Sawadee from Bangkok, Thailand! Last week I left off from
Hong Kong, China, which was awesome as always but chilly (50s). This week we fly two hours and some change to Bangkok, where it's in the high 80s. If you want to escape the cold for some fun in the sun and see one of the world's most exciting destinations, then put on your smile because we're in Bangkok, baby! If a city (granted, it's polluted) filled with friendly people, incredible bargains, insanely good food, luxurious hotels, and hour-long massages for $8 is not your thing, then maybe you will like another Twitter article I wrote to help those struggling to find good people to follow.
This one is titled the Top 10 Tweeters to Follow for Travel News and Tips.
CORPORATE TRAVEL AGENTS
I was flown to Bangkok to participate in a Marriott media trip to check out their Executive Apartments, which I will write a separate story about next week since they offer such an incredible deal. If you can't wait or you are about to book a trip to Bangkok, here's a little video I made of them. To book my airline ticket I needed to go through Marriott's corporate travel agent. First of all, I'm a big fan of good travel agents since they can make your life so easy. However, I don't have any patience for those who make my trip more hectic than if I booked myself. While entertaining some flight options with the agent, I knew I was in trouble when she said she had never heard of Etihad Airways (I inquired about flying from New York to BKK via Abu Dhabi). Everything went smoothly until I asked to be wait-listed on an earlier HKG-BKK flight since the one I wanted was sold out.
A few days before departure I realized that if I was able to get on the earlier flight then I would have to rearrange my hotel airport transfers in both Hong Kong and Bangkok. So I emailed the agent to cancel the wait list. She emailed me back saying thanks for letting her know. Well, it turned out she never canceled my wait list, so when I checked in online the morning of my flight, both flights were showing confirmed. I didn't know which one to take and I didn't want to go to the airport so early, so I sent her an email when it was around 4:30 p.m. on Friday back in the States where she was based. Since I didn't get an immediate reply I had the hotel concierge call the airline directly. It took him a while to connect since it was after hours in Hong Kong and Cathay doesn't have a 24/7 call center (shocking). It was finally straightened out but I was in limbo for a good hour. Isn't the point of having a travel agent to avoid these types of problems? To make matters worse, I finally received an email back from the agent on MONDAY saying, "Oh no… I did not get your email until today... Hope you didn't have any issue… the waitlist cleared.” I was so ticked that I told one of the Marriott executives it might be time to get a new travel agent. Am I right, or am I turning into a prima donna?
HONG KONG TO BANGKOK
Fortunately, my flight to Bangkok went a lot smoother. Cathay Pacific basically flies a shuttle service between the two cities, and they operate wide body A330s with 311 seats. The plane interiors in business class are a bit dated, but nevertheless they have individual entertainment systems and they serve food in both economy and business class. The highlight of the trip was seeing how both of these world-class airports run. I could (and might) write a whole story on each airport, but just to give you an idea, at Bangkok's baggage claim, workers line up FREE luggage carts next to the conveyor belts to make life easier for travelers. They also alert passengers to when the first and last bag is on its way. Why can't we do this in America?
I love Thailand. I visited in 2004 and 2008 and learned that it's exciting and safe (for the most part, including the tap water), the people are genuinely friendly, the food is outstanding, and everything is ridiculously inexpensive. Besides, how can you not like a place where everyone is so polite and warm? Everyone in the service industry greets customers with a wai, and I mean everyone. The higher their hands, the more respect you have earned (here's a video on 5 Steps to giving a Thai wai greeting in Thailand). Maybe western cultures should consider doing this so we don't have to touch sweaty, germ-infested palms when shaking hands.
GET A GOOD GUIDEBOOK
There's so much to see and do here that I could write 500 newsletters and still not cover everything. One of Thailand's best qualities can be summed up by something a college friend of mine, who grew up in Bangkok, said. He explained to me how Thai people treat everyone with respect, no matter what class they come from: The rich eat with the poor and vice versa. It's not like India, where the rich and the poor typically do not associate. The Thai approach is awesome, and I experienced plenty of it since I spent a total of 10 days in the capital. Since I can't write about everything, be sure to pick up a good guidebook (I use Frommer's Thailand), and don't be afraid to go out and explore on your own.
BEST TIME TO GO: Thailand's high season is November through April when the weather is the best. If you go during the high heat or monsoon seasons, you will get big discounts.
THE NAME BANGKOK
The word Bangkok translates to mean "the village of wild plums." However, the Thais refer to the capital city as Krung Thep, which means "city of angels." And just like Los Angeles, the city is sprawling. About 10 million people call this place home, and it's filled with traffic and pollution. What's interesting is that Krung Thep is just an abbreviated version of the real name, which just happens to be the longest place name in the world according to The Guinness Book of Records. Are you ready? The real name of Bangkok is ... Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. That's not a joke, and I had a tour guide pronounce it. To see my video of her singing the name (since that's how they learn the full name in school), click here.
In 2006, Bangkok replaced the 92-year-old Don Muang International Airport (25 miles north of downtown) with the $4 billion Suvarnabhumi International Airport (BKK), which is situated about 19 miles east of Bangkok. Suvarnabhumi (pronounced su-wan-n-poom) in Thai means "the golden land” and was chosen by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Incidentally, the king is highly revered by Thais, so don't ever disrespect him by bad-mouthing him--it's actually against the law! Unfortunately, the 83-year-old king, who was born in Massachusetts, is not in good health and has been in the hospital for the past two years.
The airport is massive--with about six million square feet of floor space--and has a modern industrial look with lots of exposed steel and glass. Walking to passport control is a bit of a hike, and I always get nervous when I see a huge queue at a last-minute visa window. Luckily, I remembered that Americans (and Canadians) don't need visas to enter the Kingdom of Thailand. TIP: Choose the immigration line that has two agents working the counter, otherwise you could be stuck there for ages. I really like the airport, but it's not my favorite. The international departures wing has a lot more to offer than the domestic wing.
AIRPORT TO HOTEL
This trip I had a prearranged hotel car, which is the easiest way to get into the city, but it's definitely not the cheapest. You can take a regular taxi and, as of last month, the train. My buddy Kevin took it, and he said it's quick (15 minutes), cheap (150 baht = US$4.88), and easy. The service is available from 6 a.m. to midnight every day. From my previous Bangkok trips I learned not to fall prey to any of the very aggressive imposters posing as official taxi drivers. A ride with them will cost you double or triple the regular fare. To avoid them, just walk out of baggage claim until you see this taxi counter. The line was never long, and you just need to be sure that the driver turns the meter on. The price with tip and toll fares (25 baht and 40 baht respectively) should be about 400 baht (US$13) total. Now that's a bargain, especially considering that the ride can be anywhere from 35 to 90 minutes. That fare also includes the 50-baht airport service surcharge (from the airport), and don't get freaked out if the driver makes you pay the toll in advance. BTW: Tips are not mandatory here, but are appreciated. Most Thais don't tip.
GROUND TRANSPORTATION ADVICE
Bangkok taxi drivers were pretty much the only people I encountered who didn't speak English. That's because most of the drivers are from the rural northeast part of Thailand. The best way to avoid confusion and headaches is to get the address of where you are going written in both English and Thai. All hotels have taxi cards, so be sure to grab one before you head out.
Given the current economic climate, going to Southeast Asia is one of the smartest moves you can make. Even with our dollar dropping and not being as strong as it once was against the baht, Thailand is still one of the few places in the world that is a bargain for Americans. The most expensive part of your trip will be the flight over, and there are even some great deals on those too. At press time, US$1 = 30 Thai baht. That means 1 Thai Baht = US$0.03. TIP: There are plenty of ATMs in the airport, so grab some baht right after you clear customs. Here's a link to a currency converter.
Here's some advice when dealing with tuk-tuk drivers (with the exception of the drivers at the hotel). If you've never even heard the word tuk-tuk (it means putt-putt), let alone ridden in one, they are three-wheeled, open-air, bright-colored vehicles that are loud and noisy and a whole lot of fun. Tuk-tuks don't have meters, so you have to bargain for your fare before you get in. The lowest possible price is 40 baht (US$1.30), but unless you're a local, you'll be paying more than that. Usually, before I approach a driver (they are everywhere), I ask a nearby store clerk or concierge how much they would pay to go from point A to point B. If I'm told the ride should be about 70 baht and the driver quotes me 200 baht, I know I have lots of negotiating room. NOTE: Always negotiate with a smile. This brings up another point: always smile when haggling--don't get mad! It's against custom, and the same goes for bargaining with street vendors. Tuk-tuk drivers are notorious for trying to bring tourists to their friend's businesses so that they can earn a commission. So if the price drops drastically to, say, 50 baht, be sure you say, "No stops, no massage parlors, and no shopping!"
Bangkok's BTS SkyTrain (website), an elevated railway, was built in 1999 and has two lines: Silom and Sukhumvit. Besides cruising along the river, this is the best and fastest way to get around the city. It's easy to navigate, clean, and safe, has great views, and it's air-conditioned. Just get some Thai coins from the teller at the station and use one of the self-service machines to get a ticket to ride. The average fare I paid was 25 baht (US$0.81), and they also offer unlimited day passes if you're planning on doing a lot of sightseeing. No matter what the fare is, be sure to hang on to your card so you can exit the station. NOTE: Bangkok also has a relatively new subway system, but I didn't need to take it.
CHAO PHRAYA RIVER
The Chao Phraya is a major river in Thailand;
it's where the best hotels are located and many
of the top attractions
reside. The best way to see it is by hiring a private longtail boat
(a long, skinny boat
powered by a car engine). I'm sure I got ripped off when I paid 1,000 baht (US$32) both times I rented one, but I was in
a hurry and didn't have time to beat the owner down for a 60-minute tour, which included a ride down a few canals. But $30 for a private boat is an unreal deal anyway. Imagine how much one would cost in Western Europe? Speaking of Europe, Bangkok was once known as the Venice of the East with all of its (now-filled-in) canals. The water is really dirty… I'm talking toxic sewage... but I only got a drop on me once because the low boats are fitted with tarps that block the splashes. And one piece of advice: Don't go to the snake farm unless you want to go to a tourist trap.
THAILAND STREET MASSAGES
Thailand is famous for massages, and not just the hanky-panky kind! On practically every street corner, you'll find a legitimate massage parlor where you can get a Thai body massage or foot massage for just 250 baht (US$8) for an hour. I pretty much had one every day since they are so cheap and feel so good. My favorite was Nuch, which I will go into detail about next week. Seriously, if I lived in Thailand, I would get one of these every day! At these prices, I would bring my laptop and make their studio my office. How's that for multi-tasking?
If you feel more comfortable in an American hotel chain, you can't go wrong by staying at the luxurious JW Marriott. I spent a couple nights in one of their 441 plush rooms. The five-star hotel is centrally located in the business district. The moment I pulled up, I experienced their great service. The bellmen are alert, and there's always someone opening the front door. They also have a security checkpoint for taxis to get in the hotel driveway and for guests to go through in the lobby. It's quick, though, and I never had to wait more than 10 seconds. They also screen all bags and purses through an X-ray machine so it's comforting.
Our room was built solid; I couldn't hear any hallway noise and it was state-of-the-art. There was a 32-inch LCD flat-panel TV with satellite and the Marriott's remote Jack Pack, which allows guests to connect portable electronic devices like laptops and iPods to the TV. The room has multi plug outlets and the light and a/c controls were bedside. To top it off, the view of the skyline and pool was awesome, and there were blackout curtains so we could sleep late. The bathroom was wall-to-wall (and floor) white marble. Other observations: The bed sheets were really soft and comfortable. The water pressure in the shower was good, but Natalie complained that it took a while to fill the bathtub.
I would eat Thai food every day, but it was Natalie's turn to choose and she wanted something different like Japanese. Well the JW Marriott just happens to have one of the best Japanese restaurants in the city. They actually have two: One is called Nami, which is a Teppanyaki steakhouse, and its next-door counter part is called Tsu, a traditional Japanese restaurant. We dined with the Marriott PR/sales team who were really interesting since two of the three grew up in the States. I asked them what they missed most, and can you believe they said the fast food? I said, You have Burger King, McDonald's, KFC… across the street, and they said it's not the same. That should be a good thing! Natalie loved all of her fresh sushi and other traditional dishes, which don't interest me in the least since I'm not into raw fish. But I sure did enjoy my fresh watermelon juice and Bento Box Lunch with grilled chicken, vegetable tempura, potato croquette, appetizer, and Sunomono salad. Would you believe in a fancy restaurant the Bento Box cost just 300 baht (US$9.77)! The street food in Thailand is even cheaper and we did eat a good amount of it (more on that later).
GOOD TO KNOW: Tsu now has the only Japanese Sunday brunch in the city for 1,690 baht (US$55); it comes with sparkling wine. FYI: The Japanese love to visit Thailand.
The hotel has nine places to eat. We wanted to get some variety, so the only other restaurant we dined in was the Marriott Café, which has an elaborate breakfast buffet. It's downstairs off of the lobby and was packed around 9 a.m. (go early to avoid the crowd). Natalie just spent half her time walking around trying to decide what to get, as she was overwhelmed with all of the choices. Not me--I grabbed a little bit of everything and ran around it like the Tasmanian Devil. I hit the juice bar, fresh fruit, pastries, made-to-order eggs/omelet, Thai food, Chinese dim sum, baked beans, sausages… the only thing I didn't touch was the cereal and the Japanese section (they eat some nasty food for breakfast). There's everything you can possibly imagine and then some, like fresh honeycomb. Even though it was a madhouse, every time I returned to my table my previous dirty plate had always been picked up. Service is very good and efficient and there was never a line to get in.
The following morning we were granted access to the Marriott's newly renovated Executive Lounge, which is upstairs on the 16th floor. It was much more relaxed, but they only had a tenth of the buffet offerings (that was a good thing). I preferred it since it was so peaceful and the design is very easy on the eyes. Perks to adding the Executive Lounge to your stay include free Internet, complimentary open bar, and snacks (including high tea) throughout the day; exclusive in-room check-in and check-out; complimentary clothes pressing (3 pieces daily); use of the executive-level boardroom (4 hours daily); and 24-hour access to the fitness center.
EXECUTIVE LOUNGE SERVICE
The Executive Lounge is great for business travelers, and my only complaint is that it's not open 24 hours. To give you an idea of the service in the lounge, once I couldn't get online, so I asked the receptionist if the Internet was down. It turned out to be my computer, because Natalie showed up a couple seconds later and got on without a hitch. As I was restarting my computer their tech guy came up to me and said, I hear you can't get online. I was shocked, because it was literally within three minutes and it was 11:40 p.m. (they close at midnight). JW Marriott Hotel Bangkok, 4 Sukhumvit Road, Soi 2; Tel: 66 2 6567700.
I don't need to recommend any place to eat because Bangkok is filled with amazing eateries, from street food to fine dining. They have every kind of cuisine in the world, not just Thai. I usually stay away from street food, but when I do take a chance I make sure the food is cooked and that the stall is clean, popular, and recommended by a local. One night we met fellow travel writer Kevin Revolinski (@KevinRevolinski), his Thai wife, and her friend for dinner. Kevin is a native of Wisconsin but moved to Bangkok a couple years ago. They took us down a side street (soi) to get some darn good and really cheap street food from food cart vendors. I was worried about getting sick, but he assured me it was fine and so I got it all: fresh-squeezed watermelon and orange juice, chicken satay, chicken and rice. To give you an idea of the prices, the most expensive thing I bought was mango sticky ricefor 85 baht (US$2.60), and that was about double what everything else cost. You gotta love Thailand!
DID YOU KNOW: What's interesting is that the Thais don't use chopsticks unless they are eating noodles, and they use a fork to shovel food onto a spoon. They don't put sharp objects in their mouths (except toothpicks).
GOOD TO KNOW: Every menu I came across was in both Thai and English throughout the country.
THAI BEATLES AT O'REILLY'S PUB
My new friends from the Marriott talked us into going to O'Reilly's Pub to see the Betters (Thai Beatles) perform in Silom (just a few BTS stops from the JW). The bar was filled with expats and Thais all singing along with the Thai Beatles, who were quite impressive. They play every Friday night from 9 to 12 a.m. (though usually they go on to 1 a.m.).
In Thailand, you can shop 'til you drop. They have high-end stores, malls, and crowded street markets. The latter are the most popular and the most exciting. The most famous is the Patpong night market (I stayed away from that madness) and the Weekend Market in Chatuchak, which is the biggest shopping extravaganza. It's open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and is somewhat organized, with similar shops next to each other. The best time to go is early in the morning to beat the heat and the crowds.
GETTING A SUIT MADE
My colleague Peter Greenberg is always making me green with envy when he talks about all of his custom-made suits and shirts he gets from his Thai tailor. We were going to go to his guy, but we had some miscommunications. However, at lunch with the JW Marriott sales team I told the guy I needed to get a suit made. He said he and all of his staff go to this one guy a few blocks away (it was more like a dozen). He said he has 42 suits from him and over 50 custom-made shirts, and he offered towalk us over and help negotiate. After I heard he only paid $110 for the suit he was wearing and $17 for the shirt, I was sold.
When I got there the Thai owner handed us off to his main sales guy who was from India. He took us upstairs and offered us tea, cola, or bottled water. I told him I travel a lot and need material that doesn't wrinkle since I'm not a fan of ironing. He said this material was his best and he even burned a piece to prove something--I'm still not sure what since I was in a daze from jet lag and trying to convert all the prices. Finally, I just put my guard down and let my new friend negotiate, and I ended up getting a suit and a couple shirts made for 10,000 baht (US$325). What was great was that he did it all within 28 hours. We first went in at 2 p.m. for about an hour. We went back again at 8:30 p.m. the same day for our first fitting, then went the following day at 6 p.m. for the second fitting, when it all fit perfectly so we took everything with us. Natalie also had a suit and a dress made. I'm not disclosing his address yet because the material on Natalie's dress started coming apart on the second day she wore it, and the jury is still out on my clothing.
THE GRAND PALACE
Bangkok's number one tourist attraction is the Grand Palace. The name is appropriate because this place really is grand. It's on sacred royal ground so there's a strict dress code. Visitors are not allowed in without pants or long skirts. According to their website, men or women cannot wear "shorts, mini-skirts, short skirts, tight-fitting trousers or outer garments, see-through shirts or blouses, sleeveless shirts, vests, sandals, sweat shirts, sweat pants, pajamas or fisherman trousers." If you don't have long pants, no sweat... (pun definitely not intended; you will sweat like a pig if you go midday) visitors can "borrow" a pair with a refundable deposit of 100 baht (US$3.25).
EARLY BIRD GETS THE PALACE TO THEMSELVES
I've visited the Grand Palace (wikipedia) four times now, and it never ceases to amaze me. The best time to arrive is when it first opens at 8:30 a.m. so you can have the place to yourself for about 30 minutes. The entrance fee is 350 baht (US$11.40). The Grand Palace covers 716,500 square feet and is surrounded by four long walls (6,234 feet). The place has so many ornate buildings, statues, and perfectly manicured grounds; I have never seen anything like it. The palace was greatly influenced by Western architecture, including colonial and Victorian motifs.
The Grand Palace was built in 1782 when King Rama I took over the throne. The first thing he did was move the capital for defensive reasons from Thonburi to the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. The palace was built not only as his residence, but with offices for various ministries. Only one remains inside the palace walls today. That's why they call it the Grand Palace. The most popular building inside the complex is the Chapel Royal of the Emerald Buddha, called Wat Phra Kaeo. It has all the architectural features of a monastery, but without a residential quarter (that's why no monks live there). The Emerald Buddha, carved from a block of jade, is the most revered Buddha image in Thailand. Crowds come from all over to pay respect to the memory of the Buddha and his teachings. TIP: You have to take your shoes off to see the Emerald Buddha so don't wear anything too expensive. Just so I wouldn't get my shoes stolen and have to go hunting around Bangkok for a shop with size 13 shoes, I put each shoe on a separate shelf and carried my orthotics with me. The Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand; Tel.: 02-623-5500, Ext. 1124.
Adjacent to the Grand Palace is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (website). Its official name is Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram Ratchaworamahawihan and it costs 50 baht (US$1.62) to visit. More commonly called Wat Pho, it is one of the largest and oldest wats in Bangkok and also has one of the largest single Buddha images: the Reclining Buddha. Most visitors like us go get a massage right next door at the famed massage school. The temple is also known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. Massages are cheap here: 250 baht (US$8.14) for an hour Thai or foot massage. I had the latter and it was darn good.
JIM THOMPSON'S HOUSE
One of my American friends insisted I visit the Jim Thompson House. She loves it because it's in the middle of a crazy loud city, yet it's so quiet and peaceful. She was right; it is cool to see, and I learned more about Jim Thompson's legacy. I first heard of the New York architect (who is believed to have singlehandedly revived Thailand's silk industry) when I went to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. It was there, in 1967, that he went missing. The Jim Thompson property contains six teak houses, all built according to Thai architectural principles but with Western additions: bed, staircase, china, dining room table (made from two mah-jongg tables). The gift shop sells high-quality expensive silk goods. Cost to enter is 100 baht (US$3.25) and includes a free tour. Jim Thompson House, 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road; Tel.: 662-216-7368.
T-MOBILE ROAMING CHARGES
If you are following me on Twitter or Facebook then you know I post a lot of pictures in real time every few minutes when I travel. But after T-Mobile socked me with a crazy-high bill from my Denmark/London trip, I had to control my fingertips to find out what the culprit was since they couldn't give me a straight answer. The day after I landed in Hong Kong I dialed 611 (T-Mobile's customer service) to make sure I wasn't getting any more crazy data charges. The agent informed me that I had already rang up a $16 bill and I had only been there for a few hours. To make a long story short, T-Mobile is a mess. Every time I called I got a different answer on what I can and cannot do on my beloved BlackBerry. One agent said I could only send and receive 51 emails overseas per billing cycle even though I had an international data plan. She kept denying my requests to speak to a supervisor, but I was persistent. Good thing, because I was just about to turn off my service and switch to AT&T when I returned home.
FACEBOOK AND TWITTER
In case you are having the same problems, I found out through trial and error that my Facebook and Twitter applications and my Gmail account were the culprits. I'm indeed not being charged to send or receive emails, and I get hundreds a day. Instead of uploading my pics directly to Twitter and Facebook, I discovered Facebook and Twitpics offer users an email address so I can just send the photos there with the caption in the subject line and it does the trick. It's quick, simple, and best of all free.
Kop koon ka (thank you!)
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