Almaty Adventure: OZ, LH and TG F

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  1. calvinoeh
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    It’s time again for our yearly “epic trip of the year” thanks to Dividend Miles from US Airways. This time we’re going to Almaty, Kazakhstan. It took a while to convince the wife to say yes to this trip. What is there to see? What is there to do? Is it like the movie Borat? Honestly at that point of time, I didn’t know much about Kazakhstan and was more interested in the First Class experience and other destination we would be visiting as part of this trip.

    As usual, the full trip report will be available via my blog with the tentative installments below:
     
  2. calvinoeh
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    It’s time again for our yearly “epic trip of the year” thanks to Dividend Miles from US Airways. (Our Moscow trip was the first of such trips). This time we’re going to Almaty, Kazakhstan. It took a while to convince Lydia to say yes to this trip. What is there to see? What is there to do? Is it like the movie Borat? Honestly at that point of time, I didn’t know much about Kazakhstan and was more interested in the First Class experience and other destination we would be visiting as part of this trip.

    As usual, we are maximizing some interesting routings in First Class thanks to the way some countries are put in North Asia in the US Airways redemption chart. (Too bad that Russia is no longer in North Asia – would love to visit St. Petersburg or return to Moscow). The start of the trip as usual would be in Hong Kong. To get to Hong Kong from Penang, we are taking Air Asia as prices on full service airlines like Malaysia Airlines, Singapore, etc were priced almost double what I could get on Air Asia. Instead of flying direct to Hong Kong, we had to fly on Air Asia through Bangkok (which include an overnight layover) since prices on the direct flight was super expensive due to the holidays in Malaysia. Figured stopping over in Bangkok and staying nearby Suvarnabhumi airport itself and enjoying cheap massages and Thai food before we started of the trip proper wouldn’t be too bad.

    The actual routing for the US Airways redemption ended up being a pretty simple 6 segment redemption. Tried to redeem an eight segment redemption that had overnight layovers in Zurich and Paris to further maximize the redemption but the desk rate rejected it. In the end, we settled for the following routing:

    · HKG-ICN on Asiana Business Class with an overnight layover allowing us to explore Seoul
    · ICN – FRA on Asiana First Class. Another overnight layover in Frankfurt which would allow us to visit Frankfurt after missing out on our previous trip.
    · FRA – ALA – FRA on Lufthansa First Class
    · FRA – BKK –HKG on Thai First Class.
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    Overall, we are pretty happy and excited on the redemption:
    · 5/6 flights in F Class.
    · Trying Asiana First Class for the first time.
    · Visiting Seoul and FRA for the first time.
    · Visits to the Lufthansa FCT and FCL in FRA and Thai First Class Spa and lounge in BKK.

    I am writing this in Hong Kong as we start off the trip. Almaty, Kazakhstan is sure on the beaten off path. We are both nervous and excited about it. Let’s see what happens at the end….
     
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  3. calvinoeh
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    The first part of the trip involve flying on Air Asia from Penang to Bangkok, spending an overnight in Bangkok and then leaving to Hong Kong early the next day. The flights on Air Asia was the typical Air Asia flights - not enough leg room, packed but cheap enough to bear for the couple of hours.
    We stayed nearby the Suvarnabhumi at Kriss Residence Hotel. Since it was only for a couple of hours, we decided to go on the cheap. The rooms in the hotel was clean and adequate and even included free transfer to and from the airport all for a rate of ~800 Baht a night. The Novotel at the airport would have cost 5 times more!

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  4. calvinoeh
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    We stayed at the Novotel Nathan Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong for our one night layover in Hong Kong. The hotel is easily accessible from the airport via public bus A21 and getting of the #10 stop. The hotel is located in the Jordan area giving easy access to the plenty of restaurants and shopping. The Jordan MTR is also a 5 minute walk away which would give easy and cheap access to other parts of Hong Kong.
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    As Aclub Gold member, we were upgraded to a room on the Premier Floor but none of the benefits like the breakfast, internet and use of the lounge that would typically come with the room. We were also provided vouchers for a free welcome drink at the hotel bar which included house wine, beer or soft drinks.

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    Hotel Bar​



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    Welcome Drinks​

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  5. calvinoeh
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    After a good morning run on Avenue of the Stars and a good breakfast of noodles and porridge, we headed back to the airport on the bus. We got to the airport before the Asiana counters were open and just browsed around the shops in the terminal while waiting for the counters to open.


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    Hazy day in HKG​



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    Saying hello to Bruce.​
    After being promptly checked in, we headed first to the Singapore Airlines Krisflyer lounge (instead of the Asiana contracted CNAC lounge). This was our first time visiting after the renovation a couple of years ago that merged the first and business class lounges together. The lounge has plenty of space with a large area with provided computers and an eating area. The food and drinks in this lounge was pretty good – love the beef brisket and champagne! The one major area of disappointment with this lounge was that there were no toilets or showers (similar disappointment in the Krisflyer lounges in Singapore) – not sure what SQ management is thinking of not having toilets in their lounges.


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    Entrance​


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    Food Area​



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    Light snack​

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  6. calvinoeh
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    We took the KAL limousine bus service from the airport to the Grand Ambassador Hotel (associated with Pullman) where we would be staying for the night. The bus service was really convenient with a counter manned by a English speaking attendant that was really helpful in guiding us on which bus to get and where to wait for it. The seats on the bus were comfortable and reminded me of first class seats on flights in the US.

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  7. calvinoeh
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    I'd like to begin this part of the trip report that Asiana First Class lived up to the hype and expectations. It was definitely a WOW experience on our part. The service both on the ground and in the air was outstanding. The food in flight was one of the best we have eaten and being a lover of Asian food, it was comforting to be able to have a good warm bowl of rice in flight. The only slight disappointment was the quality of champange (no Dom here) but I did try a really good glass of Grand Cru.

    As expected, there was no line in the first class check-in counters. We were promptly checked in and told that we would be the only ones in the first class cabin today. We were then escorted to the staff entrance of the security check point where again, there was no line. As this was our first time flying out of ICN, we browsed through the airport and duty free before proceeding to the first class lounge.

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  8. Fredrik
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    I was in Almaty three years ago. Didn't know what to expect before but liked what I saw. Hope you had a good time too.
     
  9. calvinoeh
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    Yup definitely didnt know what to expect but was surprised that the city is pretty developed. The outdoors and scenery was definitely awesome.
     
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  10. calvinoeh
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    This would be our second time in Frankfurt but our first time actually heading to town having just stayed in the Lufthansa FCT for 6 hours during our first visit. We headed to town using the S-bahn from the airport. It was pretty easy - follow the signs to the trains in Concourse B terminal 1, buy tickets from the ticket machine choosing the "Frankfurt City" option in the menu (English available) and 20-30 minutes later, we were at the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof or Main Central Station.

    From the train station, it was 15 minute walk to the Main River where our hotel Ibis Frankfurt Centrum was located. The hotel was good value for money especially those on a budget. The rooms were slightly bigger than what I expected for an Ibis, the beds were REALLY comfortable and the good location right by the river and a 20 minute walk to Romerberg.
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  11. calvinoeh
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    We took the cab (~25 Euro) instead of the train back (7.90 Euro) to Frankfurt airport figuring it would be nice to experience what a First Class check-in experience would be like through the First Class Terminal and were not too keen about lugging about bags to and from the train station. The cab ride took only ~20 minutes from the hotel and before we knew it, we arrived at the FCT. We were met at the door by a Lufthansa staff with our luggage promptly collected. Another 2-3 minutes to verify our flights on the computer and to pass through security, we were inside the terminal and having breakfast. Talk about efficient – no lines, TSA and long walks!


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    "Check-in" Area​
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  12. Mangy
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    Looking forward to the rest of the report. We are heading to Almaty in January and are interested in how your trip went
     
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  13. calvinoeh
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    Thanks for reading. Almaty will be the next installment. Hopefully I'll have it posted by next week..
     
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  14. calvinoeh
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    Let me first debunk the generalized misconceptions of Kazakhstan. Before we arrived in Almaty, there were some concern from both of us - is it like the movie Borat? Is the country safe? How modern or backward in the country? After 4 days in Almaty, it was nothing like we what we thought it to be. Almaty was a modern city with pretty good road infrastructure, layout and is even less chaotic then cities like Bangalore or even Penang. Almaty feels more so like any city in Europe than Asia. People were well dressed and there were probably more Porsches, Hummers, Mercedes and Ferraris than in Penang!

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    The weather when we there was also very nice. The sun was out and the temperature was a cool ~20 Celcius which reminded us of our trip Melbourne in Australia. We also felt pretty safe walking the streets of Almaty and we didn't meet police officers who might have wanted to check our visas or ask for a bribe.

    People who we met and interacted with in Almaty were also very nice, helpful and friendly. This could be as our tour guide explain was part of their Kazakh and nomadic culture where they would graciously except guests. At some restaurants, there would be no English menu and only basic English was spoken but they patiently explained the menu.

    Things were slightly "different" however outside Almaty. There are no highways per se and the roads can get pretty bumpy in some places. The biggest adventure ended up being visiting the toilets or more descriptively a shack containing a hole in the floor. If you think porta-portys are nasty, wait till you experience those in Almaty. Our advice would be to hold it in unless you REALLY have to go.



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    Out of the city​


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    The "Shack"​

    In spite of some of the difficulties, we would recommend visiting Almaty or Kazakhstan for those looking for a off the beaten path kind of holiday. The hiking and outdoors are spectacular and again, the people are extremely friendly. It wouldn't surprise me that in the years to come, this could be the next tourist hot spot once the infrastructure improves which is not too difficult considering the country is pretty wealthy with all the oil reserves.
     
  15. calvinoeh
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    We stayed for 4 days and nights in Almaty. We researched on the internet before the trip and ended up hiring a guide from City Tours for about ~$600 USD for both of us 3 of the days to take us on a city tour, Charyn Canyon and Issyk Lake. $600 USD is not cheap but decided against trying to figure it out by ourselves would be too difficult due to the lack of English speakers. It turned out to be a good decision as the tours were pretty good especially the excursion to Issyk Lake due to having a really good guide that went above and beyond by explaining the history, culture and background of Kazakhstan.

    The city tour was your "typical" run of the mill city tour showing the highlights and monuments of the city like Panfilov Park, Medeu Gorge and Kok Tobe Hill. The excursion to Charyn Canyon was underwhelming due to maybe unfair comparisons to the Grand Canyon and it took a good 3 hours on a bumpy road to get there. We did however really enjoy the trip to Issyk Lake. The lake was blue and clean and it was really nice to get some clean air and hike/walk around the lake. I was definitely interested in coming back to Kazakhstan to visit other lakes for some camping and hiking!

    Panfilov Park:



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    Ascension Cathedral​


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    Memorial Flame​



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    Heroes Monument​
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  16. calvinoeh
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    There are many restaurants with a large variety of cuisine ranging from Kazakh, Chinese, Indian, etc in Almaty although some might not have an English menu. Interestingly, there is a KFC and Pizza Hut but no McDonalds in Almaty. Prices for eating out is on the expensive end with prices similar to what you find in Europe and the US. We had all our breakfasts in the hotels since it was included in the rate and lunch was included on the days we took the tour.​


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    Picnic by the lake​
    The most interesting and unique meal we had was when we visited a traditional Kazakh restaurant at Kok Tobe Hill. This was at the end of the city tour so we had our guide with us and she did a great job in ordering and explaining the food to us.To most of the world, horse meat is a delicacy but in Kazakhstan, it's everyday meat and actually preferred to other meats since it is leaner and supposedly much healthier. We definitely liked the horse meat and tasted like a very lean and flavorful piece of beef. We also had for the first time, camel and horse milk which was an acquired taste. We did finish our bowl of milk but let's just say it's not on our drinks to order next time the opportunity arises.​


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    Kazakh Restaurant​



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    Fried Bread and Horse Sausages​



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    Kazakh Noodles & Boiled Meats (includes Horse!)​
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  17. calvinoeh
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    We stayed for 4 days and nights in Almaty. Instead of just staying in one hotel, we ended up splitting the stays to 2 hotels - Astra Hotel for the first 3 nights and World Hotel Saltanet for a splurge and to take advantage of the hotels.com free night offer.

    Hotels (as with most things) in Almaty are extremely expensive! Astra Hotel which was a mediocre 3 star hotel costs about ~$100 USD a night. On the high end of things, we paid ~$200 USD a night for World Hotel Saltanet which was a 4.5-5 star business hotels. Other hotels that we researched like the Holiday Inn and Intercontinental costs between $250 to $400 USD a night.

    Astra Hotel
    The room itself was the size of a typical Ibis/budget hotel and seemed pretty new. The carpets were slightly stained and dirty but other than that, the room was pretty clean. The bed however was too soft and it was hard to sleep when one of us was tossing around in bed. There was a flat screen TV in the room but there was only one English channel. It was a "unique" experience watching shows like CSI which were dubbed over in Russian.

    There was also a gym and small pool in the basement but it was pretty grungy so we didn't use it the whole time we were there. The good thing about the hotel was that there was free internet (which was pretty fast) and the breakfast was decent. Would recommend the hotel to those on a budget if you can take the soft beds.
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    Hotel Lobby​

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  18. calvinoeh
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    It so happened that it was my birthday when we were in Almaty. I wasn't planning on any big celebration since the trip itself was already a celebration in my mind. I was completely caught by surprise when we stepped in our room at the Saltanat to first notice a what I thought was a larger room than what I had booked. I was then perplexed as to why there was a chilled bottle of champange on the desk in the room. Lydia laughed immediately when I jokingly asked if the champange was on the house.


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    hmm.. what's the champange doing there?​
    Imagine my shock when I went up close to the desk and saw the note up-front:

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    Lydia had apparently contacted the hotel ahead of time and arranged all of this! This was the best birthday surprise ever. Totally unexpected and was one of the highlights of our trip. How many can say that they celebrated their birthday with a surprise in Almaty :)

    If that wasn't enough, the hotel decided to throw in another surprise (which Lydia herself wasn't expecting). About 15 minutes after we arrived in the room, we heard a knock on the door and in comes a trolley with the birthday cake!
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    Thanks to my amazing wife for the surprise and to the staff at the Saltanat hotel that made this such a memorable birthday! Did I forget to mention the upgrades, champange, cake, etc were all complimentary?
     
  19. calvinoeh
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    If there was one part of the trip we could redo, this would be it. For those who are following this trip report for advice on Almaty (I believe there are a few who are flying to Almaty thanks to the "no YQ fare"), please heed the following advice:
    • If you're traveling on the Lufthansa flight that leaves at ~3am in the morning, don't be a cheapskate (like us) and pay for another night.
    • Do NOT get to the airport early. You should be okay if you show up ~1.5 - 2 hours before the flight. It's also an easy 20-30 minute ride to the airport at that time.
    Since our flight was scheduled to depart at the ungodly hour of 3.30 am in the morning, we paid half a day rate for the late check out at 6pm. We walked around Almaty, had cake and coffee and dinner before running out of things to do to kill time. We spent the rest of the evening back in the hotel lobby using the free Wifi and more coffee. The pre-arranged hotel airport transport (~$50 USD for both of us) promptly picked us up at midnight and 20 minutes later, we were at the airport.

    We got to the airport way too early. The check-in counters for Lufthansa were not opened yet and similar to airports in Colombo and India, we were told to wait in the waiting outside the check-in area. We made our way to some empty seats and killed time with what would be a common theme for the rest of the night - Angry Birds!



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    Angry birds - Good way to kill time!​

    The check in counters finally open about 2 hours before departure. Check in was prompt and we tagged our bags all the way to Hong Kong. Getting through immigration however ended being a slight adventure. The immigration agent in their limited English wanted to know where our final destination would be and whether we needed visas for Germany. Did they like us so much that they didn't want us to leave Almaty? Guess they don't see too many Malaysians flying on Lufthansa?

    The Almaty departure hall was a dump. It's small for one thing for seating is limited. In comparison, I would guess that the B1-B4 departure hold rooms at Changi is even bigger. We quickly found our way to the only business lounge in the airport and with no one manning it, we simply walked in and parked our butts on the sofas that must have been form the 80s. The lounge was simply underwhelming - no internet and there was a counter where I think the drinks and food would have to be paid. There was no Lufthansa staff around to bitch on this so we just spent the rest of the time playing Angry Birds and browsing the magazines. We did see some other Lufthansa passengers walking in but they quickly just walked out.

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  20. calvinoeh
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    There was virtually no lines at immigration at terminal C where we were dropped off by our "VIP bus". It took another 10 minutes before we made it out to Frankfurt where we proceeded to the Lufthansa Welcome Lounge in the arrival area of terminal B. We were surprised the doors were closed even though the stated opening hours were from 5.30am to 11am. We decided to head up to departures to see if the Thai counters were open for us to get our boarding passes for next flights but it just ended up being a waste of time or extra exercise whichever way you want to look at.

    By the time we headed back to the Welcome Lounge, the doors were now opened but the alarms were going off. Per the lounge attendant manning the entrance, there was something wrong with the doors causing the alarms to go off. Our boarding passes were promptly checked and we were asked if we wanted a shower which we declined since we would be checking in to the Kempinski after this.

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    The Welcome Lounge is opened the business, first and I believe Star Gold members arriving on Star Alliance flights. There's nothing particularly impressive about the Welcome Lounge but having a lounge to go to after arriving is a useful perk. It's extremely useful for those who arrive way to early to check-in to the hotel or to work by allowing them to refresh themselves with a shower or breakfast.

    Since we skipped breakfast on the plane, we were slightly hungry at this point and grab from breakfast from the buffet selection. The selection was nothing special - fresh fruits, scrambled eggs, cold cuts, yogurts, etc.

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  21. calvinoeh
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    We heard those dreaded words when checking in for our flight to Bangkok - "I'm sorry sir. There was an aircraft swap and it's the older plane today". We were as some flyertalkers called it, just TGed! Thai operates 2 types of 747 one with a relatively new first class cabin and an ancient (and I'm not exaggerating when I say ancient) first class cabin. We were truly disappointed but I tried to console myself that "at least" I get to try the older plane and blog about it. Yea right.

    We declined the escort by the ground agents through immigration and to the Senator Lounge that Thai uses for it's First Class Passengers as we wanted to do some shopping and head to the First Class Lounge in Terminal B since we had a same day Lufthansa First Class boarding pass from our flight from Almaty. The First Class lounges are only open to Lufthansa First Class and Honor Circle passengers. Other first class Star Alliance passengers are relegated to the Senator Lounges which are also open to Star Gold passengers.

    It took us a good 15 minute walk through the mess in Frankfurt to get to First Class Lounge in Terminal B. First impression of the lounge was that it looks ALMOST identical to the First Class Terminal. We were shocked at how quiet the lounge was - we might have been the only 2 passengers in the lounge when we arrived but eventually a couple more passengers arrived later on.

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    747 form the lounge​

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  22. ssedha

    ssedha Silver Member

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    A wonderful trip report with great pictures. Thank you very much for writing the report & sharing it :) Cheers...
     
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  23. calvinoeh
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    On arrival in Bangkok, we were the first passengers of the plane where a ground staff was waiting for us (had a clipboard with our names on it) and proceeded to drive us in the buggy to the escalators that would bring us to the departure floor. The buggy ride was much appreciated as we had parked in one of the furthest gates.

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    After passing through security, we were escorted to the First Class lounge where upon arrival, we requested for the complimentary massage. Thai provides a 30 minute shoulder or foot massage for business class passengers and an hour long oil massage for first class passengers. The lounge attendant made a phone call to Spa Lounge to verify that there were slots open before escorting over the short walk across the hallway to the Spa.

    I opted for a dip on the jacuzzi before the massage. Even though it was a nice dip, it did seem to cut down the massage time so I would recommend skipping the jacuzzi if you don't need the dip. The service was a bit off this time as I wasn't given the choice of what oils to use.

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    Jacuzzi​

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  24. calvinoeh
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    We arrived into Hong Kong around 10pm and our flight back home to Penang will not be until 7.30 pm the next day. Instead of staying in town, we decided to just stay at the nearby Novotel Citygate Hotel which we had stayed before on our trip to Russia. Since the price for a regular room was relatively high at close to $180 USD a night, we decided to use our free night that comes with the Accor Advantage Plus program. On top of that, we paid a top up of $50 USD for an upgrade to an executive room since it comes with free internet and breakfast which covered the $50 USD.

    The hotel provides a free shuttle from the airport and the trip took a relatively long 30 minutes including wait time for the shuttle. Upon check-in at the main lobby, we were informed that we should check-in on the executive floor. The check-in experience at the executive floor could have been better as we were made to stand while waiting for the lounge attendant to process the check-in. She should have invited us to sit down and maybe served us some drinks while we waited.

    We were happy to find out that we had been upgraded to one of their suites due to my Aclub Gold status. As I have complained about multiple times on the Aclub program, upgrades at Novotel is not a standard perk and even then, it's hit and miss on the Pullman, Sofitel and MGallery where upgrades are supposed to be an official Aclub Gold perk.

    The room was definitely a nice room and huge for Hong Kong's standard. The room was laid out in an interesting "long" rectangular way instead of the usual square box. The room also comes with huge windows that gave really good views of the surrounding hills and lights.



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    Work Desk​

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    Sofa​

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  25. calvinoeh
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    We headed back to Penang the next day on Air Asia. As with most of our Air Asia flights, there's nothing much to say except for that it got us there safely and on time. One tip though that we'd like to share is that if you have a flight leaving Hong Kong around 7.45-8.15pm, try to seat on the right side of the plane. This is around the time that the fireworks show goes off at nearby Disneyland and "should" be a great sight from the air. Too bad we were seated on the left side on the plane this time and was left with just views of the "colors of the fireworks".

    In summary, this was another trip to remember. I never thought it was possible to hop through Hong Kong, Seoul, Frankfurt, Almaty and Bangkok in less than 2 weeks. Definitely would not would want to do it in coach though. Visiting Almaty was definitely an eye-opener. Don't listen to Borat and come see Kazakhstan for yourself. We definitely want to go back to the region another time and spend more of the time outdoors doing hiking and camping.

    We had tried to stay in hotels that were part of the Accor chain during this trip. The Accor experience continues to be hit and miss. We loved the stays in Hong Kong but hated the stay in the Grand Ambassador in Seoul. We vow to never return to that hotel again.

    At the risk of sounding snobbish, this second time in First Class did loose some of the "wow factor" but regardless, it was still a great experience. Asiana is now one of our favorite airlines and we would recommend them over in Lufthansa and Thai.Our personal rank list of our experience is now as follows:

    • Favorite Ground Experience - Continues to the be Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt.
    • Favorite In-Flight Service - Continues to be the service we receive from Lufthansa. Sure the hard product might be a tad old but the attendants continue to be warm and friendly.
    • Favorite In-Flight Meals - Asiana wins hands on here. The amount and quality of food was simply amazing. If only they had better champagnes though.
    • Favorite In-Flight Seats - Didn't get to try any new seats or cabins on this trip so this remains to be the Turkish First Class seats on the 77W.
    • Favorite Hotel Stay of the trip - The World Hotel Saltanat in Almaty. What amazing service to organize the nice birthday surprise.
    • Most memorable experience on this trip - Gotta be the visit to Bo Innovation. What fun and interesting food - Dim Sum will never be the same for us ever again.

    For those who are interested, some costs of this trip:
    • *A Flights - US Dividend Miles - 40K miles/person. Yes, this is a North Asia to North Asia redemption. Taxes and fees associated with the booking was ~$200 USD/person.
    • The Air Asia flights from/to Penang and Hong Kong ended up being ~$300 a per person.
    • The tours we took in Almaty totaled ~$650 USD for the both of us.
     

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