movie travel: thanksgiving (in NYC)

You’ll probably read that “Hannah and Her Sisters” is the best Thanksgiving movie ever, so here’s your dose of it. I’m going to focus on pics that are a little less introspective.

As long as there’s a buck to be made, Hollywood will look to capitalize – and, let’s face it: Thanksgiving is a great day for it. You socialize with friends and family over an elaborate bounty and some fine wine. After which, all you have energy to do is waddle down to the local cineplex for a film. Does your family measure up to Hollywood’s ideal? Does the family on the screen make yours look GOOD by comparison? Or, do you just want to escape? I’ll almost always end up at the theater after Thanksgiving dinner (ok, fine – most dinners regardless of date). Yet, in the days leading UP to Thanksgiving, I get into the spirit with a curated list of pics that put me in the mood. I’ll post a sample of the list at the end, but right now I’m going to stick with the theme of last week’s post and look to the home of Thanksgiving: New York City.

“Home of”? Yep, they established the parade, or at least they perfected it, so it’s theirs. Most of you will watch at least a snippet of the parade Thursday morning, so we’ll start there. “Everyone felt the magic on the set and we all knew we were creating something special”, wrote Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography with respect to her experience making the 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street“. Think Christian Bale cornered the market on gaining/losing weight to win an Oscar? Edmund Gwenn did it first, winning for his turn as Santa, which he also performed with aplomb in the actual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – not as a campy Hollywood version, but in full capacity just as Macy’s would expect of any Santa, who anchors their parade to usher in the Christmas season. Just like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, (which we’ll talk about later in the season) it was released at a much warmer time of year, but its magic is in how it warms our hearts….year, after year, after year.

I recently commented that this film is full of partisan politics, commercialism, and questionable, or at least controversial, application of the law. These aren’t concepts that are new to our current world. If becoming a devotée of classic film has taught me anything, it’s that we haven’t invented much sociologically that our ancestors weren’t already very well aware of. In fact, during the Great Depression, the world saw that women were running families while earning a living while trying to nurse their husbands’ battered egos and that ushered in the screwball comedies that gave rise to female actors being the star, the box office draw, and running roughshod over their love-struck male leads. Y’know – escapism. WWII changed all of that – women, being lured back into their homes and out of theaters by fancy kitchen automation, were re-placed into much more what we think of now as “traditional” roles. Maureen O’Hara here is a bit of a bridge in that respect. She’s working and mothering, but she’s not wifing – as noted early on by Natalie Wood‘s character who says her parents divorced early. (Don’t be shocked – watch some movies prior to 1934 and you’ll see that America was getting divorced then, too….) Speaking of bridges, Maureen’s Doris Walker is trying to raise a little intellectual who also wants to be a kid, and who doesn’t this time of year? I asked my son if he felt betrayed because we encouraged him to believe in Santa Claus. He replied with a cry/laugh emoji – I rest my case.

It doesn’t get more Thankgiving-y than this

For approximately 1 and 1/2 hours, go back to a time when magic was possible. Having blind-faith in something doesn’t have to make you naive – it might just make you hopeful. And, that’s not a bad thing. This picture will give you some insight into New Yorkers in their many facets: the hardened, the skeptical and the caring. Give it a watch while you’re stuffing your turkey or making your pies. I think you’ll be very glad you did and you, too, might not have realized that it’s far more than a sentimental, sanitized-for-family-viewing feature.

For a piece you might’ve missed, I recommend “Pieces of April“. Katie Holmes was, at one time, a promising actress and this is an amazingly talented cast (Patricia Clarkson‘s only Oscar nominated role). It’s very low-budget ($100k). To me, that element supports the film’s premise. Remember the first time you hosted? If yours took a village, this one takes an entire apartment building in Manhattan.

Have some men in your bunch who won’t settle down to a movie about tradition and family (in the traditional sense)? Try “Tower Heist“. There’s no sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and no wishing the family had been closer, but ‘now I realize what I was missing’…….yadda, yadda, yadda. If your bunch is more in-tune with Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy and Ferraris, this is your film. Maybe it’s a gateway into: Not all Thanksgiving movies are sappy. Because watching Matthew Broderick dangle suspended high above the Thanksgiving Day parade isn’t that.

Now, for some real sightseeing…and an added tear here and there

I’ve read the Zabar’s scene in 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” described as the MOST New York scene ever. I don’t disagree with that. Just know what you’re doing – that’s all they ask. And, this pic takes place almost entirely in the upper-west side of the city where that might be even more true than anywhere else. It’s a lovely part of town and one where, as long as you’re not looking at price tags, you can see yourself settling in and really living. Just don’t ask yourself how an independent bookseller (inherited or otherwise) is able to pay the rent on her space and that amazing apartment.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this film is an homage to, if not a remake of, “Shop Around the Corner” from 1940 starring Jimmy Stewart and his real-life best friend’s (Henry Fonda) ex-wife, Margaret Sullivan, and set in Budapest where everyone speaks perfect English with very strong American accents. In the Nora Ephron version, the best-friend and confidant is played by Dave Chappelle and the would-be-star-crossed lovers are Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, so what’s not to love? It is Hanksgiving all month long after all. If you cannot bring yourself to watch holiday-themed pictures, this isn’t one. So, let me entice you to check it out just to see another side of New York during crisp autumn days and as they move through the holidays. And, they do have the lovely aforementioned Zabar‘s scene at Thanksgiving. So, it COUNTS as a Thanksgiving movie. In doing so, you’ll find that strolling through this neighborhood is as essential to experiencing the city as any other. Here’s an insider tip – the H&H Bagels in the movie is not the same H&H Bagel that you’ll find there today. The original closed in 2012, so see – you have no time to lose. Things are changing all the time.

Seize the moment – tap into these offerings and then get out and see the world. I love how movies and real-life can intertwine. To me, indulging that experience makes everything richer. Thanksgiving, if you space it out and partake in the build up by watching while you cook can take days. And, that takes a bit of the edge off of inhaling in 30min what took you 6-8hours to prepare. This has all only been a build up to the climax of dinner – there will be another. Just look for the sequel next year.

Here’s my list of Thanksgiving movie recommendations:

  • Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) C’mon……this has to be #1 – probably even playing at a theater near you
  • Home for the Holidays (1995) Directed by Jodi Foster and starring Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr, Anne Bancroft….
  • For Your Consideration (2006) Christopher Guest mockumentary
  • House of Yes (1997) Parker Posey
  • The Ice Storm (1997) In case you were worried about being too happy
  • Prisoners (2013) In case just sitting down and eating isn’t hardcore enough for you
  • The Big Chill (1983) Are you dubious? Did you know that the scene at the beginning, in which Kevin Costner speaks, which was cut out, was actually all of them together at Thanksgiving? Counts
  • The Last Waltz (1978) Concert footage from The Band’s final show on American Thanksgiving 1976

movie travel: roman holiday

Think you can’t tour Rome in only 1 hour and 58 minutes? You can with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck (and Eddie Albert pre-Green Acres and ZsaZsa). If you already love this pic, I hope to share at least 1 thing you didn’t previously know. If it’s new to you, you’re in for a treat. Regardless, this is a MUST watch prior to your next trip to Rome. And, if nothing else, the final scene is the most MOVING last scene in film history (as declared by me).

OK, so you think you’ve seen Rom-Coms where the elite identity is hidden either from themselves or from others because trying to travel incognito – that’s this one…..sort of. In this 1953 classic, Princess Ann (Hepburn) is frustrated with her situation to be sure and accidentally catches a wave of independence by serendipity, which she rides to its fullest in a carefree and transformative day with the swooniest Joe Bradley (Peck). When we first meet Peck here, he’s definitely looking to capitalize on this windfall of a sought-after princess landing in his mitts, but he too is transfigured. That’s amoré.

Three-time Academy Award winner for Best Director, William Wyler was a craftsman of the highest order. He made a total of 45 films (beginning with silent pictures). Born in Germany, he volunteered (at the age of 42) to use his gifts to support his adopted country during WWII by joining the US Army as an officer filming bolstering films (aka propaganda) that lifted our spirits and showed war as it was happening. Important to note – his career was in no way lagging at this time:

  • 1943 Won 1st Oscar: “Mrs Miniver”, which also won Best Picture
  • Joined the Army
  • 1944 Films documentaries while serving: “The Memphis Belle” and “The Fighting Lady”
    • Wins Oscar for Best Documentary for Lady project
  • 1947 Returns from Army, makes “The Best Years of our Lives”
    • Wins 2nd Best Director Oscar…film also earns Best Picture

And, he had an amazing eye for talent – more actors have won Oscars under Wyler than any other 2 directors combined: Enter Audrey Hepburn – new, unknown to Hollywood, survivor of Nazi occupation. Nominated and WON an academy award for this, her first major role.

“Rome! By all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.”

Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn)

Originally planned to run as “and Introducing Audrey Hepburn”, Gregory Peck informed the producers that she’d surely win an Academy Award for her performance, so her name MUST appear above the title. And, so it does.

This is the first American film to be made in its entirety in Italy and they really celebrate it:

  • The Pantheon
  • Trevi Fountain
  • Spanish Steps
  • The Colosseum
  • Ex-voto wall
  • Bocca della verita (btw: her reaction is REAL – Peck improvised his performance to get that reaction from her)

If you haven’t seen this picture – I can totally imagine you looking at the first 20min and thinking: Nah, I’m not that into 1950s B&W. Ostensibly, it’s a mid-century, milquetoast rom-com. That could not be further from the truth. The extras in the Embassy Ball include actual Italian nobility (who donated their salaries to charity) and the reporters at the end are all actual reporters – OH, the reporters and when she addresses the members of the press. THIS is the ending scene to end all ending scenes….I defy you to have a dry eye. Not to sit on the edge of your seat CONVINCED that she’s going to……..

….oops, I almost gave away the ending. Watch it. Then go to Rome.

This movie is available in many format including streaming on Amazon. Settle in with some of this, and this, and that. Ciao!

belgium: bruges, brussels, antwerp

Yep – Antwerp is centered around a guy throwing the hand of a giant

I have a friend who orders mussels everywhere we go. Has for years. To me, they always seemed like a huge bowl of piping hot, black …shells. However, I was lured by the promise of fries served with mayo. Who knew, she’s been right all this time – but, I had to go to Belgium to discover it.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I had previously only spent a little over a day in Bruges (this time last year actually) and I fell head over heels in love with it. So, 6 months later, I returned with a friend for her birthday. She wasn’t sure about spending an entire week in Bruges (that’s fair), but I’d looked into Brussels and Antwerp and I didn’t want to spend 1/2 a week in either, so we compromised – we’d hit all 3, with Bruges being the grand finale. It was a rousing success – each stop held something enticing, but Bruges truly was the icing on the cake.

Brussels: HQ for the EU. Major metropolitan city. Home of Mannken Pis. We stayed at the exquisite Hilton Brussels Grand Place, which is directly in front of Central Train Station. I’ve praised the power of brand loyalty before, but here it REALLY paid off. Most of our accommodations on this sojourn were covered by my friend’s points. Not only did Hilton have rooms for us at no charge, as the Hilton Honors program promises, but they upgraded us in honor of her achieved level. That’s a very square deal. Loyalty pays off – there are lots of times that I want local flavor and something truly unique, but give serious consideration to establishing consistency for the benefit of points if nothing else. This Hilton location was ideal for getting around on foot as we were easily walkable to Grand Place (shocking – since it’s in the name….). You’ll scoff a little when I tell you that Grand Place at night, when it’s all lit up, people are milling around with beer & wine in hand, and there’s live music wafting in the air….it feels a little like St. Mark’s Square. I know, I know – but, TRUST me. I didn’t say full-on reminds me, just is a little reminiscent of. Anyway, on the square, we were directed by our concierge to ‘T Kelderke for mussels and frites. Word to the wise, don’t call them “french fries” in Belgium. Who exactly invented them is still somewhat contentious – so, just call them frites. Nonetheless – we wanted the whole spread – mussels, frites, the fabled mayo on fries (which I fully endorse), and flemish asparagus. We were in heaven – the aroma, the flavor – garlic, white wine – we ate our fill and BARELY had enough energy to drag our satiated bellies back to our stylish hotel bar, which was showing classic films. #heaven

Seriously, I just accidentally happened into Europe’s first shopping mall?

I’ll be frank – if you’re not going to Brussels with shopping in mind, just go somewhere else. Built in the mid-19th century, this shopping mall draws you in with the promise of extravagance. Each window is expertly adorned. The shops are perfectly curated for a mix between clothes, chocolates, restaurants, home decor, hand-made leather gloves….I could go on. There’s something beautiful to see, or taste, at every turn. Then, there’s the Place du Grand Sablon. I had every intention of buying myself a diamond necklace in Antwerp because 84% of the world’s diamonds travel through Antwerp. However, walking around Grand Sablon, I happened onto a jewelry merchant with whom I connected and came to trust – that’s key when you’re buying jewelry. FYI: There are no amazing deals out there on jewelry – the internet’s just about everywhere….everyone (wholesalers and retailers) knows what everyone else is selling and for how much….. But, do you love the piece, trust the person you’re buying from and did you do your homework? If the answer is yes to each one of those and you’re happy with the price. Buy. Having worked in the jewelry business myself and having seen people get taken in the past, I was so far beyond skeptical – and, I always am.

If you’re thinking of buying diamonds abroad, here’s my advice:

  • Verify the store on the GIA website
  • Don’t get talked into stones that are TOO clear or TOO colorless
    • Unless you just have SO much money to spend that it doesn’t matter; that’s cool, too.
    • Personally, how close are people going to get to my neck? – an H, I, J is plenty white for me, and SI 2 clarity was perfect – the main inclusion is actually hidden by one of the prongs
  • Make sure the stone comes with a GIA grading report
  • I compared the details they gave me with the GIA grading report that was posted on-line (there’s a tracking #); they matched
  • The GIA grading report has a # engraved on the girdle of the stone – I made the poor guy read me the number AFTER it was set to ensure I got the same stone that had been graded by GIA
  • Walk away even if for just a second and ask yourself if you’ll be more happy having the piece or the cash – if you’re ambivalent, just keep walking.
  • IGI (International Gemological Institute) is not GIA
Waterzooi at Sir Anthony Van Dijck – I’ll be sad for you if you don’t go here

Shall I spare you all the clothes shopping we did in Antwerp? Alright, but there was much. Why don’t I tell you about Peter Paul Rubens instead – Would that be a nice change of pace? If you don’t like religious art, then I’m afraid you’re still out of luck. However, the artistry is nothing short of extraordinary. I know nothing formally about art, but I know that when I look at a Rubens next to a piece by another artist, his use of perspective, human emotion and warmth set him apart. There are several places to see his work in Antwerp, but Cathedral of our Lady offers at least 3 that you won’t want to miss. If you have to economize your time, I say go to that one and THEN start hitting the beer scene in Antwerp. You will have covered all your bases.

The water tours of Bruges are touristy, but enchanting.

I’m convinced that I’ll never get all of Bruges down in only one post. I’ve praised the lodging in an earlier post: De Castillion Hotel Bruges. Everyone I send here is knocked out of their socks. I exaggerate you not.

In the Martin McDonagh movie “In Bruges“, which incidentally isn’t entirely well-received here, Ralf Fiennes repeatedly says that Bruges is ‘an effing fairytale, it is’…… and, that’s absolutely true. It’s a medieval village. Wander its streets, its squares, its river banks, eat its chocolate, see the actual blood of Christ. Bruges is a popular weekend destination for Europeans. If you have the option to avoid Friday-Sunday, I recommend it. If you’re trying to decide between Bruges and Ghent – they’re probably similar – yet, Bruges has decided to NOT allow commercial water traffic, so that seems a little better preserved in my opinion. Not judging, just saying. That’s my $0.02.

There are 3 things you must see in Bruges:

  • The Bruges Madonna
  • Old St. John’s Hospital – it’s an art museum, garden, and pharmacy museum. You’ll be glad to learn that ambulances have advanced since the 1100s. Their pharmacy served the community from the 17th century to the 1970s. Yeah, you read that right. And, there’s a painting there that shows the pharmacy in its early days – it hasn’t changed much. Doesn’t that trip you out when you see a painting of a room you’re standing in, yet the painting shows it filled with people in garb centuries older than your own? Same ROOM – it’s the closest we can come to actual time travel. I love that.
  • The Begijnhof – So peaceful, so serene – it’s silent. Literally. Do you know what a Beguines is? Read about them – it’s interesting. After the crusades, many women were left without men to provide for them, so the communities had to do something. They lived in these convent-ish settings like nuns, but didn’t take vows. The Beguines are gone now and it’s an actual convent. I wandered in while they were chanting their prayers in the chapel one day. Mesmerizing.

Wonder why I skipped over any elaboration of the Bruges Madonna above? That’s because there’s no better way to understand why you have to see her than to watch “Monuments Men“. It’s a movie directed by and starring George Clooney. (Is that enough – shall I just close now?) If you like history, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. The movie itself isn’t a great work of art – I doubt it will become a classic, but if you’re heading to Bruges, it’s a must see. You have to appreciate the power of art over time – whether the ‘good’ guys or the ‘bad’ guys, people have vied for it and fought over it since its inception. This particular piece also happens to be the only Michelangelo sculpture to have ever left Italy during his lifetime. Art and how it has been received over time, its place in the world, and how its world intersects with my own moves me. I hope it does you.

Sublime

“I’m half-Irish, half-Dutch, and I was born in Belgium. If I was a dog, I’d be in a hell of a mess!”

Audrey Hepburn

movie-travel: venice & india

“Summertime” starring Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi

In preparing a recommendation for you that would give you a picture postcard of India, I bumped into my old friend, Sir David Lean. He had the ticket I was looking for in “A Passage to India”. However, no discussion of this gifted director is complete without also mentioning “Summertime”, so you get a double-feature today.

So, David Lean has made a few movies you might’ve heard of: “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Dr. Zhivago”, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”…nothing too heavy, or overly ambitious…if you’ve seen these movies, you’ll know I’m rolling my eyes right now. His résumé is lengthy and accolades well-deserved. By focusing on the two movies I’ve listed above, we’ll look at his first “big Hollywood” movie (Summertime in 1955) and his last picture (Passage in 1984). If you’re intrigued and want to look into his career (check him out on IMDB or Letterboxd), you won’t be disappointed. He loses none of his vision or passion in the nearly 30 years between these two and for the purposes of travel without departure, you’ll find either of these 2 to be entirely satisfying.

Assuming you’ve been to Venice before, did you arrive by train? The Freccia trains in Italy are fast and convenient – watch lush Italian scenery whiz by while you have a glass of wine and a snack. But, when you see Venice come into view, at the far end of a long expanse of water, you’ll feel like Katherine Hepburn’s character in “Summertime” – eager to see the rest RIGHT NOW. But, let it unfold slowly – you don’t want to miss a single moment.

WHAT is she thinking…..?

While her budding romance with Brazzi unfolds, you can just sense the conflict she’s feeling, but for the love of pete – she’s on vacation. Why not indulge? – I mean sure, he’s married and that’s a big no-no (not even a little bit good), but does she have to be QUITE so chaste? Let’s be honest, by the time Hepburn starred in this picture, the USS Winsome Coquette had already sailed….they’re both adults. And, he’s SO handsome and charming…. (sigh) I digress. Nonetheless, the longing is real and artfully presented. Similar to an earlier film by Lean, “A Brief Encounter”. Whether you watch this picture for the vistas of Venice, the canals by day and by night, or for the spirit of independent female adventurers, you won’t be disappointed.

“Good films can be made only by a crew of dedicated maniacs”

Sir David Lean

Next up in our little double-matinee is “A Passage to India”. When they say ‘a movie by David Lean’ in the opening credits, they mean it – he wrote and directed this screen play from original material by E. M. Forster. He, too, has a knack for inventing stories that translate well to the big screen: “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End” to name only two. He won one of those awards they’re always giving out in Sweden. When it comes to making Victorian English seem relatable, he’s your man. And, historically speaking, that’s a tall order – this was a pretty up-tight bunch.

Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, James Fox, and Peggy Ashcroft – “A Passage to India”

Judy Davis leads the cast and looks lovelier than I thought possible – had I overlooked her younger years on film? Maybe. Here she’s promised herself to a young magistrate in India during a time when India was a teensy bit oppressed by the English (read: the word “enslaved” was thrown around a bit during this period). Enter the young Davis with the elder Ashcroft, who are surprised to find that Ashcroft’s liberal upbringing of a son who’s risen high in the ranks could be undone by 2 years in India where he’s begun to drink the Kool-Aid and now believes the English to not only be the ruling nation, which they are, but also a superior race. It’s a powerful study of the time and the various people and their roles within it.

Set, in part, in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), you’ll see the elaborate and striking colors, the cacophony of masses of people and environ, and…I’d swear I noticed a whiff of Indian aroma. Maybe I just got swept away. Regardless, you’ll experience a LITTLE of being in another place and time through Lean’s master craftsmanship and the Oscar winning soundtrack.

I hope you’ll make time for one of these outstanding pictures. As always, it’s hard to say goodbye to an extraordinary place, but it’s never too far to go to Amazon or Netflix to say hello again – if only for a brief time. Both films are available in a variety of formats. Order a pizza or have some Indian food delivered to round out your experience. Make an evening of it – then make some travel plans.

arrivaderci Venezia

movie-travel: paris

Be swept off to Paris with only a moment’s notice by this film

As is my MO, I needed a movie to stream before I went to Paris for the first time. I couldn’t wait to be AT all the places that I’d ‘visited’ so many times before on TV, in books, and in movies. I enjoy the preview and it increases my enthusiasm. But, as I already knew from experience, watching it on the way-to never compares to how much more I like the movie on the way home. Nothing quite beats RE-visiting a place after you’ve actually been there. Suddenly, they’re no longer just locations you can name like on a flashcard – they’re feelings. Seeing actors move in and around spaces you’ve passed through yourself adds a whole new dimension – it’s being there without being there. This brings us to “Midnight in Paris”.

In the 2011 movie by Woody Allen (I’ll ask you to separate the man from the art in this case), you’ll find a love letter to Paris across landscapes and time. That’s how multi-dimensional Paris is – it’s not just checking sights off a list of must-sees (although, I had a list of must-sees). It’s pausing for a second and think about all those who went before you. Parts of the city glow with reminders of the past and they shaped the Paris you’re visiting today. This movie takes on that topic and I think your memories of Paris will be revitalized by it.

Monet’s l’Orangerie in a scene from “Midnight in Paris”

The locations they visit in the movie state the case better than I do – they leave no stone un-turned.

  • Notre Dame Cathedral
  • Saint-Ouen Flea Market
  • Faubourg Saint-Honore
  • Musée Rodin
  • Musée de l’Orangerie
  • Pont Alexandre III
  • Café du Trocadéro
  • Place de la Concorde
  • Palais Garnier (Paris Opera House)
  • Pont Neuf
  • Arc de Triomphe
  • Musée de Louvre

If you’re longing to go, want to anticipate an upcoming trip, or want to relive a memory you hold dear, try this movie. You won’t even have to leave your home, but there’s a fairly good chance you’ll hit TripAdvisor or Airbnb at least once in close proximity of your viewing to see about just MAYBE putting a trip together or adding to your itinerary…..

This movie is available in a variety of formats. For an added treat, order up some of these and some of this. Talk about being transported.

So, send yourself a postcard – whether it’s “Wish you were here” or “Remembering fondly”.

Remember walking along the Seine…..?

bangkok, thailand

Bangkok is so much more beautiful than you can capture in pictures

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.

Maybe don’t talk about this movie while in Thailand…..

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.

It’s free to sell along the tracks – it’s just a little disruptive when the train goes by

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.

Just float past and buy what they’re selling – that’s normal, right?

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.

Never more true than in Bangkok (A turn-down treasure from our Bangkok hotel)