hotel gives you a blanket, and hostels too. When I have gone Couchsurfing, every host has offered me a duvet or a blanket or at least a sheet. And should you ever find yourself really needing a sleeping bag – well, just deal with it somehow. Wear layers, cuddle up with someone, tear down the curtains of the hotel room, use a scarf as a blanket… Be creative.

(The only time my sleeping bag came in handy in Australia in 2006 was during a visit to Byron Bay with my friend Kaisa, pictured here. The bus dropped us off at 4.30 a.m., and we didn’t want to splurge on a night’s accommodation when the night was almost over anyway.)

Nowadays I’d rather experience a chilly night once or twice during my trip than haul extra weight around for months. If you absolutely want to bring something to calm your nerves, get one of those slip-in silk sleeping bags that weigh nothing (and are meant for avoiding contact with dirty sheets) or “borrow” one of those handy, light airline blankets.

3)      Towel

While I started off traveling with a fluffy normal towel, over the years my towels just got smaller and smaller, until I finally was down to a tiny kitchen rag. You really do not need much more than that to pat yourself dry. Air-drying is so underrated! And if you love wrapping yourself in a big towel after taking a shower, don’t worry. Many guesthouses and hotels will supply you with one. Also, being deprived of a real towel for a while will help you appreciate the luxury when you come across it. For me that is part of the point of travel – learning to enjoy things you used to take for granted.

(Here I am, loving my most recent borrowed towel in Senegal’s Casamance region)

On the other hand, here are the…

Three absolute  must-haves for a traveler

1)      Sarong

If I could only take one item with me on my trip, a sarong would be it. If you are not familiar with the term, a sarong is a thin, colorful piece of fabric that is sold pretty much in every beach town worldwide.

If you do not already own one, make sure to buy one when you hit the road. You can rest assured, there is not a single item in this world that is more multi-functional than a sarong. I use mine as a towel for the shower and the beach (which is why I often do not even bring the little kitchen rag with me anymore), as a blanket in chilly buses and planes, as a sheet or a pillow case in one-star hotel rooms. I wrap it in my head like a turban or around me like a dress.

I even wore a flowery sarong to a Cambodian wedding once! I sometimes carry things inside my sarong, or hang it down from my hostel bunk bed to create an illusion of privacy. I use it as a curtain or as art on the wall. The sarong simply cannot be beat! I usually buy a pretty one from every trip and keep it as a multi-functional souvenir.

2)      Bolero

As with jeans, many people feel the need to bring a bunch of long sleeve shirts along just in case. But unless you are going to a Muslim country, a place with an abundance of malaria or some chilly high altitude towns, you will not get much use out of long sleeve shirts. But since you’ll still want to be prepared for chilly days or nights, the best solution is to bring a bolero or two. A bolero refers to those add-on sleeves that were trendy some five years ago, and are still super trendy in my books as the ultimate travel accessory (hence I’m wearing a bolero in the sarong photo above!). Just throw on a bolero and voila – your sleeveless top has turned into a long sleeve shirt! The best part is that you can wear the bolero with any of your tops, and it weighs much less than a full long sleeve shirt. So even if you never end up needing to wear it, it’s not a big loss weight-wise. The only thing is that boleros are a bit hard to come by these days. So if you see one sold, grab it right away! In fact, I just spotted some in a store in Dakhla, Western Sahara, if anyone is heading that way…


3)      Mini-size shampoos and other beauty products

You know those mini-size shampoos and conditioners that you get at hotels? That is what you should be traveling with too. There is absolutely no reason for you to haul around full-size lotions and potions that take up half of your luggage (yet many people still do!). I bring just a tiny shampoo bottle with me – well, everything I bring is tiny in fact! Here’s a half-liter water bottle as a size comparison.

This black miniature shampoo bottle in the middle lasts me a couple of months, easily.

“How?” you may ask. Well, for one, I have trained my hair so that it only needs to be washed once or twice a week. Other days I just take a shower without washing my hair, which is a great time and shampoo saver. Secondly, I’ll refill the little bottle from time to time from the big bottles that other travelers are hauling around – they are usually more than happy to get rid of a few extra ounces of weight. Or if need be, I’ll buy a bigger bottle to refill from and give the rest to another needy traveler or a local.

(Note: If you think that your hair cannot be trained not to get greasy every day, you are wrong. It definitely can – you just might not want to be seen in public during the training period as it takes a few weeks. Getting braids makes the process a whole lot easier. Your hair doesn’t need to be washed more than once a week after it is braided, and you can continue on that path even after you take the braids off.)

  (Braids are also a great ice-breaker when traveling. People cannot wait to touch your strange hair, at least when you have partly pink braids…)

 

What did you think about these tips? Were any new to you? I still have a few more up my sleeve, so stay tuned…