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We just came back last month from Bangkok, a fun town with really good eats.
Jim, “The Travel Organizer,” who last wrote about Sonoma County and Myrtle Beach, took advantage of the American Airlines pre-devaluation award chart and used 110,000 miles roundtrip to fly our favorite airline – Cathay Pacific in Business Class to Bangkok. Here are Jim’s practical tips should you visit.
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Just before the last American Airlines devaluation, I scrambled to find a combination of flights and destination that would at least come close to an objective definition of “aspirational.” For “just” 210,000 AAdvantage miles (55K each way/person minus 10% returned due to having one of the American Airlines credit cards) and less than $211, we scored 35½ hours of flights in Cathay Pacific Business Class to celebrate our 34th anniversary.
Throw in a complimentary Hyatt suite upgrade and, value-wise, we had one of our most memorable trips ever! I’m happy to share highlights of this junket in the hopes that The Flight Deal readers will benefit from what we did and learned in the process. (Editor’s Note: 55k each way was the pre-devaluation requirement. It now requires 70k each way to Southeast Asia from the United States.)
The aircraft for our trans-Pacific flight was a 4 cabin Boeing 777-300ER. Business class was a 1-2-1 configuration and, since we were traveling as a couple, we chose side-by-side center seats near the front of the larger business class section. Since reviews and videos are plentiful online, I’ll focus on other aspects of our trip. Note: Our flight did not have Wi-Fi; Cathay Pacific has plans to install Wi-Fi in all its wide-body aircraft by 2020, so check your flight if this presents a concern.
Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport (BKK)
Bangkok has two airports but international flights from the U.S. all land at Suvarnabhumi (which means “The Golden Land”) Airport (BKK). Hint: Don’t miss BKK’s newly-renovated restrooms! Each has a unique focus (e.g., “River of Life”) associated with one of the twin themes: “7 Wonders of Thailand” and “7 Miracles of Thainess.” (Editor’s Note: If you are taking the taxi, Uber or Grab, make sure you are heading to the correct airport: Suvarnabhumi or Don Mueng (DMK); if you arrive at the wrong airport, it will be at least an hour ride to get to the other).
Airport Rail Link (ARL)
The ARL is a convenient, safe, fast and inexpensive way to get from BKK to the city center; a ride from the airport to the end of the line, the Phaya Thai BTS (Skytrain) station, is just 45 Thai Baht – the equivalent of $1.38! – and takes about 30 minutes. The ARL station is on the underground (B) floor of the airport. Follow signs to “Airport Rail Link” past Coffee World, where the sign will change to “City Line.”
Getting your Thai Baht at the airport:
Kasikorn Bank and Siam Commercial Bank operate a virtual duopoly at BKK; ATMs are readily available. If you need to change currency, however, Super Rich (whose rates are usually among the best in Thailand) operates an exchange outlet on the left-hand side of the wide hall leading to the ARL station. (Editor’s Note: Thai ATMs charge at least 200 Thai Bhat for withdrawals so factor that in or use a Charles Schwab ATM card, which reimburse you for all ATM fees.)
After taking the ARL to Phaya Thai station, we transferred to the Sukhumvit BTS line and rode it to the Chit Lom station, which is conveniently connected via an elevated walkway to the second floor of the Hyatt Regency Erawan Bangkok. Note: Reception is on the ground floor and there is little or no signage to direct you to it from this entrance! Follow the escalator down, go through a lounge and turn left to find the registration counter.
I upgraded us to a Grand Suite King using one of my Hyatt Diamond (now Globalist) upgrade certificates at a rate of $215/night, which we considered quite a bargain, especially given the special occasion, for the spacious (753+ square feet) accommodation. The staff went out of their way to help us celebrate our anniversary – just look at that bed. If that doesn’t scream “romantic,” I don’t know what would! As a Hyatt Diamond, I also got complimentary high speed Internet. Along with our suite (sweet?) upgrade came access to the Grand Club Lounge.
Grand Club Lounge
Access to the Grand Club Lounge added immensely to our enjoyment and saved us a considerable amount of money! The complimentary breakfast included a different, hot, made-to-order item each day along with other hot items, pastries and an assortment of cheeses. In addition to cocktails, the complimentary happy hour featured a hot, made-to-order item each evening along with other hot dishes, an extensive salad bar and, again, artisan breads and charcuterie. We had our breakfast in the Lounge every morning and made happy hour our evening meal a couple of times.
With a little planning, you can see most of Bangkok’s “must see” sights in 4 to 5 days. Here are some we enjoyed immensely!
Chatuchak weekend market
It’s really difficult to adequately describe the Chatuchak (or “Jatujak” or just “JJ”) weekend market – it’s the size of 5 football fields with over 8,000 merchant stalls. It’s only open Friday evenings and daylight hours on Saturday and Sunday but if your visit includes a weekend, be sure to spend at least a few hours here! I wasn’t especially good at haggling; still, for just $23 USD, we bought a pair of well made leather slip-on shoes for TSA checkpoints and a pair of boho harem yoga pants for my wife!
Temples, temples, temples!
If you follow the route below, it is fairly easy – and fun! – to visit 3 mind-blowing sites in one day:
“Wat” is Thai for “temple” (hence, the title for this section!). Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald (actually jade) Buddha, is on the grounds of the vast complex of buildings including the Grand Palace. Getting there was half the fun; we took the BTS to the Saphan Taksin station, followed the covered walkway to the dock for Central (Sathorn) Pier where we boarded the Chao Phraya tourist boat and got off at stop #9, Tha Chang. From there, it is an easy walk straight ahead to the Palace complex – which is massive. Admission is 500 Baht (a little over $15.00 USD).
Walking back toward Tha Chang pier, we turned left onto Maha Rat Road and followed the wall bordering the Palace complex to the first intersection. At this point, Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, is across the street just to your left. This gold leaf-covered Buddha is 150 feet long. The soles of its colossal feet are inlaid with mother of pearl. Admission is 100 Baht ($2.60 USD). Wat Pho is widely regarded as the home of traditional Thai massage, which you can book for about $8.00 (30 minutes) or $13.00 (1 hour) – fairly expensive by Thai standards.
From Wat Pho, it’s a short walk to Tha Thien Pier, where you can see the iconic Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) on the other side of the river. The cross-river ferry, which costs just 3 Baht (8 cents), drops you off at the entrance to the Wat Arun complex (pictured here). Admission is 50 Baht ($1.60 USD). Plan your visit for late afternoon and make your way back across the river when you are finished to watch the sunset behind Wat Arun. The Bitter Deck at Sala Arun or the Amorosa Bar on the 4th floor of Arun Residence offer great views.
Scam alert! On our way to Wat Pho, we were approached by a congenial young man armed with printed maps. He asked us where we were going and, not wanting to be rude to a local, I answered, “Wat Pho.” “I’m sorry to tell you that Wat Pho is closed today,” he replied and went on, “But, here, I have a map to an alternate temple.” Luckily, like you, I had read about this scam before leaving the States so we politely refused his offer and continued walking. These scammers want to get you to an unfamiliar location, sometimes via tuk-tuk, where you will be ripped off. Always check the days and hours of operation for any attractions you want to visit shortly ahead of your intended visit and do not go anywhere with anyone you don’t know!
As beautiful as Bangkok’s temples are, we were very glad we arranged a tour of Kanchanaburi province (west of the city) with Absolute Bangkok (86% 5 star reviews on TripAdvisor). Our tour, “Bridge over the River Kwai and Elephant Bath and Ride” was worth every Baht we paid ($236 USD)!
As a child, the 1957 film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” had a profound impact on me. Although based on a novel, this Academy Award-winning movie is historically grounded in the 1942-43 construction of the Thai-Burma Railway by Allied POWs. Our tour included a stop at the Thai-Burma Railway Center Museum in the town of Kanchanaburi and the War Cemetery across the street; I found it emotionally draining to read about the hellish conditions under which these POWs built this supply link between Bangkok and Rangoon; 12,000 (along with 90,000 civilian laborers) perished here.
Swimming with elephants
Nothing could have prepared me for the magic of getting “up close and personal” with these gentle giants. After following our mahout’s instructions for climbing bareback onto our elephant, it was off toward the river! (If I look a little apprehensive, it’s only because I was!). We spent some quality time bathing and brushing our elephant before being lifted up out of the river on its marvelously strong and dexterous trunk.
Bangkok is a feast for the senses! Here are a few dining experiences we especially enjoyed:
Historic Bangrak Food Tasting and Culture Tour
This 3½ hour walking tour of Bangkok’s Bangrak district, organized by Bangkok Food Tours (84% 5-star ratings on TripAdvisor) is an amazing value at just about $35.00 USD/person! This tour (which served as our lunch) stops at 5 eateries, each serving 2 or 3 items along with something to drink. It’s a good idea to do this tour early in your trip to Bangkok for two reasons: (1) the map you receive from your tour guide is one of the best available and (2) it gives you valuable tips on how – and what – to order from street vendors.
Rot Dee Det
If you like to “eat where the locals eat,” then you’ll love Rot Dee Det – if you can find it! We wandered around for 30 minutes or so before a businessman showed us where it is. From the National Stadium BTS station (the station for the Jim Thompson House), walk back toward Siam Square on Rama Road (the “main drag”) to the first major intersection. Turn right, pass McDonalds and look for the first alleyway on the opposite side of the street. Most dishes cost only 40 Baht ($1.23 USD); we tried both the beef noodle soup and the pork noodle soup based on recommendations we read on the Internet and weren’t disappointed.
Sabai Jai Gai Yang (“gai yang” means “grilled chicken)
Our daughter-in-law’s father is an American ex-pat who lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife, Nong. They took us to Sabai Jai Gai Yang, an open air neighborhood Thai restaurant, a 10-15 minute walk from the Ekkamai BTS station (take Exit 1 towards Ekkamai Road, also known as Sukhumvit 63). Nong was gracious enough to order for us – which was a good thing because their menu (in both Thai and English) is massive! Our table (as you can see) was covered with plates of delicious food for just about $60 USD.
Generally speaking, Bangkok is a fun – and safe – place to visit. Here are a few tips to maximize your enjoyment of this magical place:
- Thailand is a monarchy; traditionally, the king has been considered a semi-god. Any act which could be considered disrespectful of the royal family is a punishable offense. In movie theaters, it is mandatory to stand during the playing of the Thai royal anthem before each screening.
- Some recent studies assert that the tap water in Bangkok is safe. We did not risk it. Bottled water is available everywhere and is cheap – less than 30 cents for a half-liter bottle.
- Look at the floor by the entrance to temples, shops and even some restaurants. If there is a pile of footwear, take your shoes off too.
About the Author:
I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.
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