Author: James

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.

Air China J: KMG – RGN

7 Dec 18

Check-in & Lounge

 

By this point, Mr Y had told me to visit Yangon multiple times. However, I already held a flight ticket out of China to Australia on China Southern.  These sort of changes usually involve getting nothing in return for my sunk costs.  I decided to have a look at the various flight prices.  While I wasn’t happy with the cost to Yangon from Kunming, a small schedule change on China Southern meant that I could have my ticket refunded in its entirety.

Further, I was able to secure a cheap ticket from Yangon to Australia on Malindo Air business class, which was actually cheaper than the economy options on Singapore, Thai, or Malaysian. Fine. 2 of the 3 components of this adventure were far better than expected.  I made the change and found myself suitable lodgings at the Chatrium Yangon.

At the airport, the mass of travelers had spread themselves to all check-in queues.  Several people were in front of me at the business line. I snapped a photo and sent it to Mr Y, who had a number of uncharitable comments to make at the expense of Kunming provincials and their literacy. (To a Shanghainese, Yunnan is the equivalent of ‘Flyover Country’ in the US.)

The queue of apparent illiterates

I found myself getting aboard his train of thought as I found myself declining the service of black-market FOREX touts soliciting business from the queued travelers.

Nonetheless, I passed through the near-empty exit immigration and security. There was no need for VIP/biz class express privileges. There were less than half a dozen of us travelers being processed at one time. Within minutes, I was in the cavernous but sleepy international departure wing of Kunming airport.

I visited VIP lounge number 1, a contract lounge used by Air China, Thai, Cathay Dragon, and others.  The decorator’s taste could best be described as grandmotherly.  Hot water machines were in abundance, and there was a small offering of sandwiches, soda, bottled water, and cupcakes.  I took a bottle of water and brewed some Pu’er tea. 

After about 45 minutes, an attendant informed me that my flight had begun boarding.  Gate 70, mine for today, was only a short walk from the lounge. I arrived to find that most passengers had already boarded.  I thus took my seat and wasn’t disturbed by a full planeload (as this was an A319-100, there weren’t many of us).

On Board

 

Having boarded, a flight attendant welcomed me with a hot towel and a platter of beverages to choose from.  This seemed excessive for a cabin, so far, with an occupancy of one. Rather than ask me beforehand, she presented me with a choice of water, juices, and champagne. Naturally, I opted for champagne.  While my prior flights on China Eastern struck me as perfectly decent, their service omitted this most civilized pleasure.

Bourgeois Delight

Later, two more gents boarded, giving a business class load of 3/8 for this flight.

The plane itself was in decent condition. I noticed a touchscreen monitor to control cabin lights, but the cabin itself was very “base model.” My seat was a mechanically controlled, rather than electronically. The center console/table between the biz seats looked dirty but was in fact just “aged.” Nonetheless, my seat was comfortable enough for a 2-hour flight.

Eminently man-spreadable

I was presented with an overly substantial lunch that I wasn’t entirely up to eating. The food was fine, but it was too much.  There was garlic bread, meat rilettes, Yunnan-style sour fungus (more appetizing than it sounds), the chicken & mushroom main course, steamed rice, and fruit.  The quantity would have sufficed for an intercontinental J service, if you count the fruit as dessert.  My lunch was edible and forgettable.

The kulak class meal

I did finish off the champagne.  It seems as if they only keep a half bottle (375ml) on board.

I found the service quite good.  Notably, I can’t comment on the FAs English skills.  Once it was obvious that I could speak some (rudimentary) Chinese, the crew exclusively used Chinese to communicate with me.  I was delighted for the practice.

Arrival

 

Arrival in Yangon was easy.  Immigration was completely empty. No passengers. I was the first off the plane and the first to pass immigration, which had a dozen desks manned for…no one. Oh, US airports could learn something…  Customs was a non-issue. My friend advised me to walk through, as they wouldn’t dare to stop me. That was a new experience. (I was concerned, as they want you to declare gold/jewelry/valuables that are entering temporarily, which is a tad…invasive and problematic from a definitional point of view. E.g., does my computer count because of its original retail value, or not so much due to use/physical wear/tear?)

Overall: The flight was quite good.  The price was higher than I prefer to pay for a short regional (Economy was $180, plus another $80 for my second bag or $280 for business, hence my location), but this route is an effective duopoly between China Eastern and Air China. 2 hours of “real world” Chinese practice has some value, and I did enjoy some unexpected free champagne, so I am pleased with what I received considering market prices.

My First Time on a Mainland Chinese Carrier: China Eastern to Kunming

 

Bangkok BKK – Kunming KMG; $250, business class, 26 August

 

I didn’t know what to expect in terms of routing on my way to Kunming to BKK.  It turned out unexpectedly that Kunming is a “focus city”[i] for China Eastern (MU). Cool. Also, they were selling a business class ticket for the same price as a Thai economy ticket. Well, I was sold.

 

That said, MU has a reputation that is most succinctly described as “shitty.” Given the relative complaint ratios, MU could be thought of as United with Chinese Characteristics – pilots smoking in the cabin, unruly passengers, dingy planes from the Reagan/Deng Xiaoping era, inedible food, et cetera. Did that deter me? Of course not!

 

Circa 1:30 pm, I caught a Grab[ii] car from the Millennium Hilton to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport. I enjoyed the no-hassle fair price of paying 450 baht (billed to my US Amex, btw) versus haggling with a Bangkok taxi driver.

 

I went to the business class counter where the MU ground staff efficiently checked me in at the empty Biz class counter. She explained that MU uses the Thai Airways business lounge and pointed out the one closest to my departure gate.  Quelle surprise! I was expecting some mediocre contract lounge with cold coffee and staff that despises you. I was not expected a non-allied (Thai is Star Alliance, MU Skyteam) carrier’s home airport flagship lounges.

 

I changed my last remaining Thai Baht to Chinese RMB and breezed through premium security. Making my way to the lounge, I enjoyed a Thai chicken curry, a couple of Singha beers, and these delicate Thai desserts – mung bean paste molded into the shape of other fruits – peaches and cherries. Well done. The internet connection in the lounge allowed me to easily do some light browsing and whatsapp chatting. 

View of the Thai Airways business class lounge in Bangkok

At boarding time, I made my way to the gate just as boarding for biz class passengers was called.  I found myself on a perfectly adequate plane – certainly not a museum exhibit from the 80s. That said, it wasn’t a brand new delivery, either. The crew offered me a pre-departure drink (water or juice, I opted for water) and a warm towel. So far so good. I found the seat pitch to be suitably generous for the domestic and regional flights that these aircraft serve.

Seat pitch on China Easter's 737 business class

After take-off, I decided that a Tsingtao beer was in order, which required ice as it was warm.   The propaganda in the above newspaper drove  me to drink. This moment marked the beginning of my adjustment to particularities of life in China. 

Tsingtao beer with a glass of ice on my flight

Inflight service consisted of a Chinese chicken dish with rice, veggies, salad, fruit, and dessert.  This blows away what you get on non-JFK/BOS/WAS to LAX/SFO US premium class services. I love those mung bean desserts shaped into miniature fruit. 

Business class meal on China Eastern Bangkok to Kunming

 

IFE was on overhead screens, so I needed to check my phone to know where we were (GPS vaguely works in airplane mode).  I did enjoy what I think were views of the Mekong river in Laos.

A big river in Laos, maybe the Mekong

Upon arrival, we parked at a remote stand. Economy passengers went into a bus, and Biz passengers into a van. I have come to be thankful for that van. (Stay tuned for my intra-China adventures).

Business class bus KMG

Baggage collection turned out to be interesting. I noticed that myself and a few others all had their bags.  Surprise: we unhappy few who remained were all biz passengers.  I was tempted to make a joke about class warfare/flying in kulak class to the PRC. We commiserated and discussed the next step. I thought back to my arrival in Bali, and went over to another belt. There, I found our bags spinning around all alone. I waved my new acquaintances over while holding up my recovered chattels. 

 

A brief wait in the taxi queue, I was in a cab, and 40 minutes later, I crossed the threshold of my home for the next four months.

[i] A city that’s not quite a major hub, but is a significant point in a carrier’s network.

[ii] Like Uber, but in SE Asia. There is a long and storied history of those companies’ cutthroat competition.

Review: Millennium Hilton Bangkok

Rate: 108,000 points for 5 nights [pay 4, get the 5th night free]

Standard King – Room Booked; Executive King – Room Received

 

Introduction & Room

 

I am fond of the Millennium Hilton (MH). Rates are quite affordable, the views from the lounge are excellent, and it’s in an ideal location for most Bangkok tourists. Diamond treatment has historically been generous re: suite upgrades.  Sadly, I didn’t luck out, as the hotel sold out several days prior to arrival.  For reasons unexplained, a great deal of upper-end hotel inventory throughout Bangkok sold out for the week that I was in town.  I was limited to the statutory exec floor upgrade (I booked a standard king room, as usual). Unusually, the staff were pro-actively apologetic.

 

I was given a recently renovated room on an Executive-level floor.  The espresso machine and rainfall shower were appreciated. 

 

Location

 

The location evokes a love-it-or-hate-it from those who have stayed or are considering it.  It’s on the west side of the Chao Phraya and would require a taxi or BTS ride into the luxury shopping/restaurant/business/embassy district around Sukhumvit Rd. Having paid a visit to that district 3 years ago, I found it boring.  If I want expensive Western food, Starbucks, and luxury shopping, I’d rather freewheel around Singapore or Hong Kong.

 

On the other hand , the river gives access to the Palace, various temples, Khao San Rd & Thammasat University, Silom, Chinatown, and various riverside shopping and dining developments. Most of Bangkok’s must-sees are along the river. The premium and luxury leisure-oriented[i] properties tend to be here as well, including the MH, the Peninsula, the Anantara and the Mandarin Oriental.  The hotels are quite comfortable in terms of having excellent gyms, spas, and pools, so the properties can feel like an urban “resort.” I had been burning the candle at both ends in Bali getting some stuff done for clients, and I knew that my upcoming Chinese course would be taxing, so this was perfect for me.

Looking up river at the MH

The hotel’s own boat shuttles guests to the nearest BTS (metro railway) stop as well as Riverfire.  A public boat shuttles guests from the MH to the River City shopping mall.  One can walk/taxi to Silom, Chinatown (as well as points beyond), or they can catch the tourist and public boats going up and down the river.

Pool & Gym

 

The pool area tries to mimic a beach experience with large sheltered beds/couches (great for a couple) and setting sun loungers in a few inches of shallow water. The pool itself is significantly sheltered from overhead. This is often polarizing on Tripadvisor reviews, as some think the water would be a bit warmer if exposed to sun.  As a very pale ginger, I appreciated being able to swim in the shade and not increase my skin cancer risk. For those keen to light money on fire, two staff are on hand to fix you up with a US$10 fruit plate, $5 coffee, or a $6 beer served poolside. 

The Millennium Hilton Bangkok's Pool Area

One could say that the pool is dated in comparison with more contemporary infinity pool designs in this market segment, but I was happy with the comfortable furniture options (table & chairs, sun loungers, bean bag seating, and cabanas)

                                                                                                                                                                              

View from the pool

The adjacent gym is expansive with free weights, resistance machines, and numerous cardio machines.  A separate area downstairs is an open studio room if you need space for another routine (e.g. yoga, stretching, etc). Spa quality locker-rooms offer large a jacuzzi tub as well as dry-sauna and steam rooms in the men’s and women’s locker rooms. The facilities were in an immaculate state of repair, spotlessly clean, and spacious.  I developed  a great morning routine of setting the treadmill to show me courses of New Zealand before hitting the dry sauna

Dining

The Exec Lounge

 

The crown jewel of the property, the exec lounge view over Bangkok tends to wow visitors. The other guests found the view addicting, and guests often took full advantage of breakfast, afternoon tea, and evening cocktail services.

 

As a diamond, I could take breakfast in the lounge or main restaurant, or both – if you wished to indulge your inner hobbit. The exec lounge spread included veggie and tamago/egg sushi, smoked meats and seafood (mackerel & salmon), eggs cooked to order + egg of the day, miso soup, Chinese-style fried rice, steamed dim sum (custard bao and red bean bao), sausage & bacon, breads, and various patisserie treats. (Note: the Asian breakfast items slant heavily Chinese, likely to accommodate the exploding number of Chinese tourists heading to Thailand)

Ready for breakfast at the Millennium Hilton Exec Lounge

 Outstanding mention goes to:  The egg benedict served on a waffle with smoked salmon was divine, and the MH’s in-house bakery does one of the best rye breads I have eaten west of San Francisco and east of Frankfurt (Germany).   As you’d expect, the ample fruit was of excellent quality.  This is Thailand, after all.

The Millennium Hilton Executive Lounge's waffle benedict

Afternoon tea: The lounge sourced its treats from the hotel’s main restaurant and Chinese restaurant. I found the scones to be quite good. I appreciated the decent quality (probably imported) jam and cream. Savory items include various rotating sandwiches (chicken salad, egg salad, cheese, salmon & cream cheese, etc) curry puffs, and quiches appeared.  Asian fusion cakes such as mango mousse and yuzu were present, in addition to Cantonese mango pudding (kudos to the onsite Chinese restaurant).

Millennium afternoon tea with scone and chopped dragonfruit

I often skip afternoon tea, as many hotel lounges phone it in with meagre, low quality, and sometimes outright stale carbs. This was practically Carbfest 2018, but I do let myself enjoy the really high-quality stuff. I have no shame in admitting how happy I was to get a decent chicken salad sandwich. [The last decent one I had was in December 2017 in Lexington, KY @ Tackhouse Coffee & Pub.]

 

Cocktail Hour: I noticed that since my last visit, the hotel switched a major beverage contract to Singha. In the past, I had Chang here. I prefer Singha. Also, the spirits in the cocktails have been upgraded from well to mid-shelf (e.g. Absolut for vodka cocktails). The wine won’t wow you, but the Chilean red was a very pleasant drink.

 

The food offerings included baguettes, a cheese plate (fine, but not exceptional according to a German couple I chatted with), fruit, crudites, and various Asian and western hot/cold canapes. Examples include: spicy fruit salad, Thai pork croquettes, duck salad shooters, and on a night with lots of kids, platters of chicken nuggets. Some carb was also present, such as pasta or fried rice.

Singha Beer in the millennium hilton executive lounge
Obligatory

Verdict: The food and beverage are of solid quality[ii] and blow a US Hilton out of the water. To do better, you’d need to hit up a luxury brand, e.g. St Regis, Conrad, Ritz-Carlton, Peninsula, W, et cetera.

 

Above all, the view wins. Enjoying a nice cocktail or cold beer watching the sun set and the lights turn on is profoundly relaxing.

View from the Millennium Hilton Bangkok Executive Lounge during sunset

Riverside Restaurant

 

The Riverside Café is the MH’s main restaurant offering buffet or a la carte options. I opted to do the buffet dinner for two nights, though I had an ace up my sleeve. Eatigo is a restaurant booking app in SE Asia and Hong Kong that allows diners to snag up to 50% off depending on the time they book.  The app requires all participating restaurants to offer at least one time slot per day at the 50% off rate. Thanks to this, I enjoyed two excellent dinners with sushi, oysters, and an amazing dessert bar for US$24 and earned Honors points, as I billed the dinner to my room. [Note: depending on who you ask, the value of points earned – considering elite bonuses and bonuses for paying with a Hilton Amex – can be worth as much as 25% of the overall dollars spent]

MANGO STICKY RICE!!!
Go ahead, judge me.

I ended up doing this on Tuesday when I arrived (incidentally would have been my late mother’s 60th birthday) and on Saturday night.

 

Some dinner highlights: delicious salmon, butterfish, and tamago/egg nigiri sushi, butterfish & Hamachi sashimi, decadent mango prawn curry & other thai delights, and all-you-can-gorge mango sticky rice.  Cheese lovers will likely enjoy being unleashed in the adjoining cheese room, featuring cheesy temptations from around the world.  Overall, I noted a raw bar (prawn/oysters), Thai, Japanese (sushi, sashimi, tempura), Indian, Western/European, dessert (western & Thai + ice cream & mango sticky rice), and the cheese room.

Dessert Buffet, Thai Section
The Cheese Room

 

I took breakfast downstairs for research purposes one morning. It was also overwhelming like dinner. Japanese maki rolls, Chinese dim sum, massive egg station, a panoply of local and imported fruit, breads and pastries left and right, breakfast meats, and other treats were all available for your delectation.The staff brought me a special mini cupcake with an edible (white chocolate?) placard recognizing my diamond membership. If the amazing spread didn’t give you “we’re not in Kansas anymore,” this little bit of recognition would have done it.

MINE

Yuan Chinese restaurant

 

Not wanting to leave you, dear reader, in the lurch, I opted one day to try out the Chinese restaurant’s dim sum a la carte buffet. Once again, I eatigo’ed myself a 50% discount.  The format: they give you a menu. You order whatever you want to your heart’s content. Beyond the standard fare of har gau (shrimp dumplings) and char siu bao (Cantonese BBQ pork buns), I decided to indulge in mango crab spring rolls, foie gras xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), and lobster dumplings with gold leaf.  To wash it down, I had a couple of pots of chrysanthemum tea (teas/soda are included). This meal went down as one of my best $18 (circa THB600) ever spent. Don’t worry, I got my Honors points, as well. 

360 Lounge

 

On my last night in town, I was meeting someone I knew from the co-working spot in Ubud who was passing through. At the end, I suggested a visit to the panoramic view bar at the hotel, the 360 Lounge. The drinks here were 500 baht (US$15) or so, but the cocktails were delicious. It won’t surprise you, but I went for a mango-based beverage. Of the various cities I’ve been too, Bangkok has an attractive skyline to look out over.

 

Summary

 

It’s safe to say that I enjoyed my time here and would return. Overall, it’s a great property regardless of whether you just need a bed to crash on in-between exploring or are looking for a more relaxing experience.

 

[i] While most are familiar with the hierarchy of 1-5 star hotels, there are separate hierarchies within the 4.5 – 5 star range. One can discern a difference between a business and leisure property. The Conrad Hong Kong is very different from the Conrad Koh Samui property, while a boutique private island resort in French Polynesia is another beast altogether, despite all three properties being 5 star. The MH is really an odd hybrid: the hardware is “premium business,” but the location is more suited to tourists than biz travelers.

[ii] Some quibble that the food is geared towards appetizer/amuse bouche portions. 

Impressions of Ubud: The Tourist

I wanted to cover this particular locale in two parts, as I find it would otherwise have turned into an article of unsuitable length. I’ll start with a tourist’s impression, as that would most accurately describe my first week in Ubud. I hope to have the remote worker’s perspective up in short order thereafter.

 

Going exchange rates: US$ 1 = 14,400; £1 = 18,500; AU$1 = 10,500; €1 = 16,500; NZ$1 = 9,500

 

Arrival

 

The arrivals process at the airport is markedly improved versus my first visit 5 years ago. While I have heard that slowdowns can still occur, it’s been the experience of most of my contacts here that they are processed quite quickly.

When going to Ubud, it’s advised to arrange transport prior to arrival.  A fair rate to Ubud is approx. 250-300k, though drivers have been known to ask from 350-500k if you are negotiating at the airport. For those wishing to use a meter taxi, Blue Bird is the go-to in Bali.

Accommodation

Ubud sports a variety of hostels, guesthouses, homestays, private rental, and hotel options for budgets ranging from “shoestring” ($5) to “sybaritic.”

 

I opted for “Dewaput Guest House” – viewable here on AirBNB. I paid circa US$345 for the month for the equivalent of a 3-star hotel room: air conditioning, clean bathroom, desk, a balcony, tea & coffee, and breakfast (fruit + main item) each morning.

The owner, Dewa Put, has a small building within his compound with two such rooms overlooking his Balinese home compound.  It’s beautiful, with a large music pavilion, Dewa’s art studio, multiple homes, two temples, and a traditional kitchen. I learned that Dewa’s mother vastly prefers using the traditional kitchen for cooking, as she finds it healthier to exercise herself building the fire, keeping it clean, and cooking the day’s rice rather than just using, for example, the electric rice cooker Dewa bought for her. I found this anecdote rather relatable.

I fell in love with my accommodations. Dewa is a musician and painter, so it’s ben quite common to take my breakfast while he plays or teaches a student.  It’s the best excuse I’ve had in years in drag out breakfast and linger over cups of tea. Now I can see why many fall in love with Bali. 

 

I asked Dewa about his grandfather’s family – those who built his home. The marble-walled family temple, gilt woodwork on the main temple, and magnificently wrought front-gate piqued my curiosity. “My grandfather was a king with many rice fields in the area.” Oh Adjusting the answer for Western concepts of royalty, I surmised that Grandad was a landed noble (Kshatriya caste) descended from a cadet branch of the Balinese royal family – Dewa Agung.

Coffee

Given what I am accustomed to in SE Asia, Ubud has an incredible array of high quality coffee shops that would seem cheap to a Westerner.  A latte/flat white can be had for 22-25k, less then US$2.  I’ve had local Balinese coffee or black tea for as little as 5,000 rupiah, under 40 US cents.

Some of my favorite cafes:

 

Anuman on Hanuman: This upper story café is easy to miss, but I love the coffee. The food is quite good and very reasonably priced for being on a main drag.  It’s a great place to park yourself and watch the town go by.

Ipong on Hanuman: More great coffee, solid wifi, and a small but tasty menu.  It’s my go-to if I am caffeine-starved and want a nice flat white.

Green Window @ Outpost:  Probably the best coffee of the three. It offers a mostly western food menu with both carnivore and vegetarian options.

Food

One is spoilt for choice in the eating department.  You have excellent local warungs where Ubud’s workers grab a bite after their shift, higher end restaurants, foreign food, and vegan & vegetarian options. 

Warung Wayan: Cheap, tasty local & western food.  Tasty rice pudding (babur injun) 20-30k for most mains

 

White Ginger: This place is my go-to for Balinese crispy duck. I first stumbled in after being put off by Bebek Bengil due to being able to accommodate tour groups (food factory mentality), accepting AMEX (signals “we overcharge”), and a particularly colorful review speculating that their duck had died of a wasting illness.  Mains 65-85k

Golden Monkey: Ubud’s one Chinese restaurant is surprisingly good. The Malaysian chef does wonderful things with dim sum and duck.  I’m bringing Dewa and his Mrs for their AYCE dim sum brunch on Sunday. I almost didn’t try the main restaurant after some disappointment at their “Express” location in Ubud food court.  Main dishes 70-120k

Siam Sally: One of the two big Thai options in town, I found myself in here circa once per week grabbing dessert.  Their mango sticky rice is a nice little treat, particularly after crispy duck.  Mains 70-120k; appetizers and dessert 50-60k

Sitara:  Their curries and naan breads are my favorites in Ubud. I particularly enjoyed the Dal Makhni, eggplant masala, and “black pepper rice.” Mains 65-110k

Sage: Delicious vegan food that combines (primarily) Balinese, Western, and Latin influences. Hats off to their creativity. Expect to pay circa 100k per person (main + drink).

Changing Money in SE Asia

Changing countries begs the question of what I will do with remaining cash. Typically, I face three choices. Do I save it for a future trip, change the leftovers into my next destination’s currency, or change into US dollars?  It’s rare that the first option comes into play.  I’ve found that the second option is usually quite inefficient.

I had a look at what I’d face changing Thai Baht (THB) to Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) ahead of my arrival in Bali.  Phuket lacks a truly excellent foreign exchange option a la superrichthailand.com, so I looked at what the banks charged. [Note: bank rates are typically acceptable.]

Typically acceptable –

I decided to play with the calculator on the Siam Commercial Bank website to see how many IDR I’d get for 3000 THB. SCB would pay 1 million even.  The google exchange rate? 1.3 million for said THB. Ouch.  I looked at the trading spread.  They buy 1 IDR for .002 THB and will sell it for .003.  That’s a significant spread, if you aren’t put off by the weird, almost obfuscatory, calculation of baht per one IDR.  By comparison, changing to USD in Thailand and then using said USD to buy IDR in Indonesia would, if using optimal or close-to-optimal rates might only cost you .5% total versus the spot rates.

I’ve noticed that this holds true for other intra-ASEAN currency exchanges (excepting the Singapore Dollar). The Vietnamese Dong, Philippine Peso, and Malaysian Ringgit also sport a pretty terrible exchange spread.  Note: you’re not going to find easily available info on changing currencies like the Laotian Kip, the Burmese Kyat, or the Cambodian Riel.

Categories: money Travel Tips Ubud