Vagabond Tales: Shady Back-Room Deals With Questionable Thai Gangsters

There is a Nikon camera lens on the ocean floor between the Thai islands of Phuket and Koh Phi Phi.

No, I didn’t see it while scuba diving with leopard sharks in the warm waters of the Andaman Sea (I swear they sneak right up on you). I know it’s there because I put it there – with my foot.

Despite my knack for getting off the beaten path, the ferry ride from Phuket to Koh Phi Phi is not one of those moments. In fact, it’s about one of the most heavily trafficked tourist routes in all of Thailand. When boarding the overcrowded ferry between Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, it seems as if every alcohol loving, sex-searching, half-dreadlocked backpacker from Melbourne to Montreal is crammed on board right next to you.

For those not familiar with the Thai islands, if you’re looking for isolation and relaxation, go to an island like Koh Mak. If you find yourself heading for Koh Phi Phi, there’s a good chance you’re looking to get weird.

Crammed onto the small ferry with about 150 other backpackers, my wife and I were squeezed over to the port side of the vessel where we were forced to sit on the outside of the boat with our legs dangling over the side – questionable seating at best, yet strangely romantic.

Leaving the resort-lined shores of Phuket behind, we marveled as Thai long-tail boats darted through the turquoise waters. A little over halfway into the two-hour crossing, the lush, limestone formations, which provide the backdrop of Koh Phi Phi, began to become visible on the tropical horizon.

“Hand me the wide-angle lens,” chimed my wife, the ever-talented photographer of us two. “I want to get some shots as we come around the corner of the island.”Reaching for the camera bag, which houses our various lenses, I handed my wife the wide-angle and watched as she removed the 18-55mm lens and placed it in her lap. Then, in a moment of horror, I watched as that same lens decided to roll down her legs and fresh off the side of the vessel.

Instead of opting to reach down with my hand to try and catch the lens, I opted instead to try and trap it against the side of the boat with my bare foot. All I accomplished, however, was managing to catch the lens with the top of my foot and punt it 25 feet into the rolling blue water below.

Goodnight, sweet prince. May you rest peacefully in your watery grave.

For the next two weeks we were forced to take photos of the southern Thai islands with either an ultra-wide angle lens or a 200mm zoom, because as you might imagine, there aren’t many places selling Nikon lenses in the Thai islands. If we wanted to take photos, we could still do so, but only from about a half mile away.

“Great photo. Stay right there. I’m just going to go and perch myself in that tree across the ravine. Be back in 45.” That sort of thing. Since we still had two months left on the trip, which would take us across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, this camera situation simply wasn’t going to do.

This is why we were so enthralled to find a cheap lens advertised online at an obscure camera store up in Bangkok. We would be passing through Bangkok in a few weeks, and the owner, Alak, had actually responded to our email and said that he had the exact lens that we needed. Furthermore, since it was a part of a floor set, he could offer it to us at a steep discount.

Under the table, if you will.

Which is how we ended up in an odd corner of Chinatown in a remote corner of Bangkok searching for a hole-in-the-wall camera shop and a mysterious Thai man named Alak. After about four failed attempts at asking for directions we sauntered sweaty and starving into a camera store that sold everything from tripods to lens cleaners to fancy looking surveillance systems.

From the look of things, if there was anywhere this deal was going to go down, it was here.

Eying the shifty man behind the counter, and not knowing whether to verbally strike with Thai or Mandarin, I opted for the former.

Sa-wa-tee-kraup,” I offered, completely butchering the language in the process, “Ummm… Alak? Nikon? Email? Kyle?” Apparently, in addition to my poor Thai, I had also managed to butcher my own language.

A tense three seconds of silence passed in which the thinly bearded gentleman appeared to stare into my soul. I immediately felt uncomfortable, which is strange, because I was only in a camera shop.

Finally, he spoke.

“You come with me,” he hastily barked in English as we walked towards the back of the store. “You see Alak.”

Peeling back a blanket, which covered a clandestine exit from the shop, we followed the clerk into a backroom with chicken wire over the windows and shelves filled with various curios.

There was something weird about this, but I didn’t know why. All I knew was I was in the back room of a shady store in Bangkok in a neighborhood where I had the funny feeling that laws were merely guidelines.

Finally, Alak entered. He was tall, dark haired and had an intimidating presence about him. Another smaller man accompanied him in the backroom. There were now three of them to the two of us. Why did this feel so strange?

“Hi, Alak,” I nervously stammered. “I’m Kyle, we had emailed about a Nikon lens that you could get us for a good price. A special price.”

Without saying anything Alak turned around and rifled through the shelves. In the distance I could hear a siren. Looking to my left, a child had silently materialized in the blanket-covered entryway. He looked at us but made no noise. I smiled. He stared.

Eventually Alak placed a brown cardboard box on the table and mimicked for me to remove the lens. I did, and it was the exact one we wanted. I checked the size, I checked the glass for scratches, and I wondered why he was selling it for so cheap.

“You like?” Alak finally sneered, the lone hair on his chin quivering from the breeze coming through the far window.

“I want to make sure it works,” I replied. Then, to my wife, “hand me the bag.”

Reaching for our camera bag – which is specially designed to look just like a backpack – I unzipped the casing and removed our Nikon camera body. Breathing deeply, one of Alak’s cronies loudly cracked his knuckles.

Stroking the lens and attaching it to the camera body, I listened as it clicked into place without a hitch.

I suddenly knew why I felt so weird. This had all the makings of a backroom arms deal going down in a misty, backroom den in the Orient. I played the part of the undercover CIA operative and Alak the unsuspecting dealer who used his camera store in Chinatown as a front.

The stock lens was now my silencer, the camera body my automatic weapon. I suddenly felt the urge to have a briefcase full of money and a drinking problem. It was all too surreal.

“3,000 baht,” Alak suddenly declared. It was a price higher than what we’d discussed.

“That’s not the price we agreed upon, Alak. You said you could get this to us for 2,000. Remember, special price.”

Squinting his eyes and conversing with his cronies, Alak returned with his counter offer of 2,400. What he didn’t know was that he had us in his hands. This was the cheapest – and only – lens that we could find in all of Thailand at this price.

“2,250 or we leave right now.” This operative was playing hardball.

Exchanging cash in the backroom we pocketed our lens and got out of there as quickly as possible.

“Did that feel weird to you?” I asked my wife.

“No, why?”

“You didn’t feel like we were undercover operatives during the Cold War purchasing a black market silencer that was recently smuggled out of Iran?”

I was met only with a blank and curious stare. “It was a camera store with a sweet little old man,” she finally reasoned. “You’re weird.”

Hailing a pedicab in a narrow alleyway beneath a sky of swinging red lanterns, I couldn’t shake the feeling we’d just mingled with shady Thai gangsters. Sliding into a two-seated tuk-tuk, we honked our way out of Chinatown and into the pulsing Thai night.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews Suspected Of Vandalizing Jerusalem Holocaust Memorial

Israeli police suspect ultra-Orthodox Jews are behind Monday’s vandalism at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

Anti-Zionist graffiti written in Hebrew was sprayed over several parts of the building, with lines like, “Jews, wake up, the evil Zionist regime doesn’t protect us, it jeopardizes us,” and, “If Hitler hadn’t existed, the Zionists would have invented him.”

As implausible as this sounds, many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that Israel shouldn’t exist until the coming of the Messiah. I myself know one family that subscribes to this belief, although being decent human beings they would never vandalize a Holocaust Memorial.

This is only the latest in a string of controversial incidents involving Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. Recently vandals seriously damaged a 1,600-year-old mosaic from a synagogue. The Tiberias mosaic was one of the finest examples of Jewish art. Vandals broke into the museum and smashed parts of the mosaic, while spray painting slogans in Hebrew calling archaeological excavations a sacrilege.

Last year the country was stunned by the news that Ultra-Orthodox Jews had spat on an 8-year-old Jewish girl and called her a whore for not dressing modestly enough. Another group have been picketing a girls school they think is immodest and throwing feces and rocks at the kids. Back in 1990, some fellow archaeologists and I had rocks thrown at our vehicle because we drove through an Orthodox neighborhood on the Sabbath. Travelers beware.

[Photo credit: Getty images]

Plane Answers: What kind of math skills are needed to become a pilot?

Zach asks:

Hello First Officer Kent!

It has been my dream since early childhood to earn a private pilot’s certificate. For a number of reasons–both financial and otherwise–it is only now (pushing age 30) that I am able to seriously begin the process of choosing a flight school and creating a road map to the goal of earning the license (while I would love to work as an airline pilot, I am content to keep my less interesting day job and fly as a pure hobbyist).

The only potential barrier that I can envision is what I fear to be a lack of the necessary math acumen to be successful. I am simply intimidated by any math more complicated than very basic algebra, and while this is something that I believe I can overcome, I wonder how it will impact my ability to earn a private pilot’s certificate. How much and what type of math is necessary to know in order to reach this goal? Should I brush up on any particular area of mathematics before starting my flight training?

Hi Zach,

I have good news for you.

You’re not the first to ask me this question, so I imagine many others have this impression as well. Perhaps it’s fueled by a few math teachers who may use occupations like flying as a carrot to get their students to study more. But there isn’t anything even approaching basic algebra required to get your licenses, even up to the ATP level.

I was admittedly horrible at math and struggled with it all the way through college. Not a pretty sight. Since college, I haven’t even thought about algebraic equations. Frankly, the most complicated math I do today is figuring out the time for the crew rest periods when crossing the Atlantic with three pilots. Fortunately, there’s even an app for that.

That said, it was my ability to complete the required math courses that allowed me to get through college. And college has been necessary to land a job at a major airline. But that doesn’t seem to be your goal at this point.

Hope you do take up your dream!

Michael asks:


I was talking with a pilot from a different airline than yours and he was saying that at his company they now prefer to use idle reverse thrust. I’m wondering why this would be (versus revving those bad boys up in max reverse)? Why not just leave the throttles at complete idle? Does reverse idle do much for deceleration versus complete idle?

Hi Michael,

Many airports, such as Manchester and London, are requiring idle reverse be used in the mornings due to noise restrictions. I actually prefer that, because passengers seem to enjoy the quiet, calm landings. Typically reverse thrust will shorten your landing distance by only 400 feet depending on the conditions.

Given plenty of runway, idle reverse landings are rather nice. But there are tradeoffs. Avoiding maximum reverse thrust does wear the brakes out faster. But there may be fuel and engine savings associated with idle reverse.

When the engines are at idle they actually produces a bit of thrust. So idle revers blocks that residual thrust and pushes it forward giving you some extra stopping power at no cost while in idle reverse.

Tom asks:

While I was looking at some Boeing posters of widebody aircraft in school–a 767/757 and up and I’ve noticed there are three autopilots. A left, center, and right. What is the point of three? Is it just for redundancy?

Hi Tom,

The three autopilots are used at the same time only on aircraft that are certified for autolands, which are used in extremely low visibility landings.

The autopilots are all selected just before shooting the approach and they become independent at 1500 feet, all the way to the ground. This way, if one electrical source is ever lost, the airplane can continue.

Other Boeings that don’t have autoland capability may still have three autopilots, but they aren’t selected at the same time. They’re just cycled through at the beginning of each flight so they see an even amount of use. So yes, on those aircraft they would be there solely for redundancy.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

Plane Answers: Have turbulence encounters become less common?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Fellow Gadling writer Mike Barish (author of the hilarious Skymall Mondays asks:

I have a plane answers question of my own for you and thought others might be curious, too.

Not sure if it’s my perception, improvements in technology or changes in flight paths, but it truly seems like I experience less turbulence in general, and less aggressive turbulence when my flights do hit it, than I did back in the 1980s. What’s changed to make flights smoother?

You’re likely right, Mike.

In the past ten years, more of the airplanes flying today have advanced radar, with features such as ‘Predictive Windshear’ and better depiction of turbulence associated with precipitation.

The FAA has also installed weather monitors for Air Traffic Controllers that show the level of intensity for a given cumulonimbus build-up of clouds. It’s comforting to hear “we show a level three thunderstorm along your route of flight, deviations to the right or left are approved” from ATC before the weather even shows up on our radar.

Occasionally these advisories are for storms that are well below us, but the courtesy report is well appreciated, especially since they include the intensity of the weather, which saves us from having to pan and tilt our radar to determine if a cloud could cause significant bumps. Exceedingly wet clouds that climb above 25,000 feet are the best indicator of possible turbulence, and it takes some manipulating of the radar to find those.
Dispatch plays a role in forecasting where the weather may be during our flight and routing us on a different and possibly less direct path to get around the weather.

The other possible explanation for your experience may have to do with where you’ve been sitting lately. The difference between turbulence at the rear of the airplane versus over the wing or in the front is rather significant, especially on stretched versions of airliners like the A340-600, the 757-300 and the 737-900. On your next flight, if you’re sitting in the back, pay attention to how the flight attendants in the front are walking and continuing their service, while those in the back may have to sit down.

So, if turbulence gives you the willies, try getting a seat in the front.

Coincidentally, this post is being written in the business class section of a 757 while I’m on my crew rest break. It’s bumpy enough that the main cabin flight attendants are seated, but our purser is currently serving drinks up front without much difficulty.

In the future, the 787 will have a ‘gust suppression’ capability that is said to improve the rides by adjusting the rudder constantly to compensate for some types of turbulence. I can’t wait to experience that.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

Plane Answers: Can passengers survive an explosive depressurization?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Josh asks:

We’ve all heard the standard spiel about oxygen masks and flotation devices. Likewise, we’ve all seen the cartoonish drawings of proper positioning of one’s body in the event of an emergency (the “brace for impact” pose), etc… Two things I’ve heard people say are that:

a) the air temperature outside the cabin at most cruising altitudes on jet engine planes is sufficient to instantly freeze all bodies on board solid within literally seconds;

b) the change in air pressure is likely to be so disruptive to one’s ear drum, putting on oxygen masks and taking the fetal position is difficult to impossible due to disorientation.
As to the first one, I’ve flown many a Delta flight where on screen displays indicate the temperature outside the cabin to be extremely low (far far below zero). Likewise, I recall reading an article about a jet crash in Greece (I think) where the plane was supposedly depressurized in flight and crashed into a mountain. The report indicated that rescue workers arrived in a relatively short time, but everybody on board was in fact frozen solid. The report indicated this happened in the air, and w/in seconds of depressurization, not on the ground. So there seems to be some credence to this one.

As for the second one, about air pressure and disorientation, I’m of the understanding that though the need arises very rarely, passengers have been able to take action to put on oxygen masks when necessary. Of course, I don’t know how many times (if ever) that need has arisen when at any significant altitude.

So are these frequent flyer myths, exaggerations, based in some fact or accurate descriptions of the reality of jet travel?

The most common cause of depressurization on an airplane is from the loss of both of the air conditioning and pressurization “packs.” There are two of these units that pressurize the cabin on all airliners and one of them is allowed to be inoperative, although it’s not a common occurrence. Should the airplane lose the remaining pack, the cabin altitude, which normally allows for a comfortable 6,000 feet when the airplane is flying above FL 300 (30,000 feet), will slowly climb to the same altitude the airplane is flying.

So it’s imperative that the pilots descend below 14,000 feet, the altitude that the masks will deploy, as soon as possible and to level off at 10,000 feet or lower.

This situation recently happened to my brother. He was able to descend to a lower altitude and the cabin altitude never exceeded 10,000 feet, so no passenger masks dropped from the ceiling.

In the case of an explosive depressurization, like that of Aloha flight 243, these masks will be extremely important. Those passengers as well as the people aboard a United 747 that lost a cargo door, were able to don the masks and remain warm enough to survive until the airplane reached a lower altitude. Both those cases were near Hawaii, however. So it could be a rather cold descent anywhere else. But the initial explosive depressurization didn’t result in so much disorientation that they couldn’t put their masks on.

And you’re right, it’s common to see minus 40 to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 to -50 Celsius) when at altitude. At temperatures of minus 40 (C or F), skin freezes almost instantly, although the temperature warms quickly as you descend.

Finally, the Greek Helios 737 flight that you mention was never pressurized after takeoff, because of a mistake that was especially tragic. The pilots inadvertently departed without noticing the pressurization controller was in the manual position. They missed the ear-popping cues, the temperature cues, the warning lights on the overhead, and they misdiagnosed a cabin altitude warning horn for the horn that notifies pilots that the airplane is unsafe for takeoff because of incorrectly configured flaps, trim or speedbrakes. Interestingly, the sound of the horn is identical in both situations.

On a side-note, I’ve talked to the Boeing engineers who worked on an early version of a ‘text message’ system called CPDLC that air traffic controllers can use to provide instructions to pilots. I asked these engineers what sound they would be choosing to alert the pilots of an incoming message.

As I suspected, they explained that they would be using the same sound that flight attendants use to call the pilots. And that chime is used for FMC wind and route uplink notifications among other things. They claimed that studies have shown that people have difficulty differentiating between more than five types of sounds.

The Helios pilots failed to understand this warning horn and subsequently failed to don their masks, resulting in the masks dropping in the back of the airplane while the pilots were trying to simply silence the warning horn.

Oxygen is vital for a pilot to be able to troubleshoot an abnormal situation as this amazing recording between a cargo flight that lost pressurization and air traffic control demonstrates. Note the altitude warning horn in the background of this ATC tape with the flight:

On a similar, but far less morbid topic, Steve asks:

What is the average temperature inside commercial airliners? I was told 82 degrees F by a pilot who was seated next to me in first class. This is to put everyone to sleep. At 35,000 ft. the temperature outside is -60 F, correct?

Yes, it’s often nearly that cold, as I mentioned above. According to our indications on the Boeing, we shoot for around 70 to 72 degrees. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for that indicator to be perfectly calibrated. And when the flight is nearly full, pumping 70 degree air into the cabin can be too warm. Fewer passengers on board means we need to increase the selected temperature.

But by far the biggest driver of the temperature is the flight attendant. Typically they like it a bit cooler while they’re working hard to get a meal service accomplished, and afterwards, when they’re not as active, they’ll need it to be warmer.

So on your next flight, see if the first part of the flight, during the meal service, is cooler than the latter part.

If it were up to the pilots, the controls for the cabin temperature would be in the back, with the flight attendants. The 777 has some control over the temperature provided to the flight attendants, resulting in far fewer calls to the pilots asking for warmer or cooler temperatures.

And contrary to the belief by some cynics out there, we’re definitely NOT keeping the cabin cooler to sell more blankets.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr