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The Great Bridge of China – the world’s longest sea-bridge opens

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The Great Bridge of China – the world’s longest sea-bridge opens | The Thaiger

The world’s longest sea-crossing bridge, linking Hong Kong to mainland China, has opened today.

The opening is of immense economic and political significance for China, Hong Kong, the greater Pearl Delta and the region.

The Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over the ceremony in Zhuhai, next door to Macau, at the China end of the 54.7 kilometere-long bridge (Phuket, as a comparison, is 48 kilometres from northern to southern tip).

The new bridge links the semi-autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau. Digital fireworks exploded on a screen behind the Chinese leader as provincial leaders applauded.

The bridge has taken a decade to construct at a cost of US$20 billion. Along the way there have been delays and cost overruns. It provides the first physical connection between Hong Kong and mainland China. Hong Kong was ‘handed back’ to Chinese control in 1997 following a 100 year old ‘lease’. Hong Kong residents see the new bridge as a disturbing political symbol of greater interference and control in the previously autonomous economic zone.

Part of the new bridge includes an undersea tunnel which ships to pass over the top and continue to navigate the Pearl Delta, the heart of Chinese burgeoning trade and manufacturing hub and the most populous area in the world.

In the past its taken hours to cross the delta by ferry but now that will cut to 30 minutes. Chinese authorities say it will help to fuse the regions around the delta together and provide better options for local travel, trade and tourism.

Daily traffic is set to start tomorrow under a heavily controlled permit system.



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Travel

Flying into history, the mighty Airbus A380

Tim Newton

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Flying into history, the mighty Airbus A380 | The Thaiger

In an era where airlines are now run by accountants instead of pioneers, aviators or passionate flyers, it’s no wonder we’re seeing the passing of an important aviation milestone this week.

The Airbus A380, a passenger favourite, failed to ignite the interest it needed to sustain new orders and and a continuation of the program of building, selling and servicing the world’s largest passenger aircraft. With its first flight in 2007, the demise of the program just 12 years later is a sad day for Airbus. Although they’ve largely paid for the enormous investment with the sales racked up to date, the company will fail to capitalise on the blood, sweat and tears of such an astonishing aviation engineering feat.

As of today, there are 313 firm orders from 16 customers for the passenger version of the A380-800. 234 have already been delivered to 13 customers as of last month (January 2019).

I recall seeing my first A380 at Melbourne ”Tullamarine” Airport back in 2007 when early-adopter QANTAS toured their first A380 around the nation’s airports. Compared to every other aircraft flying at the time, including the mighty ‘Jumbo Jet’, the Boeing 747 (the 747-400 was the popular model still flying at the time), the mega Airbus was a scene-stealer. It was enormous but also, as it limped off runways, a majestic beast that defied gravity.

To get such a mighty plane into the air, before it came to the end of existing runways, took a lot of refinement in wing design and new engines. But that was just the start – the things passengers wouldn’t really notice.

Inside, the proportions were astonishing. If configured as all-economy seating they could carry up to 800 passengers. No airline decided to go in that direction, instead setting up three-class configurations on the two floors of seating. Most airlines were carrying 450-500 passengers.

Ironically, the month that Airbus Industries announced to the world the end of the A380 program, it was also the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first Boeing Jumbo 747, the aircraft Airbus was hoping to eclipse in size, economy and passenger-carrying capacity. The Jumbo, being sold now as the 747-800, is still being manufactured, outlasting its European competitor.

Commercially, the superjumbo’s days are now numbered. The announcement from Airbus follows the cancellation of several orders by key airlines, principally the UAE Emirates and Japan’s ANA.

But with Airbus’ continuing mechanical and service support, the current A380s have potentially decades of flying ahead. We might still be able to enjoy their size, service and quietness into the 2040s, maybe beyond.

I flew on the A380 in Business, Premium Economy and Economy classes over a decade and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Whist the seating was really nothing exciting (the accountants made sure they were still packing in the seat), there was a sense of space unknown on any other aircraft.

But, for passengers, the most commonly noted experience on the A380 was the quietness. You could have a normal-voice conversation where usually you had to talk over the dull roar of the engines in other aircraft.

(This is in contrast with the noisiest passenger plane I ever flew on in the late 1960s, the British-built Vickers VC10. Touted as the ‘whisper jet’ of course it was noisiest plane around, especially if you sat down the back where the pairs of engines, mounted either side of the tail, made any conversation impossible.)

As the flying leviathan would thunder along the runways you are pushed back into your seat but there was little fuss or drama sitting inside. Although you hoped it would lift its nose before it go the end of the runway, there was little sense that you were accelerating to take-off speed.

Flying into history, the mighty Airbus A380 | News by The Thaiger

The promise of greater luxury in the sky was one of the selling points of the A380 for fliers used to the cramped conditions of smaller aircraft or tight seating configurations, even in bigger machines like the Boeing 747 and 777.

Beds, staterooms, bars, butlers, saunas – the start-up airlines trotted out the fancy configurations for first class customers. Of course 99.9% of flyers would, as usual, be crammed into the same same economy seats with the crying babies and queues at the toilets.

And, as memorable as a flight on the A380 would be, the food was always crap – all airline food is crap (has anyone actually chosen to fly one airline or another because they had better food?)

Whilst Airbus spent the last decade trying to convince world airlines that the A380 was the ‘future of aviation’, the designs were already on the drawing board for smaller, more flexible, nimble and economical aircraft before the first mega-Airbus got off the ground.

Boeing’s 787 program, its updated 777 and even Airbus’ own A350 were able to carry customers for lower cost-per-passenger than the A380. And that’s ALL that matters now.

Whilst it remains an inspiring, even beautiful, plane, the days of passion in the skies are over. The Juan Tripps and Howard Hughes – early aviators and businessmen who were behind the ‘ideas’ of the great aircrafts of the 40s, 50, 60s and 70s – no longer exist. Running an airline now is a cut-throat numbers game where passenger needs and comfort are the lowest priority.

The wonder of aviation, the joy of flying, the excitement of travel, is now replaced by long immigration cues, hordes of other passengers, cramped seating and crap food (I know, it’s just a bugbear of mine – I never touch the soggy rubbish served on planes).

So it’s a sad farewell to this majestic plane but, like opera diva Dame Nellie Melba, the mega-jet will be making many more appearances despite announcements of her retirement.

I hope you get the chance to fly on an Airbus A380 if you haven’t so far. And consider the dreams and skills that were employed to make this engineering marvel reach for the sky.

Flying into history, the mighty Airbus A380 | News by The Thaiger Flying into history, the mighty Airbus A380 | News by The Thaiger

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Phuket

Top 10 things to know about Phuket for beginners (2019)

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Top 10 things to know about Phuket for beginners (2019) | The Thaiger

1. Welcome to Phuket

Phuket is an island and a province. It’s the largest island in Thailand – 48 km north to south, 21 km east to west. It’s about 20% smaller, in area, than Singapore but much less densely populated.  Whilst the island nation of Singapore boasts a population of nearly 6 million, Phuket has a permanent population of around 400-450,000 (but varies a lot with the influx of tourists and a workforce that is always changing). Most of Phuket remains jungle and tropical rainforest despite an acceleration of development over the past 20 years.

Unlike some of Thailand’s other popular islands (that are in the Gulf of Thailand), Phuket is located in the Andaman Sea. Phuket is only just an island, linked to the Thai mainland by a 400 metre bridge. The channel beneath is frequently dredged to maintain Phuket’s status as an island. On the other side of Sarasin Bridge is the Province of Phang Nga.

Phuket is 878 km north of the equator.

Top 10 things to know about Phuket for beginners (2019) | News by The Thaiger

2. Basics

The currency used in Phuket is the Thai Baht and the electricity is 220-240 Volts/50 Hz. Thai is the spoken language although, especially with the west coast businesses and tourist zones, you will get away with English.

Top 10 things to know about Phuket for beginners (2019) | News by The Thaiger

There is one international airport but multiple piers along the east coast for the many day trips to nearby islands. Public transport on Phuket is negligible. There are constant attempts to establish better public transport but the attempts are usually foiled by a strong taxi and tuk tuk monopoly that keep the charges higher and, largely, unregulated. On the upside there’s plenty of taxis and tuk tuks on Phuket but be prepared to bargain and agree your price before you get in despite the taxis being legally required to use a meter.

Hiring cars or a motorbike is easy but we would caution anyone keen to move around the island independently to check their travel or health insurance and to hire from a recommended or reputable company. Roads are fairly good and getting around is easy but the traffic can, at times, be very heavy.

3. Religion

Most of the population is Buddhist, like the rest of Thailand but the island also has a significant Muslim population of around 25-30%. Buddhism on Phuket is influenced by the island’s strong trade links and infusion of Chinese traders and workers over the past 400 years. Then you add the local expats and 12-15 million tourists each year and you have a very diverse mix of religions and backgrounds living on the island at any one time. There are hundreds of Buddhist temples around Phuket.

Top 10 things to know about Phuket for beginners (2019) | News by The Thaiger

4. The name

The name Phuket (poo-KET) is derived from a Malay word bukit, which translates as hill. On European shipping charts it was called Junk Ceylon or Junkceylon which derives from Tanjung Salang in Malay, translating as Cape Salang. Later the island was known as Thalang which, before the southern end and west coast became popular after the 1970s, was the island’s commercial and residential hub.

During the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), Phuket was the administrative centre of tin production in the southern provinces. In 1933 Monthon Phuket (มณฑลภูเก็ต) was dissolved and Phuket became a Province. It’s the only island in Thailand which is both an island and a Province.

5. Income

The main source of income in Phuket is tourism, by far. But before the west discovered the island’s pristine west coast beaches in the 1970s, Phuket was know all the way back to the 16th century as a tin-mining hub. (If you drive around Phuket you will see hundreds of small lakes. Most of these are old tin-mines). The island’s tin mining history has been remembered at the Kathu Mining Museum, located on the back road that runs through the hills between Kathu and Koh Keaw. Besides tourism, latex, pineapples, cashew nuts and palm oil are also grown on the island. But, every year, tourism forges ahead as the island’s most reliable income producer.

6. Weather

As a tropical island Phuket is always humid and hot.

Phuket’s weather is fairly reliable. Reliably wet during the monsoon and reliably dry in the dry season. But there are also plenty of variations in the shoulder seasons and, even when it rains, it’s usually brief (and torrential) with lots of sunshine in between.

Top 10 things to know about Phuket for beginners (2019) | News by The Thaiger

The dry season runs from December to April and the monsoon season from May to November. The wettest months, statistically, are May and September. Tourists flock to the island during the dry season when top temperatures range between 31 – 35 (it gets hotter as the dry season months pass), with light winds from the north east.

During the monsoon season the winds swing around to the south west providing rideable surf along some of the west coast beaches. It can also be quite dangerous for inexperienced swimmers so, please, always obey the red flag warnings along the patrolled beaches. Temperatures usually peak at 31 during monsoon season and get down to 20-22 in the evenings.

Consider all this as a guide only as there’s always plenty of variation. But you will never need to pack a coat or warm weather clothes when visiting Phuket.

7. Beaches

Depending on how you count them, there are 36 unique beaches on Phuket. The island’s best known and iconic sandy beaches are along the west coast –  Nai Harn, Patong, Karon, Kata, Kamala, Surin, Bang Tao, Nai Harn and Nai Thon, Nai Yang and Mai Khao up north. The western beaches are fully exposed to the Andaman Sea kicking up some rideable surf in during the annual south-west monsoon.

The east coast is largely mangroves in the north and smaller rocky beaches in the south. But there are a few hidden gems including Laem Ka in Rawai and Ao Yon in Cape Panwa. The east coast looks back towards Krabi and Phang Nga Bay and provides postcard views of the many islands dotted in the waters between Phuket and the mainland.

Top 10 things to know about Phuket for beginners (2019) | News by The Thaiger

8. Main towns

The main commercial centre is Phuket Town. There have been attempts to get the media and locals to refer to it as Phuket City but, well, it’s really just a big town and will likely remain being called Phuket Town. The wider commercial and administrative hub of Phuket, in the centre of the island’s east coast, is built around the older Old Phuket Town.

Two hundred years ago, when Phuket was a bustling hub of trade with many Chinese and international sea-farers passing through, it must have been a bustling port of sailors, traders, miners and locals keen to extract money from them all. By all accounts it was a rough place to live with a busy red light district. These early trading days have left a heritage of sino-portuguese shop houses. Before the 1980s these old shop-houses were in serious need of repair.

Now streets like Thalang, Dibuk, Yowarat and Phang Nga roads are a collection of restored buildings, funky cafés, boutiques, art galleries, book shops and boutique hotels. The area has become a worthy tourist magnet deserving of your time when visiting the island.

Top 10 things to know about Phuket for beginners (2019) | News by The Thaiger

The other main hub is Patong Beach. On the opposite side of the island to Phuket Town, Patong continues to grow and rebrand itself. Once a quiet haven for back-packers it’s now a much bigger haven for back-packers, along with international hotels, 5 star resorts, world-class restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. There are much better beaches on the island of Phuket but no visit to Phuket is complete without a night in Patong. It’s international famous, or infamous, for its colourful and (sometimes) raunchy nightlife.

The main residential areas of Phuket include Kathu, Chalong, Rawai, Cherngtalay, Kamala and Thalang. Whilst the west coast mainly attracts the tourists, the locals live in the south, east, central and northern sections of the island. There is an increasing trend for the island’s attractions and accommodation centres to move inland from the beaches as number of tourism businesses grow and diversify.

9. Events and Festivals

Songkran is on April 13 and celebrates the start of the Thai New Year. It may have started out as a respectful cleansing of the Buddha images in temples but has descended into a water-pistol war zone with roads lined with people throwing water an anyone driving by. If it sounds mad, it is. If you’re in Bangla Road in Patong it keeps going for three or more days. NB. Songkran is not the time to drive your motorbike around Phuket in an Armani suit.

Top 10 things to know about Phuket for beginners (2019) | News by The Thaiger

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival occurs during October, depending on the Chinese lunar calendar each year. It’s a unique, jaw-dropping festival of parades, piercings, fireworks and markets full of vegetarian food. Almost impossible to describe, so we’ll invite you to discover it yourself.

Loy Krathong is in November each year and is celebrated by releasing little (usually hand-made) rafts made of banana leaves, incense and flowers. Just about any waterway on the island becomes a location for families to launch krathongs.

Chinese New Year and the Old Phuket Festival are usually during February each year and celebrate the island’s rich and deep Chinese heritage. Be prepared for lots of excellent street food and fireworks.

10. Topography

Phuket is an island of hills (indeed it was once called bukit which means hill in Malay). Very broadly, there is a range of hills that run down the centre, closer to the west coast, with wider expanses of flat lands on the east side.

The highest points in Phuket are Radar Hill overlooking Patong at 513 metres, and the nearby unnamed hill on the northern side of the road that runs over the hills into Patong. It overlooks Kamala on one side and the Kathu valley on the other and reaches 543 metres. You can drive most of the way up Radar Hill but there’s a military installation at the top. The other hill you can probably hike all the way up to the top but there’s no well-trodden path and you’d need some local advice, a backpack with lots of water and some good walking shoes.

There are a few small but pretty waterfalls on the island – Ton Sai and Bang Pae between Paklok and Thalang to the east and the Kathu Waterfall in the centre. With a distinct wet and dry season on the island you’ll obviously get the best photos in the wet season.

Top 10 things to know about Phuket for beginners (2019) | News by The Thaiger

Some of the hills have their own unique attractions including the Big Buddha overlooking Kata and Karon beaches on one side and Chalong on the other. There’s also Khao Rang (Rang Hill) with restaurants and a specially constructed viewing point. Khao To Sae (Monkey Hill) rises above Phuket Town and is a great place to see the local macaques but DON’T feed or approach the monkeys as they can be quite clever at parting you from your iPhone or expensive camera and have been known to be aggressive at times.

Down south is the southern-most Laem Promthep (Cape Promthep) where tourists flock to watch the sunset each night (we can promise you that you will see exactly the same sunset anywhere along the west coast of the islands if you want to avoid the crowds and tourist buses). It’s also an excellent location during the day.

This is just the start of your exploration of Phuket. We look forward to seeing you on the island soon.

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Chiang Mai

Bangkok Airlines schedules more flights out of Chiang Mai

The Thaiger

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Bangkok Airlines schedules more flights out of Chiang Mai | The Thaiger

Competition is heating up on two direct airline routes out of Chiang Mai – to Krabi and Luang Prabang in Laos.

But Bangkok Airways is facing tough competition on the direct Chiang Mai – Krabi route, already served with three daily Thai AirAsia flights, while Bangkok Airways will schedule only three flights in March and up to the the end of April, followed by daily services from May.

Bangkok Airways will heading to the two destinations – Krabi in southern Thailand featuring beaches and amazing landscapes, and Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage town in mountainous Laos – with three weekly flights each from March 31 to the end of October.

Bangkok Airways is scheduling the 144-seat Airbus A319 on the route, while Thai AirAsia flies the larger A320 with 180 seats.

Thai AirAsia’s cheapest roundtrip fare from Chiang Mai to Krabi is around 5,500 baht before tax and fees. Online travel agencies such as Skyscanner are not currently posting Bangkok Airways fares for the new service starting March 31.

Airline links from northern cities such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai to the two Andaman Sea destinations – Phuket and Krabi – are also attracting the attention of travellers keen to combine mountain and beach experiences into a single holiday.

There are already numerous direct flights from Chiang Mai to Phuket. Thai AirAsia serves the route with three daily flights and roundtrip fares are pegged at around 6,480 baht. Bangkok Airways also offers a single daily flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket with fares around 8,000 baht.

Vietjet’s daily service from Chiang Rai to Phuket has been a resounding success.

Bangkok Airways’ three weekly Chiang Mai-Luang Prabang service will compete head-on with Lao Airlines when it starts April 2.

The Lao national airline offers five weekly services to the World Heritage town in northern Laos (no flights Tuesday and Thursday).

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