Sunday, 22 December 2013

Trip Report 14 Part 3: Bangkok and Hilton Sukhumvit Bangkok

The strange thing about my visit to Bangkok was that I had a list of about 12 things I wanted to do, I did two of them and yet I still had a absolutely great time there.

Firstly, the Hotel. Hilton Sukhumvit Bangkok, out there on Soi 24 off Sukhumvit, a very new hotel, just open long enough to get rid of the teething issues but still new enough for the new hotel smell. A good location on a busy, but not nightlife intensive soi of Sukhumvit, close to a few nice places to eat, a large upscale mall and an SkyTrain station.

But first, the hotel, a nice welcome and escorted up to the rather splendid lounge and then by the charming Exec Floor Manager to my room. No upgrade, but a very pleasant place to stay, I particularly liked the bathroom which had a complete wet room and and glass walls (there was a privacy blind that could be lowered).

The executive lounge was very good, there were a few minor service errors occasionally, but most of the time it was excellent. There was a very decent breakfast available with both hot and cold dishes, a nice afternoon tea range which I usually took on the small smoking terrace and hot and cold food at night, the food was mainly sourced from the Italian restaurant which was very nice but slightly disappointing in that it as Italian. There was a happy hour but I mainly drank pineapple juice when I was there, because fresh pineapple is a joy for ever.

Anyway, I spent most of my time in Bangkok meandering around various interesting shops and sois or writing by the rooftop pool. The time seemed to fly by, I ate out at a range of places including getting food from street carts - there is a very good one doing spring rolls at the Sukhumvit end of Soi 24, mall food courts and restaurants. There are some nice restaurants further down Soi 24 as well as one called Lemongrass which is quite close to the hotel. The hotel itself has an Italian restaurant, which from what I ate in the lounge produces some decent scran, but it wasn't what I was looking for at the time. I only veered away from Asian food once, when I decided to go and find steak or pizza and actually ended up with a good Lebanese some way down Soi 24.

I didn't do wats or at least not up close, I did do parks, a bit, I did some exploration of sub-sois, I did a couple of klongs, I tried to walk by the river, but it isn't that easy (or attractive). I didn't take many pictures of buildings because, well, there weren't that many attractive ones. I did enjoy the Skytrain, except when it got silly crowded, I didn't enjoy the Metro. I even managed to spend a whole day lazing by the pool, which is almost unheard of for me.

But what of Bangkok's legendary wickedness? I took a quick look down Silom early one evening and decided that it was not for me, it looked too loud, too brash and too pushy. I also walked along Sukhumvit Soi 4, apart from noting that the street stalls appeared to be selling certain forms of protectives and medications there was less hassle than in Patong Beach.

Would I return, probably, there's still quite a bit of that list of things I was doing to do which I didn't. Would I return to that hotel, like a shot.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Trip Report 14 Part 2: Ko Phuket, Hilton Phuket Arcadia, Thai Smile (HKT-BKK, C)

The ride from the airport was actually very long, I knew Ko Phuket was a big island but I don't think I had appreciated how big, nor had I appreciated the amount of traffic. The transfer took just under an hour. I would say that it gave an interesting view point on the development of Thailand, but that would be rubbish, I was in full zombie mode by then. The advantage of booking a transfer with the hotel is that you don't have to go to the Welcome Pavilion but are driven directly to the Andaman Lobby.

Check-in was a bit of a faff, but essentially after about 15 minutes, it was my room was not ready and I'd probably have to wait a couple of hours. That's fine, I was somewhat before check-in time. So I was packed off to the Panorama Lounge in a different building, which was again fine where I was welcomed by a lovely lady who provided me with black coffee, some biscuits and an ash tray for the balcony. A bit of WiFi and I was well away and I didn't have to wait a couple of hours, in less than an hour, I was given the keys to Andaman B Room 851.

The only problem I had with this was that I was expected to find my own way there, which in a big resort hotel with several blocks could have been a bit of a challenge. Luckily things are fairly well signposted. I was quite surprised when I got there, for my five night stay I had been upgraded to a large suite with two balconies. It really was quite a lovely room

And as you can see, I had a fairly cracking sea view as well. Have received luggage and tipped like a millionaire (no notes smaller than 500 Baht - eek), managed to obtain a couple of plug adaptors and an ashtray I was all set up apart from room supplies, but those could wait a little while, the first priority was to unpack and the second was to have a very lengthy shower. After that, I took in the view, tried to get used to the heat and then decided to have a short power nap, after all it was the equivalent of seven am in the morning. Having done that I went on a short expedition up along the beach to the Karon traffic circle and then back along the road after gathering supplies.

The four full days on Ko Phuket were meant as a battery recharge and that's basically what I did. I had planned to spend some time on the beach, however the often heavy showers made lengthy sunbathing impossible and I came back looking like a drowned rat on one occasion. I generally spent the mornings walking, one day down to Kata, one day around the back of the hotel and one day up into the hills. I would then spend the afternoon writing parts of Azure and the evenings hunting down a decent dinner and a couple of beers. I did find the constant cries of "massage" annoying, as I did the extremely persistent Tailors and the local taxi/tuk-tuk mafia.

I took two expeditions out, one to Patong which I absolutely, utterly hated and kicked on the head after about two hours. The pester level there was horrific and the place just seemed like a sleaze pit, not that I have anything against sleaze pits, but this wasn't my sort of sleaze pit. I had originally thought of staying there at the BYO Lofts, I am very glad I didn't, I would probably have a different impression of Thailand. The other was a hotel organised one to a Thai Cooking Class, this was quite fun, but I'm not sure it was worth the money for me. I know much of the basics of Oriental cooking and this class was perhaps just a bit too basic for me. Still fun tho.

As for Food and Drink, I didn't lounge hog, in fact I only used the lounge for breakfast on two mornings when my nearest brekkie venue was rammed. The advantage of being Diamond was that I could have brekkie at about four places, so I usually picked the nearest which was the enormous buffet. I wasn't that impressed with it, the selection was just that bit too big, the staff seemed unable to cope when full and the quality was a little under par especially in the bakery dept (however, poor bread appears to be a Thai flaw everywhere). I ate mainly Thai food, with a couple of "seafood" meals and one Indian, I had two meals in the hotel Thai resto on my first night and my last night for strategic reasons of timing. I generally ate a big lunch and a smaller dinner and mainly ate out at cheaper looking places which didn't have signs in Russian.

As for the room, it was great, housekeeping were excellent and the bed was so comfy that I slept better than I have done for some time. The shower was good, the bathroom had enough room for even my collection of potions, pills and draughts and the a/c worked very well without being too noisy. The only slight problem were the neighbours, Boris and Natasha, Boris liked to get drunk and argue with Natasha late at night and he would usually end the argument with what sounded like a slap. Not the hotels fault.

Would I stay there again. Maybe, it is massively big and impersonal, you do have to walk a way to find anything that isn't  another hotel, but it is nice and quiet and the service is decent. I might however try the Doubletree Surin Beach next time, Surin Beach looks like it is even quieter and might suit me even more.

Anyway, compared to the reviews on Trip Advisor, check out was a breeze and it was back in the hotel car to the airport, the journey back seemed a little quicker than the journey there and there was soon plenty of time to waste at Phuket Airport. The slight problem is there isn't a lot do to at Phuket Airport, there is a small Thai Airways lounge, it had nice seats and a small serve yourself bar, there was some fresh fruit, some desperately pallid sandwiches (I'm afraid this is a Thai feature) and some taro and custard pastries. Whilst I may criticise Thai bread as being weak, crust incapable things. Cake and pastries are usually better, the taro and custard pastries were not bad at all. Anyway, after a visit to the smoking area, it was time to board. Now this flight was operated by Thai Smile, who are sort of the low cost end of Thai with a bunch of 320's and a nice little peach uniform. However, they still have a Business Class in a sort of Euro style. The crew also appeared to be going for the Thai Diversity award, there was a very pretty girl (who was tall, glam and had a hint of an adam's apple), a girl in a man's uniform, a lost looking chap and a grimly efficient senior mama who managed to hold them all together. English skills, umm, low. Willingness high. A box meal was served, it was unmemorable.

Arrival at the Big Mango was roughly on time, the bags took rather a long time to come out, by which time I had organised my limo to the hotel through the AOT booth, nipped outside, had a fag and found the damn things still weren't coming off. Into the Merc and then off to brave the legendary traffic on Sukhumvit Road.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Trip Report 14 Part 1 : LHR-BKK-HKT (TG F/TG "C")

It has not been the easiest of years, there are reasons why Trip Report 13 has not been finished and sadly never will be. This may also be the penultimate trip report, I am currently on gardening leave after deciding to resign after nearly 14 years in the job. I will start looking for a new job in the New Year.

Anyway, having quit and been placed on Gardening Leave, I decided to go on Holiday and maybe foolishly decided to spend some of my *cough* money *cough* on a decent ticket. When I realised that Thai would provide me with F class travel for the price of a C ticket on SQ or LH, I decided to go for it, I knew of Thai's reputation for being variable, but I decided it was work the risk. In general, it was and has topped up the milage balance that there may well be one more premium class adventure even if I end up stacking shelves in a supermarket.

Anyway, a cold but sunny Wednesday saw me on a fast and dirty Virgin bemoaning the pathetic thing that Virgin claim is a breakfast compared to the BR breakfast of yesteryear. A swift taxi and HEX saw me at Terminal 3 and trying to find Thai's checkin, which was closed 3 hrs before, except for a Royal First desk. I was swiftly checked in and baggage tagged through to Phuket. As is usual, I went outside and smoked a couple, after all the next one would be in Bangkok, wouldn't it.

Anyway, fast track security was reasonably swift and I was soon through to the joys of Duty Free which as usual I carefully avoided. I bought some stuff in Boots and then proceeded to the London Lounge which is supposedly the lounge Thai use for both their first and business class passengers. Which is not exactly a bnlliant idea. Apart from the piss poor greeting where a) the rude bint couldn't get off the phone to her partner and b) where the dopey cow didn't realise I'd given her the BKK-HKT boarding pass, I suppose it was OK for a business class lounge, except for the broken beer machine. So off to SQ's lounge for some First Class treatment :-)

Anyway finally it was time for boarding and I scampered to the 747-400 to take my allocated seat which was 3F, boarding was a bit of a zoo to be honest. There was a warm welcome and the goodies started flowing, the very nice RImowa L'Occitane amenity kit, the rather good pj's, the Dom Perignon and for those that take them, the nuts. The crew in F can best be described as mature, in generally they did very well, although there were blond moments. There is a bit of a kerfiuffle over someone who wants to get his wife upgraded to F for the meal service, but I just tune it out. We are 10/10 in F, 2 young hiso Thais and 8 middle aged to elderly farang.

Anyway, we push back roughly on time and finally take off about 12:30, however, they seem pretty confident that we will get to Bangkok actually a few minutes before schedule.

Whilst they take orders, the amuse is handed out, it's a deep fried crabmeat ball with some honey/chili dip. Frankly, the crab ball is of UK Chinese Takeaway standard, but the dipping sauce is good.

You get your own individual bread basket on Thai, but no real choice of how it is made up, the bread is also not of the best quality, something that was a recurrent theme in Thailand. The garlic bread was OK and brought around separately.

The caviar comes in a generous portion, but there were no toast points. There were some blini, but they ran out, which was a bit annoying. The woman in front whined for ages loudly about there being no melba toasts. #firstworldproblems

This had me a little worried, bad, bad seared tune but with a tasty salad. The tuna was really bad though.

And this recovered it, pepper beef with mushrooms on a bed of noodle, very peppery rich sauce and an excellent main course.

Fruits and cheese were offered, I turned down the cheese which may have been a mistake given the quality of the cheese on the return leg. The fruits were OK, good for a UK origination.

I actually said I didn't want dessert, because as you all know, I don't eat dessert, but this crew was a bit ditzy and whilst one of the deserts was contaminated with Satan's globes, the little coconut tart was excellent.

Mint Tea - there are many varieties of Mint Tea, TG use a disgusting one. I must say, I really like Thai's tableware and glassware.

Anyway, with all that over there was the usual darkening of the cabin, which was very much encouraged by the crew. Now I would have dearly loved to go to sleep, but sleep is a bit of a precious quantity to me and sleeping in the middle of the day on a aircraft is not something I can usually manage. So I read a large treatise on the Holy Roman Empire and I wrote and I plotted and I found I'd left my Thai guidebook behind *sigh*. I was kept well supplied with water by the crew, although it was made quite clear that they really wanted me to try to go to sleep. I understand this, but I would prefer them to be a little more subtle. I also confused the crew, a couple of them noticed I was reading a book in German and made the assumption that I was German, they started talking to me in TDeutsch rather than Tinglish and so comprehension levels went down the pan. However, nice of them to be so accommodating.

Anyway, about two hours out from Bangkok, the cabin lights were slowly raised up and the usual shuffling around started of people trying to smarten themselves up for landing, a decent breakfast was then served, as usual I didn't manage to get photos but there was a small bread basket, a fruit plate and then a choice of dishes, I had an omelette with herbs which I'm afraid was the usual rubbery airline stuff, but the rest with it was reasonable. Decent coffee as well, so I had two cups. We landed at BKK about 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

It was at this point that the only serious problem of the outbound journey occurred, now this wasn't a major end of the world problem but it and the some stuff on the return showed me what I consider to be a defect with Thai's ground services which I understand they regard as being top-class. To be fair, they probably are, if you want to do what Thai want you to do.

You see, on planet Thai, you are picked up by a bint in a golf cart, taken to immigration or transfer and generally given a fast track through the system with a dedicated guide. Sounds good doesn't it. Just one tiny problemette, they don't ask you want you actually want to do. When handed over, my request was to be taken to a smoking area, my guide through the formalities spoke no English, I gestured, I showed my fag packet but the guide just did what he had been told and dumped me in a domestic business class lounge away from my gate. So I immediately left it and went for an exploration, guess what, no smoking areas in the domestic terminal, they are only provided in the international terminal. Quite simply, this is not good enough, if you are going to provide ground services like this (which is nice and better than LH's sink or swim methods at FRA), then you should at least try and meet any wishes your passengers have. However, it must be said, I was through in about 10 minutes, it's just I'd have rather have taken a little longer.

This left me with a decision, do I go out and smoke and re-clear Thai domestic security or do I stomp around and be miserable. It's 7:45 am, my flight boards in just over an hour. I have no knowledge of how zoolike it will be out there. I dig around and find my last piece of nicotine chewing gum, go and find a sunny corner and generally be miserable. I could have tried to reenter the lounge, but to be honest, it didn't look terribly good anyway.

Anyway, boarding is roughly on time for the short hop down to Phuket and there's an awful lot of people at the gate, an awful lot. I hadn't really paid much attention to the connecting flight and there was a bit of a surprise in store for me. We loaded from the gate onto busses, and suddenly I noticed that it was rather warm, rather pleasantly warm and rather humid, rather unpleasantly humid. Of course, loading onto buses once again destroyed the idea of priority boarding. We were taken to a standing 747-400 , oh, I thought, and after one of those rather considerable delays, we were allowed to board. It turned out to be what I understand is Thai's only 747-400 with the old seats which has been relegated to short-haul duties. My business class seat 1A turned out to be a first class seat, which is really rather overkill for the short flight to HKT.

We dithered around a bit, but ended up leaving about 25 minutes late. Which gave me a chance to look around my fellow pax, who were mainly farang and mainly quite a bit older than me and I had my suspicions they were headed for Patpong. To my surprise, there was service on this flight and not just a quickly flung tray. There was a water or juice round, there was a fruit plate, there was a croissant and there was a hot dish. Sadly, the hot dish was some sort of prawn congee and congee is one of the few Asian foods I have just never been able to get into. Oh and there was much needed coffee, not as nice as the coffee on the previous flight but still decent for airline coffee.

Anyway, we arrived at HKT roughly on schedule due to a fairly generous block time and then the fun of arrivals began. You arrive domestic, but you have to collect your bags from international which is a bit of a traipse but it does save that annoying collect your bags and re-check them feature which is such a joy of travel to the USA. Anyway, priority bags normally work very well in Asia, so I was expecting the bag off quickly. Alas, this was not to be, although it was the only failure of priority bags on this trip, and they weren't out last or anything silly like that, they just weren't very quick off the mark.

Anyway, I had arranged a car from the hotel, it was a little more expensive than the taxi prices, but not that much more thanks to the Ko Phuket taxi mafia, so I was carefully scanning the waiting people for my driver. Eventually, I found him outside, not in a terribly prominent position but mercifully next to a smoking area. He went to get the car, I indulged for the first time in about 18 hours. It was bliss.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Trip report 13: MEL-BNE (QF C); Hilton Brisbane; BNE-SYD (QF C)

Getting back to Tullamarine was a lot easier than getting there, probably because it wasn't rush hour and raining hard. I'm flying QF Business Class as a way of burning my small and now much shrunken pile of BA Avios, after last times experiences, I would be very dubious about paying for QF Domestic Business and after this time, I certainly wouldn't pay for it.

I used the self-service check-in and bag drop and went quickly through priority security who were pleasant as I got called for a swab. Straight off after that to the Qantas Club where I proceeded to have an early lunch - remembering the catering debacles of last time. Some sliced meat, some cheese, some bread and a couple of long blacks and I was pretty much set up, which turned out to be a good idea. 

Boarding onto the 737-800 was on time and my seat opponent was a nice little old lady off to Brisbane for Christmas. Service was fairly prompt, but I was quite shocked that "lunch" had been downgraded again, it was a hot meal or salad. Now it was a "plate", the choice being cheese or cheese by the time they got to me. The cheese plate was scattered with nuts, so I declined and just had a peppermint tea.

(For those that don't know, I have a minor nut allergy, walnuts and pecans, so I avoid anything that contains "nuts" especially chopped mixed nuts. Most are fine, but I'd rather not take the risk.)

Anyway, we arrived at Brisbane on time, bags came off fairly quickly and I found myself in a taxi within about 20 minutes of landing. The driver took a somewhat unusual route to get to the Hilton, which was a bit more expensive that I was used to. His excuse was "traffic". I got the usual warm welcome and my room was ready, it was a corner room on the executive floor which meant it was a little larger than other rooms at this hotel, it has also been recently refurbished, a nice room with a good view down towards Eagle Pier.

I did pop up to the lounge for canapes, but it was rammed (which I find to be uncomfortable) and so I just had a glass of water and left. I then wandered through the refurbished Wintergarden up to Queen Street and then down to the Eagle Street Pier where I had a nice plate of linguine with Moreton Bay Bugs and a glass of white wine.

Brisbane was a bit of a whirl as I only had two full days there. The friday was breakfast with one friend, lunch with another, an afternoon at the art gallery which was very enjoyable and then dinner at the hotel with a third friend. The bar meals at vintaged are very good and what was once a dead hotel bar now seems to be somewhat of a hot spot.

The second full day was nearly as busy. Laundry in the morning, a bit of serious beer drinking at lunch time with friends and then a, ahem, date in the evening. It was a very nice date. It was probably a good job that I was so busy, because the hotel had changed their wifi provider. The new service hadn't quite done their maths right and getting onto wifi involved sitting by the door with the mac on top of the in-room safe.

However, apart from that, a solid performance by the Hilton Brisbane as usual. Lounge breakfasts were superb, I didn't investigate the lounge at other times except to notice that afternoon tea was sparser than I remember, but at the same time, there were very few people up there for afternoon tea.

On check-out I was offered a very reasonably priced airport transfer in a better car rather than the sometimes scabby Brisvegas taxis. 50 AUD wasn't much more than I paid for the taxi in and it was a much better experience.

Check in at BNE was the same self-service job, but the lounge was fine if rather full. My flight incurred a delay, which meant I got to see the bar open and a very good selection of food come out. I made a decent lunch out of the offerings, the cheeses and salads were very good.

We eventually left on the 767-300 about 90 minutes late, my seat opponent was a hot Maori guy. There was a cheese plate or a ploughmans and i declined both, one was scattered with nuts and the other looking minging and microscopic.

Despite leaving so late, we had a pretty direct run into SYD and only arrived 65 minutes late, SYD bags take a while to come off so, I popped outside into the sunshine before they came off and then it was in by taxi to the hotel.

All in all, I am no longer impressed with QF's domestic J, I do like the lounges though.