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Thailand, Laos and Cambodia Trip Report

Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 10:54 AM
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Thailand, Laos and Cambodia Trip Report

Sorry for the delay in posting, but it's been one thing after another since we got back from our trip. I have to admit that we spent 2 months sulking that we do not live in Asia... Can't wait to visit again...
Without further ado, here is our trip report:

November 14: This day seemed like it would never end! I had a ton of things to finish up at work and also a bit of last minute shopping.

I managed to get out of work at 3 PM, got some stuff from the store and was home by 5 PM. A quick last minute check of our packed bags and we changed into travel gear (cargo pants and a loose t-shirt) and we were ready to fly!

A combination of Muni and BART got us to SFO (I love public transit!). I wanted to make sure we get there at least 3-4 hours before our flight (a habit I would carry with me throughout the entire journey - much to the wife's dismay) since we did not have seats reserved and we wanted at least decent seats. For some reason, travelocity (where we booked our tickets) would not allow us to reserve the seats online). Anyway, we were able to check-in fine and got decent seats (decent being a relative term since we were flying cattle class). We went through security and then walked around in the international lounge. Not much to see or do. Since we had not eaten any dinner, we got some sub-par quesadilla (all Mexican is sub-par after you’ve eaten at some of joints in the Mission in San Francisco) at some place on the airport. We walked about to kill time, and finally found a spot by the window from where we could watch our plane being loaded and sat and read a book.

After what seemed like eternity, they started boarding our flight. We got to our seats and were slightly less than impressed with the plane. It was an older 747, which means no personal TV, no choice of music stations and the seats are just not as comfortable. Our flying time was just 15 hours and I chose to save money - so what am I cribbing about anyway! For whatever the airline lacked in terms of amenities, they made up in service with a smile. As soon as we took off we were served a meal - vegetarian chinese food. It was alright, but I was really hoping for some hot noodles, not semi-cold bland tofu (we love tofu, but when its cooked up nicely in a spicy sauce or something). After the meal, we went to sleep for about 6 hours. The rest of the flight we walked around the plane, read and spent a lot of time talking to each other about all the places we were about to visit. So, not having the TV and personal music was really a blessing in disguise.

We landed at Taipei airport on Friday morning (lost thursday) at 6 AM. We walked towards our gate and found a restaurant that was selling dim sum among other things. We got ourselves some Oolong tea, a vegetarian curry puff and dim sum filled with some green vegetables. The tea was good. The puff was sub-par. The dimsum was delicious. Tummy full, we walked about the airport for a bit. We came across these nooks in the airport that had pictures and specimens of flora that is found around Taiwan. We felt it was a clever thing to do since they serve multiple purposes all at once:
* Provide a respite from the otherwise boring airport duty-free shops.
* Had a lot of information about the unique flora of Taiwan.
* Served as a slight tourism promo.

After using the free internet at one of the few booths that are available on the airport, we decided to head to our gate. It took us a minute to figure out our gate even though we walked by it because the whole gate was decorated with a Hello Kitty theme! (Hello Kitty is the mascot for EVA Airlines, Taiwan’s national carrier). We kept thinking it was a kids play area.

Our flight to Bangkok was in a much nicer plane (Boeing 777) - newer and more comfortable seats and personal TV with a wide selection of movies. My wife watched Hairspray, and I watched Transformers. However, throughout the flight we felt very excited since we’d been looking forward to going to Thailand - and this was it!!
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 11:34 AM
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Great start. We always get to the airport very early as well. On our last trip to BKK, also in November 2007, the limo got lost on the way to the airport/ Leaving way early took the journey.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 12:39 PM
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rahul, great to see this! I had to have a laugh about the Hello Kitty gate. I think you read my blog from our last trip and we got a big kick out of the "Kitty-fication" of the airport too.

Excited to read the rest of this--keep it coming!
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 01:10 PM
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Gpanda and Filmwill: Thanks for the encouragement.

Gpanda: I agree, its better to be early than late. Learned it the hard way after being "just on time" or way beyond time when I was a student (good times!)

Filmwill: Yes, I did read your report, and remember your comment.


Bangkok:

We arrived at 12:30 PM. Since we already had my wife's visa done at home, and the fact that I do not need a visa to visit Thailand, immigration was a breeze and we did not have to wait in the chaotic visa-on-arrival line.

We collected our bags and got some cash from the ATM at the airport. Inside the airport, there were a lot of people holding yellow signs that read: ‘Airport Taxi’. When I inquired with them, it was not a cab service, instead it was a limo service and cost almost three times as much as a regular cab. I knew ahead of time it was a limo, but could not resist hearing it form the horses mouth.

As soon as we exited the airport, a few guys accosted us with more taxi/limo offers - the same jacked up rate. Instead, we walked to the taxi-service counter (really a table where a lady will write your destination on a piece of paper and give it to the cab driver and charge you THB50 for the service. There was no other way of getting a cab). We were quoted a flat price (tolls and service fee all included, to be paid to the driver upon arrival at destination) and they wrote our destination on a piece of paper (in Thai) and gave it to a cab driver. We loaded our bags in the cab and were off! The cab was a Corolla and ran on CNG, so there was space for only one suitcase in the trunk and the other we put in the front.

We started driving on the expressway and it was our first look of Bangkok! It was so exciting, even though there was hardly anything to really see! The expressway was good and well maintained. US 101 could learn a thing or two from this. We were at our hotel (Royal Orchid Sheraton) in ~40 minutes flat. Almost hit no traffic. So far so good...!

Check-in was not as simple. We had arrived at 1:30 PM and our room was not yet ready since the hotel was full because of a “destination wedding”. Since we were staying in the hotel towers we were taken to the 26th floor to wait in the towers lounge. Amazing views! They served us a really nice welcome drink - refreshing and just what I needed. After waiting for 20-30 minutes, our room was still not ready and we were starting to get hungry (and were tired too, but would realize that later). We left all our bags at the hotel and decided to go to the Gallery Cafe for lunch (thanks for the suggestion, Gpanda). We had some really good corn cake fritters, Thai red curry and Thai Iced Coffee for lunch. The food was pretty good, especially the corn cakes!

We headed back to the hotel and our room was ready, so we checked in. I am glad we chose to live in the towers since the view was fabulous! We could see the Chao Phraya river and Wat Arun (at a distance) from our room. We spent almost 30 minutes enjoying all the activity in the river, just relaxing and soaking in the feeling.

This is what I enjoy the most while traveling: Watching life as it goes by its normal routine.

Since we were so excited we decided to take a shower and venture out. We walked around the hotel area for a bit (nothing to see really). After a while, the humidity, hot temp, jet lag, exhaustion and a feeling of being overwhelmed hit me all at once. So instead of walking around, we went up to the towers lounge and enjoyed the views and just chatted about all the things we were going to see/do the next day. After a while, I just wanted to sleep.

There were three more days to explore this city!
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 01:48 PM
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Bangkok Day 1:

We slept well and felt energetic when we woke up the next day (at 5 AM). We just sat by the window gazing at the river watching it come to life as the sun rose. Loved doing that!

We both got ready and headed for breakfast at 6:30am. We wanted to get an early start since we had a long day ahead of us. The breakfast buffet was excellent (usual American buffet breakfast stuff - just really good!) and also had a noodle bar, where we got rice noodles dipped in hot water and topped with basil, bok choy, green onions, chillies, roasted garlic in sesame oil and peanuts. Simple, yet ultimately delicious! Add to that, eating your breakfast by the river…!

We then used the courtesy computers at the hotel to send quick emails to let everyone know we’re alright and not lost.

Our destinations today were the most visited Bangkok sights: Wat Phra Kaew, The Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. All these spots are quite close by to each other and can be done in a day. We also decided to visit May Kaidee for lunch since we’d heard quite a bit about this vegetarian only Thai place.

Bangkok is well known for the river express boats and they are a popular means of public transit in the city; it’s what we chose to use as well. They are pretty simple to use: Do not board boats with a blue flag (those are tourist only boats and cost much more). Boats with yellow or orange flags are alright, but might not make stops at each pier, so ask before you get on. In our case either was fine. The tickets are bought on the boat itself and cost B13 each.

We got off at the Tha Tien pier and as soon as we got out of the pier we were ambushed by people trying to pull the most common Bangkok scam on us: Telling us that the Grand Palace was closed and they can take us to some other temple or shopping. Has nobody told them that all tourist books warn of this scam? They were not aggressive and we just smile and walk along without making any conversation.

While walking towards the Grand Palace we saw the Silpakorn University on our left and gave it a peek. At the Grand Palace we got our tickets (B250 each) and made our way to the main entrance. There was a horde of snap-happy tourists and our hopes of good photos ops or even looking around in peace were quashed. It was a mad rush in there and we generally felt lost. Just then, we saw sign saying: ‘Free Official Tour @ 10:00am’. The tour was for almost 1.5 hours. we were in a quandary, either do the tour and get to know the place but mess up the rest of the days plan, or don’t do it and keep checking things off our list (done without knowing what we did). We chose the former.

The tour itself was very good and worth the time and the lady who gave it was very polite and patient. She sang the name of Bangkok very sweetly (my wife is still trying to imitate her). She showed us around Wat Phra Kaew an explained its importance. It houses a very small emerald statue of Lord Buddha that was originally covered in clay but during a lightning storm the clay gave way and emerald was revealed. The statue has traveled around a bit (mostly shuttling between Laos and Thailand) until the founder of the Chakri dynasty (Rama I) brought it to Thailand. There is also a replica of Angkor Wat that is built to scale. The sculptor had to make multiple trips to Cambodia to get the measurements right. It was quite beautiful. It also got me a bit excited about visiting Cambodia at the end of our trip.

Around Wat Phra Kaew there are 3 other temple buildings that are closed to public. One of them is golden (real gold leaf), built in Sri Lankan style. The other two are used for special ceremonies by the king a few times each year. Both these temples have beautiful carvings of the Buddha on them. There also are carvings of serpents with five heads, but the heads are of humans. Such depictions of naga’s are very rare.

Along the corridors of Wat Prah Khew are murals with a lot of gold leaf in them that explain the Ramniken (Thai Ramayan).

After the tour we walked about the temple complex taking some photos since the crowds had sort of dispersed. We, mostly my wife, also made merit by offering some flowers and incense at the shrine. The Grand Palace was closed so we could only see it from the outside. We also saw all the snap happy tourists at the Grand Palace and so we just walked by it for the most part.

We asked one of the guards outside how far Khao San road was, if we were to walk it. We wanted to head to May Kaidee for lunch. He said about 20 minutes. We asked him if we could take a tuk-tuk and he said yes but there is no need since its not far. I asked him even then how much would it cost by tuk-tuk?

Guard: “Thirty Baht. Do you speak thai? “

Me: No”.

Guard: “Ok then B40″.

And we both started laughing. We decided to walk it since it did not seem far. Bad idea since we were going to get lost. I should have known – Murphy’s Law.

We stated walking along Sanam Luang park (since the pavement had shady trees there) and at some point we must have made a wrong turn at a turn since we got lost in some by-lanes. We met a British doctor, who was just as lost as us. When we told her we wanted to go to a vegetarian Thai place she was excited since she was vegetarian too. Finally we found Tha Tanao which is the street on which May Kaidee is. After walking for a while we spotted another veg-only place so, tired we just walked in there and got really tasty rice noodles (just like the ones from breakfast). We sat and chatted for an hour about our experiences of life in India and US/Canada and she told us about her life in UK. After a while we split and made our way back toward the GP and onto Wat Pho.

On our way back to Wat Pho many people again tried to convince us that we should go to Wat In instead, since Wat Pho was closed. Oh well. Smile and move on.

Wat Pho is also a massage school and has one of the largest Buddha images: Buddha in a reclining position. We were amazed with the size of the sleeping Bhuddha and it was really a sight to see! The statue is so large that the building that contains it can barely contain it. Around the Buddha you could get coins for B20 to make merit. We got them too! Later, we just sat by a fountain, in the shade soaking in the atmosphere of the place. It was almost 3:00pm, so we decided to get a quick massage at the Wat Pho massage school. The wait time was 30-45 mins, so we decided to forgo the massage and head to Wat Arun instead.

We took a ferry (B3 each) across the river and clambered up the Wat to get some lovely views of Bangkok. Wat Arun is built in Khmer style. I’m not an expert on architecture (Khmer or otherwise) by any measure, but to me Khmer style = build high and make the steps so steep that they induce vertigo and acrophobia. But it was fun climbing up. Coming down was slightly scary, but we made it.

We went back across the river and decided to head back to the hotel. We were tired and also wanted a nice shower. The wait for the a ferry was almost 30 minutes and when it came, it was jam-packed! It reminded me of Bombay local trains - fun fun fun! Because of the rush we got off at an earlier pier, accidently, so had a 5-10 mins walk to the hotel. On the way, we saw a food stall selling rice and noodles, we gave it a shot to see if they can make something vegetarian. YES! Great! We got a veg fried rice! It was good so we ordered some salted spicy vegetables. When it arrived the vegetables were cold and we were hoping for something hot/stir-fried. we asked if we get something heated but instead she put a lot more chillies in the food. We just could not eat it after that. But later we figured it our that it was actually a salad dish and meant to be cold.

We headed to the towers lounge at the hotel to watch the evening set on the river and eat some snacks. For dinner, we went to Harmonique, a Thai restaurant that is quite famous. Since it was a few soi’s away, we simply walked it. The restaurant is located in the owners’ house so you have to walk through rooms to get to the tables if it’s busy (and it is). They also have a lot of antiques all over the place. We had a dinner of Pad Thai, Pha-nang curry, spring rolls and cashew nut tofu for about $12. The food was not bad, but it was slightly oily and “watered down”. It’s listed in almost every guide book out there so there has to be some westernization of the food. While we enjoyed it, we get similar or better Thai food here in SF.

Our first day in Bangkok was wonderful. We loved the city and the places we visited. Our feet hurt from all that walking... A nice long shower and another river watching session and we were off to sleep...
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 02:01 PM
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this is so exciting to read...i sort of forget how excited i was the first time we went to bkk....quite honestly i still get pretty excited even after 10 trips there...

looking forward to more....we love the details...
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 02:12 PM
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Thanks for your lovely trip report.
We went to Harmonique just a few weeks ago - first week of February. Like you I had read great reviews. We sat in the kind of small house to the side as the main area was so full (no one seems to want to sit there as I guess its not got such a good atmosphere as "outside" and several folk had a drink & kept askign about an outside table). We also found the food so so and saw a cockroach passing us by on the wall - not what I had expected from what I had read!
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 02:33 PM
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Bob: I can imagine the excitement of going back. We're looking forward to our next trip to Bangkok as well! I am really glad you're liking the details since I was slightly hesitant to post it, but did anyway since I myself enjoyed reading other peoples details and it helped me shape/plan our trip.

Janev: Thanks for your comment. I agree about Harmonique. I think we sat in the same room as you did. Our table was under the stairs and it just felt awkward. After reading glowing reviews in almost all guidebooks, and given the price, I expected something better.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 03:08 PM
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Up at 5 AM. Maybe it’s excitement… or jet lag. Who’s complaining! We’re ready to go!

Got dressed and headed down for another delicious spread by the river, except that this time instead of wasting our appetite on western food, we had 2 bowls of the noodles. I put a lot of chillies on it, nothing better to start a day with my favorite type of food, ya?

Our agenda for the day was Jim Thompson House and the a visit to the MBK mall to see if we could shop for something we like (whenever I use the term “we” and there is shopping involved, please read as my wife doing the shopping and me walking around like a zombie who is thoroughly bored with the after-life).

To get to the Jim Thompson House, we took the ROS boat to the BTS sky-train station (Saphan Taksin) and then took the sky-train to National Stadium station. The sky-train is efficient, clean and fast. The air-conditioning provides a respite from the humidity and pollution. We loved it.

From the National Stadium we made our way to the JT house – which is quite beautiful and nicely decorated. On the way we just looked around at residential homes and apartment buildings and felt we could be walking in any of the bylanes of Bombay. It felt so similar.

We took the official tour of the house (no photography allowed inside) and were given all sorts of information about his life, how he revived the Thai silk industry and also about the artifacts in the house.

After the tour, we spent a little bit of time in the JT store (did not find anything we like) and the garden. The garden is really beautiful.

Then decided to head towards MBK. It’s only a short walk from JT House and right by the sky-train station. After an hour or so of shopping we headed to the MBK food court on the fifth floor of the mall. We got some green curry, Indian style noodles and a desert. The green curry was really spicy. It felt as if the lady who made it was on a dual mission to kill and please, with chillies at the same time. Some more shopping post lunch and we headed back to the hotel for some rest since our legs were aching from the previous days' walking around.

Back at the hotel we relaxed for a bit and then decided to venture in the area around the hotel. While walking around we found a place that was offering foot massages and was crowded with a lot of people. So we decided to get one ourselves for an hour.I t was pretty good and my leg pain eased a bit after the massage. (I think it's the pain relieving rub that they apply to your feet that does the trick).

After the massage, as soon as we got out of the parlor there was a guy selling rotee with egg in it. Oh, how could I resist! Turns out he was Bangladeshi so we chatted a little bit using the many common words in Bengali and Hindi. The rotee was delicious!

I think we had enough for the evening and took our laptop/books up to the towers lounge and got a seat with a view. My wife spent time surfing the internet and reading while I worked on my journal. By 9:30 we were ready to call it a day and headed back to the room to get some sleep - of course after the ritual river gazing - what is it about that place, I don't know... It's awesome!
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 04:16 PM
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Glad you liked the Gallery cafe. It's one of our favorites.

No detail is too small to include. Each one makes BKK come alive for us Fodorites.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 04:26 PM
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Bangkok Day 3, November 19, 2007

We had been sleeping and waking up quite early in Bangkok. Many people would say we’re crazy to do so since we’re on vacation and we should relax, take it easy and sleep in. We prefer it this way, however. Whenever we wake up late (vacation or not) we feel horrible and end up having an irritable day. Waking up early makes us feel we have so much time in the day and get much more done. Not to mention that our mood is upbeat throughout the day! Besides, someone truly said: Early to bed and early to rise makes one healthy wealthy and wise. Why take a risk?

I was up by 4:30 am and tried to be as quiet as possible so my wife would get some sleep, but she was up by 5:30 am as well. We brewed some coffee and ... yup .. sat watching the river. At 6:30 am we went down for a swim in the pool. It was really good to stretch the body and the swim was refreshing.

On our way back, we saw a sign saying “Private Event: Indian Vegetarian Breakfast” near the pool (where the Italian restaurant is). Could we resist? Nope. We just walked in and figured that we’ll ask them if we can have some Indian breakfast since we wanted a change from the egg, noodles and cereal. Indian food in America is, at best, pseudo-Indian - even at the "authentic" places. I asked the guy who seemed like the manager there if we could dine, even though we were just regular hotel guests and not part of any event. He said please go ahead. I really have a feeling he did not quite understand and just assumed that we were a part of the private Indian event since we looked Indian. After debating for a second, whether I should further explain to him the situation, one look at the food and I decided, it's best I shut up and eat. We had a really delicious Indian breakfast. The chef who cooked it was flown in from India, so it was the closest we were getting to real Indian food. We got talking with an elderly gentleman there and it turns out we were gate-crashing a wedding function! Oh well, we were embarrassed, and to top it he was the bride’s uncle! He immediately put us to ease by telling us that we reminded him of his younger days when he would bet with his friends if he could successfully gate-crash weddings and private events. Phew!

After breakfast, we took the Chao Phraya river boat to Chinatown. I tried to map our way as suggested in the Lonely Planet, but as expected got lost. Not really a problem really since my wife was having the time of her life trying to convince me to let her buy junk (her choice of description of things, not mine. She actually used the word “bhangaar” - which translated from Bombay-Hindi means junk) . She did eventually buy a cloth handbag for B80 that was nice (not junk). We also got ourselves some fresh orange juice to refuel. The only reason I went there was for the hustle and bustle, which was immense. It reminded me of my days in Bombay, when I used to roam the streets of Kalbadevi and MJ Market (the hub for textile merchants in Bombay).

By 1 pm we were done with Chinatown and our stomachs were rumbling. Fixed that by taking a tuk-tuk to Khaosan road and headed to May Kaidee - the vegetarian Thai restaurant that we could not find on our first day here. It’s in a sub-soi and we found it easily by asking around. The food was good and the Tom Yam soup hit the right spot. We met and chatted with a couple from Oakland, CA. It’s a small world.

After lunch, we took a tuk-tuk to Siam Discovery center hoping to catch a movie and sit/sleep in the Gold box (you can recline or lie down in your seat). There are theaters of this kind in Bombay and my mom and friends rave about it. This was the closest I was going to get to that experience, at least until I visit India. Unfortunately, they did not have a show for another three hours. We just walked around the mall and found a music store, where we bought some traditional Thai music CD’s, and then headed back to the hotel.

We spent some time at the towers lounge but got bored soon enough. When I asked one of the hotel employees what’s on the other side of the river, apart from a Hilton, he said that there was a local market (not touristy at all). Awesome! We took the boat across the river and walked about in the market. The vendors were not pushy at all and it was very relaxed. Suddenly, out of nowhere it started to rain really hard. We took shelter in the many food stalls and asked the stall-lady if she can make vegetarian, almost expecting she would not understand us, but to our surprise she knew exactly how we liked our food. Before cooking our food, she even cleaned the vessel in which they cooked our food. We had one of our favorite meals so far, consisting of thai style fried rice and 2 noodle dishes. So spicy and GOOD!

It was almost 9:30 PM, the rain had subsided and we had a flight to catch early next morning, so we headed back to the hotel, packed up and fell asleep by 10:30 PM.

The next day, we were headed to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai!
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 05:22 PM
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hi there rahulm,

Well, I have never been to Thailand or Bangkok but have trip planned for Nov/Dec so I am enjoying your first timers trip very much!

Thanks for sharing!



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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 05:51 PM
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Great report and glad you "fell in love" the way many of us have with thailand.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 06:05 PM
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rahulm, you ran into the big Indian wedding we ran into when we were there - I wonder if our times in the Towers overlapped! The food at that wedding looked so fabulous - I love Indian food. We missed the big event (with the elephants) at the hotel because we had other things to do, but friends described it as being pretty amazing. It puts American weddings to shame ;-)
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 06:35 PM
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Kathie, It would be a shame if it overlapped and did not get a chance to meet you. Would have been nice - after all thanks to all of you we were able to have such a wonderful trip. Indian weddings are always fun - especially the food and tons of relatives/friends around.

gloriaf: Its hard not to fall in love... All the time we were there we kept talking of moving there!

HappyCheesehead: I'm glad you're enjoying it. You'll have a great time. It's an amazing place!
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 06:52 PM
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Rahulm, I just checked and we were in Sri Lanka when you were in Bangkok. We were in Bangkok before and after Sri Lanka. Yes, we talk about moving to Thailand, too. Sigh, it won't be for a few years. Glad you fell in love with it!
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 07:16 PM
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Very nice report. just one question. I thought that all taxis from the official airport taxi stand were metered and you paid the 50 baht airport fee, plus tolls and whatever was on the meter. Has this now changed to a fix rate recently.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 07:20 PM
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Scotters,

From the airport to the ROS, we were given a flat fee at that taxi-counter at the airport (B450) - including tolls. We landed in Bangkok twice and it was the same price - and I did try to bargain, but it does not work.

Its a flat fee. On the slip I noticed that B50 was the service fee. I asked them if tolls are included and they said yes.

Hope this helps.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 07:21 PM
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Kathie: Too bad we missed each other. Would have been nice to meet.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 07:23 PM
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rahulm-
Great report! I stayed ar the ROS in December and also wondered what was directly across the river. I wish I'd asked!
Is that market the area covered by canopies/tenting you can see from the hotel? What's for sale there? Is it primarily a food market?
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