Last month our Ohana Nords enjoyed a three-week family vacation in Bangkok. I’ll describe what we saw and learned, and another post will go into the details of my “medical tourism” trip through Bumrungrad Hospital. If you’re seeking your financial independence through a lower cost of living, this is one of Asia’s best starting points.
I’ll mention what’s changed since our last visit, but I’m skipping over the basics. If you’ve never been to Bangkok then I recommend Nancy Chandler’s shopping map plus the Frommer’s Bangkok Guide, the Lonely Planet Bangkok Guide, or Impact Publication’s “Treasures and Pleasures of Thailand and Myanmar“. Billy & Akaisha Kaderli also share their decades of Thailand experience on their website with photos and a travel guide. Their stories are particularly useful for understanding Thai culture and attitudes toward visitors. For even more details on expatriate life in Thailand, try Roger Welty’s “The Thai and I”.
This is not a post on frugal travel, although Bangkok is cheap even at 32 baht/dollar. I’ll describe some of those tactics, but we weren’t trying to stay on a budget. (I barely even kept track of our spending!) Yet it was also a very interesting opportunity to reflect on our attitudes toward spending money (or hoarding it) and the value we get from our spending. More fodder for another post.
When my spouse was in the Reserves, she worked in Thailand for exercise COBRA GOLD. I carried her luggage for a few of those trips, so this was her ninth Bangkok visit and my fourth. Our daughter stayed home with Grandma & Grandpa, and this trip was finally her opportunity to see & do all the things that she’d only heard about. Our vacation dates were set by her college break: it was our last chance for a family vacation before she graduates and gets her Navy commission.
Our previous visits had all been between late January and April. Bangkok’s climate is warm & muggy in January, and by April your breakfast is over 90 degrees & 90% humidity. October and November can be very rainy, but December and early January were wonderful. The weather was just like Hawaii– even a little cool at night– and we never saw any rain.
Bangkok is one of Asia’s largest cities, with population estimates of 7-10 million. Growth has accelerated since the late 1990s but planning & infrastructure are lagging. Air pollution is probably no worse than Los Angeles, but it’s far fouler than Hawaii’s voggiest days. Some locations are filthy with trash & sewage while others are sparkling clean. The streets & sidewalks are clogged with vehicles and pedestrians but life is at least as safe as any other large American city. Labor is relatively cheap– most hotels and apartment buildings are staffed 24/7 by traffic & security contractors.
Getting to Thailand from Hawaii is at least 14 hours because there’s no direct flight. It’s usually two six-hour flights through Tokyo’s Narita airport with a 4-6 hour layover, but this time we managed to find flights with “only” a two-hour wait. We arrived at Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi International Airport at the usual 1:30 AM. Several other flights arrive then, so the terminal was packed and taxis were plentiful. The airport is only about 30 minutes by expressway but surface streets are so congested (even at 2 AM) that the last six blocks take 15 minutes.
Bangkok traffic is absolute chaos– and on the left-hand side. Traffic control, vehicle safety inspections, and driver licensing enforcement are laughable. Tuk-tuks and motorcycles ooze into every gap, and at each stop light they weave in between the cars & trucks to gather at the very edge of the starting line intersection. Motorcycles carry paying passengers on the rear seat: young women demurely ride sidesaddle with a gymnast’s balance, holding the grab bar with just one hand and their bags with the other.
Red lights are regarded as challenges. Left turns on red are routine, but right or even straight on red seems to be allowed for motorcycles (at their own risk). The green light is greeted with a fearsome roar as motorcycles drag-race the half-block to the next traffic jam while laggard pedestrians leap for the sidewalk. Any vehicles cross the centerline when necessary, and motorcycles will even use the sidewalk if it’s not too crowded. There are no bike lanes and Darwin Award bicyclists risk their lives at every block. Jaywalking is technically illegal and frequently lethal. An average Bangkok rush-hour commute would leave a Manhattan cab driver quivering in tears.
Even walking in Bangkok is a challenge. Sidewalks are beautiful around luxury hotels, large stores, and visitor attractions. Elsewhere they’re narrow, uneven, pitted, and filled with street vendors. Entrepreneurs set up collapsible booths with flashy shelves and eye-popping displays. Passage is throttled to two abreast with frequent chokepoints and streetcorner crowds.
Pedestrians are constantly distracted by the environment, and many of them– mainly men of apparent Middle-Eastern attire– are unaccustomed to yielding right-of-way to large middle-aged steely-eyed surfer dudes, let alone a woman. (Even when we’re all sober.) Storm drains run directly underneath the sidewalk in a channel covered by perforated pavers. These handy holes are used for a store’s bucket of dirty water, street vendor food waste disposals, and occasionally a urinal. You quickly learn to watch out for broken pavers.
Sidewalk survival skills are essential to steady progress. If you’re not seeking a taxi then don’t make eye contact with a taxi driver, let alone a tuk-tuk operator– especially not when they slow and honk their horn to encourage you to check out their ride. Looking at a merchant’s display makes you a customer. Eye contact starts the haggling.
If a man holding a laminated photo sheet enthusiastically greets you, ignore him or you’re going on his tour. If you’re walking by a massage business but you’re not seeking one, then do not make eye contact with the attractive young women in high heels and tiny dresses. (Hint: not all of them are women.) If you’re a guy accompanied by a woman (especially your spouse or daughter) then stay within her arm’s reach– or a helpful entrepreneur will assume you’re seeking a woman. (Hint: not all of them are women.) Dogs, cats, rodents, street beggars, and small children are constantly underfoot.
Do not, under any circumstances, pull out a map and look around for street signs— a crowd of touts will swarm you to fight over your carcass. Step inside a 7-11 or hide in a doorway and huddle over your map. Maybe a clerk will take pity and help you, especially if you’re a paying customer.
I love it. Some mornings and evenings we walked for blocks just watching the street life.
It’s easy to have a Western hotel experience in Bangkok, but you’ll pay full retail price to live like an ignorant farang in an air-conditioned bubble. When you stay for at least a few weeks, it’s much cheaper to live local in an apartment. Some are “serviced” homes while others are simply a studio box to crash in.
We were traveling with a friend so we rented a three-bedroom apartment in the Mahajak Building (Soi 3 off Sukhumvit) by the Japanese and Pakistani embassies. It cost 58,000 baht/month, with a kitchen and a washing machine and free WiFi. It’s serviced three times per week, it has air conditioning, and they even threw in free electricity. The building includes an exercise room and a pool. Higher floors are quieter and the views are incredible. It’s across the street from Bumrungrad Hospital and just a few blocks from two Skytrain stations. This is luxury in a central neighborhood, so it’s incredibly expensive. There are many cheaper places, but do your research on the location and included features. We’d happily stay there on our next trip (especially for easy medical tourism) but serviced apartments are plentiful.
An added benefit to our Bumrungrad neighborhood was the Muslim visitor crowd. We saw a constant Middle Eastern fashion parade of chador, hijab, burqa, batula, abaya, dishdasha, ghutra, and topi with every family combination imaginable. (Our daughter’s seen most of this at Rice University, so she helped me with that vocabulary.) Local restaurants offered halal cuisine and hookahs, and a few even played muezzin calls. We also commonly heard Japanese, Mandarin, Hindustani, Russian, German, French, Australian English… and Thai.
Street traffic is clogged and rush hours are gridlocked, so the Skytrain is the preferred transportation. It’s elevated light rail, highly automated, very reliable, air conditioned, and not too crowded because trains run every 5-10 minutes. Trips are 15-45 baht each way and commuter passes offer discounts. It’s expanding but you may have to supplement it with the subway or a taxi to reach your destination. (Take a bus, motorcycle, or tuk-tuk just once for fun, and then you’ll never do it again.) Taxi drivers are supposed to use their meter, although some of them would rather tell you that it’s a meter holiday or it’s broken or your destination is “closed today” or “just burned down”– but they know another great family shop to visit! A typical metered taxi ride is 60-100 baht to areas around Skytrain stations, or 300 baht to the airport. Without the meter (or with a trip to the driver’s brother’s business) it’s at least 500 baht. If you’re told “no meter” then just chuckle, shake your head, and exit the cab. The driver will shrug (“Worth a try!”), drive off, and another prowling cab will quickly take his place.
You can cut Bangkok’s atmosphere of entrepreneurial capitalism with a chainsaw.
The city never sleeps and rush hours never end, yet most stores and visitor sites open after 9 AM. Each morning we’d wake up around 7 AM. (Right after the local kawao birds woke up– they sound just like their name). When we were ready for the day we’d have a large breakfast of street food (80 baht), or at a café (200 baht), or at the Zenith Hotel buffet with an omelette chef (350 baht). That would last us until an early dinner, although on the walk home we’d often take a break for chilled pineapple slices or fresh-squeezed juice (20 baht). Bangkok’s water system is much cleaner in the last few years, but restaurants always offer bottled water and we had a five-gallon water cooler in the apartment. Two minor digestion problems were probably caused by chile sauce or other unfamiliar cuisine, and they cleared up within 24 hours (especially with Immodium). Street food is safe because nobody wants to poison their steady customers. We even saw several new public drinking fountains– under prominent government billboards touting the benefits of clean water.
Christmas was everywhere, and it was hilarious. Most Thais practice Buddhism although Muslim, Hindu, and Christian cultures are also present. However, this holiday is totally secular with lots of shopping, gift exchanges, parties, and Thai interpretations of Christmas decorations. Nobody had a clue about jingle bells, let alone one-horse open sleighs, but the full Western Christmas-carol soundtrack was blasting in every store and lobby. Jesus was absent but Thai Santas and reindeer were on every TV and billboard.
Thailand commerce still runs mostly on cash. ATMs are abundant, but the banks are slathering on the fees. My Navy Federal Credit Union ATM card carried a $1 withdrawal fee and a 1% “international transaction” fee. My USAA Mastercard hit me with a 1% fee on every transaction, and my Costco American Express stayed in my room safe because it charges 3%. The real pain started when ATMs ran out of cash on weekends: pushing the menu button for 20,000 baht would be met with “unavailable”, and you’d start button-pushing for baht until it grudgingly gave up just 5000 or even 1000. Meanwhile NFCU charged me $1 for each “unavailable” button push as a “denied transaction”. For our next trip, I think I’ll open a USAA checking account and carry their debit card to use in ATMs. That should reimburse the ATM fees but I need to check on the international transaction fees.
By 10 AM we’d be at our day’s destination. Two of Bangkok’s most popular visitor sites are the Grand Palace and Vimanmek Mansion (the teakwood palace). Proper attire is required (long pants, sleeved shirts) or you’ll buy their 100-baht sari to cover up. English-language tours are available but check websites or a hotel concierge desk to confirm the times. We’ve done both guided and unguided tours on separate days because there’s so much to see. Cameras are allowed outside of temples and Vimanmek but going inside requires locking up your bag, your shoes, and your cell phone. (Vimanmek even gave me a courtesy patdown when I claimed I had no cell phone to surrender. Nobody believed me.) The Grand Palace seems to be getting a huge overhaul– scaffolding, fresh paint, and exhibit restoration– but Vimanmek is not aging as gracefully. Its lighting is especially difficult, access is restricted, and many of the exhibits need curating.
Jim Thompson House is as beautiful as ever. We spent an enjoyable day wandering the grounds and buildings, and also spent an obscene amount of money (by Bangkok standards) relaxing in the very nice restaurant for a leisurely meal. They’ve greatly improved the exhibits so that you can follow the craft from silkworm cocoon through demonstrations of unwinding, spinning, and weaving. Luckily my spouse already has all the fine silk products she wants, but as usual she filled up our home-improvement project notebook. Our daughter almost went nuts in the store but decided to check other markets first– a wise decision.
All three weekends were reserved for the Chatuchak Weekend Market. You can buy 98% of your souvenirs and collectibles here, and 100% of them are cheaper than anywhere else. As a veteran husband I should know better than to volunteer for pack-mule duty in trail of my spouse and adult daughter at the world’s largest display of capitalism. However, it was fun to watch their sensors & cognition lock up on consumer overload. Wear cool clothing with sunscreen and a hat, carry water, navigate with your Nancy Chandler map, and bring lots of 100-baht notes.
Speaking as a professional guy: it’s your turn to blow your consumer fuses at Pantip Plaza, which is Thai for “Computer City”. (Yes, I know that link is in Thai, but it’s a lot more fun than the Wikipedia entry.) It’s the Consumer Electronics Show on sale at 70% off. It’s Geek Galactic Headquarters for all genders & ages, and my daughter and I could spend several days there. Pirated DVDs are attractive, but if you’re bottom-fishing in those waters then you may have troubles with display formats, language, online registration, updates, or even viruses. However, this is where overstocks, outdated versions, and gray-area OEM software gathers for ridiculously low prices. DVDs of old movies/TV shows are everywhere, as are some new shows (see the piracy note above).
Guy pro tip: unless you’re accompanied by an adult female, every vendor will assume you’re shopping for pornography and will eagerly display large, full-color samples promising incredibly creative fantasies. (Or so I’ve heard.) I’m told that they particularly prey on balding ponytailed geezers. Stay within arm’s reach of your woman at all times– even male Navy submariners hesitate to roam here unescorted.
Next, plan for at least three trips (per week) exploring all six floors of Mahboonkrong Center: MBK mall. Do a thorough reconnaissance with geocoordinates & notes so that you can compare prices with the Weekend Market, and then run wild in MBK’s household/kitchen stores. Aside from the obvious reasons for women to gather here, the multiple trips allow for a haircut & style during one visit, a facial during the next, and a manicure/pedicure during followups– rotating several times through each at about 500 baht.
Again, speaking as a professional guy, males can wait out the grooming & preening with 60-90 minutes of foot massage for 350-500 baht. If you have any ligament or muscle damage, a kindly little grandma with hands like hydraulic grapples will find it and fix it. (I had a massage every 48-72 hours. My knees have never felt better.) Don’t waste your time (or your baht) on the comely young scantily-clad lasses in high heels– they don’t have the grip strength or the endurance. Yes, we’re still talking about massages.
We enjoyed a late-morning stroll through Chinatown (long pants & sleeved shirts for the wats, hat & water for the sunshine), which ironically looks exactly like Honolulu’s Chinatown (but has its own unique olfactory experience). We enjoyed two trips on the Chao Phraya riverboat tourist taxi (blue flag). 150 baht lets you ride all day, and it’s the only way to avoid the street traffic around the Grand Palace. (Unfortunately it only stops every 30 minutes.) Save your camera battery for a separate trip just riding the entire route– don’t disembark. As the crowds come & go, eventually you’ll get an outside seat to take plenty of photos.
One last shopping tip: if you have any jewelry or watch repairs (or dead batteries) then consult the experts at Chatuchak, MBK, or Pantip. Service while you wait (new batteries included) is 150-500 baht.
I also recommend that you set aside a day each for a dental cleaning (1500 baht) and a Bumrungrad physical exam, but that’s a separate post.
Dinners were either a small a restaurant (250-400 baht), a sidewalk café (150-200 baht), or street food (80 baht). I happily consumed kilos of chili peppers and curry along with lamb, beef, chicken, and all sorts of seafood. (As I get older, the spices just taste better.) Shawarma vendors work on nearly every street corner (60 baht). Unless you’re at a large restaurant there’s not much cheese or other dairy, and almost no chocolate. Desserts and snacks are usually fruit or mango sticky rice.
If you must have a seated air-conditioning break from the street then McDonald’s sells ice cream cones for nine baht. (Between the walking and our eating habits, I lost three pounds in three weeks.) If you want food in your lodging then buy on the street or scout a few square blocks around the neighborhood for a local grocery. If you want Western snacks or cereal then walk to a TescoLotus, Tops, or Foodland and get ready to pay farang prices.
This was our best Bangkok trip ever. My spouse and I will be back. (Our daughter will be on sea duty!) I’m going to work on the Thai alphabet and more vocabulary. We’ll get tourist visas for at least 60 days to return to Chiang Mai and Phuket (for Kata Beach surfing) as well as Bangkok.
Two final notes:
1. $1700 is a staggering sum for a round-trip ticket (especially with a layover) but we were flying during high season. We went through Narita (instead of other countries) because we know how to stay overnight if we miss the connection. It’s convenient to book United because all of the flights can be handled on their website instead of phoning a codeshare partner in Bangkok. You can find cheaper flights, but the hassle factors rise exponentially. Thailand is very cheap, too, so the best way to handle the high airfare is to stay as long as you can.
2. If you must travel with a cell phone, Thailand uses GSM instead of CDMA. Our daughter’s dual-band iPhone promised to work in WiFi mode, too, but she could never get a connection to synch. Unless you have a very helpful (and cheap) service provider, it’s easier to just buy a Thai GSM phone and SIM card at Pantip Plaza or… a 7-11. Yes, there’s a 7-11 on practically every Bangkok street corner.
Got a question, advice, or a family-friendly sea story? Share it in the comments.