Impressions from Asia 2019

Asia 2019

Booked: Summer in Asia

Impressions
View all: ReviewsTravel Talk

I’ve just returned to Canada last week after a one-month stint in Asia, where I discovered new parts of Japan, spent some valuable time with the family in China, and found myself surprised and delighted by a visit to Cambodia. As usual, I’m excited to share with you the initial impressions from this trip, before eventually telling you more about every stop along the way in future posts.

(By the way, I’ve written a separate article on the suite upgrades I sought out at fancy hotels during this trip, so I’ll be glossing over the hotels somewhat in this post.)


A Week in Boston & New York

Before jetting off across the Pacific, I attended TravelCon 2019 in Boston to speak on a panel of bloggers and website owners who focus on the Miles & Points niche within the wider travel space. I enjoyed sharing some stories from my own journey with Prince of Travel, meeting a few readers who had made it out to Boston, and learning from several of my more experienced colleagues in the space as well. And of course, the nightly open-bar afterparties took a lot out of us 😉

Matt from NomadicMatt did a spectacular job in putting this event together, and I’m hopeful that I can make it out to next year’s edition in New Orleans, which happens to be a city I’ve been dying to check out. 

After Boston, in a rather uncharacteristic move, I decided to take the four-hour $20 Greyhound bus to New York, which left me looking rather dishevelled as I walked into the opulent lobby chamber of the St. Regis New York. I’ve already chronicled how that particular check-in experience went, but in short, I still managed to secure an upgrade to the $3,000+ Madison Suite for the night despite my less-than-charming appearance at the time. 

We spent our short stay in New York catching up with some friends, taking the St. Regis’s house Bentley for a ride, and cycling through Central Park on our way to spending an afternoon at the Met (tickets were included as part of the St. Regis’s US$50 destination fee). 

It’s always a pleasure to be in the Big Apple, especially in the summertime when everyone’s out and about, and I’m sure I’ll be back very soon to look for yet more new things to do in one of the world’s great cities. 


Japan Airlines Business Class: WOW!

Four hours of Greyhound left me itching for some slightly swankier surroundings on my next journey forward. Well, it’s safe to say that Japan Airlines business class did the job, and so much more. 

Japan Airlines 787 business class

Japan Airlines 787 business class

This was my first time flying JAL’s long-haul business class product, but I already had very high expectations going in, having flown their First Class and regional business class a couple of times. And since this flight took place entirely during the daytime, I didn’t waste any of the 12-hour journey on sleep, instead revelling in JAL’s stellar food and service throughout the entirety of the flight.

I’ll let some of the pictures speak for themselves, but the highlight of the flight was definitely the incredibly varied snack menu, which treated me to a bowl of ramen, a bowl of simmered beef over rice, two bowls of udon, and some Häagen-Dazs ice cream – and that’s in addition to the usual meals after takeoff and before landing. 

There are very few types of food for which I’m willing to stretch my stomach like that, but high-quality Japanese cuisine served onboard the national carrier is definitely one of them. 

The soft product on this flight definitely attracted full marks, and combined with the industry-leading Apex Suites that JAL uses onboard their Boeing 787s, made this easily one of the most comfortable business class flights I’ve ever taken.


Kyoto: Japan’s Cultural Capital

JAL dropped us off in Kyoto, which is a city that I’ve been meaning to visit for a very long time now. I’ve been to all-action Tokyo several times by now, so a trip to Japan’s more tranquil ancient capital and modern-day cultural centre was long overdue. 

With the zenlike Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto serving as our home base, we did an excellent job of making it out to the major points of interest very early in the morning and beating out the usual hordes of tourists. 

You might already be familiar with Kyoto’s star attractions: the torii gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha and the otherworldly calm of Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – but by 8am, these places are already teeming with fellow tourists causing commotion and getting in the way of your perfect Instagram pictures.

Fushimi Inari-taisha

Fushimi Inari-taisha

Instead, harness your powers of jet lag for good rather than evil, and make your way out here by 5:30am in the morning. I’m so glad we did it this way, because there’s nothing quite like looking up at the towering bamboo stalks of Arashiyama, or hiking to the summit through the one-thousand vermilion gates of Fushimi Inari, with not a single other soul around you.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

In the afternoons, we mostly divided our time between visiting temples and palaces within the city of Kyoto itself (like the gold-plated Kinkaku-ji and the central Nijo-jo Castle with its distinctive nightingale floors) and getting our fix of scrumptious Japanese food for the year. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Japan is virtually incomparable as a food destination, with any street vendor, market stall, or 7/11 on the corner, picked at random, serving up delicacies that will probably be the best <insert Japanese food> you’ve ever had.

After one final in-room breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton (which I’d rank as my favourite city hotel in the world thus far, exemplified by the fact that they bring a toaster into your room as part of the Western breakfast), we were on the bus back to Osaka Itami Airport for our flight to Beijing.

Kyoto treated us to a wonderful three days, and it’s definitely someplace I’d like to revisit in the future – the tricky part being that there’s still so many more places in Japan I need to check out first! 


A Brief Respite in China

Having spent the better part of 10 years of my childhood in Beijing, nowadays I view my trips back home as simply an occasion for catching up with the family, relaxing in-between my jam-packed days spent in other places, and trying (and failing) to explain to my grandma exactly what I do for a living.

After one week of that, it was a similar story for four days in Anshan, Jessy’s hometown in China’s northeast. Our days were mostly filled with lunches and dinners with various family members, with the inevitable slugfest of who’d be paying the bill at the end of the meal providing some brief moments of excitement. 

The restfulness did us a world of good, leaving us itching for the next series of adventures in Cambodia. Before that, though, one final stop in China: a 20-hour layover in Shenzhen, thanks to Shenzhen Airlines’s perfectly-tailored routes and schedules connecting Shenyang and Phnom Penh. 

Views from the 76th floor in Shenzhen

Views from the 76th floor in Shenzhen

I got to catch up with my cousin’s family, who lives in Shenzhen, and treat them to the 76th- and 77th-floor views from my two-storey Allure Suite at the towering St. Regis Shenzhen.

It was one of those moments that made me so grateful for the opportunities we get from Miles & Points: sure, it’s fun to fly around in fancy airline seats, but it’s even more rewarding to put a smile on the faces of your loved ones, especially those young cousins that I don’t get to see very often as they grow up.


Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Lessons in Life and Death

For our two days in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, I looked no further than the recommendations from my friend Tiffany from One Mile at a Time, who visited earlier this year and left the city with glowing praise.

We spent our first evening in town briefly walking around the area by our hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott, before heading to the Royal Palace and the Ounnalom Pagoda the next day.

Jessy and I are big fans of discovering a new city on two feet, so we were briefly frustrated when our efforts to walk from place to place were met with relentless hustling by streetside tour guides and tuk-tuk drivers. 

Soon, we realized that in a city like Phnom Penh where the average tuk-tuk ride costs $1 or less, it simply didn’t make any sense to walk at all. We quickly set ourselves up with the Grab app and began cruising around on three-wheelers, and our moods perked up shortly after that. 

That would be short-lived, though, because the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum took a lot out of us. Chronicling the atrocities of the Cambodian genocide in one of the most notorious former prisons used by the Khmer Rouge, Tuol Sleng gives visitors a harrowing glimpse into one of the worst crimes against humanity the world has seen, and one that I found almost impossible to digest at times. 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Perhaps it was how recently these events took place – between 1975 and 1979, barely over 40 years ago – but Jessy and I found ourselves debating whether the exhibits at Tuol Sleng were even more hard-hitting than our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau a few years ago (insofar as these types of things can even be compared in the first place).

After retreating to the rooftop pool and lounge at the Courtyard for some quiet reflection, we took up another one of Tiffany’s recommendations: spending an evening with Lost Plate Food Tours, who run carefully curated tours designed to bring visitors off the beaten path in the food and drink scene here in Phnom Penh.

Unfortunately, I found that the much-acclaimed Food & Beer Tour wasn’t available that night, since Lost Plate was running a newer Hidden Bar Tour on Friday nights instead. As if to prove to the world that we were young and hip enough, Jessy and I went ahead with the Hidden Bar Tour, and it turned out to be a wonderful time.

We got to know Phnom Penh from the perspective of its nightlife, seeing how the locals celebrate a good time at some of the city’s liveliest drinking establishments, including a craft brew pub, a hidden “by Khmers, for Khmers” speakeasy, and a one-of-a-kind tuk-tuk bar serving up rare rice liquor cocktails (where we even got to prepare our own drinks from within the tuk-tuk itself). 

Phnom Penh Hidden Bar Tour

Phnom Penh Hidden Bar Tour

Our guides, Leanna and Thearo, made the tour what it was. Leanna’s love for her hometown was infectious, and she showed us quite effortlessly what makes for a uniquely Khmer night out on the town; meanwhile, Thearo is something of a mini-celebrity here in Phnom Penh, regaling us with stories from his up-and-coming showbiz career. 

It was an insight into the energy and vibrancy of daily life here in Phnom Penh that we never would’ve gotten on our own, so I had zero regrets about the US$55 price tag, which is certainly rather steep for Cambodia.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the night got away from us slightly in the end, with the tour ending at a live music spot and Jessy and I belting out “Don’t Look Back in Anger” with our new friends and a bunch of strangers. It was that sort of night, and a nice memory to take away from our time in Phnom Penh.


Siem Reap, Cambodia: Ancient Seat of the Khmer Empire

A short domestic flight brought us to Siem Reap, Cambodia’s most popular tourist town and the site of the world-famous temples of Angkor Wat.

Thanks to the recommendation of Prince of Travel reader Dave, we eschewed the usual tourist ritual of hiring a tuk-tuk driver for the day to bring us out to the various temples, instead choosing to explore the temples in a much more active fashion: on a cycle tour. Thanks to Camouflage Adventures Cambodia, and our tour guide Sambath (who runs Away Adventure Tours) in particular, we were treated to one of the most rewarding travel experiences in recent memory.

Angkor Wat cycle tour

Angkor Wat cycle tour

The cycle tour mostly took place on the off-road trails within the wider Angkor Archaeological Park, which encompasses Angkor Wat and most of the neighbouring temples. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of conquering a gruelling trail before suddenly turning a corner and coming upon a massive temple complex right before your eyes. 

We also got to ride alongside the manmade moat surrounding Angkor Wat, as well as on top of the ancient walls around the Bayon temple (also known as Angkor Thom), so it was a highly varied cycle trail that felt daring and gripping at every turn.

Naturally, Angkor Wat was the highlight of the four-stop temple tour, its instantly recognizable quintet of towers striking a palpable sense of mysticism within you from all angles. 

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Enamored with this place 🇰🇭✨

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In addition, I also had a soft spot for Ta Nei, a smaller, much more secluded temple complex deep in the woods of the Angkor park. There are much fewer tourists here, allowing you to fully succumb to the spirituality that this place is meant to evoke.

Ta Nei Temple

Ta Nei Temple

Our guide, Sambath, was an experienced adventure tour guide who leads professional cycle tours throughout South East Asia when he’s not showing visitors around Angkor. With an excellent command of English, he walked us through, in great detail, the various buildings, chambers, and libraries of each temple and their respective purposes, as well as the ornate artwork that showcased the incredible riches of the Khmer Empire back in the day.

For those of you who are hoping to discover Angkor Wat in a more active fashion than the standard tuk-tuk tour, I couldn’t recommend booking with Sambath (through Away Adventure Tours) or Camouflage Adventures enough. 

The other highlight from our time in Siem Reap was getting closer in touch with Khmer cuisine at a variety of locations and price points.

At the lower end, Lilypop Restaurant, located not far from the Park Hyatt where we stayed, treated us to some classic fish amok. In contrast, Embassy Restaurant across the river is the work of the Kimsan Twins, two of Cambodia’s finest female chefs, and their five-course dinner was an unforgettable lesson in the complex flavours of Khmer gastronomy.

Best of all, the price of US$36 per person is a pittance compared to meals of a similar quality you’d get in more developed parts of the world, so I’d consider Embassy a must-try if you find yourself in Siem Reap.


Cathay Pacific First Class: A Wonderful Flight, But…

I originally planned a trip to Cambodia for little reason other than to kill a few days before the Cathay Pacific First Class mistake fare I had booked out of Hanoi.

Looking back, though, I think it’s safe to say that Cambodia was genuinely a pleasant surprise: between the wealth of things to do, the friendliness of the people, and the complex history to slowly absorb and reflect on, it’s a place that I’d be very enthusiastic about revisiting in the future.

In contrast to those feelings, my Cathay Pacific First Class flight to Vancouver turned out to be mildly disappointing compared to the first time around.

You may have already read my complete impressions from the flight, but overall I was left to wonder whether the influx of passengers flying on US$980 mistake fares had cheapened the product permanently, or whether this was just a temporary dip in form from Cathay.

Cathay Pacific First Class

Cathay Pacific First Class

Ultimately, though, it’s still Cathay First, and there’s no question that it’s still an unbelievably luxurious way to travel. I’m definitely looking forward to my return trip to Asia on this fare, and hope that the experience more closely resembles the level of perfection that you’d expect from Cathay Pacific when the time comes.


Conclusion

Having grown up in Asia for most of my life, there’s no denying that I feel quite a bit more comfortable there than anywhere else in the world, and this month-long journey definitely kindles some stronger-than-usual trip withdrawal symptoms and reaffirms my desire and eagerness to go back as often as I can. 

From the vermilion gates of Kyoto to the smoggy skyline of Shenzhen, from Phnom Penh’s lively streets and rooftops to Siem Reap’s mesmerizing ancient temples (and of course, with a few luxury flights and hotels sprinkled in as well), I got so much more out of this trip than I had originally expected, and look forward to taking similar ones in the months and years to come.