Bangkok & Tokyo: A Memoir

Feb 6th, 2008, 05:43 AM
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Bangkok & Tokyo: A Memoir

It was time to escape the snows of New England and enjoy some favorite cities. Timing and logistics had some strict requirements: I needed to get to Tokyo to begin another round-the-world trip, I needed to begin and end the RTW in this calendar year (to re-qualify as a Senator-level elite on Lufthansa), and I had to fit the trip in between the AFC Championship game and the Super Bowl. Letís just say that the timing of the trip worked out better than the SB, and congratulations to Craig and Laurieco and anyone else who, inexplicably, might prefer Gotham-based teams. But this is about Bangkok and Tokyo, so letís get to it.

(And itís also to settle some controversy about the shuttle boats, with pictorial proof.)

Getting There
I scored a FF ticket using United miles from Boston to Bangkok via JFK, with a stopover in Tokyo on the way back. The US Airways 7.30 shuttle was reliable as usual, with my suitcase waiting for me at the baggage claim. Taxi from LGA was equally simple, and I was at Thaiís JFK check-in counter by 9.15. I was traveling in business class and had reserved seat 21e, a center-section aisle seat (2+2+2 seating) in the 2nd of 2 business class cabins. That cabin turned out to be mostly empty, with the front cabin nearly full. Premium economy and regular economy were both full. Iíve got to say that premium economy seating looks a lot more comfortable than regular economy. The seats are certain wider and seem better padded, and thereís heaps more leg room. If youíre stuck in a center seat (2+3+2 seating), itís not a total disaster, as the middle seat is noticeable wider than the other seats.

Thaiís business product on the JFK-BKK route is middle-of-the-road. I find the seats to be less comfortable and less adjustable than other angled-flat seats Iíve flown (SQís spacebed, LH, NH, LX), and their motors are incredibly noisy. The food has improved noticeably since I last took the flight Ė both the prawns and the pork meals were major improvements over the nearly-inedible offerings in my previous JFK-BKK flight. Also, the cabin crew was terrific, coming through the cabin frequently and generally being on top of things. Best of all, the flight was 75 minutes early, the pilot having discovered a shortcut via Stockholm and Kazakhstan.

I was staying at the Peninsula and had arranged for their car to meet me at the airport. Yeah, a taxi is cheaper, but the Peninsula drivers pretty much guarantee a relaxing ride, and then you are greeted by name when the car pulls up to the front door. I took a balcony room again, and I do enjoy being out on the balcony. Somewhere else, it was mentioned that the balcony rooms have a restricted view, and I guess thatís true: itís probably a 150-degree view instead of 180 degrees in other rooms. I find it to be a good trade-off, though, especially as Bangkokís skyline is not exactly a thing of architectural beauty.

I continually find the service at the Pen to be as good as it gets. When I arrived, the rep who met my car and brought me to the room for check-in said that theyíd made the bed using just a top and bottom sheet, as I had preferred on my previous stay, rather than the usual bottom sheet and duvet. Would that be ok, or would I prefer it to be changed? They also had a scrumptious plate of mango-sticky rice (ďfor our returning guestsĒ) waiting in the room, along with the usual fruit plate. Another reason the Pen is tops in my book is the sense of responsibility among the staff. I could make any request to anyone wearing a Peninsula name tag, and I get the sense that they would ensure that the request is taken care of Ė never any hint of thatís-not-my-job.

After a good nightís sleep, I was ready to go explore, and explore I did. I love walking around cities, heading vaguely off in one direction and then turning down any street that looks interesting. And in Bangkok, every street somehow looks interesting. I took a taxi to the Giant Swing, then meandered around for much of the day, stopping for a refreshment whenever the heat got to me. (Which was often. As much as I love the sights and smells and sounds and life of Bangkok, I hate its heat. January is the cool season, and it was 93 and humid.) I enjoyed a few of the street food places in the City Hall area around Thanon Mahannop, though the ones I tried were all good but not quite great. Biggest disappointment was mango sticky rice at Kao Neeo Korpanich. It wasnít bad, mind you, but I preferred both the mango and the sweet sauce in the Penís version.

BTW, for those who asked about where to find spirit houses, I did see quite a few in the street that leads down from the Giant Swing toward the river (parallel to Thanon Mahannop).

Iím always looking for an indulgent massage, and Bangkok is as good a place as any for that. I went all out for the 4-hand massage at the Peninsula Spa. I didnít quite realize it, but this included a body scrub (new for me) by a single masseuse, which would be followed by the four-hand, synchronized massage. The body scrub was fun and surprisingly relaxing, but I would probably pass on the 4-hand massage next time. Itís great in theory, but itís nearly impossible for two masseuses to apply the same level of pressure, so it felt more like two people giving a simultaneous massage rather than 1 person who had 4 arms. Then again, 1 person w/4 arms might have been weird, too.

On Saturday, or maybe it was Sunday, I headed off to the Chatuchak market. Very easy to get there by subway, and itís easy to spend hours checking out the stalls and people-watching. A welcome feature of Chatuchak is the occasional little bar, where a cold Singha and a comfortable chair is a welcome respite.

Actually, just about anywhere in Bangkok is a good place for people-watching. One of the best places, of course, is Patpong, and happily there are a number of sidewalk bars not associated with any of the fine entertainment spots. Sit yourself down at one of these some night and enjoy the show. My favorite moment was around 7pm, when a woman who was apparently a proprietor of one such entertainment venue came out to the front of her establishment, put out some goodies in a make-shift spirit house, lit some incense, and then made several prayer-like wais, presumably beseeching the Powers That Be for a prosperous night.

Iíve come to appreciate the food court at Siam Paragon mall when I want something thatís cheap, comfortable, simple, and safe. Itís a very short walk and all escalators between the mall and the Siam MRT station, and the food court has a dizzying array of choices. If, like me, youíre way bigger than Thai-size, the comfortable seating is appreciated. Siam Paragon is also a good choice for internet access. Thereís an internet café on the lower (aquarium) level, 1 floor below the food court. 1 hour costs 50 baht, you get a huge flat screen monitor, and you can bank any unused access time.

I have come to really enjoy the short boat trip back from the MRT station to the Peninsula. The wind, the soothing effect of the water, and the calmness is such a contrast to the grittiness of Bangkok Ö yet the contrasts are somehow harmonious. BTW, if youíre not a fan of climbing stairs, you can save yourself some huffing and puffing on the way to the SkyTrain by crossing the small bridge in front of the Chao Phraya tourist boat booth Ė thereís an escalator on that side.

Shuttle Boats
I have elsewhere reported that the Peninsula shuttle boat is delightful, that the Royal Orchid Sheraton boat has a Titanicesque faux smokestack, and that the Marriott boat has seen better days. Pictures donít lie:

(For some reason, I included a photo of a wedding that was going on at the Pen. It has nothing to do with this memoir, though.)

Tokyo is everything that Bangkok isnít. Well, almost. Japanís megametropolis is orderly and infinitely predictable, boasts a fantastic public transportation system, has actual seasons, and carries a certain air of elegance. And, especially to the eye of a non-Japanese speaker, it lacks the raw grittiness that give places like New York or Bangkok a special feel.

Getting to Tokyo was a breeze: 8.20 flight on Thai Air (part of the United mileage ticket) was unexceptional, though the cabin crew pretty much ignored the business class cabin for most of the 5-hour flight. No lines at immigration at NRT, and the priority bags were delivered within 10 minutes of the plane having landed. These bags (1st, business, and Star Gold) actually came through on a different baggage carousel than the econ bags.

Thanks to great info here and on FlyerTalk, I got the Narita Express/Suica card combo at the airport. This is a specially-priced deal for foreigners that includes a trip on the airport train plus a rechargeable fare card for the Tokyo subway. I stayed at the InterContinental Strings Hotel in Shinagawa, and the hotel is absolutely beautiful. It occupies the top 6 floors of an office building next to the Shinagawa train station, and the hotel is modern, extremely comfortable, and has a fantastic staff. Itís a 70-minute train trip from the airport to Shinagawa, then a 5-minute walk to the hotel. Narita is not the most conveniently-located airport in the world, but this was certainly one of the easier transfers. (Iím not a big fan of the limo/bus, which can get stuck in traffic and make for a loooong trip.)

It was also a great relief to feel the cold, fresh air of Tokyo. The 3 days I was there, it was sunny and about 35-40F, which is about as perfect as it gets for winter weather, in my mind. Of course, most of the buildings seems to be heated to a comfortable 95 degrees, but thatís another story.

Tokyo is a terrific city for exploring. Head off to a neighborhood thatís a bit away from the office buildings, and youíre suddenly in a different world. I roamed around the areas in the north part of the city, around Ueno Park and the Nippori station, and it was just wonderful. Mind you, I had no idea what many of the shops and signs were all about, but that didnít matter to me.

I find Tokyo to be much more difficult for non-native speakers/readers than any other big city I know, certainly including Bangkok. While itís ultra easy and efficient to use the subway (where most signs are in Roman as well as Japanese characters), most everything else is a challenge. For example, if youíre looking for a cough or cold remedy in a drug store, donít expect to find products labeled in English. However, I know of no other place where people try harder to help foreigners out when weíve got a problem, and it is 100% expected that a Westerner will speak no Japanese whatsoever. (Which is not to say that most Japanese speak English Ė they donít. In major hotels, of course, English is spoken by many staff. In shops and restaurants where foreigners might show up, many people will know a few English phrases. Only some restaurants will have menus in English.) Anyway, if you arm yourself with a tiny Japanese vocabulary (Good morning, thank you, please, where is the toilet?) and a bit of patience, youíll be fine.

I headed off one mid-morning to the Tsukiji fish market. Apparently thereís terrific buying and selling action that goes on at the crack of dawn, but my prey was great sushi. Which I got. Fatty tuna soft as butter that somehow had the mouth feel of melting chocolate. Uni (sea urchin) that would reaffirm anyoneís belief that God exists, a magnificent pile of yellowy-orange that bore no resemblance to the salty stuff that shows up in the rest of the world. Plus white tuna, salmon, more o-toro, much more uni, and other stuff that could have been ratís snot but that tasted delicious. Washed down with a few beers. This, my friends, is the Breakfast of Champions.

Coming Home
The trip from Tokyo to Boston would be the first leg of the round-the-world trip, with an Tokyo to JFK flight followed by the shuttle from LaGuardia to Boston.

NRT-JFK was in first class on ANA, and it really doesnít get a whole lot better than this. The suites are terrific for both sitting and sleeping, the food and drink (especially the very unexpected Girard red) wonderful, and the personalized service beyond compare. When I asked for a banana after a nice sleep, Saito-san (the purser supervising the F cabin) came back several minutes later with a plate that had a banana cut horizontally in 3 sections, artfully arranged of course, with 1 of its 4 sides peeled to make it easy to attack with knife and fork. And naturally the plate was adorned with a fresh flower. Now does one really need all that for just a banana? No, but every once in a while it is nice to be treated well.

DonTopaz is offline  
Feb 6th, 2008, 06:38 AM
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Thanks for your report, rizzuto! Did you stumble across Chote Chitr while you were wandering the area around the giant swing? We use the wat at the giant awing as our landmark to start our walk to CC.

I looked at your photo of the shuttle boats. I can't say that I'd ever noticed the cylindrical thing atop the roof of the ROS shuttle boat, but your interpretation of it as a faux smokestack is as plausible as any I can imagine! That is so funny! Why they would add that to an antique teak boat is beyond me!

I always enjoy the accounts of being pampered in Asia - thanks for yours. I chuckled at your comments about the four handed massage. I've not tried one, but I now think I'd get the giggles if I did!
Kathie is offline  
Feb 6th, 2008, 07:29 AM
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great report and wonderfully written, even for a newton boy
rhkkmk is offline  
Feb 6th, 2008, 11:09 AM
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Thanks for your report. It's great to get the flight details for those of us who are deciding routings for Star Alliance awards.
welltraveledbrit is offline  
Feb 6th, 2008, 03:22 PM
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Thanks for your report about our town. I suppose you missed out on the snow we had last Sunday?
bmttokyo is offline  
Feb 6th, 2008, 05:39 PM
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Don-once again you've come through with shining colors. Unlike our gridiron "heroes". We also like walking around semi-aimlessly in BKK.
Gpanda is offline  
Feb 6th, 2008, 06:06 PM
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Great report - thanks!
jmsvss is offline  
Feb 6th, 2008, 09:02 PM
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Nice report. I loved the Penn for many of the same reasons you did.
Femi is offline  
Feb 6th, 2008, 09:55 PM
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I like the way you travel rizzuto!

danasgirl is offline  
Feb 7th, 2008, 02:46 AM
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Kathie: didn't go to (or really look for) CC. I was more or less just following my nose, though was on the lookout for the mango-stickyrice joint.

bmttokyo: I actually got to enjoy just a taste of the snow. I took the 7.48 N'EX from Shinagawa, and it was snowing at a good clip: seemed to be about 3 or 4 cm on the ground already. As soon as we passed Chiba, though, it was just rain. How much snow did Tokyo actually get?

And to set the record straight, this was a memoir, not a report. A report is a factual recounting of events; a peignoir is a recollection, subject to the vagaries, memory, and interpretation of the author.
DonTopaz is offline  
Feb 7th, 2008, 03:04 AM
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It was reported as between 4-6 inches. We hardly get snow here so management is quite different from the usually snowy places like Hokkaido & Nagano-

Flights,trains, games were cancelled.

Kim, how much snow did you get in Kanagawa?

bmttokyo is offline  
Feb 7th, 2008, 06:11 AM
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Great report! Thanks for sharing. I can use some of your tips for my upcoming trip.
Statia is offline  
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