Month: July 2018

Malindo Air Economy & Business Class Review: HKT-KUL-DPS

Itinerary: HKT-KUL-DPS (Phuket to Bali via Kuala Lumpur)

Cost: US$306

My friend: “Who are you flying on?”

Moi: “Malindo Air – a.k.a. Lion Air”

“*Googles safety record.* Oh my God, you’re braver than I.”

“It was nice knowing you. :D”

“WHAT MADE YOU PICK THEM?”

“This route is surprisingly lacking in good [and reasonably priced] connections. Malaysia Airlines was substantially more.”

“Does Air Asia not fly this route?”

“It wasn’t coming through in my searches.”

As you can see, I survived. 

Corporate Kakistocracy

 

Prior to departure, I attempted to clarify my baggage allowance.  The short (1.5hr) leg from Phuket to KL was ticketed in Economy (Y), while KL to Bali was in Business class (J). Y gets 25kg (55lbs), and J pax receive an allowance of 40kg (88lbs). A phone call months ago didn’t quite resolve my question.

Late last week, I rang up Malindo.  A fairly competent chap related that the Economy allowance would apply. It seems Malindo uses a “most restrictive” protocol on such tickets.  For a counter-example, BA gives you the most generous allowance. Anyway, I ask about the upgrade cost to business class.  On leisure routes in low season, these upgrades can be a steal. The agent comes back with a quote of 78 Malaysian Ringgit, or US$19.50.  That would be half the cost of buying the extra 5 kg of baggage that I wanted. 

Sadly, the ticketing desk was closed.  Yes, a business with its customer service line open till 10pm is apparently unable to take money after 4:30 pm or so. Call back tomorrow, he bade me. I asked if the same price would apply, which he confirmed. Awesome, or so I foolishly thought.

Another call, more money drained from my skype account. The new agent at Malindo informs that I’d have to go through my travel agent, Orbitz in this case.  Why do I always run into this sort of good luck when I book via a third party?!

Immediately after hanging up, I ring Orbitz. Before I can even tender my question, the agent follows protocol to inform me of the change rules and fees. Unfortunately, the fare rules on file with Orbitz are grossly incomplete (I noticed this when reading the document weeks before trying to find out, myself).  The Orbitz agent needed to call Malindo three times, which stretched the call to the near 1 hour mark. Apparently, there is a change fee of 1000 Thai baht on the ticket (approx. $29.80). Ok. And the upgrade cost?

Malindo has no idea, and they need to fax their revenue management team. I should expect an email within 24 hours.

At this point, I said “Sure, go ahead.”  I knew that I’d have a better chance of receiving a leprechaun riding a unicorn at my front door.  Neither the email nor the unicorn-mounted Sir Leprechaun appeared.

I then tried to buy the extra 5kg, when HSBC blocked the transaction.  Thanks, HSBC.  You annoyed me, but you did me a favor.

I packed two carry-ons and checked one bag @ 20kg.  My carry-ons probably weighed another 15kg together.

With great effort, I tried to give extra money to an airline that stubbornly refused to take it.

HKT-KUL

After such a great start, I proceeded to the airport.  Check-in wasn’t too crowded – 8 people/couples ahead of me. Unfortunately, even “easy” solo travellers seemed to require 5-10 minutes to check-in despite any semblance of complicating factors (tons of extra baggage, “oops where’s my passport?” etc). I feel sorry for the bus load of people who arrived 10 minutes later queued behind me.  Spending 90 minutes watching 3 people scratch their heads to check in a single university student or older couple must have been fun. 

Coral Executive Lounge at Phuket Airport fourth floor
Coral Executive Lounge, HKT

After check-in, I breezed through security and ended up using my Priority Pass card to get into the Coral Executive Lounge on the 4th floor.  A manned bar served draft Singha (my preferred Thai beer), and a small but decent buffet spread featured a pasta dish, Tom Kha soup, ginger fish, and rice in addition to fruit, cakes, pastries, and a salad bar. Soft drinks, coffee, and tea were self-serve. It was a perfect spot to kill an hour and have lunch.

At last, it was time to board.  I realized during check-in that the flight wouldn’t have the light load I initially thought it would. Boarding took place as a semi-organized scrum. In such scenarios, the losers are business passengers and those with young kids/need extra time.  

Malindo Air Boeing 737-800 parked at Phuket airport

I found my seat (6D) and stowed my bags.  In short order, my neighbor, a young American woman from the Bay Area, strikes up a conversation with me. She was on a Thai/Bali holiday now that she had some vacation time. She’s an English teacher in Beijing.  I’ve come to appreciate meeting China-based expats, as I am heading to Kunming for four months in late August.

A beverage and hot snack service was offered on this 90-minute flight to KL. As a non-cheese eater, the choice of a chicken or veggie pizza wasn’t appealing.  Then again, I wasn’t planning on eating anyway after having lunch on the Coral Lounge.

The in-flight entertainment onboard was surprisingly well-executed with high-resolution screens and a cosmopolitan, multilingual selection of content.  Somewhat fitting on an ex-Thailand flight, I watched Anna & the King.

KUL-DPS

 

After a harder-than-average touchdown, we were soon at the gate in KL.  I proceeded to the H-gates for my departure.  While Malindo does have a business lounge, both the Malindo lounge AND the priority pass lounges for KL are located in a satellite terminal.  As I didn’t have a particularly long layover, I continued working my way through A Short History of Byzantium.

Boarding was more organized. Biz and families first, then by rows. Most passengers on my flight were actually bound for Brisbane, by coincidence (I used to live there as a Master’s student at UQ).  Bali was a stop on the way.

The business seat (1A) onboard was fairly low-tech, but it was in rather good condition and was particularly comfortable. For the right price, it would be an extremely attractive option ex-Australia to Bali or elsewhere in SE Asia (both Brisbane and MEL flights are to & from KL via Bali). I realized by the end of the flight that I didn’t even feel the need to recline it, which is extremely rare for me.

Onboard service was quite friendly and responsive.  After take-off, orders were taken for a main course (lamb biriyani or channa dhal).  I opted for a biriyani with water and a Tiger beer. The biriyani was delicious, and the attendant kept my beer thimble (3oz pours) topped off. I might have had an entire can before the end of the 3-hour flight!

My seat-mate was going through wine like a fiend, and prior to disembarkation, I heard the tipsy, rambling tale of her woes arising from a passport with less than 6 months validity and needing to borrow two kilo-dollars (Australian) from her mother to get home, which she found degrading at 50 years old.  Her key mistake: booking two separate tickets from Vietnam to Australia (Hanoi-Singapore, Singapore-Brisbane), on a passport that would be expired in 5.5 months.

For this leg, I opted to watch Interstellar.  The world-building was quite thought provoking amidst the waste I see around me (and am forced to partake in due to a lack of development – e.g. dependence on bottled water for drinking). I could see myself as the grandfather who remembers the profligacy of the past (which is to say, the present).

IFE in J on the Bali leg

I was curious to see how Denpasar airport (and Bali generally) had changed in the 5 years since I have been there. It seems to have improved, as immigration queues were non-existent.  I was also delighted that Indonesia now offers a free, non-renewable/extendable 30-day visa on arrival. Before, it was US$25. A renewable/extendable 30-day visa now costs $35.  As I didn’t plan for more than a month, I went the free route.

Despite an arrival at 9:20pm, I didn’t see my bag until 10:50pm, as mine was the absolute last off the plane. I had walked to the lost luggage desk, as the belt came through with a “finished” sign (and all other passengers were gone).

Summary

 

Malindo’s head office is corporate kakistocracy incarnate. While you will get earnest agents trying to help, their systems and processes are convoluted to an extent such that “Malindoan” should replace “Byzantine” in the dictionary. As least Byzantine complexity could do such wonders as bribing one steppe horde to annihilate another. Malindo cannot even feed revenue into its own coffers.

 

That said, the onboard service was faultless.  I’d be inclined to fly them again, and I have a feeling that they could be a very cost-effective option ex-Australia if you want to buy a business ticket (and don’t mind a narrow-body aircraft).

The Phuket Write-Up

I landed in Phuket on June 24 and would be there for 30 days. Why not maximize the allowance of my tourist visa?

 

While I had visited Thailand before in 2015, I had never visited Phuket. When I was planning my journey earlier this year, I knew I wanted to pass through Thailand, but I wanted to hit a new location. Why not Phuket? I did have some misgivings due to the utter reliance on mass tourism, but a few tourists wouldn’t kill me when out-and-about.  Also, I don’t mind a bit of divertissement if the mood strikes me.

 

I did decide on an out-of-the-way (for a tourist) locale on the eastern side of the island. It’s a town/area called Ko Kaeo, probably best known as the location of the Royal Phuket Marina – a.k.a. “boat lagoon.” There were restaurants, grocers, convenience stores, and such in the area, so I knew I wouldn’t be without life’s necessities.

 

Perhaps a more accurate description of my decision process would be that my decision to stay at Phuket Stash determined my location. Phuket Stash is a co-working spot, and hopefully I’ll get around to producing a write up. It proved a quirky but quiet place to set up shop for the month. In hindsight, I could have found myself a cheaper place (15k baht for the month @ Stash), but that’s not exactly a burdensome sum for a month’s accommodation.

 

Phuket felt larger than I initially envisioned.  The perception of size is magnified by road and traffic conditions, which were prone to substantial slowdowns and bottlenecks even during the nadir of the low season (bars, restaurants, beaches, and resorts were deserted relative to their potential capacity).

 

Public transit is spotty and not immensely convenient (shuts down at 6 pm). You’re  required to change in Phuket town, as the bus/songthaew routes make up a hub-and-spoke system.

 

Taxi pricing is mafia-fixed and extortionate by Thai standards. Even a quick 10 minute 7km/4.5mile drive from Stash to Phuket town was 360 baht ($11) on Grab. A local taxi stand would have wanted 500.

 

When a scooter can be hired for 200 baht (US$6) per day, the incentive is obvious and strong.  For various reasons (lack of need to travel, preference to get work/stuff done versus daily sightseeing, zero experience with scooters/motobikes, Thai driving), I opted against it.  Why invalidate my overseas medical coverage?

 

Food prices are elevated by Thai standards, though it’s really not going to break the bank. Yes, you can get a rice or noodle dish for 30-35 baht in Chiang Mai.  Yes, it costs 50 baht here (60% more!!!). That said, the marginal cost of 50-65 cents is not worth sweating over – for me.  This sentiment was by no means universal, I should add.  

image of mango sticky rice in thailand

See a sample price list below (your mileage may vary):

Item Location & Price (in Baht)
Retail Local eatery Air con/mall Beach/restaurant Tourist drag
Fried Rice 50 90 120-200 150-250
Pad thai 50 90 120-200 150-250
Meat dish 50-60 90-110 140-220 150+
Seafood dish 70 120 180+ 200+
Local beer (sm) 40-55 (s) 60-70 80 80-100 100-200
Cocktail 150+ 150+
Mango rice 50 100-120 150-200 200+
Mango 50/kg
Pineapple 10 (each)
Latte 55 – 110 80+ 110
Water (500ml) 6-9 8-10 10-20 20 20+
Fuel (per liter) 29.7-31

 

Overall, I found it affordable as someone earning and spending USD. Your perceptions naturally will vary.  To borrow a Dutch proverb passed on by a friend, one “cannot look into someone else’s wallet” (i.e. judge how much a dollar/etc is worth to any given person).

 

To describe the categories a bit, “local eateries” are defined as small restaurants where you sit on a plastic chair outside, albeit shielded by an awning.

 

 “Air con/mall” refers to the next tier up, which describes restaurants in air-conditioned buildings or in shopping malls. Newbies to Asia tend to like these places, as it blends “locals eat here” (i.e. more adventurous than eating at the hotel) and “within my comfort zone” for familiarity. I find that you’re primarily paying for the air conditioning and a marginally higher level of English (or other major tourist foreign language).

 

“Beach/restaurant” refers to higher end restaurants catering to expat as well as eateries that are beach-front. Pricing = location, location, location.

 

“Tourist drag” in this sense refers to central Patong.  I would argue that you’re enduring the worst combination of high prices and dismal scenery, but Patong isn’t my cup of tea.

 

Every beach/area has its own particular vibe. Ko Kaeo is primarily local, but a small, convivial, and tight-knit community of expat yachters set up there for the Boat Lagoon.

 

Rawai in the south would be my first choice were I to return.  It’s quite proximate to a couple of beaches and landmarks, is relatively inexpensive for “near the water” in Phuket, and is home to the location independent/digital nomad scene.  There are numerous bars, restaurants, gyms, shops, etc to make life easy.

 

Phuket Town is the business hub of the island, home to the best hospitals, a shopping hub, and where you’ll find the relevant consulate if you run into some trouble. It’s also the transport hub of the island. The weekend night market is worth a visit.

 

Patong is the tourism/party/red light hub of the island.  It struck me as overbuilt, dirty, and sleazy (people on drugs, ping pong show offers, and so on).

 

Kata was the preferred surfing beach of the other nomads I met. I didn’t get to spend much time there, but the surfers love it.

 

Surin at this time of year was the picture-perfect white, sandy beach popular with what few tourists were present as well as Thai families. The same goes for Bangtao just a little to the north.

Surin Beach
Surin Beach

Mai Khao would probably win the award for the quietest major beach, as it’s at the northern end of the island near the airport and Phuket’s luxury resorts.

 

Would I return to Phuket? Sure.  Is it my favorite beach destination? Nope, though I’ve been to much worse.  It does have many advantages.  Thai prices (barring taxis), ease of travel to Thailand, food & lifestyle, and a sizeable & helpful expat community all contribute to my overall good impression.

 

We’ll meet again, Phuket.

Of Geese and Apples – Touring Phuket

 

One of the fixtures of my lodgings during my first 10 days in Phuket was Alex, a shaggy Russian from Novo Sibersk with an aversion to wearing shirts unless absolutely necessary.  As he is shredded like a the crucified Christ, I am not particularly bothered by this. Despite his limited English and my profoundly non-existent knowledge of Russian, we managed to communicate exceptionally well. The dividends paid were extraordinary

A blurry picture of this tale’s hero

Day 1

 

One day, he offered a beach trip. I am down.

 

“How are we getting there,” I ask? 

‘Scooter!

 

My eyes widen, as I don’t know how to do 2 wheels, Thai driving are what you’d expect for a society that widely believes in reincarnation, and “farang road kill” is a terribly trite way to die.

 

That’s OK, as I can ride as his passenger.  For some reason, I acquiesce to this.  I just can’t refuse shredded foreigners offering a ride. I figure that a Russian hippie semi-resident in Thailand absent bandages is probably capable of handing the roads.

 

I still downloaded my insurance docs onto my phone in case I ended up at a local hospital.

 

After a quick google search of how to be a decent passenger, I grabbed onto a helmet and tried to make my peace with mortality.  Off we went.

 

“This isn’t so bad.”

 

My curiosity got the better of me soon enough, and moving my head to look at everything we passed earned a gentle reproof “no move, only sit.”  I focused on the printed pineapples on the back of Alex’s shirt.

 

In abut 35 minutes on the scenic route, we ended up at Nai Harn beach, at the southern tip of Phuket island. As soon as we hopped off the bike, rain began. We also were low on fuel.  As my brain hemispheres and subsidiary lobes were still contained in their original packaging, this trip still qualified as a success.

 

We retreated to shelter for beer while we waited out the showers. When the weather improved about an hour later, we went a-hunting for fuel.  We stumbled on small self-service pump.  I handed him B40, and we were good to go for a bit longer.

 

Alexey needed a bite, and you don’t need to ask me twice to enjoy some Thai grub, so he took me to Tony’s Restaurant just outside of Phuket town.  He was fond of it for the cheap Pad Thai and beers at 10 baht over the 7/11 price.  Pineapple fried rice for me and a Singha, and life was looking good, until another downpour befell us.

 

Realizing that it wouldn’t let  up, we donned plastic ponchos and slowly made our way back.  Heavy rush hour traffic, a downpour, and flooded roads – what could go wrong?!  Miraculously, very little.  As we rode through inches-deep water, I joked that I hoped Alex was up to date with his shots (putting his foot down in the filthy flooded water when stopped for a light.)

 

By some unknown grace, we made it home only moderately soaked.

 

Pros: We survived, had food and beverages. Cons: Soaked like bilge rats; no beach time.

 

Day 2

 

Given his imminent departure from Thailand, Alexey decided that more beach time was needed.  I didn’t need to be asked twice.

 

After pulling on trousers and a long-sleeved shirt (sun protection, slightly more protection in an accident versus shorts/t-shirt/tank), we were off again.

 

Today’s destination was Surin beach, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. After a ride across the island and over the mountain, we arrived at Surin, one of the cleanest beaches I have seen in Asia. The lack of plastic garbage was refreshing.  I can’t overstate how marvellous the water was – cool enough to refresh, warm enough to frolic in for hours.

Surin Beach

At around 4pm, I managed to communicate to Alex that it would be a perfect time for a beer.  In emphatic agreement, we were soon on our way to a 7/11.  An old hand at Thailand has already discerned the problem with this plan.  Thailand’s sports its own version of a blue law that prohibits the sale of alcohol between 2-5 pm.  I cursed myself for making a rookie oversight before retiring to the beach to wait out the hour.

 

There are far worse purgatories!

 

In time, we had a pair of Singhas in hand. Those who drink with me will attest that this is the point where the “respectability quotient” of the banter heads south faster than a retiree sensing the arrival of winter.

My sexiest shot
Comfortable

We were discussing food. I relayed a story of my grandmother stuffing a chicken who alternated between muttering something about “impure thoughts” and singing/humming the tune of “The Girl I Left Behind.”  His first reaction was asking via a mix of google translate and google images if we in the West stuff geese with apples.  I stared, blinked, and communicated that, regardless of Siberian custom, we do not sodomize geese with apples in the Anglophone West. And so was born the joke of the month.

 

I’ll leave it to your imagination where the conversation went from there.

The sunset was spectacular
The sunset was spectacular!

In time, it was time to return.  Stash had received a new guest who was keen to hire a scooter for an evening run into town, so Alex had to dash back to facilitate the transaction.

 

If nothing else, the beer made me somewhat more relaxed about the safety of zipping around on a scooter.

 

Day 4

 

After a Day 3 that looked much like Day 2 (hence its absence), Alex decided to bring me along again for his last day in Thailand, for the foreseeable future.  I strapped on my old familiar helmet, hoped for good luck on the road, and we were off again.

 

Our first destination included a visit to Big Buddha, probably the most famous cultural attraction on the island. “Uncle Sid” (as one friend calls him) commands a magnificent view of the island.  Fortunately, we had a clear, sunny day and low season tourist levels, so the visit was quite pleasant. Note: Women do have to dress relatively modestly, though men don’t appear to (e.g. a man can wear a sleeveless shirt, a woman cannot).

View from the Buddha
View from the Buddha

Souvenirs and snacks are available, if you wish to indulge.

Pet the temple kitties

After the Big Buddha, we made our way on the scenic route, and we blew out our rear tire just as we arrived at the beach on Promthep Cape.  Alex went off to have it fixed, as this exact setback befell him at this same beach a few months ago. I decamped for lunch (I hadn’t yet eaten that day).  He returned in need of 40 baht.  The front tire blew on the way to the shop, but it could be patched.  Lucky us!

Around Promthep Cape
People bring their cats to this beach. I saw three with their owners.

My custom was to buy the beers for us, as 50-60 baht for his libations seemed worth all the fun. I begged him to get a second for his troubles. After the tire fiasco, I didn’t have to try too hard.  After all, that tire was the apple in his goose.

 

All good things must come to an appointed end, and so did this arrangement.  I found myself missing my Russian driver, my late-afternoon beer, and the inevitable goose-apple banter that followed. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide of the island. Such is the traveller’s life – these sort of brief, happy encounters are a defining feature of the lifestyle.

 

I’ve also realized that I haven’t eaten an apple in almost a month.