Author Archives: Edward

Review: Year of the Durian’s Malaysia Durian Appreciation Tour

I love durian. It is probably my favorite food in the world. And so when I heard that there would be a Year of the Durian tour around New Years in Malaysia and I didn’t have any other travel plans, I jumped at the opportunity.

If you’re a durian fan, you may have encountered Lindsay’s blog Year of the Durian. It is, as far as I know, the number one English-language resource for durian out there. It started as a project where Lindsay went on a year-long trip following the durian season around Southeast Asia. More recently, Lindsay has started organizing and leading durian tours of Thailand and Malaysia, in addition to organizing a durian festival at the Bao Sheng durian farm.

Now, durian season in Malaysia is typically during the summer, but because of the strange weather this season, there was a pretty sizable second durian season around New Years. And so Lindsay organized a New Years durian tour of Malaysia.

The tour lasted 9 days, started in Penang, and ended in Kuala Lumpur. Here’s the outline of a typical day:

  • Light breakfast (usually lots of fruit like mango, rambutan, soursop, melon, etc. and something savory)
  • Drive to a durian farm and learn about durian (e.g., about a particular variety such as Blackthorn or Musang King; about strategies for selecting fresh durian)
  • Feast on durian for lunch (there were always non-durian foods available for lunch, but I mostly ate durian for lunch)
  • Drive to some sort of fun activity (e.g., hiking, rafting, visiting elephants)
  • Eat a delicious dinner (if you have any room for more food)
  • Feast on more durian after dinner

In other words, the tour was absolute heaven for a durian lover like me.

A selection of durian from the very first durian tasting of the tour–one of my favorite varieties of durian from the entire tour was D2, which is pictured in the bottom left

Typical fruit selection at breakfast (that’s a cempedak, not a durian)

Feeding elephants durian

Enjoying a waterfall swim

In terms of the durian, we tasted over 30 varieties of durian over the course of 9 days. If you’re not familiar with durian, you can think of the different varieties like you might think of different varieties of apples (e.g., Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Fuji) or wine. And it really was all-you-can-eat durian at every meal. The non-durian food was awesome as well–easily the best food I’ve ever had on any sort of organized trip. As Lindsay said during the tour, the tour is largely about managing your appetite, since there’s so much good food and durian available.

Besides the durian, the best part of the trip was the other people. Because we were essentially driving around Malaysia in a van, we spent a lot of time together. And the sorts of people who love durian enough to come on a durian tour are pretty awesome. Lindsay was also an incredible source of information–she knows so much about durian, and she knew exactly where to take us for the best durian (e.g., durian can be very finnicky, so two farms right next to each other can have vastly different yields or quality of durian).

All in all, this was an incredible trip. Lindsay said that she’s planning on expanding and doing tours of Borneo and Indonesia in the coming years, and I definitely want to go on more of these tours. If you love durian, you should definitely consider going on one of these tours! Make sure to sign up for the Year of the Durian mailing list so you can get the inside scoop on when tours are upcoming, as they can fill up fast!

Review: Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Boeing 777 DPS to HKG

Boarding for this flight was a bit of a mess. The stated boarding time for the flight was 3:25pm, but they didn’t start boarding until around 3:45pm, and there were no announcements about anything being delayed. In addition, the terminal at DPS isn’t super well air conditioned at some of the gates, so some of the passengers were getting pretty testy…

Because of the late boarding, the business class cabin was mobbed quickly. It’s a 2-3-2 configuration for regional business class on this Boeing 777. The seats are perfectly comfortable, but for a flight that can approach 5 hours, it’d be nice to have something lie flat for sleeping.

Business class cabin

Business class seats

IFE screen and foot area

Seat controls and storage

There were pillows and headphones at the seat, and then they came around offering blankets, pre-departure beverages, and hot towels. I’m not really sure who wants hot towels leaving Bali, so I asked for a cold towel, and they offered me a not-hot (but not cold) towel a few minutes later.

The IFE screen for these seats is a little small and blurry. There’s a USB port and electrical outlet for charging devices. There’s limited storage at these seats: there’s not really any underseat storage, but there is a small slim pocket in the center between seats.

Menu

Menu

Menu

After takeoff, they offered drinks and mixed nuts to start. Then came the meal service. For my Jain vegetarian special meal, the starter was some sort of cold bean puree with black eyed peas on top. It reminded me a little bit of hummus, and was a large step up from plain cold vegetables that are usually served as vegetarian special meal appetizers.

VJML appetizer

For my main, I had chickpea curry, rice, spinach, peas, and cabbage. This was pretty delicious.

VJML entree

Finally, I had a fruit plate to finish off the meal.

Fruit plate

Overall, this was a pretty good VJML. The service was not particularly personable, but it was very efficient. There were Jurlique products in the bathroom, but no amenities were offered.

Cashback Dominates Miles for Most People

Whenever people find out about my involvement in this “hobby”, one of the first questions that comes up is, “what credit card should I get?”, or some variant of that.

And really, my advice to almost everyone is that they should just focus on cashback credit cards. 2% cashback is probably a better value for 95%+ of people I talk to than trying to accumulate miles. (Of course, the best strategy is to apply for lots of credit cards and get the sign-up bonuses and then close the cards after a year so you don’t have to pay the annual fee, but many people are unwilling to apply for lots of credit cards.)

Reasons why cashback dominates miles for most people:

  1. Cash can be used to purchase any flight that’s available. Miles are subject to the whims of award availability. While this might not be a problem for those of us with extremely flexible travel schedules (and/or those of us willing to fly circuitous routings), many people are beholden to strict vacation schedules. It honestly is not that feasible to rely on miles to travel to popular destinations during popular travel periods (e.g., summer, New Years), particularly if you have specific destinations in mind or specific dates you must fly on.
  2. Similar to #1, but it’s significantly harder to fly on miles if you’re looking for more than one ticket.
  3. Redeeming miles can be extremely complicated, particularly if you want to get lots of value out of your miles. Unless you are willing to invest a lot of time in terms of understanding how different programs work, what routes are likely to have availability, the best times to book, etc., (or you are willing to pay someone else to do this for you) you will likely be frustrated when trying to redeem your miles.
  4. Miles can be devalued at any point in time. Cash does devalue, but not nearly in the same way. You can start saving miles two years in advance for your honeymoon, but then a program announces a devaluation, and then you realize you need twice as many miles as you thought you did.
  5. Airfares are increasingly affordable, even in business class. It is increasingly common to see things like sub-$600 airfare to Asia and sub-$500 airfare to Europe. At these cash prices, it is very hard to justify using miles for economy class.

This calculation changes if you’re looking to fly business class or first class, as using miles makes these much more attainable than paying cash, but with the devaluations that we’ve seen in the main US frequent flyer programs, this is becoming harder to take advantage of unless you are a business traveler who earns tons of miles or are willing to manufacture lots of miles.

Of course, I will continue to accumulate and redeem miles, but I have an extremely flexible schedule, usually don’t have specific places I need/want to go, am usually only booking for one person, and have already invested a lot of time in terms of gaining the knowledge needed to redeem miles. But there are very, very few people I encounter in real life who I think would get more value out of accumulating miles instead of 2% cashback, particularly when you take into consideration all of the time and effort needed to learn enough to earn and redeem miles effectively.

Review: Plaza Premium Lounge KUL

The Plaza Premium Lounge at Kuala International Airport opened up relatively recently, but it’s a pretty standard Plaza Premium Lounge in Asia (that is to say, pretty solid for an international lounge that you can access via Priority Pass).

Entrance to the lounge

There’s plenty of seating in the lounge, although the lounge was decently busy when I visited. There could definitely be more power outlets, as a number of the seating options don’t have anywhere to plug into. The showers were also out of service when I visited.

Seating

Seating

Bar

In terms of food, there was a decent selection. Some of the options were super Asian (e.g., Hainanese chicken rice, sweetened barley soup, kuih), which I appreciated. The kuih (a general term for Malaysian/Singaporean bite-sized desserts that are often made with glutinous rice flour and are often vegan) were located at the bar, and you couldn’t serve yourself–you had to ask the bartender to get you some. Maybe that’s to prevent people like me from bingeing on them.

Drinks

Drinks

Condiments for chicken rice

Fried noodles and vegetables

Made-to-order noodles

Salad

Soups and porridge

Kuih

Overall, this is a solid lounge offering, especially since it’s accessible via Priority Pass. I imagine the renovated Malaysia Airlines lounges will be nicer once they reopen, but this is a decent alternative in the international area in the interim.

Review: Malaysia Airlines Business Class A330-300 KUL to DPS

At KUL, departing and arriving passengers are mixed together, and there’s security at each gate. For this flight, there was only metal detector going for an entire A330, so we were actually delayed because people were still trying to get through security instead of boarding.

The flight was originally scheduled to be a 737, but there was an aircraft swap, which meant fully flat seats on this relatively short flight to DPS. I sat in 1A this time, which is a single seat closer to the aisle. The foot cutout in the bulkhead is enormous compared to the throne seats, so even though the seat feels a little exposed to the aisle and doesn’t have as much counter space, I think I would prefer 1A to any of the throne seats in the future.

Foot space for 1A

Seat controls and storage compartment

Storage compartment

View across cabin

A pre-departure beverage of juice or water was offered, and they distributed cold towels and newspapers. The IFE selection was the same as on my longer flight from PEK, but the headphones were much worse quality on this flight.

Menu

Menu

Menu

Menu

Menu

The flight was pretty turbulent after takeoff. I was actually a little worried about the flight attendants because they were trying to serve people drinks at the time, and my drink at my seat spilled a bunch. But eventually, the turbulence stopped and they were able to do a meal service. For this flight, the Asian vegetarian meal was a lentil curry with carbs in two forms. It was definitely better than the Asian vegetarian meal I had on the previous sector.

Asian vegetarian meal

Overall, it was a nice little treat to get to fly on an A330-300 on this flight to Bali instead of a Boeing 737-800, and the food was better on this flight than on the flight from PEK to KUL.

Review: Malaysia Airlines Regional Golden Lounge KUL – Renovated

Malaysia Airlines is currently renovating their main lounges in KUL, and on a recent trip, I had the chance to stop by one of these renovated lounges, namely the Regional Golden Lounge. If you’re departing from KUL and want to stop by this flight, go to the left right after you pass security. There’s an escalator with a sign to the lounge (don’t get on the train yet if you have an international flight).

Escalator up to lounge

Lounge signage

My first impressions of the lounge were very positive. The old Malaysia Airlines lounges in international terminal were large, but they just felt tired and old. This lounge was bright and vibrant in comparison. It was a tad crowded given that this is the main lounge that people are using, but I could still find a seat, and there were lots of servers around to help clean plates and offer drinks.

The lounge is pretty large and spacious. There are seats by the huge windows, counter seating, tables, gender-segregated nap rooms, showers, and a family area.

Seating

Bar

Seating

Seating

Dining area

In terms of drinks, there’s a coffee bar with a barista, an alcohol bar with a bartender, and your typical array of non-alcoholic beverages. People were also proactively going around and asking if people needed drinks.

Drinks

The food options were also pretty good. The buffet had a number of hot and cold food options, and there were also some made-to-order food options with a noodle bar and sandwich bar (the sandwich bar is easy to miss–it’s essentially at the coffee bar).

Food

Condiments

Food

Food

Food

Desserts and sandwiches

Salads

Fruit

Noodle bar menu

Sandwich bar menu

Coffee bar

Overall, I was pretty impressed with the lounge. It’s a huge step up from previous Malaysia Airlines lounges at KUL (although the domestic lounge is also pretty good for a domestic lounge), and I’m excited to see the main lounge reopen.

Review: Malaysia Airlines Business Class A330-300 PEK to KUL

I’ve flown Malaysia Airlines business class in the past, but this was a renovated business class cabin, so it was a huge improvement over the past hard product that I’ve flown.

Malaysia Airlines A330

Instead of angled-flat seats, these are forward-facing fully-flat seats in an alternating 1-2-1 and 1-2-2 configuration. For this flight, I was seated in 6K, which is one of the throne seats on the side. The cabin skips row 3 for some reason, but the throne seats are 1K, 4K, and 6K, while 2A, 5A, and 7A are the single seats that are closer to the window.

Business class cabin

Business class cabin

The throne seats have tons of counter space on both sides. There’s are also storage spaces on both sides of the seat. The seat itself is comfortable, but the foot cubby is super small. I probably would select a non-throne seat in the future. One slight novelty is that the seatbelts had shoulder straps. There were also air vents on this plane.

Bulkhead at 1K

My seat, 6K

Seat controls, IFE controls, and some storage

Tight foothole

There was a pillow, blanket, and headphones already at the seat. The headphones were not noise cancelling. IFE was started on the ground, and the selection was pretty decent, but there were ads played before every movie. Before departure, a flight attendant came around offering juice or water, and then hot towels and newspapers were distributed.

After takeoff, packets of unsalted mixed nuts were distributed, and then they came around with a satay cart. I had pre-ordered an Asian Vegetarian meal, and the AVML satay was just vegetable skewers (one uncooked, one grilled). There was no satay sauce to accompany these skewers. The satay service was the only after takeoff meal. Once they were done distributing the satay, that was it.

On this flight, there weren’t any amenity kits, no pajamas, and there were no menus. They also gave no indication that the satay service was the only meal service after takeoff. They also didn’t turn off the cabin lights even though everyone was sleeping. It was a bit strange.

Vegetable satay

I’m not a large person, but I did feel like the seat was pretty narrow. Just lying down on my back, my arms touched the sides of the seat. I think the throne seats may feel slightly narrower because they are enclosed on both sides.

I was woken up for breakfast two hours prior to landing, even though I wasn’t asked if I wanted to be woken up. For the pre-arrival AVML, I had a fruit plate and pastry to start (the thing in the corner is some sort of jello dessert). The fruit plate was pretty good.

Asian Vegetarian meal

The entree for the Asian Vegetarian meal was some sort of croquette with marinara sauce and paneer and pepper skewers. This was fine.

Asian vegetarian meal

Overall, the hard product on this flight was vastly improved from MH’s previous business class on the A330, but the soft product left a lot to be desired. Like I don’t understand why there weren’t menus, I wish flight attendants had asked if you wanted to be woken up for breakfast, I wish the flight attendants made it easier to sleep (e.g., by turning off the cabin lights), etc.

Review: Japan Airlines (JAL) Business Class Boeing 737-800 NRT to PEK

Regional business class on Japan Airlines usually isn’t too exciting. There were three rows of business class in a 2-2 configuration of large recliner seats. The seats were comfortable with plenty of pitch. The seats themselves looked newly reupholstered, but the rest of the plane seemed a little old. (Apologies for the poor quality photos in this post, but my camera went kaput on this trip)

Business class seat

Plenty of leg room

Seat controls

The IFE system was in the center console, with a tray table in the other armrest. There were slippers, headphones, immigration forms for China, menus, and a blanket at the seat already. The headphones were not great, and the blanket was thin and similar to what you’d get on a domestic US flight. There were also air vents on the plane, which was nice.

IFE screen

Food menu

Drink menu

After takeoff, the flight attendants handed out some packaged snacks and drinks prior to the meals service. Natto can be an… acquired taste, but I found the dry natto snack to be pretty tasty!

Drink and packaged snacks

For my meal, I had pre-ordered a special VJML meal (vegetarian Jain meal). This was not very good. There were some cold vegetables and mushrooms as an appetizer and then rice, cauliflower, and eggplant as a main. It’s particularly disappointing since I think JAL’s typical catering is usually quite good, but their special meal catering seems to be pretty subpar.

VJML

After the meal service, I napped for about 1.5 hours. The recline on these seats is actually quite generous, although I probably wouldn’t want to do a red-eye in them.

Overall, JAL regional business class isn’t too exciting. It’s maybe a step up from domestic US business class.

Review: Japan Airlines (JAL) Business Class Boeing 777-300ER LAX to NRT

I’d flown on JAL’s Boeing 777-300ER a couple of times in first class, but this was my first time flying this plane in business class. Overall, it’s a great product hard product for business class.

My connecting flight to this flight was delayed, so my 1h 40m layover turned into a 40m layover, and I needed to get from Terminal 6 to TBIT at LAX. I was ready to sprint off the plane at LAX, but when I get off the jet bridge, there was a JAL representative waiting for me. We ran together from Terminal 6 to Terminal 5 underground, and then we got a buggy to take us from Terminal 5 to Terminal 4, and then we ran through Terminal 4 to get to the TBIT airside connector, at which point we walked to the gate, all in time for boarding to start. I felt bad for the JAL representative who had to run so far with me.

Business class is in a 2-3-2 configuration, which sounds like it should be a tight squeeze, but the seats are awesome. There’s a ton of privacy for the window seats (and middle seats in the center) once the privacy partitions go up, and you get three windows at the window seats. I also love the fact that your feet/legs aren’t constrained at all, like they are on many forward-facing business class seats (and some reverse herringbone seats).

Business class cabin

Business class seat (headphones and slippers on seat already)

Aisle seat

View across cabin

IFE screen and ottoman

One thing that I appreciate about JAL is their seat guides. They’re helpful in figuring out all of the hidden features of the seat. There isn’t a ton of storage for these seats except under the ottoman, which is probably my only fault of these seats (and, well, maybe the lack of air vents).

Guide explaing the seat

I also appreciate that they give out slippers. Slippers are one of my favorite airplane amenities. The headphones could be more comfortable, but they were at least nominally noise-canceling. The pillow and blanket were decidedly mediocre, though. One design feature that I appreciate is that the dining tray swivels so you can get in and out of your seat during meal service without having to clean everything up.

Amenity kit, slippers, headphones

The IFE screen is quite large at 23 inches and had good picture quality. If you’re disappointed by the selection of American films, I might recommend checking out the subtitled Japanese films and TV shows. I love the show, “Why did you come to Japan”, which I essentially only ever watch when flying JAL.

IFE controller

Menu

Menu

Menu

I had pre-ordered a VJML or a Jain vegetarian meal. The amuse bouche was hummus and vegetables, which was pretty tasty! So much better than just plain cold vegetables.

Hummus and vegetables

The VJML appetizer was a salad of fennel, cucumber, peppers stuffed with mushroom, and asparagus. This was okay if you like these things.

Fennel, cucumber, pepper stuffed with mushroom, asparagus

The main was lentils, okra, and rice. This was spicy, but otherwise had little flavor. I think that JAL generally has some of the best food in the sky, but their special meals aren’t very good.

Lentils, okra, rice

After dinner, I put the seat in bed mode. If the seat were a bit wider and had better bedding, it would be like a first class seat.

Seat in lie-flat position

During the flight, the flight attendants set up some Japanese snacks, chocolates, and wine in the galley.

Snack display

There’s no set second meal service. Everything is on demand, and you can usually order things through the handheld IFE controller. First up, I had the ramen. This was really delicious. Probably the best vegetarian ramen I’ve ever had. Super flavorful, tasty mushrooms, and the noodles weren’t overcooked (impressive on a plane!).

JAL Original Healthy Ramen Noodles from Kyusyu “Kyushu Jangara”

I also had the vegetable curry. This was mostly chickpeas and onions. Also very tasty, but it’s unclear to me if this is actually vegetarian, even though it was described as a vegetable curry.

JAL Original Vegetable Curry

Finally, I had my catered special meal. There was both a snack in the form of a sandwich of cucumber, tomato, and basil, as well as a hot meal of chickpeas, okra, and rice. The ramen and curry were much tastier than this special meal.

More chickpeas, okra, and rice, as well as sandwich of cucumber, tomato, and basil

Overall, this was a good flight. It’s a great hard product, and I think JAL has some of the tastiest food in the sky (albeit the special meals are not great). English proficiency wasn’t great on this flight, but there weren’t any faults to the service.

Review: American Airlines Flagship Lounge Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD)

I recently transited through ORD on my way back from Asia, and–to my surprise–I was handed an invitation to the Flagship lounge when I went to the Admirals Club. I am clearly a bad travel blogger for 1) not keeping up with AA’s Flagship lounge renovations and 2) not knowing what the access rules are (international first and business class on oneworld gets access; JFK-LAX/SFO transcon business and first class gets access; AA Platinum and up get access on international itineraries on oneworld airlines; oneworld Sapphire and Emerald and Concierge Key get access on oneworld itineraries).

In general, lounges in the US aren’t great. Particularly lounges run by US airlines. So I wasn’t expecting much when I entered. But I was very pleasantly surprised. The lounge was spacious, had plenty of seating, had lots of power outlets, had nice shower rooms, and had extensive food and beverage options.

Seating

Seating

Seating

Recliners

Seating

Seating and views of apron

Shower room

Snacks

Non-alcoholic beverages

Bloody Mary station

I’m not a big drinker, but the alcohol selection in this lounge was pretty extensive. Even though it was only 10am when I arrived, I was tempted to crack open a beer.

Wine

Wine

Beer selection

Liquor selection

The food selection was also quite impressive for a US lounge. There were lots of hot food options for breakfast, including an omelet station, eggs, bacon, potatoes, a lot of different baked goods, and steel-cut oatmeal. Although I hate on dragon fruit, I am shocked that they had dragon fruit given how expensive it is in the US (and it was actually pretty decent as far as white dragon fruit goes!). I believe they have sushi because of Japan Airlines, but the sushi was not very good, although the rest of the food I tried was reasonably good for airport lounge food.

Breakfast eggs and potatoes

Bacon

Baked goods

Baked goods

Cheese and meats

Salads

Sushi and fruit

Desserts

Bagels, English muffins, croissants for breakfast

Condiments–the individual-serving jars of ketchup, mustard, and mayo seem a little wasteful, though

Dining area

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by this lounge, and I’m looking forward to AA opening more of these lounges!