My week in a Taipei love motel

I travel frequently for work. Sometimes, this leads to some exciting adventures and unexpected, delightful discoveries. Hidden treasures, if you will. This last trip to Taipei included an altogether un-delightful discovery: I had booked myself into a love motel.

For those of you not in the know, a love motel is a place where couples, married and otherwise, can book some private quality time. It seems such places are more common in Asia where multiple generations live together and you might not be able to find as much privacy.

This place, the Mulan Motel in Taipei, is located very close to my office. After some disappointing experiences at other nearby hotels, I searched on booking.com and found the Mulan. “Ah yes,” I thought, “I’ve passed by that several times. It looks quite decent.”

Sure enough, the photos and reviews on booking.com were quite positive and the price was reasonable – only about US$130 a night. So I booked it.

Being a price-sensitive traveller, always trying to save my company money, I took the train in from the airport and walked the 800 meters from the station to my hotel. My first clue that this was not your average hotel was the lack of a lobby. Instead, you descended a driveway into a subterranean car park. The only office was a larger-than-normal guard box.

I also noticed that all of the parking spaces had a curtain that could be pulled around the car. “Perhaps to keep the dust off?” I optimistically thought.

Taking the lift to my room, I noticed the interior was quite dark and gaudy. Clearly a different decorating scheme than a conventional hotel. Then I found my room and opened the door:

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The room was quite large, with high ceilings and ostentatious decorations. A large bed sat in the middle of the room, with a large television and speaker system across from it. The light did not get any brighter and mood music played automatically. The far wall was solid glass with a heavy black curtain blocking the view to the bathroom.

My first clue that this might not be a long-stay hotel was the lack of a closet in which to hang my clothes. The second clue were the condoms in a bowl by the side of the bed. “Well,” I thought, “maybe the expectations are a bit different in the Taiwanese culture?”

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The bathroom was almost as large as the bedroom with a deep bathtub and a glass shower. There were towels and the usual amenities but it all felt a little off. Everything was clean, though.

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Oddly, there were no windows. Or, rather, the windows were covered with a black plastic film that, I discovered the next morning, had exotic butterfly shapes cut out in them so the morning sun would stream through them in a not-quite-claustrophobic way.

The staff seemed to sense my confusion. They struggled to create a proper invoice for me – unlikely that any of their guests have asked for proof of payment! They were friendly, though, and directed me to the restaurant where a sorry set breakfast was available included in the price of my room.

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The only upside to this hotel was the location. It was a two-minute walk from Starbucks, a three-minute walk from the office, and a five-minute run from a beautiful park along the river, where I ran two mornings with a colleague.

Thankfully, my week at the love motel was only three nights. I ended up unharmed and unmolested and upon my return wrote a strongly worded review on booking.com that this hotel should not be listed there as it is appropriate for neither business travelers nor families.

 

Trip Report: Lufthansa Premium Economy

This is the first of two reports about premium economy experiences. For longer-haul flying, I am reaching a point where being crammed into economy is painful but business class is unaffordable. The compromise is to pay a bit extra for premium economy which is sometimes quite a good value. In this report, I cover a round trip between Bangkok and Lisbon (returning from Barcelona) on Lufthansa made in October 2016.

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The plane

Lufthansa adjusts the capacity on the Bangkok-Frankfurt route throughout the year to match demand, everything from a 509-seat Airbus A380 to a 251-seat Airbus A340-300, which was used both directions on my trip.

The Airbus A340 is a comfortable widebody plane but the type was introduced in 1991 so it is not the latest technology. The normal economy class configuration is 2-4-2.

The cabin

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The premium economy cabin, which is located between the business class and economy cabins, has only 28 seats, arranged 2-3-2.  These seats are 18″ wide and have between 38-39″ of pitch, the distance from one point on the seat to the same point on the next row.

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Leg room is quite reasonable although when the person in front of you reclines, you will still find it difficult to get out unless the person in the aisle seat gets up. There are plenty of storage spaces for items and there is a foot rest on the seat in front of you. Bulkhead seats instead have a leg rest that extends from the seat cushion.

One feature of these seats is that there are two armrests for each passenger so no fighting for personal space. This is a huge advantage over regular economy.

Large touch-screen monitors are available at each seat. The image is bright and the responsiveness of the system is good.

The seats are comfortable although a bit firm. After a few hours, I ended up sitting on my pillow to provide extra padding. Recline is quite deep but I still find it difficult to get any meaningful sleep. On the outbound flight, I probably slept about four hours total. On the return flight, less than two.

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As a comparison, here is a view of economy class mid-flight. You can see the premium economy cabins in the distance, separated only by fabric dividers hanging from the overhead bins. You will notice the monitors in economy are smaller and there is an extra seat in each row resulting in only 17″ width and narrower armrests.

The service

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Before departure, water or juice is served and menus are distributed. There is no advance meal booking beyond the usual dietary and religious meals. The selection consisted of two main courses. For these flights, each approximately 12 hours, there is a main meal and then a breakfast closer to arrival.

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After reaching cruising altitude, a drink service commenced. There was a wide selection of beverages and premium economy includes sparkling wine and a premium beer.

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The outbound dinner was a choice of pork Panaeng curry or pan-seared veal sausages with onion sauce, sauerkraut and mashed potato. I chose the latter. It came with an appetizer of coleslaw with smoked chicken breast and a dessert of apple strudel with vanilla sauce.

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Before landing in Frankfurt, a breakfast of cheddar cheese omelette with Lyonnaise potato, ratatouille and tomato with fresh fruit was served. There was no other choice.

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For the flight from Frankfurt back to Bangkok, we had a choice of beef goulash with carrot zucchini stew and potato leek mash (which I chose) or tomato mozzarella fiorelli with basil cream sauce and tomato concasse. The appetizer was a seasonal salad with pumpkin slices and Italian dressing. The dessert was mango pie with creme fraiche.

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Breakfast before landing in Bangkok was scrambled egg with cheddar cheese accompanied by diced chicken breast, Chinese vegetables (which seemed to be missing) and potato wedges with a dessert of vanilla curd cream with blueberries.

Overall, the food quality was good and the quantity was sufficient. The food is served on ceramic dishes with metal cutlery and glass stemware, which creates a nicer impression.

During the flight, light refreshments (sandwiches, fruits, pretzels, candy bars) were available for snacking.

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Shortly before landing, small chocolates were distributed throughout the cabin. Service from the flight attendants was friendly but efficient. It was notable that effort was made to complete the first meal service quickly, presumably so passengers could go to sleep as both flights are overnight.

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The inflight entertainment system worked well and has many options. By the return flight, I did feel like I was running out of things that piqued my interest. Thankfully, the seats have USB and power ports, so I was able to pull out my laptop and work and use my iPad to read and watch shows.

The system does have a nice maps feature that shows computer-generated views from the tail and the cockpit of the plane. This gives a perspective of what the outside world looks like although it is misleading because the above pictures of our final approach into Frankfurt shows daylight but it was in fact before sunrise.

The lounges

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Premium economy does not come with lounge access but as I have “gold” status with one of the Star Alliance carriers, I was eligible to use the lounge. In Bangkok, I was able to use the main THAI Airways lounge. Other lounges closed too early to use as the Lufthansa flight departs after midnight.

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In Frankfurt, I was able to use the Senator lounges, which are very modern, have a huge selection of food and drink, and offer showers for transiting passengers.

Overall

I particularly liked the 2-3-2 layout in the plane. The middle seat next to me with empty both ways, giving me even more space. The food was tasty and good quality. And the lounge in Frankfurt was truly refreshing. Connecting through Frankfurt is convenient and results in efficient travel times to Europe from Bangkok.

The seat cushions were a bit firm for my tastes (although I find this on a lot of planes), the selection of inflight entertainment was a bit uninspired and Frankfurt is not the most pleasant airport to connect through as it is drab and not particularly intuitive to navigate.

I managed to get an attractive price for this flight, only about US$ 1,400 round-trip. The usual premium economy price is closer to US$ 1,800. The extra space and increased comfort made the trip much less taxing and, for the money, was a good value. Lufthansa’s premium economy would be worth taking for future trips.

 

Lost Heaven Silk Road in Shanghai

Panda Express does not give you a proper view into the regional variety of Chinese cuisine. Like in any large nation, the cuisine of China has substantial regional differences. While in Shanghai this summer, I tried something I’m not very familiar with – the cuisine of Western China – at a restaurant called Lost Heaven Silk Road in the Jing’an district.

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Based on the cuisine found along the ancient trading route, the menu offers foods from Xi’an and Dunhuang all the way to India, Pakistan and Persia. The restaurant owes much of its interior design specifically to Dunhuang, a small city in Gansu Province in the northwest of China, famous for its hundreds of caves decorated with ancient Buddhist art.

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Our first dish was cold oat noodles, a specialty of western China where oats are more common than rice or wheat. The noodles were served with a slightly spicy sauce flavored with peanuts and were a refreshing start to the meal.

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There were many meat dishes, especially good were the lamb ribs. The meat was flavorful, tender and the sauces added a lot to the dish. The skewers pictured above had a nice spice rub with flavors of cumin prominent.

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We also had Xi’an rice noodles, which are flavored more by sesame oil and were more familiar as a Chinese dish.

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There were several vegetable dishes including this slightly curried okra dish that was not the typically slimy okra you might be familiar with. These would seem not out-of-place in an Indian or Pakistani restaurant.

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They also served so-called “Tang wei hu bing” buns, literally Chinese flavor foreign bread – pita bread stuffed with grilled meat and coriander. The flavors and style of more Middle Eastern cuisine was particularly noticeable here.

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For dessert we had a Kashmir style rice pudding. While nothing pretty to look at, the cardamom flavored pudding was pleasant.

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And a final sweet that left no doubt about where the far end of the silk road lies: baklava.

The restaurant is beautiful and the food is tasty. While one could quibble with its authenticity, I think they illustrate beautifully the reality that a lot of food is fusion, tracing the path of trade and migration and bringing together the ingredients, techniques and tastes of the people who make the journey.
Lost Heaven Silk Road
758 Julu Lu (Jing’an station)
+86 6266 9816
open for lunch and dinner daily
lostheaven.com.cn

The Long Delay to Shanghai

After three busy days of meetings in Hong Kong, I made the over-optimistic travel plan to catch a 7:15 pm flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai in order to deliver a training at 9:00 am the following day. Given the air traffic congestion in China, especially into Shanghai, that proved a painful mistake.

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My flight was scheduled on Dragonair, a subsidiary of Cathay Pacific that operates more of the local and regional flights, especially to China. When I checked in at the airport about 90 minutes before departure, the agent said the flight was showing on time, even though all other flights to Shanghai were showing massive delays.

Sure enough, about five minutes before boarding time, the departure was rolled back two hours. Apologies were made and vouchers worth about US$10 were offered. (In fact, the agent told me I could just show my boarding pass at any restaurant in the airport to receive the discount; that turned out to not be the case.)

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At the revised departure time of about 9:30 pm, the delay was suddenly extended another two hours to 11:30 pm. While I understand that there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty about when the departure times will be (the captain later explained we initially had been given a 3:30 am departure slot) it seems clear that they knew the 9:30 pm departure was not realistic and it should have been revised earlier.

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Finally, we started boarding about 11:00 pm and pushed back not too much after 11:30. We were in the air quickly and on our way for the two-hour flight. When I checked in online, I was able to get a bulkhead row, albeit a middle seat, so enjoyed at least a bit of extra leg room. The flight was full.

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Dinner was served – they actually even handed out a simple menu. The started was a shrimp and angel-hair pasta salad. The main courses were steamed sole with bean curd and black bean sauce over rice, or a pork with apple cider stew and fusilli pasta, which I chose. The pork was okay for airplane food, nothing special. Dessert was Haagen-Dazs ice cream, which is always nice.

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When we landed in Shanghai, the only gates still available were the remote stands in the cargo area, which is quite on the opposite side of the airport from our normal terminal. While I didn’t complain too much – at least I was able to exit via stairs and get a nice picture of a UPS 747 freighter – the bus ride took more than 15 minutes, literally around the perimeter of the airport.

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The upside was that the immigration queue was short as we had arrived so late. It did take another ten minutes for our luggage to arrive and the taxi queue also took about fifteen minutes as there are few cars that late. I finally arrived at my hotel room at 3:30 am and was downstairs in the meeting room at 8:00 am.

It was a long day, but not too bad. I had a good group of students, staff level learning the basics of presentation skills. They all pushed themselves outside their comfort zone, delivering in English even though for many of them, it is a struggle. One girl was petrified and after her three-minute introduction presentation, was nearly in tears. Everyone gave her a lot of positive feedback about being brave enough to face her fears. Was very moving.

 

Sunrise along the Seine

The most peaceful time to see any city is the hour before sunrise, when it is just beginning to wake. On my final morning in Paris, I woke up early and headed to the River Seine to catch these views of the city.

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With the help of the internet, I was able to determine not only what time the sun would rise but also from what direction. Comparing that against a map of Paris, it was not difficult to figure out that I would need to be somewhere between the Jardins du Trocadero and the Pont de Bir-Hakeim to see the sun rise somewhere behind the Eiffel Tower. It was easy enough to flag down a taxi at 5:30 on a Saturday morning and within ten minutes I was walking down the terraced Trocadero gardens towards the river.

The most beautiful colors are actually in the hour before sunrise, I find. So as the sun neared the nearly clear horizon, I started walking east along the river, down on the footpath that lines the Right Bank.

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There are numerous houseboats moored along the river, beautifully maintained and many available to hire for river cruises. In the distance you can see the bridge (Pont de Bir-Hakeim) from which I shot the previous picture.

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The tower is so large that it dominates your view. It looks different from various perspectives and I enjoyed watching how this changes as I walked along the river. Eventually as the river curved, I crossed to the other bank to keep the sun across from me.

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About a kilometer along the river, just past the Pont de l’Alma, is Promenade des Berges de la Seine, a public park and promenade that includes five interesting floating gardens, barges that have been turned into public parks similar to the High Line in New York City.

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Nearby was La Boudeuse, a 100-year old three-mast ship built originally in Hollande but now moored in the River Seine after a renovation a few years ago. This photo appeared in Instagram and has been tampered with a bit for effect.

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Looking back at the Pond des Invalides, the lowest bridge crossing the River Seine.

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Another kilometer or so and I arrived at Musée d’Orsay, the beautiful former train station that is now a fine museum. The Beaux-Arts exterior was glowing in the morning sun.

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Another half-kilometer along the river there is another turn at the Île de la Cité comes into view, sitting smartly in the middle of the river. It is one of only two remaining islands in the river and is the site of the medieval city was.

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Finally, I reached the end of my nearly five-kilometer walk along the river, crossing over to snap this picture of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. This beautiful walk gave me the chance to contemplate Paris on my own, watching as it went from a sleepy sunrise to a gradually awakening city.

 

A light lunch at La Cuisine de Bar

Fancy a soup and sandwich while exploring the Left Bank? For a light lunch, this narrow restaurant in the 6th arrondissement offers a simple menu built around bread from the acclaimed next-door bakery and Cuisine de Bar owner, Poilâne.

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We visited the location in the 6th arrondissement although there is another in the 3rd arrondissement as well as in Chelsea, London. The setting is cozy (read: tight) but also welcoming. The kitchen is a bar on the right, dining is along a banquet to the left and a small room in the back. The setting is bright but a bit warm from the open salamanders (broilers) in the kitchen.

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The menu is quite simple. Set menus or individual items. Sandwiches are all open-face slices of next-door bakery Poilâne’s beautiful loaves with a few simple toppings. The tomato, mozzarella and basil one was a delight.

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The smoke salmon was also nice. There were sets including the soup of the day and a glass of wine, reasonably priced.

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A view of the narrow kitchen. You can see where the heat was coming from! The staffing the day we visited was minimal: one person in the kitchen, two waiters and a person clearing and washing dishes. Based on how hectic and slow service was, I suspect they were short-handed at least one person. Who knows? Perhaps this is the way they normally run the show.

The service was polite but rushed. Trying to flag someone down to take our order was excruciating, until I realized that the waiter understood the order in which people had arrived and was taking the orders according to that. The wait was just something we had to deal with. It would have been nice to have been asked for some patience (the woman dining next to us seemed a bit put off) but we were on holiday, so why not just relax and enjoy the atmosphere?

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There were a few desserts including this very nice strawberry tart. As the rush was slowing near the end of the the lunch service, we took the time to enjoy a slice along with the coffee drinks that accompanied the set menu.

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With a cute cookie spoon with which to stir your coffee!

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The simple exterior of the restaurant on a sunny and warm Spring afternoon. Overall, I think La Cuisine de Bar is a worthwhile stop if you are on the Left Bank and are looking for a simple lunch. The bread is nice (buy a loaf next door!) and sometimes you want a simple lunch that still feels sophisticated.

La Cuisine de Bar
8 Rue du Cherche-Midi
Paris 75006
+33 1 45 48 45 69
Open daily

A classic French lunch at Le Soufflé

There is perhaps no dish more French than the soufflé. And one of the best places to have a soufflé at a reasonable price in Paris is Le Soufflé, an elegant dining room located a short walk from the Louvre and Tuileries Garden.

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We found Le Soufflé quite by accident, intending to have lunch at a recommended Asian restaurant just a few doors away. They were full, however, and we popped in at the upscale-looking Le Soufflé based on the charming exterior and the Zagat and other stickers posted by the front door.

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The young man greeting us was friendly and when we explained we had not reserved, he looked around the room and told us that if we could return in twenty minutes, he would have a table for us. After a short stroll around the block, we returned and were rewarded with a generously-sized table in the middle of the room.

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With a clientele that seems mostly made up of local office workers and older-school establishment types, I felt a little self-conscious. (“Look, the American!”) But the friendly and diverse staff made us feel welcome. In fact, the restaurant reminds me a bit of Cafe Jacqueline in San Francisco, in that the staff can seem a bit stern from the outside but they take good care of their guests.

The menu is relatively simple with a limited selection of soups and salads, a selection of savory soufflés and a selection of sweet soufflés. We ordered a set that included a salad and two soufflés.

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The soufflés (mine with a black olive tapenade and Tawn’s with smoked salmon) arrive relatively quickly. You sense that they must be preparing the choux base in advance and then folding in freshly-whipped egg whites. The size looks large, of course, impressively puffed up – but remember that a soufflé is largely air so a person can consume one relatively easily.

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For dessert, I opted for a rhubarb soufflé. This is one of my favorite fruits and was just in season so it appeared on many menus. The tartness of the rhubarb cut through the richness of the soufflé and made for a pleasant end to the meal.

The set lunch including a glass of wine and a coffee to follow was only EUR 28, about US$ 32. For the quality and quantity of food, it was quite a bargain. Le Soufflé is on my must-visit list for a quintessential French experience.

Le Soufflé
36 Rue du Mont Thabor
75001 Paris
+33 1 4260 2719
Closed Sundays