We had just scheduled our 2nd trip to Singapore when the idea of a weekend in Bangkok occurred to us. When you’re heading to Asia anyway…..why not? But, Thailand seemed exotic and extravagant. I consulted an expert – a work colleague born and raised in Singapore, who has traveled to Thailand many times. She encouraged it wholeheartedly and her experience of traveling to Bangkok gave me the confidence I needed to set out on a new itinerary.
What we’ll cover in this post:
- Planning an itinerary
- Sights to consider
- Local tour guides
- Movie & book suggestions
- Hotel recommendations
So, Logistics. As I said, we had just penciled in our travel plans for Singapore – so, the cost of going there just for the meeting was already on the books, so to speak. The dance of the ethical business traveler is always how to navigate your excursion such that it’s cost-neutral to the company. Anything else is entirely inappropriate and I don’t condone it. So, that said – I’ll use the cost of booking Singapore at today’s rates as an appropriate example:
- Austin to Bangkok across 2 main carriers was ~$2,000
- Austin to Bangkok time-wise ranged from 27-41 hours
- Going straight to Singapore saved ~$1,000 & about 5-15 hours
- Singapore Airlines round-trip SIN-BKK = quick & cheap: 2.5h @ $255 (RT)
The math became pretty obvious – we’d stick with Singapore roundtrip for work and do a completely separate excursion to Bangkok. Two things to always watch out for – the time involved in the cheaper fares, and use of smaller airports. My time is worth a lot (to me). And, if you start using smaller airports, getting there can cost a lot of time, and there are fewer people keeping the lights on in the airport – the larger the airport, the more people paying in, the lower the cost in a LOT of cases (this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule). Another advantage to the business traveler who bolts on a completely separate (economically) excursion is how tidy the expenses work out. In this case, we were getting to Singapore for work, the minute we connected to fly to Bangkok, it was our dime until we got back to Singapore. This relieves a lot of headache.
Now – carriers. I like the checks and balances of the larger airlines. Right now, I’m only United Premier Silver because my carrier of choice is Southwest. Until they bring Asia a little closer, Southwest just isn’t going to hook me up. (Hey, it could happen – we’re going to Hawaii now) And, the dreaded 2-4-2 configuration in United’s Business Class is not my idea of comfort for an 18-hour flight. The “2” seats together require the person at the window to climb over the person on the aisle in order to reach the bathroom (this made for a very challenging flight from HongKong for me once). And, in the “4” seats, you have strangers on either side of you with NO barriers while you’re trying to sleep (Hello, please understand that I didn’t intentionally try to spoon you……). Polaris has changed all of that. (Tip: pick the odd-numbered Polaris rows if you’re traveling with a friend or a spouse) However, Singapore Airlines has been doing it right even in coach-class for awhile now. They were the first to offer nonstop to Singapore out of San Francisco (~16hours nonstop) and now they offer nonstop from Newark (~18.5hours). The level of service is exceptional – attentive, courteous, helpful….I’m a devotee for Singapore Airlines. Would I like to fly these guys? Or, these guys? Why, YES, I would. But, for my money and for where I’ve been traveling, Singapore Air has been the highest level of service to Asia. They did not disappoint when it came to regional travel within Asia, either.
So, you’re familiar with the premise of “The King and I”, right? Winner of 5 Academy Awards including best actor for Yul Brynner and featuring Rita Moreno (future EGOT) – both representing characters of ethnicities not quite their own… that’s how Hollywood did things back then…. Nonetheless, the King of Thailand was the great-grandson of the King depicted in the movie. (That makes the current King, the great-great-grandson). And, if you’ll recall, Yul Brynner’s version of the King depicts a man who’s flawed in at least a few ways. That’s apparently not the way King Bhumibol Adulyadej enjoyed having a monarch of Thailand displayed. And, I’m not going to put the fault entirely on Yul’s back – the monarchy apparently isn’t fond of the book, either. BOTH are banned in Thailand – as is speaking ill of the royal family, so I guess they go hand-in-hand. So, feel free to read/watch to get into the mood of visiting. I found the history and grandeur depicted in both to heighten my excitement for visiting and they both (maybe the book more so) emphasized that I was going somewhere very far away – geographically and idealogically. At least from a historical perspective – here’s a place that’s Buddhist in most cases with a LONG history of building temples, which they lavish with jewels and delectable offerings that demonstrate their devotion to various representations of Buddha. They believe that care and devotion to the right representation can affect all aspects of their lives and conditions. That’s rich and intriguing. From a female perspective – the multiple wives and how they’re regarded was not by favorite topic and not one I idealized in any capacity – but, again, it gave me insight into what I was about to experience. Knowledge is power – no amount of looking into where you’re about to go is a waste. If you’re about to go to Thailand, I encourage you look into these titles. However, given the Thai perspective, I ditched the book in an airport prior to arrival.
Behind a bend of the Maenam, the entire town of Bangkok appeared in sight. I do not believe that there is a sight in the world more magnificent or more striking. This Asiatic Venice…Ludovic Marquis de Beauvoir
“Auspicious” is a recurring theme throughout a lot of Asian cultures – begin a shrine on an auspicious day; place a specific icon in an auspicious part of your house….all of these things speak to bringing good favor to you and your surroundings. So, what does it mean to arrive in a country on its most IN-auspicious day? We arrived on the day their beloved King, ruler for 66 years, died. The nation instantly entered into a year of mourning. Stores tucked their colorful garments away so that customers could stock up on black clothing – they’d need it everyday for the next 365. Bars and nightclubs were dark (for the most part) and many of the temples were closed. The one I most wanted to see, The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, would be closed during our entire stay and then some.
So, this leads me to what I most want to tell you about planning a trip to Bangkok – get a professional tour guide. I’ve recommended Thai Tour Guide many times. I can’t say enough good things about Mr. Oat, our guide for 2 days (although I’ve had friends be assigned different guides with the same positive results). For starters, Mr. Oat picked us up and had totally re-arranged how we’d spend our days together now that some of our destinations were no longer open to the public. Our priorities were the Maeklong Railway Market and a Floating Market. And, we wanted to see a variety of temples around Bangkok. Done – he had this under control. Had we been on our own, we would’ve spun our wheels and maybe been paralyzed – honestly, the place was a bit disorienting at that point in history. All TV stations (including CNN and MTV) were showing nothing but around-the-clock remembrances of the King (state-approved, mind you). Throngs of people were disrupting traffic to make offerings at the palace….the whole trip might’ve been a wash.
What’s a railway market? One minute, you’re shopping for food, clothes, provisions, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera at the Maeklong Railway Market – and, the next, the vendors are hurriedly pushing back their displays and folding in their awnings – the train is literally about to roll right over the spot where we’re standing. Everyone squishes in tightly to allow it to pass and there’s VERY little room to spare. I can’t over-state how exceptionally close it comes to you. I hope this pic conveys, but you really have to be there to appreciate it. Zip-zap closed for business – zap-zip, game back on. Why do they put up with this? Economics – the vendors who never have to move in from the train have to pay rent. You’ve never seen anything like this – please plan to go if you have the means. And, get a guide like Mr. Oat – the ride is about an hour from Bangkok as I recall and air conditioning is a MUST. And, if you’re off by even 5min, you miss the whole thing – he’ll tell you when you need to leave your hotel, ensure you stop along the way at safe spots for Americanized bathrooms and coffee, secure money machines, etc. You really must have a guide.
There are many floating markets in and around Bangkok. Instead of investing in real-estate, or renting a booth, just have a boat and float around selling what you produce. The woman in the picture above produces mango sticky rice. If you’re not currently a diabetic (you might become one after too many of these…), you must try this. They use purple glutinous rice, which I think they boil in salt water. Then, they add what’s probably sweetened condensed milk and the freshest most beautiful mangoes. When you walk into markets in Bangkok, there’s an overwhelming, I’ll say putrid, smell – that’s mango. People tried to tell me it was durian fruit. No doubt that stinks to high heaven, but durian fruit’s almost always under wraps for that reason – the smell I really dislike is mango. But, when it’s in season and fresh and ESPECIALLY in Thailand – I’ll muscle through and eat me some mango. This is a treat you’ll dream about later.
I could go on about Bangkok – but, I’ll just give a few quick shout outs. There are many places to stay and quite a few of my friends recommended places that were secluded and away from what is, I’ll be honest, a little seedy, when visiting Bangkok. Most of my friends have stayed in Riverside for just that reason. However, it requires you to take a water taxi if you want to come to shops, restaurants, night markets and clubs in Bangkok proper. The wait time for water taxis and the traffic involved just didn’t seem feasible for a weekend. I highly recommend the Oriental Residence Bangkok. My Singaporean colleague who proved to be our Thai mentor recommended we stay in-town to make the most of our time. There was a huge train station nearby this Embassy Row hotel. So, we had access to anywhere. Being next door to the Holland Embassy, we felt very safe. And, the lobby, suites, restaurants, gyms – all state of the art – other properties should take a lesson. These people are top-notch. The price is un-real….google it and see (e.g. $116-ish/night). The dollar buys a lot of Thai Bhat. And, while you’re there, do not miss out on a true Thai massage. If you wander out for food, no doubt you’ll see young men offering Thai massage left and right – that’s not what I mean. I’m thinking along the lines of this. If you haven’t done the math already, 2,000 Thai Bhat for a classical Thai Massage at Rarinjinda is $64. Let me elaborate on what that includes: Tea ceremony before-hand, a private room, the use of silk pajamas, at least an hour of the most magnificent massage you’ve ever had, and a mango sticky rice ceremony after. Lamenting your typical massage experience at home right about now? You should be.
The purpose of my blog is not to plan your days in and around Bangkok, but to tell you how to make a quick trip meaningful, worthwhile and DOABLE. Thailand was a long weekend for us. I hope you’ll consider it the next time your work takes you to that part of the world. I’m MORE than eager to return. Next time, I hope to tack on Chiang Mai.