Southeast Asia

From Bangkok to Borneo, Java, Bali and Lombok in between: a Southeast Asian FREE fest. And for the senses, so many good things heard, tasted, felt, smelled and seen! With gratitude and appreciation for Delta, Sheraton, and Le Meridien, one day for sure with miles and points, I’ll visit them all for FREE again.

And now, thanks to the American Express Platinum Business Select card’s current 70,000 mile bonus added to my previous non-expiring stash, I have enough miles for a FREE Business Class ticket to Southeast Asia, something I had not achieved before, but definitely aspired to. The question is, though, will I use them for a business class ticket? Or will I be tempted, as in the past, to enjoy multiple free economy class tickets instead, rather than only one free business class ticket?

Or will I take advantage of a recent change to Delta’s  redemption options, a definite improvement, and use my SkyMiles to book an award for a free domestic or international ticket on Thai AirAsia, for a free flight from destinations in Thailand to destinations in Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Singapore as well as other destinations in Thailand? So many exciting possibilities! Click here for more information.

It’s a long flight to Thailand, even when you have excellent connections and flight times like I did on my free flights with Delta, from Boston to Bangkok, and from Tokyo Haneda back. (For in-between flights around Southeast Asia, and for connecting from Malaysia to Tokyo, I used AirAsia, which I have loved since it first took off .

Still, it was entirely worth the total 27 hours of flights each way and 70,000 miles round-trip for Economy class that I “paid” last time I went, even though then (2012), the lowest amount of miles necessary, had I booked longer in advance, would have been 55,000. But I decided (or realized) that I wanted (and needed) to go, only five or six weeks in advance, which is really rather late in the game. Thus I was grateful to score a roundtrip itinerary at 70,000.

The ideal time to book a free ticket, especially on a route that involves multiple stopovers (2 in my case-New York and Tokyo) is about 10 -11 months prior to your anticipated departure date. Tickets are released 330 days in advance. Today, the lowest number of miles required for a round trip economy class ticket from East Coast USA to Thailand, is 80,000. What you have to pay for taxes, surcharges and fees nowadays, has also increased, and varies, from a low of about $192 to upwards of $346. It all depends upon the itinerary. Those fees may seem steep, but, we are talking about a ticket that would normally cost $1,500-$2,000. So, you are still getting a tremendous value!

The best card recently for earning bonus Delta miles was the Delta Gold Business American Express. Then another new, really good, “business” card came long. Even if you don’t own or run a standard incorporated business, if you freelance at all, have authored any books, or sold items on ebay, you can still apply and be approved. I did and was, and once I completed the required purchases amount, like magic, that bonus of 60,000 miles in my account appeared.

But, you have to be careful, too. That 60,000 bonus changed to 50,000 just a few weeks after I applied, so you never know really, whether you should jump on an opportunity in the moment, or wait for a better one. For the most part, my philosophy is ” be grateful, not greedy.” All of this is a gift, really, don’t you think?

Then, the good news was that the best bonus was back up, way up, to 70,000 miles on a Delta Platinum Personal Amex card- for a minimum spend of $3,000 in 90 days! But it expired 11/09/16. Yes, there was an annual fee, of $195, but, you got a $100 statement credit, if you purchased a Delta fare within three months of account opening, and many other travel perks that make the annual fee worth it. Plus, that bonus by itself was more than enough to get you from North America to places like Tokyo (and from here you could jump on a cheap, easy flight with AirAsia to get you to lots of other cities in this corner of the world), Paris or Buenos Aires, and almost enough to get you to Bangkok or Cairo, all on my radar.

imageBangkok’s Grand Palace and riverside temples are stunning. I took this picture before I even had a digital camera, never mind a cellphone!

If I had the time, I’d go to Bangkok and around, again, in a heartbeat. I could,  I have the miles and they don’t expire- like money in the bank, you gotta love Delta for that! Of course, the catch is that the longer I wait to use them, the greater the risk I take that the number of miles required to fly somewhere for free will increase, and maybe later, when I want to use them, I won’t have enough.

But hopefully, I will, because I can’t find the words to say just how much I love Southeast Asian cultures- even as they tend to become more and more Westernized- which usually means Americanized. And what a pity, that. Not that I don’t love the freedom and opportunity the U.S.of A. has to offer, BUT, everything has it’s time and place, and in my visitor’s eyes, it’s just not necessary or appealing to see an endless supply of Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, KFC, and so on, in Laos, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, or Ubud -has it happened in Ubud? I’m not sure. I’ll cross my fingers that the answer is “no”.

So, what do I like to do in Bangkok? Well for starters, there’s eating. Nobody has good food like Bangkok does. I wish the city were close enough for a long weekend trip; I would go once a month or more. I miss the food dearly and dramatically- the flavor and the freshness, especially the freshness of all those fantastic ingredients that go into every little and big dish- nothing canned, no preservatives, no additives, only natural flavors, no artificial. And yes, I know there are good Thai restaurants to be found in a variety of other cities and countries, BUT, it’s never the same as in Thailand itself.

      The best fruit in the world, my favorite, is mangosteen from Thailand. 

Other wonders? The temples, the monks, the people in general, the markets, the shopping, the tropical fruit, the massages, the Chao Phrya river. I love them all. Still, nothing beats Bangkok food, and the more trips I’ve made there, the more I stopped eating at fancy sit down restaurants, and would only indulge in the street food- yup: pushcarts, sidewalk chefs, pop up markets, tricycle cooks, and so forth. Yum, yum and more yum. And no, I never got sick there. Ever.

Oh, there IS something else I love about Bangkok. I love my favorite hotel there, the Royal Orchid Sheraton, and even though I have tried others, like the Regent, and a Westin, another Sheraton, and a nice Thai-owned hotel or two, the Royal Orchid is my favorite. Serenity now, perfect riverside location, heavenly beds, cool and comfortable, sauna and multiple swimming pools, enchanting orchids everywhere, great eating and shopping and relaxing massages across the street, and every time I leave there (and I usually am ready to leave when I leave), I’m already thinking I can’t wait to go back!.

The last time I was there (August 2012) is already too long ago, and one thing that has changed, and not for the better, is that the hotel is now a Category 3 (which requires considerably more points than a Category 2, which is what it was for years.) I guess that means that the rest of the world is discovering the incredible value and pleasures that the Starwood hotels in Thailand have to offer. Consequently, as occupancy rates have gone up, so has the number of points required to stay there for free. Still, once you get your Starwood American Express credit card with bonus, (see link below) you’ll be well on your way to earning a free stay at my favorite hotel. And, remember this: with a Category 3 through Category 5 hotel, if you book four nights for free with points, you receive the 5th night free. So you can get 5 nights in Bangkok for only 28,000 points, which is exactly what you earn from the bonus (25,000 points) and purchases ($3,000) on the card! It’s all so simple, really…

imageHere I am, loving the beaches of Gili Air, off the island of Lombok, with Bali in the background

For the sake of time and space, for now I’m going to skip over Indonesia- (which isn’t fair- it deserves multiples posts of its own! but I will add a post soon on Lombok where there is an excellent Sheraton hotel and of course, one on Bali, too, where I have stayed in three different beautiful luxury hotels. Did you guess? Yes, I stayed in them all for free, right on Sengiggi and Nusa Dua beaches. Oh, and in Lombok, I experienced very, very nice scuba diving with http://www.scubafroggy.com. Thanks, Guillaume. And in Bali, while in the interior I always stay in a small local hotel. This is absolutely not the place for chain lodging! Not even Aman or Four Seasons) -and jump to Borneo. I did the very best (absolutely un-paralleled) scuba diving of my entire scuba life, on Sipadan Island in Malaysia. Wow! Like a psychadelic aquatic dream that happened to be real. Like falling down Alice’s chute into an aquarium on steroids. Like watching everything around you as if you must be filming the best underwater documentary ever, but you’re not, you’re just plain old you, one very lucky scubadiving you! That’s the reality of underwater life at Sipadan.

Pictures really don’t do justice to the diving at Sipadan

Later, elsewhere on Borneo’s mainland, a short flight away (AirAsia, another favorite- like the easyJet of this other fascinating continent), the best moments I had did not come during the glorious jungle canopy walk not far from Kota Kinabalu (probably because it was pouring rain…), but, when I ventured out to see the Orangutan Reserve. Another wow! Animal life is precious, it really is.

And I adored my KK hotel, especially after coming from the dumpy, grumpy hotel I stayed at in Semporna- which is the town on the mainland where you stay when you want to dive on Sipadan Island. I was there during a big holiday and nothing else, alas, was available, other than the horrible hotel I had harbored myself in. I survived it, but wouldn’t repeat it.

But I would enthusiastically repeat a stay at Le Méridien Kota Kinabalu, which truly looked and felt like heaven, and who doesn’t like to be spoiled? And isn’t it even nicer when you’re being pampered at no cost to you! Like the Royal Orchid Sheraton in BKK, the Meridien Kota Kinabalu is also a Starwood property, and has also recently gone up from Category 2 to 3. And now you know what that means as far as points are concerned, and here’s how to get them.

Oh yes, an additional excellent benefit of the American Express Gold Delta credit card was that I was able to upgrade my seat on the way back from Tokyo Haneda, for only $59, and that also gave me access to the first class lounge there. That was a nice way to end a terrific free four week trip. After spending the entire day visiting temples and shopping for gorgeous kimonos and cool shoes in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, having the lounge in which to relax, shower, and dine, before boarding my midnight flight back to the US, was a sublime finish.

Wouldn’t you like to sample this delicious slice of paradise on earth? You can do it, too, and for free. Learn from me.

Travel Cutie

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