Ask the pilot

The pilot journeys to the East, an exotic land of spick-and-span metropolises, superb airlines and gibbons that shriek exactly like car alarms.

Published August 29, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)


On Sunday morning, Aug. 10, I am catching Malaysia Airlines flight MH091 from Newark to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and eventually onward to Kuala Lumpur. Newark has been cloyingly recast as Liberty International, but it's forever the same cheerless bowl of concrete and cars.

In a restaurant in Terminal B I'm eating breakfast beneath framed pictures of sandwiches when the Malaysia crew comes promenading past, headed for their Boeing 777 at the end of the concourse -- the pilots in military-style suits, the stewards in green tuxedoes, and the girls in sarong-style dresses of melon and teal.

At the surrounding tables are the rest of Flight 91's eventual occupants, and present company excluded it's a substantially... let's just say Eastern-looking lot. A mix of Arab and Malay and Indian, with a liberal distribution of skullcaps and prayer beads, and a handful of women in full black burqa right down to the gloves.

It's all very glammy and international here in decidedly hardscrabble Newark. I like it. Even if it's probably a disconcerting sight for the throngs of other travelers headed to Orlando, Detroit and Charlotte, with enough dark skin and beards to keep squeamish Americans away from airports forever and hunkered down in their xenophobic hidy-holes. And while I hate saying it, something tells me MH091 gives a thrice-weekly dose of the willies to the already edgy staff down at the metal detectors.

With the exception of Continental Airlines' route to Tel Aviv and Delta's to Istanbul, no other U.S. airlines operate service to any part of the Middle East. What few routes remained were curtailed after you-know-what, and it's natural to wonder, geopolitics considered, if they'll ever be reinstated. Seems we're missing out, as today's departure is booked completely full.

Malaysia Airlines is Southeast Asia's largest carrier and flies to 100 destinations on six continents (that's all of them except Antarctica), which is something no U.S. airline can say. It just won its third consecutive Skytrax award for best cabin staff.

Onboard the immaculate 777 the tuxedoed stewards distribute hot towels and come around with clipboards to verify meal requests and peanut allergies. The six-page cardstock menu is printed exclusively for Flight 91. I've got in-seat movies, and an adjustable headrest and footrest. In economy class. Up front, the customers are reclining in sleepers and watching the industry's only 10.4-inch personal video screens.

(In fairness to good taste, and after sitting on the aisle long enough to have several good looks, I must now throw in an addendum about those uniforms. While the dresses of the stewardesses are pleasant and flattering, the gaudily patterned lapels of their male counterparts' tuxedo coats are a sight to behold. I think I recall Bill Murray wearing a similar outfit during those late '70s lounge-singer sketches on "Saturday Night Live.")

In perfect, almost aristocratically tinged English, the captain outlines our twelve-and-a-half-hour flight: up to Newfoundland and across the North Atlantic; over Europe and central Turkey; through the narrow corridor separating Turkey, Iran and Iraq; then across western Iran before a southward turn along the Persian Gulf to Dubai.

Breaking up my trip are layovers both in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, home of two of the world's most sparkling airports (so I'm told). It wouldn't be fair to say I'm anticipating the airports more than the rustic Borneo eco-lodge where I'll be spending five days, but I suppose I'm lucky to find a modicum of excitement in the idea of a jet-lagged stopover.


Dubai International is the busiest airport in the Middle East and home base of the pride and joy airline of the UAE, the aptly named Emirates, arguably one of the world's three or four best airlines. Almost 100 carriers call port here, and 16 million passengers pass through DXB's corridors every year, a total expected to double by 2010.

But if you ask me, DXB is clean, accommodating and terribly overrated. The multistory Sheikh Rashid Terminal is a cross between an upscale shopping mall and the lobby of a luxury hotel, with shops selling everything from gold bullion to luxury cars. It's a Trumpy, Vegas brand of opulence that's more or less in tune with the gold-and-glass glitz that personifies this wealthy emirate.

That said, after 48 hours here I'll tentatively conclude that while Dubai might be rich and showy, gluttonous it is not. In two days around the city, where oil comes cheaper than spit, I don't think I saw more than a handful of SUVs.

If anything strikes me pleasantly about the airport, it's the quick, nonsense-free security screening. No pointless I.D. checks, no fetishizing of pointy objects, no annoying shoe removals -- just two fast trips through the X-ray scanners and a 30-second scrutiny at passport control.

Following my two days of sightseeing, and an experience with dehydration and heat exhaustion I'll save for another time, it's another Malaysia Airlines 777 to Kuala Lumpur -- up over the beautiful mountains of Oman, across the Arabian Sea and the Indian cities of Mumbai (Bombay) and Chennai (Madras), then traversing the Bay of Bengal toward the Malay Peninsula.


KUL, one in a string of newly opened Asian mega-airports, was completed in the summer of 1998. At 25,000 acres total it's one of the largest international airports in the world, and it features the world's tallest control tower.

All very well. But the more I see of these showpiece airports, the more they look the same and the more I'm convinced the evolution of airport design will not be complete until the Beverly Hills shopping mall and airline terminal become virtually indistinguishable. Judging from KUL and DXB, that day is coming soon. Thanks anyway, but I do not need diamond jewelry, a designer bag or a $350 pen from Mont Blanc.

KUL's star is the "Ekspres" train that runs directly from the terminal to downtown's KL Sentral. Patrons of Malaysia, Cathay Pacific or Royal Brunei airlines can check luggage and receive seat assignments at the in-city train platform. For this reason, the International Air Transport Association has assigned the city's railway station its own three-letter code -- XKL!

Kuala Lumpur joins Singapore and Windhoek, Namibia, as possibly the cleanest cities I've ever seen. The Ekspres from KUL to KL Sentral covers about 50 kilometers, and in that distance I do not spy a single item of litter, not a can or discarded plastic bag -- not along the trackside gullies; not under the bridges; not anywhere. But it's a different kind of clean than antiseptic Singapore. Imagine Bangkok with lots of tropical foliage and most of the pollution sucked away. The Petronas Towers, formerly the world's tallest buildings (until supplanted by yet another of Shanghai's hastily erected cookie cutters) are an extraordinary sight, especially at night, and far more impressive than I expected. What you don't see in photographs is that they're covered in a brilliant chrome façade. There's something unexpectedly earthy and harmonious about polished silver, and it suits the city well.


Kota Kinabalu's international airport has an almost Latin feel and could easily be San Juan instead of, well, Borneo. The resorts, golf courses and high-rise hotels viewed during the final approach attest to the town's popularity as a holiday resort. You heard that right. KK might be Borneo, but it's a large town, and there are nonstops to Seoul, Hong Kong and Taipei, among other major cities. The main hall features a shop selling Adidas, a KFC, and the usual gantlet of glass cases brimming with watches, bracelets, carvings and expensive chocolate.

Borneo, if you need a primer, is the world's third-largest island, divided among Malaysia, Indonesia, and the tiny sultanate of Brunei.


In the outpost of Lahad Datu, 55 minutes from KK by Fokker turboprop, things are a little less 21st century. The very un-air-conditioned terminal, with its greasy snack bar and lazily spinning ceiling fans, looks like a cross between a highway service station and a rural American bus depot.

From Lahad is where I catch the van for the two-hour trip along a dirt logging road to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

If you've never been to a tropical forest, you ought to give it a try before the last of them are scorched and uprooted and flattened into parking lots and cow pastures. This is my fifth eco-lodge and I can't get enough of them.

For those not among the initiated, I'm afraid my talents of description will in all likelihood fail to convey the magnificence of standing on a hillside of 300-foot hardwood trees held fast by house-size buttresses, the canopy boiling upward into thousands of colossal green mushroom clouds, slung with countless epiphytes, waist-thick vines and bromeliads. Most splendid of all are the night hikes, especially if you have a thing for dinner-plate-size tarantulas and stick insects the length of Louisville Sluggers. Each evening, in the company of one of the lodge's knowledgeable guides, we choose a different trail and head off through the green (now black) tangle. The array of noises from the jungle, particularly after sunset, is something that needs to be heard to be believed: Gibbons that perform a flawless imitation of an automobile alarm; cicadas that mimic electric razors; giant canopy grasshoppers that emit a shriek so loud you must block your ears when passing beneath their resident trees. These noises, mind you, are not similar to those of our various mechanical contraptions, but nearly exact replications, as if to mock our technological hubris.

Which, if you think about it, begs a meditation on the interplay and mutual exclusion of nature and technology. On a diet of a few leaves and some fungus, an insect can scream the night away at 100 decibels. Sure, humans have made it to the surface of the moon and stolen the atom's secrets, but we've failed to replicate the vast majority of even the tiniest functions of the natural world. The secrets of a life -- whether the smallest forest bug or that luminous tree lichen I saw that can glow in the dark for 14 days -- are still more impressive than the silicon chip or the H-bomb.

Fifty years ago one would have described the bizarre warbled yelping of the gibbon as "unearthly." Today we say "it sounds like a car alarm." Through technology we've managed to completely invert nature, never mind entirely isolate ourselves from it. The unearthly now wholly earthly -- the proud product of some very organic human tinkering, yet simultaneously alienated from all that is natural. Who says of the car alarm: "It sounds just like a gibbon"?

Please excuse the digression. Anyway, having spent the past several days in two Islamic countries, you might be interested to hear that I've encountered not a single moment of any anti-American sentiment. Dubai seems too wealthy and self-satisfied to worry itself with fundamentalist anger (though I'm sure there are pockets of it lurking), while in Malaysia too it feels as though world affairs -- which is to say opinions of the United States -- are seen predominantly as straightforward politics rather than any life-or-death struggle rich with apocalyptic pretense. If any of the people I've met since leaving home have "hated Americans," I figure it's no different from our own domestic antagonisms: Conservatives may hate liberals, but despite all the rhetoric and wrath the Limbaugh set is able to incite, we're not tossing bombs at one another. Yet. (Equal number of Christian churches and mosques on Borneo, I notice in casual airport-to-hotel survey.)

Or maybe that's the rainforest talking. Perhaps you get like this when you've spent five soul-soothing days hiking and watching orangutans laze around in trees.

We'll see how my luck holds out. Two mornings from now I'll be taking off for that somewhat troubled archipelago not far from here. You know the one, if you've been following the news from Jakarta.

I'm less worried about radical fundamentalism than about my return flight home -- from Bali to Newark by way of the KUL, only this time with no layovers. KUL-DXB-EWR promises to be a true circadian ordeal. Elapsed time about 23 hours, nearly all of which will be in darkness thanks to an evening departure and against-the-clock direction.

But I won't ponder the return too much, just yet. Instead, one more nugget: There's a graphic of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 on the 10-ringgit bill?

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business