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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Sometimes United is so generous…

When I booked my flight to Stockholm a few weeks ago (about 7 days prior to departure), I was offered an option to upgrade all four legs of my trip.  For the two domestic legs, I’d be in United First and for the international legs, I’d be be in Business First.  Sounds so generous doesn’t it?

How Generous!

How Generous!

So for only $10,126 round trip, I could have a comfortable, spacious seat and free booze?  I will admit, I do like the BusinessFirst seats — they won’t compete with some of the great seats that international carriers have, they are quite the improvement over those old recliner style seats.  Just how much complimentary booze would I need to consume to earn my $10K back…let’ do the math: Beer and Wine on this flight cost $7.99 each – which means to get enough “free” booze to offset the cost of the upgrade fee, I’d need to have 1,267 beverages. Or if I chose to have a cocktail, billed at $8.99 each, I’d need to have 1,126 min bottles.  Yeah, I get it, I’m totally discounting the added benefits of the seat, but that’s much more of an intangible expense.

In case you were wondering, I did not choose to upgrade this flight.  I really can’t imagine who would think this option was worthwhile.  Please tell me I am not alone here. Would you have taken the upgrade here?

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Exploring Phnom Pehn

We woke up a the Kabiki Hotel (well, I woke up at a 02h30 with a very upset stomach – thanks to the high dining French restaurant from the night before) and after breakfast met our guide and headed out to maximize our single day in Phnom Penh.  It was hot when we started off and it was going to get hotter.

We started of at the Royal Palace, which unsurprisingly is the complex that houses not only the residences for the king but is where foreign dignitaries often stay, has beautiful gardens and is home to some amazing and unique architecture.  With our guide, we were (somehow) allowed to jump ahead of the small queue of people and enter the Palace grounds first.

As we walked to our first stop our guide gave us a bit of a history lesson about Cambodia, both ancient and more contemporary.  I am a history buff, but I must admit, I had done almost no research on Cambodia and unfortunately my official studies in both High School and College were very limited (read: nonexistent) when it came to Cambodia.  I knew OF the Killing Fields, but didn’t know much about it.  For example, I had no idea that Pol Pot decided in 1975 to evacuate all Cities — thus creating a forced agrarian society.  Phnom Penh, itself a City of just under 3 million people, was completely evacuated and all residence were turn into farmers in just 3 days.  Think of that – a City the size of Chicago now, being completely evacuated in just 3 days. 3 million people – all of Chicago – heading to the fields to become farmers. It is almost unfathomable…and that’s just the beginning.  We’ll get back to that in a while though.

The grounds at the Royal Palace were pretty empty – then again we were there quite early on a week day not in peak season.  Having done very little research on Cambodia before we arrived, I was quite pleasantly shocked to see these buildings. Truly breathtaking, in a totally unexpected turn the corner and WOW sort of way.

Royal Throne Hall

Royal Throne Hall

The top of the Royal Throne Hall is capped with four Buddha faces looking out across the grounds.

Beautiful roof line of the Royal Throne Hall

Beautiful roof line of the Royal Throne Hall

The Silver Pagoda on the grounds houses several national treasures including the Cambodian Jade Buddha, a rare Baccarat Crystal Buddha and a life sized diamond encrusted Buddha.

Stupa Silver Pagoda

Silver Pagoda

Wider view at the Royal Palace

Wider view at the Royal Palace

Phnom Penh originally became the capital in 1865 and was called the Pearl of Asia and often considered the one of the most beautiful colonial Cities in French Indochina.  The City was originally founded in 1372 and got its name from an old lady (Duan Penh) who found several Buddha statues in a tree floating in the river.  She took these statues and built a small shrine on a hill (Hill = Phnom in Khmer).  She believed these statues were sent to her as a sign that the Khmer capital should be moved from Angkor to this area — Phnom Penh or Penh’s Hill.

The Wat Phnom – or the Mountain Pagoda atop Penh’s Hill is nearly 27 meters tall making it the tallest religious building in the City.  This temple has been rebuild many times throughout it’s lifetime and is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.  I think it is important to visit the founding areas when visiting any City — like the old site of Fort Dearborn in Chicago , see how things have changed over the past few hundreds years.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

At the base of the Wat Phnom you see a modern sky scraper looming in the background.  I just love to see old (ancient) structures intermingled with modern architecture.

Highrise near Wat Phnom

Highrise near Wat Phnom

We hit another market — I will spare you the shots of the flowers, huge hunks of meat hanging in un-air-conditioned spaces and the requisite huge rack of handbags all for sale — none of which were fake (the ladies selling this merch promised us they were real).  We then moved on to one of the worst meals of our trip.  Our guides took us to a large buffet that had a large mix of locals and tourists.  My stomach was still not up to 100% from the prior nights French fare, so I just picked at a Khmer equivalent of spaghetti and meat sauce and slowly sipped my water.

The next stop was really the major point of visiting Phnom Penh – to learn about Pol Pot ant the Killing Fields.

Pol Pot took over as the leader of Cambodia in 1975 and almost immediately imposed a forced agrarian socialism on the people of Cambodia.  Evacuating the Cities and putting everyone into slave labor camps as farmers.  Almost all industrial production stopped.  The Cities were empty, save some of the political elite who remained.  There were thousands of empty buildings – but unfortunately some were quickly put back to use.  Pol Pot’s forces turned many High Schools into torture facilities.  One such facility was subsequently turned into a museum, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  Our guide led us to and through the facility.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

It was still very eerie to be in this area.  You could feel it. You knew it.  Something terrible happened here.  As we walk around the grounds we heard of the thousands of people who where tortured by the Khmer Rouge.  We were shown some of the rooms where the torture had taken place – like below.  You see a bed, sans mattress, where a political prisoner would be chained for hours or days at a time.  No running water, just a bucket should you need to use the bathroom.  This room still had blood stains on the floor and blood splatter on the ceiling.  We saw nearly a dozen of these rooms on this tour.

Torture Cell

Torture Cell

On the other side of the museum was larger rooms with photos of people who were kept in this and other facilities around the country.  We saw some of the larger prison rooms that were bricked up to make smaller cells for the prisoners.  These make shift cells barely provided enough room to turn around, let alone lay down comfortably.  This was a place of torture – the Khmer Rouge wanted information and even if you didn’t have any they would torture you for it.

The afternoon drew on and we had one final stop before we had to head to the airport again.  We needed to visit the Choeung Ek.  This was a former fruit orchard about 15km south of Phnom Penh – with traffic it took us nearly 45 minutes to get there, and once arrived we didn’t have much time as we had to get to the airport as part of our group had a flight to Singapore (while our flight to Bangkok left a few hours later).  You’ve heard of this site before – maybe not this one specifically, but according to our guide it’s one of the better known and easily accessible from Phnom Penh.  Its part of the Killing Fields.  

During the reign of the Khmer Rouge nearly 3 million people were murders — 3 million out of a total population of  nearly 8 million.  To dispose of the bodies mass killing sites and mass graves were created.  This location has been turned into a museum and while a section of it has been excavated a large portion of it remains intact.

This pagoda below has a base display with hundreds of human bones – everything from femurs to skulls, all taken from the grounds at this former orchard.

Choeung Ek - Former orchard turned mass grave

Choeung Ek – Former orchard turned mass grave

As we walked around our guide gave us a brief archaeology lesson and as we made our way to the far side of the grounds he told us to watch our step as the recent rains had unearthed more human bones…

Remnants of the mass graves - moving and very disturbing

Remnants of the mass graves – moving and very disturbing

It was a somber ride back to the airport for us.  I really do wish we had some more time to explore Phnom Penh, to see the colonial architecture, to learn more about the role of the French occupation and what happened between the time the capital moved from Angkor to Phnom Penh and the French arrival.  Phnom Penh is definitely on my list of Cities in which to return.

Phnom Penh was a heavy visit.  Our guide was perfectly acceptable – I don’t think I’d use him again on a future visit, but he got the job done.  If you are looking for a guide, please let me know — or if you have a guide tell me (or leave contact information in the comments below).

Before I close out this post,  I want to leave you with something on the lighter side — each time I see a cat on a leash or just hanging out like this one, I feel obligated to take his/her picture.  Nice Kitty….

Random Cambodian Cat

Random Cambodian Cat

What was your favorite part of Phnom Penh or Cambodia?  Do you have a favorite restaurant or a great guide the readers should know about? How many days did you spend in this City? Would you return?

Is $59/night Mattress-Run Worthy?

2014 is my first year with SPG Platinum status. Because of timing associated with some real estate transactions last year I was forced to stay in a hotel for 17 +/- nights.  So far this year, I’ve only stayed once in a hotel (two nights in Stockholm) and I got a lovely suite upgrade.  I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get Platinum status again this year — it’s way too early to tell.

I noticed that a Starwood property a few blocks from my office is going for $59/night.  I’ve done a mattress run (checking into a hotel purely for the points/nights/stay credit) and it helped me retain hotel status.  This rate is pretty damn cheap – especially considering what I normally see in the Chicago (City Proper) market.  SPG doesn’t have any great promos going on now either (to help sweeten the deal)…basically the real benefit here would be just to get the stay/nights credit.

What do you think, am I nuts for considering this?  If I do this, should I make multiple single night reservations, so I’ll be likely to retain Platinum status under a worst case scenario on stays (25) vs nights (50)?

What would you do?

The Kabiki Hotel – Phnom Penh

We spend just a single night and day in Phnom Penh.  Of all the places we visited on this trip, this is the one place I wish we had more time.  To maximize our time in the capital, we hired a guide to show us all the sites — our guide in Siem Reap made an introduction. The guide and driver met us at the arrivals hall at the Phnom Penh Airport and drove us directly to our hotel, the Kabiki.

The best part of our stay at this property was the staff. They were very welcoming and helped us with restaurant recommendations (the restaurant did make me sick though — was the only one in our group to get sick at this recommended restaurant, so I can’t blame the hotel). Although the rooms were clean, they looked pretty dingy. The bed linens were clean but the bed itself was pretty uncomfortable.

A pretty tight room in Phnom Penh

A pretty tight room in Phnom Penh

Another view

Another view

The bathroom was simple, clean and effective and contained a large walk-in shower in addition to the traditional two pieces found in every bathroom. There was no bathtub, though that isn’t an issue for me — taking a bath in a hotel, anywhere in the world is just kind of gross to me.

Why can't housekeeping close the toilet lid?

Why can’t housekeeping close the toilet lid?

WiFi worked well in the main lobby of the hotel, but I had no signal at all in the rooms.

The pool area looked great – but we arrived too late to actually use it.

I didn’t eat the breakfast provided the morning of our stay (as I was still sick from the night before), but the menu had a good selection.

The hotel is located across the street from the Prime Minister’s residence, so there isn’t a lot of foot traffic in front of the hotel — and your cab is only allowed to drop you off at the end of the block (even the tuk-tuks are required to do a corner drop-off). This area felt very safe.

While this isn’t a stellar property, I would give it a lukewarm recommendation. It’s a solid “FINE” hotel.  On the plus side there was a really creepy cat painting.

Pretty Kitty....meow

Pretty Kitty….meow

Where did you stay whilst in Phnom Penh?  What was your favorite part about your hotel?  Did your hotel staff provide restaurant recommendations that made you sick?

K6 108: REP-PNH (Economy)

After Siem Reap, our next stop was the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. There were several options that we actively explored as how to make the trek between these two cities. The most romanticized idea was to take a long boat down Tonle Sap Lake. We had a recommendation from a friend (of a friend) that the boat trip was amazing. I did some online research and found that the other reviews were much more hit or miss. The trip could take up to 12-15 hours (or as little as 5 hours), depending on the depth of the water and the condition of the boat.  Another review I read of the boat included a lovely description of how all the luggage was loaded at the very last minute and just chucked into the boat, blocking the only exit — so in the event of an emergency you’re stuck behind all the luggage with no way to escape.  I hate water and this just sounded absolutely nuts.  VETO.

We also had an option of taking a bus – the first class bus option included a karaoke machine and most buses had air conditioning. I’m sure the bus would have been a fun option…for the first hour or so, but as the day drags on I am sure I’d be absolutely tortured. We decided to fly.  The only airline that makes this flight (without another stop) is Cambodia’s flag carrier – Cambodia Angkor Air.  This airline is quite small, with only 7 aircraft (at the time I write this) five A321s and two ATR72-500s.  We were in one of the latter planes.

Our Ride to Phnom Penh

Our Ride to Phnom Penh

Carrier: Cambodia Angkor Air
Flight: K6 109
Seat: 11 C
Departure: 17h30 / 17h39
Arrival: 18h15 / 18h14
Travel Time: 45 Minutes / 35 Minutes
Flight Miles: 146 Miles

We boarded from the tarmac.  The flight was pretty full – almost all were western tourists too.

Headrest

Headrest

The flight was just blocked at 45 minutes, but they still managed serve more of snack than you get on most domestic US flights.

Our In-Flight Snack

Our In-Flight Snack – Which looked promising

Not as promising once opened...although it was surprisingly tasty.

Not as promising once opened…although it was surprisingly tasty.

The flight was extremely uneventful.  Like most of the trip, we hadn’t done a whole hell of a lot of planning before we took to the air.  I spent the 35 minutes in air researching restaurants in the capital and settled on a highly rated French restaurant for our first (and only) dinner in Phnom Penh.

We landed after dark and headed into the open air airport to collect our luggage.  The bugs were very thick inside the terminal — all the lights were attracting them, since we landed after dark and the terminal was lit up like a Christmas tree.

Upon Landing

Upon Landing

Airport after dark

Airport after dark

I think the flight to Phnom Penh was one of the best decisions we made of the trip – the karaoke bus would have been miserable and the deathtrap boat would have scared the hell out of me.

Have you ever taken Cambodia Angkor Air?  What about the karaoke bus or the Cambodian Titanic? Am I reading too much into the crappiness of the two other modes of transport?  Should I live a little more and try things like the bus or the boat? How would you have commuted between these Cities?