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Clark Nov 3rd, 2005 09:03 PM

Trip Report HK-BKK-Angkor (Part 2 - BKK)
Nice to arrive back to the Land of Smiles and that crowded, hot, frenetic city of Bangkok. Several changes in the 10 years since I'd been -- the new Peninsula hotel on the river is a huge structure and, along with a few new modern skyscrapers, looks a little out of place set against the dirty, ramshackle riverfront. It must be said Bangkok as a whole is not pretty, and I find it treacherous to walk around the streets, what with tuk-tuks, buses and cars zooming by, narrow sidewalks (if any at all) jammed with stalls of food or clothing, and the omnipresent electrical wires dangling well within reach of the average 6-footer. But that's part of the charm of the place -- feeling you might die at any minute!

Stayed again at the Shangri-La, but it seemed a bit past its prime conpared to a decade ago, when we loved it. For one thing, on the 1995 trip we stayed in the newer Kreung Thep wing, with all-river views, spacious rooms and terrific service. This time we were put in a "deluxe" room in the older wing that was plenty big, but was really made up of two rooms -- an outer sitting room with a desk and TV and partial river view, and a large bedroom with a view to the east over the somewhat ugly, hazy city. Of greater concern was that the service was nowhere near as gracious as before -- no bad experiences per se, but just little annoyances like having to call for the room to be made up (by 2pm!), not getting the fruit bowl refilled, sort of a surly concierge, etc. Don't mean to whine but we're paying almost $300 for the room, so there is a certain expectation, especially given the Thai reputation for service. Part of the problem may have been the presence of 1600 women's-rights forum attendees, whom we encountered everywhere around the hotel. No big deal, except that I go to about five business conferences a year, and the last thing I want to run into on vacation is a bunch of nametag-wearers. There was no sense of that ten years ago. My theory is that the nearby Oriental Hotel caters to a cult high-end customer who always returns, and the new Peninsula might have siphoned off some of the Shangri-La's luxury business, forcing them to book more conventions. Just a guess, but that would also account for a more harried staff less inclined to give the famous Thai service we received in '95.

On the plus side, food was great as always, not only at the S-L's riverside Thai and inside Japanese restaurants, but at our favorite from '95, the Spice Market in what is now the Four Seasons Hotel. Wonderful food at a great bargain. No $100 disaster dinners in Thailand, just great food for well under $25 per person (and these are the expensive places -- those with gastrointestinal courage can sample the roadside stalls and markets with their huge, steaming vats of colorful curries for $1 per meal.)

Only had time for 1.5 days of sightseeing, so we spent one day at Wat Po and the Royal Palace, both favorites. There is simply no describing the outrageously colorful beauty of these Thai temples for people who haven't seen it. The odd thing from a western perspective is how these stunning temples are stuck in the middle of ugly, dilapidated buildings from the '50s and '60s -- other than around the Royal Palace, there is little attempt to beautify the areas around these temples, highlighting the fact that you are still in a relatively poor country where development is not always dictated by some kind of master plan to enhance tourism potential. One note for the Palace -- they strictly enforce the dress code, so no shorts or tops on women that do not cover the shoulders. It's so damn hot that you don't really want to spend the day in long pants, so the alternative is to rent ill-fitting silk pants and wraps at the Palace itself. That means waiting in a queue and sweating like crazy in these silk garments, but it's worth it to see the Palace.

If you can handle the heat, air pollution (diesel fumes are particularly bad), and treacherous pedestrian conditions, one of the fun things about Bangkok is wandering around and finding little treasures everywhere you go. We had cased most of the major temples in '95, but this time, near the palace, we encountered a smaller complex that was perhaps in the best condition of anything we had seen. Amazing kaleidescope of gold, colored tiles, mirrors and glass covering the steep-roofed temples and bell-shaped shrines. It was the royal tombs. Don't recall the exact name, but worth a walk through if you can find it, just a little east of the palace across a small canal. Not even any tickets needed, just walk in and look around.

Unlike Hong Kong, Bangkok still has plenty of bargains, so the wife happily got a few hours of shopping in. Even if not the least expensive, the neighborhood around the Shangri-La and Oriental still has plenty of bargain shops for non-precious jewelry, handicrafts, clothing, etc. Not sure if the high-end jewelry is also a bargain, but I don't know enough to not get ripped off, so we stayed away, but Bangkok is of course a center for precious stones. The more adventurous can hit the big markets, but if pressed for time there is plenty near the hotels. Also, if staying along the river, definitely hop on a river longboat -- you can rent them for $10/hour or so, and they'll take you to the Palace, Wat Arun, and anywhere else you'd like to go. At least that way you get a nice breeze on the water and it's usually quicker than battling the notorious Bangkok traffic.

Angkor is next...

glorialf Nov 4th, 2005 07:12 AM

For almost $300 you could have stayed at the Oriental and see why people keep coming back!

rhkkmk Nov 4th, 2005 09:34 AM

i've done 1, 2 and 3, what's next?? great reviews...

BillT Nov 4th, 2005 11:32 AM

For $300 you could have stayed at the Penn and had plenty left over to cover dinner and hire Ratt for a day or so!

karenpg Nov 4th, 2005 12:59 PM

I am going to BKK for the 1st time in Feb. Only have 2 days though. I thought I would see, Wat Po, Wat Arun, Wat Keow, Grand Palace, Nat'l Museum and Royal Barges museum. I am stayinng at Royal orchid 1 day and airport Amari the next. Is this schedule too ambitious?

simpsonc510 Nov 4th, 2005 02:24 PM

Do keep in mind that the heat and humidity of BKK are going to have their affect on you! You might be trying to do a little too much, with that in mind. You will just have to see how wiped out you get!
Have fun!

rhkkmk Nov 4th, 2005 06:37 PM

schedule will be busy but ok....don't bother with national museum....

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