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July 21, 2004
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    We found this website through our good friend Clark Howard (ClarkHoward.com). It helps U.S. citizens save lots of money by crossing the border to Canada to buy prescription drugs. I have asthma, so I know what's it's like getting overcharged by U.S. pharmacies for inhalers.

    This website is run by the State of Wisconsin. It lists safe, reputable and reliable Canadian pharmacies. While you are there buying prescription drugs, you should also tour our neighbors to the north's beautiful country.
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Hello again – and did you guess where I was headed to from Osaka? Remember, the clue was: “It’s 2,580 miles away (about the same as L.A. to New York), and it’s the only Southeast Asian country never to be colonized by a European power.”

I’ll get to that place in a minute. First I have to pick up where I left off last week, which was on my way to the Osaka airport. The airport has a nice feel to it, probably because it’s only 10 years old so there is plenty of open space and high ceilings. There are also lots of places to eat (35 restaurants, 21 of them Japanese), and tons (110 shops) of spots to buy last-minute gifts. With so many different carriers flying in and out, it’s also great for plane-watching.

Checking in for my flight was an adventure. With all the airline code-sharing going on today, even I get confused. My paper ticket read Thai Airways, but in small writing it said “Operated by JAL” (Japan Airlines). Like any intelligent person who looks at his ticket closely, I checked in at the JAL counter. Bad idea! They sent me to the Thai counter, which fortunately was just around the corner. The Thai agent told me I was right: I was on a JAL flight, but I needed to check in with Thai because my travel agent purchased the tickets from Thai Airways. (The travel agents that I use are John Dekker and Sam Hakim from CheapDutchGuy.com. They only do deep discounted International Business and First Class tickets. They can be reached at 800.564.6695.)

The agent handed me a Thai boarding pass, and told me to have a nice flight. I was surprised it wasn’t a JAL boarding pass and said, “Are you sure I’m on JAL, and not the Thai flight that leaves in 30 minutes?” She said yes. But I still wasn’t convinced, because she handed me a Thai lounge pass (a perk for flying in premium class). I was bewildered it wasn’t a pass for JAL’s lounge, yet before I could turn to her again and say “You sure?” she was already shaking her head YES with a smile. I guess that happens often. Talk about confusing.

Of course the Thai lounge was in front of the Thai gate, which was about a mile from my gate. I didn’t have a lot of time, but I wanted to see what it looked like. I was sorry I walked all the way down there, because the lounge (at this airport) was nothing special. It was just a small room with no personality – not even a window. Apart from the free drinks, the best part were the cool (and pretty) Japanese ladies working behind the bar.

When I reached the gate they were boarding my flight to Bangkok. (If you guessed Thailand then you know your geography and history (and become an honorary Johnny Jet). The plane was a DC10. I had not been on one in years, because most U.S. passenger airlines have already retired them. The only ones I see these days are FedEx – they’ve still got a bunch. I am not a big fan of the DC10, probably because they overhead compartments are so small. (They stopped making them in 1990, before people began carrying their entire lives on board.)

The plane was configured for two classes. Coach was packed, while business was wide open. The seats in business were nice, and the service was excellent. The flight attendants wore different bright-colored uniforms, and were very professional. The colors looked like the ones in the Teletubbies cartoons. When I sat down I was handed a yellow first class amenity bag, and a pair of slippers. I have size 13 feet, so of course they didn’t fit. I put them on anyway, and walked around like I was Bigfoot. Because the plane was older we didn’t have individual movies, but they showed one on the big screen (yes, English was available). I was so tired I fell asleep right after my tasty filet mignon, and slept for three hours of the five-hour flight.

When I woke up I looked out the window, and saw one of the most picturesque scenes ever. It was a hilly shoreline lit up by abundant bright stars and a waxing crescent moon. I have seen so many stars only twice before (Great Barrier Reef and French Polynesia). I also saw a few lights from houses and boats. It looked like a Hollywood set, but it was Vietnam. How cool is that!

Landing in Bangkok at night looks almost the same as landing at LAX. I had no idea Bangkok was so spread out.

Since I was a kid, I always dreamed about going to Thailand. I was now pretty excited, although a tad nervous about going to a new country by myself (especially after this warning: “The State Department is concerned that there is an increased risk of terrorism in Southeast Asia, including in Thailand. American citizens traveling to Thailand should therefore exercise caution, especially in locations where Westerners congregate, such as clubs, discos, bars, restaurants, hotels, places of worship, schools, outdoor recreation venues, tourist areas, beach resorts, and other places frequented by foreigners. They should remain vigilant with regard to their personal security and avoid crowds and demonstrations.”)

As with any warning from the U.S. Government, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Many times they’re just covering there behinds. Still, it’s always good to check with the Canadian, British, and Australian government warnings as well. If they all agree, then there might be something to worry about.

I think the name “Thailand” is so cool -- something about it makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. It sounds so exotic and mysterious. It’s probably because when I was a kid, my elderly neighbor used to tell me all kinds of stories about her trips to Thailand. I thought it was so amazing she used to be able to ride elephants (you still can).

I landed at 11 p.m. local time, and the airport was packed. The tarmac was filled with airlines from all over the world, including a bunch of Phuket Air 747-200 all lined up that needed paint jobs badly. You couldn’t get me on one of those old 747’s without serious tranquilizers.

We had to walk downstairs and hop on one of those low-to-the-ground buses that takes passengers to the terminal. TIP: Always get on the first bus, so you can get in the customs line first. Unlike in Osaka, the BKK airport (airport code for Bangkok) was filled with Westerners. It’s sometimes nice to see people from your country when you are so far from home, and traveling alone. This was one of those times.

My first stop after clearing customs was the ATM machine (it should be yours too). I took out some monopoly money -- I mean, baht -- which currently exchanges at 1,000 to $24 US dollars. Walking around with 10,000 baht in my pocket made me feel like I was carrying an obscene amount of money, but it was only $245.

Taxis in Thailand are ridiculously cheap. A ride from the airport to downtown Bangkok (20 minutes without traffic) is supposed to cost only 400 baht ($10) -- and that includes the extra 50B ($1.20) for airport service. But of course I got suckered by some slick Thai salesman who was behind a booth that made me think (like a fool ) that he was the taxi dispatcher. After I overpaid by 200 baht ($5) I learned that I hired a private car. That little incident taught me a lesson: Sometimes getting suckered in a foreign country is not a bad thing. I reached downtown much quicker than anyone else, and my driver spoke some English. FYI: Legal taxis are the ones with yellow and black license plates. If you take a taxi and want to get to downtown quicker than normal, tell your driver to take the expressway (Chalerm Mahanakhon Expressway). It costs an extra 40B ($1) for the toll, but it’s worth it -- especially during rush hour.

I wasn’t in Bangkok for business or to visit family or friends (though I did end up seeing some). I was there to get a taste (pun intended – who doesn’t love Thai food?) of the country. If I spent a month in Thailand I still wouldn’t see everything, but I was lucky to have “3 nights in Bangkok”. There is so much to do and see, but instead of running around like a crazy tourist I took my time, saw a few of the sights and dined where the locals do. Hopefully, I will make it back one day to see the whole country.

Before I tell you all about my trip, here is some background information. The official country name is the Kingdom of Thailand. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, just like the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister is Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra, and the king is Bhumibhol Adulyadej. Unlike in the U.K., Thais revere their monarchy. I'm serious - you don't want to make negative comments about him (or any member of the royal family). It’s a crime called “lese majeste,” and is punishable by three to fifteen years in prison. It’s also a crime to purposely tear or destroy Thai bank notes, because they carry an image of the king. I prayed I didn’t forget where I was and make some smart-aleck remark about the king.

Thailand used to be called Siam. In 1949 the official name of the country was changed to "Prathet Thai," or "Thailand." "Thai" means "free"; therefore "Thailand" means "Land of the Free” (except if you say bad things about the king). Thailand borders four countries and two bodies of water: Laos to the north, Cambodia and the Gulf of Thailand to the east, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the Indian Ocean to the west, and Malaysia to the south. The population of Thailand is 62 million. Bangkok is the capital; its population is six million.

The high season is between December and February – that’s when it rains the least, and the temperature is not too hot. Thailand’s climate is tropical, so it’s usually high both in temperature and humidity (and dominated by monsoons). Temperatures are hottest in March and April, averaging between 82-100 degrees. The dry season is March to May, with the rainy season June to October. Here’s the 10 day forecast for Bangkok.

Thais are very religious and spiritual people. Ninety-five percent of them are Buddhist; 4 percent are Muslim. There are wats (temples) everywhere. Thais are so spiritual, they have what they call a Spirit House on every property compound. “Many Thais believe that when a Thai family builds a new house, there is always the possibility that it has disturbed the spirits who live on the property. In order to protect their new home from retaliatory harm or mischief, some Thai families put up a little model house on a pole for the spirits to live in. The spirit house must be located somewhere on the grounds where the shadow of the human house will never fall on it. Offering of incense, fruit, flowers and rice will be placed here, because the spirits must be kept happy at all costs. Amazingly enough, though they look like houses and are temptingly stocked with food, the spirit houses are almost never occupied by birds. Perhaps even the birds respect these invisible being. Some tourists may see at a curtain curves of the road, a small spirit house built there by hopeful drivers. Their theory is that if the spirits who haunt the place are given a home they will not spitefully endanger the drivers who must pass this way. Some spirit houses on to road were built to pacify the tormented spirits of people who have died violent deaths in crashes at that site.” Source: Thailandlife.com.

Thais are warm and respectful. They not only greet you with a polite “sawadee” (hello), but they bow like Japanese and go one step further. It’s called a “wai.” They do this to people they consider to be their superior, either in age or social standing, with their hands held together as if they are praying. The higher they hold their hands when they bow, the more respect they have for you. I never knew I was so important, but everyone -- especially at my hotel – gave me a “wai.” Speaking of my hotel, I stayed at the InterContinental Bangkok. It used to be Le Royal Meridien, but InterContinental took it over and renovated it. Intercontinental Hotels are one brand within the biggest hotel company in the world. The company -- InterContinental Hotels Group -- incorporates Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites and Indigo (a new brand coming out by the end of the year). You can earn Priority Club points at any of their 3,500 hotels, located in 100 countries.

The InterContinental Bangkok is a 5-star hotel, so of course it was awesome. The hotel is perfect for business travelers, not only for of its location (in the city's business and commercial districts), but because it has all the facilities a business traveler needs (including high speed internet access). It’s also great for leisure travelers like me, because it has everything a leisure traveler needs: good service, great food, a pool, workout room, and a mall next door.

The lobby is huge, with marble columns and floors. There are fresh colorful flowers everywhere, plus plenty of places to sit and relax. Candles burn, and a pianist plays soft music in the bar area. I reached my room, on the 26th floor, a little after midnight. The place was sweet! It had a comfortable king-size bed, cool wood furniture, and a big bathroom with an oversize glass shower, deep tub and hot towel racks.

Interestingly, in some hotels in Asia they don’t use sheets – well, not really. Instead of a top sheet, they slip fitted sheets over the duvet cover, and change them every day. I learned that the hard way. After the bellman dropped off my bags, I did what I always do in a hotel: I threw the comforter off the bed (because they’re usually not washed regularly). I didn’t see a top sheet on the bed, so I called housekeeping. Within minutes a maid was in my room. I told him whoever made my bed forgot to put a top sheet on. He looked at me like I was crazy. I figured out what was going on while he was midway through changing the duvet cover. I felt so stupid. When he was done I gave him 40 baht. That’s only a dollar, but tipping is not customary here, and he was shocked. I have never seen a maid get so happy over a dollar. He gave me a big smile, and a “wai” that was real high. After that “wai” I had to give him some more baht, so this went on and on. His “wai” was so high he looked like he was a land shark. InterContinental Bangkok; 973 Ploenchit Road, Bangkok 10330, Thailand, tel.: +66 2 656 0444; fax: +66 2 656 0555; e-mail: bangkok@interconti.com.

I was tired, but too excited to go to bed. I wanted to explore the city, but first I needed to figure out how to use my new camera and Thai cell phone. FYI: I got my cell phone from a very reputable company that has created its own brand of international cell phones called -- what else? -- JohnnyJet Cell Phones. What’s great about them is you buy a phone, and get local SIM cards for the country(s) you are going to. The best part is you get a local number. Your local friends don’t have to call the U.S., and all incoming calls -- regardless of where they originate from –- are FREE! I had $30 of outgoing talk time. If it ran out (it didn’t), all I had to do was buy a recharge at a convenience store. Calls to the U.S. were 56 cents a minute (prices vary by country). That’s not bad, considering the comfort and security of a cell phone. What’s nice about having a phone with recharge minutes is that I never have to worry about coming home to an obscene phone bill, like Amber Airplane did when she returned from St. Lucia. One 20-minute call using her U.S. phone (Cingular) was over $100. Ouch!. BTW: To call the U.S., all I had to do was dial 0011 + area code + phone number. A second later I was connected. It sounded like I was on the corner -- but I was half way around the globe.

I didn’t go to sleep until after 3 a.m., but I woke up early -- around 8. I sprang out of bed and pulled the curtains apart, to see what Bangkok looked like by day. I almost shut them immediately -- just kidding. Seriously, the city is not very attractive -- it’s a total concrete jungle. However, it was still a treat to stare out the window and see a new city. My view to the left was of a horse track. Instead of wasted space in the middle like most tracks, guess what they had? A golf course! How clever are Thais?

I threw on my clothes and took a walk around the block. The streets were dirty and the air was filled with smog, but there was an excitement to it I can’t describe. All kinds of street vendors sold mostly food (especially all kinds of fresh fruit). It all looked so good, but before I took any chances I went back to the hotel and asked the concierge if street food was safe to eat. The concierge laughed and said, “I don’t know about you American eating street food, because your belly might not be able to take it.”

I didn’t want to ruin my day, so instead I dined at the hotel breakfast buffet, for $18. By U.S. standards that’s about average, but for Thailand it was way overpriced. I didn’t care, though, because it was the best breakfast buffet I have ever been too. I’m serious. They had every kind of breakfast food imaginable (eggs, bacon, potatoes, pancakes, French toast, cereal...), along with some that is not so common (fish, soup, noodles…).

My favorite was the spicy beef and made-to-order, cooked-to-perfection western omelet. I also loved all the incredible homemade hot sauces. I can’t forget the fantastic fresh fruit selection, including rambutans, lychees, bananas, pineapples, oranges, grapefruit, starfruit, watermelons, cantaloupes, rose apples, and others I have no idea about. There were also all kinds of freshly squeezed juice in glass carafes, set in ice blocks to keep cool.

Did I mention the wide array of bread and pastries?! I almost forgot that what made this my absolute favorite breakfast buffet of all time were definitely the homemade colorful, tasty jams. They had a dozen different flavors: coconut, banana, strawberry, guava, mango… I can’t even remember them all. Let’s put it this way: They were so good that although I wasn’t even hungry when I spotted them, I ended up eating two more bagels just to try them. When I finished, I thought they were going to have to roll me out.

After I waddled to my room I lay down and rubbed my Buddha. Not that Buddha -- my belly. I started feeling less like a hot air balloon after reading the English-language Bangkok Post. Then I checked out the hotel pool and health club on the top floor. Of course, I kept my shirt on. Everything up there, from the workout room (no charge) to the steam, sauna and Jacuzzi (with a view of the whole city) was top quality. The pool wasn’t big, but it was nice, refreshing, and had a swim-up bar with seats shaped as turtles. You gotta love that. I could have had an hour massage for $35 at the hotel spa. But that’s expensive for Thailand, so I went somewhere else (oh boy!). More on Thai massages next time. For now, I better end this thing so you can go back to work.

Happy Travels,

Johnny Jet
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  • Wow ! You are awesome... This is the best lively Osaka travel story ever written in U.S. You made many Osaka-jin very happy and proud. I know you have done a lot of home work with Mr. Haga after your trip. I appreciated very much for your efforts to make it right. You have succeeded to make the story more informative and very enjoyable. Hats off for your excellent work and only what I can say to you right now is "Thank you" from bottom of my heart. City of Osaka.
  • I just wanted to say thank you for the information on Osaka! I am going to be there for an extended layover on the way to Kuala Lumpur in about three weeks and was wondering how I would navigate the city in a short time with no language skills whatsoever. I would have never thought of trying to get a guide, and a sort of free one at that!!Thanks so much! I really enjoy the emails and columns! Anthea B-Los Angeles, CA
  • Oh my god, what a FUN job! I wish I can travel and see the world as much as you do! Forget stress and getting exhausted! I try reading all your journals whenever I'm free at work..and I AM HAVING FUN! I feel like I can see what you see with all those pictures you attach. I love your food shots..hotel/ restaurant food, airplane food, flight attendants, aircraft, rooms, bumpy rides... I WISH YOU MORE POWER!!! Edna W - Manila, Philippines
  • As always, I really enjoyed your newsletter. I would have liked more information on the Japanese culture. You mention lots of shops, but don't give us any particulars as to the type of stores or products that are popular in Japan. What is the housing like? Were the people friendly? Your newsletters contain plenty of transportation information, but don't always convey the feel of the people, sights, culture, etc. I've also noticed that you rarely mention activities during the evening. What about nightlife? Debbie DeWolf - Carpentersville, IL
  • You sound like me the first time I went to Japan ( I was 18 years old and a Marine, having never been outside of PA ) HATED sushi, pickled things, and tofu... now 16 years later I can't imagine life without sushi, and always enjoy trips to Japan. Rock on Jetmeister!!! Todd M - Portland, OR
  • First, I would prefer not to call it a Newsletter as someone also mentioned in your reader emails. It's really a travel journal that gets to the heart of wherever you are and injects the personal touch, especially the humor. As far as this weeks "newsletter", I felt that I was on a very rapid and informative tour of Osaka. Your insights are always keen and you get to visit the traditional and off beat places that would likely be of interest to many visitors. The pictures are great, especially those of the people you come into contact (no offense Johnny and I miss the occasional picture of Amber and her sunshine). Stay the course, keep smiling, keep writing, and taking pictures. A little bit of philosophy I plagiarized from friend that would make life more enjoyable for many folks: "Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in side-ways, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: Wow..What a ride!!" Stay with it. Burt - NJ
  • I really enjoyed this newsletter. As I mentioned previously, my son lived in Osaka attending college for one year as an exchange student. I was pleased to see many familiar locations throughout Osaka – the people were kind and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When I returned to help my son pack for the US, he had become very familiar with the city and really knew his way around. He was my private tour guide. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip. When my wife and I took our son to Osaka, we went through the first typhoon to hit Kansai Airport, so your story about the weather and travel issues brought back memories. Geof O. - San Diego
  • This week was like any other week - GREAT! My wife just started her 3rd trimester with our first child (which means no more flying), so I have to live vicariously through Johnny. Not such a bad way to travel in my opinion! Thanks again! Steven - Ft. Worth, TX
  • Johnny - every week is a travel treat for me! You are really making each trip an laptop adventure, and providing not only helpful hints, but also very useful info! Ken - La Jolla, CA
  • Very interesting. I was fortunate to spend 18 hours in Japan, Tokyo, and found it very clean. Trains were on time, and so much respect was shown to each other. I'm with you on most of the food. Bob B - Eden Prairie, MN
  • I spent the summer of 1996 living in Japan on Yokota Air Force Base (Near Tokyo) - working as a camp counselor, but explored the country every weekend and sometimes after I got off work at night... (I have TONS of pictures!!!) I found your stories about Japan and the pictures to be a pleasant reminder of the displacement I felt in the country and the adventure of the exploration! :) Thanks. Sarah - Dallas
  • Wonderful newsletter this week. I've been to Japan and Johnny really captured the experience perfectly. Great work Johnny! John T- New York City
  • What an informative piece! I am now opening a vacation concierge business and the info in this piece will be so useful to me. All your pieces are so informative and inviting. (My husband dreads the arrival of your newsletter each week as it usually adds another destination to my already long list of places I want to visit.) Keep up the great work! Pat C. - Oak Hill, VA
  • Still reading the latest edition of the newsletter, but wanted to say, "Well done" on the biz card thing. The other thing I learned in school was to ideally put the card in your breast pocket (and not your wallet) after reading it. Otherwise you're putting their representation on your ass. ;) Did you get a chance to eat a Mo's Burger (Japanese fast-food chain)? It's great! Stephen - Boston
  • I can't remember how I got on your mailing list but I really enjoy your journeys. I've been in the travel business for 25 years and have traveled a lot but I still get a lot from your column. And, I'm from Weston/Fairfield CT originally so I especially like hearing about your escapades with you family back east. Keep it up and thanks for sharing. Scott - Dallas
  • This was the best yet -- I spent precious time- worth every minute -- enjoying your journey and photos. Thanks. Marcia C - Phoenix
  • I've been reading your newsletters for over three years and I continue to be delighted with your tales and adventures. I really hurt for both you and Amber and hope that time will heal all feelings. Please, please continue to write. Let all of us enjoy world travel through your eyes and finger tips. Best of Luck from a friend in Washington State. Jerry S - Kelso, WA
  • I lived in Osaka for more than 3 years and consider it my home away from home. I really liked the way you wrote the article because you weren't too negative about Osaka as many people tend to be. Other than the food (which is known to be the tastiest in Japan) you seemed to really like Osaka. My favorite pic was the one of what you referred to as the "Osaka Underground Mall" but is actually in the lobby of the Hankyu Grand Bldg. This area, in front of the Hankyu Department Store was one of my favorite parts of the city and was used in the movie "Black Rain" with Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia. Okini, ("thank you" in Osaka dialect) Johnny-San. Howard B. Glendale, CA
  • I'm with you Johnny- Seafood is bait! Enjoy your travels but miss seeing you happy with Amber. Dave H. - San Diego, CA
  • Loved the newsletter this week--reminded me of my wonderful trip to Japan. Like you, the food did not appeal to me--except for the pastries and crepes! Only vacation where I lost weight! Don't miss Kyoto next time. Ann - Brunswick
  • I enjoy reading your news letter and expect to travel to several countries you have visited soon. Bob H - Sun City, Arizona
  • Another great adventure, Johnny! Thanks for sharing. By the way, since you're "flying free" for now, could I fix you up with my sister? She's 34 and smart, beautiful, and charming. And she LOVES to travel, too!!!! :) When you're in the DC area... Maileen - Arlington, VA
  • Great, good ideas for my coming trip. Pictures fun, somewhat a reality jar. Sibbald - Key West
  • Today I was browsing through your website and I came across the section devoted to your late mother. I've got to tell you though - it was one of the sweetest things I've seen in a long time. I'm so sorry for your loss. She sure was well-loved though. And I'm sure she was so proud of you (it was written all over her face in those pictures) - you really made me think about my relationship with my mother. As obvious as it should be, it's still hard to accept that our parents will not be with us forever. At any rate, it was a beautiful tribute, and I've got tears rolling down my face as I write this. Thank you for sharing your experience with me (and everyone else). Renny S - Texas
  • I love your site! As a recent breast cancer survivor (DAMN to have it, but, oh, well..... I am TOUGHER!) the stuff about your mother endears you to me - TOTALLY! Keep on keeping on!!!!! You are on to something about the real meaning of life. Get going -and never stop!!!!! That is my life motto. My kids, too, embrace that reality. I will always check into ordering my plane tickets mentioning your site!!! Count on me! Dee C - Olympia, WA

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TGV the French High speed train

We stayed at Beaches Boscobel. It's near Ocho Rios. It was really nice but not a place for a family with real little ones. It is built on a cliff so there are stairs everywhere. A bummer if you have a stroller. We were in the Turks last January. and we liked it better. We will use 1-800-JohnnyJet next time for sure! Nancey, Chicago

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