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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Itinerary: HKT-KUL-DPS (Phuket to Bali via Kuala Lumpur)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
See a sample price list below (your mileage may vary):
Location & Price (in Baht)
Local beer (sm)
55 – 110
Fuel (per liter)
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.
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.
9,000 BA Avios + US$164 (Business class redemption)
Another great visit to Hong Kong had wrapped up, and it was time to go on to my next destination. I had an award redemption ticket on Cathay Dragon (KA) booked via my British Airways account.
After a minute or so handling check-out formalities at the Island Pacific, I took a cab to Hong Kong station to catch the Airport Express.
At Hong Kong and Kowloon stations, a facility known as “in-town check-in” exists, wherein you handle your check-in formalities at the station, receive your boarding passes, and hand over checked-baggage. Many airlines (list here) offer this service. Naturally the home team Cathay Pacific/Cathay Dragon is one of them.
By coincidence, the business class check-in line was the busiest versus economy and first. I suppose that’s what you get for checking in on Hong Kong island. My agent advised me that the flight would be delayed by a half hour. Oh quelle horreur, I am going to have an extra half-hour of champagne and dim sum time in the Cathay lounge.
The journey takes less than a half-hour from Central, and with my documents in hand, I head straight over to security and exit immigration (south), which aren’t too busy circa 11:30 AM on a Sunday. The addition of automated gates capable of reading an electronic passport have been very helpful, I guess.
My departure gate was 31, today. Cathay lounges are found by gate 1 (The Wing), 65 (the Pier), 16 (the Deck) and 35 (the Bridge). I opted for the Pier, with its tea house, noodle bar, and barista coffee facilities. The full run-down of Cathay lounges in HKG can be found here.
It was a decent walk, but the reward justified it. After an early start (sans food) for a couple of phone calls to the US, my stomach demanded food. After a pit-stop at the bar for a glass of champagne (GH Mumm), I went to the noodle bar for fresh-steamed pork & vegetable buns, siu mai, and noodles. I quite enjoyed the buns, but the siu mai were decidedly “mass produced” rather than “nice dim sum” in overall flavor and texture. Flyertalk noted that this coincided with the handover of Cathay’s lounge catering to Sodexo. You might recognize the name as your alma mater’s dining operator.
After another round and some (quite nice) dragon fruit for dessert, it was time for the hike back to gate 31. Just as I arrived, the business class queue was being boarded. They must have known that I was coming.
KA (formerly Dragonair) uses a 2-2-2 recliner configuration in business class. The seat is more than roomy enough for the regional routes flown by KA. HKG-HKT is only 3 hours. That said, the frequent flyer community does note that it is a downgrade versus Cathay Pacific’s long-haul 1-2-1 business product.
If you’re wondering, KA is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cathay Pacific. It is decidedly *not* a low-cost carrier by any means, considering the price to fly, in-flight service, baggage allowance, etc. You will find some smaller blogs out there calling it a low-cost. They are wrong.
Back to our originally scheduled programming!
I took a copy of the Sunday edition of the South China Morning Post and navigated to 15H, and aisle seat on the right side of the aircraft (an A330-300). The flight attendants made *two* beverage runs before departure, so I helped myself to what tasted like an orange-mango-champagne cocktail. I do believe that the first few sips would have covered my weekly dose of Vitamin S(ugar).
After a brief update by the Australian pilot and perusing the paper (complete with the customary lamentations about the Hong Kong residential real estate market), we were in the air.
As soon as we passed 10,000 ft, the flight attendants distributed menus and took drink orders. Champagne (Taittinger) and Earl Grey tea for me, please.
The selection for lunch included prawns in cream over pasta, sliced lemon chicken, and pork satay with nasi goreng. I opted for the latter, though the FA advised me that it would be spicy. Given that Cathay catering tends to be very restrained in the flavor department, “YAY!” The starters included a small salad and beef medallions for an appetizer. The FAs also came around with bread (I went for garlic).
The pork was perfectly tender, and giving the rice a 3-4 out of 10 on the spice scale would be generous. This was an utterly unnecessary meal, but I needed to have a bite so that I could pass on my findings to you, the reader.
For dessert, various Haagen Dazs (I believe) ice creams came around. I declined, as I am not a big HD fan.
Coffee and tea were offered, so I took some more Earl Grey.
During the last hour, I decided to “test” the crew – again for science, for your benefit – by pressing the champagne button (aka the call button) for one last glass. As with Cathay mainline flights, the crew was incredibly prompt. It’s moments like this where one doesn’t miss US carrier service.
Our arrival in Phuket was non-descript, and my bags were among the first off the carousel, so everything ended on a strong note. Now I have one month of Thai food to look forward to.
My time at this hotel was originally all that I had allotted myself for seeing HK and my friends here. I booked this room to be relatively close to a friend in Sheung Wan and the others in Central. The only minor nuisance was that this super-secret “we tell you the exact hotel after booking” Hotwire rate was available via ctrip. -_-
Nevertheless, great plan: near friends, on a weekend. In a hilarious twist of fate, one friend ended up being out of HK at this time, another didn’t have weekends free, and another’s career here makes the week a much better time to visit. On the other hand, the visa processing had to wait until I arrive in Phuket on the 24th. A certain document usually only requested for long-term study visas seems to be an unstated required document for my short-term one (or perhaps for US passport holders) as per the limited, terse feedback from a colleague’s recommended agent.
C’est la guerre.
I arrived at the hotel on Friday at half-past noon. By the standards of a hotel guest checking in on a third party, bottom-dollar rate, this is incorrigible. US hotels, in my experience, are relatively non-accommodating barring elite status. Even with diamond status with Hilton, the verbiage is enough to make me wonder if the room assigned early was worth the sacrifice of the world’s last unicorn.
This room is classically Hong Kong Island-sized: small. When put down, my bags turned the narrow path from the door to the bed into a maze.
While the furnishings and fittings are in good condition, the décor is quite dated. It reminds me, pre-renovation, of an apartment property my grandparents bought (for upmarket old people): dimly lit, carpet, vague gold and wood tones, green marble in the bathroom. I can’t remember when I last saw an analog thermostat in a business hotel.
The bar is quite popular here, as the enormous television is perfect for the World Cup viewing.
The gym is roughly closet sized, with four cardio machines and a multi-use-weight-thing. The presence of the pool somewhat makes up for the sad workout facilities.
I did wander down to the Thai Seafood Dinner buffet, which was HK$450, less 30% hotel guest discount, +10% service charge (roughly $350). I quite enjoyed the food, and I got to tick off a “did a hotel buffet” off the list, for considerably less than I am accustomed to seeing. In TST, Causeway Bay, and Central, the rate would be $550-800’ish for dinner.
What I am most grateful to the hotel for is a chance to rejuvenate. I had been at my computer quite a bit, out walking/running for 10mi/15km per day in a humid 31C/87F, and partied like a rockstar banker with a friend in Lan Kwai Fong over the week. I needed a long sleep. The comfortable bed did the trick.
The Sai Ying Pun MTR stop is quite close by, only a couple minutes’ walk from the hotel front door. The local area contains many small eateries, convenience stores, and a grocer.
Summary: This room is small, but comfortable. There are better values in HK – definitely if you’re willing/able to go to Kowloon side.
As usual, my journey from HK Airport into town was effortless. HK$100 and I was zipping in on a nearly-empty train to Kowloon station. From there, I elected to hire a cab to the Bauhinia hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST).
I managed to score a great rate of HK$550/night ($70) for the property, including all-day access to a lounge serving tea, coffee, water, juice, and snacks (fruit, bread, crackers, sweets). This is half the rate I’d expect for a business-class hotel in TST, but there was some significant exterior construction going on, hence the rate reduction. If you need to sleep between 10 – 1700, you’d need some serious earplugs.
I found the room (HK) spacious and apparently quite recently renovated, if I had to gauge from the condition of the flooring, furniture, and bathroom. That the room had more than a 30cm/1’ gap between the bed and wall to walk is amazing at that price range. It’s not hard to spend well over one HK “kilo-dollar” on a modern room with space to move. For the sake of comparison, wait and see my report of the room I am currently in, the Island Pacific in Sheung Wan.
The wifi was more than adequate all over the hotel. Once again, I forgot to speedtest.net the wifi. SORRY!
After depositing my bags, I went down to the lounge, open from 7:30 – 22:30. One could reasonably note that this is a relatively late start if you need to be on a morning flight. At breakfast, they put out apples, cupcakes, and bread rolls. Tea, coffee, juice, and water are available all day, as are small Japanese chewy sweets. Copies of the NY Times, South China Morning Post, and a couple of Chinese-language papers/magazines are on the bar seating by the window.
The coffee machine produced a surprisingly drinkable brew. I have become accustomed to instant-flavor coffee, but I believe that this one was actually grinding espresso beans. Of course, it wasn’t up to what I had at Coco Espresso with my expat friend J, but my expectations for a “free” drink differ from a HK$30-40 (US$3.75 – $5) cup.
The air conditioning was extremely effective, which I welcomed in Hong Kong’s swamp-like heat and humidity.
I found the beds to be on the hard side. Then again, I am an American accustomed to sleeping on marshmallow-esque mattresses, so take that with a grain of salt.
Being that this is TST, I was surrounded by eateries and services. I availed myself of the laundry shop across the street, which overcharged me (charging dry-clean rates to launder some items). Restaurants abounded ranging from Western, to Korean, Indian, Cantonese, etc. I particularly enjoyed a “佳記茶餐廳” (Kai Kee) on Kimberley Rd as well as nearby Yuan Kee for BBQ.
In short: I’d have no problem staying again if I needed/wanted a room in TST.