Airlines tend to be like banks: name any one of them in large-enough company and there is bound to be at least a few people with personal horror stories and imprecations never to use their service. Hard to tell apart the inevitable statistical occurence from true patterns of bad customer service.

Last week, however, I finally understood why all my US friends heaped so much scorn on United Airlines. And why I’ll be joining in on the chorus of “never again”, next time their name comes up in discussions:

There’s nothing new in whining about tech monopolies: the companies that enjoy them and the doom that awaits us for foolishly trusting them.

At this point, we have all been at either end of a speech on the dangers of letting Microsoft/Google/Facebook’s dominion over our life go unchecked and unbalanced. A speech that usually ends with one party’s eyes glazing over and excusing themselves to the restroom.

The problem with standard denunciations of these potential abuses is that they tend to rest on abstract, distant and mostly theoretical arguments. It’s not that we don’t care about fair competitive practices and healthy markets, it’s just that we care a lot more about convenience and not messing with things that run kinda-ok. If the Galactic Empire could ensure that the Alderaan-Tattooin express shuttle runs on time, most of us would be fine with their hegemonic market practices, and tell that troublemaker Luke Skywalker to go seek therapy for his Freudian issues instead of blowing things up.

But the reality is that, if you use any of the services provided by these monopolistic behemoths (and even if you don’t), there is a statistical certainty that it will bite you in the arse at some point. And when it does, that monopolistic behemoth status means you will be absolutely without recourse.

Ever felt somewhat powerless, troubleshooting your internet connection with some underpaid cable company support rep? Now picture the same thing if you were an ant and the support rep a 100 foot-high concrete wall, and you may have an accurate allegory of dealing with Google or Facebook as an end-user.

Allow me to illustrate with two absolutely-true real-life examples of the hopeless situations one deals with, when a glitch occurs in the Matrix:

This weekend’s ski trip went pretty damn similar to the last time I went skiing in Naeba. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

The (unexpectedly) clear and sunny skies on our first day there made me wish I had not left my phone in the car. But since I did, you’ll have to take my word for it: the views from up there were breathtaking (and the skiing equally awesome).

Just like last time, weather went from great on Saturday, to increasingly windy and snowy on Sunday. Of course, frequent snow weather is a bit of a requirement for a successful ski resort. Unfortunately, in Naeba, it also means that all gondolas and a varying number of lifts stay closed: a lot fewer reachable pistes, a lot more queueing to get up there.

Nonetheless, both days of skiing were still absolutely brilliant: reasonably low amount of queuing at the lifts, overall decent snow and a few blissfully empty pistes (alongside some very crowded ones).

Judging by the pitiful state of my calves by day 2 (not to mention day 3, aka ouch-today), my body clearly does not think one ski trip every other year makes for a proper amount of preparation. That or I need to skip leg day less often.

Completely by chance, this year’s trip fell on yet another installment of Fuji Rock-affiliated “WeSky a GoGo” Winter music event. Their “event” package, including a weekend lift pass, sold for less than the pass itself, making it a no-brainer purchase, with everything else (DJ party entrance, onsen and a couple other things) as a free bonus.

When I first stopped there, during my last Asian trip, Ko Lanta immediately became my favourite spot in Thailand.

Not having the best beaches, the best luxury resorts or the best party life, the island has so far escaped most of the tourism-driven uglification of other Thai islands, while at the same time remaining an easy destination for a low-maintenance stay in the sun.

The island economy is still 90% tourism, but its relatively small size and chill vibe do not sell well to party-oriented teenage euro crowds, and its relatively stringent zoning laws due to its status as a national park put a limit to the number of obnoxious walled-in resorts that can blight the landscape. Which might be why it reminded me so much of the first times I travelled through Thailand, some 15 years ago, before the whole of Russian middle-bourgeoisie started spending its Winter vacations lying on deck chairs along the beaches of northern Phuket.

Bamboo Housing

Owing to aforementioned lower rate of development and zoning laws, a good deal of the housing on offer in Ko Lanta is at the more basic end of the spectrum1, which can be a great or not-so-great thing, depending on your tolerance for six-legged creatures, cold showers and bamboo as a major building material.

Actually, any particular item of housing comfort can generally be obtained for a little extra cost, but even when budget is not an issue, there is much to be said for the simple comfort of a basic bamboo bungalow next to the beach. Even at peak season, it takes only a bit of looking around to find the right place, with the right amount of compromise on comfort, cleanliness and simplicity.

  1. Not to say there aren’t a few of these huge concrete-y resorts, just like anywhere else in Asia where water meets sand. And yes, these are just as terminally boring as anywhere else. If resort life is what you are after, take my word: Ko Lanta is not where you want to go. []

As there was a full moon, it seemed appropriate to explore a completely deserted Angkor Wat. We had a bottle of champagne, half a bottle of Grand Marnier, and some of that Cambodian ganja so freely and more-or-less legally available

When visiting Siem Reap, the question is not so much where to go for sightseeing, but how to do it in such a way as not to be permanently surrounded by throngs of tourists. Over 4 million tourists find their way to Siem Reap every year, and they do not come for the riverside view or to go hiking by the lake, they all want to see the sun rising over Angkor Wat, or that one temple where Angelina Jolie played a videogame character endowed with a huge, err, knowledge of ancient artefacts.

So did we.

But just like visiting Ryoan-ji’s famous zen garden on a regular day is a frustrating exercise in futility1, being surrounded by a noisy sea of selfie-stick-carrying tourists did not seem like the best way to stand in awe and admiration at millenium-old stone palaces.

Sunrise

Fortunately, most tourists do not like to get up at ungodly early hours, which is incidentally the time when sunrises happen. And sunrises are awesome. Not so much for the big ball of orange that magically makes its way up the horizon every single day without fail (although that can be cool too), but because the few hours that follow are bathed in the most sumptuous light of the day: warm hues of pink and orange that draw long shadows on the tiniest stone detail and make an already impressive place take a surreal cinematic appearance. And even when the best camera you own came free with your annual phone plan, you can’t have too much photography-worthy lighting in your life.

Of course, the perspective of a 4am wake-up is only a mild deterrent to the more decided tourist hordes, and our pre-dawn tuk tuk ride ended in the company of a worryingly large number of other sunrise-seekers. By the time we arrived at the entrance to Angkor Wat, large crowds of tired people in neon-clothing were queueing for coffee and waving tiny flashlights around. Despite strong flashbacks of 90s raves in rural Yorkshire, no acid house music could be heard in the background.

Making our way toward the inner temple amidst a compact stream of visitors, within earshot of at least a dozen different guides’ loud blather, I was starting to question the effectiveness of killing a perfectly good night of sleep as a way to escape the crowds, and then something awesome happened. About 100 metres before the temple itself, every single person took a turn left and appeared to congregate by some body of muddy water.

 

 

As it turns out, people do not want to be inside Angkor Wat for sunrise, they want the perennial sun-rising-above-temple-with-pond-reflection photo, which admittedly must look a lot cooler in one’s Facebook feed.

Not seeing a single person venturing further, I briefly wondered if the rest of the temple might be closed at this hour, but sure enough, no gates, barriers or any officials whatsoever, stood in the way of our exploration of the entire deserted site.

I will trade a million postcard sunrises any day for a walk through massive stone corridors, glimpsing at bas-relief and carvings in the pre-dawn light, sitting on the east-facing edge of the inner wall, in perfect silence save for the noises of the surrounding forest2.

  1. Last time I was there, loudspeakers had been mounted on the platform facing the garden, blaring multi-lingual explanations on the true meaning of zen to groups of bored high-schoolers and disinterested foreigners too busy trying to frame as many rocks as possible into their selfie. []
  2. … and those bats inhabiting the corner tower ceilings, whose little screeching calls Irina wasn’t very fond of, especially from up close []