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Trip Report: Phuket, Siem Reap, Bangkok Nov '07

Trip Report: Phuket, Siem Reap, Bangkok Nov '07

Dec 2nd, 2007, 11:58 AM
  #1  
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Join Date: Sep 2003
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Trip Report: Phuket, Siem Reap, Bangkok Nov '07

X-Posted…elsewhere

Thank you to everyone whose incredible advice, posts, and trip reports helped make our first trip to Southeast Asia so memorable. I’m not going to do a travelogue—since so many have done it so much better—but instead hit some of the info that might help someone else doing similar research.

Part I – LAX to Phuket

THAI AIRWAYS / BANGKOK AIR / SUVARNABHUMI

We took the non-stop Thai Air flight from LAX to BKK on Nov 7. Since my DH is 6’5” we splurged on Premium Economy seats. The extra legroom was totally worth it. Service, as expected with a major Asian airline, was great. Snacks were available between meals, and they even came around with cognac after dinner. Plus, the thick duvets in lieu of blankets were a nice touch. The on-demand video systems were wonderful on a long haul, though on our flight out the movie didn’t correspond to the label, so it became a game of hide and seek when you started a movie to see which one when you actually got. My only real criticism was toward whoever designed the seats. The foot rest only came up a useless 45 degrees, which mean instead of supporting your legs it made you feel like you were sliding off your seat. Since there was plenty of room I don’t understand why they couldn’t have made them come up a full 90 degrees, which would really have helped a passenger trying to sleep. As a result, I saw few people use the foot rests at all, and definitely not when they were sleeping.

On both our flight out and back there were plenty of empty seats, which reminded me of all the rumors that Thai Air was going to cancel their LAX-BKK nonstops. Hopefully they began filling up more later in November.

On arrival at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Nov 9th we had almost 4 hours to kill before our Bangkok Air flight to Phuket. If I had known customs would be so easy I probably would have booked an earlier flight. Still, the grounds of the airport were interesting. We wandered through the gardens on either side of the airport. They were neat, though we were surprised at how unkempt some patches were—as if it were a much older airport. In one of the gardens was a Thai temple that the staff obviously uses for prayer between shifts. There are also two ground level restaurants on each outer wing of the main building where the employees eat. One was more of a café, while the other—by the little convenience store—more cafeteria style. If you’re looking for cheap food (prepared, I suspect, more authentically too), the cafeteria was obviously the place to go, with its food court setup of noodles, rice plates, etc. at rock bottom prices. We swore to eat there the next time we had a long layover at BKK, and since we saw a smattering of backpacker types there we knew we weren’t the first ones to discover it.

We finally headed to our gate. For domestic flights, Bangkok Air has an incredible lounge for passengers (yes, economy passengers too!) with free snacks, drinks, and a bunch of free Internet stations. Yeah, if we had known we probably would have headed to the gate earlier too! Not much to say about the flight to Phuket. We had checked half our bags through from LAX and ended up checking the rest from BKK, so while we picked up our BKK bags from the domestic carousel we had to go to another room where they had had the International luggage.

MR. MOR / MOVENPICK RESORT

Mr. Mor ([email protected]) was there holding a sign when we got there. We got his name from another forum and when I emailed him I actually got a reply by the same day! He was younger than I expected, and though he was efficient his English was so-so and he was quiet. We didn’t care because we didn’t want a travel guide, just someone reliable to get us to and from the airport. The day we left the Movenpick he had to pick us up at 5:15am, so we were relieved when he was on time and we tipped him nicely on top of the 1200 baht fee (600 each way).

The Movenpick (http://www.moevenpick-hotels.com/hotels/Phuket/), which we booked for 5 nights through Asia Rooms, was great. This was my first time at a resort hotel, since we usually opt for boutique hotels. I researched lots of places and ended up deciding that for our first time in Phuket we needed to be centrally located for sightseeing/shopping, without the over-development of Patong. So, it came down to Karon, Kata, Kata Noi, or Kamala; and then the main contenders were Mom Tri’s Villa Royale, Mom Tri’s Boathouse (if we could get a suite), Marina Phuket, Katathani if a Junior suite, the Layalina (which I finally ended up rejecting because I didn’t really like the beach pictures), or the Movenpick.

At the time I made our reservations the Movenpick won out because in the price range I was looking at neither Asia Rooms or Agoda ended up coming through on the rooms I wanted at the advertised price for the Marina or Villa Royale. I also couldn’t justify the price/value ratio of booking anything but a Beach Wing suite at Villa Royale and their direct booking prices just seemed so high for a nice, but not ultra-luxe room. The penthouse villa at the Movenpick was the third I tried and I felt that, even if it was a large resort, a gigantic suite with its own rooftop sala at $100 less than the cheapest room at Villa Royale had to be a steal. And it was.

The penthouse plunge pool villa was definitely luxurious. A large bedroom with a window seat; a large bathroom as big as the bedroom, with a gigantic rectangular tub (though, for those who like to read in the tub, it unfortunately has no direct lighting), a large separate shower, and an entire wall dedicated to the wardrobe/luggage space; a small enclosed patio with umbrella-ed patio table and two chairs, and then stairs up to the small thatched roof-top sala with the small (Jacuzzi-sized) unheated pool. Robes, yes, slippers, yes, two bottles of water a day (though free extras by request), and the turndown service included scented “sachets.” The only drawback was that the pool water constantly recirculated, so at night there was the incessant sound of what sounded like someone drawing bath water—annoying for a light sleeper. After two days, though, I think the recirculating pump malfunctioned because I stopped hearing it, but I don’t know if that’s the case because I was so relieved not to have the noise that I didn’t report it. And we didn’t the pool after the first day so we didn’t care. ;-) View from the roof (we were situated close to the lobby) was uninspiring, but there were cute birds around.

Breakfast buffet was great. Forgive me, Peninsula Bangkok, but the Movenpick actually in some ways topped the Peninsula’s. It also had the egg chef and the great selections, but while the Peninsula a slight edge with some luxury items (such as smoked salmon, fresher dim sum, and charcuterie), the Movenpick was better about rotating some different selections.

The grounds of the resort are lovely, and I don’t know if it was just the season (though at breakfast they seemed pretty filled), but when we wandered the resort we only sporadically encountered other guests. However, be warned that it’s a good idea to bring someone less directionally challenged than we are, because we got lost every single night coming back from the beach road to our room.

Three Internet stations are available from 9am to something like 6pm, but there are no signs (like there were at the Bangkok Air lounge in BKK or at one’s local library) asking people to restrict their usage if others are waiting, so sometimes the wait can be long. Also, I guess because it’s attached to the children’s area, the Web nanny is really strict, and there were times I couldn’t access my Yahoo email or TripAdvisor.

Oh, and local and toll free calls (we had to call our bank in the U.S. once after the ATM on the Mov grounds ate our cash) were insanely cheap at the Movenpick. They also price them per call (as opposed to by the minute) so we ended up using our room phone instead of our cell phones. I actually don’t remember how much they cost right now, and I can’t find our receipt, I remember being floored at how cheap they were and saying “Per call? Not per minute?” when we inquired about call charges.

MASSAGES

In my head, I expected beach massages to be the cheapest, followed by shop massages, followed by day spas, followed by hotel spas. Instead we discovered that beach massages on Karon Beach were uniformly 400 baht/hour while a Thai massage at the little massage shops were 250 for a Thai massage. Around the corner from the Mov we tried two shops located in the little street leading to the Karon Sea Sands hotel. “Happiness” was fine and relaxing. However, the one right next to it “Friendly” was grrrreat if, like me, you consider a helping of torture to be an essential part of any good massage. (I’m used to sports massages so if there’s no pain involved I don’t consider a massage to be therapeutic.) The Friendly massage woman was really skilled at the Wat Pho style Thai massage, and was smooth, efficient, and firm. There was some cracking involved too, and yes I nearly fell asleep.

We also tried out Body & Mind day spa (www.body-mindspa.com) during one of the rainy mornings. (It rained in the morning on our first two days.) We called them up, arranged for a pickup, and they showed up at the Mov lobby promptly on time. When we got there we chose our treatments and then were whisked off to our various therapists. The place was gorgeous—as lovely as any U.S. day spa I’ve ever been in—and sparkling clean. My Thai massage therapist was obviously well-trained and had that fluidity and intuitiveness that only really skilled massage therapists have. Afterward, the sun was out so we walked back. If I had known how close the Karon spa was to the Mov (and if it wasn’t raining) we probably wouldn’t have asked for a pickup.

CAPTAIN MARK

It took me a long to time to decide between Captain Mark’s hong trip (www.phuketsailtours.com) and John Gray’s or something like Andaman Sea Canoe. The princess in me thought having someone else paddle through the hongs instead of walking/wading through caves was appealing, but in the end the smaller tour size won me over. And, yes, it was great.

We loved Captain Mark, with his thick-as-Marmite Aussie accent. The Sakai is a small boat, with just enough benches to fit us all. Food was good, including the famed chicken wings, the lunch, and the fruit and crackers on the way back. Water and soda, as much as you can drink, was included for the price.

So, is the trip suitable for everyone? Well, if you mind wading through knee or thigh deep water, or walking across muddy clay, or nearly hitting your head in a low cave, then the trip isn’t for you. However, girly as I am, I ended up finding that the trek through the water and cave tunnels made the experience even more wondrous. It felt like you were on an expedition with a guide who led you through uncharted caves until they opened up into a secret world known only to him. Okay, I know it was just an illusion, but it really felt less like a tour and more like an incredible adventure.

Then, when we were sailing back, sitting on the prow of the Sakai, the afternoon sun on our faces, the wind blowing through our hair, the hongs sweeping past, Jimmy Buffet on Capt Mark’s stereo, I felt more deeply content than I had in a very long time.

Oh, but I did get my only mosquito bite in Phuket on the rocky little beach where we had our lunch!

FOOD

We found that the portions seemed smaller than in Bangkok, which meant we over-ordered when we were in Cambodia and then in Bangkok. Also, the morning glory seemed to be mainly stems compared to Bangkok restaurants, though the flavor was good. The first night we ate at Talay, near the Movenpick. Spicy seafood salad, curry crab, stir-fried mixed veggies, two sodas – 580 baht. Solid food. Nothing amazing.

Seabreeze Restaurant, down the road near the Phuket Orchid. Tom yung kung, spicy seafood salad, stir friend veggies, pad see ew, two non-alcoholic cocktails – 847 baht. Solid food. Nothing amazing. Overpriced.

We ate twice at Kwong Shop Seafood in Kata Center (Thanon Tai Na), so yes we like it.
#1 – (2) curried mud crabs, spicy squid salad, tempura prawns, morning glory, lemon soda, and lemon shake – 820 baht
#2 – Curry mud crab (only one this time), steamed lobster with garlic, morning glory, clams with basil, small fried rice, lemon shake, lemon soda, shrimp with young ginger – 3200 baht. The lobster was the pricy item, at about 1020 baht.

Bounty Seafood – this was one of the row of restaurants a bit after the Phuket Orchid hotel toward the Marina Phuket end of Karon.
Boiled lobster, morning glory, curry coconut clams, curried crab, two lemon sodas – 1550 baht. I found this meal rather mediocre.

Street Food
What can I say? Noodles at a permanent stall near Kata Circle were a nice light snack, roti was nice and cheap, and I wish I had discovered the grilled chicken guy earlier. There was a guy in front of that covered bazaar right next to the Mov grilling chicken wings and pork satay in the evening. The satay was fine, but the chicken wings, slightly sweet and charred nicely, were great—especially at 10 baht each.

LAUNDRY / SHOPPING

We didn’t do much shopping, except for buying two sarongs at a stall at the covered bazaar next to the Mov. I think we spent 400 baht for the two. We did get our laundry done at the same place. There was a paper sign in front of the bazaar and I’ve usually found that laundry per kilo is cheaper than per piece (as was the case at the place closest to us on the other side of the Mov—the side toward Karon Circle), so we opted for this place. It was 70 baht per kilo and they got it back to us the next day as promised. Later, we discovered another place that was 50 baht per kilo closer to Karon Center, but oh well.

BEACHES / TOWNS

Okay, might as well weigh in. When we passed by Patong, I was really glad we didn’t stay there. Karon is obviously a tourist beach town, but a low-slung, dusty one. Patong, though—as one of the guys on our Captain Mark tour put it—looks like Santa Monica. It’s a *real* town, with lots of buildings and flashing lights and infrastructure on a scale that I didn’t expect. Definitely the happening place if you want to do major shopping and stuff, but it doesn’t look relaxing.

As for the beaches, Karon was nice, but next time we think we’ll opt for Kata or Kata Noi. Karon and its size remind me of Waikiki Beach. Although the size of Kata beach means that the beach chairs are lined up all the way down the beach, the sand seems nicer and the entire vista just looks prettier. I think it’s the smaller scale and the visible island and the green cliffs hugging it so closely. There are no beach massage places that I could see on Kata though (I understand they exist at Kata Noi), but in the middle of the beach they advertised longtail rentals.
PegS is offline  
Dec 2nd, 2007, 11:59 AM
  #2  
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Part II – Siem Reap

BKK / BANGKOK AIR / SIEM REAP AIRPORT

Transferred in BKK from Thai Airway to Bangkok Air to Siem Reap on Nov 14th. Luckily we headed for the International gates early, because the passport control checkpoint for int’l departures was packed and the process longer than expected. We saw more than one group running to their gates after underestimating the time they’d need to get their passports checked.

Quick aside to plug Edelweiss Airline, whose plane Bangkok Air used for its BKK to Siem Reap flight. Cutest plane ever, with its jaunty blue lowercase logotype, its red nose and tail, and the adorable edelweiss drawing on its tail!!!

So, we got e-Visas for Siem Reap (http://evisa.mfaic.gov.kh/), and it was so easy. All I did was take two of our digital photos, crop our faces out and then use them for the applications. Even though it said it took about 3 days, I think we got our e-Visas back in less than 24 hours. When we got to Siem Reap I was really glad we got the e-Visas because the other line was long. Now, the e-Visas are not a new discovery—I think most people on the plane must have been prepared with them—but the non-visa process seemed to be taking more time. We would have gotten through quickly if not for the fact then when we got to the front of our line our agent left to go do something else—and didn’t come back. Leaving everyone in our line stranded for 20 minutes until they opened up another line. Grrrrr.

We grabbed our luggage from the International pickup area, where all the luggage was just plopped on the floor, then went out to meet our driver.

On our way back, the Bangkok Air counter wasn’t labeled, so we had to ask around. Also, we first tried to pay the $25 per person departure tax with the Visa credit card we used for most of the trip, but the system wouldn’t go through. Luckily the Mastercard worked, but it would have been more comforting if I had remembered to reserve the cash. It was the only time during the entire trip that we had a problem with the Visa card.

Once you get to the departure area there’s a nice café, shops, a florist, and a massage place. It’s also small enough so you can easily hear flight announcements.

JOHN TENG AND ANGKOR WAT

John Teng ([email protected]) sent his driver to come get us, and poor guy must have been waiting patiently. On the way the guy asked if we wanted to know about some good massage place (I assume, like all tourism guys, he was getting a kickback from the massage place) but we were tired and just wanted to get to our hotel and he didn’t pursue it when we declined. On the way there, he dialed John Teng, who confirmed our itinerary for the next day and our 8am pickup time. The same driver took us back to the airport and we tipped him nicely for showing up early to pick us up. (I’m always paranoid about missing planes!)

We had a great time with John Teng. His English is strongly accented, but clear and articulate. I know in some cases it was due to lucky timing, but he was really good at getting us to temples when there were the least amount of people. Some temples we practically had to ourselves, and when he took us down backroads behind temples it felt like we were the first Westerners to rediscover Angkor Wat. I had though about getting just a tuk-tuk driver instead, but I’m really glad we ended up with a full-fledged guide, because with only two full days I couldn’t imagine how to navigate the temples with my nose buried in the Dawn Rooney book. (Plus, the air conditioned car was such a relief at times!) Both of us are familiar with Hindu mythology and I had read enough about the temples to know the major details, but in person it was overwhelming and confusing. John was able to explain the history and point out interesting statues and bas reliefs that I know we would have missed, while we were at leisure just to stand and stare. He also filled in other missing pieces of knowledge for me that really added to my understanding of the temples. Plus, he was also good at reading our moods, so when we obviously had our fill of one spot he didn’t try to go through the entire explanation and just moved us on.

I was also impressed with his obvious pride in his cultural heritage. Especially when we talked about the political and socio-economic issues in Cambodia, his passion for his country and his desire to make things better really came through. He also had an unflagging sense of humor, and at the end of the day when we were hot, tired, and sweaty, he was still making jokes!

Onto the temples – my DH and I wanted to cram as much as we could into our two days. We’re also not huge photographers, so we were not interested in lingering. As a result, we powered through in two days what usually takes three. John Teng was quite accommodating when we asked him if it would be okay to continue after lunch instead of going back to our hotel too. So, the inventory—not in order of when we went: South Gate, Bayon (between the faces, the bas relief depicting every day Khmer life, and the sweet little black cat who wouldn’t leave us alone, my favorite), Terrace of the Leper King, Terrace of the Elephants, Royal Palace complex, Preah Palilay (loved the isolated feel), Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, Preah Khan (not to be missed!), Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon (an unexpected favorite of mine), Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, Pre Rup, Banteay Kdei (where we were the only people there for awhile!). We also got to see the countryside and passed by a village, which also added to our knowledge of the area.

We were lucky in that the weather wasn’t at its hottest, with breezes, but as a tip for anyone willing to skip the siestas—especially if you don’t care about sunrises or sunsets—because we toured from 8 – 4 both days, and toured during the hottest period right after lunch, it meant that between John Teng’s experience and the timing we really got to see many temples that were nearly empty of other tourists. So, if you can take the heat, it’s totally worth it.

HOTEL DE LA PAIX / SIEM REAP

The gorgeous, gorgeous hotel totally lived up to our expectations, even though we had the least expensive room with Agoda. Service was as lovely as in Thailand, there was a computer with free Internet on each floor, and the location right by the Old Market and Pub Street was perfect. The only annoyance, which I knew in advance, was the lack of a clock. I know they have to switch to generator power in the evenings, but I really wish they could find a way to equip rooms with clocks. Sure, the wake up call worked (though they did wake us ½ early once), but a clock would have been more convenient.

Oh yeah - the refined, boutique style of the HDLP made me forget sometimes I was in a tropical country. However, even in our third floor room, we always got mosquitos in the room, and I got bitten one night and ended up wearing DEET to bed the other night when we knew we hadn’t found/killed the mosquito we’d seen earlier in the room.

Room service food was unexpectedly refined. For instance, they threw dill in my chicken noodle soup, the steak sandwiches were on herbed bread, the cheese plate was incredible, and the rolls—which I expected to be tasteless squishy ones—were crusty French rolls as good as any fine restaurant here in San Francisco.

We also tried their spa. Prices were as inexpensive as a local American massage school, but the taxes bumped them up to American day spa prices. Still, I was amazed to get the best Western-style massage (which they called the “Stimulator”) I had in a loooong time at their spa.

Siem Reap is an interesting town, but after touring the temples all day we were too hot and dusty to feel like exploring, so we got room service two nights. The first night we ate at the famous Khmer Kitchen, but after coming from Thailand the food seemed a bit bland for us. Portions were much larger than in Phuket, though, and the morning glory was both stir-fried more expertly and contained far more leaves.

Massages are cheap too. All the shops advertised $6 for an hour regular clothed massage, and $10 for two hours. Certainly not as skilled as the Thai massage therapists, but they were relaxing enough and, well, it was Cambodia.

I found it hard to haggle at the Old Market. Really hard to muster enough enthusiasm for hard bargaining when you see land mind victims everywhere, little children running up to you to sell you souvenirs, and continued awareness of government corruption stealing money from a poor town that should have hit the gold mind with its proximity to a World Heritage Site. I bought 6 zippered coin purses and a Cambodian scarf for $11, and later, at a shop, a set of 10 postcards for $1. Also, right across the street from the HDLP there’s a nice mini-mart where you can stock up on chips, candy, soft drinks and the like.

Final thoughts: my DH fell madly in love with the people of Cambodia, to the point where he was wondering what it would take to adopt a Cambodian baby! Instead, we’re sending donations to the Children’s Hospital close to by HDLP (http://angkorhospital.org/default.php) which my DH ended up visiting. Between John Teng’s stories, and meeting all the other Cambodians on our admittedly short trip, it was hard not to come away feeling lucky for our lives, impressed with the people working toward the betterment of the Cambodian people, and wishing we could make a difference in anyway we could.
PegS is offline  
Dec 2nd, 2007, 12:00 PM
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Part III – Bangkok!

We were in the City of Angels Nov 17 – 23rd.

AAC LIMOUSINE
[email protected]
I decided I didn’t feel like messing with the taxi thing our first time in Bangkok, but didn’t want to pay the Peninsula’s exorbitant prices. Booking with AAC Limo was easy: I just emailed them with our dates and pickup times. They actually emailed me back within a few hours with a confirmation. An AAC rep was there to meet us when we got out of customs, and the driver was early to pick us up when we left to go back to the airport. The Pen valet was even notified when the driver arrived at the Pen so we could be ready when he pulled up! Transportation to the Pen was 1890 baht round trip (this included a 10% discount for booking both legs of the roundtrip in advance, which I forgot to ask for but they automatically included in the quote). We were asked to pay the driver in cash for both legs when he dropped us off at the Pen. The 65 one-way tollbooth fee we had to pay separately (when we got close to the toll booth the driver said, “Toll please.”) There is no toll going back to the airport.

PENINSULA
I was seriously contemplating staying at the Centre Pointe Silom because we could get a large suite cheaply, but finally figured I wouldn’t be able to afford a nice room at the Pen anywhere else in the world so why not splurge? We booked a balcony room with breakfast direct with the hotel (which was priced at or below any of the booking sites), and because they said they were at capacity we were upgraded to a grand deluxe suite on the 25th floor. Ahhhh, I swear our suite was larger than cottage at home, and it had a great sound system. The 25th floor was perfect, because it was just high enough for a nice view, but low enough so you could identify much of what was going on. In practical matters…the room replenished a complimentary fruit plate each day, two bottles of water were provided each day, and turndown included two additional bottles of water by the bed, unless you didn’t use the water then they just moved them into the bedroom. Service was lovely, but there were two teeny glitches, including once where they tried to deliver someone else’s laundry to our room. Bar soap was Molton Brown, and the shampoo, conditioner, lotion, bath gel was Davi—which I found funny because I had traveled half way around the world to use products made just north of me in Napa!

The only other annoyance was the noise factor. After our villa at the Movenpick and being on the top floor and at the end of the hall at the HDLP, it was weird hearing hotel noise again. The toilets take a long time to flush, so every time someone upstairs flushed the toilet we heard it loud and clear. The doors also slammed loudly -- why can’t hotels figure out a way to install some sort of soft close mechanism on doors? Eh, neither of these differ from the noise issues at any other hotel but it was just jarring at the fabled Peninsula. ;-)

The breakfast buffet was great and, Type A person as I am, I did wonder if being on the “wrong” side of the river would be annoying, but indeed the boat ride was short and it was lovely and romantic traveling back across the river after a long day downtown.

FOOD AND AMENITIES

Walking out of the Pen entrance, there are two ATMs and a Family Mart mini-mart within a block if you turn left. There is also a Family Mart right across the street but we found it easier to walk the block rather than cross the street. There’s also a bakery and a few watch repair booths in the same area, and at the end of the block a street with food stalls set up later in the day. I do regret not crossing the street to try some of the restaurants there, but we were too busy on the other side of the river. No doubt if could read Thai we would have found a laundry service closer to the Penn, but as it was we walked something like three very long blocks to the left before we found a shop on the corner advertising laundry in English. The woman seems rather spacey, but she was there from about 10-6 on weekdays.

There’s also street food is available outside the Stephen Taksin station, and in the alley next to Robinson’s but we didn’t try any of them. Later in the day and into the evening, though, vendors start popping up more on the sidewalks on either side of the street with the usual including snacks like corn and roti. We also found fried insects walking way up New Road around Thana Silom in front of a 7-Eleven.

The mall food courts were nice, but we ended up at Lek Seafood (http://cheapeatsbangkok.com/lek_loc.php) four times, partly because the food is so good and partly because they are in such a convenient location right under the Chong Nonsi skytrain station. (Yes, we are seafood junkies.) For instance: two orders of cockles, lemongrass crab salad (which were fried baby crabs like sawagani tossed in a light lemongrass dressing), mixed seafood curry, and two lemon sodas—450 baht. Giant river prawns, clams with basil, morning glory, crab meat in fed sauce, three lemon sodas—700 baht. The last time we were there we also had what they called “wing shells” which looked more like sea snails. Portions were pretty substantial; even their small sized fried rice I’d call a medium.

Oh, I also was delighted to find a hip mango dessert store called Mango Tango on one of those streets off Siam Square. Huge portion of mango sticky rice for me and fruit shake for DH for around 800 baht.

SHOPPING

Hill Tribe Silver - Thanks to an older posting on Fodor’s I was able to find buy silver for my jewelry-making friend at Oriental Silver. It’s on New Road, near the end (going away from the Oriental Hotel and on the other side of the street up toward Chinatown) of that cluster of bead shops in the area. The older owner spoke English well enough for our needs, and the silver is all in bins behind an unlocked glass case. His younger assistant just handed me a basket when it looked like I was buying more than a few pieces, and I just threw whatever I wanted into the basket. I don’t remember how much we ended up paying per gram, but it was definitely a huge steal compared to trying to buy Hill Tribe pieces here in the U.S. at retail prices.

Clothing, etc. – We didn’t do a lot of shopping but for a petite woman like me, I always use an Asia trip to buy basic clothes and underwear at department stores. For younger, hip shoppers, I found that the place to be was definitely Siam Square with it’s streets full of boutique clothing shops. MBK was sort of like an indoor Chatuchak (“JJ”) Market, including the bargaining. There are some cute Zara-like stores in Siam Center, and an interesting upscale supermarket and a large cluster of mid-range (more than food court, but still totally cheap by U.S. prices) restaurants in CentralWorld. I didn’t go into Siam Paragon or Gaysorn, figuring everything would be either out of my price range or items I could easily get at home.

Japanese toys / figurines – DH collects various Japanese toys. Bangkok definitely is not the mecca Hong Kong is, but we found a small mall in Chinatown that had a number of stalls (it was narrow, a couple of stories, and next to the Burapa Hotel, and linked to another one of those underground electronic marts. He also found stuff at Toys R Us, and there were a few shops on the upper floor of, heck, CentralWorld?, one of the major dept stores by the movie theatres.

SIGHTSEEING / GETTING AROUND

We did the major sites, which were awe-inspiring, but didn’t end up doing a Klong tour as I’d planned. At about this time, dear reader, you may be wondering if we were taken by any of the scam artists around the Grand Palace? Well, in spite of all my research and all my warnings to DH, yes we were. I’m not going to go into the baroque chain of events (partly because I’m still embarrassed that I fell for any of them), but let’s just say that if you’re at Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, or any of the major tourists sites—including sitting in silent contemplation inside a major temple—be vigilant whenever anyone strikes up a conversation or tries to be helpful when we’re staring at a map or guidebook. They are friendly, articulate, and persuasive, and it’s never as obvious as the guidebooks make it sound. My DH found it funny that I was so irritated, but I guess we now have a good story too!

The river taxi was easy if you just check the map and note whether you need a blue, orange, or yellow flag, and the tourist ones cost nearly twice as much as the regular commuter taxis. You get on (and they don’t wait so make sure you’re at the exit before it docks and waiting on the dock when it arrives) and a fare collector shaking a metal can comes by to collect your fare. They can be rather blasé about it, so we had to flag them down once or twice. They make change, so you don’t need exact change.

Other than walking, we used the Sky Train almost exclusively. We bought 20 trip stored value SmartPasses (at 400 baht each, I think I remember) and in the five days we were there, used them up and then some even though in the beginning it seemed like too much. I don’t know if we saved money or spent more than necessary, but it was definitely convenient to have them.

Blocks in Bangkok are long. In some cities (such as Paris) when I look at tourist maps the blocks end up shorter than they appear on a map, but in Bangkok the distances were greater than I expected. So, just assume that if you’re walking it will take you longer than you think.

MASSAGES

By the time we left Bangkok we were averaging two hours of massage a day, since we knew this was our last change to get massages this cheaply for years. Going rate for typical street shops seemed to be 400 baht for 2-hour Thai massages. At Health Land they were 450—well worth the extra 50 baht for the atmosphere and skilled therapists. The only exception were well-located shops—like inside malls—or any massage place that had translated their menu in Japanese as well. In those places you could expect to pay about 300ish for only 1 hour.

Health Land (www.healthlandspa.com)- We popped into a number of massages places, and didn’t use the Pen spa, but we did go to Health Land twice (the 2nd time after our Grand Place etc. experience and we were hot, thirsty, and tired). The Sathorn branch is closest to the Chong Nonsi Skytrain, but still a bit of a walk. You get off the Skytrain (the exit will have you facing the wrong way so when you get down the stairs do an about face) and head up to Sathorn Road and turn right without crossing the street. You will walk down a very long block or two, cross a smaller but busy road, pass the Joy daycare center (or pre-school or something like that), pass by what looks like a walled gated community, and finally reach the parking lot of Health Land. You walk through the parking lot into the building and approach one of the greeters milling around the lobby and tell her you want a massage. She will hand you a menu and you can point to what you want. They all seemed to speak English well enough to explain the services. We didn’t have reservations either time we went (one early in the afternoon and one time after 4pm) but got in right away. From the conversations I overheard, I think the wait can be longer for one person than two, when they can stick both of you in a private room without an extra charge. The first time we paid when we were done, the second time they asked us to pay in advance. Lots of glasses of ice water are available in the lobby by the couches, and when they line up your therapists they call your name. None of the therapists we had spoke English half as well as the lobby attendants, so be warned that you won’t be able to easily express preferences if you want to do so.

LEAVING BANGKOK
Leaving BKK we again encountered that massively long passport control station, but this time we were prepared. Going back to the states Thai Airway is ultra careful about security, so after the general security check at the gates Thai Air has their own—which includes pat-downs and a more thorough riffling of your carry-ons than the airport security. So, after I went through security I put my lip balm in my pocket, but the Thai Air security woman found it in the pat down and made me put it back into the Zip-lock.

Oh, and I can’t end without lodging a complaint about the Suvarnabhumi airport chairs—which are the coldest chairs I’m ever sat on.

Final thoughts - Bangkok was great, but it provides a totally different experience than, say, Hong Kong—the Asian city I’m most familiar with. It has a less frantic, cosmopolitan feel, and, if you’re a shopper, less variety. Definitely more of a place, though, if you desire a more measured, contemplative vacation—full of cheap street food and cheap massages! The Nancy Chandler map was invaluable, but sometimes it was too big and detailed so we alternated between it and the compact map the Peninsula gave us. Oh, and as in all hot locations (Phoenix, Florida, Hong Kong), if you get cold easily make sure you carry a light wrap or jacket with you when you know you’re going to be on the Skytrain or in a major mall because the air conditioning can be lethal.

On that note…thanks again to all the posters whose advice made our trip so memorable!
PegS is offline  
Dec 2nd, 2007, 01:11 PM
  #4  
jgg
 
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Great trip report!! We are headed there for the first time in March - staying at the Pen and HDLP as well. Glad to know they lived up to your expectations!
jgg is offline  
Dec 2nd, 2007, 01:20 PM
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It sounds like you had a fine trip! Thanks for reporting back to us.
Kathie is offline  
Dec 2nd, 2007, 02:58 PM
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Sounds like you had a great trip!

One thing I learned though, is that the Cambodians don't normally eat breakfast. Lunch is their big meal, and the drivers and guides count on the lunch break to go home and eat. If you do plan to go straight through, please make sure you tell your guide the day before, and at least offer them a chance to get some food mid-day!
lcuy is offline  
Dec 2nd, 2007, 03:57 PM
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Super report. We've seen the Movenpick on several trips. It's good to finally get a report about it. It's strange that the Thai Air LAX-BKK flight was not full. Every flight we've ever taken to Asia was crammed. Some of the returns were only 3/4 full, however.

Also, I was glad to see that you are a massage fan. We get lots.

BTW, we crossed in BKK on 11/17 and 11/18.

Timely report, no penalty.
Gpanda is offline  
Dec 2nd, 2007, 05:08 PM
  #8  
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Lcuy, we were definitely sensitive to letting our Cambodian driver and guide eat and not making them work through lunch, so during lunch they always dropped us off at a restaurant that obviously lots of the tour guides dropped their guests off at and came back to get us later. It really was not unlike my experiences in China and I wouldn't be surprised if, like in China, the tour guides got some sort of kickback from the restaurants. Definitely it is a preference you should discuss with your guide, though.

Gpanda, funny to think I might have actually seen you and not have known! ;-)
PegS is offline  
Dec 2nd, 2007, 05:15 PM
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great report...glad you liked both places...
rhkkmk is offline  
Dec 3rd, 2007, 11:11 AM
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We have found one way to avoid being taken advantage of by a tout is to have a previously agereed upon code with your traveling companion if you think you are being "touted". Our is " did you bring the cell phone?" Some times it just takes a reminder to your DH just ignor the tout or a polite no thank you and walk on.
Enjoyed your report alot. You really got around.
kmkrnn is offline  
Dec 3rd, 2007, 01:51 PM
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Great report, thanks!
Tim_and_Liz is offline  
Dec 3rd, 2007, 05:47 PM
  #12  
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kmkrnn, ha! Thanks for the tip. I guess it's like the secret codeword couples use when one of them really wants to leave a cocktail party? ;-)
PegS is offline  
Dec 3rd, 2007, 06:20 PM
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kmk never wants to leave...
rhkkmk is offline  
Dec 4th, 2007, 08:07 AM
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Nice report. Your comments about the noise at the Penn are interesting. We have stayed there a couple of times, including an upgrade to a Grand Deluxe Suite (awesome!) but it has always been one of the quietest hotels I've ever stayed in. Even the elevators don't seem to make any noise.
Craig is offline  
Dec 4th, 2007, 12:59 PM
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PegS,
Enjoyable report. I was surprised that you were delayed in passport lines & did not know we'd have to go through them to fly from BKK to Rep.

My husband is 6'3", we are also in Premium Economy on Thai Air from LAX to BKK... do you suggest we try to get a bulkhead or is there enough room for him to get by if I'm in the aisle seat in the side section?

We are flying directly to HKT on Thai Air & were told we could do customs in HKT (not in BKK). I guess you had to because you were switching airlines...

When you departed BKK for REP & BKK for LAX, how long did it take to clear the passport area to make your flights? I was unaware that there was passport clearance to leave Thailand to go to REP.

If we have a 3:30PM flight from BKK to REP, what time should we go to the passport line?

Are the seats in the Bangkok Air lounge not as cold as the rest of the airport? I'm petite also & I get very cold from too much A/C.

We are also staying at the Pen in BKK, how much time before your departure flight to LAX did you allow? 2 or 3 hours before?

If we have a 7:30 PM week night flight, what time should we leave the Pen to go to BKK?

Your food descriptions are wonderful! I take it you like fried morning glories! LOL! BTW, are fried morning glories naturally spicy (like nastursum blossoms) or not?

If you want more than 4 bottles of water per day at the Pen, do they charge you for it?
AskOksana is offline  
Dec 4th, 2007, 01:47 PM
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KATHERINEMAEPARDEE
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Great report. We leave in two weeks for Thailand though we are on a tour we too purchased that handy map you spoke of for Bangkok.

What I didn't expect to hear is the word "COLD".

You said A/C is often really turned up and you were cold from time to time.

Any other areas on your tour that were lower temps than 70?

thanks. AGain, your report is outstanding.
 
Dec 4th, 2007, 02:52 PM
  #17  
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AskOksana -

1) Although we had a nice amount of legroom I still had a bit of crawling to do over my long-legged DH when I was in the window seat. When I went to the bathroom I could see the economy seats right behind the premium economy section and no crawling was required there. They may have actually been exit row seats. So, short answer is if you guarantee bulkhead or exit row you might be better off if legroom is your main concern.

2) If you are flying Thai Air all the way through there is a transfer desk, I believe. We, however, had to switch to Bangkok Air so we had to go back to the main terminal to check in and then go back into the departure area. If you're switching to Bkk Air then, I believe you will have to do the same thing. It took us about 1/2 hour each time to get through the passport line, and don't forget to factor in the time it will take you to check in with BKK Air.

3) The BKK Air Lounge was definitely a nicer temperature than the rest of the airport, but you will probably have to sit in the departure lounge a bit too--where the seats are really uncomfortably cold.

4) Our car picked us up at 4pm for our 7:40pm flight. We got to the airport before 5pm, checked in, went though the passport control, and that still left us plenty of time to eat at one of the International Terminal restaurants and do some light shopping. I was concerned rush hour traffic would delay us longer, but it ended up working out. Your results may vary, of course. Oh, and if you haven't been there before, note that you go through the security check as you enter the gate, not as you enter the departure area, so leave enough time. However, the lines are usually very short (only a few people).

5) I have no idea if the Pen charges for additional bottles of water. I'd like to think they wouldn't though!

6) Morning glory (technically I think it's water morning glory, aka ong choy, aka what I call water spinach in the U.S.) is not naturally spicy. It's mild like cooked watercress (not raw watercress which is spicy like nastertiums) or well cooked spinach, but the sauce was always mildly spicy every time I ordered in on my trip. I like it cooked slightly spicy, which is how I always order it in Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but I guess if you can't handle any spice it's important to let them know.

KATHERINEMAEPARDEE, the temperature definitely varies. I was usually cold on longer trips on the Skytrain, but I was okay in short sleeves for shorter trips. Same with malls; in the larger ones I often had to put on my light jacket after wandering around for awhile but not immediately. When you're at the temples, though, A/C isn't an issue and you'll just be thankful for any shade! ;-) Also be warned that I get cold really easily, so you may not have the same problem!
PegS is offline  
Dec 4th, 2007, 06:28 PM
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it is down right cold in many places with a/c...

the skytrain is one, esp if there are not many people on your car...

many restaurants are the same, esp if you are sitting under a ventilator...

my wife always brings a shawl to dinner...
rhkkmk is offline  
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