Flying Lao Airlines style - For my ATR buddies

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Oct 17, 2008

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I think you guys will really like hearing about flying the Laotian skies.  They are definitely friendly, just a whole different animal from what we know back home.  My flight today was supposed to be on an ATR 72 (older model like ours) from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Vientiane, Laos with an intermediate stop in Lakse, Laos, and I was really looking forward to seeing how they do things ATR-wise.  When I checked in I found out that the equipment had been subsituted to a Chinese built MA 60.  Oh happy day!!  This totally made my day since it's a rare to treat to fly on some Chinese turboprop.  I was just praying it was in better condition than the Chinese built bike yesterday.

This MA 60 is like a cheap knockoff of the ATR except that it only holds 54 people and doesn't have the T-tail.  It has similar forward and rear cargo areas as well as the high wing.  One other big difference is that it has the Dash 8 style landing gear in the engine nacelles rather than ours in the belly.  It even has that same ATR angry hornet's nest sound when it taxis as well as the same buzz in the cabin.  The propellors are Hamilton Sundstrun I noticed and the engines very well may have been Pratt and Whitneys.  If I closed my eyes and ignored the bar from the metal seat frame poking me across my lower back I would have sworn I was riding in an ATR.

Boarding is via rickety ladder like steps with a flimsy rail on one side only, and the main door opens inside the plane by sliding to the right if you are looking at the plane from outside.   The back of the plane is just one giant area that includes the lav, baggage, both flight attendant jumpseats and a galley that is built into the side wall opposite the boarding door.  The cabin actually feels like an ATR as well in terms of width and height and was absolutely spotless (and this seems to be standard across the rest of the world).  The cockpit is just like ours except that little ole third world Lao Airlines provides its pilots with FMS.  The pilots were really happy to meet an ATR pilot since from what I gather it's the pride of their two aircraft type fleet.  They had great aspirations to one day fly the mighty ATR.

Ok, so this isn't so bad I was thinking to myself as I got settled into my blue and green cloth covered seat at row 5, the emergency exit row.  The three of us non Asians on board were treated to these prime seats with more room.  One thing I did notice is that the row in front of me partially blocked the exit, even more so when the person reclined.  I don't think that would ever pass in the US.  There were two flight attendants, male and female though the guy didn't lift a finger both flights except to make the safety announcement each time.  That poor girl did all the demos, cabin checks, served both meals, and just about handled everything. 

At 0955 we left rainy Siem Reap behind and got served a meal shortly after takeoff.   The box prominently featured an ATR soaring majestically above puffy white clouds right towards a Buddha temple.  Yes, the ATR is indeed glorious transportation fit for a Buddha king.  The rest of us get to ride on an MA 60 in the clouds.  Inside the box I found a roll with two pineapple slices pressed into it and a sticky glaze holding the whole thing together.  Along with that was a piece of dried up cake and some strand of hard brown fruit on a vine that looked like acorns.  There was even a toothpick thrown in for good measure.

I have to take a minute to describe this fruit.  I had no idea what to do with it so I watched the natives peel away the hard skin and suck the fruit out.  I am game for new things so I gave it a try.  I was rewarded with some kind of white opaque blob resembling a jellyfish that tasted like bubblegum.  What I did not learn from careful observation is that there is a proper amount of tooth pressure applied to this fruit in order to avoid biting into a semi hard sour pit.  The pit tasted like grape know that nasty bitter taste?  I managed to spray the walls, my face and the people across from me with juice from this fruit as I attempted to eat these brown morsels.  Lao Airlines, if you are reading this, please pick a less messy and more practical fruit.   Drink options were brown, clear or orange colas.   I chose orange.

Just when I thought the meal was done the flight attendant came by again with dried bananas (100% natural no less) in shiny silver wrappers.  Now this was definitely a more practical fruit option if you can get past the taste.  It was like a mushy banana laced with a metallic coating.

At 1042 we landed and had to clear customs in Lakse, Laos before continuing on to Vientiane.  That just involved buying a visa in a tiny office and then waiting 45 minutes in an unairconditioned holding room in the middle of a jungle.   Do I need to give an explanation how hot that hour on the ground was?

Soon enough it was time to reboard our trusty Chinese death trap to continue on, and we took off at 1141.  The continuation of this flight was operated as a domestic sector and there was a noticeable difference in service.  The female flight attendant was still courteous and attentive and the guy was still nowhere to be found except for his voice during the safety demo again. 

We got served another meal and this time it came in a tiny box with Liang Xiang Restaurant emblazoned all over it.  The box even noted "Awards in Frankfurt" (when and from whom I have no idea), and Bon Voyage was printed on there to make sure my flight was pleasant.  If the food is good enough to get an award in Germany, whatever was in this box surely wouldn't disappoint, right?  Wrong.  It turned out to be dried white bread with some orange marmalade, more of that messy jellyfish fruit, and some dried bananas.  They didn't even give a toothpick this time.  How do you win an award when you scrimp on toothpicks?  

There was no choice of drinks other than coffe, tea or water, and the water came in these weird clear containers with tinfoil lids that you poke a small straw through.   I was starving so I ate the sandwich and drank the water.  I am still hoping it doesn't rebel on me later tonight. 

After a bad landing in Lakse and a really bad one in Vientiane the trusty MA 60 had me back to the ground ten minutes early at 1310 local time.  These two flights were awesome and probably will go down as two of my more memorable ones ever.  Flying Laotian style was one of those rare transportation treats.
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