Southeast Asia, January, 2020
Just a short outline of our trip: 77 days of independent travel staying mostly in moderate hotels visiting Bangkok, Krabi, Singapore, Sukhothai, Chang Mai, Chang Rai, all in Thailand except Singapore, Mekong River cruise to Luang Prabang, Laos, Hanoi with surrounding area, down the Vietnam coast, Ho Chi Min City, Angor Wat, then leaving from Bangkok back to San Francisco.
My write ups for this trip will be short on tourist info and long on what I wished we could have found out before coming. There is lots of info on the internet but mostly aimed at young backpackers, so not too helpful for 70-somethings. I have converted costs to dollars as there are 5 different currencies involved.
On January 7 we flew from San Francisco on an 11 hour flight to Tokyo in a packed United plane with all the worst seat problems—screaming baby, large, drunk seat mate who sprawled all over me, etc. In Tokyo we hoped to use the Priority Pass Lounge for the 3 hour layover—not to be, too full. But the Nippon Air flight to Bangkok was great with extra leg room even in economy and an empty seat between Mark and I. The food was far better with real silverware, real pillowcases, nice blankets—highly recommended. We got in at the awful hour of 1 am after an hour air traffic delay in Narita. We had happened upon a $495 RT fare and could have come through Hong Kong and landed at a more reasonable hour, but didn't want to get into any demonstration issues. Our trip in 2008 found us stranded in Thailand when demonstrators shut down the Bangkok airport—no repeat wanted!
Rather than have to cross Bangkok in the middle of the night we stayed at At Residence/Suvarnabhumi ($45), a perfectly clean and adequate hotel near the airport. For $5 the shuttle was waiting and the 24 hour reception desk was welcoming. After a great $3 breakfast the next morning we used Grab Taxi (the Uber of Bangkok, $8) for the 75 minute drive through horrendous traffic to the Marriott Aloft where we would spend the next 5 nights using our credit card points. Aloft is in the Sukhumvit section of Bangkok and only 3 short blocks to the SkyTrain overhead rail system. We found the Aloft to be a very quiet place to stay, but in hindsight if you are intent on doing more of the historical area you might want to stay in that neighborhood.
Bangkok has a 15 hour time difference from San Francisco and our five days there were intended to be slow. In 2008 we had visited all the main sites including a day trip up river to the former capital, Ayutthaya, accomplishing it all in 3 days. But we were 11 years younger then, and no jet lag. We also stayed in an older hotel closer to the historical center which made getting around a bit easier. Mark is very interested in Thai food so one of our first excursions was to the MBK Center where a whole floor is devoted to a cleaner, more western friendly street food stall scene. Inexpensive, air conditioned, and probably not going to cause gastric distress. We also cruised the other 6 floors of stalls selling well, everything. Getting there on SkyTrain was about $2 RT. The exit is Siam and this is the hub of shopping—several indoor malls including one that is exclusive to all the most expensive brands like Hermes, Gucci, Coach, etc. By the way, Bangkok is not particularly knee friendly—many of the SkyTrain stations don't have escalators and many street crossings require going up and over on bridges.
Our second excursion ran us smack dab into the worst of the Bangkok taxi scams. We hailed a cab (first mistake) outside the hotel and handed him a map with where we wanted to go on the river to catch the Hop On Hop Off Boat. He drove a few blocks and kept saying boat tour, floating market tour, we kept saying no, just take us to the pier circled on map. He got on his phone, flipped a Uy, drove a few more blocks and met another taxi, who would take us to boat tour. Exasperated, we just got out of taxi and left. Luckily, we were not far from the hotel. Being a pedestrian in Bangkok is not pretty—narrow sidewalks in disrepair, lots of traffic, hawkers, high curbs, electric lines dipping down to street level, motorbikes traveling wherever and whenever they like.
One famous place that we missed last time was the Chatuchuk Weekend Market. We took the SkyTrain, which was easy with only one change. We got there at 9am—way too early. Very few stalls opened before 10 and by 11 the crowds were building as we were leaving. Reportedly there are 15,000 stalls—probably correct, with about 75% occupied. Most prices seemed just like in the city as you are supposed to negotiate. If you have been to big street markets in other parts of the world, you will have already seen something similar. A skip if short on time.
We decided that the hop-on/hop-off boat would be fun and good way to see several places in the historic area. We had planned again to take a taxi, this time using Grab Taxi, Bangkok's version of Uber—alas as we waited, the time of arrival changed from 5 minutes to 3, then 5, then 7, then 10, and in the meantime we had already been waiting 10 minutes. Yikes. We canceled and spoke to the hotel's tuk tuk driver who said the taxi system was iffy for tourists, just take the SkyTrain. He provided a free ride the 3 blocks and off we went and it was easy—one change and we got off right at the pier for $3. We bought our all day pass online and saved a couple dollars—two for $11. Our first stop was at Wat Traimit, near Chinatown, to see the solid gold 5.5 ton Buddha we missed last time. Impressive. Its location near Chinatown was great. We had lunch at a brilliant Thai chain, Tammoor, inside the brand new Chinatown AIR CONDITIONED mall. Excellent, if extremely spicy, but only $12 for a plate of seafood, another of grilled pork, and sticky rice with water and tea. It was Sunday so many local restaurants were closed. By 1 the crowds were coming out, the bigger stores, and the famous gold shops were all closed for the day, but we stumbled upon the alley stalls which were utterly fantastic. It is only two weeks to Chinese New Year and every kind of possible celebratory item was crammed 10 feet high on both sides. Then we found the food alleys—best ever, best ever; see Mark's blog for more pictures.
Back to the boat and then we stopped to see the Wat Arun and the Grand Palace. Wat Arun is a beautiful tiled temple, one that we missed on our previous visit. After that we ferried across the river to see the Grand Palace. Lines weren't too long but they had everything roped off so you had to walk an extra couple of blocks through a park to get to the entrance, where we failed the dress code. I blame our Frommer's for this!! Every Wat requires shoulders and knees covered—here that wasn't enough—my capri's were not acceptable and no clothing for rent like everywhere else, you had to buy. To be safe, men and women must have long trousers and shirts with sleeves, socks if wearing sandals and sandals must have ankle straps. If wearing skirt must come below knees. No leggings or tight pants or crop tops. The sandal rules weren't on the signage but have been enforced in the past. Remember you will have to take off your shoes at all Wats, so socks are a good idea anyway. So instead we stopped at Wat Pho, where I went in to revisit the reclining Buddha—sometimes repeat visits aren't as good, but this one still impressed. Our final stop was at the old hippie district Khaosan Road. Still weird, folks hawking roasted spiders, scorpions, wall to wall bars, etc. We left at twilight, so missed the big crowds. By the way, this was way too much for one day—20,000 steps. You will need 2 days to see the main sights in the historic area.
Next day we did little but went to a highly recommended restaurant/food court in the Thong Lor area called The Commons. This required a mile walk after the SkyTrain. So hot, we were beat when we got there and after perusing the 6 or 7 food court offerings were definitely not impressed. A lobster bar, pizza place ($12 for a small cheese in Bangkok?), some sort of a pork bar with very strange combinations, a cocktail bar. It all was way too trendy, expensive, and pretentious for us. On the trek back to the station we ate at Burger King (Mark ordered from their rice menu), but we did discover the Tops Market with its huge selection of items from around the world—even good old Jif peanut butter--for when the spicy overwhelms me and no Burger Kings are around. Forgive me my food pickiness--at least Mark will eat almost anything.
Our last day we ate at the breakfast buffet at the Aloft for $9 pp. Huge array of American, British, Thai, Chinese, Japanese items. But for the life of me I can't figure out who eats green salad with tomatoes etc. for breakfast. We used Grab cab to get to the Suvarnabhumi Airport, and it worked great this time and took only 45 minutes and cost $8 with tolls. We were able to get into the Priority Lounge before catching our Thai Airways flight to Krabi. Though the lounge was not opposite gate 3A but beyond the Thai Airways business class lounge before security.
We used Asia2Go to book a ride from the airport to Ao Nang beach for $25. The lines to book at the airport were nonexistent even though our flight was full. The drive was about 40 minutes to the Holiday Inn Express. We found it to be much nicer than this brand in the States--$64 a night with taxes and our room, 1414, on the fourth floor had a partial ocean view and was far enough away from pool and elevator to be quiet. Checking further I found that we got a really good price when we booked in November during a sale. Mostly the rooms are $100 or so. The hotel is at the quieter end of the beach near the night market. But it really isn't that far to walk the entire beach and the walkway that follows the beach is mostly shaded, which is grand in 93 degree heat. We planned five days here which turned out to be a day or so more than we needed, even with the lingering 15 hours of jet lag. We thought we would spend at least two days or more on boat rides out to see the karsts—which is the reason we came. We ended up only doing one full and 1 half day. The full day was really grand. We booked a trip through our hotel with Krabi Specialisten, which was 2,500 Bt ($75) each and they threw in an 8% discount. It was a 16 person long-tail boat circling Hong Island with stops at two nearby beaches. The lunch was terrific, the beaches lovely and the lagoon interesting. But all the beaches are intensely crowded with boats and people. My biggest problem was using the ladder over the side of the boat to get in and out 3 times. The guide was very helpful and many of the folks struggled with it. We are glad we went but decided once was enough—especially since we planned a 3 day sail in Ha Long Bay near Hanoi, another karst-heavy area. We took extra clothes, towels, but the tour supplied beach mats and we didn't need the clothes or towels. You dry off in a few minutes in the heat.
Our second half day was ill-planned but turned out fine. We took the local 8 person long tail boat from our beach to Railay Beach, the next one east ($7 RT). This area is huge for climbers and there was a young couple from Denver on our boat headed for that. We had to walk out pretty far to the boat as it was low tide and get wet to just above the knees. Some folks were carrying suitcases as there are several resorts at Railay. But once you get there, there is just a very pretty, but crowded beach and a bunch of food and souvenir stands. I stopped at a tour guide stall and asked if there were any tours that just went to see the karst islands but didn't stop at beaches. She suggested renting a private boat with driver for 4 hours for $75 and we could seek the three main ones—Chicken, Puda, and Tup. I went to meet Mark and we discussed it further—now she said would really only need about 3 hours and if we changed our minds, driver could stop at one of the beaches. But we would then have to pay the National Park fee of $10 each. So off we go. In a small boat like this you will get wet if you sit to the front. Seas were a light chop and that was plenty rough for me. We enjoyed seeing all the karsts close up. Mark has lots of pictures in this blog. We stopped to feed some fish—take lots of photos. Had no desire to land as all the beaches but one were small and packed full. The whole trip only took 1 ½ hours, so we probably overpaid, but we got to do exactly what we had wanted to do. My advice would be to rent from Ao Nang and go early in the am to beat the crowds as much as possible.
The last two evenings we ate dinner at the night market. It had recently been moved to a cleaner, better location back from the beach. Huge seating area with tables and chairs, drink service, live entertainment—but the main draw was the 50 or more stalls selling every type of “fast food” Asian style imaginable and some completely outside my imagination. We only wish we had gone there from our first night. One warning—95% of the restaurants, even at the hotels, are open air. We ate at Burger King and McDonald's just to get out of the heat for dinner.
One of the best things about Ao Nang beach was the amazing sunsets. Ours were good, just a half mile south at the southern end they were spectacular. We thought the HI Express was just fine, then we walked around the next door Holiday Inn Resort. It was way more resorty—rooms with pool access, swim up bar, 4 water slides. But twice the price and no free breakfast—so whatever floats your boat. We didn't go in our pool and it was quite nice. Our hotel didn't have robes or slippers either and just 2 free bottles of water per day.
We didn't arrange a taxi in advance, so allowed some extra time to get to airport and got one on the street for $17. He drove like an idiot and scared me to death and we were at the airport in 20 minutes. This was a good thing as we had 2 ½ hours and it took a full two hours to check in, go through passport control, and security. Lines were long and very slow. Leave yourself some extra time for this airport. We flew Scoot Airline which is the discount carrier for Thai Airways. Mark's fare to Singapore was about $40 and mine $70 as I bought 25 kilos of checked bags. Total free carry-ons per person was only 10 k or 22 lbs. So no way our 2 carry-ons and 2 backpacks could clear that hurdle. In reality, I didn't see anyone weighing carry-ons and lots of folks had way over 10 kilos. But we weren't willing to take the risk since we would have been way over. We have gotten our carry-ons weighed only twice in 11 years of lots of travel—New Zealand on New Zealand Air and Air France in Paris. It does happen and is particularly prevalent in Asian markets and discount carriers.
Next month Singapore and northern Thailand. Happy Travels. Vicki and Mark