Continuing the trip
After an amazing stay in Luang Prabang it was unfortunately time to leave Laos and start my long trek home, which would see me passing through Bangkok, Jakarta and Tokyo on the way.
The first leg of the journey was however a straightforward, short hop within south-east Asia from Luang Prabang to the Thai capital of Bangkok.
Laos to Thailand
There are numerous airlines which fly between cities in Laos (Luang Prabang, Vientiane) to airports across Thailand (mostly Bangkok, and to a lesser extent also Chiang Mai). On just the Luang Prabang to Bangkok route alone, there are flights available on Air Asia, Bangkok Airways, Lao Airways and Thai Smile.
As prices on all four airlines were roughly similar, I opted for the flight with the best schedule which in this case happened to be Thai Smile. It allowed me to sleep in a wee bit in the morning and had a not too late arrival time in Bangkok, which was ideal. For an economy class ticket, which generously included 30 kilos of checked luggage, I paid 95 USD.
To the airport
After finishing breakfast, the lovely host of my Luang Prabang guesthouse ordered a taxi to the airport, which was just a few dollars only. The airport is located just outside the city and a typical ride there should not take longer than 15 to 20 minutes.
Luang Prabang Airport is built in a bizarre Laotian architectural style meant to mimic the local temples. I still don’t know whether I think it is actually gaudy or a lovely construction.
When I arrived at Luang Prabang Airport about two hours before the departure of my flight, the Thai Smile check-in desks were already opened with barely any queues in front of them.
Within a few minutes my checked bag was dropped off and my boarding pass issued. During online check-in almost all seats were either already taken or blocked out, with only a handful of seats at the rear of the plane being available.
Fortunately, the check-in agent could assign me into window seat 44A just behind the overwing emergency exits. Even though seat 44A might still sound like it’s all the way in the back of the plane, this is actually not the case as Thai Smile uses an unusual seat numbering system with the first row business class being counted as row 31.
There were no queues at security and passport control and within minutes I was already airside at the airport with plenty of time to kill before boarding would commence.
Thai Smiles is the low-cost regional subsidiary of Thai Airways, a Star Alliance member. As I hold Star Alliane gold status courtesy of my Turkish Miles & Smiles Elite status, you might think that I would have access to the business class lounge at Luang Prabang Airport.
Unfortunately, while Thai Airways is a Star Alliance member, Thai Smile is technically not even though it is fully owned by Thai Airways. For lounge purposes, it also does not make any difference whether you book your ticket through the main website of Thai Airways or at the website of Thai Smile.
Lounge access policy when flying Thai Smile is relatively simple: only those ticketed in business class or elite members of Thai’s own frequent flyer programme Royal Orchid Plus have complimentary lounge access when flying Thai Smile.
You can pay out of your own pocket to access the designated lounge at Luang Prabang Airport (Thai Smile uses the Lao Airways lounge) but I did not think it was worth the 30 USD entrance fee.
If lounge access is important to you, you might want to consider flying Bangkok Airways instead instead as this boutique airline has its own lounge at Luang Prabang and even gives complimentary access to its economy class passengers.
Luang Prabang Airport facilities
There isn’t that much else to do at Luang Prabang Airport, which is rather small. Downstairs are the bus gates mostly used by small turboprops, while a floor up are the jet bridges used by most foreign carriers with narrow-body jet service.
There are some duty-free shops located on both airport floors, including one unusually located shop in the airport’s attic which somehow felt more like a dump furniture outlet.
Interestingly, the airport does have an outdoor food patio which looked like a proper hawker centre full of street door vendors which is so typical of south-east Asia. Unfortunately, most of the food outlets seemed to be shut.
Although there seemed to be a public WiFi network, I couldn’t get the internet to work. There is however plenty of seating in the airport terminal with some good views over the tarmac. As I had a good book with me, it made for a good way to kill some time before boarding finally started.
Boarding was eerily quiet, as without any announcement or priority boarding sequences observed the gate agents just decided to silently start letting people get on board. Only when after some six or seven people did nobody else make any attempt to get up from their seats, did they finally make a boarding call to make passengers aware that they could come on board too.
Thai Smile does offer a business class product on board its flight, but as opposed to mainline Thai Airways flights the planes do not have recliner seats. Thai Smile follows the example of European airlines by having an all-economy seat cabin, but blocking the middle seat in their business class section.
This way the airline can simply increase or decrease the size of its business class cabin by moving the adjustable divider and curtains back or forward in the plane. On this flight, the business class section consisted out of the first two rows only.
I had a window seat (44A) in the economy class cabin, just two rows behind the overwing emergency exit rows. The load for today’s flight to Bangkok turned out to be relatively light with perhaps only half of the seats in the economy cabin being taken.
Later on in the flight I decided to move to one of the empty F seats on the right side of the plane when the passenger in front of me decided to recline his seat.
I thought the economy seats on Thai Smile were pretty comfortable, having a generous seat pitch. With Thai Smile being branded as a ‘low-cost regional affiliate’ I feared the experience would be more akin to the Ryanair’s of this world, but I thought the plane was absolutely fine and not unlike a Thai Airways mainline flight or any other full service airline.
Do note however that there are no power sockets nor USB ports available. The Thai Smile planes are also not equipped with WiFi or in-seat entertainment screens. Instead, some not-so-funny ‘America’s Funniest Home Video’s kind of TV show was shown on the overhead monitors during the flight.
Due to the light load, we had a quick take-off and a steep climb to cruising altitude. Unfortunately, I did not manage to take any good scenery pictures upon departure due to the sun shining straight through my window and the wing being a bit in the way.
Even on this short flight of just under one-and-a-half hours, Thai Smile does a full complimentary meal and drinks round. This was something which I certainly did not expected with Thai Smile branding itself as ‘low-cost’.
There was no choice of meal as everyone in the plane was just given the same dish: salmon and rice. The dish was actually fairly tasty, and included a side-salad, a dessert and a cup of water.
It also turned out that Thai Smiles serves complimentary alcoholic drinks. When one of the flight attendants asked what I wanted to drink, I inquired whether they had beer as well, which turned out to be the case. I was promptly given a can of Singha. Not bad!
The flight went by extremely fast. At the moment when I took my last sip of beer, we were already starting our descent into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, with the flight attendants clearing away all the meal trays and rubbish.
Due to the extreme amounts of smog the views upon landing were limited. We did however touch down safely right on our scheduled arrival time.
As there were almost no lines at all at Thai immigration, I was stamped into the country within minutes. At the time I arrived at the luggage belt the bags of our flight already started to arrive one-by-one. With my luggage recollected, I was ready to go to make my way to the city centre for my short one-night Bangkok stopover.
I had a perfectly pleasant flight on Thai Smile, which turned out to be much better than I expected. Thai Smile is branded as the low-cost regional subsidiary of Thai Airways and in some cases this is true, as for example my Star Alliance gold status is not recognised.
However, I don’t think that outside of a relatively small group of frequent flyers many passengers will note the difference between Thai Smile and mainline flights operated by Thai Airways proper. Checked luggage was included in my ticket, and the airline offers a complimentary meal and beverage service as well.
This also means that the price you will likely pay for your ticket isn’t entirely low-cost either. Although the 95 USD price I paid for my flight was perfectly reasonable, it was still 30-40 USD higher than was being charged by a proper low-cost airline such as Air Asia which also operates the Luang Prabang-Bangkok route.
Despite the rather conflicting branding and marketing issues (is it a low-cost airline or not?), Thai Smile is for a perfectly nice airline to travel on and I would be happy to fly with them again on a future trip to south-east Asia.