Sunday, January 18, 2009

We rediscover Bangkok

Leslie writing in email to me: I'm at Stanley's while you're out changing money and getting into who knows what at the Chungking Mansions. I wanted to get some thoughts down about Bangkok and Hong Kong before I forget everything.

CK: We got into Bangkok around 7pm. The airport was packed with big lines at immigration. After immigration we tried to call a couple of guest houses, but couldn’t get through. So we went to the “Taxi Meter” stand where there was a huge line – 100s of people waiting. We then went upstairs to where taxis let people out for departure and negotiated a decent price with a driver while the hurry-up traffic guy tweeted and waved him on. We started out at the Miami, but with David there it just seemed too seedy, so after one night we moved to a smaller boutique-type hotel (which Leslie talks about below). Photo: from front patio of hotel - our quiet shady street

Leslie again: Bangkok was the best it's ever been - and since I've always loved it, that's saying something. The weather was amazing - mid 80's instead of the usual sweltering heat which makes being on the go a pleasure. It was a thrill to get back on the people's buses after all these years - GO OLD TOURISTS! We got to the US embassy with no problem and had pages added to my passport free of charge - all for a 32 Baht round trip bus fare (less than $1). Plus on the way back we found a TOPS Mart, a chain that I've heard about but never seen before. It seems they're in the basement (or sometimes the top floor) of the giant shopping malls so you really have to know where to look. Now we have their ad that lists all the locations and found one near our hotel. The main attraction for us is the spectacular and very cheap food courts in each store. We had curry x 2 + rice (40 B); tom kha ga (80 B); mango with sticky rice (40 B); pad see yew (45 B); pad thai with prawns (45 B); satay ( 10 B); and more. Then we discovered we could get lettuce and asparagus, etc. at the salad bar for less than $1 to go and had salad with grilled chicken (45 B) and sticky rice (5 B) and fried bananas (10 B) for dinner in our very cool room. So TOPS goes in the permanent record for sure! Photo: Spirit (Phi) house* next to hotel

We also used the bus to get to China Town, no small feat! We took # 48 from the hotel and with the help of a fellow passenger actually got off at the right place and walked 2 blocks into the middle of China Town. I shopped hard for some 22 K earrings at the Chinese gold stores and did well enough I think @ 3100 B (roughly $91 for 2.98 grams) for some beautiful filigree hoops. However, he gave me a 70 Baht discount off the original price and said "Happy New Year" so I suspect I still overpaid. Oh well - you do the best you can, right? Getting back turned out to be a challenge - I got help from the assistant manager at a Standard Charter Bank who assured me (such tact and face saving!) that it was not I who was lost but Bus # 48. She told me to take # 40 instead right outside the bank door and it took us back to the stop at our hotel - amazing! Photo: pad see yew around the corner from hotel

We also discovered the best way to cross the street on Sukhumvit - TOPS and other large stores connect via sky walk to others across the street so you can take an escalator to the cross over floor and just walk across - no traffic, smog, horns, or 3 to 4 flights of stairs. Wow! When we tried this the first time, we entered at Tines Square, another huge mall near Soi 13 on the other side of the road. I had wanted to look in there when we were staying at that end of the street but you thought it would be "just another mall." Well surprise, it was!- but the escalator dropped us at the door of a Tibetan/Himalayan shop that we'd never have found on our own. How sweet it is - we now have prayer flags and some wonderful Tibetan amulets that we really "needed." And you gave me the Pathfinder's Award of the day for finding TOPS and this store on the same day. That too goes on the permanent record! Photo: coffee lady - stand next to pad see yew lady

Finally for now we met a darling couple from Hong Kong who were on a short vacation in Bangkok and stayed at our hotel. Vivian and Jack took an interest in us and we them so hope to have time to see them in Hong Kong. They came to see us off for the airport when we left Bangkok and had the hotel manager take pictures of the 4 of us.

We really need to do a section on mid-range hotels in Bangkok - they are the devil to find but so wonderful once you do. We stayed at the Drop Inn on a mini sub soi of Soi 20 and it was fantastic! It's a tiny 1 block street, beautiful and full of flowers and normal people (read not scuzzy sex tourists and their prostitutes totally in your face). It was quiet, cool and in a terrific location. I found it while we were in Phnom Penh (lots of hours in an Internet cafe, searching and emailing places) because I couldn't bear to take David back to the Miami and that whole sordid scene. Their rates listed online were too high for us but I offered to take a room for several days if they could give us a cheaper room and they accepted! So we had a lovely room with wireless Internet (heaven for David); a computer downstairs for us old people traveling without a laptop; cable TV with only 4 English language channels (but who's complaining?) The Miami had only Al- Jazeera which really didn't count for me!); lovely breakfast buffet with coffee; and a freezing cold air conditioner. It was perfect as they say. And on the same tiny street, we found the Queen Lotus and the Baan which are both very nice and a bit cheaper (we renegotiated our rate after this discovery so never be afraid to bargain/make an offer. It works).
Well better run and see if you've returned. I'll try to start Hong Kong tomorrow - more new places and another darling new friend, Cindy. Photo: elephant in downtown BK - they bring the elephant to town and sell goodies to people to feed to the elephant - animal rights people don't like this.

I love you Charles - you're the best travel partner ever!

Leslie

CK: After we moved from the Miami to the Drop Inn, Bangkok began to remind us of the place we used to visit – people friendly and helpful, some quiet lanes, less prostitution. We also relearned how to cross the death race/congestion of Sukhumvit Road: going directly across at safer places, going into a building to take the escalator to the Skytrain level and inside another building to take the escalator down. A lot of doo-dah to save walking a few stairs? Well, brothers and sisters, we’ve walked a lot of stairs in SE Asia where the risers are a little or a lot higher, the steps narrower, and the sidewalks (sometimes even in Bangkok) often a jumble of loose paving stones, randomly poured concrete, dirt and dog duke so you have to keep your eyes on the path and that can lead to problems, especially for the unhaired, running my head into random stuff hanging down like a corner of a tin roof (Oh! Oh! Man, that hurt. Oh good grief, now I’m bleeding, though thankfully not much) or a the splintered wood of a broken sign (Ow!). It’s tough, ain’t it. Photo above: crustaceans for sale in China Town

We settled into a relaxing – yes, relaxing in Bangkok – pattern: up at 6:30 or 7:00, brew up some strong coffee, shower, downstairs for an okay breakfast buffet (fried egg, bacon, toast, marmalade, fruit, coffee), around 9 take off on the day’s expedition – like the US Embassy, Tops Mart for another feast, coffee from the coffee lady, nap, internet, back out walking to Japanese area or Villa Market or whatever, and back to the hotel around 6 or 7, eat in our room (salad, BBQ chicken, etc.), collapse. Photo: on the people's bus

There was a late loud party across the street from our hotel and we were reluctant attendees trying to sleep. In the morning we told them we wanted to move rooms, but they said no rooms available for what we were willing to pay. Okay, I walked away and took off to get room at the Baan Hotel or Queen Lotus Guest House. I reached an agreement with the Baan, but by the time I got back the Drop Inn had made a decent deal with Leslie, so we stayed.

So we’re hanging out in a Japanese area off Sukhumvit, in our quiet neighborhood, in various food courts – ahhh, food courts. In the former times in Bangkok there were many restaurants either open on one side to the street or on the sidewalk where they had pans of curry and related foods set out on a table or counter. You would get 1 or 2 curries on rice for a great price (I remember in one place in Chiang Mai where they had great curries and the best prik nam pla and there was this dog …). And there was the same thing with noodle and soup shops and carts. Now there are still innumerable street food vendors, but there are also quite a few food courts attached to supermarkets and department stores and there are usually at least 30 or 40 vendors in the food court – curries, soup, noodles, grilled meats, BBQ duck, steamed stuff, fried foods, fruits and vegetables, desserts, coffee stands, etc., etc. – pretty amazing. We have the idea that they wash the dishes a little better than they do on the street. Photo: Chinese temple

A meal for the 3 of us: red curry, green curry, fried fish with sweet chilis, ground pork with lots of spice and sharp taste, pad Thai, green papaya salad, rice. All for less than $7USD. At Villa Market (where many expats shop) we had “happy hour” Indian curry, tandoori chicken, garlic naan, and yogurt. Lunch at street stand near hotel where we had pad see yew (flat noodles, vegetable like bok choy and pork in oyster sauce) several times. At Tops Mart we got tom kha ga (spicy coconut chicken soup), satay, pad see yew. Also salad to go to have with BBQ chicken and what not in our room.

On our last morning in BK, we were having breakfast on the little patio in front of the hotel around 7:30 and across the street there were 2 guys still dancing with the bar girls. They were inside and we could barely hear the music, but could hear enough to tell that it was, what can I say, pretty dorky music – music to get jiggy to, no doubt. Photo: a sterile and uncomfortable departure "lounge" in the Bangkok airport - one of many reasons to dislike this airport

We finished packing and got out on the street one more time, then checked out and left our bags with the hotel while we went for one last pad see yew and iced coffee. By-By.

* Spirit houses are part of a mix of Buddhism and Brahmanism called Phram. Offerings of food are to spirits (Phi) and offerings of food are to Phram.

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