ironmanjt

Dec 132019
 


Despite not even being 5pm, it was completely dark, so I didn’t get to see too much on my shuttle ride to the hotel. When I checked in, fortunately, my big box of warmies was waiting at the front desk for me. I’m amazed just how many stickers it takes to ship a simple box….

After settling in, despite the -22 degree temperatures, I decided it would be nice to go for a bit of a walk. The temperature alone wasn’t awful, but it was snowing and a bit windy….probably 25-30kph gusts or so. Lovely night for a stroll, right?

Ended up walking nearly a mile, and by the time I arrived at my destination there was already snow crusted on my eyebrows. It was a nice brisk and fresh walk, but I was looking forward to warming up!

My destination was Northwest Territories Brewing Co. (NWT Brewing) which looked online to have not only a good selection of beers, but also a decent restaurant.

Inside, I was shocked at how popular the place was! It wasn’t huge, but every seat was taken and a few dozen people were standing around too. For a town of under 20,000, it seemed the whole town was here. First, a very nice beer or two to warm up…

I ended up staying almost three hours, mainly because it was cold and dark outside so there wasn’t much else to do, and because I met some fascinating people. Apparently, very few people are from Yellowknife, and many come there for work. It’s experiencing a mini tourist boom, and as a consequence it’s very hard to find labour – many people work a series of part time jobs to keep all the local industries humming.

I also met a couple of cagey characters – exactly the kind you expect to find in somewhere rather remote. They refused to say much about what they did beyond “work in the camps” or “government stuff.” Maybe Yellowknife is Canada’s Area 51…

Back to the hotel in what was now much heavier snow and wind, and was greeted by the obligatory polar bear statue in the lobby. I’m beginning to think it’s a requirement up north to have a stuffed polar bear hanging around.

After a good night’s sleep, I had a bit of time to get breakfast. Why have a boring hotel breakfast when you can wander the town a bit more. There seemed to be a Tim Horton’s, but I can get that anywhere.

There also seemed to be an intriguing local coffeeshop called Birchwood Coffee Kǫ̀ which means coffeehouse in the local language. Again, many of the employees seemed to be from elsewhere – at least one from Europe even – but they had delicious cinnamon buns and coffee so I was thrilled!

I decided to “push” things a little and take the 10am shuttle to the airport, having seen the night before that the airport looked tiny. As we left the hotel (on the left in the picture below) the sun was just starting to rise a bit after 10am.

I was forced to check my rolling bag, despite the aircraft being a 737, which was fine – who knew if it would even have overhead bins! Remember, just because you CAN carry it doesn’t mean it’s carry on!

The snow from the night before was still raging, but if anyone could handle it I figured it would be an airline called Canadian North!

The most fascinating thing is that there was one security checkpoint, but it was only for flights going “south” – meaning Edmonton or Vancouver. All the flights that went north from Yellowknife had no security at all! Only your checked bags were scanned.

It’s been years since I’ve been on a 737-300, and I was hoping for some good ole-fashioned retro goodness!

Canadian North flight 244
Yellowknife, NWT, Canada (YZF) to Norman Wells, NWT (YVQ)
Depart 10:30, Arrive: 11:55, flight time: 1:25, flight distance: 424 miles
Boeing 737-300, Registration C-GCNK, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 200,053
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,892,355

I had managed to finagle my way into an aisle seat in the second row at check-in (no business on this ancient bird!) and despite the load being about 75% today the middle seat stayed empty. Plus, I had an amazing view of the delightful old-school moving map on the bulkhead!

My seatmate was a very friendly and chatty local from Inuvik, who was impressed a tourist was visiting during the winter. She was a wealth of information about all the things I might see and do, including an annual arts and crafts fair which would be taking place over the weekend.

Despite only having a population of about 3,200 Inuvik is a bit of a regional hub in the north, complete with a modest teaching hospital and all. At least if I started feeling any worse there might be options.

Oh, and as my view during boarding showed, the snow was still howling outside and people were trekking it in.

The flight to Inuvik would stop in Norman Wells on the way, and despite the barely 80 minute flight time of the first segment a small meal was offered to all passengers. I went with the sandwich which was pretty good, and all passengers got a bag of chips. Of course, the one person to get Cheetos was the American. I think it was politically-motivated…

When we touched down in Norman Wells only a couple dozen passengers got off, and only a few got on. We were invited to disembark and stretch our legs if we wanted, and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see a new airport!

The entire airport had no security, and I was able to walk around freely and explore for about ten minutes. The check-in area:

There was a waiting room with a comfy couch for local elders…

After about 10 minutes it was time to board again. Much less snowy, but colder in Norman Wells. About -26C this morning!

No pictures were allowed on the tarmac in the north, so I had to take the pic above from the terminal, and the one below from the aircraft once I’d boarded. Don’t worry Pearson, I don’t think Norman Wells will be competing with you any time soon for global hub status!

The plane was still about 2/3 full out of Norman Wells, and it was time to continue on our way for the short 40 minute flight up to Inuvik.

Canadian North flight 244
Norman Wells, NWT, Canada (YVQ) to Inuvik, NWT (YEV)
Depart 12:30, Arrive: 13:18, flight time: 48 min, flight distance: 278 miles
Boeing 737-300, Registration C-GCNK, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 200,331
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,892,633

While I love using the Great Circle Mapper website to plot my routes, it’s even more fun when they’re displayed on the bulkhead…complete with both segments!

This segment would be too short for a snack, but fear not – Canadian North did have pretzels as well as water, coffee, or tea available for everyone! Impressive!

Arrival in Inuvik’s one-room terminal was right on time, and while I waited for my checked bag there was of course the mandatory polar bear in the terminal waiting to greet me!

Bag acquired, it was time to pick up my rental car and start my adventure. It was a balmy -32C outside, so hopefully it would start!!!

Dec 122019
 


Long, long walk to immigration from our gate in Toronto and when we got there fortunately there was zero wait. Scanned my NEXUS card, the machine told me it couldn’t be processed, and please see an agent.

Very polite agent manually filled out an arrivals form for me, few questions, and sent me on my way to customs…where it turned out I’d been given secondary. No indication why (one way from Vietnam maybe, bypassing the US?) but I earned myself a completely thorough baggage rummaging.

Quite oddly the agent was interested in my dirty clothes, bag, and briefly scrolling through photos on my iPad, but paid zero attention to prescription meds or anything – so clearly their interest wasn’t pharma (which is often the case at the US/Canada border since the legalization of Cannabis – although I was asked if I had any) – and seemed like they were more interested in who knows what.

To their credit: everything was very polite, professional, and efficient, and the whole secondary lasted 10 minutes tops…which is very efficient for lots of questions and rummaging through luggage. I really wonder sometimes why everyone at anglophone immigration finds me so fascinating…but never comes up with anything that interests them….lol.

Off to my hotel of choice – the Sheraton YYZ – and ready to rack out for a good night of sleep.

This was probably the third time I’ve flown direct from Asia to the Eastern North America time zone, and the last two times I landed, worried I might not sleep since I slept a lot in flight, and had no problem passing out for eight straight hours.

This time, however, wasn’t quite so good. Grabbed a couple beers at the hotel lobby bar and went to be nice and early…only to wake up at 4am wide awake. I tried to sleep a little more, and it wasn’t happening, so I did a little work and decided to go check out the domestic lounge scene in Toronto.

When flying out of YYZ it’s almost always longhaul or US for me, so the domestic lounge scene would be new. First stop, of course, was Starbucks to wake up even more, which is when I spotted the Air Canada Café across the haul which I’d totally forgotten about.

The concept of this lounge is really “grab and go” as opposed to hanging out, having a wide array of food items you were welcome to pick up and take on board with you. Could it really be that awesome?

For some reason, I thought I was hungrier than I was, so had a yogurt parfait (delicious), pain au raisin (tasty), and a turkey and provolone to go just in case the Air Canada omelet wasn’t on my flight. Really loved this lounge and concept – I’d suggest United try it, but knowing United passengers people would bring empty suitcases just to fill them with food to go. No, totally not kidding knowing Americans around free lounge food.

On top of the nice atmosphere, there was just a sorta classy feel to the café – I really liked it!

Off to the gate, where it was clear we would be on a completely packed flight today. I admit I totally stalked the Group 1 boarding area knowing things were full and overhead space would be at a premium, and was shocked at the number of people going up to the counter rather indignant their upgrades weren’t going to clear.

Air Canada flight 135
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Calgary, Alberta (YYC)
Depart 08:00, Arrive: 10:17, flight time: 4:17, flight distance: 1,675 miles
Airbus A330-300, Registration C-GEGC, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 198,224
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,890,526

Sorry Air Canada, but 1-800-WTF. Why did you have to get on the ex-Singapore A330 bandwagon too? It’s all about expectations, and it’s a decent seat for a mid-haul flight (second time this trip – got this on OmanAir too) but it makes me wonder what in the universe seems to have me flying on ex-Singapore planes on so many airlines this year. This was my fifth time in 2019 and fifth different airline! How many of these are out there?

The Air Canada version was in extra-rough shape, with the seat taped together. I tried to joke with the crew (who seemed fun) about the ex-Singapore plane, and I quote “you are wrong, this is an old TAP plane!” Yes, it spent 9 months at TAP between Singapore and Air Canada, but dudes – I totally wouldn’t be bragging about buying from the TAP thrift shop. At least poppin’ tags from Singapore is quasi-respectable….

What’s for breakfast ce matin? The omelet! YAAAAAS!

Fruit was below average for Air Canada which usually does much better, but it was sorta artistic in a triangular configuration at least?

Today’s omelet featured a perfect balance of cottage cheese and salsa, and was absolutely delicious. Comfort food for sure.

About an hour before landing, mixed nuts were offered. Always nice to get a small snack/drink service on a shorter flight. The crew on this flight was great overall.

Landed nearly an hour behind schedule due to de-icing in Toronto, but still had just enough time for a pop into the lounge between flights. Somehow, I’d never been in Alberta before, and all the stereotypes were confirmed with the giant cattle painting in the lounge.

Caesar and some unusual peach flatbread in the lounge. Yum! Nothing says Canada like clamato!

If the cattle painting wasn’t confirmation enough I was in Cowtown, the “assistance” agents roaming the terminal definitely confirmed it! Yee haw!

Our flight to Vancouver today seemed pretty lightly loaded, and boarding was a breeze. I was a bit surprised a new crew boarded in Calgary (but then again, I know nothing about Air Canada flight attendant bases) but we still boarded on time.

Air Canada flight 215
Calgary, Alberta (YYC) to Vancouver, British Columbia (YVR)
Depart 12:20, Arrive: 12:54, flight time: 1:34, flight distance: 428 miles
Airbus A320, Registration C-GKOE, Manufactured 2002, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 198,652
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,890,954

For some reason, as an East Coaster, I just assumed Calgary was “closer” to the East Coast, so the flight to Vancouver should be longer. But, today, it was just over an hour. In true Air Canada fashion, however, we still got a small snack. Small potato chinks and salmon…plus bagged nuts. Beats the United snack basket…

Fairly short connection in Vancouver, but stopped by the Maple Leaf Lounge because….I could. Every seat was taken, and they were turning people away at the reception due to “being at capacity.” Seriously? Ugh. I wasn’t upset because I didn’t have much time, but that’s pretty poor.

Off to the gate, where I got the tingles from the sign. Yellowknife had always seemed so “exotic” to me, and I was finally headed there!

Today’s load was nearly full in economy, but there were only two seats taken in business, so I pretty much had my choice of seats. I moved from 1A to 1F so I’d have to seats instead of one.

Air Canada flight 8833 operated by Jazz Aviation
Vancouver, BC (YVR) to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Depart 14:00, Arrive: 17:23, flight time: 2:23, flight distance: 977 miles
Canadair CRJ-900, Registration C-FRJA, Manufactured 2007, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 199,629
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,891,931

Again, despite being a two hour flight, a full printed menu on a regional jet. Simple things, but impressive.

As we went on the takeoff roll, I began to wonder if I might miss impressive views because I’d switched sides of the plane. No reason to worry, the mountains were absolutely amazing the first twenty minutes in flight:

What’s this? Proper warmed nuts served before the meal? On a regional jet? On a two hour flight? Air Canada for the win, once again. It’s a simple thing that really doesn’t make a “difference” but it’s a nice touch.

This is probably a good place to say the flight attendant working business was stellar. She was friendly, personable, and when I told her about my trip was thrilled to give me all sorts of advice about Yellowknife. She even advised me to cancel my rental car, telling me that there was a hotel shuttle from the airport, and everything I was planning to do was walkable.

The forecast for Northern Lights was nonexistent for my time in Yellowknife, so no point trying to drive out of the city to see them.

I went with the General Tso Chicken because a friend told me it was good, but unfortunately…yes, it was “healthy” because it wasn’t breaded and fried, but it was also dry and completely lacked flavour. The desert blondie, however, was excellent!

The flight was over all too soon, and I was still working on my wine…which was quickly poured into a plastic cup so I could “enjoy” it all the way to the gate. Did I mention how awesome this crew was?

Sunset…at just before four in the afternoon.

No jetbridges in Yellowknife, so we had a very chilly walk to the terminal. Fortunately, I somehow contorted my 6’4 self to change from shorts to trousers in a CRJ washroom (believe me, this is an impressive feat) so I only partially froze.

Coming from Asia, I had zero warmies with me, so the trousers and a hoodie would have to do. I had shipped ahead tundra-wear to my hotel in Yellowknife, so I just prayed it had arrived and I would stay warm.

The polar bear in baggage claim reminded me what would happen if not:

Outside the terminal, walking to the hotel shuttle. Yup, we’re not in Bangkok or Manila any more!

Next up, time to enjoy my time in Yellowknife (which I never saw in the light of day) before heading even further north…to Inuvik!

Dec 082019
 


Woke up feeling a little bit better, and although 9-something seemed like a reasonable time for a flight it meant still getting up earlier than I would have liked. So early, even, that I opened to fortify myself with hotel lounge coffee instead of taking a Grab to Starbucks.

At least it wasn’t a 5 or 6am flight, which would have been miserable now that I was finally almost adjusted to Asia time…just in time to leave!

Philippine Airlines online check-in didn’t work for me, but it was a quick two minute stop by the counter with no queue to get my boarding pass and I was on my way.

Stopped by the lounge which was a bit on the warm and humid side, but did have a reasonable selection of food and drink….and people piling plates several layers deep as if they’d not eaten in weeks. While I suppose that’s possible…

On the plus side, the lounge had huge floor to ceiling windows that spanned both floors so it was super light and almost cheerful inside:

Based on online reviews, I didn’t expect much from Philippine Airlines – it looked like the longhaul product was solid, but lots of reviews of disinterested crews, barely edible food, and shorthaul flights that made domestic US flights look good had me not looking forward. Decided to get to the gate 10 minutes before the boarding time printed on my boarding pass because I expected a scrum, but when I arrived…everyone was already boarded and I was one of the last ones! 45 minutes before departure!

Philippine Airlines flight 592
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (SGN) to Manila, Philippines (MNL)
Depart 09:35, Arrive: 13:20, flight time: 2:45
Airbus A321, Registration RP-C9907, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 188,328
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,880,630

First impressions were quite good. This A321 was very well-maintained, not great seat pitch but with only two empty seats in the cabin one would be next to me, and the seats were overall very comfortable. Especially for such a short flight.

The crew was nothing short of wonderful. Refreshing cool towels on a tray, what tasted like a very sweet tea pre-departure, and a smiling, friendly, and warm-welcoming crew had erased all the negative things I’d been expecting. This had all the foreshadowings of a great flight!

I loved the art on the menus…and the fact there was a menu at all for such a short flight…with three choices!

I love plane-spotting on taxi, but rarely do it since I’ll only take window seats if they come with aisle access. AirBridge Cargo XL oversize!

The three-cup pork for lunch was amazing – if nothing else this trip had fantastic meals on many of my flights. One of the few airline meals that felt both creative, local, and delicious. The champagne was a a nice addition, although sadly the cashews were in a bag. I thought about going all Korean Air, but thought better of it…

Vanilla macadamia ice cream for dessert. Can’t go wrong! I never eat ice cream at home, so it’s always a nice inflight treat for me.

Arrival in Manila was great…until I had to figure out transfers. It had shades of Cairo a week ago written all over it, and I prayed it would not be another two hour experience. Note to self: anything that portends a terminal change in a lesser-developed country is going to be an adventure. Unfortunately, before arriving, I just assumed since it was the same airline it would be the same terminal. Oh how wrong I was…

Eventually I figured out I would need to change terminals. How hard would that be. Surely Philippine Airlines has this down to a science, right?

We had arrived Terminal 2, and when I followed the signs for transfers I eventually ended up at a transfer desk, where the agent had been expecting me as a connecting passenger…and asked me to wait five minutes while he arranged things. Here’s where it began to get interesting.

It was Cairo all over again….he eventually walked me over to immigration…who actually stamped me into the Philippines just as if I was arriving, and the agent kindly escorted me to a waiting room…where I would wait for the bus to Terminal 1.

Terminal 1 is the oldest terminal in Manila, and you would think Philippine Airlines would use the sparkly new Terminal 3 for longhaul flagship routes…but you would be wrong.

Soon, I understood why I’d been stamped into the country: the bus to Terminal 1 was outside immigration and eventually dropped me off….at the front door of the terminal where we had to clear security scans to get into the building, immigration to leave the Philippines again, and eventually security to get into Terminal 1.

All in all, it wasn’t terrible. Maybe 45 minutes to an hour max from the time I got off the plane in Terminal 2 until I was planted in the lounge in Terminal 1. It was a rather sad lounge, used seemingly by most airlines who used the terminal (except Singapore and maybe a couple others?) but it seemed my only choice.

At least they had a cool display of airline models inside…

The food looked a little dicey….so I stuck with a Coke Zero and some sweet rolls. Not glamourous, but I was hoping for a nice long sleep on the next segment…

Went to the gate shortly before boarding, and it was absolutely packed with just about every seat taken. That said, people were being quite orderly with no mad scrum visible, so boarding would hopefully also be nice and orderly.

Soon I was paged to the podium, which is never a good sign when you’re already in the top cabin. Fortunately, they just needed to give me a new printed boarding pass since I had changed my seat in the Philippine Airlines app (to get away from a family with children behaving like wild animals in the lounge….fortunately I saw their boarding passes and where they were sitting so with several empty seats I was able to move as far away from the front of the cabin as possible…. Just a thought…maybe giving your kid coke after coke and multiple ice creams in the lounge prolly doesn’t help with their hyperness.

Philippine Airlines flight 118
Manila, Philippines (MNL) to Toronto, Canada (YYZ)
Depart 16:30, Arrive: 19:00, flight time: 15:50
Airbus A350-900, Registration RP-C3507, Manufactured 2019, Seat 5K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 196,549
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,888,851

With a flight time of 15 hours and 50 minutes, this was going to be a long flight….but fortunately the seats were super comfortable and quite private. This was really all I wanted or expected from the flight, so I was very happy to see it lived up to expectations!

The same gorgeous menus, but this time with four main courses. There were also mid-flight snacks in addition to the arrival meal.

Another friendly and welcoming crew who was chatty without being over the top, and I was looking forward to another great flight. Apparently our plane was known as “The Love Bus” – we’re definitely not on a more “formal” airline like Singapore, but I was loving the Filipino hospitality!

Takeoff….I love the wings of the A350…

Canapés to start were a miss. Bread wasn’t fresh, and the moussey stuff on top made it seem a bit soggy. Made me long for warmed nuts…but hey, champagne makes everything better!

The flight attendant serving my section raved about the french onion soup as a starter, so I had to try it. Unfortunately, it was one step from terrible. No flavour, very few onions, even less cheese, super greasy…and just…blah. Also, first time I think I’ve ever seen bread served in a bowl!

The disappointments up until this point were very quickly forgotten, however. The “gourmet pork sisig” was phenomenal. A wonderful combo of flavours and textures…just a tiny bit spicy, salty, sweet….it was simply outstanding. I actually asked about the possibility of a second serving, but unfortunately it had been very popular.

The cheese was about as expected – reasonable, but not memorable, but dark chocolate ice cream and some red wine….perfect end to a meal that wasn’t anything fancy, but was much better than I had expected.

I was clearly tired – we finished the meal service about 2.5 hours into the flight, and I proceeded to pass out cold…for eight solid hours. By the time I woke up, we were almost entering US airspace. We’d taken a very southern routing today, and I was actually a bit hungry.

I decided to see how the beef burger was, and it was actually reasonably good. Combined with the fruit, it made a rather substantial mid/late flight snack.

Surely, you jest. Good food on Philippine Airlines? I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley.

Just a couple hours later, about 90 minutes out of Toronto, breakfast service started (yes, at around 6pm local time) with a glass of orange juice.

Nice big fruit plate with deliciously-ripe mango.

The omelet was no Air Canada omelet, but reasonably good. I think calling it a Denver Omelet, however, was a bit of a stretch. First time I’ve seen an omelet served with risotto instead of potatoes, however.

Washed down with a Filipino craft beer….was was decidedly average.

You know it’s been a long flight when the sun sets right after takeoff….you eat, sleep, eat some more…and then it sets for a second time in the same flight.

We were just a couple hundred feet off the ground and the engines sprang to life…turns out we had “spacing issues and the aircraft in front hadn’t left the runway yet” – this is my THIRD go-around in Toronto this year (and I’ve only had three go-arounds all year) and sixth or seventh overall. Why is this such a problem in Toronto? Well over half of the go-arounds in my nearly 3 million miles flown have been at Toronto – to the point it can’t just be coincidence.

So summing up, Philippine Airlines exceeded my expectations in just about every way. I’d expected a comfortable seat, but almost nothing more. What I got were warm and friendly crews happy to go the extra mile, good to very good food and an experience that rivals almost any business class out there. I’d be very happy to fly them again – despite the more or less useless (to me) miles.

Next up – overnight in Toronto before heading up to the Arctic!!

Dec 072019
 


After a good night of sleep (I still wasn’t rested I don’t think from all the go-go-go of the past seven+ days and jet lag) I managed to wake up feeling like I’d been hit by a Mack truck. No, make that hit by a Mack truck, and then backed up and run over again.

Based on how I’d felt the past few days it was clear I’d been teetering on the edge of something, and I finally lost the battle. I was very glad I hadn’t booked any of the side trips I’d considered, because my energy levels were such that I could manage 30-60 minutes at a time max.

This continued for two days, unfortunately, so it was mostly just short little dashes around HCMC with lots of little stops to do/see things. Thankfully, whenever I got tired Grab was there to take me back to the hotel if needed. Unfortunately, this meant I wasn’t going to get the in-depth re-explore of HCMC I’d been hoping for, but at least I did get out and manage to see a little bit while recovering.

We’ll start with the view from the Le Meridien executive lounge. It was also raining on and off the entire time I was there, so it as a good thing I didn’t plan for much walking. On the upside, while this meant it was also incredible humid, the temperatures stayed in the reasonable zone.

After a lazy morning on the first day, I felt I had just enough energy go to out and see what real Vietnamese banh mi was like (as opposed to the stuff you get in DC which is delicious, but has too many “perfect” ingredients to feel too authentic.)

One thing about feeling not so hot is that you can spend an hour researching the best banh mi online, and not feel like you’d wasted time. I skipped over the two most popular places, and based on a few reviews that said they were thrilled to have found this little place I headed to Bánh Mì Hồng Hoa. Supposedly this place could have quite a line, but when I got there there was no line at all.

There were english translations on the posted menu, and my meatball banh mi was delicious…and less than one dollar!

I still had a little energy after banh mi, so I took a stroll through the city walking for nearly an hour. Fortunately, once I got tired out I was near East West Brewing where I stopped for a sampler. Still rather impressed by the HCMC craft beer scene!

Still feeling pretty good, I decided maybe I could handle the mile or so walk to my hotel. Despite being overcast, the humidity was impressive, and as you can see when I stopped on the way to take a selfie with Uncle Ho I was already quite a sweaty mess.

After a couple of hours resting and recovering I felt good enough to go out and get some dinner, but really didn’t feel like venturing far. Since I’d had a couple good beers the night before, and their food menu looked good as well, I headed back to Heart of Darkness brewing. They did some super delicious sliders! Who would have expected in Vietnam!

The next day, I was still feeling pretty shaky, but did manage a couple of hour long walks. (Note I’m saving you from any Starbucks pictures…and you better believe I made it to Starbucks – I’d need to be REALLY sick before I skipped that.)

Apparently this bank was having some sort of opening / spirit cleansing / good luck ceremony.

At some point in the afternoon I made it to the Winking Seal Beer company while I was out walking. The tap handles were absolutely amazing with the Vietnamese hats on the seals!

I also made it to the Ben Thanh Market while I was out walking. Back on my previous visit there wasn’t more than a tourist or two in site when I walked through, and haggling was a real chore since there was no English spoken. Now? Crawling with tourists and all the merchants spoke enough limited English to haggle. Amazing how much the city has changed!

I always love looking at the fruit and vegetable sellers in markets – it always looks so fresh compared to the stuff you get in American grocery stores (unless you go to Whole Foods that is…)

One thing definitely hadn’t changed in HCMC in the last 15 years ago – there were still motorbikes everywhere, and you have to be brave to walk out into traffic to weave between them to cross the road. They’re not going to move out of your way!

It was fun still seeing a bit of communist propaganda here and there in the city, but again, way less than there was 15 years prior!

All in all, I was disappointed I wasn’t able to do more, but given how I felt I’m really happy with how much I managed to fit in. My hope was I was over things because going to the Arctic was up next…and I really didn’t want to get stuck up in the Arctic seriously ill!

Up next: off to the Arctic! I might be the only person ever to travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Yellowknife!

Dec 062019
 


Since we had a relatively early flight (well, not really that early, but when you take into account time to get to the airport, etc) we hadn’t planned much for the morning other than a lazy breakfast at the hotel to enjoy one of the better hotel buffets in the world.

No trouble getting a Grab, and since it was the weekend traffic to the airport wasn’t terrible either. We had managed to check-in online, so no need to stop by the desks, and queues for immigration and security were minimal so we had some time to try the Cathay lounge.

Just as on previous visit it was a little difficult to find, and once we did it was unfortunately absolutely packed just like the previous time. I don’t know if this is always the case for this lounge because it has flights to Singapore and Hong Kong at the same time, but it was difficult even finding a place to sit.

A couple of glasses of bubbles later, I didn’t terribly care, and decided to chat up the lounge agent and see about changing my set to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). A couple weeks prior they had swapped in an aircraft with first class seats on this route, however, they were not selling first – getting access to these seats was at the mercy of airport agents since the app wouldn’t permit it.

I totally admit that I might have been a bit flirty back to the lounge agent when they initiated it, and after much back and forth with a supervisor in some mysterious location on the phone, this exchange took place: “I would love to help you, but that seat is reserved for the bassinet.” I made a joke that “it’s ok, I’m pregnant and promise to give birth before Hong Kong” to which they laughed hysterically. First class seat was mine. Hopefully it would hold…

Cathay Pacific flight 750
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 11:40, Arrive: 15:30, flight time: 2:50
Boeing 777-300, Registration B-KQT, Manufactured 2014, Seat 12K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 186,401
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,878,703

Boarding was a bit of a scrum with everyone rushing the gate the minute they started boarding, and my first impression of the seat was pretty good. Reasonably private, lots of space, and I would be happy with this seat on a 10 hour flight, not to mention a regional flight of under three hours! Ian had the seat behind me, and off to Hong Kong we went!

Bubbles and water for a pre-departure beverage…

What’s for lunch today? Can you imagine if US airlines served nice meals like this (complete with a menu!) for mid-con flights?!

In case of evacuation, throw your baby in a rubber sleepsack…

Lunch was served right after takeoff, complete with garlic bread, more champagne, and a nice thai salad.

I went with the Thai pork which was delicious. The perfect combination of savoury and sweet.

Choice of three flavours of ice cream for dessert. Strawberry for me, please!

After lunch was over, I walked past the galley and noticed a sign saying “work quietly, speak softly” – can you imagine this in the galley on US airlines? I’m sure the flight attendant unions would throw a fit! It would interrupt terribly important gripe sessions about their jobs, passengers. On the upside, a quiet environment would improve their concentration for Candy Crush and Suduko.

Arrival in Hong Kong was right on time, and since Hong Kong doesn’t trust Thai security we had to clear again – unfortunately behind what seemed like dozens of inexperienced travellers. We barely had enough time for the connection as it was, and were determined to stop in the AmEx Lounge for at least 10 minutes.

Hong Kong (along with a few other locations like Mexico City and Buenos Aires) is one of the few AmEx Lounges that has a “lounge within a lounge” for Centurion Card holders, which actually makes it a lounge I’ll go out of my way to visit.

As usual, Hong Kong was quite warm and we were a little sweaty by the time we arrived, but the champagne was poured and all was forgotten.

Despite having a very short time we were promised they could get the meals on the menu to us in five minutes or so, so we decided to order the caviar. Definitely a wonderful choice! Caviar and champagne make everything better!

Quick gobble of the goods, and then a bit of a run to the gate…where of course boarding was delayed meaning we could have spent some more time in the lounge. Said goodbye to Ian, and I was off to Ho Chi Minh City for the first time in 15 years!

Cathay Pacific flight 799
Hong Kong (HKG) to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (SGN)
Depart 16:50, Arrive: 18:35, flight time: 2:45
Boeing 777-300, Registration B-KQM, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 187,326
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,879,628

My seat assignment had stuck, and I was shown to seat 2K by the crew. It technically would be business class today, but the crew was still acting like it was first class, apologizing that they would only be able to offer business class champagne today. Could they get me some?

A bit warm from the run to-and-from the lounge, but my kitty fan and some champagne while settling into 2K made everything better.

What’s for dinner tonight? Similar to the lunch menu from Bangkok.

The thai red chicken curry was delicious – I do love the thai dishes that seem to appear frequently in Cathay business – they’re always tasty.

Choice of ice creams once again for dessert. They were out of Tegrity, so I decided to go with cookies and cream…and more champagne…this time around.

It had been fifteen years or more since I’d been in Vietnam, and in that time tourism had taken off and getting a visa had become much easier. No need to go to the consulate or embassy anymore, you can now do a visa on arrival by paying/arranging with an agency online who sends you an approval letter.

The whole process was quite confusing, and there was a waiting area where you had to fill out a form and wait. I asked about a dozen people if I needed to wait there with my letter, and the first several indicated yes, but eventually I just went up to the windows (causing several people to get upset with me) and they told me no, go straight to the arrivals queues.

Well, that would have been great, except with 20+ queues open they were all still 50+ people deep. It was going to be quite a wait. Still better than having to wait for the visa-on-arrival counter where some people said they had been waiting more than four hours!

I eventually found a line for VIP/diplomats/SkyPriority so decided that despite flying Cathay I would stand there since I have SkyPriority through Delta. That line only took about 10 minutes, but I was then berated by the guy at the counter who insisted I show him my boarding pass with SkyPriority on it – not just my card.

Feigning a bit of not understanding him he finally gave up on me and just stamped me into the country. I’m not usually a fan of gaming the system like this, but hey, to save a few hours and be able to at least enjoy the evening? Absolutely.

The other thing that had changed since my previous visit were the hotels. 15 years ago, there was no such thing as chain hotels in Vietnam, and we stayed at the Grande Olde Dame the “Rex Hotel” which was about as good as it got back then.

Now? There’s a half dozen different Bonvoy options, not to mention Hiltons, Hyatts, and everything. Grab worked well to get me to the Le Meridien (which seemed to be the recommended hotel based on online reviews) and I was given a nice room on the executive floor.

I have to wonder, however, as someone afraid of heights, what’s with all these hotels lately with 20+ floor atriums and waist-high railings where I felt I might plunge to my untimely death:

It wasn’t too late, so I figured I would head out for a walk and try and get my bearings for the coming days. The city had changed so much a walk was in order, and there seemed to be a great craft beer place less than a mile away that looked walkable.

I immediately wasn’t a huge fan of the changes in the city, as literally dozens of younger ladies from massage parlours grabbed my arm as I walked by and tried to get me to come inside. Ugh. It reminded me of Bangkok 20 years ago and the seedier side of tourism in Southeast Asia.

I managed to keep going, and was eventually rewarded with a great selection of beers at Heart of Darkness brewing. How amazing to find a Joseph Conrad-themed pub in the middle of Vietnam. While globalization definitely has its downsides in the homogenization of culture, there are some benefits…

After a couple of beers to tire me out, it was back to the hotel to rack out. I had two days to enjoy Vietnam, and wanted to make the most of them!

Dec 052019
 


After sleeping off the massive meat coma from Meatlicious the night before, we slept in a little bit before heading down to breakfast. I used to think the W Bangkok had the best hotel breakfast in the world, and while it’s still very good it’s just not up there any more.

A lot of the problem seems to be that the hotel now caters to large tour groups especially on the weekends, so the breakfast is usually crawling with people and often quite picked over and not at all relaxing. Reminder to self, it may finally be time to stop staying at the W and choose one of the other excellent hotels in Bangkok.

That said, the breakfast was still excellent, with plenty of fresh fruit, great vienoiseries, and dim sum.

After grabbing some Starbucks for proper caffeination, we headed out to do a little bit of exploring since Ian had never been to Bangkok before. It was a shockingly pleasant morning out, not too humid, and on the walk to the SkyTrain we encountered a worker cleaning the koi pond next to the W. There was something “creature from the lagoon” about it…

We road the SkyTrain to the Siam stop, where the celebration of Pocky Day (apparently that’s what 11/11 is now in Asia?) was well underway:

We wandered a bit in the CentralWorld Mall, and I really wanted the “Stranger Trump” t-shirt, but decided to be good and resist:

The “Bloody Bunny & Friends” store just left me confused.

Hey, I’m not high, Jer high! (Well, at a minimum the cat in the ad is definitely high!)

Whatever I was battling had me feeling pretty sick again, and after some sitting around and a fresh orange juice I was feeling better so it was back to the hotel to rest up a bit.

We’d decided that since Bangkok is the home of affordable massage we would book for the afternoon, and based on great reviews we decided to try Perception Blind Massage. Bangkok has hundreds and hundreds of massage places, so it’s a bit hit and miss, but the reviews for Perception were quite good so we decided to give it a go.

I was feeling just better enough that a massage sounded like a nice idea, so we headed out. It turned out to be barely a five minute walk from the W, so that was definitely nice. We booked the two hour thai massage plus head/neck/back, and were in for an adventure.

You know it’s gonna be fun when Ray Charles greets you in the entrance:

Other than the massage school at Wat Po the only massages I’ve done in Bangkok before have been high-end hotel massages, so I was a bit surprised we were led to what were essentially mattresses on the floor with curtains separating the massage areas. That said, it was dark (not like anyone could see anyways?) and once I relaxed it was an excellent experience.

It was definitely one of the better massages I’ve ever had, and I really enjoyed the whole experience…and at less than $40 including tip for two hours it was a bargain.

They even take a picture with you at the end to post on their social media if you’re ok with it. Very cool experience, and it’s great to see a company creating jobs for the difabled (my new word from Indonesia) and assuming they do pay people fairly you not only get a massage but get to do some good.

Nice and relaxed, it was late afternoon and time to shower up and head out to our early 6:30p dinner at Sorn. We were still a bit bummed out that Gaggan had closed, but were really looking forward to the 20 course menu at Sorn in its stead. Things started off with the classy menu:

First two courses: (1) young mangosteen with crispy krill, shallot, and coconut plum sugar and (2) cashew nut relish with cashew nut butter and cucumber. Both were delicious bite-sized starters, and the hidden chili paste at the bottom of the cashew packed a huge punch!

Next up was course (3) called “The Beach” – sand mole crabs with seaweed powder. This also had some Thai chilis and while a little spicy, was an awesome combination of flavours and textures.

Course (4) was a bonus course, and was charcoal-grilled abalone. Delicious! The presentation of every course was amazing – nothing was just served, every course was a production.

Next up as course (5) was the “2 degree lobster” which was phuket lobster with mixed thai herbs and lime zest. Served super cold, it was absolutely delicious, and you could really taste the sea in the lobster. Not at all fishy, but a briny taste that was really awesome with the texture.

Number (6) is one of their traditional dishes which never changes, the “Gems on crab stick version 2) – crab, crab roe, yellow chili paste, ginger, and lemongrass. Absolutely delicious, with a really fierce chili burn on the back end from the yellow chili paste. One of the highlights for me – especially the crab roe in the mother of pearl spoon.

Up for number (7) to cool some of the heat from the previous course was “coco on coconut” – “all good things from coconut” – southern plants, dried quid and shrimp – the coconut milk broth was wonderful for killing the heat and was served quickly enough after the previous course to help. I loved the serving bowl and spoon!

The eighth (8) course was called “Fresh off the Boat” (version 2) – and was black squid, squid ink, and squid roe. Absolutely delicious.

For course (9) we had what was definitely one of the highlights for me, roti crab curry (version 3) with roti pastry, crab curry, and pepper tree leaf. Just enough spice from the curry, but you could really taste the crab. I loved this course.

For course (10) we had a dish called “vegetables” which was prepared table-side. The tray of vegetables came out, and then the chef prepared it. It was called “the forest meets the sea” and was described as southern herbs, tumeric rice, morinda rice, and fish innards dressing. It was an absolutely fantastic salad – very fragrant, but also super combination of tastes.

Courses (11) through (16) were all served family style at the same time and included (11) fresh yellow curry with mangosteen and fish roe, (12) pumpkin and egg with lobster and pork, (13) grilled smoked duck breast with southern chili paste, (14) steamed egg and winter melon soup, (15) stinky beans, and (16) oxtail curry.

The condiment tray for the family style course:

Pumpkin and egg – Nakon Si Thammarat pumpkin, free range organic egg, lobster, and pork. Absolutely my favourite disk, but rather rich. On the top you can see the stinky beans with homemade abalone, mantis shrimp and hoof fermented sauce with sea conch. These two dishes together stole the show.

Oxtail curry with fresh coconut milk – a little too fatty for my preference, but very tasty.

Next was a palate cleanser of torch ginger sorbet.

Dessert was natural tapioca boiled in coconut water with longan ice, longan jam, frozen coconut milk, and grilled coconut. Very unusual and not textures I was used to having combined, but really good.

Finally, a signature desert to end things off.

…and because that wasn’t enough, Thai tea with coconut cakes. An amazing way to finish an amazing meal.

We may not have been able to eat at Gaggan, but still had an amazing dinner, and would recommend Sorn very highly to anyone who’s up for some rather spicy southern Thai food!

It was still early, so we decided to stop by Mikkeller to have a couple beers to end the night. They were having a tip fundraiser to support Justin Bieber’s retirement, so I was definitely a big supporter!

Back to the W, and it was still early, so I stopped by the bar for a nightcap. They no longer had the purple cocktail I’d had on previous visits, but the bartender remembered it and agreed to make it. The staff really make the W for me, and are one of the biggest reasons I keep coming back.

Fat and happy full of delicious Thai food it was off to bed. The short tour around Southeast Asia was coming to an end and we had to head off to the airport in the morning. Ian was headed home after what was mostly a short mileage run, and I would head on to Vietnam for the next segment of my trip!

Dec 032019
 


KLIA Ekspres Train to the airport was a piece of cake, and since we’d checked in online we headed straight for security and immigration before taking the inter-terminal train out to the satellite where our flight would depart from.

The Malaysia Airlines Lounges had recently been renovated, and this would be at least the third renovation since the first time I flew with Malaysia back in 2005 – back when they still had recliner seats in first class between LA and KL via Taipei!

Back then, the first lounge was still rather glamourous with free-flowing champagne, but these days in the business lounge you have to contend with $7 per bottle sparkling wine.

I will say the lounge was nice and open and felt spacious, but overall it still felt a little low-end. There was nothing “nice” or luxury about it, but it was definitely a solid and quiet place to spend time before the flight. Plus, it had reasonably tasty sweets:

We got to the gate about five minutes before the boarding time listed on our boarding passes, but they were nowhere near ready. Security is at the gate at KUL, and they weren’t even ready to start security screening passengers to get into the gate area.

I always wonder about airports that have security at the gate It’s one of the things I find the most puzzling about Singapore. It’s an amazingly-advanced passenger-friendly airport in so many ways, but why is security at the gate?

Anyways, enough wondering. We eventually were allowed into the gate and boarded right on time!

Malaysia Airlines flight 782
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 14:50, Arrive: 16:05, flight time: 2:15
Airbus A330-300, Registration 9M-MTF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 01K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 185,352
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,877,654

I hadn’t experienced an A330 on Malaysia before, but based on the configuration I expected seats very similar to SWISS or Brussels. I had managed to reserve a “throne” seat in advance, and got exactly what I expected!

Unfortunately, on flights under three hours Malaysia Airlines is still completely dry, so PDB choices were juice or water. I was still feeling pretty run down and sketchy this morning, so opted for water…the PDB of champions…

Beverages may have been lacking, but there were completely proper printed menus for the relatively short flight.

I went with the “Nasi Hujan Panas” which was described as basmati rice cooked in aromatic herbs and spices served with chicken rendang traditional achar rampai. Only half those words were familiar to me, but the chicken rendang was absolutely delicious. Definitely one of the best short-haul business class mains I’ve ever had. I seriously wanted seconds!!

Arrival in Bangkok was right on time, and it was the first time in ages I wasn’t arriving in Thai First so instead of a buggy I had to walk to immigration. Fortunately, I was feeling quite a bit better at this point, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Queue for passport control was about 20 minutes (which seems on the short side these days in Bangkok) and soon we were through. I’ve always used the airport taxi service before, but having enjoyed Grab in both Jakarta and KL this trip we decided to use it in Bangkok. Super easy to find the car, and about half the price of the airport service, so it was definitely a good call.

Rush hour traffic was pretty bad but not terrible, and soon we were at my usual choice of Bangkok hotels the W and checked in. It was already getting rather late and we had dinner reservations, so we headed off to Meatlicious.

So, a bit of history. The whole point of this stop in Bangkok was to eat at Gaggan, since it would be closing in just a few months. Then, despite the fact we had a reservation, they ended up closing down with zero notice.

We decided not to bail on Bangkok, and at least try one of Gaggan’s affiliated restaurants and look for something higher-end Thai for the next night.

Reviews for Meatlicious online were decidedly mixed, but my reading sad that this was people with unrealistic expectations, so we decided to go with it. First impression? It was much smaller and more intimate than I expected, and we sat at the “bar” which was more of a chef’s table since it faced the open kitchen.

We ordered the tenderloin tacos as a starter, and they were absolutely delicious:

The good thing about the bar/chef’s table was being able to chat with the chef’s and some regular patrons, which led to us being offered some raclette as well. I swear Switzerland is stalking me this year…

We decided we had to go big or go home, and ordered the smallest of their tomahawk steaks to share. At around 1400 grams it was definitely not small, but we were confident in our abilities. Was awesome how they showed it to you before throwing it on the grill:

MMmmm, sizzle sizzle, we were even invited into the kitchen as it cooked:

Carved table-side…that’s what I call a steak!

A perfect rare to medium-rare. Absolutely delicious…and don’t worry, we finished every last gram of it’s beefy deliciousness.

Absolutely stuffed, it was still hard to say no to dessert. How can you go wrong with a meringue and passionfruit combo:

Loved the cow-themed artwork around the restaurant.

With that, our day in transit and awesome dinner was in the books. Next up: one full day in Bangkok and figuring out how to relax! We had amazing dinner plans coming up the next day as well, and no daytime plans, so after one night in Bangkok, we’d say what kind of adventure awaits!

Dec 012019
 


After finally waking up early afternoon and realizing just what getting hit by a truck feels like, I rushed to make the most of what was left of the day. Fortunately, Ian hadn’t completely waited for me and had done a bit of exploring so I didn’t feel completely awful.

On the way out, admired the view of very dark KL from the hotel elevator lobby. It definitely looked like rain was on the way…

Of course, the first stop was Starbucks to get some caffeine to try and undo the haze from 12+ hours of sleep. Can someone please explain to me why you’d want to add cheese to a glazed donut?!

Caffeinated, we grabbed a grab to the Batu Caves. Ian had never been to Malaysia before, and this is one of my favourite sites, so I decided if we had time to go “see” one thing, this should be it.

Of course, the minute we stepped out the door to get our Grab, the skies opened up and heavy rains came down. The hotel doorman suggested maybe this wasn’t a good idea because “it will probably rain for a long time” but the radar didn’t look too bad to me, so off we went. It would be a 30 minute drive, so hopefully the rain would at least let up a bit….

The Batu Caves are a Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Murugan in this predominantly Muslim country, and are over 100 years old. They had done a lot of work, maintenance, and painting since my last visit. and things were extremely colourful now. The 42+ meter tall statue of Murugan was also looking resplendent with a fresh golden painting:

Feeling like death from oversleeping, I wasn’t looking forward to climbing the 272 colourful steps to the top in the heat and humidity, but the rain had mostly stopped and was just a very light mist now, and the temperature had really dropped. It was only around 22C now, and actually almost cool and pleasant! What luck! Finally inside the caves, lots of the individual shrines had also been brightly repainted:

Loved how the bright green of this peacock contrast with the rest of the shrine it was next to:

It looked even more brilliant against the rainbow-coloured shrine:

From my first visit, I remember hundreds of begging monkeys everywhere. Some effort had clearly been made to get rid of many of them, but there were still a couple dozen hanging about begging for bananas:

Love the gesture I caught this one in…seems to be saying “what do you expect from me? She gave me a banana!”

Looking back down towards the city from the caves:

Nom nom nom, banana! …and post-banana carb coma face:

After the caves we had a fairly difficult time getting a Grab, with the app repeatedly saying none were available due to metering. I guess the local taxi mafia managed to get caps put on how many Grabs could be on the road and being rush hour there weren’t enough to go around. We finally got one after 20 minutes or so, and headed back to the hotel to get ready to get drinks and dinner.

It felt a bit odd going to dinner when I’d barely been awake four hours, but hey, it was what it was. I wanted to take the Monorail to dinner because I’ve been on a bit of a “subway / monorail / urban train” counting kick lately, and hey while it’s a bit more of a Shelbyville idea, I felt I had to ride it!

Finding the monorail and buying tickets was a piece of cake, and soon we were at our stop. It looked on google like it was a 5-10 minute walk to the bar we were headed to, but it turned out to be right at the bottom of the monorail station.

Heli Lounge Bar is on the 37th floor of an office building, and it has two parts. The first is an inside bar where you get the drink included free with your cover charge. For some reason, you have to order this inside. But hey, they had a mirrorball helicopter, so that was kinda cool. I went with the lychee martini:

After getting your free drink you’re allowed to go upstairs to the rooftop helipad to drink it. Carrying a full martini up two flights of stairs wasn’t an easy task, but finally we made it and emerged to the awesome view. We had timed the visit for shortly before sunset, and timing was perfect!

Had to pose for a photo with the Petronas Twin Towers!

Sunset over KL…nice oranges and pinks in the sky, and the buildings were all lighting up for nighttime.

Petronas Twin Towers lit up at night:

After having a couple drinks and bar snacks we were pretty much over the place. It was a neat one time experience, but as someone who doesn’t like heights to begin with I was a bit unsettled the whole time. That combined with feeling poorly due to oversleeping I’d had enough, so on to dinner we went.

Another friend had recommended a local pub that did good pizzas, so we ended up going there for pizza and a couple of craft beers. It was good, not great, and we assumed from the pizza prices on the menu that the beers were similarly reasonable. Nope, not at all, and 2 individual pizzas (which were like $10 each) and 3 beers each came to over $100. Clearly Malaysia is not the place to come for craft beer!

After a good (and more reasonable six to seven hours) night of sleep I was awake at 530a. Ugh. Hello jetlag, this was going to suck. I made the most of it and went to the hotel for a short workout, followed by Starbucks while I let Ian sleep in. Hooray, I’m in Malaysia!

A couple hours later when Ian was ready to go I was in need of more caffeine to struggle through the long day, so we headed off to another coffee place he’d found the day before.

It seemed to be a Vietnamese chain and was called “CONG Caphe” and I was able to get a delicious iced Vietnamese coffee. We sat in the upstairs balcony, despite warnings that we should “mind the naughty step” whatever that meant!

Fully-caffeinated and ready to go it was back to the hotel to pack up a few things and then head to the KLIA Ekspres to the airport. Bangkok awaits!

Nov 262019
 


After a bit of time relaxing and enjoying my last few hours in the Presidential Suite, I decided to head down to the executive lounge for one last snack. All things considered the haze and humidity wasn’t too bad, and I had a nice view of Jakarta. I really enjoyed my short time, and can’t wait to come back for longer.

Afternoon tea was being served, and I took the opportunity to have a diet coke and some sweets before checking out.

Grabbed a grab to the airport, and since KLM’s app was cooperative I had managed to check-in online with no problem. Took a couple work calls en route before heading to security…and proving that yes, I’m in Jakarta!

Security and passport control lines weren’t too bad, and I was through both in under 15 minutes and decided to start looking for the Garuda lounge. It’s not easy to find, but eventually I did. Very warm staff at reception…and even warmer in the lounge. They even had a sign apologizing that the air conditioning was broken. It was about 78F in the lounge so very warm, but not horrendous.

The lounge was reasonably bright with plenty of seating, and I had no trouble getting a good seat near a power outlet. I was also near the “Difable” washroom. It really begged the question: is this just a common Asian English mistake, or is it short for “differently abled?”

The food selection was so-so with quite a few options, but I wasn’t that hungry and nothing really spoke to me so I settled for a glass of wine and what I thought were prawn crackers. Unfortunately, no prawn and they were just flavourless puffed rice, but still something crispy to munch on.

Our flight arrived from KL about 45 minutes late, just 30 minutes before we were supposed to leave, and the lounge agents were great about telling the KLM passengers that there was no need to rush to the gate. I waited about 30 minutes longer than I would have and then headed down. Good choice too – I’ve never seen a flight with so many people swarming the group one lane!

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight 810
Jakarta, Indonesia (CGK) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL)
Depart 19:25, Arrive: 22:30, flight time: 2:05
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration PH-BVK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 01D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 184,598
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,876,900

After boarding, my suspicions on the seats were confirmed. They were in a 2-2-2 configuration, and seemed identical to what you would find on United’s ex-Continental 777s. A decent seat in the middle section, but absolutely zero privacy. As an added bonus, however, my seat today came with no pillows but bonus earplugs….

Pre-departure beverages were offered, and the champagne came in probably the most elegant looking PDB glasses I’ve ever seen in business class. I’m personally not a fan of overly ornate glassware (except the amazing Ultima Thule on Finnair) but it did feel a little more “special” than what I’m used to…

Despite a flight time under two hours, a full dinner was promised tonight!

Other airlines may have larger washrooms, or fancier fru-fru amenities, but nobody has Delft Blau Huisjes on the walls! AMAZING!

We were only airborne about 15 minutes when dinner was served. Yes, it was all on one tray, but quite a large meal for a short flight. I love the water glasses too – I think KLM now has my second favourite glassware after Finnair! It was way more food than I needed, and I think I only had the chicken, some rice, and of course can’t say no to chocolate cake!

As soon as my tray was served, the drama started. A page went out (20 minutes into flight max) asking if there was a doctor on board. It took me a bit to realize what was going on…and that the stricken passenger was right behind me! He was a younger guy, maybe mid 20s, and was foaming at the mouth getting super agitated and hyper.

The crew did a great job surrounding him and holding up blankets for privacy, but it was pretty clear that someone had taken something and was higher than our 777…

Meal service completely stopped, I think only row one got food, and for the next hour there were several crew members and doctors with him the entire time. I was shocked we didn’t divert to Singapore given just how terrible the guy looked, but the crew and ground-based medical services obviously know better than me!

While landing, one of the flight attendants even knelt in the aisle holding on to keep him in his seat which remained mostly flat even for landing. They had him on oxygen and he looked a little better, but wow what a crazy experience.

The downside of the service ending is that they also weren’t able to offer the little huisjes either. One of the crew apologized to me after landing and I said no problem – I was really looking forward to it, but obviously safety and health come first.

That’s what something that restored a bit of my faith in humanity happened. The woman across the aisle had two of them (from AMS-KUL-CGK a few days prior) and offered me one – commenting to the same flight attendant that she hoped they could give her two to make up for it. I wish I’d gotten her email or something to thank her more properly, but it was the nicest onboard gesture I’ve seen in a long time. In this age where tensions are often high in the air, it was so nice to see!

Landed right on time, and unfortunately I had to sit in the terminal for an hour taking a work call before clearing immigration and heading to the hotel. I was meeting my friend Ian in KL, and even with my phone call he was still at least 30 minutes behind me, so I decided to head to the hotel on the KLIA Ekspres Train which is wonderfully convenient.

Checked in to the Le Meridien, no upgrade despite being a titanium member, but at least there was a Tiffany blue carton in my room with sweets for pre-bed!

Mmmmm macarons! They were pretty good quality too – not amazing, but definitely good!

Met up with Ian, and chatted a bit before crashing. Since I’d already been in Asia a couple of days I was sure I’d be up early so didn’t set an alarm, while he promised to set one for late morning to ensure we didn’t waste the whole day.

At some point I rolled over to the phone which wouldn’t stop ringing. WTF, why was someone calling me in the middle of the night. No way I was answering….but it had woken me up, so after 10 minutes or so I gave up and rolled over to look at my phone…it was after 1pm! I’d managed to sleep more than 12 hours – something I don’t think I’ve ever done before! I don’t even think I’ve broken 10 more than a couple of time.

I felt like I’d been hit by a truck (and it couldn’t be from two glasses of wine) so clearly all the travel had gotten to me. Rushed to get going so we could at least enjoy what was left of the day…

Nov 262019
 


After landing the walk to immigration seemed endless, but eventually made it and signs seemed pretty clear where I needed to go. The visa on arrival desk was well marked, and despite a rather lengthy queue pretty efficient. The lines for passport control looked pretty long, so I was relieved to see that after paying my money and getting my visa I was also stamped in and waived past normal passport control. Overall, pretty efficient!

I already knew there was no Uber in Indonesia anymore, but Grab was available. It took me a bit to figure out where the Grab pickup point was, but once I got close there were helpful Grab “agents” in “Grab green” helping you to find the car that was picking you up. Overall, it worked quite well.

The drive to my hotel wasn’t too bad, and soon I was at the Ritz Carleton Pacific Place. I attempted to check-in at the desk in the lobby, but was escorted up to the Executive Lounge for check-in. What hadn’t been fully clear to be before arriving is that the Ritz is the top floors of the hotel and all rooms have Executive Lounge access, while lower flowers are the “residences” which you can still book as a regular hotel – but don’t necessarily have Executive Lounge access. Confused yet? Read on.

Once I arrived with my escort in the lounge, the lounge agent instantly knew who I was and told me she would escort me to my room to check in. “I hope you do not mind, but we had to change your room for an upgrade.” Ok, I’ll never complain about an upgrade. I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention until we got outside and I realized…

I’d been upgraded to the Presidential Suite. All 3,600 square meters of it. It’s pretty awesome when your room has its own website! I was a bit floored…and it was a new experience sitting on “my” own living room sofa to do check-in.

Best part of all? I was informed that “President Obama has stayed in this room as well!” Sweet! Maybe greatness will rub off on me after all!

So, let me give you a tour. The dining room:

The kitchen, complete with bar. The door to the left is the kitchen area with a fully stocked fridge (chargeable as minibar) and full silverware, crystal, tableware, etc…

Living room #1:

The foyer:

Living room/lounge #2:

The office…which strangely had no outlets, so I didn’t find very useful…unless I wanted to invite my minions over and shout at them across the table?

The master bedroom:

I’m definitely not fancy enough to need a dressing room complete with walk-in closet, but just in case you are…

The washroom. Biggest question I never figured out: why the need for a chair? In case someone wants to watch you in the jacuzzi tub (with great views of Jakarta) or while you’re on the throne?

Yup…this is mine (for one night). All mine!

After luxuriating a bit I was a bit tired, so decided to go to the attached Pacific Place Mall to find some caffeine. While attempting to locate Starbucks, I first came across a really odd sculpture display in the mall of smiling food…and then a restaurant oddly-named…”Fook Yew!”

It was super convenient being on top of the Pacific Place Mall, which is connected to the Ritz via an underground walkway with no need to go outside. It’s definitely a high end upscale luxury mall with super fancy brands, but also lots of restaurants and most importantly: Starbucks!

Adequately caffeinated, but still super tired, I headed back to my room for the evening, in hopes I would have enough energy the next day to enjoy Jakarta before heading to the airport.

Back to my room, and noticed something I’d overlooked before. Looks like President Obama left something behind…I knew it! LOLZ

After a bit of rest, I decided to head down to the executive lounge and see what “Happy Hour” was all about.

So yes, it was a regular happy hour with free-flowing drinks, but also a buffet so large you could easily make a meal out of it. I wasn’t terribly hungry still from the flight, so light snacks was all I wanted…and they were absolutely delicious.

On top of that, the service was absolutely stellar. I don’t know how they do it, but all the staff knew my name the moment I walked in (do they take pictures at check-in? This was a different crew…) and never once was I not addressed by it. Not that this is a big deal to me, I was just really impressed by all the little details. It was a wonderful and relaxing evening especially given I was too tired and jetlagged to really adventure much.

After a great night’s sleep, it was back to the lounge for a light breakfast:

I say light breakfast, because you could easily have stuffed yourself with made to order hot items and a huge expansive buffet as well. You really would never need to leave the hotel if you didn’t want to. Breakfast was provided, morning tea, full lunch service, afternoon tea, and evening cocktails and a buffet. It was basically an all-inclusive hotel, and probably the single best hotel experience I’ve ever had….and I’d even be saying that without the generous upgrade.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, the AC was also wonderful in my room(s). All five AC units worked wonderfully – LOL)

While the choice of like 12 different teas at breakfast was nice, you know where I headed for my predictable caffeine fix in the attached mall. Complete with Christmas decorations in early November. Ugh.

Decided to do a little shopping after coffee, and picked up a couple of awesome batik shirts for myself.

After that, I decided to ride Jakarta’s relatively-new subway system and find myself somewhere authentic and local for lunch. An Indonesian co-worker told me one of her favourite places, and since I’m a subway geek I rode it to the nearest stop before taking a Grab the last mile or so. The subway is only about a three minute walk from the Pacific Place mall, so not terrible even in the extreme heat and humidity.

I exited near the Selamat Datang monument, so had to grab a picture to prove I was in Jakarta:

Lunch was at Gado Gado Cemara, which my coworker had told me to visit when I told her I liked gado gado. The Grab driver was hysterical – when he saw my destination he just kept saying “salad – you get salad!” – which I only later learned that gado gado is bahasa for salad.

The menu looked promising:

Although the inside was spartan, it was 100% locals and packed, which was a great sign. (This picture taken after everyone but me left – every seat was taken when I arrived):

Amazing and delicious gado gado and chicken satay. The perfect “local” lunch and a great experience of wandering into a neighbourhood where there wasn’t a single westerner or tourist, the staff spoke not a word of English, and the food was delicious. Given it was crowded I figured it was “safe” but we would see in 24 hours….oh, and all this was maybe $4.

Full and happy, I grabbed a Grab back to the Ritz to wind down, cool down, and shower for a couple hours before heading back to the airport. I was really happy with how much I did in such a limited time given the jetlag, and excited for the next stop: KL!