Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Homecoming Trip 2022 ✈ Malaysia

After successfully traveling back to Malaysia in the middle of the pandemic last year, I felt a lot more comfortable planning another trip back home this year to keep up with my goal of traveling home at least once a year. While we were not completely out of the pandemic yet, we started seeing more countries loosening their Covid restrictions earlier this year, thanks to the vaccines rollout since the 2nd half of last year. This was certainly a welcoming change, but the rapidly changing rules also made travel planning harder as we had to constantly keep up with the latest entry requirements for each country. 

The most common advice for people who are planning to travel during the pandemic is to fly direct or minimize transits where possible. But I was crazy enough to do the complete opposite and decided to piece together 3 separate trips into 1 big trip - Finland (booked in Oct 2021), Maldives (booked in May 2021), and Malaysia (booked in Feb 2022). 

The end result of my 24,570km/15,267miles journey home is shown in the map above. 
18 days, 9 countries, 13 flights, and 8 airlines.

 US - Switzerland - Denmark - Germany - Finland - Qatar - Maldives - Singapore - Malaysia for a total cost of $634 (~ RM 2,790), majority was for the $420 seaplane in Maldives.

I am thankful to be able to take extended time-off from work and spent 6 weeks in Penang this time around. The main purpose of this trip was to help mom care for dad and spend time with my family. However, our time together was cut short due to Covid outbreak in the family. More on that in a separate post.

Apr 3 (Sun): Arrival in Penang

Arrived Penang at 11.25am after a red-eye flight from Maldives and a short transit in Singapore. My original booking (using Alaska miles) was Male-Singapore-KL and we booked a separate Airasia flight from KL to Penang. However, when Singapore opened their borders, SIA resumed its direct flights from Singapore to Penang so I changed our booking to Male-Singapore-Penang at no extra cost. We forfeited the Airasia flight, oh well.

The timing of our return was good because Malaysia announced on March 8 that all fully vaccinated travelers were no longer required to quarantine upon arrival effective April 1, just 2 days before our scheduled arrival. I had already prepared all the documents needed to request for home quarantine, but we only had to provide our negative PCR test results, proof of vaccinations, and completed MySejahtera traveler cards upon check-in at Male airport. Note: PCR was required back in April but is no longer required.

Upon our arrival in Penang airport, I noticed that the health screening area was empty, the automated passport counter was back in service, and there wasn't any other document checks. We collected our bags, handed over the completed custom forms, and walked straight out of the airport...just like the good old days of pre-pandemic travels! It was great to see how things have changed for the better since my home trip last year, but I was glad I had the experience of traveling during a 'lockdown'.

The only additional step (based on the rules at that time) was to do a rapid test within 24 hours of our arrival. Mom had brought along the test kits so we were able to use the CLEA app to complete our virtual test for only RM15 each. We received our negative result and report within 2 hours and our results were also updated on our MySejahtera app within a few hours. 

Apr 3-9 (Sun-Sat): Post-travel Voluntary Self-quarantine at Straits Residence
Even though quarantine was no longer required, mom and I still opted to self-quarantine at a different house for a few days as there are old/high risk adults and kids in the house. We also arranged with bro and SIL for a 'contactless' pick up at the airport. They drove 2 cars to the airport, and dropped off one car for mom and I to drive back to the condo (our quarantine station). =)

Our comfy and cozy 'quarantine station' for the week, courtesy of big bro and SIL. =)

With this amazing view of Straits Quay from the balcony.

I enjoyed the view so much that I took soooo many photos from day to!

Rooftop infinity pool and gym at the condo. P.S. Our self-made quarantine rule is to avoid people (not confined in the house). =P

Apart from getting work done at night, these were all I did for 5 days of self-quarantine.

Apr 9-10 (Sat-Sun): First Weekend at Home
As mentioned in the beginning of this post, the main purpose of my home trip was to help and spend time with my family. However, by the time everyone in the family recovered from Covid, 3 weeks had already flown by. Nevertheless, I still made the most of the 3 remaining weeks at home to spend quality time with the family.

Apr 9 (Sat): Family gathering on my first weekend home (before the Covid outbreak). 
This turned out to be the day Covid spreaded in the family. I believe I dodged the virus because I was wearing my mask most of the time, and took it off only when I was eating.

Apr 10 (Sun): I was back in time for Cheng Beng, another family event before the Covid outbreak. Haven't been here since I left for the US 7 years ago, so I was glad to be able to do this my family and relatives this year. Fortunately, all of us wore masks the whole time so our relatives stayed clear of Covid.

Apr 10-15 (Sun-Fri): Workation/staycation at Courtyard Penang
Booked 5 nights at Courtyard Penang using 20,000 Marriott points with the plan of accumulating elite night credits. The redemption rate of 5,000 points per night was a pretty good deal. Besides, Courtyard hotels in Asia are a lot better than the ones in the US and this hotel is pretty new. I figured this would be perfect for my workation and also an opportunity to invite grandma and grandaunt for a staycation.

I was hoping to get a Suite upgrade with my Titanium status but there weren't any suites available for the duration of my stay. I got a corner king room instead, which was slightly larger than the ordinary king room with plenty of space for myself. I indicated 3 guests on my booking and we would have been able to fit 3 people in the room as the chaise lounge was comfortable enough to sleep on. Unfortunately, my staycation plan with grandma and grandaunt was cancelled because of a Covid outbreak in the family. So this workation + staycation ended up being another self-isolation stay again. 

Covid-related measures in the hotel. Masks were required in all public areas and gloves were also provided at the restaurant for guests to use when getting food from the buffet. Of course, can't miss the no durians & mangosteens sign in the room. =P  

My workstation and work outfits for the week. =P 

My activity areas in the hotel - 1st, 11th, and 19th floor. As seen in the top right photo, my corner room was slightly larger and offered city views on two sides. 

Day and night views from my room on the 19th floor. 

Sunrise view from the room, and sunset from the pool area.

Best part about staying during weekdays was having the gym and pool all to myself. There was a sauna next to the gym but seriously who needs more 'sauna' in Malaysia. =P

I chose complimentary breakfast for my welcome amenity and the complimentary breakfast was also extended to 2 additional guests. Too bad all of my family were quarantining for Covid so I could only enjoy this perk myself. I thought about inviting my friend to meet up for breakfast but didn't want to risk spreading the virus as I wasn't completely sure if I escaped the outbreak yet at that point. Oh well.

The buffet breakfast was served at Penang Kitchen and the spread was quite impressive with both western and local options. There was also a made-to-order egg station and noodle station. In terms of the tastes of the local food, I'd say they are 'hotel' standard, can't compare with the street food but good enough to fill my stomach. Breakfast was served till 10am so I turned it into brunch and skipped lunch coz I was too lazy to go out.

Apr 15-22 (Sat): Another round of self-isolation at Straits Residence
I ended up going back to the condo again a week later by myself and had another week of self-isolation while my family was recovering from Covid. I was isolating by myself because I escaped the 'outbreak' and stayed negative throughout (probably coz I was wearing mask during the family gathering).

I was done with work so I spent the week binge-watching 2 K-dramas (39 and Soundtrack) and completed my Copenhagen blog.  I feel like a quarantine expert at this!

I left the balcony door open all day to enjoy the view and sea breeze. I didn't even turn on the air-con at all. I also enjoyed the nightly free music from the bar nearby. 

I was too lazy to drive around to find food so all I did was walk over to the K Market downstairs and bought some stuffs to cook in the condo. If you haven't noticed, I am perfectly fine not leaving the house for days as I do enjoy quarantining and isolating. =P

Apr 22-May 13 (Fri-Fri): Family Time
As mentioned in the beginning of this post, the main purpose of my home trip was to help mom care for dad and spend time with my family. However, by the time everyone in the family recovered from Covid, 3 weeks had already flown by. Nevertheless, I still made the most of the 3 remaining weeks at home to spend quality time with the family.

Many rounds of mahjong with the ladies. 

Spent time with the grannies. Took grandma to town to get her replacement Identify Card done coz she 'lost' her handbag since Chinese New Year. Coincidentally, I found her 'lost' handbag 'hidden' at the back of grandaunts cupboard the day before I flew back to the! I bet she kept her handbag there herself and completely forgotten about it.

Spent time with dad. Dad's condition (both physical and cognitive) had worsened since last year and he is fully dependent now. His post-stroke vascular dementia has impacted his speech a lot more so he rarely talks these days. He sleeps quite a lot and couldn't really focus for long. Dad used to enjoy singing karaoke so I found music programs with classic Cantonese and Chinese songs on Youtube to keep him entertained. Music is really powerful as he was able to stay focused for about 2 hours watching the music programs. 

Spent time with the kiddos. As compared to last year, the kiddos are talking a lotttt more so the chaos level have also! 

Spent time with friends from work and high school. Even though we keep up with each others' lives on social media, I was glad to meet up with them in person since we live in different parts of the world. Hard to believe that we've known each other for 10-20 years!

Helped with several hospital/clinic runs for dad, grandaunt, kiddos, and the helper.

Helped with school runs to pick up the kiddos.

Uncertified swim coach for the kiddos.

Discipline and etiquette teacher for the kiddos. They legit called me 'teacher' at some!!

K-drama time with my new k-drama kaki. Watched Lovestruck in the City and Business Proposal, and tried getting mom to watch CLOY but ended up rewatching it myself.

My annual $3!

Other random things I did....had to clean and dry the notes coz they were soaked in the safe. Also found grandma's Certificate of Citizenship from the British days, and the death certificate of my grandfather's (whom I have never met nor heard much about). Also helped hubby buy some Cuban cigars as gifts.

Early celebration for niece's fourth birthday.

Also celebrated Mother's Day with all the mothers in the house.

Missed out on nephew's 1st birthday celebration in the US but thanks to SIL for sharing the photos. The twins also recorded a Happy Birthday song for lil' Cooper.

Dined out with friends for the first time since Covid started.

I was impressed by how Covid changed this dimsum place. They had a sanitizing machine at the entrance, a robot to bring food to your table, and a delivery pick-up section for all different food delivery services.

May 13 (Fri): Long Journey Back to the US
My original plan was to meet up with hubby in Japan and spend a week sightseeing in Osaka/Kyoto before flying back to the US together on JAL First Class. Unfortunately, Japan still refused to open to tourists in May so we had to cancel all our flights and hotels. Thankfully we booked everything with points and miles so they were easy to cancel and we only forfeited $25 of Alaska partner award booking fees. 

Buhbye First Class =(

After canceling Japan, I booked a separate ticket for my return flight on Apr 18 (less than a month before departure date). I decided to use my United miles and randomly found out that I could actually use a 'throwaway ticket' (to get the Excursionist perk) that I was originally planning to forfeit, and apply it to my booking by changing that flight without change fees. I also found out that I could get my preferred route with lower number of miles by changing my ticket as compared to booking a new ticket. I used 40,000 United miles and paid $54.37 for taxes and fees for my flight from KUL - BKK - ZRH - ORD - HSV. 

Hello cattle class and 43.5 hours of! Honestly, I'm not at the point of swimming in miles and points yet so I'd much rather get 2 trips in economy than 1 trip in business or first class. Besides, we've already been inflating our 'hotel' lifestyle so we'd better keep inflation in check...haha! =P

At the time of my travel, US still required a negative test (Antigen or PCR) within 24 hours from departure to enter. I brought along 2 eMed rapid test kits that cost $25/each but decided to use CLEA instead as I've used it previously and it cost only RM20 ($5) for the virtual test. We had 2 more trips planned for the year so I figured we could save those eMed test kits for future trips. 

I also found out at the last minute that I had to buy a travel insurance with at least $10K coverage to transit in Bangkok. I was actually surprised that this rule applied to transit passengers. I did a quick search on the Malaysia Quarantine Support Facebook group to confirm that they were required, and found an insurance company recommended by others.  I bought the Tune Protect Travel Easy insurance for a one-day in and the cost was RM28 ($7). I'd rather spend this small amount of money than risk missing my flight.

Booked a separate ticket from Penang to KL with 2,100 Enrich points + $6.85. Thanks to mom for waking up early and took me to the airport at 4.30am for my 6.35am flight. There weren't many people at the airport so check-in was pretty quick. 

The flight was quite full. Arrived KLIA on time at 7.40am and went to the Baggage Solutions counter to print my rapid test result. I had an electronic copy on my phone but wanted to have a hard copy just in case. I was glad to see the duty free shops opened coz they were all closed when I was here last year.

I had about 5.5 hours to wait before my Thai Airways flight to Bangkok at 1.20pm. I couldn't get into the Priority Pass lounge yet as the lounge is located airside and I couldn't check in for my flight until 3 hours before departure. I found somewhere quiet to wait and repacked my luggages. I was able to check in 2 bags for my flight so I moved the things that I carried on for the previous flight into another luggage.

I was glad I went over to the Thai Airways check-in counter about 30 minutes before the counter opened and was the 3rd person in line. The line started building up quickly as there were quite a lot of documents required to visit or transit in Thailand. I provided my green card, negative antigen test, travel insurance at check-in. Glad I had everything printed out. I also confirmed with the staff that my bags would check all the way to my final destination and acknowledged that I'd have to claim and recheck them in Chicago. 

I was done with check-in at 10.30am, went through immigration, and took a bus to the satellite terminal (the aerotrain wasn't working at that time). I went to Sama Sama Express Lounge which was located next to Gate C5 to hang out and ate something light. 

I didn't really have appetite to eat when I realized my Zurich to Chicago boarding pass had SSSS printed on it. I've read about SSSS (Secondary Security Screening Selection) before and generally that means it'd take longer for me to go through security as I'd have to go through secondary check. I wasn't entirely sure if the security check would be in Zurich or Chicago. Even though I had a 5hr layover in Zurich, which was more than enough time to get through security, I had planned to go to the city for a quick sightseeing. I was also concerned if the security check is upon my arrival in Chicago as I only had a 2hr transit. I did some research and it seemed like the security check would be in Zurich, so I decided to just stay in the airport and not risk going into the city. 

The dreaded SSSS in the bottom left boarding pass. The flight from KL to Bangkok was very full and I didn't really see any empty seats. Fortunately, it was only a short 2 hour flight  so it wasn't too bad. Surprisingly, lunch was served and I chose fish and rice.

Landed in Bangkok 15 min behind schedule at 2.45pm (gained an hour). As I was only transiting, I only had to go through security without any additional document check. I had a 10.5 hour layover in Bangkok, yes very long. Thank goodness there are plenty of Priority Pass lounges at Bangkok airport and they were all located close to each other. That means it's time for lounge hopping! =)

First stop was Oman Air First & Business Class Lounge. I've read that this was the best Priority Pass lounge in BKK airport and I must say I agree with others. The lounge wasn't too big, and felt very cozy and quiet. There weren't many people either. I was feeling hungry so I had Panang curry chicken, stir-fried veggies, and Singha beer for late lunch. I was very impressed that all the food were individually! There was also 2 day beds for guests to nap but they were both occupied when I was there. The maximum stay was supposed to be 2.5 hours but the staff didn't bother me so I ended up staying for 3.5 hours before moving on to the next lounge. I came back to this lounge again at 9pm and stayed until 12am. This lounge is open 24 hours.

The 2nd lounge I visited was the Air France - KLM Sky Lounge. There weren't anybody in the lounge when I got there at 6.50pm so I went ahead and took a shower. Towel were provided and I got my boarding pass back when I returned the towel. I should have taken shower at the Oman Air lounge coz the shower room was definitely much nicer. The shower room at the Air France lounge was dark and the plumbing probably wasn't good so it kinda flooded in the shower area. Oh well, it was still good to get a shower before my long flight. I also had dinner at this lounge but forgot to get the ice-cream. I was gonna hang out a bit longer but the lounge started getting busy and there were noisy kids around so I packed up and went back to the Oman Air lounge.

The last lounge I visited was the Turkish Airlines Lounge as it was the one closest to my boarding gate. I went there at 12am and there weren't anyone there. I stayed for about 20 min and headed over to my boarding gate for my 1.05am flight.

The flight from Bangkok to Zurich was quite full. There was another guy in the same row but we had an empty seat between us. This was an 11hr 45min flight with 2 meals served. The flight was smooth and I was able to sleep for a few hours. I was constantly checking the estimated arrival time on the flight map as I was still undecided if I want to go into the city. Stay tuned to the next post to see if I chose to stay in the airport or go sightseeing. =)

Phewww....that was another long post. As always, I'm very thankful to be able to travel home and spend quality time with my family again this year. Even though Covid took some family time away, I'm glad that none of my family had serious symptoms and are all fully recovered. Till we meet again next year! Stay safe, stay healthy, and take care y'all!