Back from holiday in Europe

Two weeks ago, I returned from an 18-day trip to Europe, a combination of work and relaxation. While I didn’t plan it to be this complicated, it ended up being a five country, eight city itinerary. In the coming days and weeks, I will write more details about the trip and update the pages on my website with restaurants and recommendations.

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London was a sneaky twenty-three hour layover I managed to build in unexpectedly. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet friends but did get a nice walk in along the River Thames on a blustery Autumn morning and once the sun emerged stopped by the Spitalfields Market for excellent shengjianbao.

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Barcelona was my second stop, a week to deliver training (a bit of a fudge to my previous role as technically I am not longer heading the leadership development organization at DKSH). This was my second trip to Barcelona and I had a bit more opportunity to explore than last time, when I traveled with my parents and husband. Lots of good food on this trip.

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Italy was a return some 17 years after my first visit. We went to Firenze to see my cousin and his family, Matera to see the mysterious and beautiful city of caves, and Ostuni to explore the charm of the Puglia region – the “heel” of Italy’s “boot”. This trip reminded me what the quality of life is so high in Italy: simple food, nice weather, beautiful views and friendly people.

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Vienna was a a first-time visit for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect and ended up charmed by the city. It is a bit of a set piece for some European imperial costume drama, at least as far as buildings go. This is a city and country I would like to explore further.

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Zurich was a return visit for work. In fact, I stopped into the city three times on this trip, enjoying the convenient train system to pop into the city during my layovers and then concluding with a two-night stay for work. This time I was able to explore a bit further and enjoyed some good food and friendly company.

This trip provided some neat random connections, running into people I had not expected to see and striking up conversations with strangers who happened to have connections with me in different random ways. It reminds me that this is a very small world and that traveling it helps us appreciate that which is different and that which is universal.

More coming soon.

 

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.

 

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

 

Mon retour à Paris

Some fifteen years after my previous trip to Paris with Tawn, we are together here again. It wasn’t a planned trip for me. He was to be here as a tag-on to a work trip to Italy. In fact, I was supposed to be in Manila this week, delivering training. However, the fates intervened, my training was cancelled, and I decided to purchase an inexpensive ticket for five nights in Paris.

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Paris is different this time. I’ve lived abroad for more than a decade and have traveled much more, so am much more confident than on our first visit. That, combined with the twin miracles of Google maps and Google translate, combined with the convenience of smart phones, has made navigating so much easier.

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My French, which I thought completely lost, seems to be somewhat intact. A few days of cramming with the help of the Duolingo app restored enough of the synaptic connections to allow me to communicate in French to a passable degree. What shocked me, though, was how much more English-friendly Paris has become in fifteen years.

While my experiences had never confirmed the stereotype of the rude Parisians unwilling to speak English, fifteen years ago not speaking some French was a handicap. Today, though, I found that nearly everyone was tolerant of my shaky French and both willing and able to supplement with English when need be.

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The other difference I have observed is how much more diverse Paris has become. This is a city of color and it has been made all the more vibrant for it. Near our Air B-n-B rental across from Centre Pompidou, there are a number of great-smelling Middle Eastern restaurants. Asian and Asian-fusion restaurants are numerous. And the African diaspora is well-represented, too.

Funnily enough, two Parisian stereotypes were still in evidence aplenty: the horizontally-striped sailor shirts and the baguettes carried underarm on the way home at day’s end. These kept appearing with such frequency that I suspected we were victims of a ruse by central casting!

I will try to share more about the trip, along with my overnight stay in Istanbul on the way here, which was a magnificent experience.

 

Questions About Visiting Bangkok

A friend is visiting from Japan. And like the countless friends and friends-of-friends and colleagues-of-friends (and so on) that visit each year, he asked for some suggestions of what to see, where to eat, and where to sleep. Having been asked that question countless times before, I sent the PDF lists I have.

It occurred to me that I should be using this website for that purpose. After all, it is much easier to keep the pages updated and much easier for people to check in instead of passing around a PDF that is likely to be out-of-date the minute it is received.

Walking Map of Central Rattanakosin

So this evening I took some time to transfer those lists to the website. This all-purpose page may be of interest to you or someone you know. It has links to a page showing all the must-see sights in Bangkok for a first-time visitor; many of the recommended restaurants; and many of the recommended hotels at different price points.

One of these days, I will create a page showing the “hidden gems” of Bangkok – the things you should do if you have already seen the main attractions or want a different perspective on life here.

So please feel free to visit these pages, provide your comments and feedback, and share them with friends, friends-of-friends, and so on.

Coup Deux – Come Visit

Thailand is a country that likes its “collect stamps” cards. Patronize a business ten times and get a free coffee, or the like. When it comes to coups d’etat, it seems to have a similar proclivity. Depending on your count, this is the 17th, 18th, or 19th coup since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. For me, I have collected two “coup stamps”. After my fifth, I get a free t-shirt.

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The last coup was in 2006. A link to some of my entries about it is here. As for why Thailand has so many coups, there is an interesting article here. And if you want some insight into what is going on and what the next steps may be, the Economist has a useful article here.

As soon as the coup happened, and even when martial law was announced two days earlier, I was flooded with messages from friends who were worried for my safety. Thank you to everyone for your concern, but I’m afraid the important message is this:

Keep Calm

The words “coup” and “martial law” seem to prompt a visceral response, aided and abetted by the media showing close-up photos of soldiers, protesters, and political violence. In reality, the political violence over the last six months has been limited – only 28 people killed. Not to minimize the importance of that loss of life, but we regularly have bus crashes on the road here that take that many lives.

Considering the size of the country, and even the size of the city, political violence in Thailand is not sufficient reason to be alarmed or for governments to issue travel alerts warning their citizens not to travel to Thailand.

The last thing this country needs is for its economy (which is teetering on the edge of recession) to be further damaged by tourists staying away. It is an excellent time to visit the country – the weather in the early summer has cooled a bit from the Songkhran highs but the full monsoon has not yet arrived. Plus, hotel prices are amazingly low because… well, because of the political unrest.

I would ask you to help me be a de facto ambassador for Thailand. As you hear people talk about the country, let them know that your friend Chris lives there and assures them it is okay to visit. And, if anyone you know is considering travel here, urge them to come! They can always contact me for recommendations!

 

New Year’s Eve at China Club in Hong Kong

New Year’s Eve was spent at the China Club, a retro-chic private club in Hong Kong, for music from the early 1900s, atmosphere from all over the place, and food that was mostly Cantonese.

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Tawn and I dressed to the nines. We didn’t realize that the theme for the night was for Great Gastby-ish dress, otherwise we would have worn some vintage crushed velvet dinner jackets. I’m proud that I achieved one of my 2013 resolutions: being able to tie my own bow tie without watching the YouTube video to guide me. Success!

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The interior of the club, which occupies the top three floors of the old Bank of China building, has the feel of a Chinese tea house but with loads of contemporary art on the walls. It was a happening place with lots of young professionals crowding the tables. Someone needs to remind these young men that gentlemen do not remove their jackets at the dinner table.

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The menu is mostly Chinese, with an emphasis on Cantonese cuisine, the style indigenous to Hong Kong. We did order a few variations, though. Appetizers began with these deep fried prawns with foie gras, wrapped in tofu sheets, which featured large, fresh prawn meat.

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Soups are usually available per-person, that way everyone can order what they want. One of our friends had this crab claw meat (one perfect, unbroken piece) served in a lovely consommé broth with vegetables.

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The other friend and Tawn both ordered the sweet and sour soup, a classic that was very nicely done. (Yes, I tried a bite of everything!)

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I tried one of the special soups, which was braised beef brisket in hand-pulled noodles. The brisket was nicely tender and flavorful while the noodles had a pleasant “al dente” texture.

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One of the recommended dishes was the charsiu, or roasted, honey-glazed pork belly. This staple of Cantonese cuisine is succulent and, when done well, is the perfect balance of flavors and textures. The chef did a good job with this and another plate would have been welcome

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This is a Szechuan style dish: sautéed diced chicken with garlic, star anise, chilies, and spring onion. It isn’t as hot as you might imagine and was one of my favorite dishes.

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For variety, I ordered another Szechuan dish: dan dan noodles. This dish has a spicy chili sauce made with preserved vegetables and minced pork served over noodles. This particular version had a lot more sauce than usual and the sauce had less of the tongue-numbing Szechuan peppercorns than I have experienced in other versions. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable.

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Sautéed lotus root, sweet peas, water chestnuts, and various fungi served in a nest made from deep fried taro root. This was a wonderful example of the clean flavors, simple preparation, and elegant presentation of Cantonese cuisine. Of course, it can also be heavy and oily when poorly done.

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I ordered this dish as an appetizer and it arrived near the end of the meal. Familiar to people who dine at Vietnamese restaurants, it is chopped shrimp made into a paste, formed around sugar cane, and deep fried. Always tasty.

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We concluded the meal with some fried rice, this one a mixture of different meats and vegetables. As with most Chinese banquets (although this meal was ordered a la carte), the rice is served last so that you do not fill up on it during the meal.

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For dessert, we shared a few items that didn’t photograph well plus these lovely egg custard tarts. With a very flakey and not-too-oily crust, the tarts were a nice conclusion to the meal.

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We also inexplicably received fortune cookies. I say “inexplicably” because these are an American invention and not authentic in the least. To top it off, there seems to be a trend of fortune cookies increasingly reading like “advice” cookies. As one Chinese friend pointed out, the quality of writing must be suffering because the fortunes are now outsourced to a factory in China. Ha!

All in all, China Club was a good meal and a fun place to dine on New Year’s Eve. For more info, here’s their website. Note that the club is members-only so to go, a member needs to make reservations for you.