Bangkok & The Power of $5

Check out the ornate architecture of Wat Pho along the Chao Praya River
Check out the ornate architecture of Wat Pho along the Chao Praya River

     To most Westerners, the name Bangkok evokes images of ramshackle urban landscapes and sleazy massage parlors. Sure, you can still find it if you go looking for them, but today Bangkok is a surprisingly modern city with all the amenities we’re used to, plus a whole lot of exotic flavor of which we’re not. My own stay was limited to only two nights some ten years ago, but in that short time it became evident that this fascinating city in Southeast Asia is just as exotic as its name sounds.

     First of all, for any potential visitors I have to say this: It is going to be hot. And not just hot—steamy, sultry, to the point that if you are coming from a more temperate clime, you should exercise caution so that you don’t suffer heat exhaustion before becoming acclimated. That said, you’re ready to explore a city unlike any other.

 

A ride along the bustling Chao Praya River offers many unique views
A ride along the bustling Chao Praya River offers many unique views

    Like many major metropolises, Bangkok lines the banks of a river—in this case the Chao Phraya. There are numerous water taxis waiting to take you to various points along the bustling riverside lined with luxury hotels and ancient temples. One such complex, just south of the impressive Grand Palace, is Wat Pho. Here you will see an astounding display of Thai architecture as well as a monolithic 45 meter long reclining Buddha. Still not impressed? Look up at the ornate carvings and colors found in the eaves and above the doorways. It’s not the kind of thing you’ll see everyday, unless of course, you’re already a Buddhist monk, in which case you probably shouldn’t be impressed with that stuff anyway.

     For those looking for more modern experiences, trendy Siam Square will make you feel right at home with its Western chain stores and American restaurants. No trip to Thailand would be complete without an authentic massage, and the good news is that there are plenty of reputable places to be found without a trip to the red light district. The even better news is that an hour foot massage with a little work on the shoulders and neck will run you about $5 US. To be honest, I would have paid that just to sit in the air conditioning.

     Another memorable and rewarding experience in Bangkok is shopping, and the best place to do it in by far is the sprawling Chatuchak Market. This enormous bazaar holds over 7000 stalls selling everything from the mundane to the highly exotic. Great bargains are to be found—and haggled for—on everything from silk textiles to ornate carvings to bric-a-brac of all sorts. Again, you’d be amazed at how far $5 will get you.

Lose your head among the ruins of Ayutthaya
Lose your head among the ruins of Ayutthaya

     Also coming in at about $5, you can get a round trip bus or train ride some 50 miles north to the town and ancient ruins of Ayutthaya—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of Siam until it was sacked by the Burmese in centuries past. Climbing over the crumbling ruins and looking up at towering spires of stone rising out of the lush greenery leaves no doubt that you are definitely not in Kansas anymore. For an authentic experience, rent a tuk-tuk—a tiny open-backed truck—to take you from site to site. This may be a bit more expensive, like say, maybe $10, but hey, when are you going to be in Thailand again?

     So if you have a taste for the Far East yet don’t want to leave the comforts of modern civilization, consider a stay in Bangkok. And whether you’re cruising down the river, receiving a rubdown, or enjoying the warmth of smiling Thais, remember where you heard about this fabulous secret, and bring an extra twenty to live it up—if only for the air conditioning.

    

     

Phuket-Paradise Restored

Ever since December of 2004, the mention of Phuket, Thailand inevitably conjures images of the devastating tsunami that snuffed out the lives of over 200 thousand people in Southeast Asia. While the magnitude of that event cannot be understated, it does, however tarnish a little secret I found out firsthand: The place would be an excellent stand-in for Paradise.

My own visit occurred a year and a half before the tragedy, when the name Phuket would draw more looks of confusion than sympathy. Pronounced Poo-get (as opposed to its more humorous phonetic pronunciation) this faraway resort island encapsulates everything a tropical destination should be. With a rugged jungle-clad interior and sleepy fishing villages on one side, it seemed at first glance to be just another rural outpost. But on approaching the western shore, it became readily apparent that the party was already in high gear and there was a virtual buffet of all sorts of activities.

Most of the action takes place along the three main beaches: Kata, Karon, and bustling Patong.

Idyllic Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand
Idyllic Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand

Hotels range from luxurious spa resorts to tiny seaside hostels, though excellent accommodations can be had from around just $30 a night. The beaches are powder soft, and the few dollars to rent a chair and umbrella are a wise investment. Most of the restaurants are run by European ex-pats, which means that the food is authentic and you’ll always be able to catch your favorite football match in any one of the numerous bars and pubs. The tourists are almost exclusively from Europe—particularly Scandinavia, and to be honest, the only time I saw another American was when I looked in the mirror. This never posed a problem, and the abundant use of English made my stay all the more enjoyable.

A big advantage of Phuket is that it is an excellent base of operations for the fascinating attractions that surround it. Divers will love the soft corals and big fish to be found around the lovely Similan Islands, or the intriguing near-vertical Phi Phi Islands made famous as the film location for the movie The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Nearby is world-renowned Phang-Nga Bay, with its towering karsts and turquoise waters made famous by James Bond himself. And to the north is Khao Sok National Park, a lush rain forest setting offering jungle cruises and the chance to take it all in on the back of an elephant—one of Thailand’s most beloved symbols.

Rafting Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Rafting Khao Sok National Park, Thailand

Sure, to get there takes at least one full day of air travel, and technically, if you go any further you’ll start to come back, but all that effort will pale in comparison to the paradise you will find. In my opinion, Phuket is the best all-around tropical destination I have ever visited in terms of value, scenery, and things to do. Maybe the Europeans were right not to let us on this magnificent secret after all. The last thing paradise needs is a crowd.