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Most travel pieces might start off with something like this: "Chances are your arrival in Thailand will come at Bangkok's Don Muang International Airport which is showing some signs of age." We tell it like it is here and in our opinion, Don Muang International is a miserable excuse for an airport! It's old, uncomfortable, confusing, chaotic, and dingy. After arriving at Terminal-1 we were told that immigration and customs were closed for the night so they marched us down a few miles (it seemed anyway!) to Terminal-2 to clear the formalities. And my wife didn't appreciate the cockroaches in the restroom, either! It's the worst major international airport we've ever encountered.
But there's good news! The brand new Suvarnabhumi International Airport opened in Bangkok in late September of 2006. Thank goodness! It has inherited the old airport's BKK designator. They finally got around to putting up a web site for the new airport and it can be found here.
First impressions of Bangkok? It's a very modern city with tons and tons of high rise office buildings and hotels. It's also an old city with plenty of old, old buildings. Even with the modern touches, you're advised not to drink the tap water, however. Traffic is maddening, noisy and smelly. Many traffic cops who spend their day keeping traffic flowing wear surgical masks to keep some of the pollution out of their lungs. The wai greeting is used everywhere, even in department stores. It's when you put your hands together almost like when you're saying your prayers and then you pull them up a bit while at the same time lowering your head. Even Ronald McDonald is shown giving the gesture outside McDonalds restaurants! For more on traditional Thai behavior, traditions and taboos, click here.
Our stay came at the fabulous Shangri-La Hotel right on the Chao Phraya River. In English that translates to River of Kings. We actually stayed at the "Shang" twice, on our initial entry into the Kingdom of Thailand and again heading in the opposite direction. The hotel has two towers, the main and the Krung Thep. Our longest stay came in the ultra-luxurious Krung Thep Wing. Our room was directly over the river and just watching all the marine traffic was a trip. The river is home to countless ferries, long tail boats, hotel boats shuttling people from one side to the other, sightseeing boats, dinner cruises and plenty of giant barges being pulled by small tugboats. The action continued 'round the clock on this major lifeline in the city.
Our room was richly appointed with tons of teak. It featured a king bed and sitting chairs and a wonderful balcony overlooking the busy river. The only negative was a huge, bustling highway bridge just to the left of the hotel wing. The noise of the traffic kind of distracted from the experience.
Our room had a nice bowl of fresh fruit including rambutans, which we had encountered (and enjoyed!) during an earlier trip to Bali. They look very strange but are most enjoyable.
The grounds of the Shangri-La are fabulous. Tons of interesting and exotic palm trees, flowers and many varieties of orchards. Orchids abound throughout the hotel.
We only had a few days to explore this fascinating city so we arranged a car and English speaking driver through the hotel. The goin' rate for the car and driver was about $20/hour U.S. and when you compare that to umpteen taxis all day, it was a reasonable deal. And besides, the hotel car was a nice Mercedes with frosty air conditioning. Taxis are small and hot.
Our driver from the hotel was just super in every way. He spoke outstanding English and really knew how to negotiate the tough streets and highways of Bangkok. His name is, and I hope I spell it right, Chat Chai 'S. He works out of the Shangri-La Hotel but can also be hired by anybody requiring his services. His hotel booking phone number in Bangkok is 02 236 7777. You may have to stick a (66) in front of the phone number to get it to work. He has driven for various royalty and heads of state and he's a most pleasant chap! If you'd like to try e-mailing him, try this: firstname.lastname@example.org. And be sure to mention Chat Chai 'S.
Our first stop, at the driver's suggestion, came at the Golden Buddha. In Thai, it's called Wat Traimit. It apparently dates back to the 13th century. This big boy is nearly 10 feet high, weighs more than 5 tons and is thought to be cast of solid gold! Yet it sits in a small temple in a very average residential area. And with no apparent guards! You'd think that much gold might tempt the unscrupulous despite it's sacred, religious value. The Golden Buddha was discovered by accident in 1957 when an old stucco piece of art was being moved. It was so heavy a crane was brought in and all of a sudden it fell. Some of the stucco broke off exposing the treasure inside. It's thought that the Golden Buddha was covered in plaster to hide the gold from Burmese or other invaders centuries ago. As with all temples in Thailand, you must remove your shoes before entering. An appropriate sign reads: "Not responsible for stolen shoes." The entrance fee is a small donation and it's certainly worth a visit.
Next came a visit to the Grand Palace, the number one tourist attraction in all of Thailand. Our driver encouraged us to spend at least three hours exploring this place. We're not big history buffs and told the driver that we'd probably be back to meet him within an hour. He almost begged us to stay longer. So we agreed to hook up with him after two hours.
Have you ever been to a place like Alaska or perhaps the Swiss Alps during winter time? Riding along in a train another incredible vista appears around nearly every corner. It's almost a sensory overload. And that's exactly what you'll find at the Grand Palace. Temple after temple decorated in bright gold, blue, green, yellow and many other colors. Be sure to check out the picture page at the bottom to get an idea of how beautiful it is.
There is a strictly enforced dress code here and remember, this is a holy site to the Thai people. You must wear long pants or a skirt and your shirtsleeves must cover your upper arms. Many have been turned away for not dressing properly.
You might find it interesting to learn that Anna--the tutor to the son of Rama IV and the central figure in the t.v. move and story "The King and I" actually lived right here.
One temple houses the famous Emerald Buddha. Actually the temple is called "The Temple of the Holy Jewel Image." The Emerald Buddha is a tiny little guy. He's only about 2 feet tall. He's made of green jasper or perhaps jadeite and not emeralds. "Emerald" in Thai simply refers to an intense green color and not to a gemstone.
After a long and hot but most enjoyable trek through the Grand Palace area we hooked back up with our driver and he drove us to yet one more temple. This time it was the "Marble Temple." Officially the place is known as Wat Benchamabophit or the Marble Wat. The temple is built entirely of marble and features a whole bunch of black Buddhas posed in various ways along an outside corridor in the open air. Each Buddha is labeled explaining what the pose signifies. One hand might be up, the other down, etc.
By this time we were Buddha'd out, hot and thirsty. So we asked our driver to recommend a good restaurant featuring genuine, local Thai food. A review of Thanying Restaurant is listed near the bottom of this page.
During the rest of our visit to Bangkok we checked out their big Chinatown. In this part of the world Chinatown means gold jewelry and a ton of it. Down the main drag there are dozens and dozens of shops selling countless gold chains. And while we didn't dine there, the restaurants looked pretty good, too.
Near the Shangri-La hotel is a major department store called Robinson's. We checked it out and bought a few items to bring back home. Very elegant, just like you'd find back in the U.S.
There are hawker stalls just about everywhere in Bangkok selling everything from fried insects to hot dogs to satays to curries. Basically, you name it. But be careful if you choose to chow down at one of these places. Hygiene didn't appear to be job one although some looked okay.
Friends who had preceded us to Bangkok told of elephants in the streets with tourists buying food for them to help the owner pay for the upkeep of these working giants. But that has all changed. Elephants are no longer permitted in Bangkok although some people sneak them in at night. It's considered good luck to walk under an elephant's big old belly!
We had also heard that the stray dog situation was really bad. Not that the dogs would bother anybody, just that there were lots of them around. We love dogs and fortunately found this not to be true. Even dogs that appeared to be strays, for the most part, had collars.
Interestingly, our visit came just prior to a major, international confab called APEC. That stands for Asia Pacific Economic Conference. The entire nation was busy gearing up for all the delegates including U.S. President George W. Bush. They even had a special immigration booth at the Bangkok airport just for APEC dignitaries.
Because of all the world VIPs heading to the city, an order was given to round up stray dogs. They hoped to catch 9,000 stray dogs to improve the looks of the city for the APEC delegates. When we first got wind of the story we got an awful picture of thousands of animals being destroyed. But, the Bangkok Post newspaper said they were going to be rounded up, sterilized, and then turned loose in rural portions of the city. Somehow I doubt that's the case but that's what the paper said, anyway.
Our visit came in September during the tail end of monsoon season. Fortunately, however, only one of four days in Bangkok was a wash out.
One thing you should do (we didn't have time) is to rent a long tail boat and tour the river. These things are long and skinny and feature a car engine along with a long "pole" to which the prop is fastened. These boats are very hard to operate so most of the long tail boat operators have impressive muscles! Easy girls!
There are a number of dinner cruises offered and watching the boats pass by our hotel, it would appear as if everybody on board was having a great old time.
Other places to check out if you have the time might include the National Museum, the Royal Barges (the King still uses these to cruise up and down the river from time to time), and the various markets including the incredible Patpong Night Market.
There's cockfighting in Bangkok and the city is famous for it's sleaze zone along the Patpong district if this kind of thing floats your boat. We chose to pass them by.
Back to shopping for a minute, there are very good buys on gold, silver and on certain gemstones. But you must know what you are doing to avoid being ripped off. Never be lured to a jewelry store by a cab driver or some other "do-gooder." It's always a rip off.
Traffic is a nightmare in Bangkok. Cars, taxis, tuk-tuks, busses, motorcycles and bikes are everywhere. Tuk-tuks are interesting little three wheeler taxis with room in the rear for two adults. Drivers of these usually take you for a ride, if you get my drift, on the way to your destination and the pollution is enough to make one gag on some days. Still, it's fun to do it once or twice and even with a few extra kilometers on your trip, the fare will still be pretty reasonable.
The best thing to happen to Bangkok in years was the establishment of the Sky Train. It's an elevated subway type deal that takes people around some of the city in air conditioned comfort. It is the fastest way around the city on routes where it travels.
It's interesting to focus on any major road or highway. While cars are locked in a holding pattern thanks to hopeless gridlock, motorcycles wiz by on the outside of cars and weave their way in an out of traffic like crazy. Some motorcycles are actually taxis! The drivers wear a number on their back signifying that they are motorcycle taxis. You just jump on the back and hold on for dear life! It's one of the quickest ways of getting around the city during the rush hour if you're going a relatively short distance.
Our final night in Bangkok came on a Friday. We had flown in from Kuala Lumpur with arrival around 9:30am. Our flight to Seoul with connections back to the U.S. was scheduled to leave Bangkok late that night. Well technically very early the next morning at 1:20am. So we checked back into the Shangri-La for a few hours of R&R.
This time we booked a room in the main hotel. We arrived from the airport around 11am and were worried that they might not have a room available. Check-in at world class hotels often doesn't come until 3pm. What happened next was incredible. As soon as we emerged from the hotel car a woman approached and said: "Mr. & Mrs. Schuman, come with me. Your room is ready and we've upgraded you to a junior suite on the top floor."
Off we went with her to actually register in the room. And what a room it was. It was a mini-suite complete with huge bedroom with king size bed and plasma t.v. It had a sitting room with chairs and couch and a business desk area and huge t.v.. It had two bathrooms, one off the bedroom and another "guest bathroom" near the entrance. There were "objects d art" all over the place and fancy paintings. Special lighting was apparent everywhere including a neat little rim of light around the giant headboard of the bed. I guess it served as a night light. No--it wasn't anything kinky! Shame on you! Sadly we only got to spend just under 12 hours there before we had to dash for Don Muang International "Airport."
Arriving back at the airport we found the same chaotic mess that we had encountered during our two previous visits. That place sucks! Chairs in the gate area are molded of hard plastic and are even more narrow than airline seats. After checking in we were invited to visit the Korean Air business class lounge. What a joke that was! We were there more than 2 1/2 hours prior to our scheduled departure and the place was already packed. The hostess, speaking broken English, welcomed us in saying there was plenty of space. I said: "Sure, in the luggage bin." We headed to the departure gate figuring there would be space to at least plop down there before boarding our Korean Air Boeing 777-300 to Seoul. But, the gate area hadn't yet opened and we searched hopelessly for a seat elsewhere in the airport. There were none to be found. The few seats in the area were occupied. So we just stood around looking dumb until our gate opened up about an hour prior to departure time.
For the entire day Friday we were very concerned about typhoon Maemi, a colossal storm that was projected to hit Korea at just about the same time our plane was due to arrive in Seoul. I asked numerous people about the storm and all I could get was a "no problem" but no specific info about the storm. It was extremely frustrating. Click here to read the whole story! It was very bizarre!
BANGKOK RESTAURANT REVIEWS
was suggested by our
excellent Shangri-La driver and it was a very good place. It was in the
heart of the city yet hidden by a small garden and walls. Sitting inside
you'd think you were in a country restaurant. Very pleasant setting.
We each enjoyed a "set" menu featuring a number of different dishes. Each came
with a multiple item appetizer or starter including spring rolls, "fried" crab,
and satays among other items. The fried crab was interesting.
Threads of crabmeat fried almost in a light tempura type batter. For our
main course we sampled several different beef, chicken and shrimp dishes.
All were mild (they must have seen us coming from a mile away). Actually I
was hoping to get some hotter Thai food but never found it. I know, I
know---I could have certainly found it had I looked hard enough!
Guaranteed! With one beer and a bottle of water, the whole tab came to
something like $30. More than reasonable for a fine meal served by waiters
KALOANG HOME KITCHEN was highly recommended in Frommer's Thailand book so we decided to give it a try. When we first asked our driver about it and whether he had heard of the place, he kind of gave us "that look" as if the place wasn't all that good. But I've found Frommer recommendations to be pretty reliable so we hailed a taxi and headed that way. The taxi driver had a few problems finding the place and when he stopped, Cindy and I just looked at each other as he pointed down an alleyway. We paid him and walked down the short alleyway. There were dogs scattered about on each side of the alley along with residential homes. At the end of the alley was the restaurant. We didn't even notice a sign and we both wondered if this experience would be decent or not. The restaurant, all open air, was on a wooden dock like structure on stilts over a channel or klong from the Chao Phraya River. The place looked "iffy" I must admit. But once we were shown to our table we noticed that there were 8 or 9 other tables occupied by local and well dressed Thais. So that put our mind at ease and we began looking over the massive but cheesy plastic menu. It was a menu like you'd get at a local diner here in the U.S. complete with the greasy feel to it. Rather than get one, single dish here, we decided to sample as much as we could. After all this was billed as genuinely local Thai food and at sensationally reasonable prices. Here's what we sampled and all of it was good to great: Fried vegetables (bok choy, asparagus, tomatoes and mushrooms), Cashew chicken, Beef with chili sauce, Fried shrimp in chili sauce (good but the dish came with the shells still on), "Pork in soup," and a huge bowl of steaming, sticky rice. I chased it all down with two large Singha beers and Cindy went through a couple of bottles of water. Total bill for all of this, a skimpy 700 baht or roughly $13.50 U.S. We went back to the Shang wondering if we'd get the green apple quick step but nothing happened! This was a neat experience right out on the water with the sun going down. But if you are squeamish, you'll never get out of the taxi when he stops and points you down that alleyway! Kaloang Home Kitchen is located at 2 Sriayudhaya Road, Sisaotaves Dusit. I can't imagine that you'd need a reservation but if you'd like to call them just in case, their number is 281-9228 or 281-7581. Their card simply mentioned the phone number the way I've listed it but you may have to put a (66) in front of it to get it to work. The restaurant is open from 11am to 11pm daily. Your transvestite waiter--no kidding--will provide efficient and friendly service. Read the New York times review of this restaurant here.
THE SHANG PALACE is a classy Chinese restaurant located on a mid-level in the main tower of the Shangri-La Hotel. I was reading a description of the restaurant in the hotel literature and learned that they offered a dim-sum. We love dim-sum. The best way to describe it is a rolling Chinese buffet on wheels. Normally you just sit at your table and watch as cart after cart is rolled by your table. The cart driver pauses to see if you'd like to sample something from the cart. One cart might contain tiny dishes with three barbecued ribs. Another might feature three egg rolls or spring rolls. And it goes on and on--everything from sharks fin soup to fried shrimp to steamed dumplings of all sorts. In the case of the Shang Palace, however, dim sum is served in an entirely different way. They bring each item out from the kitchen piping hot. For just about $6, U.S., we each were tempted with 41 different offerings. We got so full we had to beg them to stop brining food! Literally! Folks, let me tell you this was the best Chinese food we've ever had. And we've visited Hong Kong (before it became a part of China), China and we frequented San Francisco's Chinatown when we lived in the Golden Gate City. So we're well versed in Chinese food. The Shang Palace was incredible and the decor was absolutely beautiful. I think my favorite dim-sum item there was sesame fried wontons with fresh shrimp inside. For an elegant restaurant, this meal was dirt cheap and absolutely dee-lish! Even if you're not staying at the Shangri-La, I'd highly recommend a visit to this restaurant. The Shangri-La is located at 89 Soi Wat Suan Plu., New Road, Bangkok. I suspect you'll need a reservation for the Shang Palace. (We were there around 2pm and there were only a few other diners there.) The hotel's phone number is (66) 236-8579.
SALATHIP RESTAURANT is also on the grounds of the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok. This restaurant "sits alone" in a teakwood structure. On one side you're right smack dab on the Chao Phraya River. On other sides, beautifully landscaped tropical gardens. Salathip is described as the most romantic restaurant in all of Bangkok and it's easy to see why. The only improvement they could make with regard to atmosphere, in my humble opinion, is to dim the cotton pickin' lights a little bit. The night we dined there it was raining so we were forced to dine inside. They also offer outside dining when the weather's fine. This was our last night in Thailand. We were due to leave for the airport in a few hours so we dined on the light side. We started out with three appetizers consisting of chicken satay with peanut sauce, fried stuffed wontons and some steamed dumplings. It was pretty filling although we wound up sharing an order of Pad something or other. Rice noodles with shrimp and a little bit on the hot side, spice wise, which was welcome! The food was good but not nearly as good as the Shang Palace Chinese restaurant in the hotel. The place was very popular and offered a genuine Thai band and dancers that darted from room to room. If you'd like to dine here, reservations are usually necessary. Just call the hotel at (66) 236-8579.
We very much enjoyed the people and sights of Thailand. And we'll be back so that we can get a much wider look at this fascinating nation.
AMERICANS WILL NEED A PASSPORT TO ENTER THAILAND. THE CURRENCY IS THE THAI BAHT. DRIVING IS ON THE LEFT AND IS WILD AND CRAZY. IN OTHER WORDS, FORGET ABOUT RENTING A CAR! AND AGAIN -- EVEN THOUGH BANGKOK IS A MODERN CITY, THE TAP WATER IS NOT FIT TO DRINK.