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The pilot reports from abroad: The immensity of Hong Kong International, picnicking in bomb craters in Laos' Plain of Jars.

By Patrick Smith
Published March 12, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

Hong Kong International Airport

I've heard that the central terminal of Hong Kong's new airport is the largest indoor space in the world. Dispatching this column from an Internet cafe in Laos forbids me the luxury of verification (ever try Googling on a 14 Kbps modem?), but it's certainly plausible. Not since I stood beneath the ceiling of St. Peter's have I been so awestruck by the immensity of a place. The effect, however, like the great basilica's, is one less of intimidation or majesty than a kind of hypersized functionality. The building is big because it needs to be. In January 2000, with the opening of a third concourse, the airport's capacity increased to 45 million passengers per year.

To correctly savor the main hall's spaciousness, one needs to pause, step back, and spend a few seconds gazing upward. Most people aren't prone to do this, of course, especially when their view is blocked by no fewer than 150 retail stores and 25 restaurants, all part of a 31,000-square-meter shopping complex. Riding the moving walkway along the central concourse, I muse aloud to my travel partner Dave: "It just doesn't feel like an airport," I say. A good thing, ostensibly. "But what does it feel like?"

Dave has never set foot in Asia before, and although his familiarity with the trends and scourges of modern airports is limited, he hardly skips a beat. "A mall."

I was afraid of that, but of course he's right. And as I've written, it seems the evolution of the international airport will not be complete until the terminal and shopping center are virtually indistinguishable. From what I've seen in the past year at properties in Dubai, Malaysia and now Hong Kong, that day is fast approaching.

A rundown of Hong Kong's facts and figures makes great fodder for a Discovery Channel documentary. Did you know the main terminal's half a million square meters is nine times the floor space of the city's old Kai Tak? Did you know the airport rests on a massive 1,255-hectare manmade island, constructed from scratch all the way to the seabed? And so forth. Sci-fi numbers indeed, but hardly inspirational to the average visitor, whose objective isn't marveling or meditating at the architecture or its superlatives. He or she has one far more pragmatic goal in mind: minimizing the time it takes to transfer from airplane to city, city to airplane. To this end, fliers are paraded past the gantlets of shops and eateries or funneled through a vast Rube Goldberg affair of escalators and passageways.

When the travel magazines run their annual polls of favorite airports, the new Hong Kong is frequently one of them. What this attests to, exactly, I can't say -- the grandeur of the architecture, the lack of long lines at immigration, or the chance to pick up that duty-free Bulgari you've always wanted. In a simple lesser of evils game, perhaps choosing a favorite airport is something akin to choosing a favorite hospital: Conveniences and accoutrements aside, nobody really wants to be there in the first place. And in the race for common appeal, all the exposed girders, polished chrome kiosks and computerized moving sidewalks won't save even the best and biggest airports from a standard of 21st century genericism.

Architecture and ambience: B
Efficiency and processing: A (four minutes through security)
Facilities, shops and distractions: A or F, depending

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Emirates flight EK383, Hong Kong to Bangkok

Class: economy
Fare paid: $185
Length of flight: two hours and 15 minutes

After all the hype I've spouted about Emirates, punctuated by its garnering of Patrick Smith's highly prestigious Airline of the Year award this past January, it's high time I actually rode an Emirates flight to see if I know what the hell I'm talking about. Not to worry, as all expectations were met or exceeded during my short trip from Hong Kong to Bangkok, part of the carrier's continuing service to its home-base hub of Dubai.

The interior of the Boeing 777-300 was spotless, the 10-abreast economy chairs upholstered in calming patterns of lavender, pink and teal. The textured sidewalls were an attractive touch, and the lavatories were cleaner than the first-class cabins of most U.S. airlines.

Each seatback was equipped with a 7-inch video screen. The handset control was mounted directly beneath the unit, a simple but ergonomically fluid gesture that other airlines would be wise to employ -- especially those that insist on housing the controls in the armrests, which is both uncomfortable (sometimes downright painful) and awkward.

My headrest was movable both vertically and horizontally, with side wings that swung out close to a full 90 degrees. Every seat had both an electronically controlled lumbar support and -- my favorite -- a heavy-duty, fully adjustable footrest. And we mustn't forget the fold-down cup holder and garment hook.

And this was just economy class! It might have been the first short leg of a longer segment, but even in coach we were served a three-course dinner with choice of entrees (halal, yes; kosher, no). The eight-page menu on embossed stock was fancier than the premium-class menus on many carriers. Service was gracious, swift and unpretentious.

Female flight attendants wear a stylish adaptation of a Muslim headscarf, but the Emirates cabin staff (the cockpit crew as well; ours was a Dutch expat captain) are an eminently multinational lot. Prior to takeoff the purser announced a roster of available languages. He and his 12 assistants were proudly fluent in at least one of Arabic, English, French, German, Thai, Farsi, Sinhalese, Urdu, Cantonese, Mandarin and -- most impressively if not inexplicably -- Maltese!

Check-in and preboarding: C (25-minute wait for seat assignment offset by extremely friendly counter staff)
Punctuality: A-plus (departure and arrival precisely on time)
Aircraft cleanliness and decor: A-plus
Seats, amenities, and accoutrements: A-plus
Food and service: A-minus (usable metal cutlery to boot)

Phonsavan, Xiang Khouang province, Laos

Welcome to the Lao People's Democratic Republic, where Harvard Square meets Southeast Asia and the hippie hipster 20something backpackers outnumber the local population 15:1. Those were the numbers, anyway, up in Luang Prabang, former capital and French colonial town -- "the nation's most enchanting city," assuming you gauge enchantment by volume of dreadlocks, ankle beads and oversize camping shorts. "Duuude, are those, like, monks?" Wandering the wats and markets there, I felt shamefully elderly at 37.

And let us never speak of the three-hour speedboat ride I endured between Luang Prabang and the upriver town of Pak Beng. For the equivalent of about $10 you can strap yourself into what looks like a rural shrimper's skiff -- a long, shallow canoe with room for about eight people -- except bolted to the rear end is a colossal (and completely unmufflered) 16-valve Toyota engine. The rocket boats are a popular way to get around, but rumors speak of a wipeout rate (read: fatal crash) approaching one per month.

No, that's not idyllic riverine greenery you see passing at ungodly velocity before your eyes, it's your life. It was still a better option, or so I thought, than the tourist ferry, which is basically a diesel-powered cargo boat lucky to pull 10 knots. I'll rank my Mekong sleigh ride among the four or five most ridiculously dangerous endeavors I've ever undertaken. It joins a host of similar waterborne misfortunes on my growing list of ill-advised travel adventures: the Zambezi (multiple rollovers in grade 5 rapids), the Niger (lost after dark with a drunken boatman), and Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake (overbooked speedboat snagged on sandbar). Visitors here are known to shun the national airline, Lao Aviation, but don't mind dodging water buffalo and floating clots of bamboo at 70 kilometers per hour.

I've seen a few signs in town that call Laos the Land of a Million Elephants." And so I started thinking: That's a lot of elephants. There are only 5 million people in Laos, so that's one elephant for every five people, or, roughly, one elephant per family.

However, other signs and brochures say this is "the Land of a Million Smiles." So now I'm confused. Do you think that means only one in five Lao people are smiling, which doesn't sound like a happy place at all, or that all of the elephants are smiling? And if so, why are they smiling?

That's the trouble with travel, see: It brings up more questions than it can answer, most of them idiotic.

Meanwhile, Lonely Planet tells me there are hardly a few thousand elephants in the entire country, never mind a million. Therefore somebody's lying, and we must assume that if there aren't really a million elephants in Laos, there probably aren't a million smiles either. Thus far I'll vouch for one in 10 Lao exhibiting anything close to a good mood, the vast majority being busy with more important things and doing what they need to do: sell overpriced tours and curios to hemped-out kids from Cambridge and Berkeley.

The backpacker packs thin out once you reach Phonsavan, a dun-colored, windswept city near the famous Plain of Jars. The plain takes its name from the mysterious fields of megalithic pots, thought to be funerary urns from a vanished civilization, that mark the rolling hills in several locations. The largest jar weighs nearly six tons.

The wide, dusty boulevards give Phonsavan a sort of Wild West feel -- part Southeast Asia, part Oklahoma frontier town. Meanwhile the hasty ramshackle buildings speak to a wretched past, for Phonsavan, along with countless smaller hamlets here in the Xiang Khouang province, was completely obliterated during the CIA's infamous Secret War of the 1960s and 1970s.

Beginning in 1964, U.S. forces spent the next nine years engaged in round-the-clock airstrikes over Laos. With more than 2 million tons of bombs dropped onto its soil, Laos became the most heavily bombed nation, per capita, in the history of warfare.

Up to 40 percent of the munitions failed to explode, making Laos -- and the Xiang Khouang region especially -- perhaps the planet's most deadly ground zero of unexploded ordnance (UX0), with thousands of civilians killed since the 1973 cease-fire. A body count that continues to rise.

Relics of war are everywhere -- the tools of battle enterprisingly recycled into everything from flower boxes to fences. The local villages are a sort of munitions theme park -- breakfast cooked over a charcoal-filled cluster bomb canister, kids playing with encrusted old mortars and RPGs -- while one of the country's most arresting sights is that of huts and shacks built on corner posts made from cluster casings.

The valleys around Phonsavan are pocked with craters. In the rainy season, the locals use the craters to catch swallows. This afternoon I had lunch at the bottom of one, listening to war stories and eating deep-fried pumpkin dumplings, the upthrown earthen rim blocking the wind.

Your Lao menu:

Boundary Salad
French Fried Spacial
Kind of Fried
Flying Fox Meat
Topic Dream

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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