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

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

Cost: US$306

My friend: “Who are you flying on?”

Moi: “Malindo Air – a.k.a. Lion Air”

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

“It was nice knowing you. :D”

“WHAT MADE YOU PICK THEM?”

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

“Does Air Asia not fly this route?”

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

As you can see, I survived. 

Corporate Kakistocracy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HKT-KUL

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

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

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

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

Malindo Air Boeing 737-800 parked at Phuket airport

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

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

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

KUL-DPS

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

IFE in J on the Bali leg

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

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

Summary

 

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

 

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

The Phuket Write-Up

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

image of mango sticky rice in thailand

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Surin Beach
Surin Beach

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

 

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

 

We’ll meet again, Phuket.

Of Geese and Apples – Touring Phuket

 

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

A blurry picture of this tale’s hero

Day 1

 

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

 

“How are we getting there,” I ask? 

‘Scooter!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“This isn’t so bad.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Day 2

 

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

 

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

 

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

Surin Beach

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

 

There are far worse purgatories!

 

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

My sexiest shot
Comfortable

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

 

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

The sunset was spectacular
The sunset was spectacular!

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

 

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

 

Day 4

 

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

 

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

View from the Buddha
View from the Buddha

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

Pet the temple kitties

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Three Best Places to Change Money in Hong Kong

Normally, money-changing is about as note-worthy as waiting at the dentist. Occasionally, it’s analogous to the root-canal if you’re bothered to do the math. I recall during my St Andrews days seeing 20 cent spreads on the USD/GBP rate.

 

Hong Kong is a different story. The core neighborhoods are replete with small money changers looking to buy and sell US Dollars, Euros, Yuan, Baht, et cetera. I’ve seldom seen a truly bad deal like you find in the US or Western Europe. As of this writing, one USD buys $7.85, per the Google “spot” rate. The “worst” rate I saw in Tsim Sha Tsui hovered around(1 USD buys) HK$7.50. That’s better than the offer of $1.85 per £1 back (I did not take it) when it was worth $1.70.

 

My go-to is to pay a visit to Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. CM is one of my favorite places in the world. I jokingly refer to it as the Mos Eisley of Hong Kong – a warren of tiny hotels/hostels, African restaurants, Indian/Pakistani snack stalls, convenience stores, electronic shops, and money changers. Learn more here.  I am simultaneously amazed and delighted that it hasn’t been gentrified. 

 

Coming here is a game to me. I always have leftover something-or-other in my wallet, so I read the boards and shop the rates. Typically, the shops nearest the street have the worst rates, while the innermost money changers have the best.

 

On my last visit, Singapore Exchange Co (green sign, a minute’s walk in) had the absolute best rate for USD. I have used them before to sell HKD and buy NZD (a much harder currency to get a good rate for). On this auspicious day, they were selling USD for below spot (7.845 versus 7.861 that day, according to xe.com). I hopped on that right quick.

They were kind enough to round up to $180.

I wondered if there was a similarly good deal Island side. Over a bacchanalian dinner-feast at the Chariot Club, I asked this of my friend’s girlfriend. She mentioned Berlin in central. Their rates explain why, and the queue for service can be quite long. I also found another one (favored for Chinese Yuan exchange) called Ngau Kee

 

If you have a lot to change (thousands of USD or more) or are bored, HK changers are also open to bargaining versus the posted rates. Have fun! Never overpay. 

Picture of lounge champagne

Airline Review: Cathay Dragon HKG-HKT

KA264 Hong Kong (HKG) to Phuket (HKT)

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.

picture of lounge drinks list
The beverage menu at the bar

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.

Legroom shot of Cathay Dragon business class

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).

Pre departure beverage on KA264
My tasty tropical cocktail

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).

First course on KA264

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.

Pork Satay on Cathay Dragon 264

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.

View on descent into Phuket with small islands
The views between Krabi and Phuket were stunning.

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.

Hotel Review: Island Pacific Hong Kong

Rate: US$109.90/nt (hotwire)

 

22 June – 24 June

 

Hello from the other side (of Hong Kong)!

 

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.

pool at the island pacific hotel,hong kong

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.

Shot of dinner at the island pacific thai food buffet

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.

Hotel Review: The Bauhinia (TST)

Rate: HK$550/nt

17 June – 22 June

 

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.

View of the lounge at the Bauhinia hotel in TST

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.

Co-living Review: Chapter 2 Hostel, Tokyo

31 May – 17 June; Rate: ¥3,100 per night (2 week+ stay)

In a classic case of cart-before-horse planning travel planning that I so love, I let flight prices substantially dictate my destination. I couldn’t refuse a fare I found on Swiss to Tokyo. As you might expect, that led to the consequential issue of where I’d say in Tokyo. There wasn’t much of a question of staying there (versus traveling around). I wanted some locational stability, and my friends are in Tokyo. The latter consideration has grown more important to me in recent years.

 

On the surface, Tokyo isn’t a cheap city for accommodation. Hotels are quite expensive for the space you get. The Airbnb properties I looked at were quite peripheral to anywhere I wanted to be. That worked out, given the booking chaos that came to pass during my visit.

 

At some point, my digital nomad research took me to coliving.com. Naturally, I had a look at the offerings in Tokyo. One option was Roam, which was quite expensive (US$2,600/mo). The other was Chapter Two, which was remarkably inexpensive (US$30-ish/nt). As always, I had a look at their website to check the rate of booking direct. As it turned out, I saved a few yen with a direct booking. Yay!

 

Chapter Two’s vibe is part-guesthouse, part-hostel, part-coworking. The pictures on the website exhibited some ingenious design features to maximize space. I decided to gamble on “pod” life (a less sterile take on capsules, which I was curious about trying if only for their quintessential Japanese-ness). The owners, Hiro and Erika, had just opened Chapter Two in March, so I was eager to try a relatively new business.

 

In a fit of flippancy, I did little research into the immediate area. Chapter Two was right above a train station, fairly central, and near numerous food options. Check, check, check.

 

When I arrived at the front door circa noon on May 31, we handled the essential check-in formalities. I had pre-paid via Paypal, but I had to shorten my booking. I was delighted to get a full refund for those five days, which Erika paid in cash. Hiro also surprised me by knowing all the details of my booking. I am so accustomed to Generic Hotel Front Desk that this personal touch had a disarmingly sentimental quality to it.

 

My pod wouldn’t be available until 4 pm, which is fine by me. I just wanted to unburden myself of my baggage and stretch my legs with a stroll around the neighborhood. The 24 hour itinerary from Miami to Tokyo via Zurich gave me a week’s worth of sitting down.

 

After a wee wander around the Sensoji temple, the surrounding area, and a restorative coffee, it was time to settle in. The pod was very private and more spacious than I expected. With a bit of imagination, I was able to unpack my backpack and small roll-aboard with the clothing and personal effects needed for my time in Tokyo. My large bag was stowed in a garage next to the front door.

 

Hiro and Erika have extensive experience in hospitality via Chapter Two’s predecessor and time spent working at a location of the Khaosan hostel chain (where they first met). I found Chapter Two interesting, as the vibe was extremely sedate. This is not a party place (evidenced by the lack of drunk/hungover Australians usually found at hostels). Noise levels at night were zero (yay for sleep).

 

In a conversation in the living room, Hiro told me that he wanted to build a community. I can believe it.  During dinner hours, Hiro and Erika frequently had guests and friends from all over.  The most memorable during my visit was Masa-san, who was the “founder of the feast” on one glorious night, and then on another plied me with fermented sardines. The taste was interesting, but the smell was horrific. That said, I won’t forget it! Any guest is welcome to join them for chat and (frequently) treats.

Hiro displaying a bottle of Chapter 2 sake
Hiro-san and the Chapter 2 sake

The master at work!

 

Various salient info:

The Pod is difficult to describe, so I hope my video + the pictures on their site do it justice. There was a power outlet + usb outlet & a lock box.

 

The cleanliness throughout was stereotypically Japanese – spotless. You would not find a cleaner bathroom at a Conrad or Waldorf (speaking from experience here). The kitchen and common area was also kept similarly perfect.  I noted to Hiro and Erika that coasters would be a great idea, as cold beverages would leave a ring (which I fastidiously tried to wipe up when I had a drink). In 48 hours, coasters materialized. In my observation, this cleanliness is a collective effort.

 

The travelers coming through are really interesting. Masa-san is heavily involved in Ted-X Japan, a Finnish couple were long term travelers – the guy was a walking info-bank of SE Asia travel tips, a Malay-Australian engineer who helped fill in the gaps concerning my knowledge of the Mahathir-Razak relationship, a Tata employee who furnished a bottle of (delicious) Indian chenin blanc, and a blockchain entrepreneur.

 

Coffee & tea are free; a light breakfast (boiled egg, toast, jam) is available in the morning; other beverages are available for purchase (water for ¥100, soda for ¥200, beer for ¥300)

 

Laundry is available onsite. ¥200 to wash; ¥100 per 10 min of drying

 

Wifi is excellent.

 

Hiro and Erika live onsite, and the care they invest in running the place is what you’d expect for someone’s home. This is reflected in the thoughtfulness and quality – recycling wood from the building’s prior business (a party hostel) into the new hostel’s table, quality of kitchen supplies, furniture comfort, etc. I’ve stayed in enough lodging to know what “cheapest stuff from Home Depot” turns out to be, and they opted for the good stuff.

Picture of the chapter 2 living room
Note the alcoves on the right. There is space to sit and work there.

Runners will appreciate the riverside location, as there is a promenade along the river popular with runners and walkers. I found it a great way to start the day. Say hi to the local cats and shiba inu dogs. 😀

picture of a white cat

Any questions about Tokyo life, including the train system, food, bars, interesting places, culture etc will be answered thoroughly and patiently by Hiro and Erika.

 

Asakusa isn’t a famous Tokyo location in the West, but there is a lot to appreciate. You’re within walking distance to awesome cultural sites, great food, and museums. The train connections are solid.

 

Summary: This exceeded my expectations on all fronts. I would not be shocked if this hostel becomes famous to some degree in a short time. You’re getting ryokan-level care for hostel prices in a great location.

Airline Review: Vanilla Air

JW303 NRT-HKG 17 June 2018

Price: ¥17,000 (incl selected seat, 35kg checked baggage)

 

Welcome to my first trip report (ever) featuring an Asian low-cost carrier (LCC).

 

I needed a ticket from Tokyo to Hong Kong, one of the most trafficked routes in East Asia. During this time of year, the full-service carriers wanted over $400 for the route. So much for Japan Airlines, ANA, and Cathay. However, Vanilla Air (JW) returned a rate of a bit over $100. I didn’t much feel like paying $300 and requiring a change in South Korea or mainland China, so my option (singular) was clear.

 

JW is a relatively new airline (founded 2013) and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of ANA. Interestingly, Vanilla Air is a rebranding of AirAsia Japan after the Malaysian parent company pulled out.

 

I decided to ticket directly with the airline, and I opted for a more inclusive fare with 20kg of baggage and a selected seat bundled in. Fine. I did have to buy another 15kg to accommodate my worldly goods.

 

On the day of travel, I hopped on the Limited Express train connecting Haneda and Narita airports via (among other stops) Asakusa. I loved having a direct, inexpensive (¥1,290) train to the airport.

 

JW uses Terminal 3 at Narita. It’s obvious from the list of carriers (incl Jetstar, Jeju air) that this is the “LCC terminal” of NRT. It’s also a 730m/half mile walk from the NRT Terminal 2/3 train station.

 

After changing my leftover Yen to USD, I walked to terminal 3. In airports, I enjoy the exercise before forced confinement. Terminal 3 lacks a priority pass lounge, and I wouldn’t have had time to enjoy it, at any rate. Check-in was quite old-fashioned – queuing up and waiting. It was slow. The main delay seemed to come from delays in checking in passengers who needed to pay extra fees (e.g. baggage) yet didn’t speak moderate-to-fluent English or Japanese. I wasn’t checked in until 5 minutes after the alleged 50-minute cut-off. 

 

The security experience mirrored the check-in, but I didn’t mind the wait too much as it lacked the uniquely American mixture of incompetence, contempt, and aggression.

 

By the time I walked from security to the gate, the time for boarding had arrived. For what appeared to be a plane of leisure travelers, the boarding was remarkably efficient. My fellow flyers deserve a kudos for being quick to stow their bags and sit. 

 

This plane was a 180 seat in Y Airbus A320 with a knee-crushing 29.5” seat pitch. At 5’10” (or 179 cm, if you prefer) fellow, I was at the limit of space. May your God(dess)(e)(s) of choice have mercy on you if you are taller than I am.

 

vanilla air legroom shot

 

After a 30 minute taxi around Narita, we were in the air by 11:15 AM. In short order, inflight service began. I was quite hungry, so I ordered Seabura Pork Ramen (i.e. cup noodles), a teriyaki chicken burger, and a bottle of water for ¥1,200. I needed to bill ¥1,000 or more to use a credit card, hence the double food items.

 

The ramen was surprisingly good for something out of a Styrofoam cup. For reasons beyond my ken, a cheese sauce was present on the burger (cheese…on chicken teriyaki? WHY?!). Note: I hate all cheese equally. Also, they managed to over-microwave it. 

 

The seats are rock hard. Fortunately, I was so tired from my last night of dining in Ginza and a farewell drink in Roppongi that I cat napped for the last two hours of the flight. My lower back and neck were not happy with me.

 

Vanilla Air cabin interior

 

The flight attendants were excellent and polished.

 

Right on time, we were in Hong Kong for 2:45 in the afternoon. I breezed through immigration, fetched my bags, and was on my way.

 

picture of the view from the wing

fried chicken onigiri

Tokyo for Digital Nomads

My first stop as a digital nomad (aka Expat 2.0) was Tokyo. I was quite interested to survey it from the perspective of a digital nomad. Most feedback I received from other Americans had to be considered in the context of said Americans visiting as 4-5 star premium/luxury tourists.  My other sources were Australians and New Zealanders going on ski holidays in Hokkaido. How would Tokyo be from the perspective of someone not frittering away ¥10,000 notes ($90) on every meal with the time to relax and enjoy the city? 

 

I offer a quick guide based on my observations and experiences of a couple of weeks. I’ve tried to cover certain basics. Your mileage may vary, so to speak.

Location

 

 I based myself at Chapter Two Hostel, located in Asakusa steps from the local train station. I avoided the much more famous districts of Ginza and Rappongi. The former reminds me of Fifth Avenue near Central Park, and the latter of Times Square (i.e. tons of tourists clogging the streets). My accommodation cost ¥3,100 per night. My rate was somewhat reduced as I had booked in excess of two weeks. A light breakfast (boiled egg + toast) was put out in the common area each morning.

Transport Costs

 

Subway/train rides tended to run ¥200-700. The 700-ish ride took me from Tokyo to visit my friend in Yokohama. A number of different companies serve Tokyo, so hopping A-B on Company 1 and taking B-C on Company 2 means that you’re paying fares to both. It’s important to note that there is no maximum daily fare, so a tourist frenetically rushing around Tokyo could run up high charges on their card. (Note: get a SUICA/PASMO card for your stay. It works on all trains and can be used at convenience stores for purchases).

 

The limited express train running between Narita and Haneda costs ¥1,290 to Asakusa. The faster Narita Express runs ¥2600-ish.

 

Taxis tend to be cheap for short rides, but rapidly go up in price if taken at night or for trips over 4km.

 

Accommodation

 

Variable, in a word. In my own searches and chats with other travelers, hostels and other shared accommodation starts at US$25/day. Private hotel rooms start at $60, though at that price, they’re small enough to feel quite cramped if two people are traveling. Airbnb in Japan is in turmoil right now, with many bookings being cancelled and throwing travel plans into chaos.

 

Food

 

This part is the most variable (that word, again), and in my opinion, the area most laden with misconceptions. I would remind my readers here that my perception of cost is colored by my American upbringing. I found ample options at every price range from ¥300 lunches up to many thousands of yen.

 

Assuming that you aren’t cooking for yourself for whatever reason (lack of desire or access to a full kitchen should cover most possibilities), the cheapest eats come from your nearby convenience store (konbini) – 7/11, Family Mart, and Lawson.   Fresh fruit, hot foods, take-away meals like katsu curry, spaghetti, salad, dumplings, and onigiri (filled rice balls) await your pleasure. Expect to pay ¥100-180 per onigiri, ¥280-300 for a can of Sapporo/Asahi/Kirin beer, ¥400-530 for a sushi, karaage, or curry meal, and ¥105 for a banana.

Tokyo seven eleven storepicture of lawson convenience store

 

At the next level are quick-bite restaurants that serve roughly the same function as a US diner: cheap, fast comfort food. Ramen & gyoza restaurants are by far the most common. Other small noodle and onigiri restaurants fall in this category. A meal will run you ¥400-1000, with ramen tending on the cheaper side. Kaiten (conveyor) sushi and premium quality noodles (yes, there is a perceptible difference between a ¥1100 bowl of “good” soba/tan tan/udon versus ¥450 ramen vs cup noodles) occupy the next level between ¥1000-2000 depending on location, ingredients, and your appetite.

standing sushi

 

Before this drags on, the quick summary: pick a sum between 500 and 50,000 yen, and you’ll find lots of tasty options.

 

Drink

 

 This wasn’t a huge area for me, but I’ll pass on what limited info I picked up. Most of what I drank here was sake. I was in Japan, after all. Sake at a restaurant typically began at ¥650 and went all the way up. A premium sake like Hakkaisan (my favorite) would cost ¥1300 for a 180mL portion. I didn’t do much cost research on bottles to bring home, as I tend not to drink solo at home.

Hakkaisan sake

 Beer at a konbini ran ¥280-300 per can. Out and about, ¥300 for a cheap mug/happy hour is the bottom end, whereas my most expensive turned out to be ¥1000 at a in Roppongi. The overwhelmingly common price was ¥500-700 depending on size. Note: these prices were for Japanese domestic beer. Expect to pay a considerable premium for craft and import.

 

Internet

 

 I found the process of a sim card byzantine and expensive considering phone band compatibility and the ¥3000 for the card. I elected to go with scrounging whatever wifi I could. This turned out to be a reasonably doable option for a short-term visit. I found internet at convenience stores, train stations, restaurants, Starbucks (as always), museums, and around major landmarks. Free. I had one situation in 3 weeks where I was cursing at my ill-luck, which is remarkably excellent in the greater scheme of life (for me). Otherwise, connectivity of some sort is fast, stable, and nearly ubiquitous.

 

Coffee

 

 I am embarrassed to admit that I did not get to assess this part. Caffeine is ubiquitous, but I was turned off of visiting cafes, as ¥500 for a basic beverage was standard at an independent café.  $4.50 for an Americano is a turn-off. 

 

Down Time

 

This is where Tokyo shines. When I wanted to get away from my screen in order to rest my eyeballs and refresh my brain, Tokyo delivered numerous options.  I found the Asakusa area jam-packed with stuff. Sensoji temple merited a wander or two. My favorite option included exploring one of Ueno Park’s attractions on a given day. There’s a shrine/temple for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the zoo, and multiple museums covering modern art, Euro-American/western art, Asian art, Japanese artifacts, natural history. The Tokyo National Museum and Ieyasu’s shrine are personal favorites. 

samurai armor picture

 

Beyond the big stuff, I highly recommend walking around and exploring. I “found” small shrines, parks, and public gardens. It helps to be in an old district of Tokyo, I suppose, but I loved stumbling on a small park or garden. 

Ueno Toshogu shrine to tokugawa ieyasu
Ieyasu’s Shrine