Asia’s calling (again)

Malaysia, Thailand / Monday, February 28th, 2011



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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