Part One - Or, Are We There Yet?
Okay, so I will apologize up front for the heft of this report – it's a biggie – but I felt compelled to try to not only tell the story of our adventures and share some of the pictures, but also to impart information that may be useful to anyone contemplating a trip to Thailand. And you should. The place rocks. Even without diving, Thailand is worthy of the big bucks airline ticket and bum-numbing flight time. Once you get yourself there, you can look forward to an excellent experience at a very reasonable cost.
A quick note about the images – all pictures in this report were taken with a Nikon D100, with the underwater ones shot from an Aquatica housing with dual Ikelite DS 125 strobes. The pictures in this report are shared at medium (modest) resolution, so they are not as crisp as the originals, but because there are so many images, I thought it best to downsize them.
My early research on diving in Thailand led me to the realization that the best diving is off the west coast – in the Andaman Sea. There is diving available in other locations in Thailand, most notably at Koh Tao in the Bay of Thailand, where there is a popular dive instructor training school, but according to folks with whom I have corresponded on the subject, all other Thai diving pales in comparison to the stuff on the west side.
Further surfing brought up numerous live-aboard and day boat diving options (all based out of Phuket), but no dedicated dive lodges in the area.
It was all enough to make my little noggin spin.
When I reached out to my buddies for some assistance with planning the trip, Doc Vikingo and Braciole both gave a thumbs up recommendation of John & Bent (yes, really his name) of Siam Dive ‘n Sail, so I contacted them. They are a longtime, well-run dive travel biz, operating out of Kata Beach in Phuket. They rep many of the live-aboard and day boats in the area, as well as some to Indo and Burma. Both Bent and John were very helpful and obliging when I corresponded with them trying to put together a plan for our family. Unfortunately, there were no boats in their inventory that ideally accommodated our needs – we were looking for a boat with less than 20 pax, moderate pricing, with a double cabin for Mr G and me and a triple for the P’s. As it was the first live-aboard for our kids, we thought the itinerary to Burma (Myanmar), although tempting, was too long and the advertised dive conditions were possibly too challenging for the kids, not to mention current significant political unrest in Burma. So sadly, none of the many boats that Siam Dive ‘N Sail reps was really the right fit for us.
So I kept looking. Quite by chance, I was surfing digitaldiver.net and came across a positive trip report about The Junk, a Chinese cargo vessel that was converted to a unique live-aboard dive platform, resplendent with red sails. Rock On Trip Report Writers! Intrigued, I checked it out on the web and was thrilled to find: prices were really pretty reasonable (with the added bonus of a 15% discount for booking at least 3 months out), many glowing reviews, and what turned out to be accurate descriptions and photos of the boat.
I contacted the management through a link on their website. I received a quick confirmation from Frank, the owner, that they had a double and a triple cabin for us (the last spots on the sailing we wanted – serendipitously suhweet!), on dates that would work for us, with an itinerary that looked pretty wonderful. Done.
Initially the plan was to take the ferry across to Phi Phi after our week on The Junk and spend 4 or 5 days diving and hiking there. No such luck. Initial searches for hotels on the island turned up crazy prices – often 3 to 4 times low season rates, with very little inventory available, even 6 months out. An added complication was that there were no available seats on Thai Airways to get us to Bangkok from Phuket on the dates we wanted/needed to fly to get us there in time to overnight before our early flights out on January 5th. The best we could do were seats out of Phuket on January 2, leaving us with a three night/ two day Bangkok layover before flying home.
And there were not only issues getting from Phuket to Bangkok, but every place we looked at that might have worked for us had a “mandatory gala dinner fee” for New Year’s Eve attached – in the range of $150 pp (and up), in addition to aforementioned highly inflated peak season room rates. Yikes!
So, as a workaround to avoid paying the crazy expensive gala fee, and at least to have a chance to see the mythical Phi Phi islands, we booked a two day dive trip to Phi Phi (including Anemone Reef, Shark Point and other must-do sites) on the Greta, through Siam Dive n Sail, from Dec 31st to Jan 1st . What better way to spend New Year’s Eve than together with our kids, doing a great day of diving, and then enjoying the evening on beautiful and poignant Phi Phi?
Once those two dive adventures were booked, it became a matter of filling in the blanks with accommodations in Phuket – something that I had to research and book myself, as Siam Dive 'n Sail does not do land bookings, although there is lots of great info on their site about Phuket, and some hotel listings.
The perils and pitfalls of booking hotels in resort areas of Thailand during peak season warrants its own little section (it’s at the end of this report…)
The Groundhog Day Fiasco
So, here’s the whole strange saga. By the by, if airline fubar stories aren’t your cuppa tea, feel free to skip ahead to the next sections.
We were very fortunate to be flying in Biz Class (on frequent flyer points), so let me say up front that what was surely a Flight From Hell for the 200+ people sitting in Sardine, er, Economy Class on our flight from Vancouver to Tokyo, was truly only very inconvenient for us.
The stress we felt was not so much physical from being prezzled in the back of the bus – it was more about our two older daughters, who had been backpacking around Thailand and Cambodia and who would be waiting for us in Phuket as we had pre-arranged. We had no way to contact them about our delay except by e.mail, which we weren’t sure they were checking regularly as they were vagabonding around quite a bit. That was a worry, and as things evolved, there was a very real threat that we would not show up in time to make the departure of The Junk live-aboard that we had booked for a week of diving in the Andaman Sea. That for sure put us on edge. The fact that we had prepaid for two rooms (non-refundable) for one night in a very splurgey kind of resort for our reunion with our daughters in Phuket, and that it wasn’t looking like we would arrive in time to enjoy it, was just an added injury.
Our Air Canada non-stop flight from Vancouver to Tokyo did not start off well. We arrived at the airport to find out that the flight had incurred a one hour departure delay – something about the cockpit crew deadheading in from somewhere else, and their flight was delayed, so therefore ours was too. Approximately an hour after scheduled departure time they started boarding. We were already beginning to feel anxious, as we had a pretty tight connection in Tokyo for Bangkok, and we were watching that transfer time inexorably whittle away. Still, even with an hour and a half delay, and the longer than usual planned flight time, it looked like we could still make it in a pinch.
Anyhoo, back to the saga. So there we were, now on the plane, wishing they would hurry up and get the crate in the air. Instead, the Captain came on the PA with a jaunty “Well folks, I’ve got some bad news and some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that we have a mechanical issue that needs to be resolved before we can go. The good news is, the ground crew advises that it is a fairly minor issue and should be resolved quite quickly, hopefully within an hour or so. The bad news is, if we don’t take off in 45 minutes or less, myself (the Captain) and the other flight deck crew will be exceeding our allowable duty day, and a new front end crew will need to be called out. Due to peak season crew scheduling, that could take several hours.”
Groans all around. Fingers and toes duly crossed. Watches watched. As we waited, we used Mr G’s Blackberry to call our travel agent to ask her what to do about the Toyko-Bangkok flight that we were now guaranteed to miss. She was able to quickly contact Air Canada who arranged that we would be carried on a JAL flight that left later that day, still arriving Bangkok in plenty of time for an ugly 7 hour layover before our early morning flight to Phuket. So, not all that big an issue at that point, but there was some stress knowing that a big possible delay was looming out there if they didn’t get the thing fixed soon.
With literally minutes to spare before he would have to get off the plane, the Captain came back on and said all was repaired and we were on our way. Sweet! High fives all around!
Fast forward through a meal service, a couple of celebratory vodka tonics, and a movie segueing into lights out. All tucked in, I had visions of a happy reunion with our older daughters dancing in my head as I drifted off to sleep. I woke up, parched, about 6 hours into the flight, and cracked the window shade. I had figured that as we left Vancouver early afternoon, and were heading west, that we should be flying in daylight all the way. Not so much. A peek outside revealed an inky, starry night. Hmmm. I got up to go to the loo and get some more water, and asked one of the flight attendants in the galley what was up. She advised that we had turned around and were about one and half hours west of Anchorage, where we would be landing due to a medical emergency on board.
You know, a person can get a bit of a complex about being a jinx. For a while there, I kept finding myself on sinking dive boats, and until one sunk when I was not on the boat, I worried that I might be the bad karma carrier ;^)
Last year, I was fortunate enough to find myself on about 6 trips that involved flights. Less fortunately, four of those trips had flights involving medical emergencies.
Back on the Tokyo flight. Curious, I asked a friendly flight attendant what the medical issue was. I felt justified enquiring, as I knew the landing in Anchorage was going to have a serious impact on our travel plans. She confided that they had paged for medical personnel on board - incredibly, with 225+ folks on the Aerobus, not one was an MD, nurse or paramedic – or at least not one who was willing to come forward. I missed the page altogether, due to vodka-induced, earplug-enhanced sleep (I know, fellow traveler, that at this point you are lightly strumming a sad song for me on your violin ;^), but only having Industrial First Aid and CPR, both certifications now lapsed (my bad), I would not have been qualified to help anyway. It seems that a youngish male passenger was complaining of pain in his abdomen. With no one on board to ascertain that he was not bleeding internally, that his BP and heart rate were normal, and that he was not suffering appendicitis or similar affliction, the flight crew apparently had no choice but to turn the flight when the passenger indicated that he could not go on. Man, I couldn’t help thinking that if we had left on time, we would have been closer to Tokyo than Alaska, and so would have gone there instead...
It gets curiouser – they moved the passenger in question, and what looked to be his parents, up to some empty seats in Biz Class for the duration of the side trip to Anchorage. The seats in the new personal pod configuration on Air Canada are herringbone to the aisle, as opposed to facing fully forward, so it wasn’t necessary to be a rubber-necking looky-lou to covertly check him out. He was a young Asian guy, late teens or early 20’s, sitting up straight, and he looked okay to me – more sullen than anything. The parents virtually ignored him.
I’ll admit I started thinking – WTF? If the guy is not in serious distress, why are they turning the plane, with huge inconvenience to several hundred people, not to mention mind-boggling cost and scheduling nightmares for the airline, all for someone who looks, at the worst, like he might have a bit of intestinal upset?
Don’t get me wrong – I am not without compassion (truthfully I think I do okay in that department), but this did not look right. But what are you going to do? What is the crew going to do? With no medical opinion as to the passenger’s fitness to fly, huge liabilities lurk out there – what if he does have internal bleeding or a hot appendix or something equally as sinister? If things go bad, heads are gonna roll at Air Canada.
So we landed, heavy, in Anchorage. It was an icy cold night and the runway was slick. It didn’t help that we were still carrying several thousand pounds of fuel in addition to a fully loaded plane. It took forever for the jet to stop.
As soon as they pulled the plane over, paramedics were ushered on board. They did a quick BP and pulse check on the patient, poked him in the abdomen a couple of times (his response was minimal) and then shrugged their shoulders at each other. They asked him if he could walk off the plane, and he said yes.
So he stood up and walked off the flight, followed by his little family entourage.
The Captain came back on the PA, not quite so jaunty any more. From what he told us, there were a couple of options – none of them very attractive. He advised that we could not continue on to Tokyo, as Narita airport is closed in the wee hours, when we would end up arriving. He reminded us that the flight deck crew couldn’t go anyways, because that would be overtime, and that is not allowed in the airline industry. Nobody wants a somnolent pilot.
One possible option was to unload the passengers and crew and put us all up at hotels in Anchorage – allowing the crew to have their minimum required 9 hour rest before we proceeded. I was thinking that this was the best scenario, with the least possible delay. That, or fly in a replacement crew from Vancouver (about 4 hours away).
My wishful thinking was sadly overruled by the powers-that-be, who, after a couple of hours of deliberations and logistics studies and crew scheduling and aircraft scheduling and flight plan submissions, decided the best thing was to return the aircraft and passengers to Vancouver, overnight us at the airport in Vancouver, and then reschedule the flight for the following morning.
I can’t begin to describe the sense of disbelief we felt. Twelve hours on a plane, and we were going to be back where we started.
I have to say Air Canada, whom I have dissed in the past for some head-shaking policies, procedures and attitude (not to mention frequently losing my dive bag), receives my full kudos for how they handled this whole situation. In fact, I’d give them a gold star.
We arrived in Vancouver in the wee hours, where we were given info about the flight arrangements for the following day (including assurances that a flight from Toyko to Bangkok had been rescheduled for us), and a voucher for the airport hotel, and off we went. By the time we had collected our bags and schlepped them to the hotel, checked in, and were in the sack it was 2.30 am with a planned wake up at 6.30 to check in by 7 am for a 9 am departure. I did not sleep well fussing about the Ps waiting for us on the other end, and figuring about how the heck we were going to get from Bangkok to Phuket in time for The Junk’s departure.
I am pleased to report that on the day after Groundhog Day the stars lined up for the G family – flights flew on time, and we slept most of the way to Toyko. When we got there, we picked up an e.mail from Lily, our agent, with the subject line CONFIRMED! THAI AIRWAYS FLT ### 7 AM TOMORROW. Well that was a woohoo – although we’d miss the night at the resort with P1 and P2 (and have to kill 9 hours in Bangkok Airport), we’d still be there in time for a shower and a quick nap and then a scheduled late afternoon pickup by the Junk driver. The Japan Airlines lounge in Narita (at least the one we were in – there are several) had some cool massage loungers and continuous sushi. So we happily noshed nigiri nuggets and rode the massage chairs during our short wait for the connecting flight. We were moved onto an earlier JAL flight out of Tokyo that got us to Bangkok in time to hoof it with our bags through the long, ultra-mod tubular hallways and glass atriums of Suvarnabhumi Airport to stand by for the last Thai Airways flight of the day to Phuket (which we were told was oversold). We got the last three seats - literally, the 3 center seats in the back of the bus. They don't recline, but who gives a hoot? We were almost there and it's a sub one hour flight.
And so, there we were, in Phuket, at midnight, drinking beers with our much-relieved daughters in a bar at Nai Yang beach, just outside the gates of the chi chi resort that, in the end, we got to enjoy – only checking in 14 hours later than planned.
Kind of miraculous when I look back on the whole thing.