Archive | April, 2014

Around Town In Luang Prabang

14 Apr

Miniature Buddha structures at Pak Ou Caves

Miniature Buddha structures at the Pak Ou Caves

I still remember blank stares I got when I recently embarked on a journey to Southeast Asia that included Laos. I’d say, yeah, I’m off to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and the reactions were mostly oohs and ahs at the mention of the first two but then dead silence at the last and then, immediately, oh that’s cool — as if to say, wherever the heck that is. Well, I suppose to some extent somewhat understandable.

Laos certainly (and perhaps blessedly) does not have the same sort of massive tourist draw the aforementioned places command — at least not quite yet. They’re there but seemingly in manageable quantities which makes a city like Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place that still seems fairly off the beaten path and thus ever more so enchanting. Not just for the lack of its being overrun but also the sheer Zen nature of the city and its inhabitants, a population of just about 50k.

This was the last leg of our trip, traveling from Cambodia, and thus boarded a flight from Siem Reap direct to Luang Prabang on Vietnam Airlines, one of the few carriers operating this route. After a bit of a harrowing journey, largely due to the state of our jet, an ancient Fokker 100, we touched down at Luang Prabang airport, LPQ. Getting through immigration was relatively quick and painless (a visa is necessary for entry though this can be secured upon arrival at the airport). Next, we made our way into town. The Belle Rive Hotel is where we would call home during our stay and our experience there was mostly pleasurable. See my full review.

Luang Prabang is a very charming place that offers visitors truly memorable sightseeing and

Mekong River Cruise

Mekong River Cruise

recreational experiences. Early birds would appreciate the crack of dawn monk procession at the almsgiving ceremony. I’d be remiss in not mentioning that of course this is a sacred religious event and as such spectators should be mindful of the fact and respect the tradition. It is becoming somewhat of a tourist draw so the more cognizant we all are to help preserve the integrity of the ceremony, the better.

Further afield, roughly 18 miles south of the city is where you’ll find the multi-tiered magnificent Kwang Si or Tat Kwang Xi waterfalls. In my opinion, one of the must see attractions that should be included on any itinerary. It’s quite a remarkable experience and one of the better falls I’ve seen in some time. Don’t forget your bathing suits and flip flops, there are several swimming ponds along the trail to the largest of the falls where you can take a dip — a good reprieve from the sweltering temperatures.

Kwang Si Waterfalls

Kwang Si Waterfalls

Another notable attraction I’d recommend including on your list: Pak Ou Caves, roughly 16 miles the other direction, to the north of town. Make the journey via boat upstream on the Mekong (a distance of roughly 2 hrs – the scenery is well worth it) to Pak Ou, where the caves are located. They house an impressive collection of mostly miniature Buddha sculptures which have been collected over time.
Back in town, don’t miss the impressive 16th century temple, Wat Xieng Thong and the surrounding compound. And, as dusk nears, grab a driver and negotiate a sunset cruise on the Mekong. The views are quite picturesque; I think the Mekong displays a lot of character in these parts.

I think one of the more exhilarating experiences (if you happen to be an animal lover) is the elephant trek at Elephant Village Ban Xieng Lom. Have your hotel arrange for the trip out to Ban Xieng Lom or make arrangements directly. It includes pick-up, drop-off and a Guide. Grab your bathing suit here, too; you have the option to take a dip in the pool at the resort once the tour’s over. Lunch also comes included in the package.
When you’ve returned to town, ascend to the top of Phousi Hill for excellent views of the city and breathtaking sunsets. Once you’ve had your fill, from there, descend down to the night market on Sisavangvong behind the National Museum (another point that might be of interest) for some retail therapy. Lots of crafts and goods by local artisans are sold here.

By now you’re likely working up an appetite, head to L’Elephant Restaurant (making a reservation in advance is highly recommended) for some scrumptious Laotian and international fare. I recommend trying the Laotian tasting menu for a comprehensive sampling of what Laotian cuisine’s all about. Other restaurants to try are Coconut Garden, Tamarind and top rated, The Balcony by Lanith which I review in detail.

Luang Prabang is not a place that overly simmers with nightlife as the city does have a curfew. I do understand, however, that there are places like The Bowling Alley on the edge of town that opens late into the wee hours of the morning for those that like to keep it moving. Otherwise most restaurants and bars are open till curfew commences.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It is a city that endlessly fascinates and begs to be explored. Grab your tix and go. You’ll love it.

Clip: Almsgiving Ceremony

Bangkok Attraction: Jim Thompson House and Museum

11 Apr
Thai silk weaving, Jim Thompson House and Museum

Thai silk weaving, Jim Thompson House and Museum

The Jim Thompson House and Museum should make an excellent addition to your itinerary while visiting Bangkok. It’s located just a few blocks away from the BTS Skytrain stop (National Stadium terminus) in the center of town. Entrance fee is a negligible $3/100 Thai Bath (as of this writing) and includes guided tours that are conducted in English and French.

The former house of American Jim Thompson who’s popularly known for helping revitalize the Thai Silkindustry. It’s exemplary of what an upper class Thai home would have resembled in its day — complete with rare collector pieces. It’s quite impressive. Mystery still shrouds Thompson’s final days. No one knows what happened to him precisely. Makes a visit to this museum all the more fascinating. It was doubly special for me as I happened to have visited on March 21st, which was coincidentally Mr. Thompson’s birthday.

Property grounds

Property grounds

This premises is a complex of sorts — housing a couple shops and onsite restaurant (which happens to be quite decent – if a tad pricy relatively speaking of course). Alternatively, if you’d like to grab lunch after your visit, hop back on the Skytrain one stop in the other direction to Siam. You’ll be exiting right at Siam Paragon–Bangkok’s mega mall. Descend to the food halls (lower level) for a massive (and relatively inexpensive) assortment of scrumptious delights.

Between Business and Economy, A New Class Emerges

11 Apr

It’s commonly referred to as Premium Economy or Economy Plus/Comfort or Main Cabin Extra (locally) though it’s not entirely a new phenomenon. In some form it’s been around for years albeit limited to a number of airlines and serving as an additional revenue generating offering especially for airlines with just two-class configurations.

These days though, just about every major player’s onboard (pardon the pun). It’s growing increasingly popular and really beginning to carve its niche as a third or, indeed, fourth class, targeting a specific demographic – the leisure traveler who can afford to do a bit of splurging for just a bit more comfort and finesse. Though, perhaps, one may take the cynic route with the view that the situation in coach has just gotten so horrendous that it’s likely the only more decent way to fly as opposed to having to shell out the cash or premium miles for that business class seat.

It’s a bit of a wild west however in terms of these class of seats. There doesn’t appear to be too much consistency with the offering though I believe we’re starting to see some themes emerge as airlines become more competitive. Sadly however, domestic carriers still lag a bit here. In fact there isn’t really such a thing as Premium Economy this side of the Atlantic yet (with the exception of Air Canada on select jets). Most of the players here have decided to stick with simply bolstering the pitch of seats at the forward section of their Economy classes.

United has Economy Plus, Delta, Economy Comfort and American, Main Cabin Extra. All offering these seats at an extra cost to your average traveler. American is taking the lead however in creating a completely separate Main Cabin Extra cabin and the best pitch of the 3 carriers, 36″, on its new 777-300ER jet (retrofitted B772s arriving in the next few months will feature these seats, too). The best I’ve seen on Delta and United is 35″ in a similar class. The perks ends there though, no addnl. frills, with the exception of Delta that offers free alcoholic beverages on coast to coast flights – a nice touch and point of differentiation.
With rising competition however and the general state of the aviation industry on a healthier projection, I anticipate things will continue to progress in the right direction.

The brighter spot lies with Asian and some European carriers. On average we tend to see seat pitch at 38″ and wider widths. A couple clear standouts though are both Japan Airlines and Air New Zealand at an impressive pitch of 42″ offering exceptional cabin comfort.
The perks go on: Pre take-off champaign, better catering (British Airways touts Business Class meals), larger screens for In-flight Entertainment and Priority Boarding, etc., including, in a few cases, lounge access.

All these come with a premium though (up to $300 one way depending on the route) and at some point, one may wonder is it truly worth it? Curious to learn about experiences others may have. It’s a trend I’ll continue to follow.

Lan Airlines US

Japan Airlines (JAL) – A Pleasure In The Skies

11 Apr

Flight Review:
Route: JFK –> NRT
Flight #: JAL 005
Jet: B777-300ER – New JAL Sky Suite.
Class: Economy

This was my very first flight on Japan Airlines and I must say I was quite impressed indeed. I’ll start with the very minute and work my way to what I consider the more significant details.

Firstly, check in was smooth and easy at JFK. Being an AA (American Airlines) Platinum Elite member (Sapphire leveling on Oneworld carriers) it means an extension of preferred benefits network wide. What JAL does differently though is that it immediately includes Priority Boarding status and lounge access on your ticket which I found helpful and convenient. A bit of a slight negative in my praise, if ever so little, is that the lounge at JFK has seen better days and could use some sprucing up.

That aside, on to the actual flight experience. Without a doubt, I must say this was one of the most pleasurable flight experiences I’ve had in a long time having flown so far (14 hrs straight) and in economy class. JAL has done something clever which is really assess the flying experience for ALL passengers, including those in coach, which I’m afraid tends to be an afterthought–even if so–on other carriers, especially domestic ones. What’s impressive about what JAL’s done is design a standard economy seat with comfort and practicality foremost. With a pitch of 34″, this has got to be one of the most generous legrooms in coach period. For comparison, that’s just 1″ shy of (or in some cases equal to) an Economy Plus/Comfort seat which costs extra on United/Delta.
JAL takes Premium Economy to the next level with a whopping 42″ and a whole slew of other amenities (beats all others I know of in the same class — Cathay Pacific and British Airways offer 38″ in similar classes for comparison).

Meal service was also a big plus. Two full meals and a midflight snack were served. The initial meal after takeoff comprised of two different types of appetizers, fruit salad, slaw salad and your choice of entrée. Very scrumptious. The meal on my return journey, on a different airline, Cathay Pacific (which seems to be making more of a play for premium vs. coach customers these days) was a scant offering by comparison.

Meal Service - JAL 005 - JFK to NRT

Meal Service – JAL 005 – JFK to NRT

Inflight entertainment was fairly good though lacking a little in the variety of English language TV shows. Movies were excellent — several recently released Oscar nominated flicks were on feature. Also really enjoyed the cabin crew; they were all very gracious and accommodating.

Overall, a very pleasurable experience. Keep up the good work.

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