Thursday, April 26, 2007

Movin' On Up

In the comments section of my last post, Joel P asked a good question:
Hey Sam, how do upgrades work at airlines? As you move up the seniority list do you move into a larger aircraft? Do you move back into a smaller one when you upgrade to captain?
There are two answers to this question. There is the way it works at most airlines, and there's the way it works at my airline.

At most airlines, both First Officers and Captains are free to bid for any opening that might exist. Whether they are awarded the slot depends on whether somebody senior to them also bid for it. In most cases, you are not required to bid for anything. A first officer could remain a first officer on the smallest equipment their whole career if they chose to do so, although they'd be giving up a lot of pay. A less extreme and more common example is first officers not bidding for a captain's slot until they know their seniority would let them hold a decent line. For many people, not having to sit on reserve or fly crappy trips is worth the lower pay.

The only problem with this system is that filling one vacancy creates many others - using United as an example, a retiring B777 captain's slot might be filled by a B767 captain, whose slot might be filled by a B737 captain, and so on down the line with B777, B767, and B737 first officers. This leaves a B737 FO slot vacant, so you also have to hire somebody new (or in United's case, recall a furloughee). So we're talking about training six different pilots to replace a single retiring B777 captain.

Pilot training can be very expensive, so airlines are understandably eager to cut down on pilots jumping around. Most airlines have seat locks, which mean that once you move to a new position you must wait a certain period of time (one or two years) before bidding another position. At my airline, the company and union signed a side letter which essentially seat locks all first officers. Your equipment is chosen when you're hired, and you stay there until you upgrade. Of course, this would arbitrarily give some FOs higher pay than others, so the side letter provided for pay by seniority. If Miniwhackers comprise 35% of the fleet, then the FOs on the bottom 35% of the list make Miniwhacker pay regardless of what they actually fly. I'm currently on Megawhacker pay and have about 70 numbers to go before I make BarbieJet pay.

Miniwhacker first officers in particular dislike our airline's system. Even though their pay isn't affected, their quality of life very much is. Miniwhacker trips can be brutal: four days of 7-8 legs per day. FOs on the Miniwhacker would like to have the option to bid for BarbieJet slots, where they'd often fly 2-3 legs per day.

Many first officers at my airline have chosen to delay their upgrade until they can hold a Megawhacker captain slot. I personally will take the very first slot available. Before, I assumed that this would be in the Miniwhacker, but now that they'll all be gone in a few years it will probably involve just sliding to the left seat on the Megawhackers I fly now. I doubt I will ever touch a jet at my current airline - right now it takes about 14 years to hold a BarbieJet captain position in Portland, close to 20 years to hold a decent line!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

That New Megawhacker Smell

Last year, I reported that my airline had ordered 13 new Megawhackers to replace some of our existing Miniwhacker fleet, mainly because the FAA's increased average passenger weights were making the Miniwhacker less economically feasible. The new airplanes were originally supposed to start showing up in the third quarter of 2006, but as these things often go, we didn't start getting them until this January. We're now taking delivery of several airplanes per month, and we've started taking some Miniwhackers offline and sending them to their new airline, Commutair.

This has resulted in some pretty substantial changes for our pilot group. The company opened a new Megawhacker base in Seattle last year; since then the Portland base has shrunk slightly and I've seen myself go backward on the "triangle," or seniority list for PDX-based Megawhacker FOs. At the same time, the company shrunk the Seattle Miniwhacker base until they finally announced that it would be closing for good by this summer. There aren't too many newhires or upgrades, but the training department is still very busy turning Miniwhacker pilots into Megawhacker drivers. The two airplanes are quite closely related and share a type certificate, so that cuts down on training time a bit.

The new airplanes have one major change that we'll be eventually incorporating into the rest of the fleet: they have 76 seats instead of 74. To get the extra two seats in, they moved the left rear galley up to the front right side of the airplane, where they made space by cutting the forward cargo hold in half. The flight attendants hate the new configuration with a passion, since restocking by Food & Beverage (FAB) interferes with passenger boarding. It also gives the airplanes a very nose forward center of gravity...we are always moving passengers back when the airplane isn't completely full. As usual, nobody asked the front line employees first.

The Megawhacker has been plagued by reliability issues since it was first delivered, and its disappointing to see that they're cropping up again in this most recent batch. These airplanes were supposed to have a series of fixes incorporated into them, but new problems keep surfacing. A maintenance supervisor I spoke with said that he's seen a lot of evidence of quality control issues at the manufacturer - simple things like missing rivets and incorrectly installed wiring harnesses.

Other than that, its nice to be flying brand new airplanes. Our "old" Megawhackers aren't that old, mind you - the first was delivered in 2001 - but working airplanes take a lot of wear and tear, and it shows. When preflighting a new airplane I'm always impressed by how different it looks without chipped and faded paint, grease stains down the belly, or dings in the fuselage from prop ice. The clean landing gear wells are especially impressive - they're the first thing to get filthy on any airplane. Inside the cockpit, all the usual wear areas are spotless, and every control and switch has an extra little tightness in it. The airplane even smells new for the first week or two.

It appears that we'll be smelling lots of new Megawhackers over the next few years. Yesterday morning the company announced that we've ordered 15 additional Megawhackers (with options for 20 more). They'll be coming late 2008-early 2009, at which time we expect to retire the 12 remaining Miniwhackers. This means that when I upgrade, it'll be into the left seat of a Megawhacker. I kinda wish I had the chance to fly a Mini, but the $76-$81/hr captain's pay will be a nice raise.

Monday, April 16, 2007

One Day in Bangkok

Dawn and I spent a night and a day in Bangkok between our return from Koh Tao and flying back home. Although we had limited time, we covered a lot of ground and got a bit of the vibe of the city.

Dawn's very first impression of Bangkok was seeing a large rat scurrying along the gutter as our bus pulled to the curb in Banglamphu, the main backpacker district. It was one of those laughable moments where stereotype meets reality and a place becomes a parody of itself. Everything you've heard about Bangkok is quite true: it's dirty, crowded, noisy, polluted, seedy, and perpetually choked with traffic. That said, there's a certain charm to the place. There's a lot of bustling energy of the same sort that powers many great cities: scores of recent arrivals clawing their way to a better life. It's an interesting mix with the usual "mai pen rai" relaxed Thai attitude.

Banglamphu, in the northern part of the old city, is home to the reknown Khao San Road and is the main backpacker hangout. Khao San Road itself became a parody of itself a long time ago, reveling in its carnival atmosphere and unabashed cheesiness, but relative peace can be found just a few streets over. Dawn and I got a fan room at the New Siam Guesthouse near the river (340B/$10).

On Saturday morning I woke early to the chirping of birds outside our open window. I sat in the window for a few minutes and watched early morning life on the narrow soi below. Shopkeepers swept the night's detrius from their stoops; a monk passed below, his safron robes billowing behind him. The rising sun looked rather like a harvest moon, filtered through the thick layer of smog over the city.

After breakfast, we caught the commuter boat at Phra Athit pier and took it down the river to the Grand Palace. The pier we disembarked at is located on the northwest corner of the mile-square walled compound. I looked along the north and west walls for the public entrance; it wasn't obvious, so we started walking along the west wall.

Very shortly we were stopped by a Thai man in a crisp white shirt with a badge of some sort pinned on it. "If you're going to the Grand Palace, it's closed. The King is there for a ceremony. It will be open at 1pm," he said in passable English.

I was doubtful. This sounded rather similar to the infamous Bangkok gem scam. I wanted to be tactful, though. "Oh, thanks for telling us. We'll go to Wat Pho instead."

"Oh no, Wat Pho is closed too. It's the same ticket. Would you like to see the lucky Buddha instead?"

Ah-hah! The infamous "lucky Buddha!" It was the gem scam. The way it goes is this: a helpful passerby tells you a certain tourist attraction is closed, usually for a Buddhist holiday. They ask if you'd like to see the lucky Buddha instead, or some other local sight unknown to most tourists. They hail a tuk-tuk for you, the driver of which is in on the scam; he'll tell you that he needs to make an intermediate stop, which is at a gem store. There, the proprieter tries to get you to buy gems "at wholesale prices." He insists you can sell them back home for much more than you're paying for them. There's often a westerner in the shop to tell you they make a killing on the gems every time they come to Thailand. It's all a setup, of course; the "gems" are next to worthless. I'm sure only a small percentage of tourists fall for it, but it's apparently brings in enough money to make the scammers nearly ubiquitous. After disentangling ourselves from the man in white, we were approached by several other earnest Thais telling us that the Grand Palace was closed. We found the entrance - on the north side - and it was very much open.

The Grand Palace is a relatively new compound, having all been built after 1782, when King Rama I moved Siam's capital from Thonburi across the river to Bangkok. It's still impressively ornate. The most notable feature is Wat Phra Kaew, the King's private temple and the only wat in Thailand that does not ordain monks.

Outside of Wat Phra Kaew, rather limited portions of the Grand Palace grounds are open to the public, including the area around the Throne Hall. This is the official seat of power of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), the longest serving monarch alive today. The King is revered as a semi-divine figure in Thailand; speaking poorly of the royal family causes great offense among Thais and opens oneself to charges of lèse majesté, which the palace still prosecutes. The King is supposed to be a non-political figurehead akin to Britain's monarch, but in actuality the palace wields considerable political power. In some respects he is a stabilizing figure, yet he has given complicit approval to many anti-democratic coups throughout the years, including last year's coup that overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. You see the King's picture and the yellow royal flag everywhere in Bangkok and throughout Thailand; the royal yellow polo shirts with "Long Live The King" stitched on the back are ubiquitous among Thais.

After the Grand Palace, we headed to the nearby Wat Pho, the largest and oldest wat in Bangkok. It is famous as the home of the giant 46m-long Reclining Buddha. This is only one of the 387 Buddha images collected throughout the compound; most are displayed under glass, plus several in their own chapels.

Our final stop on the tour-du-wat was across the river at Wat Arun, or Temple of the Dawn. You can only go a little ways up the tall central prang, but it still affords a decent view of the spires at Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew back on the east side of the Chao Phraya river.

From Wat Arun we took the ferry back across the river and then caught the express commuter boat downstream. These boats can cram in several hundred people during rush hour and move along at a pretty good clip, stopping for less than a minute at each pier. Throngs of people clamber onto the boat's boarding area at the same time an equally big crowd is trying to disembark from the pitching, rolling craft; it's a wonder more people don't end up in the filthy river.

From one of the downstream stations we took Bangkok's new Skytrain elevated rail system through the heart of downtown to Lumphini Park, a welcome oasis of greenery among Bangkok's soot-stained skyscrapers.

We hung out in Lumphini Park for a while and then hoofed it north to Pathum Wan, Bangkok's main shopping area. One of the new malls on the site, CentralWorld, has five large wings and is seven stories tall; at 550,000 square meters retail space, it is twice the size of Mall of America and is the largest mall in southeast asia. Just next door is Siam Paragon, itself with a respective 300,000 square meters of retail, not including the attached 400-store Siam Center and Siam Discovery Center. If that's not enough shopping for you, across the street is Siam Square, several blocks worth of individual stores. The traffic in the area is suitably congested, even by Bangkok standards.

Dawn and I ate at a hibachi-style BBQ restaurant in the mall. The staff spoke no English but was very kind in demonstrating to us the proper way to cook everything. We kept screwing it up - I'm sure they thought we were a bunch of yokels. It was fun.

From the mall we walked north to the Saen Saep canal to catch a water taxi back west to Banglamphu. These boats are somewhat smaller than the express boats on the Chao Phraya, but cruise just as fast, if not faster, through the narrow confines of the canal. The stops are shorter than the river boat, and there is no boarding platform - to embark or disembark one must scramble over the gunwales, trying to avoid diving into the laps of currently seated passengers. As the boat roars off with its wake smashing into the canal walls mere feet away, the passengers raise blue tarps in the windows to avoid being splashed with too much of the toxic water.

In Banglamphu, Dawn and I walked back to the guesthouse, showered, changed into our non-rev clothes, and took the airport bus out of Bangkok to the new Suvarnabhumi Airport.

(This concludes my indulgence in Sping Break photoblogging. Back to regular aviation blogging....)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Planes, Trains, and...Mopeds

Getting There...and Back

As I mentioned in a previous post, we nonrevved to Thailand and back. For the uninitiated, nonrevving is the process by which airline employees can travel on their own airline and others for free or on a reduced fare. Because you are a non-revenue passenger (ie nonrev), you travel on a standby basis. Getting where you want to go depends on the flights not being full, which is an increasingly common occurrence. Dawn and I had good luck on this trip, though, and got on every flight we tried, even getting seats together.

Getting across the Pacific presented the biggest challenge. It's spring break in many west coast states, and a lot of people are traveling. When nonrevving overseas, we try to take Northwest because it's the cheapest - $120 roundtrip + tax for Dawn, free for me by jumpseating. Unfortunately, all of Northwest's flights to Tokyo from the west coast were severely oversold, so I looked at other options. Thai Airways direct to Bangkok was full, and so was Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong. One China Airlines flight from LA to Taipei was oversold by 68! I finally found an Eva Airways B747 from Seattle to Taipei that still had a few seats left. This connected nicely with a B777 to Bangkok that was half empty.

Eva is known as one of the cheaper airlines from the US to Asia, but I found their service quite good. The seats on the 747 weren't horribly plush in economy class, but they were comfortable enough to get some good sleep on the 13 hour flight. The food was quite decent, I thought. In Taipei, they gave us our boarding passes for the next flight right away; they didn't make us wait on the standby list. It was my first time flying on a B777, actually; I found it to be quite comfortable even in economy, a lot like Northwest's A330 product.

We departed Seattle at 2am on Saturday and arrived in Bangkok at 11am on Sunday, thanks to the international date line. After clearing customs, we changed into cooler clothes (we dress up when nonrevving) and took a taxi to Hualomphong, Bangkok's main train station.

It might've been faster to take a bus south, but I really enjoy traveling by train. Second class was sold out on the train we needed to take to make the night boat to Koh Tao, so we bit the bullet and bought first class tickets. At 1100B/$33, they're quite expensive compared to most things in Thailand - but still far less than you'd pay in a western nation for a private, air conditioned compartment with berths for a 500km journey.

The first portion of the trip went north out of Bangkok, then skirted the city to its west. This route went right through an area of pretty bad slums. Shacks made of bits of wood and tin were built almost on top of the train tracks; families ate at tables and children played mere feet away from the tracks, paying the train no heed. Sewage emptied directly into open ditches. Many of these people are immigrants from the northeast part of Thailand, where they had even less.

The train broke down for a while, so we didn't get until Chumphon until 11 pm. The night boat leaves at midnight, and the pier is a ways out of town. The sôngthâew were no longer operating, so we each jumped on a motorbike taxi. In Bangkok, these drivers are well known for their suicidal driving habits, but the sleepy town of Chumphon didn't provide them with much opportunity to scare us. I'd been rather cold in the air conditioned train, so the ride through the warm night air felt exhilaratingly refreshing.

The night boat is primarily a cargo run. The lower deck of the boat was stacked with coolers for fish and meat, nets full of pineapples and durian, a big water tank, and other miscellaneous goods. The upper deck, however, has about 40 mats laid down for passengers. The overnight crossing costs a mere 200B/$6.

I've been mentioning sôngthâew without really explaining what they are. A sôngthâew is a shared, unmetered taxi. They're mainly used in rural areas and on the islands - places unserved by regular taxis. It's usually a pickup truck with two benches down the sides of the bed. You throw your belongings in the middle and take a seat on the bench, and hold on. There are no restraining devices and, as I've mentioned, sôngthâew drivers are crazy. Each person negotiates what they'll pay the driver beforehand; less popular destinations are more expensive because the driver won't be able to cram a dozen passengers in.

Taking a sôngthâew to Ao Chalok Ban Kao

Taking sôngthâews everywhere gets expensive, so while we were on the island we rented a motorbike. I should clarify what I mean by motorbike in Thailand, since you're probably thinking of a full-sized bike like you'd take on the highway in the States. Most of the motorbikes in Thailand, including taxis or motorbikes you rent, are what we'd call minibikes or dirtbikes or mopeds. Most of them make a Vespa look like a hot rod. The "standard" bike, what we rented, is the Honda Dream, a 125cc machine that's hard-pressed to get up to 30 mph. You really don't need anything more for the island unless you're tackling the steep, rutted dirt roads in the interior. These bikes typically cost 150B/$5 per day.

I'm pretty sure taking a self-portrait while riding on the back of a minibike is dangerous. What can I say, Dawn's a wild one.

To get back to Bangkok, we booked a ferry/bus combo ticket on Lomprayah. Their high speed catamarans cover the distance to Chumphon in a mere 90 minutes, compared to six hours for the night boat. Even in calm seas, it's quite a ride - I can only imagine what a rough crossing would be like. The bus is an air conditioned coach, and takes seven hours between Chumphon and Bangkok. The combo ticket costs 650B/$19 or 850B/$25, depending on when you go.

Coming back, we took Thai Airways to Tokyo. I wasn't horribly impressed with their economy product - the seats are small and cramped and I couldn't quite get comfortable, making for a restless night. Strange, since it's a brand new B777-300. The service was impeccible, though - as you get on, the flight attendants actually wai (traditional Thai shallow bow) to you!

After an eight hour layover in Tokyo we were able to catch Northwest Airlines direct to Portland. Previously it had looked like we'd have to go through Seattle, but the Portland flight opened up. I really enjoy Northwest's A330. It's about the nicest economy class out there, with relatively spacious, comfortable seats. The seatback entertainment system is great, too, if only to set it to map mode to watch your progress. The service, on the other hand....

I want to be careful how I say this. I've very grateful to Northwest for the many times Dawn and I have nonrevved on them, and they've always treated us very well. Really, this applies to most US carriers these days, not just Northwest. After riding around on Asian carriers, the difference in service on NWA was jarring and appalling. The flight attendants on Eva and Thai were impeccibly polite, friendly, and calm. The NWA flight attendants, or at least some of them, were grouchy, snappy, and harried. The attitude they exuded was "I don't care, not my problem."

Look, I'm not a stranger to this industry. I know that NWA management has thoroughly beat up on their flight attendants, slashing their pay and benefits, and I know the pressures of the job and life on the road. There's plenty to be grouchy about. That said, open skies are coming. We will all soon find ourselves competing directly against foreign carriers in many more markets than we do now, and we are going to get absolutely trounced if we don't make changes. We can either get cheaper, or we can outdo them on service. Given how many hits labor has taken to slash costs already, and how much more we'd have to take to get cheaper, I don't think any of us want to go that route. The altenative is to improve service. Really, the biggest difference right now is attitude. There are small things like the quality of the food, being offered blankets and hot towels, etc, but simply taking a more service-minded attitude would greatly improve US carriers' ability to complete in the global market.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

More Koh Tao Pictures

I've added captions to the pictures I already posted in "Live from Koh Tao." Here are a few more pictures to accompany my essay "The Island" in the last post.

Welcome to Paradise. This is the main street of Mae Hat, leading inland from the pier. This is at six in the morning, it's usually a whole lot more hectic.

A side street in Mae Hat. Most of this is five years old or less.

The road from Mae Hat to Ao Chalok Ban Kao. There's development much of the way, but motorbikes and sôngthâew (shared taxis, usually pickup trucks with benches in the back) cruise up and down this road full tilt.

Sairee Beach on a quiet morning. The further you get from Mae Hat, the nicer the accomodations become. The last few on the north end of the beach are downright swanky.

View from Mae Hat beach, looking northward towards the end of Sairee Beach and Koh Nangyuan, a small three-part island a few hundred meters off Koh Tao.

The south end of Mat Hat beach. From here the coast is broken into several small, rocky coves, then rounds a headland to Ao Jun Jeua. Development is pretty muted from here to Chalok.

View of Ao Jun Jeua, seen from near our bungalow.

Having dinner at Taraporn Restaurant. It sits on stilts at a point on the western end of Ao Chalok Ban Kao. Across the bay you can see a large rock formation at land's end. This is Buddha Rock. Use some imagination and it does resemble a sitting Buddha.

A typical longtail boat. Note the automobile engine, shaft, and propeller mechanism all mounted on a gymbal for maneuvering. Many of the engines are air-cooled VWs, and they sound rather like a small airplane or helicopter engine when cruising by.

Longtail boat at anchor in shallows off Sairee Beach.

The downside to cheap development. This is a pretty good example of the eyesores found around the budget accomodations on the island: exposed water & sewer pipe, discarded concrete and tin, assorted rubbish. I'm not only blaming the bungalow operators: tourists seem to have done their part in littering all over, including the beach. There were a disgusting number of cigarette butts to be found in shallow water.

A few self-portraits. Yes, I think I was the whitest guy on the island, even after a few weeks of pre-trip tanning. At least I didn't burn to a crisp. I did get a bit darker by the time we left.

Enjoying the view over drinks at Moondance Bungalows' beachside restaurant and bar.

"Just Another Boring Koh Tao Sunset," to cop a phrase from Hamish Reid.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Island

I woke just as the night was beginning to fade; I could make out dim figures sprawled out on mats across the cabin floor. I looked up at the open window for a few minutes as I lay and felt the boat rolling gently in the swells, then got up and poked my head out the window. I could see the island's profile in the murky pre-dawn light, surprisingly close. I tiptoed around sleeping fellow passengers, climbed down the ladder, and stepped onto the foredeck to watch the sun rise over the approaching island.

We'd been traveling for the better part of two days: Thirteen hour flight from Seattle to Taipei, followed by three more to Bangkok, then an eight hour train ride to Chumphon. The six hour overnight boat ride across the Gulf of Thailand was the last leg to our destination, Koh Tao.

Koh Tao means "turtle island" in Thai. There used to be a lot of sea turtles that nested on the island's beaches, long since chased off by humans. The island's moniker also could've come from the turtle like profile of the mountain on its southern half. Looking at the dark outline, I could certainly see the resemblance.

I heard about Koh Tao from a pilot friend of mine who found it on Google Earth and jumpseated to Thailand on a few days off to investigate. The pictures he emailed back intrigued Dawn and I: sandy beaches punctuated by outcroppings of great smooth boulders, placid bays flecked with colorful longtail boats, palm trees swaying in the breeze. Throw in some sun and spicy Thai food and it seemed the natural Spring Break destination. A few other friends reported that Koh Tao was the best island they visited in Thailand, and we started planning.

As the boat approached the ferry dock in Mae Hat, other groggy passengers appeared on deck. A Thai man and I exchanged pleasantries in the few words we knew of each other's languages; a French couple happily snapped pictures of each other and shared an early morning smoke. The peacefulness ended when we reached the pier, for the night boat is primarily a cargo boat and a good many locals were on the deck waiting for shipments. Eventually the bustle died down enough for Dawn and I to shoulder our packs and make a jump for it.

Mae Hat, besides serving as the disembarkation point for ferries, is the main commercial center for the island. It was hastily built up as the island's popularity exploded over the last five years, with new guesthouses, restaurants, bars, amusements and even nightclubs appearing regularly. The wild-west approach to growth doesn't make for a very picturesque arrival to Paradise. Two parallel streets lead inland from the sea and are lined with rental motorbikes on both sides. A single narrow alleyway bisects the two main roads, providing access to waterfront businesses. Motorcycle taxis and sôngthâew clog the pier area, the drivers insistently calling out "Ta-XI?" to every passerby.

The worst excesses of development are confined to the island's western shore. North of Mae Hat lies Sairee Beach, a mile-long crescent of sand fronted by a mixture of cheap bungalows, luxury resorts, and dive shops. The island's only paved road connects Sairee to Mae Hat, then swings into the island's interior until reaching the southern shore at Ao Chalok Ban Kao. At Chalok most of the operators are diving resorts, and the mood is considerably more mellow than Mae Hat or Sairee.

The rest of the island is relatively undeveloped. A half dozen bays around the north and east coasts are reachable only by longtail boat or by braving the island's steep, rutted and washed out interior roads. A few days into the trip, Dawn and I tried reaching one on our motorbike. It was truly hazardous with both of us on the bike, and even by myself the route was quite challenging. We gave up before reaching the bay; the atrocious roads once again helped keep this side of the island fairly pristine.

There's another enclave on the southwest coast, a bay called Ao Jun Jeua. The road there is even more hideous than those to the east side, which keeps things quiet. After seeing the cacophony of Mae Hat, Dawn and I decided to stay in Jun Jeua. To bypass the road, we took a sôngthâew to Chalok and hiked west along beaches and then up and over a headland. Seen from the ridge, Jun Jeua is a wide bay broken into several coves by large rock formations. The beaches are clean; the turquoise water is impossibly clear, and you can see the coral formations twenty meters offshore. Polished wood bungalows with thatched roofs dot a grassy hillside.

When Dawn and I walked up to Sunset Bungalows, the elderly owner was watering the grass. "Bungalows available?" I asked. He nodded. "Fi' hunder' baht," he said, motioning towards the bungalows up the hillside. "Sick hunder' baht," he nodded at a few beachside units. We splurged and went with the 600B bungalow.

And this brings us to the real reason Thailand is a backpacker paradise. Sure, the scenery is beautiful and the weather outstanding and the food delicious and the people friendly. But the real attraction is that Thailand is cheap. Dirt cheap. The exchange rate is 34B to the US dollar, so that seaside bungalow - the nicest one on this bay - was $18 per night. We could've gone next door and got an older one up the hill for 300B ($9) a night. Our meals rarely cost over 200B for both of us. The motorbike we hired was 150B/day. Even long-distance transport is cheap - you can get from Bangkok to Koh Tao for around 700B.

The funny thing is that veteran backpackers complain about how expensive Thailand is getting. After the 1997 asian economic crisis, the exchange rate was as high as 55B / 1 USD, and you could still land a beachside bungalow on Koh Tao for 150B. Many a backpacker lived on $10/day and still had money left over for weed.

Alas, gentrification is coming to Koh Tao, as it did to Phuket and Koh Samui before it. The first luxury condos have been built. More and more new arrivals step off the ferry pulling rollaboards rather than slinging backpacks. Koh Tao is even being offered in pricey packaged tours. Development continues apace.

The question is just how much more the island can take. A few areas could already be described as environmental disaster zones. Sections of vegetation have been cleared for roads and buildings, leaving the mountainous terrain susceptible to erosion. Exposed sewer and water pipers are commonplace, as are caches of discarded building materials and partially demolished abandoned structures. Runoff sometimes clouds the famously crystaline waters that put Koh Tao on the map in the first place as a diving destination. Top-end development will probably avoid the worst excesses but will further exacerbate the island's most pressing problem: lack of water. The last several years the island received insufficient rain during the wet season at the same time that demand for water was skyrocketing. The freshwater reservoirs in the mountainous interior got dangerously low during the hot season, resulting in water rationing. Nobody has come up with a solution, and nobody is curbing development until one is found.

Environmental damage aside, development is changing the fundamental character of the island, which makes old-timers a bit resentful. I took a scuba diving lesson my last day on the island. Paul, my instructor, is a 32 year old British expat who first came to the island ten years ago. The last few years have seen the biggest changes, he told me as we lurched down the road to Mae Hat in the bed of a sôngthâew; the atmosphere is completely different.

"It used to be all divers here, most for five or six months at a time, just here to have fun diving and relax. You'd dive all day and have a beer or two with your mates after dinner. But've heard of Ibiza, yeah? That's the scene we're headed for. People come for a few days at a time, and they just want to party...and be entertained. Did you see the bowling alley down the street, and the mini golf course? Unbelievable. Did you know they're doing elephant trekking down at Jansom Bay?"

I nodded. The flyers for it were everywhere.

"I heard rumors but didn't believe it until my mate saw the elephant getting off the night boat. Like the bloody circus is coming to town...." He shook his head. "You know, the number one cause of death on the island used to be coconuts falling on people's heads. Now it's motorbike accidents - most involving alcohol."

I believed it. This is a bit of a crazy place to ride a motorbike completely sober. The single concrete road connecting Chalok to Mae Hat and Sairee is narrow and crowded but people fly down it, Thais and farang alike. The sôngthâew drivers are the worst, though. They essentially own the road, and they pay little heed to motorbikes - especially farang on motorbikes. Accidents and injuries are appallingly common. Cuts and bruises are seen so often on travelers returning from the islands that they're jokingly called "the farang badge." As more roads throughout the islands get paved, high speed crashes are overtaking low-speed spills. Paul told me of pulling a bloodied motorcyclist out of a ditch after he hit a sôngthâew full-on at high speed. He was still drunk from the night before.

I wish I had a chance to know the old Koh Tao. But for all the gripes of Paul and other veterans, Koh Tao is still a pretty nice place. The worst overdevelopment is pretty localized. The party scene is mostly confined to Mae Hat. There are plenty of quiet coves with beautiful beaches perfect for lazing the day away under the shade of a palm tree. And Koh Tao's original attractions, the clear waters and coral reefs teeming with marine life, are as spectacular as ever.

Island life was supremely relaxing. We went to sleep to the crash of waves and woke every morning to a cacophony of cicadas, roosters, and jungle birds. We'd ride to Mae Hat for breakfast, enjoying the cool morning air. We'd find a nice stretch of beach for the morning and wade or swim, walk, take pictures, read, whatever. I hired snorkel gear for a few days and found the marine life to be amazingly diverse and colorful. In the afternoons we'd return to "our" west-facing beach and enjoy the breeze as the setting sun turned the island golden and the sky red. The restaurants were all open-air with stunning viewpoints, and you'd eat at low tables while sitting on cushions on the floor. The food was uniformly delicious. There is still paradise left to be had on Koh Tao.

For how long? Who knows. The word is out and the masses are coming. Dawn was reading Alex Garland's book "The Beach" on this trip. One of the central themes of that book is the hypocrisy of backpackers and other self-proclaimed "independent travelers" searching out the ideal unspoilt paradise, consuming it to death, and then complaining that it's "too crowded" or "too touristy." Already, backpackers "in the know" favor Laos and Cambodia over Thailand; word on the street is that Cambodia has islands that are marvelously beautiful, uncrowded, and cheap. Koh Tao, it seems, is yesterday's news.

We left Koh Tao on Lomprayah's high-speed catamaran. It only takes ninety minutes to cover the distance that takes the night boat six hours, and zips 240 passengers along in air conditioned comfort. Lomprayah recently took delivery of a third, larger ship, and they have plans for growth in their service to Koh Tao, Koh Pha-ngan, and Koh Samui. As we cruised out into the Gulf of Thailand, I looked back to see Koh Tao receding into the distance. Within a few minutes the people on the pier were indistinguishable. Then the sôngthâew and moterbikes faded, then the bungalows and shops and bars. Finally there was only the island, as it was in the beginning - a jewel shimmering in the Gulf of Thailand.

Back in Portland

We're back in the States; we arrived in Portland at eight this morning, direct from Tokyo. The non-revving went very smoothly the entire trip...we even got seats next to each other on every leg. By the end of the last flight, I think Dawn wished they'd sit me somewhere else!

The trip to Thailand provided some good blogging material; I'll post some pictures and essays over the next few days before returning to your regularly scheduled aviation blogging.