Hotel review: Al Muthana (Almuthana), Riyadh

For some odd reason, all the “branded” hotels in Riyadh were full last week, so I decided to try out a place I’d had my eye on for a while, namely Al Muthana (or Almuthana, as they like to spell it). It’s a new-looking building right on King Fahd Rd, just behind al-Faisaliah, that I passed by on my daily commute.

The hotel’s own website doesn’t offer online booking, but a site called ResMe.com does, so I booked a “Studio” room for three nights at US$120/night, considerably cheaper than the US$200+ you’d be looking at for my usual Holiday Inn. On showing up, though, check-in didn’t seem to have a clue about my booking or what to do with it, and they bumped me up to a “Junior Suite” and keyed in the rack rate of SR 863, nearly twice what it was supposed to be. I attempted to sort this out the next day, but I had to go through the rigmarole once more on check-out, ending up with a really bizarre looking bill that charged me SR 853 x 3 and then lopped off a few thousand riyal as “SINGLE ROOM DISCOUNT”. Boggle.

So, positive things first: the hotel is very new and very stylishly and modernly done, with glass and muted shades of tan, none of the over-the-top gold glitz that Arabs usually like. The entire place has free, reasonably speedy wireless internet and the basics of my room worked fine. The “Junior Suite” was, indeed, large, although most of the space was rather useless: for example, the TV was perched atop the minibar in a corner, so far away from the sofa that binoculars would have come in handy. The bathroom was also way below Western standards: the shower blatters out only a thin stream of lukewarm water, and on my last day the bathtub plug got stuck, which would’ve led to a nice little flood if I hadn’t managed to pry it open with a nail clipper.

However, it’s the service that really lets down the hotel. The promised fitness center is open only 4 to 10 PM (!?), with a small, dark indoor pool with no access to the outside, and a laughable excuse at a gym that doesn’t even have a functioning treadmill. My room wasn’t cleaned at all on the first day, there was no sign of the promised fruit basket, and water bottles weren’t replenished. I tried to order room service breakfast one morning, but nobody even bothered to pick up the little hang-on-the-door order form. Breakfast at the mezzanine floor cafe was quite OK though, brought plate by plate according to your order (no buffets) in Western or Arabic style, if a little expensive at SR 69.

All in all, for a quick overnighter Al Muthana would be fine, and the price certainly is very attractive. But for a longer stay, it’s worth it to find a place that actually knows what they’re doing.

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Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Dubai

The original plan had been just to do a simple transit in Dubai, but the flight I wanted on Tuesday was full — a good thing, in retrospect, as not only was Bush Jr and his security brouhaha in town, but unusually strong rains made sure that the city was completely and totally jammed. Wed was full too, so I booked Thursday — but on that day the connecting flight to Riyadh was full. Bizarrely, the earliest next flight out on SV or EK was at 4 PM the next day, 21 hours later (!), so there was no choice: I had to overnight. I shed a crocodile tear and rang up local resident F. who promised to take me out to his favorite shisha place.

The flight docked at the rather swanky-looking Terminal 1, but a lengthy sequence of escalators took me over to decrepit old T2 (opened — omg! — almost 10 years ago) for immigration. This time, the queues were mercifully brief, and after a solitary question (“Where are you staying?”) I was stamped in and invited to enjoy my stay. And here’s one thing where other countries should follow the UAE’s lead: absolutely no silly little immigration forms where you have to copy all the information that they can figure out anyway by scanning your passport.

Alas, the taxi scrum was rather longer and an hour from landing had passed by the time I got in the car. I’d opted for the brand new Four Points by Sheraton Downtown, a brand new hotel, and had misgivings about if the cabbie would know where it was… but he did, precisely, and earned a nice tip. The Four Points, incidentally, is the nicest hotel I’ve stayed at for a while: it’s brand new, squeaky clean, super modern, very comfortable, friendly and, by Dubai standards, affordable — my room cost 500 dirhams (~US$150), which, believe it or not, qualifies as a steal in Dubai these days. (I usually stay at Marriotts, but their cheapest property anywhere near the center, the Renaissance, wanted Dhs 1400.) But by the time I checked it, it was 11 PM local time and 4 AM my time, so F and I decided to put the shisha off until tomorrow and I hit the sack.

Morning dawned bright and sunny, and after a pleasant visit to the gym (equipped with a well-stacked Spanish fitness trainer) and a bracing dip in the icy pool (January in Dubai is pretty chilly) I hit the street and started walking towards Dubai Creek. The section of older Dubai along the way was distinctly unflashy, a warren of crumbling concrete, haphazard wiring, oversized signage and fragrant odours that bore more than a little resemblance to India, the home of most of the district’s inhabitants, with nary a thobe in sight. But by sheer coincidence (I had neither map, guidebook nor any idea of its existence), I ended up precisely in the quarter of Bastakia, the solitary chunk of old Dubai that has been expensively restored as a heritage project. It all looked a little too new and perfect to be true, a contrast highlighted by the solitary exhibit of something that was actually old: a remnant of Dubai’s city wall, now a low stretch of roped-off, nondescript rubble.

On the other side of Bastakia is the Creek. I’d had a mental image something along on lines of the Singapore River or Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, with precipitous skyscrapers, expensive restaurants and harried businessmen lining the edges, but no, the buildings were low-rise and nondescript, with few higher than five floors. Abra boats shuttled busily around to the market buildings on the other side, but my side of the river (which did have a pleasant promenade) was largely given over to a neverending procession of increasingly over-the-top river cruise ships of the buffet-and-bellydance variety, with blinking lights, Romanesque pillars and statues in excerably bad taste (now whose bright idea was it to celebrate Arab culture with a life-size bronze of a conquistador?).

Before long I had to return to the hotel and was just checking out when F and his uncle showed up. Once an IT geek like us, Uncle had ditched that career for the evidently rather more lucrative business of designing air conditioning systems, obviously a booming market in the neverending construction site of Dubai. An excellent Lebanese lunch at al-Hallab later, we retired to a nearby shisha shop for a few early afternoon puffs. I was in no hurry to depart, but my flight to Riyadh was, so around 90 minutes before the flight I had to interrupt the stream of Arab hospitality and start making worried noises. We eventually managed to find a taxi company to call, but their driver was permanently 5 minutes away from arriving, and with only an hour to go until flight departure we had to resort to flagging down a cab on the main road (where there aren’t allowed to stop). One kind soul risked a thousand-dirham fine to pick us up and jetted us off to the airport, where I said my hasty goodbyes, brutally cut my way through the security line and arrive at the check-in counter precisely and literally one (1) minute before it closed. The check-in guy even had to check with his manager if the flight was still open, but it was — “You’re the last passenger! So rush!”. Through immigration, though another security point, the endless corridor to the other terminal again, up and up and up and across and, under 20 min before to the departure, to the gate. Phew.

Hotel review: Courtyard Frankfurt Messe

I did a quick layover crash at the Courtyard Frankfurt Messe last week, so I thought I’d give a few impressions.

Finding the shuttle bus station at FRA took a bit of searching, but once I found it and the courtesy phone, the shuttle showed up in minutes. It’s still a fairly long(-seeming) ride though, and there are plenty of other, closer and possibly cheaper hotels on the way…

Check-in was fast and efficient, but unlike any Courtyard I’ve stayed in before, us Marriott Platinum members actually get to choose between 250 pts, a “sweet snack” or “salty snack”, which is then delivered to your room afterwards: a minor annoyance if you just want to take a shower and hit the sack as soon as humanly possible. (And yeah, I should’ve taken the points, but I wanted something to eat in case I got hungry…)

The room is a little old-fashioned but clean, functional and surprisingly large. The bathroom had your basic range of amenities (no toothbrush/paste) though and lots of hot water, so I showered, took delivery of my “salty” mini-can of Pringles and bottle of carbonated water still wrapped in a towel, and went to bed. The bed was a generously sized queen and there were good thick curtains too, so you can make the room almost pitch black if you want to, and I slept solidly for six hours. I meant to hit the gym/pool too, but realized only too late that I’d forgotten to pack my swimsuit or workout clothes in my carry-on. D’oh.

And then the grumbles. There is indeed wifi in every room, but you have to pay for it, which is annoying but regrettably standard in FRA. Also, while the shuttle from the airport is complimentary, the shuttle back is 7 euros, which is a bit of a rip-off. But I prebooked it on arrival, it showed up on time and I was back at the airport in under 15 min.

In all, out of my ten-hour layover, I spent a bit over an hour traveling between the airport and my hotel (incl. transit/immigration in the airport), six hours sleeping, an hour not-sleeping at the hotel and two hours at the lounge/gate. Total cost after taxes, shuttle etc around 75 euros, which is not the cheapest deal in town, but still under a third of what doing the same at the airport’s own Sheraton would have cost me.

Indolaporan Dua: Bandung di mana?

I’d been planning to visit Bandung for quite a while now, but never seemed to have an opportunity — until, on this trip, opportunity presented itself in the way of a training session being held there. With only two days midweek, most of them spent at work, it would be a short visit, but who was I to complain?

The trip didn’t start particularly well: after some confusion with the driver who showed up, who was evidently expecting an entirely different job, our project manager (fresh off the plane from Singapore) and I bundled into the car and hit the road. On the way out, the driver asked the garage security guard for directions towards the tollway, and headed out from the hotel, lazily looping first west and then north up Jl. Satrio. Not having been to Bandung before, I initially figured he was heading for some tollpike stretching east from Jak, but as he steadily drove north with occasional stops for directions from entirely random people (eg. beggar women living under a bridge), it slows dawned on us that he had absolutely no clue. I wasn’t much better equipped, and the boss’s nifty in-phone GPS map conveniently omitted Jakarta, but I did know that heading west to Slipi would take us to the highway, so that’s where we steered him. Not much later, I realized that he couldn’t read either, so we had to yell out “left!” or “right!” at each intersection… but we finally got onto the highway and, a little over an hour later, passed by the hotel we started from. Grumble.

By now it was pitch dark outside, so there wasn’t much in the way of the promised hilly scenery. The highway, though, made up for it in part. For a developing country, the roads on Java are really pretty extraordinary: the initial stretch of turnpike down from Jakarta towards Bandung is four-laned in both directions, and the newest bit, while “only” two-laned, swooped gracefully up and around the foothills as we climbed our way onto the plains. We stopped halfway through at the self-proclaimed Best Rest Area in Indonesia to stock up on chips and a worrisomely named bag of “Oops! Fugu” snacks (do they kill you if you peel them wrong?), and then hit the road again.

Another miniadventure awaited on arrival in Bandung, where I had to play charades until the driver understood that my incomprehensible request for an aye-tee-em meant that I wanted an ah-teh-em. Next, the driver wanted to know which bank’s ATM I wanted, because surely I could use only the right one? Both my meager Indonesian and charades skills failed at explaining the concept of “any ATM”, so I said BCA (Indonesia’s largest bank), and we then drove around in circles (and past not a few other ATMs) until he found one.

Two million rupiah richer, we finally pulled into our digs for the night, the Savoy Homann, which has a respectable claim to being Bandung’s grand old hotel: their website proudly boasts of eminent guests like Charlie Chaplin and Yasser Arafat. On check-in, the bossman asked if there was Internet in the room, and were told no. We protested, they checked again, and said no again. We protested louder yet, one guy scurried into the back room, and a smiling manager came to greet us. Only one available room had Net access, he said, so how about a complimentary upgrade to the Presidential Suite? Well, yes, we could live with that.

We were led to our room via an elevator apparently dating from Chaplin’s days, but the suite itself was rather more modern. As promised, it was a two-bedroom affair, with my “little” bedroom being the size of your average hotel room, while the “master” bedroom was equipped with a bed and a jacuzzi large enough to accommodate all four wives of a local potentate, and the two were connected with a corridor/living room that stretched a good 25 meters.

The next day’s training was finished by 4 PM and we set out to explore. In pre-colonial days, Bandung was the home of the local sultan, whose alun-alun (ceremonial grouds) and pendopo (pavilion) are still at the center of the city. In its Dutch colonial days, Parijs van Java was known for its art-deco architecture, a few examples of which can still be found in, for example, our hotel and the Gedung Merdeka building opposite. But today, Bandung is best known for one thing: factory outlet shopping. Much of Indonesia’s massive textile industry is concentrated nearby, and lot overflows and quality control rejects all end up on the shelves in Bandung, and with a large population of students there’s a thriving local designer scene as well, mostly aimed at the young and the hip. Just behind the alun-alun are streets crammed full of clothing shops, clothing shops and more clothing shops.

And, like any other self-respecting Indonesian city, Bandung has its own array of local specialities. Top of the charts is batagor, which combines the three lodestones of Indonesian cuisine, peanuts, chilli and tofu, in a mildly novel way: the tofu (or fish paste) is battered and deepfried, then drizzled with generous lashings of peanut sauce, hot chilli oil and kecap (yes, ketchup, but the original Indonesian version is black, thin and sweet). I also managed to try out soto bandung, a basic but tasty beef broth with chunks of radish; laksa bandung, unrecognizably distant from its Malay/Peranakan counterparts with just a hint of coconut milk in chickeny soup; and, last and least, mie kocok, which turned out to be instant noodles served with translucent cubes of something gelatinous, fatty and not particularly tasty, revealed on later googling to be cow skin. Mmm.  Fortunately, I finished off with something rather more tasty — Bandung’s modern-day speciality, the alliterative Bandung brownie, sold even by streetside stalls.   I’m not sure what’s so Bandung-y about it, but if you slather a brownie with enough chocolate, you can’t go too far wrong.

The return journey in the late afternoon was rather more scenic, with countless terraced rice paddies reminescent of Bali. I took a shared minibus service back to Jakarta, but the highway paralleled the train line for much of the way, the Dutch-built railway punching its way through the hills with tunnels and gliding across valleys on narrow steel viaducts. Next time, I’ll take the train.

RTW2007: Toronto, wherein our tyrannical tourist cheats the TTC, minces around a pottery museum and makes mincemeat of a ginormous pile of Chinese food.

As downtown Toronto seemed to have no sensibly priced/available with points Marriotts, I spent the night at the Fairfield Inn Toronto Airport, which has drawn rave reviews (for an FI) on Flyertalk. I was bumped up into a thoroughly unnecessary if not unwelcome suite, had my Platinum water & pretzels waiting, and had an edible and not unreasonably priced meal at the cafe downstairs. (This is the hotel’s Achilles heel; there are absolutely zero other eating options in the vicinity, unless you can eat gravel or ball bearings.)

Next morning, earlier than I would have liked but still in a bit of a rush, I hit the gym, the buffet breakfast and the airport shuttle back to YYZ. Air Canada’s website states in no uncertain terms that baggage can only be checked in from 4 hours before a flight, but I tried my luck anyway and was pleasantly surprised that they took in my bag without the slightest quibble. My ATM luck was still zilch though, so I ended up changing US$40 cash into C$40.50, a rate that could charitably be described as ungenerous, but certainly does wonders for any Canadians with lingering currency inferiority complexes.

And then it was time to face the Toronto Transit Commission and try to make my way into the city. The TTC offers handy day passes and packs of five tokens, but they’re not available at the airport: your only choice is to fork out C$2.75 in exact change for a single fare, which is kinda tough if you’ve only got tens and two quarters. Luckily, the bus driver (who probably sees this all the time) let me board for free, and the Airport Rocket’s destination, Kipling station, had a token-o-mat.

Toronto Harbourfront and CN Tower Tall, Rich, Blonde and Available

Moose on the loose in Chinatown The C$3.50 Lunch

It was around 11 AM by the time I reached the city center, leaving me around 4 hours to sightsee. The Art Gallery of Ontario was closed, and the Royal Ontario Museum seemed rather to massive to tackle, so I tried the Gardiner Ceramic museum instead. It was small, but very nice (well, at least if you share my unmanly hobby of collecting Asian pottery), if fairly expensive at $12 a throw. Walking down through the U of Toronto grounds was free though, and I saw more attractive Indian women in one hour than I did during 6 months in Delhi. A loop through Chinatown, where I was delighted to find the Merlion Singaporean Restaurant yet bitterly disappointed to find it closed — I ended up wandering into a very Chinese shopping mall (you can always tell by the smell of dried seahorses wafting from the herbalist) and into the basement, where I correctly surmised there’d be cheap food aplenty. There were half a dozen stalls with an identical deal: pay C$3.50 and get your choice of 6 toppings piled on rice… and when they said pile, they weren’t kidding. Quality was queasy (pink mincemeat is never a good sign) and, while authentic, it was still terrible. Sometimes pinching pennies is a waste.

Then past the CN Tower to the Harbourfront, which with its flocks of seagulls (lakegulls?) and pointy buildings rather reminded me of Vancouver minus the mountains. A detour into the Design Exchange, a purposeful stroll through a small chunk of PATH, a photo of egregious misuse of umlauts (you talkin’ to me?) and then it was time to head back to the airport.

 

Cambodia Chronicles: Raffles Le Royal

Raffles Le Royal! The name itself seemed magical, and my expectations were as high as my taxi driver’s on the way from the airport: “Ooh! The best hotel in Cambodia!” Perched on the northern side of town, at the center of what was once the European quarter, the flood-lit spire of Wat Phnom gleamed in the night as we pulled into the driveway and a man in a pointy hat rushed down to pick up our luggage.

There is no check-in desk at Le Royal: instead, you are led to a plush sofa in the high-ceilinged yet surprisingly intimate Conversatory and served a welcome drink while completing the formalities. A staff member led us along cream-and-black tiled corridors to our Landmark Room in the main building, while telling us about the hotel’s long history. Build by the French as a hotel from day one, at four storeys it was possibly the tallest and certainly the grandest building in Phnom Penh when it opened in 1929, with a lavish opening party featuring an orchestra from Saigon and attended by King Monivong. At the time, a room for the night cost 3-4 Indochinese piasters (US$1.20), or twice that if you wanted meals too.

Our room was, like the hotel itself, a fusion of the latest technology with colonial style. A ceiling fan lazily spun high above the giant bed, itself a period piece of heavy dark wood, while a discreet panel by the door controlled the air-conditioning. The bathroom featured a carefully restored free-standing claw-footed bathtub, while next to it was a modern glass shower cubicle, with the charming touch of putting the cold water in the left tap and the hot on right, just like they used to back home in France. Photographs of old Phnom Penh lined the walls and even the quaint bulbous light switches dated back to 1929.

It was already late in the evening, so we headed straight down the grand wooden staircase and made our way to the hotel’s legendary Elephant Bar, with views of the hotel’s magnificent gardens and an array of in-house drinks – even Slings faithfully copied from the recipe of the mothership hotel in Singapore. But unlike Singapore’s rather touristy Long Bar, the Elephant Bar retains a quiet, elegant charm, with live piano in the evenings and waitresses flitting about in Khmer silk dresses.

The old, colonial Le Royal reached its apex in 1967, when Jacqueline Kennedy stayed here on her way to Angkor, leaving a suite and the Femme Fatale cocktail of champagne, cognac and raspberry liquor in her name. But the civil war that followed soon afterwards didn’t treat the hotel so kindly: the top floors were evacuated as the Khmer Rouge shelled the city with artillery, and after a short spell as a refugee camp, a part of the hotel was turned into a storehouse for rice and dried fish. The hotel reopened in 1980 a mere shadow of its self, catering mostly to UN staff working to rebuild the country. The current chapter in the hotel’s history thus began only in 1996, after the hotel was taken over by Raffles and given a loving restoration.

Morning dawned and, in the hustle and bustle of this modern-day boomtown, war and chaos seemed very far away indeed. Breakfast at Café Monivong is treat, with a buffet spanning European, Asian and Khmer favorites – don’t miss the homemade jams and the energy booster drinks made to the order – and you can choose to have it in the café or outside by the garden. Here, too, you can feel the Raffles touch in the details: instead of pouring stale tea from a central kettle, each order is freshly made and brought to the table in a porcelain teapot.

Properly stuffed, it was time for a daylight tour of the hotel grounds. On spotting the two large pools, my travel companion let out a scream of delight and told me: “Have fun sightseeing, honey; I’ll just stay right here!” Both options are easy: if the hotel’s pool and Amrita Spa aren’t enough to entertain you, the stupa of Wat Phnom, the riverside boulevard of Sisowath Quay and the spectacular Central Market (Psar Thmei) are all just a short stroll away. And while there are plenty of eating options both inside and outside the hotel, be sure to leave some space for the delectable bite-size pastries at the Le Phnom delicatessen.

As check-out time neared two days later, both of us kept glancing at our watches and thinking: “Oh no, only two hours left…” If staying over, don’t make our mistake and set too ambitious a sightseeing schedule: a rare gem like Raffles Le Royal is an attraction in itself and deserves to be savored slowly.

Raffles Hotel Le Royal 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh off Monivong Boulevard Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh Kingdom of Cambodia Tel: +855 23 981 888 Fax: +855 23 981 168 phnompenh@raffles.com phnompenh.raffles.com

Ed: Only two things sucked in the Raffles: despite thrice-weekly spraying, there were way too many mosquitoes (they’ll bring an electric repellant if you ask), and the air-conditioner refused to turn itself down low, so I ended up getting a cold. But overall it really is a fantastic hotel and very much recommended — the off-season prices of US$150 are almost reasonable too.