Review: Air China Business Class Siem Reap-Beijing & How I spent my layover in China
This is Part 10 of a multi-part series detailing my trip to Hong Kong and Cambodia, flying First Class and attempting to stay within a $350 budget for ALL expenses. If you haven’t read the first 9 parts yet, please check them out:
Part Four: Cathay Pacific 777 First Class Review
Part Eight: An Amazing Tour of the Angkor Temples
Part Nine: Hotel Review: Le Meridien, Siem Reap
Siem Reap International and Le Salon Lounge
After a full day of touring the Angkor Temples in 98 degree heat and high humidity, I was in need of a shower and a short nap. I had originally arranged a late check out of 3:30pm with the very accommodating staff at Le Meridien, Siem Reap. However, I didn’t return to the hotel after the tour until just after 3pm. I asked how much they would charge me to stay for another few hours. The $90 charge was fair to basically tie up the room well past the normal check out time, and it would allow me some time to rest and recuperate before my red-eye flight to Beijing. Of course, it busted my budget goal.
I ended up checking out of the hotel around 6:30pm, leaving my bag with the concierge, and taking a $3 tuc-tuc ride into town for some dinner. I ate some vegetarian curry at a local restaurant, walked around the Night Market, which is definitely geared to capture the tourist dollars. Finally, around 9pm, I headed back to the hotel in another $3 tuc-tuc to pick up my bag. I sat in the lobby and made a couple of calls using the free internet, then decided to go to the airport.
After a 20 minute $8 tuc-tuc ride, I was at the Siem Reap International terminal. There were a few flights leaving just after midnight, so there was a decent amount of activity considering how late it was. I walked over to the Air China counter—there were several lines, and one dedicated to Business and Star Alliance Gold passengers with just a few people ahead of me.
There was just a short wait for check in and security then I was in the terminal. I honestly was not expecting the Siem Reap airport to have a lounge for me to access after checking with my Lounge Buddy App and finding only one listed for a $20 access charge. However, I received an invitation to the lounge from the Air China check in desk, so I followed signs to “Le Salon.”
Compared to the terminal, the lounge was quiet and comfortable, but far from luxurious. There were a handful of people in the lounge, but there was plenty of seating available. There was only one employee in the lounge, at the front desk checking access.
There was not much of a food/beverage selection. As you can see from the picture above, there was a small refrigerator with juice, water, and beer. The food display offered some light snacks with plastic forks. Nothing looked particularly appetizing, so I got a bottle of water and a cold Tiger beer. The lounge did have decent internet, so I got online for about an hour until it was time to board my flight.
Air China Flight 826, Boeing 737 from Siem Reap to Beijing
Finally, it was time for boarding, so I walked to the gate. I was one of the first to board and get settled in the Boeing 737 for the approx 4 hour flight to Beijing. The Air China business class on this 737 was in a 2 by 2 recliner seat configuration with the first 2 rows reserved for business class. The seats were decent–comparable to a standard US domestic first class recliner. I was immediately welcomed by the friendly flight attendant as the rest of the passengers boarded. For this flight I was in the first row bulkhead, but there was only one other passenger in the business class area, so there was plenty of room.
I had redeemed 80,000 United Mileage Plus miles for the Siem Reap – Beijing – Washington, DC leg of the trip. The award ticket was First Class based on the United leg from Beijing to DC, but intra-Asian business class is comparable to US domestic First Class. The taxes and fees on this award ticket totaled $55.26. I wrote about how and why I booked this option in Part 2.
I was offered a pre-departure drink and also given a menu to peruse. I was not terribly hungry since I had just eaten a few hours prior to the flight, but I figured I would take a look so that I could give the flight a fair review.
I ordered the Beef Fried Rice and a glass of the featured French Bordeaux. The fight attendant was extremely attentive and asked several times if she could get me anything additional or refill my wine or water glass after just a few sips.
Dinner was served within 30 minutes after we hit cruise altitude.
While certainly not the most appetizing spread I had seen on this trip, most of the food was edible. It was all served together on a tray with both silverware and chopsticks.
After dinner was cleared, the flight attendant told me that I used chopsticks better than she did–while doubtful, it was a nice compliment. She also noticed that I had been taking pictures, so she offered me an amenity kit. I don’t think that it is standard practice to give out amenity kits on this particular route, since the other business class passenger (who was now asleep) did not get one.
Nevertheless, it was a nice L’Occitane en Provenance zipper bag and amenities. The kit included some lotions, toothpaste/toothbrush, earplugs, eye mask, wet towelette, and a folding comb. I thanked her and took some pictures. She seemed pleased.
At that point I was ready for some sleep. So, I reclined my seat, covered my eyes with the mask, put in my earplugs and took a 2 hour nap.
Arrival in Beijing International (PEK)
It was before 6am when we landed in Beijing. Jet lag was catching up to me, but I figured after some coffee I would be able to get out and see a few things in Beijing. I was planning on ditching my carry-on somewhere and leaving the airport for several hours, but I was not exactly sure where I needed to go, or which line I needed to get in to go through customs/immigration. At that point I did not have a boarding pass for my United flight since the Air China counter was unable to print it in Siem Reap. I went to the connections counter and they were unable to help since my flight didn’t depart for another 12 hours. So, I got in the immigration line for connections and shortly realized that was the wrong line, since I would not be able to leave the airport and I needed a connecting boarding pass. Then I got in the line for non-Chinese citizens arriving in the country without a connection.
China offers a 72 hour visa-free pass to citizens of several countries, including the US. There are several restrictions–one is that you must be transiting through China from one country to another country. In this case, since I was transiting from Cambodia to the US, I was eligible. However, if I had flown from the US to Beijing with the intent to return direct to the US in 12 hours, I would have needed a visa.
I explained the situation to the agent and showed her my follow on United itinerary print out (always a good idea to have a hard copy print out of your itinerary when traveling!). Luckily she spoke/understood decent English and within a few minutes I had my Chinese passport stamp allowing me to spend up to 72 hours in Beijing. Once I cleared, I went to the bagged claim area where I had read that the Air China Star Alliance Gold arrival lounge would hold luggage for transiting passengers free of charge. Perhaps I didn’t go to the correct place, because I tried to leave my bag in the lounge at the lockers and was told that I couldn’t even after trying to explain what I wanted to do through an interpreter.
Rather than waste too much time in the small arrival lounge, I decided to proceed out of the the baggage claim area, through customs, and out into the terminal. I found a Starbucks, ordered a 30 Yuan ($4.63) latte, and sat down to use the free internet to figure out what I wanted to do in Beijing. While I had an idea of going to Tiananmen Square and the museum, I had not really planned out the logistics.
After about an hour of sipping my coffee and searching on the internet without the use of Google, which appears to be blocked by the Chinese Government, I had the framework of a plan. I would make my way down to the Tiananmen Square area via the Airport Express and connection to the Beijing Subway. In addition to blocking Google, the Chinese Government appears to block any search dealing with Tiananmen Square due to the events there in 1989 where several hundred or possibly thousands of protestors were shot. Trying to figure out how to get to the Square and the history of the buildings around there is almost impossible from within China.
I found a paid service to store my bag for the equivalent of about $6 USD, but they took cash only, so I took out the equivalent of $31.05 from the ATM. I dropped by bag off at the bag storage counter and walked towards the Airport Express.
I purchased a round trip ticket for 50 Yuan ($7.72).
The Airport Express has relatively few stops, only hitting Terminals 2 and 3 then 2 other stops outside of the airport. I needed to take the train to Dongzhimen to pick up the Line 2 subway in the clockwise loop direction to Qianmen. While not the easiest map to understand, the subway itself is pretty intuitive and automated machines allow you to purchase tickets in English. Interestingly, the Beijing Subway is the second longest subway system in the world, after Shanghai. However, it is first in the world in annual ridership.
The subway is also CHEAP! It only cost 3 Yuan each way for me–less than 50 cents! But it is distance based for each 10km up to 7 Yuan. Compared to DC’s Metro, that is a bargain.
The trains were high tech, the stations were clean, and all stops were announced in several languages, including English.
I arrived south of the Square and immediately noticed the high level of security. Pedestrian traffic was very controlled by physical barriers and numerous guards. In fact, when I visited, no one was permitted in the Square itself, and just to walk on the sidewalk across the street everyone had to present photo identification and go through a security screening.
Once I passed through the first security checkpoint, I was able to get a bit close to the square, but I had to get through another checkpoint to get close enough for this picture:
At each checkpoint I showed my passport and had no problems, but there were guards stationed at every 20-25 feet. At one point I got too close to an artificial line close to the street and was told to “stop” and get back.
Nevertheless, I wandered around the square past the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong towards the Palace Museum.
As I got closer to the museum, I realized that it was closed, unfortunately. Still not sure why. Yet, there were a lot of Chinese citizens/tourists that were heading towards the museum and around the grounds.
I circled around Tiananmen and the museum grounds and headed back toward the subway. On the way I decided to try a local restaurant for some lunch. The menus were quite literally books with no English–luckily there were some pictures. I pointed to a soup and a beer.
I didn’t realize that I had pointed to the “Vat of soup,” but what came out could have easily served a family of 5. Tasted good though. I ate enough to put a small dent in the bowl contents.
When I got the check the total was only equivalent to about $8–so not bad for an early afternoon snack. After lunch I walked back towards the subway, passing the First KFC in China (yes, I took a photo), then got back on the Subway and headed back to the Airport Express to take me back to the International terminal.
When I got back to the terminal, I picked up my luggage and headed toward the check-in for my United flight back to the States.
Total Beijing Cost:
- Flight from Siem Reap to Beijing to Washington: 80,000 United Miles plus $55.26 (fees covered by air travel credit on Citi Prestige card)
- Starbucks Latte: $4.65
- ATM to pay for luggage storage, Airport Express, Subway, Lunch, etc: $31.05
Total Trip Cost after Legs 1, 2, 3, and 4 plus touring in Hong Kong, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, and Beijing:
- $588.62. Ok, that was the final cost of the trip. I went well over budget, but in the next post I will analyze where I went wrong and what I could have done better. Bottom line, $350 as a goal was overly aggressive, but it shows that it is possible to do a world class trip with still relatively little out of pocket. I would have been much closer to budget if I had not paid for the extra few hours in the hotel in Siem Reap or sprung for the very educational and worthwhile tour of Ankor Wat.
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