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If you go to Thailand: SFO-HKG-BKK and back, with side trips

If you go to Thailand: SFO-HKG-BKK and back, with side trips

Old Nov 24, 99, 8:21 pm
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If you go to Thailand: SFO-HKG-BKK and back, with side trips

The basic flights (United Airlines) were pretty uneventful, so I'll concentrate here on some useful information for people who might be heading to Thailand. All dollar figures are in US dollars.

Oh - on our flight out, we heard the flight attendants confirming that a couple two rows away from us (non-revs, we learned) didn't get meals - they had been standbys, and UA hadn't boarded meals for them! Apparently that's one of the risks of flying non-rev. I later noticed them eating, so I guess two of the "regular" passengers had turned down their meals. Which weren't bad, but nothing great, either.

One reason the flights were uneventful was that we were able to get exit rows the entire way - thank you to FlyerTalkers who helped me identify the "best" coach seats (is that an oxymoron?) on a 747! Even though the third seat had been "blocked out" for me as a Premier Executive, there was somebody in it on all four flights. Since two of the flights (the HKG-BKK legs) weren't full, it made me wonder just how useful United's blocking is.

One other airplane comment: the lavatories on both Thai Airways (our flights within Thailand) and Cathay Pacific (my OneWorld "mileage run" to Hong Kong and back) had signs in English (but not in Thai or Chinese) warning that the water is not drinkable. And they also had dixie cups available, which surely gave the wrong impression to passengers who don't read English!

Be forewarned: the Bangkok airport ATM doesn't accept Plus [Visa] system cards, only Cirrus [MasterCard]. We ran into the same problem at some ATMs downtown, but otherwise obtaining cash was no difficulty (most accept both).

Upon arrival, don't bother with the car service booths at the aiport - they'll charge you the equivalent of $17 for downtown, plus highway tolls. Instead, just go outside to the taxi line (as we did when we got back from our week up north) and pay about $10 including tolls. But as you might gather, we used the car service when we arrived initially. We only had dollars (because of the ATM problem), which they said they'd happily accept…but they didn't mention that we'd also need Baht to pay the highway tolls!

We were glad we chose a hotel on the River (the Sheraton Royal Orchid), both for convenience and because watching the river activity from our window was so fascinating. Next door we could catch a "water taxi" to points of interest for $5-8. It wasn't until after several trips that we realized next door the other direction there was also an excellent river bus system (similar to Venice's vaporetti) that made the same trip for 10-15¢ (they operate from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.); some of the boats are expresses and cost a bit more. Although it took a bit longer than a river taxi (but was still pretty quick), who cared with so many things to look at - the cost differential was just the icing on the cake. Most of the major hotels on the river are close to a river bus stops.

The convenience of staying on the river becomes apparent as soon as you step foot into Bangkok's traffic - a 10-minute river taxi trip (20-25 minute river bus) takes at least 30 minutes by car. But at least taxi fares were cheap - about $1.50 for one 2½-mile ride. Only once did a cab driver refuse to use the taxi meter; we simply got out and hailed a different cab.

Tuk-Tuks (sort of a three-wheeled open golf cart), on the other hand, don't have meters. They can be a fun ride, but take a few regular taxis so you know what price to negotiate. Their first price will always be significantly more than a taxi, often by 100% or more. Actually, we preferred taxis for the air conditioning as well!

(One fellow we chatted with said that his hockey team would negotiate prices for the several Tuk-Tuks they needed at once…and promise double to the driver who got to the destination first! While I don't recommend this, he seemed pleased with the incredible (scary?!) rides it generated!!.)

In either case, have your hotel write out your day's destinations in Thai so you can give them to the driver(s). (Post-its are useful for this). The reason is that most drivers don't speak English, but won't admit when they don't understand you. So when we asked for the "Royal Barges" one day (which we should have done by boat, but that's another story!), he only understood "Royal" but knew that most tourists want to visit the Royal Palace so that's where he headed!

Watch out for the "closed for Buddhist holiday" scam that some drivers will use to steer you away from sightseeing and into shops (where they get a kickback). We had been warned about Tuk-Tuk drivers trying to pull this fast one, but two pedestrians also tried the ploy! In both cases, our destination was only a block away, so we went anyway…and found them both open, regular hours.

The National Museum was a disappointment to us both. Things were poorly displayed, and labeling (in both English and Thai) was minimal - nothing was put into context. For example, the Buddhist paraphernalia exhibit included a multitude of fans; we had no way of knowing what these fans are used for. Or "during the reign of Rama IV", but no dates to help out!

A massage at Wat Po ($3-10 depending on length) is as wonderful as everybody says. The atmosphere, though, isn't great: a big pavilion with lots of massage chairs (for foot massages - quite an experience!) and beds. Plus you may have a 20-45 minute wait (get a number when you first arrive, then go see the temple's other attractions such as the reclining Buddha. If you prefer privacy and/or air conditioning, there are lots of other places you can be more pampered.

We spent a week in the north (Chiang Mai) in addition to a (split) week in Bangkok. From Chiang Mai, we did a wonderful four-day excursion further north with an outfit called Track of the Tiger tours (http://www.track-of-the-tiger.com). It included two days on their bamboo barge going down the Maekok River (stayed at their "jungle lodge" overnight, with bamboo huts and mosquito netting!), complete with visits to numerous hill tribes and a 1½-hour elephant ride (touristy, but the scenery was spectacular and feeding the beasts was great fun); another day of the tour was spent in the "Golden Triangle" area (where Burma [Myanmar], Thailand, and Laos meet). While we recommend the outfit, we never did find out why their package price (~$450 pp) was so much more than putting the same trip together from their "UP2U" mix-and-match option (~$375). Guess which approach we used?!

Our hotel in Chiang Mai (the Montri Hotel) was equivalent to perhaps a low end Holiday Inn. But the location (right at the eastern wall of the old city) was terrific, and the cost ($19/night for a superior room couldn't be beat! At that rate, we kept the room during our three nights away, rather than have to pack and store everything. And their laundry service was cheap, too - 12 days' laundry for two people ran about $21.

The food in local restaurants was uniformly wonderful and cheap - we had trouble spending $15/day/person for three meals. (It ticked me off that the bigger hotels that cater to tour groups and business people would charge U.S. prices in their restaurants. Charge what the traffic will bear, I suppose.) I avoided street food like the plague (I have AIDS), so I can't comment on it; The hockey player above reported that his team did eat street food, and about a third of them got sick at one point or other. We enjoyed Harmonique (try their stir-fried chicken with ginger - lots of fresh ginger, but not at all "spicy." And Kalong Seafood was impossible to find (including the fact that there's no English sign!), but delicious once we got there (it took two tries - e-mail me for directions!) My guidebook (Fodor's) had commented (correctly) that "If you are even slightly observant, you'll notice that much of the staff is transvestite." But interestingly, my friend's guidebook (Frommer's) also recommends the restaurant, but makes no comment about the staff! We wondered whether they hadn't noticed, or just didn't think it appropriate to say anything?!

Well, I've gone on long enough. My rants about the food on Cathay Pacific and the snootiness at the Oriental Hotel are on other threads; now that search is back up, I'll let you find them if you're interested. All in all, it was a wonderful trip, and I highly recommend the destination!


[This message has been edited by johna (edited 11-24-1999).]
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Old Nov 25, 99, 7:53 am
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Thanks for the great report on a wonderful trip, johna. I've found the relative rapidity of loading and unloading the boats to be incredible! To catch the public water bus you have to know in advance just where to stand on an (often crowded) dock/pier. The whistling sounds "coming in" and suddenly reveresing to "going out" (d-d-d-d!!) and the ecletic mass of people, monks everyone simultaneously jumping on and off in seconds! The first time my wife took one of these she nearly landed in the Chao Prah River! Bangkok is such a wonderfully interesting city. I take it you had already been to the Grand Palace? If not then next time for sure!
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Old Nov 25, 99, 8:15 am
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A nice report full of useful advice!
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Old Nov 26, 99, 2:17 am
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Oh - one other anecdote (but not a problem): On my CX mileage run BKK-HKG-BKK, the purser announced connecting gates as we arrived in HKG, including mine back to BKK (the flight continued on to Sri Lanka, by the way). I called her over because I thought she'd get a chuckle out of the fact that most pax probably wondered why she was announcing a flight right back to BKK...but in fact I would be on that very flight!

She didn't see anything funny or ironic about this, and explained that some passengers may be connecting to Sri Lanka. And she didn't understand when I asked wouldn't somebody flying BKK-CMB just have waited to take the return, rather than flying BKK-HKG-BKK-CMB? (Yes, I know the gyrations we go through here in the United States!) She explained that the sheet she was given listed that flight, so of course she read it.

I found this to be a good example of the stereotypical Asian outlook: great at following details, but not at all good at thinking "outside the box." (Anybody who's interested can e-mail me about the confusion in Kyoto when I asked the hotel for directions using a map printed in English instead of Japanese!)

[This message has been edited by johna (edited 11-26-1999).]
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Old Nov 26, 99, 2:26 pm
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Hmmm. Wandering the streets in Bangkok eating satay from the street vendors is one of my favorite things to do. I think the people who complain about being sick probably drank some tap water somewhere. After all, the food is thoroughly cooked right in front of you. I just buy a can of beer and have a walking feast!

As for confusion in Kyoto with an english map, what do you think would happen here in the U.S. if you asked for help with a Japanese map? Many hotels here cater to Japanese visitors, but the staff doesn't all speak Japanese. It's the same over there.


[This message has been edited by stimpy (edited 11-26-1999).]
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Old Nov 26, 99, 3:29 pm
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johna: Thanks for a really great trip report. It whet my appetite for hearing more Thailand stories - perhaps there are some of the kind that would be censored by CMDR CATCOP if posted here - at lunch Monday.
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Old Nov 26, 99, 6:02 pm
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Stimpy, I agree that most of the street food is probably safe, except that I couldn't have tried any of the sauces and dips (and the all looked/smelled wonderful!). And I figured better safe than sorry, given my immune system (or lack thereof).

As for the map, that's exactly my point. If a Japanese showed me a map of San Francisco that was marked in Japanese, asking how to get to Golden Gate Park, I'd have no trouble picking out the route. And that's true even if the park was in red, the waters in green, etc. (i.e., different than we're used to). The basic shapes and lines would still be familiar. But this front desk (who spoke English reasonably well) turned that map every which way and finally gave up, even though I had pointed out where we were on it, and where we wanted to get to!

[This message has been edited by johna (edited 11-26-1999).]
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Old Nov 26, 99, 7:22 pm
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Thank you Johna for a great FOUR PAWS UP report. And CMDR CATCOP thanks you for keeping it clear and G rated.

Just a suggestion: I would make a copy of that post, save the link and everytime someone asked about Thailand (like me, someday) Just post the link. IT's a very good and detailed travel review.

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Old Nov 26, 99, 9:01 pm
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On the subject of the difficulty that Japanese have in reading maps, I can personally attest that it is a widespread problem in Japan, and more serious than even johna suggests. My experience is based on asking for help using Japanese or bi-lingual maps, and speaking with Japanese in Japanese, for driving, bicycle touring, and walking purposes. I've often speculated on the reasons, but the most likely is that map-reading isn't tested on exams so it isn't taught in schools. Moreover, few Japanese drive long distances, they take trains or buses. The irony is that you can buy a map for anywhere in Japan, in various scales.



[This message has been edited by Eidetic (edited 11-26-1999).]
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Old Nov 27, 99, 7:19 pm
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johna, sorry about the confusion on the Japanese issue. One of my hot buttons is American's who expect the rest of the world to speak english and act American. I see now that your's was a different issue.

As for the sauces, I guess I never thought about that. I suppose I blindly thought that there was no way to screw up peanut sauce! Maybe I've just been lucky with the food there.

Anyhow, thanks for the trip report.
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