Thanks to the Airbus A380 coming to Medellin I got in touch with a person, and by this contact I ended up working as a freelancer in Bangkok, Thailand; Mainly in a project that this person had there.
While I was in this activity, I went to Thailand and back thrice, with each stay having a different duration, adding a little less than a year altogether that I lived there, and two years that I had to do with the project.
When I wasn’t in Thailand I was still involved, but from Colombia, until that cycle ended for me in a given moment. All that is part of the things I did to get my Pilot’s licence, things that can be seen with a little more detail clicking here (I still haven’t written that, I’m just leaving it here to remember).
This first trip meant for me the first time that was on a continent other than America, the first time that I was on the other side of the Pacific, the first time that I saw the north pole, the first time that I flew in a Boeing 747, and first time that I lived totally on my own (and not four blocks away from my mother, going to have lunch at her place, and with her still telling even if a girlfriend could be had or not, like some “super independent” people who I used to know. This was almost in the antipode, no less).
I had always wanted to travel, to go far away. The rest of the world always produced a lot of curiosity in me (it still does), and I never had (and don’t have) racist, xenophobic or chauvinistic impulses.
I didn’t believe (and I still don’t) that as an individual I had any important quality or defect just for having been born at a given place, nor did I think that place had anything special just because I was born there. That’s just a statistic accident.
What for other people of the zone I grew up on meant an attitude of reservation, mistrust and even hatred (perhaps because they thought they were superior), for me meant something I wanted to know deeply, and hopefully be able to experience first hand.
As a little kid I insisted many times on my wish to be sent abroad on an exchange program or something, but it couldn’t happen because of money (and because truly they didn’t pay lots of attention to me, “that’s just a whim that will go away”).
I finished high school and the flame was still alive inside, but the practical possibility of going anywhere was almost zilch. I mean, I wanted to be a Pilot and it didn’t even seem that I would get to become an ice cream van Pilot, and that problem was limited only to Medellin at the moment.
Now traveling? Traveling far away? HA! I could hardly travel between Medellin and Rionegro by public bus, and barely…
And nonetheless, due to a set of circumstances the possibility was becoming real for me, and I took it immediately hands-on. People here were nagging because of their usual fear of the unknown and the foreign (“aren’t you afraid?” “what if you get lost?” “how will you communicate?” “and the food?” “aaahhh but are they nice people as we are here?” And other old wives’ tales, the kind of tale colombian people like, such as “the second most beautiful anthem in the world” and akin senseless mumbojumbo).
As for me, instead of that, I was looking forward to the new and delicious food I was going to taste, and I longed for a change of environment. I didn’t have a lot to hold on to in Colombia in that moment, and barring how I was going to miss my mother and my dogs while I was going to be away, in reality pretty much had nothing that tied me.
Things happened really fast, and basically one day I told my mother:
–“Mom, I am leaving for Thailand in two weeks”.
And that was that.
Besides, a little beam of hope was created and perhaps I could see a dim light at the end of the tunnel of the Pilot’s licence situation, at least I was going to do something (save some money) looking toward that aim, as little as it was, and as tall as that mountain still was.
And this was the start of that start.
Airplane: Boeing 737-800
Airline: American Airlines
I arrived in the Airport 2 hours and half before departure time. I checked-in without any problem.
I left my suitcase and went for a stroll, and about 45 minutes before departure time I went to emigration. It was crazy as hell, the DAS (colombian emigration at the time) guy and I had this chat:
-“When did you arrive?”
-“I live here”
-“When did you arrive?”
-“I live here”
-“When did you arrive?”
-“I’m telling you I live here!”
Third was the charm, finally he got it.
While that happened a cop seized a chocolate bar from another person doing emigration, and then ate it. All this in like two minutes. That was bizarre… and fun at the same time.
I was in the waiting room some 25 minutes, and about 20 minutes before departure time, boarding was started. N920AN, the Boeing 737-800 that was going to take me to Miami that afternoon on flight 910 looked beautiful. Flight 910 was the, by then, American Airlines‘ recently inaugurated second daily flight from Medellin to Miami.
I made myself comfortable and boarding was finished, and as it happened I was going to have the full row to myself (the three seats, that is), all the better. We were pushed back and we started our taxi to the runway 36 of that time.
We took off and the flight started uneventfully.
We continued flying north and exited the colombian mainland close to Cartagena, but not above the city.
Lunch was served a little time before reaching Jamaica, I chose chicken and it was fine. People complain a lot about airline food but it doesn’t taste horrible to me, I guess that’s the good thing about being kind of simpleton in that sense and not expecting caviar in economy class OK.
The cabin crew was a mix of argentinians, chileans and Miami cubans. There was a couple of them that didn’t seem to be in a particularly good mood that day, but it was all good otherwise.
Anyway, I am kind of simpleton on that as well. As long as they don’t spit in my face, insult me, hit me, nor rape the women in my village, and help me if I need it within their responsibilities I consider myself well served by the cabin crew.
Nowadays an online pre-authorisation called ESTA is used, but back then those of us that entered the United States under the visa waiver program had to fill a physical green form called I-94W, I filled it while we were flying between Jamaica and Cuba.
I couldn’t see much of these two islands as they were pretty much full of clouds.
The descent began after leaving Cuba, soon the sea tonality changed from dark blue to clear blue, and vessels of different sizes and islets started to appear.
Suddenly, Miami city.
We landed on runway 30 (I think), and then we went to our parking spot.
On our way I saw several DHL Boeing 727s and other very interesting Airplanes for me in that moment…
Like an Iberia A340-300 (even though I had seen this one many times already in Bogota).
A Virgin Atlantic A340-600 (I had seen very little of this one).
A Mexicana A320… among others.
Soon we reached our parking spot.
Back then I liked to ask for authorisation to take a photo of the cockpit. I asked on that flight and Captain O’Neil had no problem granting my wish, as he filled the flight’s documentation.
I took the photo and hastily made my way out of the Airplane, I still had to do immigration and customs, was continuing to Washington, and the connection was not totally comfortable.
Airplane: Boeing 757-200
Airline: American Airlines
I left the former flight and quickly made my way to immigration and customs. There was a huge queue for both things, and the immigration one got a little slower because there was an issue with some asians that didn’t speak english nor spanish.
On top of that, I was sent to the secondary customs inspection behind an old lady that I don’t where had she come from, but apparently she was not traveling but moving and taking her whole house with her (she may have been colombian), and then I had to run around that Airport to drop the baggage once more.
Fortunately, this flight was delayed for one hour due to a storm in the city where the Airplane was coming from and couldn’t leave on time for Miami, otherwise it would have been feasible that it would have left to Washington without me.
The Airplane was N664AA, a sexy Boeing 757-200 with winglets, that coincidentally was the second American Airlines’ Airplane that I had seen in Rionegro (but back then it didn’t have winglets), the first one was the Boeing 757-200 retro jet that made the very first flight back in 2002. I even got a mug from that event.
I sat on my window seat, and again I had the whole row of three to myself, which is something good because that tale of a beautiful woman sitting on the next seat and wanting to talk and all that only happens in the movies (or happens to other people).
We left exactly one hour after the initially planned time from gate D49 (thankfully… otherwise I wouldn’t have made it), we took off very swiftly, and climbed in no time at all. A 757 in the night and at sea level has veeeeery good performance.
Flight attendants walked by, offering some beverages and selling headphones, there was no free food in this flight, even though it was almost as long as Medellin – Miami (2 hours and a half).
There wasn’t much service but the flight attendants were kind of happy, and well, I asked for orange juice (Minute Maid, the usual) twice in the 2 hours and a half flight and nothing else. Truly there were no problems with the service (after having already explained my stance on the topic).
We flew through a thunderstorm zone and there was some turbulence, but I was relaxed.
We approached and landed in Dulles, and had to wait a few minutes to get to our parking spot.
While we were waiting the Airplane was obviously static and people began to stand up thinking we had arrived already to our gate. Flight attendants made an announcement and told people to sit, that we hadn’t arrived yet… this happens often and it’s always a moment of fun for me.
Once in the Airport I almost didn’t meet with who was supposed to pick me up. He would go somewhere else, and when I went there, he would have returned to the first place, and so on, until we finally met (back then I didn’t have a smart phone or a data plan).
I have no complaints about this flight. Yes, there was a delay, but it was to my benefit.
I had a free day in Washington, and of course, I put it to good use on the things I love, namely, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum! Specifically, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
Going to the museum.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy is a Hungary born man, who created ILFC, one of the biggest Airplane leasing empires. When the last century was about to end he made a huge donation to the Smithsonian Institution so that they would build an annex to the National Air and Space Museum, because the main one, located in downtown Washington, was full and couldn’t exhibit all the things it held due to sheer lack of space.
So with this donation they built the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center as an annex of that museum, right on Washington-Dulles Airport. Among its characteristics, it has an observation tower to see the Airport’s operations, and from the parking lot good photos of the approaching Airplanes can be taken.
And that free day I took a stroll around the city, and I even went for a while to Gravelly Point, a delicious park close to one of the thresholds of Washington-Reagan Airport, on the banks of the Potomac river, but the rest of the day I spent on that museum.
Arriving to Washington-Reagan.
Washington-Reagan control tower.
Washington-Reagan view from Gravelly Point.
Washington-Reagan operations from Gravelly Point.
The Capitol from Gravelly Point, on the other side of the Potomac river.
But anyway, I made my way to the museum. It was incredible to have all those historic Airplanes right in front of me. I knew the history of most because I had read it, or had seen it on a video or documentary, but having them on my nose was a whole different animal.
I was overloaded, there were Airplanes such as…
The Boeing 367-80 “Dash-80”, the prototype of the succesful and revolutionary Boeing 707.
The Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The one that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
And the Space Shuttle “Enterprise”, among many very interesting others.
You can see below a pair of galleries with more photos of the museum and the stroll around Washington that day.
When I was leaving the museum I bought right there a model of a FedEx McDonnell-Douglas MD-11F, which I still have in my room.
The model I bought there.
Airplane: Boeing 747-400
Airline: United Airlines
I arrived in the Airport about 2:15 before departure time and checked-in. What was being used in that flight was the auto check-in with passport reading machines, and 2 or 3 employees there watching in case somebody needed help, something novel for me back then.
Arriving in the Airport… Avianca had started flying to Washington very recently.
2. My particular Airplane, the N198UA, was taken out of the flying line way before and was chopped in the desert. When I found out I got sad (because of what it meant in my geekiness), but such is the circle of life lion king. The photo can be seen clicking here, but if you are like me the photo is not proper for you, you will cry and cry, without anyone to comfort you…
I couldn’t choose my seat online (that happens for “security” or when the flight is way oversold), and in the machine in the Airport I wasn’t assigned a seat either, it had to be assigned by the agent in the gate (that’s to say, it was oversold to the bone).
Back then in Dulles they used a “mobile lounge”. As its name says, it’s a lounge on wheels that transports people between terminals, it’s the only Airport in which I had experienced anything like it, but I know the system has been used in others. I liked it.
In the mobile lounge already, in front another one that was “arriving” can be seen.
In my mobile lounge trip between terminals I saw a South African A340-600, an AirTran 717-200 and a Korean Air 747-400, among others. Entertainment is what I had.
AirTran Boeing 717-200.
South African Airways Airbus A340-600.
Korean Air Boeing 747-400. Around that time South Korea had just been included in the visa waiver program, that flight was packed.
TED Airbus A320, a kind of low-cost Airline United tried to launch back then.
Roaming around Dulles in the mobile lounge.
At the time of writing this there is already an underground train in Dulles to move between terminals, but the mobile lounge is still in use for specific cases. I thought it was the best, as well as the main terminal design made by the finnish architect Eero Saarinen.
So I made the whole check-in process and reached the gate, just to be told that I was shit out of luck, that there wasn’t any window seat now.
I wanted to die, how so?! My first ever Boeing 747 flight? My first flight over the north pole? AND THERE WASN’T GOING TO BE A WINDOW SEAT FOR ME?!
It seemed like that, damn it! I ended up getting the 52G seat, an aisle seat far away from any window.
Anyway, I looked through the window and saw the very beautiful N198UA, the Boeing 747-400 that would take me to Beijing that day on flight 897.
That United flight between Washington and Beijing was relatively new.
We boarded on time and it was all ready, I was getting comfortable on my bittersweet seat when some guy that was traveling with a study group asked me to switch seats with one of the students in his group so they would all sit together, and the student was in a seat close to a window (but not the window itself), so I had no problem, that would put a little sugar in the bittersweet combination of that moment.
Beside me in the window, there was a 15 years old chinese boy going to Guangzhou, and in the aisle there was a guy from the United States that loved Harley-Davidson, and was going to Fuzhou.
We had been there for like an hour and it started to get hot, when the Captain said:
“This is your Captain speaking, we have a problem with some air compressor and the mechanic is taking care of it right now, you should lower the shade because it’s too hot”.
About 10 minutes after that we were told to disembark quickly.
Everybody down! The Airplane broke…
Once again we were at gate C3, and the flight was showing a two hours delay, which passed fast overall. I was worried about losing my connection in Beijing, but other than that I was relaxed.
All in all, it was an airline problem and they would have to take care of whatever happened, and I had to get there, but I didn’t have to get there at any specific hour nor did I have any specific commitment to get to. I just had to get there, the rest would come in due time.
Flight 897 to Beijing, now with a delay of two hours.
The left wing as seen from the waiting room.
A United Boeing 757-200 was moving around…
Now leaving at 1430.
RAM/A kindly go get your NO WINDOW seat (it was all settled as I told you, that system didn’t update).
Boarding for the second time.
Boarding was called again and this time around there was no technical issue, we were pushed back exactly two hours late and made our way to the runway.
We took off after a Cessna Citation X and a Gulfstream.
During the initial climb, as I saw the Airport getting ever smaller, and as I felt the Boeing 747 landing gear retract, something that had never happened to me before took place. I had a panic attack of sorts, lasting for two or three seconds, I was thinking:
-“FUUUUUCK! THIS IS GOING TO CHINAA! GET ME OUT OF HERE!”.
Yet another two seconds passed, and right when the landing gear stopped sounding, suddenly a kind of weird happiness that I hadn’t felt up until that point invaded me, now my thoughts were:
-“FUUUUCK! THIS IS GOING TO CHINAA! HELL YEAAAAAH!”
And I stuck with that feeling for the remainder of the flight.
It’s been almost 10 years at the time of writing this since that happened, and I remember it like yesterday, I think I can even feel it again as I reminisce.
Turning north to get in the way I had a privileged view of Dulles and the extension works that were taking place in that moment.
In the seat forward of mine there was a mother with her little chinese boy, the boy wanted to grab my nose at a given moment, but surprisingly he was very silent during the whole flight.
At least! 14 hours enduring a crying toddler without being able to do anything was not exactly my idea of fun. In that moment the mother asked me what was I going to do in Beijing, I told her I was going to Bangkok… we spoke for another two or three minutes and then the boy calmed down and I didn’t feel them for the rest of the flight.
On top of that, the chinese that was in the window seat had smelled my Aviation geek suffering before pushing back and had told me that I was free to take as many photos as I wanted, see whatever I wanted through the window, and just leaned back. He was quite thin, so all the better, it was like there was no one there… and the flight just got fixed for me.
The flight route was over Canada, the North Pole, Russia, Mongolia, and then China.
About one hour after take off we were given our first meal, that just like the American Airlines one days before, in my simpleton view wasn’t bad at all.
Then it was some noodles (they were fed to the kid that wanted to grab my nose with chinese sticks by his mother), and later on a kind of sandwich. Service was fine, specially from a nice chinese flight attendant.
Second meal, the noodles. They also gave us a lemon biscuit that I deemed delicious.
The kid that wanted to grab my nose eating.
At some point they were showing a Jack Nicholson movie, but I paid no attention to it. The chinese guy had practically ceded the window to me, and what I could see through it was much more interesting.
After some flight hours we were very relaxed waaaay north of Canada, and after some more time it appeared before me… the north pole! the extensive snow! It was one of the most beautiful and spectacular things that I had been able to witness up to that moment.
In that moment I stood up from my seat and went to take a little walk around the Airplane. Most people didn’t seem to care at all, many were fast asleep, others were reading, others had the window shade closed.
But there were a pair of chinese girls watching through a window and talking to each other very excitedly about what they were just witnessing (I didn’t understand one iota because I don’t speak chinese, but yeah). I wasn’t the only one feeling warm and cheesy things inside due to the white cold in that moment.
The landscape was very monotonous, but very impressing and powerful. I didn’t bat an eye until it was over!
The flight kept on and we were over Russia already. We entered through the north, and crossed the country north-south exiting through the Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude and lake Baikal zone.
Back then I hadn’t gone to Russia, but I had always wanted to. At the time of writing this I have already gone to Moscow and its suburbs, but I still want to go to that far away zone (and to Kamchatka, Sakhalin, among many, many others).
Being able to see it, even if just out of the window of an Airplane in flight, was very exciting for me.
Again, I stood up to walk around to avoid getting deep vein thrombosis and all that, there were other people doing the same aft in the Airplane.
I took a pair of additional photos from windows in different sides of the fuselage (the ones just up), and I talked for a while with a chinese girl.
By the way, they make a great deal of the Mil Helicopters in Ulan-Ude.
Between Russia and Mongolia chinese immigration forms were distributed, but since I was just connecting I didn’t have to fill them.
As a matter of fact, if I were to do anything else other than connecting I would have needed a visa that I didn’t have in that moment. Later on, the descent and approach were started.
11280 kilometres, mate! That’s like the distance from Washington-Dulles up until the point in which I took that photo, wuaaaashhh.
The descent continued, and truly nothing could be seen now.
I didn’t know if it was due to clouds or smog, thing is the Airplane was being configured to land after almost 14 hours flying, my buttcrack was all but erased, and I had arse fusion, or “fusionae arsum” as the doctors call it.
We arrived at about 16-and-something local time of the day after the one we had taken off at, ending almost 14 hours of flight, and I couldn’t see much. It was the first time that I experienced the legendary Beijing’s smog (what I had seen approaching was smog, not clouds).
We arrived in the, back then, recently inaugurated Terminal 3, made to coincide with the 2008 olympics. In that moment my first thought was that definitely we had a long way to go! Asians really did know about good Airports.
And to think that I used to be so proud of the José María Córdova (because Eldorado in those times couldn’t even compete, nowadays its terminal is very decent… but back then it was something else).
The Harley-Davidson loving guy that was beside me had drunk 3 beers and was kind of tipsy, and began to clap when we landed. During the flight he told me he was going to Fuzhou (as I mentioned before) and implied he had got a girlfriend there, or something.
When disembarking, in the gate there was a sheet of paper with 7 names including mine, I identified myself to the agent, and when the 7 of us were there we ran behind the guy to make the connection to Bangkok (remember we had been delayed leaving Washington). I was about the fourth person of that list to appear.
People going to Bangkok! Fast! We were following the guy in white that waited for us in the gate with the list of names.
All ready for the 2008 olympics.
The whole process was VERY quick, including passport stamping and all, but I hadn’t packed the sunblock properly, and it was seized. Back then the liquids rules were kind of recent (even though it had gone through just fine in Washington).
In theory you graded the attention of the immigration agent with that device, I doubt I really got agent “Abc 123”.
Right after that, the mispacked sunblock bottle was thrown away and then I continued my merry way, amazingly, to yet another Boeing 747-400!
This time around it belonged to Thai Airways and it would take me to Bangkok, my final destination that day.
More photos of this flight in this gallery:
Airplane: Boeing 747-400
Airline: Thai Airways
As I said some paragraphs before ending the former leg, the connection was VERY nimble. It wasn’t more than 20 minutes since I left the United gate until I was inside the Thai 747-400, including photos, walking, sunblock seizing, and passport stamping.
We reached quickly the Thai Airways Boeing 747-400, this time around flight 615 was going to be flown by HS-TGX, with classic colours.
HS-TGX in the gate about to depart, waiting for the delayed people from Washington.
Back then the airline was in transition between those colours and the current purple ones.
Flight TG615 to Bangkok, in english. “Boarding” and we were just arriving.
Flight TG615 to Bangkok, in chinese.
I quickly got in the Airplane, and sat in the 40A window seat, this time around totally mine. The middle seat was empty, and in the aisle there was a nice guy from Malaysia.
I left everything ready, put my seat belt on, and watched outside for a while, there was a Dragonair Airbus A330 parked there. We were delayed for about 20 minutes and I heard the Captain saying that there were air traffic control and visibility issues, and that we were number three for departure.
The last thing I saw before falling fast asleep.
I had seen maaany Airplanes, so I was happy about having that turn, I thought it was going to be quick. I had been awake for about 20 hours, 14 of those on another Boeing 747, so I just made myself comfortable and immediately fell asleep. Like an indecent walrus.
I had no complaints about United (maybe a bit the leg room, but anyway, you can’t ask for much in economy class), but I liked the Thai Airways’ 747 interior much more, it was more comfortable, I felt more leg room (I don’t know if that was true or just an illusion), and the general ambiance was cooler.
Back then the PTV was not a big thing like it is today, and that interior with screens every certain number of rows was the rule, specially in economy class. Now I see those photos and I become very nostalgic, not necessarily because it was better.
Signs in thai… I was going to Thailand aeaeaeae!
Thing is, I woke up at a given moment, and I looked outside again. It was the very same scene, the very same Dragonair Airbus A330 right in the same place… only that it was dark now, and I became quite disoriented.
I had reached the Airplane almost finishing dusk, and it was possible that not a long time had passed during the delay and it had just turned dark precisely with the end of dusk. I had no idea what time it was nor what was happening.
The first thing I saw on waking up… the same thing I had seen before falling asleep!
So I asked the guy from Malaysia that was in the aisle seat:
–“Excuse me, Did I sleep just 15 minutes or what happened here?”.
–“No, we have stood here without moving for about 5 hours”.
I was surprised because everybody was calmed, no one was arguing. Flight attendants were walking and distributing reading materials and beverages, just like that.
Had that happened somewhere else (Colombia for example) and someone would be dead already, or perhaps a beat up pilot like what happened once (link in spanish) on an Avianca McDonnell-Douglas MD-83.
But anyway, we were there. By the way, there wasn’t a single ugly flight attendant in that flight, ahoy!
And indeed, I had effectively slept 5 hours that would have been very boring otherwise. 15 minutes later we were pushed back and began our taxi to the runway, with the fortune of having woken up right in the correct moment so as to not miss the take off, but also not having had to endure the wait.
We took off, they came with the food but I didn’t fancy it (it looked very good but I couldn’t physically take it and I didn’t want to puke out of gluttony on the Thai Boeing 747-400) so I said thanks but not thanks, and fell asleep once again.
I woke up again about 30 minutes before arriving in Bangkok (the flight from Beijing was around 5 hours long), and there I started to fill the immigration form.
We arrived in the relatively new Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, inaugurated to much pomp and circumstance in 2006.
The old one, called Don Mueang, was still operating. It was later closed but Suvarnabhumi got full, so they opened it once again.
Don Mueang is very curious because it has two runways (all normal there), and between the two runways it has a golf field (all abnormal there). The golf field is called “Kantarat”, and in the video below it’s clearly seen how things are.
That Airport is still functioning as of january 2018, in conjunction with Suvarnabhumi. In fact, the whole operation of AirAsia was moved to Don Mueang.
As an anecdote I will be able to say when I am very old “yooooung boy I managed to take off and land in Suvarnabhumi on AirAsia flights”, because there’s none now, and who knows whether they will ever be back.
Getting out of the Airplane.
Everybody to immigration… two in the morning.
I liked it very much, even though some people complain about it because there’s a lot of walking to be made, which is true, but since it’s lots of walking to be made while watching Airplanes, there’s no complaint on my part.
Thai people say there was corruption and what have you, and there were some structural issues that needed a good deal of money to be fixed if my memory doesn’t fail me, but anyway… no problemo as far as I am concerned.
Flight TG615 from Beijing in english (see the time).
Flight TG615 from Beijing in thai (see the time).
Immigration and baggage pick-up was fast, and I quickly met with the person that was supposed to pick me up, this time around we didn’t get lost from each other.
It was 2 and a half in the morning already, and the flight was supposed to have arrived at 21:20 in the preceding night.
I had no idea where I was standing, nor what my name was, nor did I have a buttcrack after such a voyage (even though it was the well documented “fusionae arsum” as the healthcare pros call it, so I was relaxed).
But I was on cloud nine!