Month: February 2019

Malindo Air: Kuala Lumpur – Bali – Brisbane in Business Class

KUL – DPS – BNE 

 15/12/19

After my stay at the Petaling Jaya Hilton (review upcoming), I continued on with my RGN-KUL-DPS-BNE biz ticket on Malindo.

 

I took a Grab car for 55 or 60 ringgit (circa US$15) from the PJ Hilton to KUL.  The lady who drove me was a wonderful conversationalist, and we covered Malay cuisine and spices in addition to relationships in the course of our drive.

 

Upon arriving at the terminal, I went over to Malindo’s check-in desks. The business desks were empty, and the agent soon handed me a boarding card and a voucher for lounge access or credit at a selection of eateries in the terminal.

 

I breezed through security this afternoon, changed some leftover ringgit, had some pre-departure sushi, and proceeded to the Sama Sama lounge, one of the options on my Malindo voucher. If you decided to cash in your voucher for credit at Burger King, you would have faced an enormous queue. I couldn’t believe it, and counted almost 50 people waiting.  I don’t think an airport Burger King meal merits that sort of a wait, but a collective “you do you, bro” is perhaps the best approach. 

Shot of a BA aircraft at the sushi restaurant

Sama Sama is actually a transit hotel located airside with KUL.  Their lobby also contains a lounge, which they offer as an ancillary revenue stream.  While small, anyone who is hungry can opt to partake of the sizable buffet.  My highest praise goes to the superabundance of charging outlets suitable for direct USB connections and international plugs. If your devices are starved on power, this is probably the best option in the airport.

Onboard

Conveniently, a gate change meant that my flight would be departing from a gate much closer to the lounge than originally planned – based on what was printed on my boarding pass.  I went for a stroll and arrived at the gate. After going through security (security is done at the gate), I found a seat in the gate area and awaited boarding.  Our gate was adjacent to a Hajj flight, and we were treated to the sight of the pilgrims queuing for their flight. They were all garbed in white.

The boarding area was rather crowded, though they did board business class first. I stowed my backpack and relaxed. The crew offered us juice or water, and I took water per custom. We departed on time and made for Bali.

A meal service was offered, and while I forget which dishes were offered, I opted for a biriyani – by now solidified as the safe choice on Malindo.  It was fine, but I didn’t polish off everything in front of me (salad, cake, bread, fruit) due to the sheer quantity and my desire not to gorge before sleeping.

Malindo J seating

Upon arrival in DPS, a change in procedure meant that all passengers had to disembark, including those in direct transit to Australia.  This process wasted about half an hour of going through a document check in Denpasar, security, and waiting to re-board.

Upon boarding, I once again found my seat on a considerably more crowded aircraft. Clearly, DPS-BNE delivers the load factor.  For the long haul though, what sort of yields do they get for this route? That’s the question. Given my prior experience with their head office, they might not even know themselves!

I can’t give much of an update on this flight, as I promptly went to sleep ASAP.  I was hiring a car immediately upon arrival, so I wanted to be alert for the drive from Brisbane to my friend’s home in Redlands Bay.To my surprise, we received an amenity kit, pictured below. It won’t exactly steal the thunder from more upmarket offerings on other airlines. 

Amenity Kit

They did offer a breakfast service, though I opted to just have some yogurt, fruit, and tea. Everything on that front was quite good. Tea is a safe choice in the air, and fresh fruit catered from Denpasar will range from “decent” to “excellent,” as one would expect. 

Arrival & Summary

 

Arrival into Australia for e-passport holders from smartgate eligible countries is one of the fastest, most painless entries into a country I have experienced. In the bad old days, long queues could leave you wishing for or thankful for a premium cabin express pass.  In a few minutes, I had my bags and was on my way into a sunburnt land.

 

Summary: A solid trip, through and through. The price was unbeatable, and I enjoyed a fabricated excuse to stop and see how KL had developed since my last visit. I should reiterate from my previous reviews that I do find the J recliner comfortable for what it is. Your mileage may vary, however. 

Vietnam Airlines: Luang Prabang to Siem Reap in Business

11 Feb 19, LPQ – REP

When running through my options when I worked out these bookings last June, I decided on a fifth freedom flight by Vietnam Airlines.  They flight Hanoi-Luang Prabang-Siem Reap, so I hopped on for the Siem Reap leg.

Ahead of time, I decided to do an Optiontown upgrade to business class, as the cost difference between the extra 10kgs and the Optiontown price was, again, negligible. Optiontown is a third party broker of paid upgrades into premium economy or business class, depending on the carrier. Some opacity is maintained by the need to have a booked itinerary before you can see any prices.  You go onto the Optiontown website, enter your carrier, PNR code, name, and the email tied to the booking. At that point, if available, it offers a fixed price for the itinerary. You’ll be notified if the upgrade was accepted from 72-4 hours before departure. The upgrade is assigned at the airport. If the upgrade is unsuccessful, you are refunded.

I wasn’t expecting a high load in the business cabin, as Luang Prabang – Siem Reap is the definition of a leisure route. As I expected, the upgrade cleared at the 72-hour mark.  I had to print out a document from Optiontown and bring it to the airport. A little last century, but I can work with that.

At the airport, I changed my remaining kip to USD and proceeded to the designated Vietnam Airlines counter. They didn’t bat an eye at my upgrade documents and promptly printed out a card with my seat – 2A. I checked my bags in and proceeded through the most lax security check in memory. I had a look at the terminal, which included a couple of eateries, duty free shops, and last-minute souvenir stands.

Nothing really ensorcelled me, so I proceeded to the sole Priority Pass lounge, which is Bangkok Airways’ facility. I swiped my card and went on in. Having flown with Bangkok Airways in 2015, I knew what to expect – water/tea/coffee, sandwiches, seating, and wifi. The facilities are basic in the scheme of lounges, but it still beats the terminal.

Given how small the terminal was, the Bangkok Airways lounge ended up being right next to the departure gate, so I could see when my flight arrived and disgorged the passengers coming from Hanoi. I was able to walk out just as the gate agents were calling for Sky Priority (a harmonized term across the Sky Team alliance for premium cabin + member program elites) passengers. Perfect timing.

Upon boarding, I was quickly offered a cold towel in addition to a newspaper and non-alcoholic pre-departure drink. Landing documents for Cambodia were also distributed. The FA working the business cabin spoke exceptional English. After the cabin door closed, the pilot (Russian accent?) came on and welcomed us aboard.

The business cabin’s 16 seats were older, mechanical recliners. The color scheme was forgettably institutional and begs for a refresh. To an extent this is expected on what is probably a low-yield tourist route.

Not counting uniformed crew member resting in the last row, I was the only passenger. The J cabin’s FA had a fairly easy workload on the 1 hour 15-minute flight. A snack was served – a pork pate chaud with fresh fruit and drinks.  I opted for a glass of Vietnamese beer and black tea.  I quite enjoyed the beer, for the record.

 

I did peruse the newspaper to see what opinions the Vietnamese government holds on various ASEAN and global issues. When I read that Trump and Kim would be meeting in Hanoi, I wondered what Ho Chi Minh would make of international comrade Kim Il Sung’s NBA-fan grandson meeting a reality TV start turned US President in his old capital?

In short order, our pilot had us on the ground in Siem Reap, another relatively small airport.  On the ground, one goes either to the visa-on-arrival desks or straight to immigration if they already hold a Cambodian visa (for many, an e-visa). I opted for an e-visa ahead of time to save myself a passport page.

 

The process of entering is a bit slow, as they verify the e-visa, take finger prints, and take a face picture with all the haste of an underpaid developing world bureaucrat.  From the queues at the desk, another flight or two had arrived shortly before us.  After about 25 minutes waiting, I was through, had collected my bags, and met my hotel’s tuk-tuk driver to take me to my next home.

 

Summary: I enjoyed the onboard service, though the entire product wasn’t outstanding to the point where I’d go out of my way to fly on it. If you get a fair price, by all means go ahead.  Despite the bit of rigmarole with  Optiontown, I’d use it again. 

Wat Xienthong

Impressions of Luang Prabang

28/1 – 11/2/2019

 

After tiring flight from Auckland via Singapore on Singapore Airlines and SilkAir (SQ’s regional subsidiary), I arrived in the small city of Luang Prabang. 

As soon as you arrive, you know it’s small. The airport terminal building is one of the smallest I have landed in.  I think a 737 or a 320 is the largest aircraft that could be accommodated.  Immigration formalities and baggage collection (combined) took place in an area the size of a medium-sized business class lounge. One pays a fixed price in US Dollars + a $1 service charge for their Lao visa.  As an American, I paid $35+$1. Canadians pay one of the highest fees at $42. Poor fellows.

 

I changed a crisp Benjamin for 857,000 kip, a rather good rate. With some pocket money, I went over to the taxi desk where you pay 50k for a fixed-price ride into town.  Not the cheapest I have taken, as it’s only 5km, but whatever.

 

As you might expect, I was surprised when the people sitting next to me on the Silkair flight in town were in the cab along with another lady. We joked that a 200,000 kip cab (US$23.35) is exceptionally profitable. Whatever. C’est la guerre.

 

In a short time, I was in front of my Chinese-owned guesthouse, in its own way a tiny constituent part of China’s global “belt and road” activities. It was interesting having to use my rudimentary Chinese skills to explain how I booked and paid (Airbnb).  Meeting the other (mostly) Chinese guests was a rare glimpse for me into the on-the-ground realities. The guests were here for the future China-Laos railroad.

 

My guesthouse was almost on the Mekong, so I went for a stroll along the river to stretch my legs.  Many small “restaurants” are directly on the water’s edge.  They are little more than a small patio with a dozen or so tables, a stall with coolers/fridges of drinks, and a small kitchen across the street handling food prep.  The views, particularly at sunset, are incredible.  “My” little one does well-priced beer and tasty local food – mostly simple curries, rice, noodles, barbecue, and dessert.

The temples in Luang Prabang aren’t exactly large. I found that I never spent more than 20-30 minutes in any one, and that includes going up and down Mt Phousi.  Nonetheless, they are pleasant oases from the tuk-tuks and commerce in the streets.  Some are free to enter, while others are 10-20,000 kip.  The National Museum (aka Royal Palace) was an interesting visit for me, though I chuckled at the royal car collection. Three cars were gifts of the US government (I suspect to curry favor with any non-communist in the region) – two Lincoln Continentals and a Ford Edsel. Good God…why? Shouldn’t a diplomatic gift showcase your nation’s craftsmanship and esteem for the recipient?   

Wat Xienthong
Wat Xienthong

I do want to add a note about the money changers.  Yesterday, I went to exchange kip to US dollars to get some small denominations ahead of my Siem Reap trip. I found a booth selling dollars for 8,600 kip, the best rate in town.  I presented her with 817,000 kip – $95.  She tries to give me $91. After her English skills dramatically collapse when presented with mathematical reality, she hands me back the 817,000 and shoos me away. It’s 3pm, I am not a stoned/drunk gap yah, and I am one of billions that carries a multifunctional calculator (phone) in my pocket.  Not. Going. To. Work.

 

Much more common is the scam when you are buying local currency, and they slip 20,000 kip notes in lieu of 50,000. Every one of those they can fraudulently tender is worth approximately US$4.

 

Café lovers rejoice. Luang Prabang is loaded with options to enjoy coffee as well as Lao/SE Asian or Western food. My two favorites, unoriginally, are Joma and Saffron. Joma is a Canadian owned micro-chain in SE Asia and serves up a pretty healthy menu if you need a break from more indulgent or oil-laden local fare.

 

Breakfast at Zurich Bread cafe

Overall, the charm of this town is its sleepiness. There’s not much here.  The bars are shut by 11 or 11:30 at night.  The attractions are fairly simple (Kuang si waterfall is the most time-consuming, where you’ll want a half-day at least). Come here to rest, rejuvenate, think, reflect, etc.  I should add that if you’re coming from Thailand, Laos will feel as if you’re paying more for less in terms of food, transport, and accommodation.  If you like to sleep in, find lodging on a side street.  Lao people start their day early, and the street noise would have woken me by 6:30 AM if I weren’t up already.  Late risers, consider yourself warned.

Buddhists collecting alms at daybreak

Addedum: After a booking issue with my guesthouse, I moved to the Luang Prabang River Lodge Boutique, a small and charming hotel run by a Lao couple. I could look out my window and see the Mekong or go downstairs and enjoy coffee while banging away at the keyboard.

Malindo Air: RGN – KUL in Business Class

11/12/19 

Cost: US$660 (total RGN-KUL-DPS-BNE)

RGN – KUL

When I was offered the chance to visit Mr Y in Yangon, I largely let the decision hinge on my ability to get out of my original flight ticket on China Southern KMG-CAN-BNE and find a suitable alternative flight from Yangon to Brisbane.

When going through the China Southern online refund process, I discovered that I could obtain a full refund, as the flight schedule had changed – my CAN-BNE flight was leaving 20 minutes later than at the time of booking. Fine. On the other end, I was able to secure a business class ticket on Malindo Air (second chances!) from Yangon to Brisbane for US$660. This price was cheaper than Malaysia Airlines in Economy.  For the record, this included a stopover in Kuala Lumpur or Bali.  As I had been to Bali already this year, I thought I’d see how KL had changed since my last visit.

Check-in & Lounge

Mr Y’s boss & his Mrs kindly ran me from the Chatrium to Yangon airport.  There were two separate security queues to get into the airport, one for local Burmese and foreigners.  The foreigner queue was empty and the security check perfunctory. The local people were subjected to far more scrutiny. This as off-putting.

As my flight left at 11:59 pm that Tuesday, things weren’t rushed. This didn’t seem to be a peak time for operations at RGN.  The other major flight out appeared to be a Korean Air flight that left at 11:30 pm.

Yangon Airport

Upon checking in, I was given a pass RNG’s Mingalabar lounge and my boarding pass to KUL. Fine. 

After going through the concourse, I had low expectations. Relatively minor airports tend to have mediocre lounges. The full, manned bar, multiple buffets, spa, shower facilities, ample seating, and cavernous size surprised me, to say the least.

I nibbled at some food, but I wanted to sleep on the red-eye flight. I ignored the bar and just had a cup of tea. Everything was quite good.  The lounge itself emptied almost fully with the Korean Airlines departure at 11:30 pm.

On Board

 

At the appropriate time, I strolled down to the departure gate. Boarding was called in the usual order (extra time, biz class + elites, economy by row) and was quite orderly. I was happy to finally get on, as there was a delay with the inbound aircraft. I watched the tired Westerners disembark from KUL. 

 

Upon boarding, I was disappointed to see that the cabin which appeared almost empty (3/12 seats selected during online check-in) was in-fact nearly full.

Two factors conspired to make the flight a grind. First, the other J passengers were a boisterous bunch. If I understood Burmese, I’d no doubt have had a rollicking good laugh at their anecdotes, but my God at 2 AM?  Additionally, Malindo in their infinite wisdom opt to do a full dinner service. That meant a minimum two hours with the cabin lights on. I attempted, without success, to anesthetize myself with a warm Tiger beer (Malindo’s signature J class beverage…).

Dinner. I picked at it.

Landing in KUL @ 5 am saw me arrive in a zombie-esque state. I banked on some sleep but got none.  While the seats are comfortable for a 737 lounger, I just couldn’t sleep through dinner lights/noise and passenger conviviality.

After a quick arrival at KUL where the staff were largely asleep, I was took out some Ringgit from an Islamic Development Bank ATM, took a taxi to the Petaling Jaya Hilton, checked in early, and went straight to a long-deserved sleep.

Yangon @ the Chatrium

Rate: US$82++

07/12-11/12

Mr Y had recommended, based on his hotel stays prior to taking up permanent lodgings in Yangon, the Strand and the Chatrium, in that order. The Strand was pricing out at over US$300++ per night, whereas the Chatrium was offering a “solo traveler” package for merely $82++.  Without much hesitation, I booked 4 nights at the Chatrium.

I’ll take a moment to offer praise to the Chatrium for recognizing the needs (and throwing a discount) to the lone wanderer. This rate for lone wolves included breakfast, an early check-in, a late check-out, and minibar privileges for a few bucks per night less than the going room-only rate. 

Arrival at RGN airport was a breeze, and Mr Y ran me to the hotel after a quick lunch stop. [We met his co-workers for a bite at a small Japanese restaurant attached to the Super Hotel in Yangon. Both were oases of Japanese life in SE Asia.  Everything was set up perfectly by Japanese expatriate businessmen for their fellow Japanese. The food was the best Japanese I’ve had since leaving Tokyo, and the prices were exceptionally reasonable – US$7 for a salmon & ikura don.]

 While I had reserved the room on my AMEX via the Chatrium corporate website, I required a Visa or Mastercard to check-in. Not a problem, but a bit odd – I would have expected some fine print or a pop-up ahead of check-in saying that AMEX isn’t accepted at the Yangon property. 

My room was in good order, though the design was quite dated, which isn’t uncommon in Yangon, it seems.  The most obvious sign? The dearth/placement of power outlets.  The set-up of the room was very 2005 in that regard.

I decided to treat my host Y to dinner at my hotel, as they were doing a Japanese buffet.  We’re both Japanese food addicts, by the way. I was content enough, though like any Chinese foodie, he had a litany of critiques.  We enjoyed a bottle of divinely smooth sake, though it came at a price…

The next day, I woke up early to hit the gym, have breakfast, and swim. Running close to sea level after being at 2000m in Kunming felt a bit like being doped (I think) based on speed and stamina versus my “normal” in Kunming. The Chatrium’s gym is set up in an L shaped building separate from the main hotel. One side of the L is the hotel spa, the right angle is the pool bar, and the other side in the gym. Therefore, the room is long albeit rather narrow. I found the machinery to be somewhat dated Precor models, albeit in good condition. 

After a run and subsequent washing-up, I dressed and went down to breakfast.  The hotel offered a buffet of Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Western, and Burmese options ranging from grilled saba, to dim sum, to chicken curry, pad thai, omelets, and pastries, to name a few. Notably, barista coffee was included in the buffet. Overall, I was pleased. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try the more substantial options like Pad Thai or (Indian and Burmese) curries, as I wanted to do some lap swimming later in the morning.

Before my swim, I took care of some client work for a few hours – just the remaining bits before everyone breaks for Christmas/New Year holidays.  The Chatrium’s internet connect was quite fast and stable. I never had any problems during my stay, even though Myanmar has an abysmal reputation in the WiFi speed department.

The Chatrium’s pool proved to be my favorite thing about the hotel.  It was also in an L shape and offered a solid 25m swim if one wanted to do laps. Olympic? No.  Better than the usual hole in the ground that passes for a hotel pool? Yes. I found it very relaxing to swim under the coconut palms and found myself doing 1.5-2.5 km swims, just for the hell of it.

Mr Y collected me around noon, just after I finished at the pool. We went out for dim sum (we’re also dim sum addicts).  He found a Cantonese restaurant that seemed promising. His verdict: excellent duck, passable char siu, mediocre har gow, excellent siu mai. I was rather turned off by a starchiness in the har gow (always a hallmark of mediocrity in dumplings).  I did enjoy the mango-sago-pomelo pudding!

We then went on what my old neighbor in Auckland would call a “tiki tour” around Yangon.  He apologized for the paucity of attractions, but I found it quite interesting.  I find the process of economic development fascinating, so a newly-opened country starting from (close to) zero is a dream come true.  An oddball’s dream, but still a dream.

He showed me the new development north of the lake close to my hotel. A large and shiny Wyndham hotel had just opened. Perhaps I should book there next time?  Downtown Yangon was run down.  Were it restored, it would be a jewel of Asia.  A great many buildings date back to the colonial period and would be stunning were they not blackened and crumbling. The Strand hotel is an example of what the city would look like with some TLC and scrubbing. 

Afterwards we ended up at his favorite bar in downtown. I couldn’t believe the prices – a liter of Glenfiddich 12 cost US$37 at the bar. A spirit-lover would descend into a dissolute alcoholic within weeks. I tried some Burmese food this afternoon and a few days later, and I wasn’t too impressed by it. This was a surprise, as I love Thai and Indian food (two significant culinary influences in Burmese cuisine).

Having rambled on a bit, I want to compress some tl;dr findings:

Do go to the Schwedagon Pagoda complex. It’s great, and tourists are rare. Compared with “templing” in the rest of SE Asia, it’s very unusual to have the opportunity to visit an “active” religious site where worshippers and clergy are the overwhelming majority of those onsite. Compare this with a Thai temple where I am at pains to recall seeing a Thai Buddhist adhere.

Do eat great food. Many cuisines (particularly Thai, Japanese, and Indian) are well-represented in Yangon. The izakayas and sushi spots are amazing value for money.  I’d highly recommend the mini-chain “Ren” (three locations) or the Japanese restaurant at the Super Hotel.

Consider staying outside of downtown. If you aren’t used to very low levels of development (central Bangkok or KL, this is not), the roughness could be very off-putting at first.  A cab ride is US$2-4 on Grab.  On the other hand, Yangon is extremely safe. Violent crime against tourists is virtually unheard of.