My South East Asia trip was unreservedly awesome on the whole, albeit with a few surprises littered throughout. Since there's so much incredible stuff to write about on this trip, and it will likely take me quite a while to get through everything, I'd like to share some of the highlights from the trip just to give a you an early taste of some of the excellent flight and hotel experiences, as well as the amazing things we saw along the way.
Getting to Bali
I've already written about another great long-haul flight on EVA Air that brought me from Toronto to Taipei. After spending five hours in a rather disappointing lounge setup in Taipei (I'll discuss more about that soon), next up was a flight in EVA Air's regional business class to Denpasar, the capital of Bali.
I was expecting a run-of-the-mill regional flight that I thought might not even be worth reviewing. It's fair to say that I got entirely more than I bargained for.
That's right – this was one of EVA's famed Hello Kitty flights! Everything was decked out in Sanrio Friends designs, from the slippers to the menus to even the in-flight meal itself.
At first, I couldn't make up my mind if this was childish or cheesy... but when a Hello Kitty-shaped block of literal cheese came served on my appetizer, I decided that it was plain awesome.
The flight itself wasn't half bad. I got plenty of sleep on the angled seats, and before I knew it we were on the ground in Bali, locked in a heated bidding war with several taxi drivers to bring us to Bambu Indah.
Bambu Indah Ubud
Ubud is a town in the inland portion of Bali, about an hour's drive from the airport. Bambu Indah (Beautiful Bamboo), the boutique eco-lodge we were staying at, is nestled within the small streets of Ubud's many villages.
What a dreamy and magical experience it was to stay here. Perfect lush green, natural pools, and a sweeping vista of the adjacent river valley help to bring out a sense of internal peace that's hard to find elsewhere.
The guest rooms take the form of converted Balinese bridal homes, and ours was a special one. The Udang House (Shrimp House) is built on top of a shallow shrimp pond, which was visible through a glass floor in the interior of the house.
Meanwhile, the bathroom partially opened up to the outside, further immersing you in the natural surroundings.
Hospitality is always done right in Bali, and Bambu Indah was no exception. Every day's breakfast and afternoon tea are included with your stay. The service was absolutely perfect, and the staff were always able to address any and all questions, concerns, or requests. I will have more detail when writing a detailed review of the property – there's a few funny anecdotes in there 😉
The Best of Bali
Where to begin? We had about two and a half days to explore as much of inland Bali as we could, and we ended up spending most of that time around the Ubud area. There's lots to see around here, from the Sacred Monkey Forest...
...to the gorgeous rice terraces of Campuhan Ridge and Tegalalang. Rice terraces like this adorn the sides of multiple hills and valleys all across Ubud, but these are among the most visually stunning. In the case of Campuhan, it also requires quite an uphill trek to get to, but the reward is well worth it.
No trip to Bali would be complete without chasing a few waterfalls, and the Tegenungan Waterfall was our pick. Getting caught in an absolute humdinger of a rainstorm while halfway up climbing the rocks here was yet another exhilarating tale.
The Ritz-Carlton, Bali
Bali is known for more than its fair share of outstanding travel experiences, not least among which are its beachside resorts. We spent two days at The Ritz-Carlton discovering this side of Bali.
I really think the reward rate of 40,000 Marriott Rewards points a night is a steal, no matter how you slice it. This resort has so much to keep you occupied – visually stunning guest rooms (some with direct porch access to a lagoon pool), a relatively calm beach on the mesmerizing Indian Ocean, and free activities around the clock.
The best part of this resort, though, is the Ritz-Carlton Club Lounge. Now it's common knowledge that Marriott elite status isn't necessarily recognized at Ritz-Carlton properties. But this resort did more than its part: at a reduced rate of US$58/person/night for Marriott Gold members, I was able to access the Club Lounge for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and evening hors d'oeuvres. Better yet, alcohol was available at all times.
Club Lounge access basically transforms your resort experience into an all-inclusive. Paying 40,000 Marriott points a night for your room, plus such a reasonable rate for round-the-clock meals? Unbeatable.
The Best of Thailand
In Bangkok, the JW Marriott upgraded us to a newly renovated Premier Room, whose contemporary decor was outweighed by its tiny, tiny size. Nevertheless, I'd probably still prefer the Premier Room to the hotel's other rooms, which looked seriously dated.
One positive about this hotel was its beautiful Club Lounge on the 16th floor. Stay tuned for the full review on that one.
With just one full day to explore Bangkok before heading to the islands, we toured the city's Grand Palace extensively, before heading to Wat Pho, a gorgeous series of temples housing a collection of Buddha figures.
New Year's Eve came and went on Thailand's "party islands" of Ko Samui and Ko Phangan. It involved a full beach party countdown, the infamous "Thai Bucket" drinks, and gusty speedboat rides between the two islands under cover of darkness. I didn't really bring my camera along, so there's not many pictures to illustrate, but suffice to say that we had plenty of fun, little of which we actually remember.
A Taste of Qatar Airways
Getting between Bangkok and Hanoi involved a flight I was really looking forward to: a short 2-hour hop on Qatar Airways's Boeing 777 business class. While these aren't cutting-edge seats, I did enjoy the opportunity to briefly sample Qatar's onboard catering – and it certainly beat flying VietJet Air in economy class.
Two hours isn't enough time to leave me with any sort of meaningful impression, especially since all services were reduced on a tiny segment like this. Instead, what I'm left with is an eagerness to properly try Qatar's business class sooner rather than later, hopefully on a plane with better seats like their 787s or A350s.
The Best of Hanoi
Another pit stop followed in Hanoi, where a decent, if a little underwhelming stay at the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake was marked by little more than sleeping for 14 hours straight, following the New Year's Eve festivities.
That left us precious little time to explore Hanoi, but we still managed to see plenty of the city's Old Quarter, where the clash of Chinese, Vietnamese, and French influences was intriguing to observe.
In terms of food, Vietnamese pho was naturally the order of the day, but I also had the pleasure of trying a Hanoian delicacy known as "bun cha" as well.
Japan Airlines: WOW!
And before we knew it, it was time to round out the trip with the ultimate ride home.
First up was an overnight flight in Japan Airlines business class, whose B/E Aerospace Apex Suites I had really wanted to try. These business class seats are all forward-facing, but the window seats have their own little corridor and feel extremely private.
The Japan Airlines First Class Lounge at Narita Airport was up next. I actually felt a bit disappointed in this lounge, since there's very few "First Class" features to set it apart. The highlight of the lounge would no doubt be the sushi bar, where you can order unlimited fresh nigiri sushi that's prepared in front of your eyes by gourmet chefs.
And lastly, the crown jewel of the trip: Japan Airlines First Class. I will keep it short, and let a handful of pictures do most of the talking. In a nutshell, though, JAL First features an unbelievably spacious suite, but what truly sets it apart is a truly phenomenal level of onboard food and service that, in my opinion, blows even Lufthansa First Class out of the water.
Highlights included the Salon champagne (just before it was replaced by the still-excellent Cristal), the sensational multi-course Japanese menu, and complimentary Clé de Peau and Shiseido skincare kits. The full review may take me a while to complete, but I expect it'll be worth the wait.
What a trip! Landing back in freezing cold Toronto was a brutal reality check for Jessica and myself, to say the least. There's so many great things about this trip to savour and reflect on, and I'm excited to work through the full write-ups in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, to those of you who've flown JAL First Class before: are withdrawal symptoms a real thing?!😄