Traveling is my second nature but I believe in arming myself with all the information before I embark on a trip. I am neither an adventure tourist nor a big budget one. What I realized during my trips over last few years that all the information available on the net or in the travel books & magazines are hardly of much use to a common man, hence I decided to write small pieces to arm the common traveler with information that no guide books provide.
Thailand, a very affordable getaway for a budget Indian tourist, has become famous for all the wrong reasons. Thailand has much to offer for the entire family, lovely sight seeing, little adventure, modern entertainment and above all a very satisfying shopping experience.
Bangkok, the capital of Thailand is easily accessible by air from all the major Indian airports. Though Thailand offers Visa on arrival, my advice is to obtain visa prior to arrival from the Thai Consulates in India. This shall save you some time. For those who wish to obtain visa on arrival, be prepared to wait for 30-60 minutes in the queue and remember to carry passport sized photographs for the visa. If you are traveling on your own, remember to come out of the terminal and hail a metered taxi. You will be approached by people with an offer to ferry you in Limousines and luxurious vehicles. You can avoid the temptation if you wish to utilize your hard earned money for better purposes. A ride to city in a metered taxi will cost you THB 150-250 whereas a limo ride would make you poorer by THB 500-700.
Accommodation: One of the better places to stay in Bangkok is Asia Hotel, a very inexpensive hotel with excellent location. Bangkok hotels are generally very reasonable and if you wish to splurge there are various options on Sukhumvit for a more luxurious stay. But, on a holiday one hardly spends time in a hotel but for a night sleep. Asia Hotel has a very spacious lobby, good restaurants, and nice, clean and spacious rooms. The big advantage of this hotel is that it is connected to a sky train station which can be accessed from within the hotel. This gives you an excellent mobility. It is however advisable not to dine here or hail their cabs. You can get much cheaper and better options outside. You can come out of the hotel and request the gatekeeper to call a metered taxi for you, they are much cheaper. One thing that goes against the metered cabs are extremely congested traffic scenario of Bangkok. A ride in a taxi may take more that double the time a ride in a sky train. There are several affordable accommodations available in the central area of Sukhumvit.
Getting Around: Sky train and now MRT are quick and inexpensive means of traveling in Bangkok. Though taxis are quite reasonable, they take a lot of time due to heavy traffic on the Bangkok roads. Sky train & MRT easily connect you to most of the city attractions. You can go for a day pass if you intent to whiz across the city. The sky train & MRT route maps are available on the internet, at the airport and also at your hotel.
Shopping: Close in the vicinity of Asia Hotel is the MBK shopping mall, Big C, Lotus Tesco, Central World Plaza, Pratunam Plaza and for the IT buffs, Panthip Plaza. You can get a bargain here for everything in computers & home electronics. This place is a Mecca for pirated DVD’s available for as low as THB 100 per movie and pirated softwares available for THB 100 per CD. Generally the movie prints and software quality is ok. You can get a good bargain on Laptop computers, Digital cameras, CD /DVD players. Avoid picking up unknown Chinese brands as their quality is a suspect. You can also visit Fortune mall situated at Fortune hotel complex for IT shopping, but I feel you get a better bargain at Panthip Plaza.
Thai government now allows VAT refund for the tourists. Ask the shopkeeper for Form PP1 to claim your VAT refund. A refund of 7% VAT can be a sizeable amount for an ardent shopper. BUT make sure that the goods you wish to claim your refund on are kept handy for inspection by the custom officers before your check in. After inspection and stamping of the PP1 form at customs before check in, you can claim the refund from the VAT refund counter in the duty free shopping area. Remember to tick the clause “I want refund in cash” when you are filling your PP1 form at the shop. Always carry your passports when going shopping as it is required by the shopkeeper to give you the PP1 form. Make a photocopy of the bill & PP1 form if you need a copy as the customs are going to retain these while giving you the refund. If by any chance you are unable to show some article you are claiming your refund for to the custom officer, he may cancel the refund application for your entire shopping.
Bangkok is a great place for clothes & footwear shopping. Shopping malls like Big C, Lotus Tesco & MBK offer great choices at great prices. Handicrafts are another thing that you can look for in Bangkok. Pat pong night market (starts at 9 pm) offers some excellent bargains in clothing’s, footwear, handicrafts and other gifts and novelties. Be prepared to do some real hard bargaining here. Start at THB10 if you are quoted 50 and you may get the stuff THB 20. Do not be a peeping Tom here as the entire area is a red light district. You shall do well to avoid the objectionable places here and sticking only to shopping, as you may end up loosing everything you have on your person here. Pat pong is very easily accessible by sky train. Bangkok is a good place to but rare gems & precious stones. If you are looking for a good pair of suit there is no better place than Bangkok. Most of the tailoring shops are owned by Sikhs and can deliver a suit within a day. A decent suit with a shirt & a tie can cause a hole of only THB 2000-3000 in your pocket. If you go for 2-3 pairs and bargain hard you can get even a better deal. Most of the tailoring shops & gems shops offer a no obligation pick up & drop facility. Your hotel can assist you is contacting one of these shops.
Chatuchak market (pronounced Jatujak), promoted as a tourist destination, is a big let down. You can expect used clothing’s, poor quality stuff and not much pleasure of bargaining. It get overly crowded if you not amongst the first to visit. I found the place over hyped and if you are looking for some real shopping, this place is best avoided. You can of course visit this place just for the viewing experience. You can probably get a bargain in some handicrafts. Chatuchak is also connected by the sky train service.
Sight seeing: Though Bangkok is just like any other modern city, it has several nice places to look around. Several Buddhist temples spread all around the city are worth visiting. Thailand a Buddhist country revels in its Buddhist culture and Buddha in different poses is a treat to look at. Further, the temples offer a great view of Thai architecture. Besides the temples, you can visit Rose Garden to get a glimpse of Thai culture. Rose garden is a one stop shop which presents the entire Thailand before you. You can see the traditional Thai folk dance, elephant show, Thai boxing etc. There is also boating and many attractions for the kids as well. The City Palace, the abode of the king of Thailand is another place frequented by the tourists.
A river on the Chao Phraya River and a canal cruise is an experience worth trying. However, if you are visiting the floating market, you may not take the canal cruise in Bangkok.
A visit to the famous Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is a must. You will be taken in the long tail boat through the canals giving you a glimpse of the Thai village life. The 15 minute ride through the canals brings you to the floating market. Here you will find people selling their wares in the boats. You must try the fruits here. They are very tasty. You can also pick up some local made articles from here but remember to bargain hard. The prices are already inflated due to tourists.
You can obtain a brochure of attractions on the sky train route and then visit them on your own. But I personally didn’t find much to see in Bangkok, which is primarily the gateway to the rest of the Thailand.
Food: If you are a vegetarian, be careful. Thai food is primarily non-vegetarian and spicy. Unlike the Thai food available in India, there is hardly anything vegetarian here. Further, the Thai people do not speak much English and will not understand what you want. If you are a strict vegetarian, stick to the big hotels and several Indian restaurants in Bangkok. If you wish to adventure and try local food, ask your hotel reception to write vegetarian noodles, vegetarian soups etc in Thai which you can show to the local restaurants. Please ask specifically not to put Fish oil or Oyster sauce as Thai cook everything in fish oil. For the kids, there are several McDonalds, Pizza Hut and other fast food outlets in most of the shopping malls.
Noodles, fried rice, mixed vegetables, tom yam soup (very spicy) are some of the delicacies that you must try. The local cuisine has a vast variety of offerings for the non-vegetarians, but I, an adventurous vegetarian managed to find vegetarian food wherever I went in Thailand.
Nightlife: There are several discotheques & pubs all over the city. If you are staying at the Asia Hotel, they have Cabaret shows everyday. Dining out and shopping at night markets is a very unique experience in Bangkok. Dining at the top floor of Hotel Baioke Sky is a fantastic experience. This is the tallest building in Thailand and the view from the top is breathtaking, especially at night. They serve buffet dinner and choice for the vegetarians is very limited. However, on request, they serve a full course of vegetarian meal with choice of Chinese or Italian cuisine.
Excursions: Traveling all the way to Thailand and visiting only Bangkok is criminal. Thought you may visit Phuket, Krabi Islands, Phi-phi islands, Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai regions, the two destinations close and drivable distances from Bangkok are: Kanchanaburi District & Pattaya.
Kanchanaburi: Kanchanaburi is a beautiful district 130 kms from Bangkok. You can opt for a guided tour of the region offered by the local tour operators. The Kanchanaburi tour starts in the morning with a visit to the largest pagoda in the south east asia -“Phra Pathom Chedi”. Next is a visit to the JEATH war museum, on the banks of River Kwai, showcasing the plight of the prisoners of war during the WWII. You will proceed on to visit the well-kept cemetery, which contain the graves of an estimated 9,000 allied soldiers who lost their lives while building the bridge and constructing the notorious "Death Railway" which the Japanese had hoped to stretch all the way to the Burmese border. The famous bridge on River Kwai built during the WWII is the next attraction. A famous Hollywood film has also been made on this bridge “ A Bridge over River Kwai”. After lunch at River Kwai you board the “DEATH RAILWAY” to Nam Tok station. This is a wonderful ride through Thai countryside and provide you the glimpses of the route used during the WWII. This railway passes through the famous wooden bridge which was built by hand by the prisoners of war. You spend overnight at one of the famous resorts on the banks of river kwai. Next day you visit the Hellfire pass memorial, now maintained by Australians in honour of their soldiers who died here during the WWII. You must walk down the path from the memorial to the Hellfire pass. This is probably the narrowest pass cut out into the mountains by bare hands by the POW’s. Embedded traces of the railway line & a tall tree right in the middle of this pass remind us of the horrors of war. This is followed by a trip to the elephant park. You are taken on a Elephant trek through the dense jungles and can have a close view of the beautiful tropical forests. Elephants wade though the river kwai with water level almost reaching their head. It is a wonderful experience. You can then take a ride in the bamboo raft. The raft is pulled upstream by a tug boat and then released. The raft slowly cruises downstream with the river current. If you are adventurous you can jump into the river for a swim. The only sound you will hear is the sound of water and the chirping of birds. The serenity of this ride is breathtaking. After the ride you proceed onto the historic ruins of Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand. The ruins offer a glimpse of old Ayutthaya, which once was a prosperous and majestic capital with over 400 magnificent Buddhist monasteries. The last attraction before you come back to Bangkok is the summer palace of the King Rama, Bang Pa-In. Within the inner palace are several buildings in various styles. Perhaps the most interesting building in the inner complex, and the only one open to the public, is the Chinese style residence built in China and gifted to King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1889. You must remove your shoes to enter and enjoy the ebony and red lacquer interior.
Pattaya: Pattaya is appx. 150 kms from Bangkok and a 90 minute drive on the motorway. You can hire a metered taxi which shall charge appx. THB 800-900 for a one way trip. If you opt for a limo it shall cost you about THB 1500-1800. You must insist on using the motorway which is safer & quicker. You shall be required to shell out an extra THB 100 for the toll.
In Pattaya, choose a hotel in North Pattaya close to the beach road. There are several cheap & luxury accommodations available here (you can get attractive hotel accommodation on www.wired-destinations.com ). In north Pattaya there are pick-up type taxis plying in a circular route between the main beach road and the 2nd road (appx 5-6 kms circuit covering the hub of all activities in Pattaya). You can just waive any cab moving and hop in and pay THB 5 per person and get down wherever you want on this route. Just press the bell over your head in the van when you want it to stop. Do not ask them for fares, just hand them the exact change. If you ask, you shall end up paying much more.
Pattaya is a heaven for a water sport enthusiast. You can ride a Jet Ski, Speedboat and do parasailing for a measly THB 600-750 for a ride of 30 minutes. In Mumbai & Goa you are required to fork out Rs. 900-1000 for a 10 minute ride. Again bargaining is a must here. Water sports are better and cheaper in the Jomtien area. A taxi ride to Jomtien from north pattaya shall be appx. THB 100.
Shopping in Pattaya is best avoidable as the prices are very high compared to Bangkok. But if you are an ardent shopper you can consider Lotus Tesco or a Big C in the North Pattaya or their branches at Sukhumvit near Jomtien area. Next to Lotus at Sukhumvit is the Factory outlet mall where you can get the big brands at very reasonable rates. If you wish to renew your wardrobe, this is the place.
Food: There are several eateries all over Pattaya catering to every palate. There is no dearth of fast food joints which also serve vegetarian dishes. There is a small Chinese restaurant on the main beach road near the walking street. On the looks it is not very appealing, but the food here is excellent and very reasonable. You can get a good variety of vegetarian dishes as well. If you a vegetarian, insist on food without fish oil or oyster sauce. You can try roasted Sweet potatoes, Yam, Corn available on the roadside, they are nice and tasty. You must try Rasputin a local fruit like lychees. It is very sweet and juicy. If you travel to Jomtien beach area, there are several restaurants serving good continental food. (Jomtien area becomes dead after sunset)
Nightlife: In the evenings, a few drinks at the several open air bars dotting the beach road can add to the de-stressing experience. The drinks here are affordable and you can also expect some excellent starters. If you a beer lover, try the local beer – Singa and Chang. If you take my advice, avoid the GO-GO bars in Thailand. They are a rip off and shall leave you poorer by a few thousand baths. Nightlife in Pattaya is action at several bars all over the town. Walking street is a great fun to take a walk in the evening.
Coral Island: A trip to Pattaya is incomplete without a day trip to Coral Island. A 45 minute boat ride brings you to a pristine island with white sand beaches and blue waters. Here you are taken in a glass bottom boat to see the beautiful corals. You can also indulge in water sports like Jet Ski, Banana boat ride, parasailing etc. The tour to Coral Island is inclusive of lunch so take care to inform the tour operator of your preference for a vegetarian meal. You can also opt for a under sea walking on your way to Coral Islands. You have to inform this to your tour operator in advance if you intend to do under sea walking. I advise that you must try this. Anyone can do this as it is absolutely safe and even if you do not know swimming, no problem. There are trained divers and several people on the sea bed waiting to guide and help you. You are first given a helmet type of head gear which is your source of oxygen and then you are lowered 25-30 meters in the sea from the anchored boat. Once you are down there are several guides waiting and one of them shall take you for a under sea walk. He will make you kneel and give you a piece of bread to hold. The moment you hold the bread aloft, lo and behold! You shall be surrounded by most beautiful fishes trying to take bite off the bread in your hand. The experience is truly worth experiencing. You shall also see some beautiful corals and under sea life, something you shall not forget in a hurry. Though you may find the charge of appx. THB 2000-2500 per person a tad high for this experience, but take my word, it’s worth every penny. You may be required to fork out 10 times this amount for a similar experience in man made aquariums in Europe & USA.
Sight Seeing: Thai government advertises for many sightseeing tour in Pattaya like trip to Nong Nooch Tropical Garden, Sanctuary of Truth with an added attraction of swimming with the dolphins, visit to the Crocodile park, Tiger Zoo & Elephant treks & the Ocenarium etc. If you have been to the Rose garden in Bangkok you need not visit Nong Nooch Tropical Garden. The Sanctuary of Truth is the largest construction of hand carved wood. Its being built since last 25 years and may take another 15 years to be completed. To attract visitors an attraction of a swim with the dolphins is added. The water pond where dolphins are kept is dirty and you will not feel like even dipping your feet in it. The visit to this place is not really worth it. If you have kids traveling with you you may visit the crocodile park & tiger zoo and get yourself clicked with the animals. The oceanarium (a giant aquarium with beautiful collection of fishes) has a lovely collection of undersea life and worth a visit. However, if you are also visiting Singapore, you can skip this as the zoo & ocenarioums in Singapore are much better.