A POTPOURRI OF ASIA TRAVEL TIPS
By Michael Matthews
September 18, 2008 -- After nearly five weeks of travel, visiting six Asian countries, flying five airlines and staying in a number of hotels, I've picked up a few tips and come away with some distinct impressions.
Let me share some of my more salient airline, airport and hotel thoughts. This potpourri of advice and commentary isn't meant to be encyclopedic. It's the panorama you get as you're breezing through the region.
SKIPPING THE CLUB LIFE
There are so many new airports in Southeast Asia, all of which are truly spectacular, that the you may not need lounge access and club membership may be redundant.
For instance: Cathay Pacific's Marco Polo Lounge in Hong Kong is huge, but very crowded and not particularly clean. Thankfully, the airport has so many shops and food outlets that there's really no need to use the lounge.
In a similar vein, the new Bangkok airport, which got off to a very shaky start, is now wonderful. We grabbed an espresso and a croissant at 5:30 in the morning and they were as good as one would find this side of Paris. We picked up a couple of tee shirts and were on our way. On a subsequent visit, we ducked our head into a lounge shared by a number of airlines. It was hot and crowded and we opted to not use it. And sadly, the scrum to get through Bangkok immigration hasn't changed much.
The new Beijing International Airport, designed by Sir Norman Foster, is enormous. Be prepared to walk for what seems like miles, then ride a train to the central terminal. Not all of the shops are open yet, either. Security is the most thorough we came across--but a bit frightening, to be honest. The airports in Siem Reap (Cambodia) and Denpasar (Bali) are small and the waits for customs clearance and visas are long. At least the airports are air conditioned.
And while I have suggested that club memberships are not necessary, kudos to the American Airlines lounge in Tokyo's Narita Airport. It offers great food and drink, masses of international newspapers and magazines and comfortable seating. Why can't their flights be as good?
THE GOOD AND BAD IN THE SKY
I found the business class on Japan Airlines superb. I flew them transpacific to Tokyo and then to Denpasar. I also flew them between Beijing and Tokyo. The food was good, the wines were fine and the entertainment system was easy to use. I felt a real, caring attitude emanating from the cabin crew. They even escorted me and carried my bag from the plane to customs (I had a broken arm) without being asked.
Unfortunately, Cathay Pacific has unquestionably declined in style. It's nothing like I remember it from my years flying it from Hong Kong. These days, Cathay is nothing special, just another flying bus.
I flew home from Tokyo to Chicago and then on to Tucson on American Airlines in first class. What an abysmal joke. The purser and flight attendant had a distasteful attitude of superiority; they thought that they were doing us a favor by allowing us to fly with them. Neither would help me put my carry-on bag in the overhead bin, even though they stood there watching me struggle with one good arm and one broken one. The seats are uncomfortable and … Oh, the hell with it. I could go on and on, but you probably know the drill. I won't fly American again when I have an alternate choice like Japan Airlines.
The best airline experience of the trip? Bangkok Airways. Who? Bangkok Airways, which flies inter-Asia routes with modern, clean Airbus planes. A welcoming check-in and a smiling crew. At 6:30 in the morning, coffee and a hot breakfast served to a planeful of passengers on a 40-minute flight. Traveling Bangkok Airways on a roundtrip was a delight.
THE HOTEL SCENE
In Bangkok, I'd try the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers on the river or the Shangri-La hotel. The dowager of Bangkok lodgings The Oriental, has slipped--or so say the locals. The inconvenience of being on the "wrong" side of the river took the Peninsula off my list. Wherever you stay in Bangkok, however, it will be spotlessly clean and have friendly, smiling service. It really surpasses anything I've experienced anywhere else in the world.
My previous column discussed Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental, my new "best hotel in the world." Some other quick thoughts about the current hotel scene in Hong Kong: The new Four Seasons in Central is spectacular, but I think its location is a bit dodgy. We dined in the lobby lounge of the Inter-Continental in Kowloon and it wasn't bad. But then the view of Victoria Harbour is still the best in the world. (Of course, I'm biased: I spent many years working at the Inter-Continental when it was known as The Regent.) The Peninsula is as stately as ever. "My" Ritz-Carlton, the hotel I opened as general manager in 1993, is already being demolished. But it was good to know that the staff had all been placed at other hotels and I enjoyed bumping into a few of them. A new Ritz-Carlton will open next year.
In Beijing, I stayed at The Renaissance. It will never be in the world's top 100, but the staff was trying so hard to be efficient and pleasant that it's hard to say nasty things about the hotel. I fell in love with a barmaid. It was her first day on the job and I had to show her how to open a bottle of beer! Next time, though, I'll stay at the newly opened Raffles, which is a stone's throw from the Forbidden City. After I toured it, I wished I could have moved right in. It is extremely refined and tastefully appointed.
If you have to do an overnight at Narita Airport, the Hilton is fine. And I did like the E-mail from Hilton's reservation service reconfirming my stay 24 hours before arrival. The only downside: The hotel's bus service from the airport only runs every hour, so too bad if you just miss it.
ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.
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