Stickman's Guide to Bangkok
Travel in Thailand
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One of the world's most popular and delicious cuisines. Beautiful beaches and islands. Friendly, charming people. Warm weather all year round. Reasonable prices for most everything. Colourful, enchanting temples. An exotic culture preserved through the ages by a country that has never been colonised. Where is this? Thailand, of course!
Located in the heart of Asia, Thailand has been captivating foreign visitors for decades. Visitors return year after year and as the word spreads, first-time visitors come flooding in. The number of foreign visitors to Thailand continues to increase and year after year, records are broken as international visitors flock to this fascinating country.
Arguably the most exotic destination in South East Asia, Thailand offers travellers and holidaymakers a huge range of vacation possibilities. It doesn't matter whether you're a budget traveller wanting to explore a foreign land on a tight budget, or a well-heeled traveller who wants to be pampered and experience the very best, Thailand has something for you.
But despite such huge numbers of international visitors, Thailand has not been unduly damaged by the ravages of mass tourism. It is still quite possible to find a pristine stretch of beautiful white sand beach that you can have all to yourself. Lazing away the days on a hammock under a palm tree on a mile long beach, without anyone else in sight, swaying in the breeze under a cloudless sky as the waves gently break against the soft white sand....is an experience that can still be had. Welcome to Thailand!
There is a huge amount of information about travelling and holidaying in Thailand online. In my usual, no nonsense, BS free style, I have tried to create a worthwhile site that cuts through the guidebook nonsense and tell you what it is really like! As always with my writings about Thailand, I try and get beyond political correctness and give you the sort of information that can help you enjoy your holiday more, as well as avoid becoming a victim!
The coverage of a limited number of destinations on this site reflects my experiences in only the places that I have been to and / or spend adequate time in to develop a feel for the pace. I have visited most of the 76 provinces in Thailand, over-nighted in about 40 of them, but there are plenty of places that I have never been to that are therefore not covered and other places that I have visited but have not mentioned as I consider that I wasn't there long enough to develop a real feel for the place.
While I hope to provide some useful information, if you are planning on staying for anything more than a short holiday in Thailand, you should consider picking up a guidebook, such as the excellent Lonely Planet Guide To Thailand. Like all publications, it's not without its faults, but in my humble opinion it's still the best Thailand guide book.
A lot of other information about travelling in Thailand can also be found in my extensive Working & Living in Bangkok section. That article was written for those looking at relocating to and becoming an expat in Bangkok, and also includes sections on food, transport in Bangkok, Thai people, problems and the police that are just as relevant to tourists. There is plenty of overlap so it may be worth checking out.
This lengthy article can be separated into two sections. The first part gives general information about travelling in Thailand with sections on transport, getting around, scams etc. while the second goes into detail about some of the specific places to visit.
Introduction Bangkok Scams & Problems Phuket Getting Around in Thailand Ko Samui Accommodation Ko Samet What To Buy Pattaya Miscellaneous Hua Hin Stickman's Bangkok Tour Isaan Kanchanaburi Historic Places Ko Chang
Visitors from Western countries to Thailand get 30 days permission to stay in Thailand upon arrival if arriving at an airport or 15 days if crossing into Thailand overland. If you wish to stay longer, you can exit the country and re-enter immediately getting another 15 or 30 days. You can apply for a tourist visa to visit Thailand outside of the country which is good for 60 days and can be extended inside the country for another 30 days, at a cost of 1,900 baht. For more extensive information on Thailand visas, check out this section.
With regards to the weather most people feel that the best time to visit Thailand is December through to the end of February, which is curiously named the "cool season". It doesn't usually get what I would term cold, or even cool, in the central or southern regions of the country. In the north and the northeast it can get cool in the evenings, especially in the mountains and in the border regions - so if you are visiting those areas in the cool season may need to pack clothes accordingly.
March through to mid June is the hot season and it gets very hot across the entire country. You simply cannot escape the heat. In addition to the heat, in some parts of the country it can get hazy, which may mean breathing problems if you have any such ailments. It also means that visibility is limited in some areas, such as Chiang Mai where from the city centre it can be difficult to see the mountains even though they are only a few kilometres away!
The rainy season runs from early September - November and that is obviously the wettest time of year. Still, it doesn't rain every day and even when it does rain, it doesn't rain for that long - and the rain is usually only mid to late afternoon for an hour or two. It can be very heavy when it comes down though! It is not an entirely unpleasant time to travel but is perhaps not the best time of year for a beach or sunbathing holiday.
Most travelers to Thailand find the weather to be very hot, no matter what time of year they come! So, with this hot weather in mind, should one just chuck on a singlet and a pair of shorts and sandals and explore the country? Well, this may be the most comfortable type of clothing BUT, the Thais are not that fond of such clothing being worn and it is deemed to be somewhat impolite with the notable exception of wearing such clothes at the beach. Thais tend to cover themselves up and a shirt and trousers are the norm for men and for females, something of a similar vein that is not too revealing.
In some of the chicer places in Bangkok, one can see the Bangkok Thais wearing all manner of clothes but generally speaking, they seem to stick with a sort of semi-formal clothes regime. You'd think that such clothes would make you roast in the Thai heat but actually, with the light fabrics used in the manufacture of many of the clothes bought in Thailand, most people are comfortable. There is nothing stopping you from wearing shorts and a singlet but in many places, the Thais will deem this inappropriate, particularly shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants but especially temples or places of cultural or religious importance to the Thais where those decked out in such gear may be refused entry. Whatever you decide to wear, loose fitting clothes are the order of the day. The Thais place little importance on footwear and after a while in the Kingdom, seeing a Thai businessman walking around in an expensive suit accompanied with a pair of cheap plastic flip flops won't surprise you!
The tourist high season runs from around late November through to mid April. At certain times, particularly Christmas, New Year, the Chinese New Year and Songkran the most popular beaches and islands can be extremely busy to the point that getting accommodation can become a bit of a problem. Hotels and even some guesthouses hike their prices - and people are willing to pay it. So if you are travelling over any of these periods it pays to book well in advance.
With regards to other factors of when it is best to visit, Thailand doesn't tend to have any periods where it closes down like some Western countries, for example Italy, do. The major holiday period is mid April, the peak of the hot season, when the Songkran holiday is celebrated. At this time of year, businesses close down for up to a week and many Thais return to their homes back in the provinces. While tourist related services continue to operate and most major shops remain open, intercity transport can be very hard to come by. Airplanes, buses and trains are usually booked solid from April 10 for about the next week or so. But for the staff in shopping centres / temples etc., it is just another day at the office. Some smaller shops close over this period but really, travellers shouldn't be effected greatly.
The Songkran period marks the end of the tourism high season.
There are a number of other holidays throughout the year and on some of these holidays nightlife areas and bars and discos can be closed - and the sale of alcohol is outlawed. Some bars slip the boys in brown a bit of cash so they can remain open. Generally speaking it is the Buddhist holidays and December 5th, the birthday of HM The King, when most places close and alcohol is hard to come by.
I first visited Thailand with a good mate in the late '90s and within 24 hours of arriving I got a dreadful dose of food poisoning. We both ordered the same dish, a seafood combination with rice. He thought the shrimps didn't smell right so he didn't eat his. Me, being quite the pig, not only wolfed mine down, but ate his too. A few hours later I was staring down the toilet bowl and throwing up every last bit of whatever was in my system. It was a fairly nasty bout of food poisoning and took me a few days to get over it.
One has to be careful with what they eat in Thailand. Let me say right off though that you should not be any more concerned about the food that is sold on the street that the food sold in restaurants. Thai people eat food off the street every day and seldom have any problems at all - and so most Westerners can eat this food without problems too. However if the vendor looks like they have poor hygiene then move on to the next place to eat.
One also should be careful with spicy food if you're not used to it. Eating a lot of spicy food when your system is not used to it is never a good idea.
Finally when it comes to food, do drink as much water as you can. Thailand is very hot for much of the year and it is easy to become dehydrated.
With regards to health, you should consult your local doctor before leaving home regarding any vaccinations that you may or may not need. A lot of people come to Thailand and do not bother with any vaccinations while others line up their arm as a pin cushion and get the full batch. I am not a doctor and the following should be taken as my experience only. I do not know anyone who has caught any of the diseases for which vaccinations are available and most of the people I know who have visited Thailand did not get any vaccinations.
When I went to see my local doctor, he recommended that I got typhoid and hepatitis shots as these are two of the most common and easily contracted diseases. If you reside in a country where the vaccinations are very cheap or even free, like in England, then bugger it, get the damned lot and protect yourself - though many are no doubt unnecessary. Like I said at the start, consult your doctor as he or she knows best. Remember that you may need to go and see your doctor a couple of months before you take off on your travels as some vaccinations require not one, but a whole course of shots. Oooh, what fun!
While some of the shots may not be particularly necessary for Thailand, if you are going on to other countries in the region then you need to check out the need of shots for those countries too. I believe that travellers to Laos and Cambodia may require certain shots, whereas travellers to Malaysia and Singapore need not worry.
If you are going to be getting any malarial prophylactics, then the word on the street is to avoid Larium. I have both read and heard a number of horror stories about this drug and its dreadful side effects, which include intense nightmares and hallucinations - so if any doctor tries to get you to go on this one, do your research first!
If you think you're going to be a naughty boy and get involved with the ladies of the night in Thailand then make sure you use condoms. It goes without saying that AIDS is much more common in Thailand than in your own country and the prevalence of STDs amongst sex workers AND women who may liaise with travellers on a frequent basis is high. Condoms are available locally, but to be safe I recommend you bring your favourite brand from home. Durex is the top selling brand locally, but avoid buying the Kingtex range as they are made for the local market - and too small for the average Westerner.
I WANT MY MONEY BACK!
Thailand is a wonderful country for a holiday but many people experience a problem of some sort or another and as often as not, it has to do with the expected level of service. Service in Thailand is a little different to in the West and while it can be a lot better at times, sometimes things aren't handled as well as they could have been. If you are staying in the best hotels and eating in the best restaurants then you should largely be dealing with well trained service staff who have a good understanding of what western tourists expect. It's when things go wrong that some Westerners start to lose the plot a little. As mentioned in the scams and problems section, remain cool, point out the issue and don't get too loud! After that you may need to hope for the best!
One thing that justifiably annoys some tourists to Thailand is that if you do suffer a problem while in the country, it is VERY seldom that you will receive a refund - it's quite simply not the Thai way to give people their money back.
If you do have a problem with anything, do not lose your temper. Stay calm, smile and try to very slowly and clearly explain yourself. Losing one's temper will simply have the opposite effect on the vendor or service provider and make them disinterested in in your problem to the point of being totally unhelpful and perhaps even walking away. Put enough pressure on them and complain loudly enough and you will likely get nowhere!
The language of Thailand is Thai and while English is widely spoken, the level is often still pretty low. When speaking English with the locals, try to speak slowly and as clearly as possible in order that the person that you are communicating with has as much chance as possible to understand you. Do what us English teachers call "grading our language".
Learning Thai is the way to go but if you are only in the country for a short holiday, it isn't really worth the effort. Further, even if you say a few words of Thai with utter mediocrity, don't be surprised if the Thai you're speaking to replies to you with a string of Thai, and a big grin on their face followed by confusion that the white person who just spoke some Thai is now not able to understand! You generally find that in Thailand, the Thais speak a functional level of English that enables them to carry out their job. Get away from this specific language that they use every day and you can quickly lose them. Frankly, as long as you stay on the main tourist path, like most people do, the ability to speak Thai, while nice, is not necessary. Other languages such as French, German and other European languages are not widely spoken in Thailand at all. There is a growing interest in learning other Asian languages but for the time being it is often only a basic smattering of English that the locals understand other than Thai.
ARRIVING IN THAILAND
Most foreign visitors arriving in Thailand fly into Suwannaphum, Bangkok's international airport. Your first time in Thailand, which may be your first time in Asia, can be more than a little confusing. After a long trip you probably want to get to your hotel as soon as possible. To make matters easy I recommend you grab a cab - they're easy and inexpensive and a trip to Sukhumvit or Silom Road should cost you less than 300 baht, and even all the way to Khao San Road shouldn't be more than 400 baht.
There are buses available but if you do not know where to get off then you risk getting lost.
When you grab a cab at the airport the driver should use the meter. Please note that he is entitled to tack on a surcharge of 50 baht - that is for all airport pick ups.
No matter what your budget, you can find something to suit. Thailand and indeed Bangkok has a huge range of places to stay. Whether you want the opulence of the Oriental Hotel, the filth of a Khao Sarn Road backpacker hole or somewhere in between, you will be able to find it in Bangkok. And right throughout Thailand, you will be able to find something to suit your needs, at least most of the time in most places.
In surveys of (admittedly well-heeled) international travelers, Bangkok's top end hotels continue to rate extremely highly. The Oriental Hotel, The Dusit Thani, The Peninsula and The Shangri-La are often mentioned when you hear the top hotels in the world being talked about. These are five star hotels in every sense and should suit the most demanding of travelers. But if you've read down this far, you obviously have a bit of time on your hands and you are more likely to be looking at another class of hotel.
Throughout Thailand, you have all of the big international hotel chains like Marriot, Sheraton, Regent, Hyatt represented. You also have some very good Thai hotel chains like Amari. And then you have got a lot of stand alone hotels. At the lower end of the range you have guesthouses. I gather that camping grounds are available in some places but having seen one snake show too many, I think I'll give that one a miss, thank you.
Bungalows are a very popular Thai style of holiday accommodation. What exactly is a bungalow? Well, it is just a stand alone building that may have as little as a bed, bedside table and chair or be a stand alone building decorated and with the facilities as flash as a room in the best 5 star hotels. One tends to think that bungalows are only found near the seaside and while this is where they tend to be located, you can find them in many other places too, especially outside of cities and in the countryside.
Of the beaches and islands in Thailand, the most popular spots like Pattaya, Phuket and Ko Samui are oozing with a variety of accommodation options. But this is not always the case at some of the more off the beaten track type places. It should come as no surprise that the further off the beaten track you get, generally the harder it is to find quality accommodation. Even in some of the islands the quality of accommodation is not always that good - and sometimes the prices, while cheap by international standards, can be expensive by local Thai standards. Places like Ko Samet and Ko Chang are classic examples where, in my personal opinion, accommodation prices really are higher than they should be.
It's widely known that more than a few men come to Thailand, perhaps not for the purpose of getting involved with Thai women, but ultimately they end up with a Thai lady at their hotel. It should be noted that some hotels may not allow obvious women of the night into the establishment. In some hotels, prostitutes are barred from entering. Such places include some guesthouses and budget hotels, as well as some hotels which cater specifically to families or tour groups. In some hotels there is a "joiner fee" which means you have to pay a supplementary cost to allow a woman who is obviously a prostitute to spend the night with you. The fee could be anything from a few hundred baht to over a thousand. In and around the areas known for naughty nightlife, virtually all of the hotels are "guest-friendly". The vast majority of hotels in Thailand allow prostitutes to stay overnight and it would be less than 1% which bar entry and only a small percentage which charge extra.
One of the great things about accommodation in South-East Asia (with the exception of Singapore) is that you can get your own room at an affordable price. I remember travelling around Europe as a young backpacker in 1990 and spending around $US12 equivalent for a bed in a room with 6 - 8 other smelly, stinky backpackers. There was no privacy whatsoever. Well, this is Asia and you don't have to worry about such dormitory style accommodation. Having said that, in the areas that are popular with backpackers, such accommodation can be had for a pittance, at less than 100 baht a bed. However, again, this is Asia and sometimes the quality of said establishment may be questionable. You can therefore forget the idea of youth hostels that you may have had to suffer in the likes of Western Europe. While there are a handful of youth hostels in Thailand such as those run by YHA, these aren't so common.
While I acknowledge that some people don't have a lot of money and want to make it go as far as they can, I'd be wary about choosing the cheapest accommodation options. In Bangkok that would likely mean the Khao Sarn Road and as with a lot of the other locations with budget travelers, the cheapest accommodation can often be dirty to the point of being unhygienic. Sheets go unchanged and bed bugs breed like mad, waiting for that magic moment when you go to bed so they can start to feast! Such venues may have bathrooms rife with stagnant water which are homes to armies of mosquitoes which wait patiently for the chance to snack on you too! Basically, with the cheaper places, inspect the rooms closely and don't be afraid to ask them cutting questions such as when the sheets were last changed!
Thailand is not an expensive country to travel through and if you are on a real budget, you can do just fine. Let's look at the cost of accommodation in Bangkok first. A room in the top end hotels tends to go for 5,000 baht or more a night. The very best spots, like the Oriental may even go for twice this. As I mentioned earlier, hotels in Bangkok really are excellent and the top end places are just fabulous. My pick is the Sukhothai which has a wonderful combination of Thai style with modern convenience. It is worth just going for a wander through as it really is that nice!
The mid range in Bangkok would be those venues where a room goes from around 1,000 to 3,000 baht a night. The variance in this range would largely be determined by the facilities offered at the hotel, how new it is, and to a lesser extent, just where it is located. You can get some perfectly acceptable hotels for not much more than 1,000 baht a night in Bangkok.
At the lower end of the scale you have the guesthouses which go from anywhere from loose change up to close to 1,000 baht a night. Yes, there are some budget locations knocking on the 1,000 baht a night rate!
As Bangkok can be quite difficult to get around due to the dreadful traffic conditions and the fact that the skytrain and underground only cover a small part of the city, one needs to think carefully about the area where one chooses to stay. The most popular areas are Sukhumvit Road, Silom Road, the Siam Square / Pratunam area, Banglampoo and the river. I’ll try and outline the particular advantages and disadvantages of each area as well as mention a few other areas which for various reasons I would not really recommend.
The Sukhumvit Road area has long been a popular spot for Westerners and we have been staying in that area for as long as we have been visiting the Thai capital. There are a large number of hotels in the area, ranging from older, but still comfortable and very affordable 2 and 3 star accommodations at around 1,000 baht a night, many with names which you just know they sprouted up in the Vietnam area, to a number of genuinely fine 5 star properties which can go for several thousand baht a night.
Sukhumvit is central, easy to get to and from, and is the most popular area for a good percentage of Bangkok’s resident Westerners to live. It is also the main area for much of Bangkok’s farang oriented naughty nightlife industry which is predominantly in the area from Sukhumvit Soi 1 to soi 23. If that excites you, then this is a good area to stay, but if it abhors you, you may want to stay away from Sukhumvit. I personally do not think there is anything particularly special in this area and frankly, the main reason people come to or stay in this area is for the nightlife. The shopping in this area doesn’t compare to other spots and there really aren’t any major tourist attractions in the area.
The skytrain runs along Sukhumvit Road so access to other areas serviced by the skytrain is easy.
SIAM SQUARE / PRATUNAM
This is the home of Bangkok’s biggest and best shopping malls and as such if shopping is your thing, this is most definitely the area to stay. There are a number of huge shopping malls in the area, ranging from the ever popular Mahboonkrong to the ultra upmarket Gaysorn, as well as the more budget minded Pratunam Market. You really can shop until you drop in this area.
Traffic congestion and pollution in this area can be very bad at peak times, but it remains a very convenient area to stay in. Not only is the shopping very good, but this is an area where the vendors are used to dealing with foreign tourists so most vendors and the staff in most shops, speak fairly good English. Here are also some interesting attractions in the area such as the Erawan shrine and the Baiyoke Tower, the tallest building in the city. It is quite frankly, an easy and convenient area to stay.
The Silom Road area, and the two roads that run parallel, Suriwong Road and Sathorn Road, encompass the main business district, an area where there are many banks, embassies, insurance houses and both local and international company head offices. If you are doing business, this would likely be a good area to stay. You’re not too far away from the skytrain either and there is some shopping in the area, including a lot of tourist related shopping. The Patpong night market and the Lumpini Night Bazaar are right there too. As it attracts a lot of business travellers to the area, many of the hotels are not cheap and there aren’t as many budget hotels in this area as there are in say, Sukhumvit Road.
From the top of Silom Road you have the Dusit Thani Hotel, a very fine hotel, with a number of hotels down Silom Road and the roads running parallel either side. Some of the big name hotels in this area include the Sofitel, the Narai Hotel, the Holiday Inn and my personal favourite, the gorgeous Sukhothai Hotel.
Essentially located at the bottom of Silom Road, the hotel properties along the river are some of the finest not just in Bangkok, but in the world. The famous Oriental Hotel exudes a colonial charm, in contrast to the Peninsula directly opposite, which is much more modern, yet still in the same price bracket. The Shangri-La is another world famous hotel and the Sheraton Orchid is also lovely. These are all very fine 5 star hotels, cheap compared to many other 5 star hotel properties around the world, and all have very fine facilities and restaurants.
It should be noted that the skytrain does not make it down to the river so traffic can be a bit awkward down there, especially from late afternoon and into the evening.
BANGLANPHU (KHAO SAN ROAD AREA)
This is the backpackers and budget travellers’ area and is very conveniently located to some of the city’s historic attractions like the Grand Palace, Wat Po and the wonderful Chao Praya River. This is the place to go if you are travelling on a budget, or want to be among others travelling on a similar budget. Khao Sarn Road is the main road in this area, although there are guesthouses and budget hotels strewn all over the area.
It should be noted however that a number of guesthouses and budget hotels in the Khao San Road area do not allow Thai nationals to stay! I am not sure of the reasons for this but if you are travelling with a Thai, you need to be aware of this! Of course one of the reasons is that the guesthouses and hotels want to discourage blokes from bringing hookers back to their room. I'll never forget a sign in Tawee Guesthouse where I stayed way back in 1998 which said "Don't bring prostitutes back to the establishment because things go missing, missing and the police come sniffing, sniffing"!
RACHADAPISEK ROAD, CHINATOWN AND THE AIRPORT
Two areas where I would not really recommend you stay unless you have a very specific reason for being there are Chinatown and the airport area. Chinatown has dreadful pollution and the traffic down there is about the worst in the city. Getting in and out of the area to go to other areas can be a major ordeal.
There are a number of hotels along Rachadapisek Road. In the past I would never have recommended that a Westerner stayed in the area as the traffic was very bad and there is little of interest in the area, but note the underground runs up that road making it more accessible to other areas. Many of the hotels in this area seem to market to other Asian travellers and this, as well as the lack of any real reason to stay there, mean I would not really recommend it – unless you got a super deal.
The new Bangkok international airport opened in September 2006 and I am unsure of the hotel situation out there. There is no real reason to stay in the area unless you find yourself flying in late at night with an early flight out the next morning.
Accommodation in Bangkok is readily available and the city almost never suffers city wide accommodation sell outs. Wherever you are or wherever you want to be, you will never be far away from some sort of accommodation.
The prices of accommodation in Phuket and Ko Samui are much the same as in Bangkok. Both are now big international beach resorts with many fabulous places to stay and as such the prices reflect what people are prepared to pay for them. However, most of the large resorts have timeshares available, which are luxurious apartments that offer many great amenities and give visitors the opportunity to come back year after year. On the other hand, Pattaya and Chiang Mai both have high quality accommodation available at prices which simply do not exist - at least what you get for that money - in Bangkok. This is one reason to visit Pattaya and Chiang Mai - you get very good value for money on your accommodation.
Once you get outside of Bangkok and the most popular tourist areas, the prices for accommodation plummets, but the quality remains reasonably good. In much of regional Thailand, in towns such as Khon Kaen, Phitsanulok, Korat, Nakhon Phanom etc, you can get a great room for 1,000 baht. This usually gets you a very comfortable well-maintained hotel room with either a double or two single beds, all the usual facilities and a very good buffet breakfast for two. You can actually find cheaper than this, but the 1,000 baht mark seems to be the average. Such hotels can be very comfortable indeed. One such example is the Nakhon Phanom River Hotel where for this price you get a very nice room with a view of the river and an excellent breakfast buffet. The quality of hotels in regional Thailand really is excellent and as I say, the cost is very fair indeed. Another favourite of mine is the Charoen Thani Princess Hotel in Khon Kaen where for 1,100 baht you get a really nice room and again, an excellent breakfast buffet.
You don't need to worry too much about squat toilets as although they are still popular in the countryside, just about anywhere where a Westerner goes has standard Western toilets. But then you might come to prefer the squat toilet, the absence of toilet paper and the requirement to use one's left hand... It's better for the environment and I believe it's more hygienic too. Give it a go, you might like it! A note about toilets. Many apartment buildings and even a lot of modern, expensive hotels will have notes requesting that you do NOT flush toilet paper down the bowl. If there is a basket there in the cubicle, it is expected that you will discard your used toilet paper there. Apparently the reason is not only for preservation of the environment but also that the refuse system was not designed to handle toilet paper. But like many things in Thailand, this is changing.
Some of the cheaper places around about will rent out rooms short time for use by working girls and their customers. Unless you are a prude, there's no reason to let this bother you and keep in mind that if you go somewhere that is busy and there seems to be no rooms available, just hunt for the local short time hotel which will be more than happy to rent you a room for however long you require.
Khao San Road
If you're travelling on a budget then and are planning to spend some time in Bangkok then you will almost certainly spend some time in Khao San Road, the backpackers ghetto (and I don't use that term lightly) of Bangkok. This 400 odd metre stretch of road and its immediate surrounds are home to all of the businesses that a traveller ever needs with cheap restaurants, internet cafes, travel agencies, photo processing stores and of course a multitude of guesthouses and cheap accommodation as well as many like-minded people on the road, just like you.
Khao San Road is actually well located for anyone visiting Bangkok as it is walking distance to the river and the most interesting and historically significant parts of the city. The must see Grand Palace is about a mile or so away, easily walkable, even in Bangkok's oppressive heat.
For those on a real tight budget, you should be able to find a room for as little as 100 - 150 baht a night. There are cheap places in other areas of Bangkok but not the sheer range and number of places that are available at Khao San in this price range. However, you shouldn't expect the Ritz at this price.
Khao San is slowly moving upmarket. In the old days it was all about cheap, cheaper and cheapest, but now you have more and more better places. Starbucks, McDonalds and Burger King can all be found there and the accommodation options are moving up with some better places charging well over 1,000 baht for a room for a night, and at that price point you're starting to think more of a mid-range place than truly budget accommodation.
I used to think of Khao San Road as a rat hole serving Western food and culture to those who seem oblivious to the fact that they had travelled half way around the world to exotic Asia, only to spend it amongst their Western peers in this false hybrid environment. But as I spent more time at Khao San, never as a traveller mind you, only ever as a resident of Bangkok going to the area for a night out, I began to warm to it. One can find fun out there and the vibe isn't bad once you know where to go.
A lot of Bangkok residents, that is Westerners and Thais, like to go to Khao San Road for a night out as it is different to anywhere else in the city. Having said that, the are is still dominated by budget travellers. What makes le laugh about this bunch is how they try to show off to all and sundry how much they have learnt about Thai culture by doing such dumb, improper and downright inappropriate things such as wai-ing every Thai service provider they deal with. You can see the Thais snicker to themselves when the intrepid farang makes a fool of himself!
Khao San Road has all of the essentials for anyone travelling through Bangkok, Thailand or on to other popular spots in the region. Hippies and wannabe hippies trying to recapture the romance of those who travelled through the region in the '70s can buy their hippy attire on Khao San.
Ironically it's also the best place to buy a variety of copied documents such as foreign press passes, journalist passes, international driving licenses, degrees, RSA English teaching qualifications, ISIC cards etc. Just remember that these documents are NOT real and if you are caught using them in Thailand and purporting them as originals then you will probably go to jail! Think I'm joking? I'm not! In early 2007 there was a major crackdown on foreigners using fake degrees and purporting them to be originals. The first two guys charged pleaded guilty and were sentenced to three months in a Bangkok prison.
A few of the cheaper eateries have disappeared, making way for some interesting bars. Khao San at night can be a fun place and sitting outside one of the restaurants, sinking a few cold ones and chewing the fat is something I enjoy. Khao San Road has increased in popularity with the Thais and at around 10:00 PM, a lot of Thais of university student age descend on the street. They usually start at one of the outdoor bars and as the night goes on drift in to one of the dark clubs, of which there are more than a few.
Suzy's Bar was the most popular for some time....and then Gulliver's came along. These two venues remain popular and with the growth of the street as a centre of nightlife and entertainment there are now quite a number of popular venues and an old guy like me can't keep up with where the most popular spots are. It should be noted that a number of the bars on Khao San Road are home to Thai working girls, so for you guys, if you meet a girl who wants to go back to your guesthouse, please be aware that in the morning she might expect 1,000 baht or more from you!
The bars in the Khao San Road area are amongst the more reasonable places in Bangkok for a night out. A bottle of Heineken or a local beer ranges from around 70 - 80 baht and something harder, such as Jack Daniels coke should be less than 100 baht. Local beers can be very cheap, at around 50 - 70 baht a bottle. Obviously there are cheaper and more expensive places but this should give some idea of the prices you'll pay.
There are also some interesting bars in the streets and alleys around Khao San and there's even a temple just across the road from the Police Station at the west end of the road. The lanes surrounding the temple have some great little bars and restaurants. Some good second hand bookshops exist in the area but prices asked are steep for second hand gear - surely, people don't actually pay these prices which seem to be around 50 - 60% of retail for a book on its last legs up to about 80% of retail for one in good condition.
Khao San Road is worth a visit and its location is good, but it may not the best place to stay if you are not into the whole backpacker ghetto scene. While some visitors may describe the area as vibrant, others might just call it noisy!
It seems that a lot of Westerners come to Khao San Road, spend a week there and then leave for one of the southern islands never seeing the real Bangkok - which seems to be rather a shame. There's much more to Bangkok than Khao San Road and its surrounds!
Khao San Road and the surrounding lanes offer a zillion food options - and most are very good value. Be a little daring and wander away from Khao San Road itself and try something from a street vendor!
For an alternative neighbourhood with budget accommodation, you might like to consider Soi Kasemsan 1 in the Patumwan area. It is very conveniently located in central Bangkok, right across the road from Mahboonkrong Shopping Centre. In this particular lane you can find several guesthouses with rooms in the 450 - 500 baht range - and you get a far better room for the money than you would in the Khao San area. The major shopping district of Siam Square is a stone's throw away and the soi is right beside the National Stadium skytrain station which is convenient if you have any business to do in the city, or if one of your primary reasons for visiting Bangkok is either shopping or nightlife, for the best shopping and nightlife areas are all on, or very close to the skytrain lines
You can actually find cheap hotels all over Bangkok and many apartment buildings will also be happy to rent you a room for a short stay. Even way out in the suburbs you can see apartment buildings with big signs in English saying that they will rent out rooms by the day / week / month.
Getting Around Thailand
One of the great things about getting around Thailand is that no matter what form of transport you choose, it's never expensive. Imagine traveling 600+ kilometres in an air-conditioned bus all the way to the border with Laos for 500 baht = about $US 17. Or taking a taxi 150 km from Bangkok to Pattaya for just 1,200 baht = about $US 40. Amazing value for money!
The most popular form of intercity transport in Thailand is bus and there are many different types of buses in Thailand so you need to think carefully as to which service to use. The Government run BKS buses is arguably the best run bus service.
There are several different classes of bus from the ordinary non air-conditioned buses through to the big VIP buses. The difference in cost between the best and worst class of bus is significant in terms of the cost, sometimes as much as ten times difference.
The ordinary buses are orange and unless it is raining, or in the middle of the cool season, the bus will drive along with all of the windows open - so you get a nice breeze running through. These buses stop pretty much anywhere and pick up anyone who waves down the bus. Further, if one wants to get out of the bus mid route, the driver will stop the bus at your request - great service! However, these buses, easily recognisable because they are bright orange, can be very slow and unless you are down to your last few pennies, I wouldn't recommend travelling on them as they are really slow! Further, the seats are much smaller and there are no seat allocations so you may have to stand - but getting to the bus station early usually prevents that from happening.
There are a few local routes in the provinces where air-conditioned buses routes just don't exist so if you get off the beaten track you might find yourself on such a bus! But it is not that bad and there are a few benefits. People using this type of bus are often poorer folks who have never met a Westerner and they will be delighted to try and chat with you so you have a great opportunity to meet and have conversations with the nicest Thai people on these buses. When these buses stop, vendors often jump on board selling all sorts of food, drinks, clothes etc. It's absolutely marvellous to be able to buy some grilled chicken, sticky rice and even from time to time, if you are really lucky, some som tum, all without having to get off the bus. These vendors sell food in the same manner on the trains too. Ahhh, the pleasures of overland travel in Thailand - just great!
The next class of bus up from the orange non air-conditioned bus is the standard air-conditioned bus. All of the air-conditioned classes of bus are blue in colour. The standard air-conditioned buses are a little nicer than the orange buses, obviously air-con but they tend to be a little older and can be run down. While they may pick up people on route, it is not common to have people standing on air-con buses i.e. they sell tickets with allocated seat numbers and once the bus is full, that's it, no more tickets. But, if in mid route, someone waves down the bus, they may be allowed on board but they will have to stand until another passenger gets off and a seat becomes available. Although prices vary, the fares on the standard air-con bus are around 75% more than a non air-conditioned bus. As with the other classes of air-conditioned bus, there will usually be a television on board. The entertainment is usually in Thai or if on the off chance it is a Western movie, it will probably be dubbed in Thai. Even though the bus may be running to a far flung destination several hours away, and running at night, the bus company are convinced that you do not want to sleep and the volume is at maximum - just like in Thai cinemas! Some buses have elaborate sound systems with many speakers so escaping the sound may not be an option!
Better than the standard air-con buses is the first class air-con bus. These are usually be newer and the seats are nicer, finished with cloth instead of vinyl as is usually found on the standard air-con bus. There will also be less seats on board, meaning more leg room. You will be given a drink and something sweet or savoury to eat soon after the bus has departed - more often than not a soft drink and a Thai style cake. If it's a long journey you will be given another drink later on. And not too long before you reach your destination you will be given one of those chemically smelling wet cloths, similar to what you get on planes not long before landing. There will be a toilet on board but there is a chance it's out of order. First class air-con buses cost around 20 - 25% more than the standard air-con bus and for lengthy journeys, the extra cost is well worth it, especially if you're tall and appreciate the extra legroom.
The VIP bus is the highest class of bus and can be a very pleasant way to travel. VIP buses seem to vary a little and while some of them are remarkably similar to the first class air-con bus mentioned earlier, others are quite luxurious. The genuine VIP bus will have a limited number of seats and every seat has a truckload of leg room - pro basketball players wouldn't complain. VIP buses can be quite dear comparative to the other bus services, with the fare from Bangkok to Chiang Mai over 800+ baht, as an example, but if you think of that in Western currency, it is peanuts.
It should be noted that intercity bus crashes are common in Thailand and you often see the chilling remains of what was once a bus on the side of the road. Not only is the standard of driving very poor, but many of the truck and bus drivers take speed to keep themselves awake and allow them to drive for long periods - and hence make more money. Some try to drive like Michael Schumacher after he's spent the afternoon in a beer garden! I will never forget the first time I took an intercity bus in Thailand, a lengthy journey from Bangkok to Nongkhai. The driver was driving like an absolute maniac - overtaking on hills and around corners. I really thought I was going to die so I drained all of my stowed away alcohol really fast which luckily put me to sleep. I woke up not at the gates of hell but at the bus station at Nongkhai which in retrospect, was something of a miracle.
What I love about land based domestic travel in Thailand is that you are treated well and the service is generally very good. In many Western countries, it seems to me that everything is so stiff - the train leaves at this time and gets to the destination at this time - if you want to stop for a leak, forget it. If the bus passes right past your house and you would like it to stop there, forget it. In Thailand, it's the complete opposite. If all of the tickets for the bus have been sold and everyone is board, the bus will leave - bureaucracy goes out the window as the driver takes charge of the situation - great stuff! And if you want to get off somewhere along the way, you can. It is all very sensible!
But there are times when perhaps the notion of good service is taken a little bit far. I never fail to chuckle when on the Pattaya to Bangkok bus trip, the driver is more than happy to stop the bus by one of the median barriers in the middle of the motorway so that people can get off. Not only is it tricky to stop there and then re-enter the fast flowing traffic, but the passengers who jumped off then have to battle their way over a few lanes of traffic barreling along at high speed before they reach the side of the road. This is Thailand and you have to expect the unexpected but I still laugh when I see this happen.
At bus stations in Thailand, there are various touts around trying to get you to buy a ticket for your journey. Their English will usually be good enough to ask you where you're going and then direct you or show you to the ticket counter. What is the deal with them? Well, not only is the Government bus company represented but there are also various private competing bus companies competing for the travelers' baht. If you can't read the signs in Thai at bus stations and on the side of the buses, you wouldn't know it for all of the buses are the same colour but on some routes, there are several competing companies. These touts are trying to get you to buy a ticket from their company. Don't worry about commissions or anything as the ticket price is the same whether you were taken to the counter by them or not. The private companies operating out of the major Bangkok and provincial bus stations are usually fine but the Government run buses still have the best reputation - they are a little dearer so you get what you pay for.
In addition to the Government run buses and the private companies offering similar services, there are the "Khao Sarn Road buses" that go to and from Khao Sarn Road, the backpacker haven of Bangkok. These really are a bit of a lottery, sometimes good and sometimes not so good. When booking one of these buses, the first thing you need to ascertain is whether it is a full sized bus or a minibus. Yep, sometimes they will sell you a "bus ticket" but when the bus arrives, it is in fact a small cramped Japanese minivan. And they will shove you in like sardines and drive you to the far flung corners of the country with your knees up around your ears and that stinky smelly backpacker's hairy armpits no more than three inches from your mouth! Sounds like a nightmare doesn't it? The great thing about these buses however is that if you are staying in the Khao Sarn Road area, you do not need to go hunting for the bus station which can be a little tricky, costly and time consuming. Funnily enough, when going the other way from the provinces to Bangkok, these buses do not always go to Khao Sarn Road and will sometimes drop you off somewhere else! The price of the ticket varies from travel agent to travel agent so you may find that the person sitting next to you with those damned armpits paid a different amount to what you did - but with the smell coming from those armpits, you won't give the price difference much thought at all.
There are three main bus stations in Bangkok - MoChit which is huge and more like an airport than a bus station, Ekamai which is located half way down Sukhumvit Road, conveniently next to the Ekamai train station, and the Southern Bus Station located west of the Chao Praya River. You need to ascertain where you want to go and then make your way to the right bus station. Generally speaking, buses to the North and Northeast which includes places like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Ayuthaya, Sukhothai, Korat, Khon Kaen etc leave from MoChit. Buses going east of Bangkok to places like Pattaya, Chonburi and Chantaburi leave from the Ekamai station. Buses going anywhere south and a few places not far from Bangkok such as Kanchanaburi leave from the southern bus terminal. There are a few exceptions though so you need to check!
One curious thing that was happening in early 2000, gosh that is many years ago now isn't it, was police approaching foreigners at the Ekamai Bus Station in Bangkok. They would ask the foreigner if they could check the foreigner's luggage and do a reasonably thorough check including a pat down of the body and checking every compartment of the person's wallet. They appeared to be checking for drugs. I'm no legal expert but I wonder if this is actually legal or not and also wonder what would happen if you said, no, I do not give you permission to search me. Still, it seems innocuous enough. If it was me, I'd let them search me as I never have anything to hide. Fortunately they seemed to give up on this some time ago.
TRAVEL BY BOAT
If you find yourself venturing to any of Thailand's islands you may find yourself on a boat. Good luck. Boat travel in Thailand is cheap, but then it should be, because many of the boats are rickety old things, often driven by some young punk that you just know doesn't have a clue about the rules of the sea, and to say nothing of a terrible shortage of life jackets and other safety features. No means of travel makes me so nervous in Thailand as boat travel.
On the eastern seaboard the boats that make their way across to the Ko Samet and Ko Chang are older vehicles and they tend to move at a slow pace. Even with that in mind they often a lean to one side, or are so old and worn out that you find yourself willing the old girl to reach her destination as quickly as possible. I also always find myself eyeballing the life jackets.
There are various boats in operation in the south, connecting the many islands down that way. In recent years there have been a number of high profile accidents involving drunk boats man, over-crowded vessels, boats at sea in inclement conditions and a shortage of life jackets.
Sometimes using a boat in Thailand is unavoidable but frankly, I avoid them like the plague.
TRAVEL BY AIR
Flights to Thailand from international destinations are cheaper now with more carriers flying routes into Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Meuang Airport, the old international airport, the hub for budget airlines like Air Asia.
Thai Airways is the main domestic airline and airfares for flights within Thailand are fairly reasonably priced, the schedules are good with lots of flights to the most popular destinations and the prices are fixed - it doesn't matter when you buy the ticket, 3 months in advance or 3 hours before the flight leaves, the price will be the same. Further, the planes are generally in good condition and you do not get anything like the horror stories you hear of some neighbouring countries where you share the cabin with farmer Joe and half the cattle from his farm! Thai Airways flies to most parts of the country, but not quite all.
The notable exception of where Thai does not fly is the tropical paradise of Ko Samui. There is only one airline which flies between Ko Samui and Bangkok and that is Bangkok Airways who I believe own the airport at Samui. The fare to fly from Bangkok to Ko Samui on Bangkok Airways is more expensive than the fare on Thai to fly from Bangkok to Phuket, something which many people question, with some feeling that Bangkok Airways really stings you when you fly between Bangkok and Ko Samui. Bangkok Airways also flies to some neighbouring countries as well as operating domestic flights within Thailand, but it is the route to Ko Samui for which they are most famous. Bangkok Airways has tried to reposition themselves and now markets themselves as Asia's boutique carrier.
Thai Airways introduced a budget carrier called Nok Air which flies some of the more popular routes at fares a little more than half the price of the equivalent fare on Thai. The planes are ex Thai Airways fleet and the flights are generally on time. Nok Airways is my preferred budget airline in Thailand for this very reason.
Air Asia is the biggest budget airline in the region and is run out of Malaysia. I personally have found their planes to be a little old, and they're often late, usually an hour or two. I have not had good experiences with Air Asia and I will not fly them again if it can be helped. That said, if you book a good period in advance before flying then you can save a lot of money with this particular airline.
Finally of the budget carriers operating in Thailand is One Two Go. I have never used them so cannot really comment on them, but a workmate swears by them.
Many of the popular places in Thailand such as the islands in the south and Chiang Mai in the north are quite a distance from Bangkok so travelling by air does make sense if you want to save time.
Look closely and the two cloud covered islands in the pic are Ko Samui
on the left and Ko Phangnan on the right, seen from 30,000 feet.
TRAVEL BY TRAIN
The trains in Thailand are good and a very pleasant way to travel if you are not in a hurry. Generally speaking the train is slower than a bus running the comparable route. Even the deceptively names express and sprinter services often feel like they are crawling along at a snail's pace. Sure, you can get up and walk around etc but for the most part, when I used public transport to travel intercity I preferred the buses - that's just a personal preference.
Like trains elsewhere in the world, there are three different classes, 1st, 2nd and 3rd - funny that. Third class can be a bit rough if you are travelling a long journey. Personally, I wouldn't want to sit in 3rd class for any journey of more than about 3 hours or so. The seats are uncomfortable and if you get a busy train such as the Bangkok to Korat, they pack the punters in like sardines. 2nd class is comfortable and 1st class is apparently very nice but truth be told, I never tried it. I do note that some of the first class prices are about the same as an airfare!
As mentioned in the section on travelling by bus, vendors get on and off the trains along the way and sell various items of food and drink, often at very reasonable prices. Also like the non air-conditioned buses the train can be a great way to meet the locals.
TRAVEL BY CAR
Hiring cars or even a big bike is one way to get around Thailand. The quality of the roads in Thailand is generally pretty good. Where the problems start to arise is in the quality of the driving and if you spend much time watching the way the Thais drive, I hate to say it but all of the Asian driver jokes suddenly seem to have some credence.
All of the big international car rental car companies such as Budget and Avis are represented along with a lot of smaller, private rental car companies which may offer slightly older cars, but at very reasonable prices. Many of these firms have websites and searching for Thailand car hire should be a start.
With the big firms you do have more peace of mind than the smaller firms where occasionally you hear a story about the cars being poorly maintained or having some sort of problem.
Car rental is fairly cheap in Thailand which is a little surprising given that the cost of buying a car in Thailand is much dearer than in the West.
You can hire a variety of motorbikes in Thailand and this seems to be fairly popular in most of the beaches and islands along with places in the north. The most popular bikes seem to be the little 125 cc Honda Dream which you can get for about 150 baht a day or as little as 3,000 baht per month. Whether or not you would want to do a lot of intercity riding is questionable though.
While Bangkok can be a difficult place to drive in - signs are generally in Thai only, traffic jams are legendary and it can be very difficult to orient yourself, the opposite is said of the provinces. Generally, driving in provincial Thailand is easy, the drivers are less aggressive, there is much less traffic - and the further you get from Bangkok, the less traffic and congestion you find. However, wherever you go, signs are generally in Thai only. In a few places, and Pattaya is one exception, some road signs are in Thai. Fortunately street signs are in both Thai and English nationwide, something which I have been extremely impressed with. Yes, for many years, street signs in even the most far flung corners of the country have English on them too!
Petrol is reasonably priced in Thailand, more expensive than American prices, but much cheaper than what is paid in Europe.
Many of the Thais living in Bangkok come from provincial Thailand and moved to the big smoke to pursue employment. On public holiday weekends, there is often a mass migration out to the provinces as these folks head back to see their families. A lot of the folks working in Bangkok have partners and children in the countryside that they are supporting and so they take every opportunity to go home and visit them. With this in mind, you should, and indeed often need, to buy your tickets in advance if you plan to travel over public holiday periods. This is especially true for the Songkran holiday period in April when routes can get sold out well in advance. Book early to avoid disappointment.
One point needs to be made about using taxis in Thailand, especially Bangkok. Always try and get a taxi that is driving on the roads. Taxis parked outside hotels are very reluctant to use the meter and you can bet that if they offer you a price it will be anywhere between double and several times what the fare would be if they used the meter!
Photography & The Internet
My main hobby is photography. I know that it is hardly essential or even necessary information for anyone travelling in Thailand but let me tell you a little bit about all things photography in Thailand.
First of all, if you are still using an old film camera, film is not so easy to come by in Thailand. Had for Foto File on the ground floor of MBK Shopping Centre in Bangkok for a shop that does stock a range of film.
Getting prints of your photos is cheap. 6 x 4 inch prints cost around 2 - 5 baht, depending on how many shots the more, the lower theper print price.
Shops can print your digital image files at the same cost as printing film, 2 - 5 baht for a 4 x 6 inch print. If you require a professional lab, I recommend IQ Labs, just off Silom Road.
As far as actually taking pictures goes, Thailand is an amazing place and there are always all sorts of interesting or even crazy things going on so there are unlimited opportunities to take lots of photos! Generally, Thai people like to be photographed and don't be surprised to see them jump into your photograph, as opposed to move away when they see a camera! This might be changing a little bit as people become conscious of the internet and the fact that there photos might unwittingly end up on some questionable website! But generally speaking - and especially outside of the capital - Thai people love to have their photo taken!
The light in this part of the world is very bright so one has to be careful when taking shots in the middle of the day. In fact any time from late morning to late afternoon with the sun almost directly overhead can be a real nuisance for photography because this harsh light which can wash out the colours of everything, and if you have a great composition, the colours might come out drab, more in shades of brown and grey, than the deep saturated colours you had hoped for. As far as taking landscape and general outdoor photography goes, the cool season, that is December through to February, is best. Also, the golden hour, that short period before sunset, is a good bet to take shots but remember that the sun drops in the sky a lot faster in Thailand than it does in countries that are further from the equator.
With digital photography becoming more and more popular, it seems that many folks want to send their digital photos home via the internet. In practicality, this is not really that easy. First, a single digital photo file may in some cases be many megabytes, which even on a high speed internet connection can take a number of minutes to transfer. Secondly, you may have hundreds of pictures so you could actually be sitting on the net for ages, trying to transfer them all. Basically, it is just not that practical. The best bet is to go to one of the many shops, usually internet cafes or photo shops, that can take the pictures from your camera's memory card and write them to a CD or DVD for you. More and more places are offering these services. Just one recommendation - get a couple of copies of each DVD in case one goes bad. Or even consider getting two copies of everything and sending one copy home while keeping the other copy on your person.
Also on the subject of digital photography, there are a lot more shops around printing pictures from digital images i.e. you can take your camera in with all of the pictures stored on the media, or even just take them in on floppies / CDs and they will print them there for you. The quality is excellent, much better than any home photo printer. My favourite shop for this type of thing is Snow White Digital Photography which is on Phyathai Road, directly opposite Mahboonkrong. The cost of photographic prints in Thailand may be cheaper than home, but in all truth and honesty, the quality is not always the same.
There is always something happening in Thailand and there are so many things that are completely different to what we have in the West. Different modes of transport, different foods and places that sell them, different architecture and the list could go on and on. You could well find that you end up shooting a lot of photographs and I bet that they'll all be interesting. I have found with everything that is going on in Thailand, unless you are an extremely talented photographer, a still photo alone does not manage to capture everything. With this in mind, it is worthwhile bringing a video camera with you if you have one. The video camera allows you to catch a lot more of what is happening and captures the sounds of Thailand too.
As the internet becomes more and more important in our lives, so too does internet access while we are travelling. Thailand's internet infrastructure has improved markedly over the last few years and you're never far from a cheap yet fast internet connection. Even in tourist areas, an internet cafe should not charge more than about 30 baht an hour.
The best hotels usually have internet access. They may have hard-wired internet access in the rooms or they may have wireless internet that covers the entire building which will requite the use of your own laptop. Some may only have internet access in a business centre where there may be laptop connections and computers to use. In the better hotels you might have to pay for internet access and in the 5 star properties this can actually be quite expensive - internet access in the Oriental Hotel runs 650 baht ++ per day! It is ironic that in the cheaper establishments internet access is usually free!
There are huge numbers of internet cafes all over the country and they can be found in all of the popular tourist areas, be it where backpackers venture or businessmen pass by. More and more venues in Thailand are offering free wireless internet access, or wi-fi. I maintain a Thailand wi-fi section with listings of where you can find free wi-fi access, very handy if you are travelling with a laptop.
What To Buy & Shopping
Thailand is a great place for a holiday for many reasons but it could survive solely as a shopping destination as there is a huge range of places to go shopping and a huge range of products to buy. Remember this is Asia and at the weekends or whenever they have free time, Asians just love to shop.
All of the best shopping malls are in Bangkok, in fact the city is absolutely full of huge shopping malls. The most impressive of them all would have to be Paragon, located in Siam Square, in the heart of the city's shopping district. In the immediate area there are several impressive shopping malls but none as impressive as the gargantuan Paragon which friends from abroad have told me would hold its own against shopping malls the world over. Paragon is home to a huge department store of the same name along with a huge number of smaller stores including many high end fashion names from Europe and North America. The mall is home to a Ferrari dealer as well as dealerships offering Lamborghini, Maserati, Porsche and the exotic German marques. It's all a little overwhelming! As with most shopping centres in Bangkok there is a huge cinema multiplex on the top floor and the centre is full of restaurants and a number of food courts. If you love to shop you could probably spend the best part of a day in there.
The other high end shopping centres in Bangkok are the recently renovated Central World Plaza, the Emporium, Gaysorn Plaza and Peninsula Plaza. You'll find the finest goods and fashions from all around the world in these shopping centres.
In the next tier of shopping centres you have the ever popular MBK, also known as Mahboonkrong, a very popular shopping centre in the heart of the city. I used to like MBK but these days I find it a bit manic for my liking. It is always packed with people and is popular with a younger crowd so you have lots of young Thais running around, yahooing and generally making a lot of noise. Combine that with the fact that the walkways in the shopping centre being narrow and congested then you have a shopping experience which is hardly relaxed. Perhaps a more relaxed shopping experience can be had at Central Chidlom, the flagship store of the Central Group. It is just one stop on the skytrain from Siam Square and is one of Thailand's best and most popular department stores. Frankly, there are too many shopping centres in Bangkok to mention!
A lot of the major European and American fashion brands have factories in Thailand making their clothes there and selling them in the department stores. Popular brands like Arrow, Yves Saint Laurent, Guy Laroche, John Henry, Camel to name but a few are all available at less than you would expect to pay for them at home. Thailand is a great place to stock up on your wardrobe and if you come from a place like England or New Zealand where getting decent fashionable clothes at reasonable prices isn't always easy, then you will find the Thai department stores just great.
For anything high end, Bangkok is the place to buy it in Thailand. Although you can still find shopping centres in the provincial capitals of Thailand, the shopping in those centres just doesn't compare to Thailand.
For electronics and appliances, Thailand is not the best place, at least not when compared with other more famous shopping centres in the region like Hong Kong and Singapore. The prices of such goods have dropped in recent years, but you can still get better deals elsewhere, although the price differences aren't great these days. On some things, such as memory cards for cameras Thailand might even be cheaper. The prices of electronic goods in Thailand is generally more expensive than the US, but cheaper than Western Europe including the UK. However, one reason not to buy such goods in this part of the world is that the warranty may only be valid for Thailand. There's not much point buying an expensive item in Thailand if you only save a small amount but effectively do not have a valid warranty!
Of course it may be that you want to buy items of a different type, handicrafts and so forth. There are a number of shops in Bangkok that have a selection of handicrafts from all over the country but really, the best places to buy this sort of thing are in the provinces themselves, in small town Thailand so to speak. That is where you'll get the best prices and the best selection.
The night market in Chiang Mai is said to be the best place for handcrafts and the like and has a good selection of this type of thing from the northern provinces. I'm not big on handicrafts and am not a big shopper so am perhaps not the best person to ask about this sort of thing.
Many tourists end up down at the Patpong night market that runs down perhaps the most well known stretch of road in Thailand. Nestled in between some of the most well-known bar area in all of Asia is a night market that peddles predominantly copied and counterfeit goods. In my opinion the Patpong Night market is about the worst place in Thailand to buy goods unless you really know what the goods can be bought for elsewhere. The one positive side about Patpong is that there is a fairly good range of most things in one place and the quality of some of the copied goods is high. Yes, copied goods do come from various different suppliers and one fake Rolex may not be the same as another. English football shirts are really popular and there are several different grades of copies with the best being barely discernible from the original. Pictured here is the Patpong Night Market being set up late afternoon.
Some of the vendors at Patpong ask exorbitant prices and at times my eyes have just about popped out of my head when I have seen the foreign tourist nod their head and go straight for their wallet and take out the money! You can see the vendors eyes light up knowing that in one sale they have already made a good profit for the night! Copied computer games that go for as little as 30 baht elsewhere can go for as much as 250 baht at Patpong. Fake Prada and other fashion name bags that go for 400 elsewhere can go for as much as 2,500 baht - you get the idea. There is no rule of thumb when negotiating a price with these vendors as some of them will come down to as much as 20% of the original stated price and others will quote you a fair price to start with and will only move a little on the original offer. All I can really say about this place is that while it is well worth a look, but if you actually want to buy something, try and get a local to take you along to ensure that you don't get ripped off. The vendors can be a bit pushy and some are downright rude. The whole area can be crowded but this notwithstanding, it's still worth a visit for a look, if nothing else.
An alternative to the Patpong night market is the Pratunam Market, located on the corner of Petchaburi and Rajadamri Roads, near the Amari Watergate Hotel. This market is famous for clothes and traders from all over the world go there to buy bargain basement clothes that are then shipped offshore and sold in foreign markets. But Pratunam has a lot more than just clothes, fabrics and apparel. It's a good place to get many of the things that you can get at Patpong.
There are street vendors all over the city selling much the same junk that is peddled at Patpong. All along the heavily touristed area of Sukhumvit Road between the Nana and Asoke intersections, and especially in the area just east of soi 3 are many street vendors selling much the same stuff that is on offer at Patpong but at less inflated prices.
The biggest market of all in Bangkok is Chatuchak Market, also known as the weekend market. The easiest way to get there is to take the skytrain to MoChit station which stops right beside it. Chatuchak Market is huge and attracts hundreds of thousands of shoppers at the weekend. The range of goods and "things" available is mind-boggling and in many ways it is as much a tourist attraction as it is a place to shop - although 99% of the people doing the shopping are Thais. Amongst the "things" for sale are animals, including some wild animals and all sorts of other strange stuff. If you're a shopaholic you might really like it, but frankly, I do not like the place. The area is open and crowded and so it is very, very hot and uncomfortable. There are a lot of really terrible smells coming out of the place and much of what is for sale is cheaper, or lower end goods and clothes. I haven't been for a few years and have no real desire to go there again, but that said, anyone spending a few days in Bangkok should check it out. It is called the weekend market for a reason - it is only open on Saturday and Sunday.
I gather that jewellery made in Thailand is tastefully designed and comparatively cheap due to the low labour costs. Of course when buying such jewellery you really need to be careful as there are some scam artists out there who are not averse to selling you counterfeit jewellery.
There is a great range of goods and what not available for sale in Thailand but please do take care when choosing. Refunds are not the norm and if you buy something and later decide that you do not like it you cannot change it. Further, if you buy something and it breaks down or simply doesn't work as it should then you might find the vendor unwilling to help. Electronic goods and appliances come with a warranty and these are honoured but with most other types of goods if there is a problem you are on your own. Carefully check and examine any major purchase - or even smaller purchases - before you actually put your cash on the counter!
Scams & Problems
Thailand receives a large number of foreign tourists every year, in excess of 15 million, and the vast majority enjoy themselves and return home without any problem. There are however a small number who have problems. Being aware of some of the common scams and potential problems can help you avoid becoming a victim.
Please do not forget that Thailand is, compared to most Western countries, far from wealthy. Many Thais earn less than 10,000 baht per month. When Thais see foreigners throwing around more in a day than they earn in a month it can create resentment and jealousy, and that may manifest itself into crime.
In terms of personal safety, most Westerners feel that Thailand is very safe. I would question this notion. The areas where most Westerners go, being central Bangkok and the most popular beaches and destinations as well as Chiang Mai in the north, are very safe. The odds of someone hitting you over the head, grabbing your money and running are fairly slim. That is not the usual type of crime perpetrated against tourists. What is much more common is tourists being tricked to give up their hard-earned.
The one area in Thailand where there has been quite an increase in violent crime is in Pattaya. More and more people are being mugged or attacked and their valuables taken. Again, most people who go to Pattaya have no problems at all, but you do need to exercise caution. Most problems of this nature happen at night, usually very late, often after midnight, so be aware of your surroundings if you find yourself out late.
Despite the warning notice on the right here, the problem of pick pocketing is not great. Sure, it happens, and one has to exercise caution in large crowded markets like the Patpong night market and Chatuchak Market, also known as the Weekend Market. MBK (aka Mahboonkrong) is another shopping centre where pick pocketing is a problem. Stories from the '70s and '80s of people's day bags or jeans being sliced with a razor blade and their wallet or cash removed without them knowing seem to be a thing of the past.
As mentioned already, tourists are often tricked to part with their money, a crime where greed of the victim is exploited. Tourists are approached by well dressed Thais in popular tourist areas or by tuktuk or taxi drivers and are taken to a gem store or a jeweler store. They may be offered fake jewellery at inflated prices with the promise that the sale of this jeweler or gem stones in one's own country could make the tourist very rich indeed. Some incredibly silly tourists have gone on to spend a fortune, thinking that they could return to their own country and get rich overnight, only to later find out that the stones they bought were imitation and pretty much worthless.
Some tourists have also been told that the day they are there is a special holiday or there is a "government sale" or some such other nonsense. This is all a scam and what is offered is knock off junk jewellery that may not even be worth 10% of what is paid for it. I have heard countless stories over the years of people putting down a couple of thousand dollars for this crap. An article in the Bangkok Post a few years back mentioned that the Tourist Police get about 20 complaints a week from people who have bought this rubbish. Frankly, anyone who falls for this scam is stupid and deserves what they get. But what really bothers me is that while complaints are made to the police about this issue, nothing is done, at least long term. The same shops have been pulling the same scams for years and years and continue to do so. Hmmm, is someone in on it?!
THE TUKTUK / TAXI DRIVER TOUR SCAM
A similar type of scams occurs with the tuktuk drivers and to a lesser extent, taxi drivers, in Bangkok. As a foreigner you stand out in the crowd and you will be constantly approached by taxi and tuktuk drivers inviting you on a "tour of Bangkok". They might even off to take you on a tour for anywhere between 1 and 3 hours, all for a silly fee, like 10 or 20 baht. They are not about to take you around the temples, museums or places of historic interest, but around a bunch of stores where the sales assistants will put pressure on you to buy something. Many of the goods are for sale at high prices and the tuktuk or taxi driver who takes you to the establishment will get a significant commission on everything you buy. These shops can be really sneaky. After battling the heat, you will be led into a shop with cool air-conditioning, often by a very pretty and charming Thai lady, well dressed, and who speaks very good English. In the more sophisticated operations you will be offered a choice of cold drink and a cool, wet towel to wipe away the sweat and dirt. But in no time the snakes will be all over you, pressuring you to buy something in their store. If they sense that you are going to buy something he charm will remain but if they feel you are going to get away without buying anything then expect their demeanour to change completely, for them to be cold, and for you to suddenly be made very unwelcome indeed. Don't worry, your personal safety is never at risk, but you will be shown the door quickly. Frankly, it is all a very unpleasant experience.
Various types of establishments pay commissions to tuktuk and taxi drivers, from large jewellery stores - some of which sell genuine gems and jewellery, and some of which sell fakes, through to tailors' stores, duty free stores, massage parlours and even some restaurants, particular seafood restaurants. The commissions made by the tuktuk and taxi drivers can be significant, often more than they would earn in an entire day if they were just driving passengers around, hence there is real motivation for them to get involved. A driver taking a customer to a massage parlour may get 500 baht per customer who indulges. At tailors' stores and seafood restaurants the commission is usually 10 - 15%. At stores operating the gem scams the commission can be really, really high, meaning many thousands of baht. In a country where people live on 6,000 - 7,000 baht a month, this is a very significant amount of money. Frankly, these establishments see that the drivers are richly rewarded for their efforts. A lot of the businesses are so keen to get potential customers in the door that even if that person doesn't make a purchase here, the driver will get a commission in the form of petrol vouchers.
If taken to a tailor's shop, a charming tailor of Indian ethnicity who speaks many languages well will put on a very convincing sales pitch. I have seen some tough characters give in to the wishes of these tailors and end up buying some suit or other tailored clothes that they really didn't want nor need. The quality of such tailored goods is variable - remember Bangkok tailors seldom make the clothes on the premises but rather send out the material to one big sweatshop where hundreds of tailors make all of the clothes to order. This means that it doesn't really matter which tailor shop you go to, the quality could well be the same as a place on the other side of town. BUT, if you get taken to such a store by a tuktuk or taxi, that person's commission will be built in to the price so you will be paying more than you would have had you gone there alone.
While I do not believe it to be a big problem, there were a lot of reports in late 1999 and 2000 regarding non licensed taxis. Basically, these just consist of people running their private car as a taxi. They will try to pick you up in heavily touristed areas and take you to the sites. While the regular taxi drivers don't really have any tests or anything that they need to pass before they can do the job, these other fellows are even worse. They will take you to all of the places offering high commissions as above. If you get really nasty, they might even try and kill you as happened to a number of unlucky punters... If it is not a regular taxi, steer clear!
CREDIT CARD & ATM FRAUD
Thailand is one of the worst places in the world for credit card fraud. You give you credit card to a vendor and they somehow either take a copy of it or do something or other and then they can go on to run up huge bills. Obviously when you get your bill back home you will be able to successfully challenge it and will not be liable for it but it is a hassle and inconvenience and is not going to endear you with your bank. To try and avoid being the victim of such a scam, do not let your credit card out of your sight when using it to make a purchase. This is one of those scams that seemed to be very common in the past but we seem to hear less and less about it these days.
Personally I am less concerned about credit card fraud than I am ATM fraud. Just as in the West the ATM machines at some banks are tampered with so that when you insert your card into the machine it is retained, or the number is read, and can be used by the criminal later. One of the big problems of ATM fraud in Thailand, at least if you are a Thai bank account holder, is that the banks do not just automatically write the fraud off and re-imburse you for how much was lost. Oh no, not at all, you are now in a fight to get that money back. There have been numerous stories in the press over the years about unlucky people who have lost serious amounts to ATM fraud and had a fight to get it back, so to speak.
DRIVING STANDARDS AND PUBLIC TRANSPORT
The standard of driving in Thailand is very poor indeed. Taxi and tuktuk drivers generally drive too fast, follow too close, and perform dangerous maneuvers. Thank God that traffic in Bangkok generally doesn't move that fast meaning that if you should be involved in a crash then with a bit of luck the vehicle was not going too fast.
You should also exercise great care and caution when getting in and out of taxis, or any vehicles for that matter. Motorcycles squeeze in and out of traffic and many a tourist has opened the taxi door to get out only to open it right in front of a motorcycle who hit it, causing damage not only to the taxi and the motorbike but possibly themselves too. In a case like this it is you who opened the door who is at fault and you will be asked for compensation right away. Failure to pay it and you'll be off to the police station where a settlement will be agreed AND paid before you are free to go!
There is a law in place that says that if you cause a traffic accident and someone else is injured or hurt, you must pay for that person's immediate medical treatment. In reality this means handing over a small amount of money, most likely between 200 and 1,000 baht. Even if you are not at fault, you may be asked to hand over money. If you have any problems, it would be best to contact the local tourist police - assuming that they are represented where ever you happen to be.
Intercity travel in Thailand can be nerve wracking because once out on the open road many Thais fancy themselves as the next Michael Schumacher and like to see just how fast their vehicle can go. The intercity buses in Thailand can be a bit hair raising and at times you start to question your immediate surroundings and wonder whether you are on a bus or a roller coaster. You read many reports in the newspapers of intercity bus crashes, and the carnage caused. The only way to avoid being a victim is to take the train or private transportation. While I do not travel intercity by bus any more, I can confidently say that the problem is not as bad as it used to be.
Another problem with the intercity buses concerns luggage stowed on the buses. Large pieces of luggage are stored in the luggage hold. Many people have found that upon reaching their destination, that their valuables have mysteriously disappeared. What happens is that a Thai may travel the journey down in the luggage hold and go through all of the luggage, looking for valuables like cash, cameras or other items that can be quickly turned into cash. Basically, when you travel on the intercity buses, be it the Government run bus service, or the private companies, take all of your valuables on board the bus with you.
A lot of Westerners suffer motorcycle accidents, particularly on the islands in the south of the country where it is popular to hire a bike as one's primary means of getting around. As already stated, driving standards may not be what you are used to at home and the surface of the road might not always be as good as it could be. There are often other problems like the camber of the road going the wrong way and confusing signs, all of which contribute to causing problems. I cringe when I see Westerners zooming around on a motorbike wearing but a pair of shorts and no shirt. Come off that bike and you're going to have all sorts of problems. I cannot re-iterate enough that many, many Westerners have bike accidents in Thailand, and a number die. Yes, people do die while riding bikes in Thailand so please, please, take care out there on the roads. No-one wants to go home in a box. By the way, the law states that you must where a helmet and there is a 400 baht fine if you're caught without one - and Thai cops love to catch Westerners out!
Motorbike theft is a problem in Thailand, although strangely, the theft of cars seems not to be such a big problem. One of the big problems is that there are some unscrupulous characters who directly target bikes hired by tourists. In a worst case scenario, when you hire a bike you may be followed by someone who is effectively working for the person who hired you that bike. When you have parked the bike and have disappeared down to the beach, gone to some tourist attraction or wherever, the person who followed you simply rides your bike away using e a spare key they had! After you have reported it stolen, you read the fine print of the motorbike agreement and see that you have no insurance and that you are in fact liable for a replacement bike. Bit of a nasty one this. What a lot of the folks hiring motorbikes do is to ask to hang on to your passport as security. My strong recommendation is that you do not give it to them and if hiring a bike, it may be best to not let them know where you stay as this way, if you do have an unfortunate mishap, you can quietly disappear and they will be none the wiser... Yes, I know this is wrong, but sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. Also, if they know where you are staying they might come and take the bike at night when you are sleeping. Most of the folks hiring bikes are fine so do not worry too much!
It should be noted that the condition of some of the bikes can be iffy so try and get someone that knows a little about bikes to check it out before you take it, especially if you plan on taking a bike for a few days. A lot of the bikes hired out to tourists are not what I would term road-worthy - little in the way of decent tread on the tyres, the breaks are not operating as effectively as they should be, the engine is running rough etc.
Anyone travelling to Asia who has done their homework knows that drugs and Asia just do not mix. That said, there are still plenty of tourists who fail to heed the advice of every guidebook and use drugs while on holiday.
If you do drugs in Asia, you deserve what you get - it's as simple as that. I have never done, nor will I ever do drugs, but what you do is up to you. However, don't forget that the penalties in Thailand are VERY harsh if you are caught with drugs on your person. How harsh I hear you ask? Well there was the story of a Brit who was caught in Lumpini Park with drugs in person a few years back. The case went to court and if I remember rightly he got 50 years jail. 50 years!
I gather that drugs can be obtained easily in Thailand but while I know my way around Bangkok, I wouldn't have a clue where to get drugs from - and nor do I have any reason to know.
There are some tuktuk drivers and other Thais, especially in the backpacker areas, like Khao San Road, on Ko Phangnan and up in the far north, who will offer to provide drugs for you. But what may follow is the police knocking on your guesthouse door to bust your ass because they have been tipped off by Mr. Tuktuk Driver! Now Mr. Tuktuk didn't do this because he doesn't like farangs - in fact he loves them - but because he'll be getting a very nice cut of the money that you have to expend to pay off the cops to keep your virgin ass out of prison!
Yes, that's right, in the case of a small amount of drugs you may be given the option of paying your way out of it. As much as I am against drugs and corruption, my advice would be to pay whatever is asked. No-one wants to end up in a Thai prison.
THAIS WORKING IN THE TOURISM INDUSTRY
Some of the Thais in the tourist industry have become jaded dealing with foreigners day in day out and all of the cultural nuances that go with it. While most Thais that you meet will be friendly, there are some rogues out there who think nothing of scamming the foreigner. With this in mind, you need to be aware of anyone that appears too friendly without a reason which is hard to do as Thais are extremely nice people. If the chambermaid in the hotel is friendly then that is to be expected but if a stranger approaches you in a public place and seems too nice without a valid reason, you have reason to be cautious.
One scam that has been around forever sees well dressed Thais with decent English lingering near the entrance to popular tourist attractions telling visitors that a particular tourist attraction is closed that day. The Grand Palace, Wat Po, the Erawan Shrine and Jim Thompson's House are popular venues for these scammers but the scam can occur at any popular tourist attraction in Bangkok. Basically, as you approach the destination, a well dressed Thai approaches you and tell you that due to <insert some bullshit reason, often a government holiday> the said attraction is closed. They (usually a he) will try and steer you elsewhere, often to a duty free shop, jewellery store, tailor's or in the direction of some venue for which he will get a commission, all in much the same way that some tuktuk drivers and taxi drivers do.
In extreme cases, it may even be suggested that you go to a gambling game and gamble money on his behalf with him citing another crazy story that for some crazy reason, he cannot participate. This is all a big ruse to part you with your money. It pays to be suspicious of people approaching you out of the blue. They can be polite and very smooth and well rehearsed.
While Thai people can appear to be very friendly and gracious when you first meet them, be aware that the Thai smile does not always mean the same as the farang smile. Thais don't jut smile when they are happy - the smile can show one of many emotions but for the uninitiated it can be hard to read.
Thai people are some of the warmest and friendliest people in the world and your experience will no doubt be invigorated by the Thais' constant smiles and happy nature. It is sad to say that the Thais that are in constant contact with foreigners can become a little jaded and some of the people that you meet in your travels may only be interested in being pleasant to you if they believe there will be something in it for them. You may meet some money hungry folks. If you get the feeling that someone is only interested in your money, then give them a wide berth. Don't be surprised if Thais you meet ask you for a loan, something which may come as a surprise from someone you barely know. They may give you some sort of hard luck story about how they have no money, or how their tuition fees are due, or their rent is due, or some other fabrication. Sadly, many Thais do not look at a loan as something that needs to be repaid, but rather as a gift. Only give money away that you can afford to lose and do not expect to see again. Simply think to yourself if someone asked you for money under those circumstances in the West whether you would assist them or not. Remember, this is often a ruse and the money may well be used for liquor or narcotics!
Be careful when making complaints about service failures in Thailand. An aggressive tone or attitude which may be considered justified or normal to many Westerners when they have been let down is not effective with Thais. It not only rubs them up the wrong way, it upsets them and even if you have a genuine complaint, the Thais may not be responsive if they feel that they are being threatened. Keep calm and simply outline what has happened, and what you would like to happen next, be it a refund, a replacement, or whatever. As crazy as it sounds, Western tourists who complain loudly may find that the person they are complaining to thinks that the complainant is in the wrong - and may refuse to help! In a worst case scenario, someone arguing or complaining too loudly might be set upon by others who perceive their behaviour as threatening.
Many Thais really don't understand Westerners and vice versa. With different expectations, you may experience what you consider service failures often. A basic example is when you order food at a restaurant in Thailand it doesn't necessarily all come at the same time. So a wife's food might come 5, 10 or even 20 minutes before her husband's! For Thais this may not be an issue because they often order rice for everyone and share the "main" dishes. But for Westerners who tend not to eat this way - or in the case of Western food where people usually only eat from their own plate - it can become an issue. Complaining about it may confuse the service provider who simply doesn't understand that there is a difference in concept!
DOUBLE PRICING / MONEY SCAMS
It is a sad fact that in Thailand dual pricing is very much present and tourists are the targets of the inflated prices. At many places from national parks to tourist attractions and even to some restaurants there are two sets of prices, one set for the Thais, and another for foreigners. Sometimes the price difference is small, but at other times it is huge and can make the foreigner feel like they are being taken advantage of and ripped off.
To give you a few tangible examples, at many national parks it costs Thais 20 baht to enter and foreigners 400 baht. Yes, you read that right, foreigners pay 20 times the price that Thais do! At the Ancient City to the east of Bangkok, foreigners pay 300 baht while and Thai national pay 100 baht. And at a small but popular Thai restaurant opposite Wat Arun on the Chao Praya River, most dishes cost Thais 25 baht whereas foreigners are charged 50 baht.
There seems to be no logic nor reason behind the price differences. It cannot be argued that the foreigners make more money than Thais and so should be charged more because in many cases it is wealthy Thais who are visiting these places - and these people are very wealthy. It also cannot be reasonably argued that Thais pay taxies in Thailand and foreigners don't so the Thais have already contributed to the cost of the venue - many of the places charging these fees are privately owned businesses. Really, there is no other reason other than to gouge the tourist. Sadly, what many Thais fail to realise is that many foreigners choose to visit Thailand for the very reason that most things in the country are cheap and affordable. The Thais fail to realise that if they start playing games with prices like this then they will put foreigners off visiting - and then they will make nothing at all!
My feeling is that there is no problem with a venue offering discounted pricing to locals, so everyone pays the "standard" price and the locals get a discounted price. Unfortunately this is not what happens in Thailand these days. The locals pay the "standard" price, which could be deemed as a fair and reasonable price to gain entry into a venue or attraction whereas foreigners are gouged. As an example, at the Lumpini Thai boxing stadium the price for Thais is 230 baht whereas foreigners are charged between 1,000 and 2,000 baht, depending where they sit. 2,000 baht is a lot of money so we're not talking peanuts. The crazy thing is that international kickboxing events featuring current champions and big names can be seen in much superior and far more comfortable venues around the world for about half this amount. It is quite simply price gouging with the asking price way, way more than you would expect to pay in the West.
Another venue which thrives on gouging tourists is Ocean Word within the Siam Paragon shopping centre in the heart of Bangkok. The family discount price is 1,500 baht but this is for Thai families only whereas you will pay 3,000 baht if you are not Thai. Again, this is an INFLATED PRICE. I strongly encourage you to refrain from visiting venues which encourage such pricing.
I guess what riles me most of all is that at virtually every place where this scam is practiced it is done in an underhand way, with the price for foreigners in English, using Roman characters, whereas the prices for Thai people are in the Thai script, a script which very, very few foreigners can read.
Thailand based expats are often able to get around this problem either by simply speaking Thai to the vendor or ticket seller, or by producing some local ID, be it a Thai drivers license, a work permit, or some other local official document.
Loosely related, but not a scam as such, you may find when shopping in markets that you will be offered a price much higher than a Thai would but this is just standard market practice and fair play. How well can you bargain?!
The picture here shows a price board from the Sukhothai Historical Park in Northern Thailand - all of the text in red was added by me. I have taken the liberty of translating the Thai numbers into characters readers can understand. I just wish they wouldn't be so sneaky about it. Why don't they just come out and say that it is Thailand and they are going to offer reduced rates to their nationals? That they go and hide this irritates many Westerners. It is annoying too that at some places the price difference can be up to ten times more for foreigners!
Another of my pet hates is the "I no have change" look that some vendors come up with. A favourite scam of anyone providing transportation to you, this is usually a ploy to extract "a tip" from you. If the driver / rider refuses to give you change, tell them that you will not pay which usually prompts them to suddenly discover that long last cache of change in their pocket or somewhere in their vehicle! Alternatively, if they do not have change, they will quickly find someone that does, usually the nearest street vendor or 7-Eleven store. Please do remember however that 1,000 baht is a lot of money in Thailand and that trying to pay for a 60 baht taxi fare with a 1,000 baht note is simply asking for trouble.
Thailand is noisy! This is not a problem that you will necessarily read about elsewhere online, but to me it is one of the fundamental issues I suffer when I try to relax in Thailand. It doesn't matter if I am at the beach, or in my condo, there is always some noise interrupting my thought process, and indeed my very ability to think, or to relax.
Noise does not seem to bother the Thais like it bothers Westerners. For Thais, smell is the sense that bothers them and if something smells really foul this can really upset Thais and they lose their balance, so to speak. Unfortunately they do not seem to understand that for Westerners, smell is less of a problem than noise.
The problem of noise manifests itself in many ways. Imagine sitting at the beach in Thailand, kicking back on a beach chair, all relaxed, your eyes closed and you can feel yourself drifting off to sleep when suddenly a nearby (or perhaps even not so nearby) establishment decides to turn the sound on their music system up to full ball. The tranquility is lost. Or the noise pollution of hoons on jet skis going up and down the beach at break neck speed with the awful sound the jet ski makes. Or what about my pet peeve. There you are, just about out for the count, totally relaxed, when you feel, but don't necessarily even see, the presence of a beach vendor standing over you. "Mister, you want buy <insert name of some stupid trinket>".
Thailand is a great place for a holiday, but if you are after a really relaxing time at the beach, I strongly suggest you spend a bit more money and check into a quality resort where you do not have to put up with the awful noise pollution that mars the experience at so many Thai beaches.
DANGEROUS ANIMALS AND OTHER CREATURES
Thailand is located in tropical Asia and it should come as no surprise that in this part of the world, there are all sorts of tropical animals, bugs, insects, snakes etc. You're unlikely to see any in the big cities but if you go trekking in the countryside, it is more than possible that a scorpion, snake or poisonous centipede may cross your path. It's all part of the experience!
Many tourist sites in Thailand do not have the same safety controls in place that you might expect at similar such sites in the West.
I was at a snake show once and the crowd was encouraged to get really close to the snakes and their handlers to allow photos to be taken. One snake got away from the handler and made a beeline for one of the tourists there. A handler dived and grabbed it just before it got to the shocked tourist. The MC just chuckled when someone asked if the snake was poisonous. "Oh, it is deadly", he replied! Mai pen rai!
Then there was the elephant that ran through a fence in Pattaya and killed one member of a family there some years back.
And of course there was the time when I was riding an elephant in Phuket amongst a trail of elephants and the British guy on the elephant in front of me fell over and rolled about ten metres (!!) down a bank injuring himself quite badly.
And then.....you get the picture. Thailand is not so much dangerous but the Western safety features and controls that you may be used to are not prevalent here so sometimes you have to be aware and take responsibility for yourself. Further, if you do suffer any damage through negligence of the locals, do not expect to be compensated for it. If anything, you might be threatened with further harm if you start making claims for compensation.
In Bangkok I really think a trip to Lumpini Park is worthwhile if for nothing else than to see and photograph the huge, ugly monitor lizards that call Lumpini Park home. These ugly reptiles are called "hee-a" in Thai which is actually used as a swear word in the local lingo as well as being the word for the ugly beasts. I personally find these beasts fascinating and have spent many a Sunday afternoon in Lumpini photographing them. The big ones are actually quite scary! Don't get too close to them because they will bite and their mouths are supposed to be incredibly dirty and the treatment for a bite is a very long course of antibiotics. Thais tell me that some people bit by these vermin have ended up losing a limb. You've been warned!
THE TOURIST POLICE
Realizing the importance of tourism to the country, the Thai Government had the excellent idea to set up a special division of the police force whose job it is to help tourists in distress. Known as the Tourist Police, officers from this department can be seen in most of the major tourist areas around Thailand. They have the same brown coloured uniform as the regular police with a badge that says Tourist Police on their shoulder. The officers are supposed to be friendly and helpful and as a bonus, are supposed to speak English too. If you have any problems at all, they should be the first people that you consult. In some centres the tourist police may have their own little police station but often they will be stationed along with the regular police force.
The reality is that readers have had mixed reactions to the tourist police. They often speak little or no English and they are not always that helpful in the instances of scams or rip-offs - which is that many foreigners thought they were there to help with in the first place!
In some centres, including Phuket, Pattaya and Chiang Mai, there are volunteer tourist police. There are two types of volunteer police, Westerners and Thais. They will wear a uniform that clearly says tourist police volunteer on it. They do not have the same powers or authority of police but instead their role is to help anyone who may be in distress.
WOMEN OF THE NIGHT
A final note needs to be said about the infamous women of the night in Thailand. If you think you may indulge with the ladies of the night, then you should remember one piece of advice, what ever you do, NEVER fall in love with a bargirl because if you do, you'll be in for a hell of a ride!
These bargirls, or let's call them what they are, prostitutes, will try and treat men extremely well in the interest of separating the man from his hard earned money. They will say and do everything they can to do that but at the end of the day they are after your money.
Do be careful of drinks you are offered from some women who work as freelancers, that is prostitutes who work in discos and other bars where they can just come and go as they please. it is not unusual for them to drug the drinks of guys they meet so they can go back to the guy's room and relieve him of his valuables.
Please also be aware that Thai women do not necessarily believe in the concept of "free sex", something they see as an entirely Western concept. This means that if you meet a Thai woman in a bar, or a place where women of questionable repute hang out and you later end up in your hotel room, or elsewhere with her, that she might actually expect payment from her. This is a bit of a problem if you do not know the environment well because asking a woman if she is a hooker or not is getting close to be the ultimate turn off!
Over the past few years there have been very major problems with separatist insurgents in the deep south of Thailand. For the time being the problems have been isolated to the four southernmost provinces, where there have been all sorts of problems including countless gruesome murders with many of the victims being beheaded. For some time now there have been threats that the terrorists will take their fight to Bangkok and the likely targets are the very places where you find Western tourists including shopping centres and nightlife entertainment areas.
No-one knows what the future holds in this respect but most Westerners who have resided in Thailand for a long time think that it is just a matter of time before the terrorists blow something up in the Thai capital. The targets I hear most mentioned are Emporium and Paragon shopping centres as well as Khao San Road, Nana Plaza and Patpong. I'll admit that all of those places make me nervous at night. I personally think a big bomb going off in Khao San Road would be far and away the worst in terms of damage to the tourism industry.
What makes me mad about virtually all of these problems and scams that tourists face in Thailand is that they have been going on for years and years and neither the police nor the tourism authorities appear to be doing anything to stop them. That means that every day there are new victims of the scams, and the conmen behind them continue to get rich. Of course one can hypothesize why the scams continue...just who is in on them?!
THE THAILAND JET SKI SCAM
In recent years there has been a massive increase in what is known as the jet ski scam. Jet skis are available for hire at 1,500 - 2,000 baht an hour at many popular beaches. The scam is simple. When you return the jet ski to the beach, the person or group who hired it to you will examine the jet ski and discover some damage that they will claim wasn't there when they hired it to you. They will then make claims for a large amount of compensation, usually 10,000 - 20,000 baht for damages and lost income for the time that the jet ski is supposedly being repaired. If you refuse to pay, they will make threats about how you will ultimately not only have to pay for the supposed damages, you will also end up in prison. The vast majority of people buckle, often negotiating the amount to be paid down. Still, few people caught up in this scam manage to escape without being extorted out of several thousand baht.
What is scary about this scam is that the police - and the tourist police - don't seem to take any interest even though many of us believe that they are fully aware of what is going on.
This scam is widespread in Thailand and particularly prevalent on Patpong Beach in Phuket and in Pattaya. It has been highlighted in newspapers, in YouTube videos and many tourists have returned to their country to warn others never to hire a jet ski in Thailand, or even never to visit Thailand!
The problem with the authorities is that despite past promises that they would do something about the problem, including compulsory insurance for all jet ski hire operators, now they will not even acknowledge that the scams happen – so there’s almost zero chance of assistance. My advice on this matter is simple, DO NOT HIRE A JET SKI IN THAILAND!
What follows is various information about some of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand, as well as a number of other places I have visited. I have tried to give a summary of information about each area, as well as mention some of the most interesting things to do there, basically listing all of the sort of info that I think may be useful.
Bangkok is truly a city that never sleeps, a city with a real energy that can induce you in, take a firm hold of you and in some cases, refuse to let go! Bangkok is not a city of endless tourist attractions and must see museums, but a city you visit to feel the vibe. Bangkok has an energy seldom found elsewhere.
I'd love to Bangkok to say that Bangkok is a pretty city with lots of parks, gardens and other natural attractions but to do so would be a dreadful lie. Apart from a few areas, Bangkok is not pleasant on the eye. It's flat without many landmarks viewable from all over the city and that makes it a very easy place to get lost.
As you travel around in the heat, fumes and humidity of one of Asia's biggest cities, you can quickly begin to think that the few days you had planned to stay there was too long and you might suddenly want to just press the fast forward button and move on to the next part of your trip. To the uninitiated, it can appear to be another big, drab grey city but if you persevere, exploring the city can be a rewarding experience.
As far as attractions and interesting things to see and do in Bangkok go, there are a handful. The old part of town, that is the area down near the river, not far from the Khao San Road area, is where you'll find a lot of the more culturally and historically significant building and temples. That is one part of the city that is actually quite pretty. For many the highlight of the area is the Grand Palace, the most culturally important of all of Thailand's 40,000+ Buddhist temples. The Grand Palace does suffer from huge numbers of tourists and it would have to be the most visited attraction in the country. Over run with tourists, this is one Buddhist temple where you don't get that serene peaceful feeling that I associate with many other places of worship. The dress code for entry is strictly enforced - you shouldn't wear anything to brief or a sleeveless shirt. The Thai ticket staff are not the friendliest and like a growing number of Thais who deal with huge numbers of Westerners on a daily basis you are made to feel like it is a privilege to pay the 250 baht entry fee (Thais get in free).
Sort of over and behind the Grand Palace is Wat Po, which I personally prefer to the Grand Palace. It doesn't get nearly the same number of visitors as the Grand Palace and there is the huge reclining Buddha to see, the largest reclining Buddha in the world, I believe.
The other major temple in this area is Wat Arun, most probably the most photographed temple, or for that matter, location, in all of Bangkok. Wat Arun is the fascinating temple just over the Chao Praya River from the Grand Palace and Wat Po. You can take a cross river ferry for 3 baht to reach it. Note that the three most popular temples for foreigners to visit are the Grand Palace (Wat Pra Kaew), Wat Po and Wat Arun. There is something very enchanting about Wat Arun that sort of draws you to it. I find it a wonderful temple complex to wander through and explore and I personally never bore of it. I can't count how many times I have been there, and how many out of town friends I have walked through with, but it must be in excess of 20!
In addition to these three temples there are many other Buddhist temples in the old part of town. As they are fairly close together, they can be easily reached on foot - though in the hot season, it might be slightly tough going! Wandering around the area is enjoyable and you just never know what you are going to see around the next corner. Virtually all of the temples in the area, apart from the Grand Palace, charge just 20 baht entry fee - and in many cases they are free!
Without wanting to sound negative, if you've had enough of getting ripped off and overcharged, you'll be happy to know that at a lot of the temples, it is not just possible, but downright simple, to slip in one of the side or back doors. That's not to say that I condone doing that, but when you have been ripped off a few times already, such behaviour comes a lot more easily!
The area near the river area is a must see and if you want to get a good look at it AND do it on the cheap, scroll down towards the bottom of this page to the section titled, Stickman's Bangkok Tour.
The tallest building in Bangkok is the Baiyoke 2 Tower which towers above everything else. It's located a few hundred metres up from the Central World Plaza in a busy parks of the Pratunam Market. The tower soars around 300 metres into the sky and from the top, on a clear day at least, you get good views of Bangkok. When overcast the view is not nearly as good. Like many such buildings around the world, there is the obligatory city view restaurant though just about everyone that I know who has been there has said that it was disappointing. With this in mind, consider making your food arrangements back at ground level. Going up the tower to the observation level costs 150 baht. If you fancy eating up there, the cost of the buffet is less than 500 baht, and the cost of going up is included.
There's a somewhat dated but still interesting snake farm right in the heart of the city. Located on Rama 4 Road, within the Red Cross compound, it features a show that is presented in both English and Thai. There are a variety of snakes on hand, all of which are horribly fearsome! It would be an idea to time your visit for the slide presentation and snake show which is run three times a day with the times printed on the sign out the front. When they do the snake show, the audience is seated in a small grandstand like structure VERY close to the action. This is great for photos but like a lot of things in Thailand, I have reservations about safety. When I was there, this Australian fellow was sitting down below the grandstand trying to get some close up photos and I guess he was around 3 metres from the snake. Somehow, this somewhat tempestuous snake got away from the handler and accelerated like a Ferrari on a race track, making a beeline for the Aussie. Two snake handlers dived and caught the snake just before it reached the now frozen tourist. The announcer chuckled and someone from the audience asked if that particular snake was poisonous to which he said words to the effect that it was deadly! Don't let this little story put you off as it is an excellent attraction and as long as you don't get too close, there shouldn't be any real safety issue. And at 70 baht, it's a bargain. When they finish the show, you have the opportunity to get the old snake around the neck photo at no extra cost. Being somewhat nervous of these creatures, I declined that kind offer.
Any visit to Bangkok should include checking out some of the city's markets. Chatuchak Market, also known as the weekend market is large and impressive, but not exactly comfortable, and Patpong Night Market, just a short walk from the Sala Daeng BTS station right slap in the middle of the city's commercial district is worth a look. Somewhat more wholesome is the Lumpini Night Market, a large area right across the road from Lumpini Park and reached by the Lumpini underground station.
Also in the Lumpini area is one of the city's two major Thai boxing stadiums, Lumpini Stadium. I haven't been for many years and I have heard that this venue has introduced double pricing at tickets for Westerners are at sky high prices. Someone even mentioned the figure of 1,000 baht though surely this couldn't be right as that is almost $US30! I enjoy the Thai kickboxing and really must make it along again. Rather than go for ringside seats, I think it is a lot more fun to sit up in the main stand with the Thais and watch them gambling. Heaps of fun!
The Ancient City, known as Meuang Boran in Thai, located a fair distance from the centre of Bangkok, is another excellent attraction, in fact the word excellent really doesn't do it justice. In this quite outstanding attraction, the creators have built scale models of more than 100 of the most famous and / or notable buildings, temples and structures around Thailand and made them into what is essentially a drive around theme park! It is a wonderful opportunity to see LARGE scale models of many of the beautiful buildings and temples found throughout the Kingdom. The first time that I went there I didn't even realise that all of the buildings were actually replicas as some of them are that big! You need a few hours to do it justice. It truly is a photographer's dream. The major problem with this attraction is not so much that it is located so far from the centre of Bangkok - which in itself is a minor issue - but more that the attraction itself is spread out over a large area and is too big to comfortably walk around, hence the need for a car, which few visitors have - and I doubt many taxis would be keen to run you around at the standard metered rate. While some people (ONLY foreigners - a Thai would never dream of that) do walk around it, it really is made to be seen by car. I don't know how big it is but would guess quite a few square kilometres. You could try and hire a cab for a half a day to take you there, drive you around and drop you back into the centre of town. I'm not even going to try and give you directions on how to get there because I got lost when I tried to find it... Of course you can hire bicycle to make your way around but in the heat of the Thai sun that is going to become tough work. I hate to say it but this place has now introduced dual pricing and the cost for foreigners is 300 baht while for Thais it is 100 baht. Is it worth visiting? I'll leave it to you to make that choice.
Some of the other more popular attractions for tourists visiting Bangkok are actually outside the city limits. I have never been to the Floating Market which is actually in Rachaburi province, to the south-west of the capital as I have heard that it is very heavily touristed and such attractions don't appeal that much. However, there are supposed to be really good opportunities for photography. I have also never been to the Crocodile farm which is located very close to the Ancient City. Like snakes, crocs make me nervous. Also, the price for foreigners of 400 baht, is eight times the price for Thais at 50 baht - and I refuse to play that game. Make it 100 baht for everyone and I'll check it out.
There are a number of different companies offering dinner cruises on the Chao Praya river. Some of the deals are for a buffet dinner and some are a la carte. Figure at least 1,000 baht a head. The river is a really impressive part of the city and is well worth spending a good chunk of your time.
* Please note that there is only a limited amount of information on this page about tourist attractions in Bangkok. For more information about the Thai capital you might want to check out the living and working in Bangkok section of the site which has much more information about the city, although it is less from the perspective of a tourist, and more from that of an expat.
Pros: The Thai capital is less about tourist attractions - although there are many, but more about the vibe. Friendly people who are easily excited like to have fun - and their attitude and zest for life can be infectious.
Cons: It's a drab, grey city with awful traffic problems. It is also home to some who prey on tourists with various scams. You won't get hit over the head and left for dead, but you might get tricked or deceived out of your money.
The Bottom Line: Worth a few days of your time!
It was the beautiful island of Phuket that first lured me to the Kingdom Of Thailand. A friend had visited Thailand the previous Christmas and raved about how great it was, especially Phuket. We had been friends for a long time and he knew the sort of things I liked and said that Phuket would be the ideal holiday destination for me. At that time in my life, I used to love just sitting around in the sun all day doing little to nothing. When I finally made it to the paradise island, I fell in love with Phuket which holds a special place in my heart. In fact when I first moved to Thailand my plan was to go to Phuket and secure a job teaching English down there but for whatever reason, it never happened and I ended up in Bangkok.
Phuket is one of the world's premier beach holiday destinations and ranks alongside the French Riviera, the Mediterranean and Hawaii as places where people will happily endure up to 24 hours discomfort on a plane for the promise of the quintessential beach holiday. But is Phuket the quintessential Thai beach holiday? With Phuket now firmly ranking up there as one of the world's premier beach destinations, the secluded beach charm that this island once laid claim to has well and truly gone and we now have a tourism industry centered around the noisy, rowdy and highly touristed Patpong Beach. Patong Beach is NOT Thailand - it feels more like a slice of Europe to me, quite frankly.
Phuket is an island connected to the Thai mainland by a bridge, and is located about 1,000 km from Bangkok. While most people choose to reach the island by plane, you can also drive the distance, something I did in 2006 in a very brisk 10 hours. Buses all depart Bangkok for Phuket but the train doesn't make it that far. If you wanted to travel by train, you would have to get off at Surat Thani in the south and make your ay to Phuket from there by bus.
There are many beaches around the island province of Phuket but by far and away the most developed is Patong Beach. Patong Beach is tourist central where all of the nations of the world come together. I have always felt that Patong Beach was like a far flung satellite of continental Europe. Europeans holidaying read European newspapers, eat European style food and demand all of the things that they expect at home. Here you will find far, far, far more Indian and Italian restaurants than you will Thai restaurants, proving just how touristed Patong place has become. One tip with such ethnic restaurants is to check where the chef comes from. An Italian restaurant with an Italian chef likely has better food than an Italian restaurant with a Thai chef.
Patong is the nightlife capital of the island and over the last 15 years has grown into something of a sex tourism destination, not that much different to Pattaya, only smaller. Soi after soi can be found with naughty bars full of naughty women. Bangla Road on Patpong Beach comes alive at night as garish neon signs and almost equally as garish women actively seek out the company of foreign men for the night, for a price of course. The naughty bars can also be found elsewhere in the island, in fact wherever you find Western bars, you find girly bars. There is a smaller number at Karon and even fewer over at Kata. For Phuket nightlife, Patong is the centre.
The beach itself at Patong gets very busy and you may find yourself fighting for space on the beach with folks from every country you have ever heard of and a few that you haven't heard of. Jet skis roar past disturbing the peace and tranquility and touts race around the beach, trying to convince you of the merits of paragliding. Patong Beach remains the most popular spot on Phuket but in my mind it is not the nicest of the Phuket beaches. Venture around a little and you can find some lovely spots.
South of Patpong Beach is Karon Beach, my favourite of Phuket's beaches. 3 km of soft white sand lead gently down to the beautiful Andaman Sea. Karon Beach doesn't have nearly as many hotels as Patpong so there aren't nearly as many people on Karon which makes it that much more relaxing. You also don't have the same number of pests coming to sell their junk which is a relief. If you want hustle and bustle, a great range of restaurants and plenty of nightlife, then Karon may not be for you. But if you want a gorgeous beach with less razzmatazz, a place where you CAN actually kick back, and relax, then Karon is an ideal location.
While accommodation prices have moved in a similar manner to those at Patong, the prices at Karon are more attractive than Patong.
Perhaps the one downside about Karon Beach is that the beach is not considered safe for swimming in the monsoon season, which in Phuket is from the end of May until the start of November. A number of Western tourists drown on Phuket every year, many simply do not heed the advice clearly stated on signs saying that one should not swim at these times.
South of Karon Beach is Kata Beach, a somewhat smaller beach that is NOT a private beach for Club Med as some people believe. This, like Karon, is another really lovely beach and a great place to wile away the days and baste yourself under the hot Thai sun. Accommodation and restaurants are a little cheaper there than the other beaches. It is certainly much quieter and less hustle and bustle than Patong.
Throughout the tourism high season from December right through to the Songkran holidays in April, Phuket is over run with Europeans, trying to escape their cold, politically correct homelands. Phuket provides them with a tropical island paradise, but also with the promise of all of the comforts of home. Indeed, Phuket is so developed now that it rivals the aforementioned Hawaii and French Riviera for Western facilities. Ask anyone to name just one Thai beach destination and odds are that Phuket is the one that will roll off their lips first, such is the proliferation of tourism in this slice of paradise.
A decade ago Phuket was affordable to all, but when the Thai currency crashed in the middle of 1997, Phuket hotels adjusted their rates accordingly and Phuket accommodation can now be quite expensive during the high season - fuelled by ever increasing demand. Hotels in Phuket are generally considered the most expensive in all of Thailand, even more expensive than what you find in Bangkok.
Another reason why Phuket has boomed in recent years is the turbulence in Indonesia with the Bali bombings which saw thousands of people cancelling their holidays to Bali and switching to Phuket instead. A lot of these people that previously went to Bali have now found that Phuket offers so much more and Phuket is one big winner...
One of the downsides of Phuket is getting around the island. If you are daring, motorbikes can be hired from as little as 150 baht per day, but I personally am simply not game to get on the back of one of these and zoom around on the island's dangerous roads. Every year, hundreds of foreigners are involved in motorbike crashes on Phuket and many accidents are fatal.
The next option on Phuket becomes Phuket's public transport, the small red songtaews that the drivers often refer to as tuktuks, which they clearly are not. The drivers of these vehicles ask for and get silly money for what really are short journeys. A typical journey would be the hill road from Patong over to Karon Beach, or vice versa. In 1997, you could easily get this for 50 baht which was fair as it is probably about a 6 - 7 km journey but in 1998, prices had shot up to 150 baht and getting it for any less than that proved quite difficult. Nowadays, the cost is more like 200 - 300 baht. This is a CRAZY price and proves that a false economy exists - there is no way a Thai would pay that price but Western tourists, especially Europeans who may think in terms of the prices in Euros don't even think twice about it. I wonder if there is a huge list of people wanting to become tuktuk drivers on Phuket because with these sorts of fares, they could become rich overnight. Travelling across the island to Phuket Town will cost even more and I guess hiring one of these little vehicles to get you over there would be in the region of 500 baht.
Phuket Town, the provincial capital, is located on the east of the island, 20+ km from the popular beaches where much of the tourism industry is centered. It is a funny sort of a place and almost seems out of place on what can mistakenly seem like a farang dominated island. Sure, there are far more Thai nationals living on Phuket than farangs and other foreigners but it is the foreigners that you notice as you do your rounds on the west coast beaches. Phuket Town is just like any other small non-descript provincial Thai town - with nothing in particular going for it. There is a Robinson's Department Store which makes for a nice place to go and escape the heat. In that particular shopping centre there are a few other shops but really, there is nothing that really warrants making the journey over there. You could go up the hill and get a decent view over Phuket Town or go down and see the port with all of the fishing boats, that is if you are really bored.
A few years back a large Central Shopping Centre opened in the centre of the island, between the beaches on the west coast and Phuket Town. This is the island's largest shopping centre and hope to a modern cinema multiplex.
The Thais realise that tourists attracted to Phuket are a relatively well off crowd and it seems to me that everything is expensive, right across the board. Sure, you can get a plate of fried rice for 25 baht on the street if you really hunt hard for it but I don't notice many foreigners eating from such vendors in Phuket. Besides, restaurants selling Thai style food at these prices are well away from the areas where most of the farangs venture. Restaurants are dear as stated already but most everything on the beach is dear too. Deck chairs used to go for 50 baht a chair as opposed to 10 - 20 in other parts of Thailand, but then I have heard they have now gone up to 100 baht - can anyone confirm that? The fellows walking along selling ice creams often sell them at three times the standard price. The paragliding and jet ski prices are about 50% dearer than other beaches in Thailand.
Phuket is a magnificent place for a holiday but if you are on a budget, you may want to consider that a cheaper time can be had elsewhere. Sadly, it doesn't look as though things will change too quickly as tourists continue to visit Phuket in record numbers.
And just to top the expensive pricing off, if you decide to go to Phuket by air, the airport is a bit of a hike from the main beach areas and it will cost you in excess of 500 baht to get a taxi to reach one of the West coast beaches. You can grab a seat in a minivan for 150 baht.
The west coast beaches of Phuket, namely Patong, Karon and Kata beaches are almost entirely tourism based economies and the local Thais are fully aware that it is the farang that lays the golden egg. While scams and overcharging may occur, these beaches are generally safe and crimes of violence or theft against tourists are not common. The locals are very conscious of the need to make sure the foreigners keep returning - and keep spending money.
There are many day trip options available from Phuket. Two of these in particular are well worthwhile. The first recommended day trip is the one that takes you to Phanga Bay and the so called James Bond Island. Phanga Bay is the province immediately north of Phuket and is famous for its limestone cliffs and rock structures that jut out of the water. A lot of the day trips to Phanga will incorporate a visit to the James Bond Island, so named because it was used in the filming of the movie, "Man With The Golden Gun". There is usually a visit to one of the island based Muslim villages where lunch is served, and which are interesting to explore and get a feel of village life. There's usually also a stop at one of the small offshore islands where you get a chance to sit in the sun for an hour or so, soak up the sun's rays and go for a swim in the crystal clear, warm tropical waters. A lot of the time is spent cruising around the scenic bay. The day trip I took in that neck of the woods was probably the best day trip I have taken in Thailand. While you could do it yourself by hiring long tail boats etc, I found that by doing it in a small group on a bigger boat was a lot of fun.
The second day trip that is well worthwhile is over to the small paradise like island, Phi Phi. This is the island where every Thai girl's heart-throb Leo Di Caprio filmed the movie, "The Beach". This island is stunningly beautiful and I reckon that 20 years ago, it would have been one of the most idyllic places on the planet. Sadly, this is no longer the case and tourism has all but ruined it. Don't get me wrong, you can go there and thoroughly enjoy it but with it being heavily touristed, one day is enough. Thousands of daytrippers and package tourists go there every day. You can stay overnight or for a number of nights, but accommodation prices can be steep.
I am not a diver but there are a lot of diving operations operating off Phuket and I am told that the diving in the area is really excellent.
Phuket has totally recovered from the tsunami which hit a few years back.
Pros: Beautiful, diverse island with a little something for most people. Some beautiful beaches. Some SUPERB day trips available including Phi Phi Island and Phanga Bay.
Cons: Phuket isn't cheap. A lot of very jaded Thais work the Phuket tourist scene. Local transport is far too expensive. Food prices, especially some of the restaurants in big hotels targeting Westerners, are expensive.
The Bottom Line: If you want a comfortable beach holiday with Western comforts, Phuket is the place for you.
Pattaya rightfully enjoys the reputation as the sex and sand capital of Asia, and really for that matter, the world. Nowhere on earth can you find such a well developed tourism industry where sex is such a big part of it, as you can in Pattaya. Although Pattaya is slowly moving away from the reputation it has for being the world's sex tourism capital (yes, it REALLY is trying to re-position itself), that is still the primary reason why so many choose Pattaya for their holiday.
Pattaya is located 150 km south east of Bangkok. What was once a small fishing village is now one of Asia's tourism hot spots, and I believe the most popular beach destination in all of Thailand. Pattaya is easily reached by road from Bangkok and the drive takes about 2 hours from central Bangkok, or about an hour and a half from the international airport. (On holiday weekends the traffic from Bangkok to Pattaya can be bad and the journey time doubles.) Pattaya doesn't have an international airport and the nearest airport is about a 30 minute drive away, hence most people arrive by road. There is also a train station, but the journey from Bangkok by rail is much slower than road, hence road is the easiest means of reaching Pattaya. Buses leave for Pattaya from Bangkok's Ekamai and MoChit bus stations and the last time I heard the cost of a ticket was around 125 baht, ridiculously cheap, quite frankly. Many people choose to travel by taxi, though be warned that drivers will not use the meter for a journey of such length. The days of being able to negotiate a fare to Pattaya for 1,000 baht seem to be a thing of the past and apparently you're doing well if you can get it for 1,200 baht, plus tollway fees. Yes, you really do want to take the expressway, which from downtown Bangkok will mean a total of 130 baht in tolls. (Incidentally, getting a taxi back to Bangkok from Pattaya can be had for 800 baht (+ tollway fees)!)
Once you've reached Pattaya you'll have to find somewhere to stay and if there is one area where Pattaya really excels, it is in the huge choice of very affordable accommodation. At the bottom end you can get a room for the night for 200 baht, although that would be very basic, right up to the top end places like the Dusit Resort, the Marriott and the Sheraton, all of where you're looking at in excess of $US100 a night, perhaps a lot more in the high season. But it is in the mid-range where Pattaya accommodation represents the best value for money. In the range of around 700 up to 1,500 baht, there is a huge range of places, far, far too many to list. And with there being so many choices of accommodation, even at the peak of the high season, you can usually find a vacancy, though you might have to pound the pavement for a while.
Pattaya's high season as far as many hotels are concerned is December 1st through to February 28th and it is at this time of year when the hotels put in place their high season rates. The rates drop at many places on March 1st and others either April 15th or April 30th. You can get a very good deal on accommodation in Pattaya.
There are a few beaches in the Pattaya area. The first and most popular beach is Pattaya Beach. Over the hill to the south is Jomtien Beach which is very popular with Thais, especially at the weekend, and to the north of Pattaya are Nagleua and Wongamart beaches, both of which are popular with older Europeans, particularly German speakers (meaning not just Germany, but Austria and Switzerland too.)
Pattaya Beach. Well, what can I say? It's your typical crescent shaped beach, perhaps 3 km long, and is one of those beaches that is just long enough that you can walk from one end to the other without taking a break and without getting bored or tired. However, it wouldn't be anywhere near getting on the Thailand Beach Top 10 list. With a good camera and blue sky the beach can be made to look pretty but when you're there, you never really feel like you're in paradise - which you do at some other Thai beaches, such as those in Phuket or on Ko Samui.
Another major problem with the beach at Pattaya is that the water in the bay is dirty There's a lot of rubbish floating in the water and which washes up onshore, hardly making the place picturesque.
There are numerous fishing vessels moored relatively close to the beach and while one understands that they have a living to make, they can be quite an eyesore. Someone once told me that there is a sewerage pump that pumps all of the refuse from Pattaya out into the ocean which then all gets swept back in. True or not, I don't know. But one thing's for sure, there are plenty of Bangkok Thais who will look at you in horror if you told them you went for a swim at Pattaya, such are their thoughts on the cleanliness of the beach.
But it is not necessarily the beach that people come to Pattaya for. No, that is often second on people's list of things to do...
Pattaya is not like any other seaside town with a mediocre beach because I do not know of any other beach that can boast such a vibrant nightlife with over 1,000 bars, with what has been reported at around 20,000 working girls - or let's call then what they are - prostitutes.
The city's infrastructure is set up to deal with the mix of Thai working women and single Western men, as has traditionally been the most common type of visitor to Pattaya.
Pattaya has been sold as a holiday destination to some unwitting Westerners who have brought the kids for a family vacation only to find that the city is one big brother (as my Thai doctor describes Pattaya.) Really, if you have an aversion to the bars then you might want to choose somewhere else, although with that said, a lot of families to make it to Pattaya and they seem to have an enjoyable enough time. Cries from scantily clad ladies leaning out of bars with loud music playing of "hello handsome man" may not be what an marriage on the rocks needs. Let's not beat about the bush, Pattaya is the sex capital of Thailand for foreigners. An exotic beach holiday is something that it may promise, but in my opinion doesn't really deliver.
Pattaya is relatively easy to get around. Just flag down one of the songtaews, those are the pick up trucks as pictured here, that travel up and down the roads. If you are in Pattaya on holiday, you may not know exactly where to go so you want to get one that is going in the right direction. When you want to get off, just press one of the roof-mounted buzzes and the driver will stop the vehicle. When you get out you pay him. Fares on "regular routes", that is when you just hail one of these vehicles and climb in to the back without actually hiring it yourself and negotiating a fare, are 5 baht for Thais and 10 baht for foreigners. You read that right, the drivers charge local Thais 5 baht and foreigners (and even out of town Thais) 10 baht. Of course this is a highly questionable practice, and one that some of the local Westerners resident in Pattaya year round eschew. They will give the driver 5 baht and walk off. Personally, I do not recommend this. The drivers of these songtaews are a motley bunch and some may think nothing of getting the nearest weapon (they may carry one in the cab of the vehicle) and attacking you with it - all for 5 baht. Now I like to think of myself as a man of principle and I would not usually advise someone to pay the extra, purely on principle, but I know what these drivers are like, and really, it is not an issue you want to fight over 5 baht for.
Of course the fare will be different if you hire one of the songtaews to go from one specific point to another. This is where you have to be very careful. If you jump in and tell the driver where you want to go, he may assume that you want to hire him and upon reaching your destination, you may find that he wants to charge you a silly price for the trip, arguing that you hired him specifically for that journey. To avoid this, either just get in and see where it goes before getting out, or else negotiate a fare with him at the time of telling him where you want to go. Unless you are going a considerable distance, the fare should not exceed 100 baht, and that is for the whole vehicle, irrespective of how many people are onboard. If you are going to or from the bus station to the main beach area, the fare is typically 20 baht. Going from Pattaya Beach to Jomtien and vice versa costs 10 baht. You can get a motorbike taxi from the bus station to the beach for around 50 baht and vice versa although you may have to press them pretty hard to get this price - but it is possible! For other short distance rides around, taxis charge the locals 20 baht upwards but what you may get if you are not a Thai speaker could be a bit of a lottery.
Over the hill from Pattaya, just a short 10 baht songtaew ride is Jomtien Beach, a nicer beach than Pattaya Beach, and a quieter area. Jomtien tends to be quiet Monday to Friday but can be over run with Thais at the weekend. On the whole Jomtien is a lot quieter than Pattaya and has fewer hotels and girly bars. Jomtien, or at least the hill going from Pattaya over to Jomtien is home to many of Pattaya's best restaurants. For a city known for sleaze, one of the very pleasant surprises in Pattaya is the number of very good, inexpensive restaurants. Tastes vary, but everyone seems to agree that Mata Hari and Bruno's are right up there amongst the best of Pattaya's restaurants, and both of these are on the hill between Pattaya and Jomtien. There are a heap of other restaurants on this hill, some of them pricey, and some of them very inexpensive.
In Pattaya itself, there are too many good restaurants to list. In terms of fine dining, Casa Pascal is perhaps the pick of the bunch with prices to match. But the great thing about Pattaya is that you do not need to pay a lot to eat well. In the area surrounding Deuk Com, that is the Computer Shopping Centre on South Pattaya Road are a number of really decent restaurants that seem to predominantly attract Westerners resident in Pattaya. You can get some real deals in these restaurants. One of my favourites, a little French place, has a daily menu where you choose an appetiser, a main, a dessert and you get bread and butter plus coffee and tea, all for 220 baht. Now upon hearing this you may think they are going to serve up something questionable but no, you'd be wrong. The French owner is always hovering and the food that comes out of the kitchen is excellent. It is truly a steal and one of Pattaya's best dining deals!
There are too many good places to recommend and it is just a case of finding somewhere that you like the look of and parking yourself there. Being next to the sea and home to a lot of fisherman, the seafood is obviously pretty good in Pattaya although I have to say that I much prefer Hua Hin for good, inexpensive seafood.
Another thing that Pattaya does well, and at bargain basement prices, is the buffet breakfast. Many hotels offer a buffet with a huge range of breakfast treats with some hotels pricing their breakfasts as cheap as 99 baht! Yes, 99 baht for all you can eat which includes bacon, eggs, cereals, Thai foods, breads, croissants, juices, coffee / tea, fruit etc. Get the idea? If you're on a budget, you could easily make a morning feast last you through to the evening. It's also a good way to put on a few extra pounds!
Pattaya is home to many British pubs and most of them do a very good English breakfast, a great fry up, for not a lot of baht. In fact I think these British fry ups are much better than any of the buffet breakfast deals in town. If you like Irish style bars, Shenanigan's has a really good breakfast that is filling, and while at 150 baht it might be a bit more expensive than some of the hotel breakfast buffets, the quality of what you get is so much better.
One of the annoying things about most of the popular beaches in Thailand is the number of vendors selling things on the beach, approaching you while you are trying to relax. Nowhere is it worse than Jomtien where you can get vendors hassling you literally every minute for the entire day. They come along trying to sell everything from water to seafood to clothes to ornaments - you name it and there is probably someone trying to sell it to you. Now if you are wise, you can pick a spot on the beach that is not too far away from a Seven Eleven or other convenience store where you can go and buy whatever you need. These vendors often hike the prices big time - Jomtien and Pattaya don’t suffer from the same level of price increase as does Phuket but nonetheless, anything bought on the beach can probably be bought off the beach at about 30 - 40% less - sometimes a lot more.
Jomtien is busiest at the weekend and is a favourite spot for Thais from as far away as Korat to come for the day. The beach vendors really come out in large numbers and can be bloody annoying. (A lot of the locals wear a t-shirt that has text in both English and Thai with words to the effect that "no, I do not want to buy any food, souvenirs, beach towels etc.") Also, the beach itself gets really busy with big extended Thai families coming down for the day. It can be quite novel to watch the Thai family enjoy their day out at the beach. More often than not, there will be little Johnny and Sally along with Ma and Pa, but also Grandpa and Grandma, cousins, extended relatives and all and sundry. The Thais will sit under the umbrellas all day for fear of getting black skin, something that is looked down on in Thai society as being a marker for lower class citizens. The kids will be in and out of the water all day and the older members of the family may or may not go in for a dip. All but the youngest members of the family will go into the sea well and truly covered up, wearing a T-shirt and shorts at the very minimum. It is far more common for a Thai to go into the sea wearing jeans than a bikini. The Thais are very shy of their body and will never reveal too much in a public place. While they understand that the foreigners like to sit in the sun all day and get as dark as possible, it is not something that they particularly like and any Western females revealing more than their stomach, legs and arms would be considered rude by the Thais. Having said that, the Thai lads are not adverse to just sitting there and staring at the topless Western female with the enormous tits! One of my favourite spots in Thailand is a small restaurant right along the end of Jomtien beach. They have all of the usual Thai food at give away prices but the setting is just magnificent with tables right next to the sea. This spot is well worth going out of your way for.
Things are very competitive in Pattaya and other than New Year and Songkran, seldom do you get city wide accommodation sell outs. This all contributes towards keeping the cost of accommodation, and for that matter just about everything else, down to realistic levels. It is still possible to get a hotel room with air-conditioning, fridge, hot water and cable TV for 300 baht per night which is excellent value. Hotels, guesthouses, motels, the full spectrum of accommodation is very well represented in Pattaya and it's usually just a case of turning up and finding something - bookings are seldom necessary unless you want to stay at one of the better places.
The sun sets at Pattaya.
Pattaya didn't use to have much in the way of shopping centres with the beachfront Royal Plaza, Big C on the Second Road and an old-style shopping centre also on the Beach Road called Mike's Department Store. Those smiling Thai girls milling around the big shopping centre would just love to spend some time with you - many of them are in fact working girls, hanging out in the comfort of the air-conditioning, looking for a little afternoon trade. On the top floor of Royal Plaza is a cinema multiplex, various amusement and fair style games and a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum. It's a good place to spend an hour wandering around in air-conditioned comfort away from the heat.
But in early 2009 Central Festival opened its doors. A massive beachfront shopping centre, it has many of the big name chain stores and set over several levels, it has hundreds of stores, dozens of restaurants and is the international style shopping centre that Pattaya has craved for so long.
There are a few cabaret shows in Pattaya - read trans-sexual shows. Admittedly, these are not everybody's cup of tea and while I initially abhorred them, I now quite like them. The humour is more in the Thai mould with lots of the humour based on visuals more so than subtleties within the language - this is especially necessary in Pattaya where it is predominantly a foreign crowd who do not understand Thai. Rather than going to one of the shows that have a hefty cover charge, you can go to one of the free (but less professional) shows as held at one of the beer bars. The Malibou Guest House / Restaurant on the corner of Soi Post Office and the Second Road has a good show that is free and it starts every night at 8:00 PM - worth looking at if this sort of thing appeals or you are in the area.
If you are going to do some of the more tourist things such as go to Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Go Kart Racing or any of the other activities in and around Pattaya, make sure you pick up a copy of the two free Pattaya tourist guides. One is called Pattaya Pocket Guide and the other escapes me but may be called Pattaya This Week. Both of these guides have lots of discount coupons in them and some of them are quite worthwhile giving 30-40% discounts on some of the more popular attractions. Actually, the go-karting and the off-road vehicles are really excellent and not that expensive, especially if compared to the West. If you have a big group, the paintball is good fun too.
One really impressive tourist attraction in the Pattaya area is the Sanctuary Of Truth, a huge, eerie wooden temple of which the design and construction have been overseen by an eccentric Thai. Located off Nagleua Soi 12, the 500 baht admission price is steep, but the weird castle-like temple is well worth an hour of your time to explore - and is truly a photographer's dream. It is really hard to describe and my best definition is that it is Buddhism in a wooden castle.
One thing I really like compared to Bangkok is the community spirit of the Westerners in Pattaya. People are much more community minded and the feeling is MUCH better than the selfish attitude shown by so many living in Bangkok. It is funny really because a lot of people in Bangkok scoff off at the crowd in Pattaya but actually, they are a much more community minded lot down there. That said, you get a lot of really questionable Westerners in Pattaya and the seaside city of sin hosts more than its fair share of fights amongst Western tough guys. Pattaya also seemingly punches above its weight when it comes to crime, with the local press reporting the mysterious deaths of many Westerners every week, as well as the arrest of Westerners caught up in all sorts of questionable activities.
A long-running scam to be aware of in Pattaya is the folks conducting surveys of tourists along the main drag. More often than not, they will ask you a handful of innocuous questions (they couldn't care how you answer them!) that will be followed by a genuine comment that the person doing the survey gets 20 baht for every survey they complete - this is true. To get this 20 baht, they must ask you for your name, the name of the hotel you are staying at and the room number. No, they are not going to go and rip you off when you are not there but you will be called and told that you have won a prize. To collect this prize, they will come and collect you at your hotel and take you to a high pressure timeshare sales presentation way up the end of Jomtien beach. Unless people conducting surveys have TAT (Tourism Authority Of Thailand) identification, tell them to go and procreate with themselves. The people conducting the surveys may be either farang or Thai.
Pattaya is a funny place in that a lot of travel agents, particularly those in parts of Europe, have the cheek to sell package holidays that are misrepresented as being "The ultimate Asian beach holiday experience". I'm sorry but Pattaya does not have any claim to that title.
The mix of visitors to Pattaya has changed greatly in recent years. Pattaya used to be very much a destination for sex tourists, meaning single males from Europe, North America, Down Under all travelling to find themselves a pretty Thai companion to spend time with.
The TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) has been heavily marketing Thailand - and Pattaya particularly - to new markets. For the last decade or so there has been an increasing number of Asian tour groups coming, with many from mainland China, Taiwan and Korea. They come in on huge buses, stay a couple of days, do all the same stuff (island visit, massage, fruit market and what not) and then leave, most likely for a few days in Bangkok before heading home.
But the biggest change to the mix has been the huge number of Russians visiting Thailand. Over the high season of Christmas 2006 and well in the start of 2007, many business owners, particularly bar owners, complained that the Russian visitors didn't spend any money in their establishments. Bar owners in particular have been hard hit by a reduction in the number of single males. Russians flocked to Pattaya in the late '90s but stopped all of a sudden due to major economic problems at home. As more and more Russians seem to have a few rubles in their pocket I predict that the number of Russians visiting Thailand will only increase further. Sadly they are not the most popular visitors as not only do they not spend a lot of money but more than a few have been involved in fracas. There are also rumours of the Russian Mafia getting a stronghold on certain types of businesses in Pattaya.
Pros: Close to Bangkok and therefore both cheap and easy to get to. Very reasonably priced accommodation and easy to get around. Good level of English due to high tourist numbers. Most reasonably priced of the popular Thai beaches. Good seafood as well as many very good, reasonably priced restaurants.
Cons: Prostitutes are everywhere - though this will appeal to some. Beaches are far from the best in Thailand. The British lager louts as well as the Russians have discovered Pattaya - and there can be some tension at times as some people consume way too much alcohol - and prove they can't handle it by getting into fights.
The Bottom Line: It really depends on what you want in a holiday but frankly, if you are not interested in going on a holiday and meeting a local to have as your travel companion, amongst other things, Pattaya may not be for you. While reasonably priced, the beach really is nothing special at all. Still, there is a very pleasant atmosphere about Pattaya.
Ko Samet is located about 200 km southeast of Bangkok and as the word "Ko" designates, it's an island. Travelling from Bangkok you will need to get to Bahn Pe where most of the ferries leave the mainland from, bound for Ko Samet, or Samet Island as it should technically be called in English.
Ko Samet can be reached from Bangkok in about four hours and there are a couple of different ways of getting there. The easiest way is to go to the bus station at Ekamai, almost beside the Ekamai skytrain station, and take the bus to Bahn Pe, a small fishing town on the mainland from where most boats depart for the island. The cost of the bus is under 200 baht and although the port may not be the last stop for the bus, it stops there and the driver will ask if anyone wants to go to Samet at which point you get off the bus.
Once at Bahn Pe, you take a boat over to the mainland. There are a number of different piers with ferry boats going to the different bays on the island - so you need to know which part of the island you wish to go to. The cost of the ferry was 40 baht each way the last time I took it and you buy your ticket before you get on board. I'm not sure if there are any schedules and it may just a case of getting on the first boat while the captain waits for enough people to get on board. You don't usually have to wait too long.
The other way to get to Ko Samet is to buy an all inclusive ticket from one of the many travel agents in Bangkok, particularly in the Khao San Road area. The all inclusive price to get there varies but is usually around 300 - 400 baht. If you arrange the travel yourself, you will get there cheaper.
In choppy seas, the boat trip over can be a nasty affair and many a foreigner has suffered a bout of seasickness and sent some undigested food overboard! The boats usually stop going over to the island early evening so if you arrive in Bahn Pe late it can be difficult to get one to take you over. If you really wanted to go over, you could hire a boat to take you over - no idea how much it would cost but I guess in the region of several hundred baht. You can also hire a speed boat to take you over which is obviously going to save time, and these go for upwards of 1,000 baht.
When you first arrive at Samet, presumably by one of the slow boats (speedboats are available but expensive), you will arrive at a pier where you will see a number of songtaews (pick up trucks with bench seats in the rear). The drivers will take you over the small hill to one of the beaches at 20 baht per person to one of the near beaches, or more for one of further beaches. I believe you can hire the entire songtaew yourself at upwards of 200 baht. It is only a few hundred metres to the first (and biggest) beach, so it's an easy walk. A great way to explore Samet is by foot - just wander around and see where you end up!
In a shock move that even the TAT complained about when it was first introduced, the government changed the rules applying to the entry of national parks in Thailand. Previously it cost 20 baht per person to enter a national park, a fair and reasonable figure. But in all their lack of wisdom, the Thai government decided to fleece foreigners and put the price FOR FOREIGNERS ONLY up to 400 baht per person. What is most insulting is that you get NOTHING for this. There is little in the way of signs in English, the people taking your money often speak no more English than "you pay 400 baht" and it is foreigners who respect the national parks much more than Thais. Whereas many Thais think nothing of discarding rubbish in a national park, the average foreigner hangs on to that which they intend to throw out and discard it into a bin.
You can (or at least you used to be able to) get around this 400 baht but it is not too easy. I do however downright encourage you to try. When on the mainland, you can buy a ticket for 50 baht, instead of the usual 400 baht. What the local entrepreneurs do is go over to the island in the morning and buy a stack of entry tickets for 20 baht, saying that they are for Thai people. They then sell them on to foreigners at 50 baht, making a profit of 30 baht a ticket and the foreigner saves 250 baht. The tickets are identical and do not say whether they are for a Thai or foreigner. It's hard to say how long this will last...
The first time I went to this island with beautiful little beaches, I was very impressed. The soft, white sand and the rows of beautiful palm trees and coconut trees nestled up where the sand ends all have an immediate effect on you. It truly feels like you have reached paradise.
Samet is small in size and there is very little industry on it apart from tourism, fishing and basic services offered for both tourists and the island's residents. With this in mind, a lot of what is sold on the island has to be brought over from the mainland and this means the prices of basic goods can be much higher on the island than on the mainland. While it won't break the bank, a bottle of water or an ice-cream may cost several baht more than at the 7 Eleven at Bahn Pe.
I have hard people rave about the food on Ko Samet but frankly I have never been too impressed. What is of some concern is that some of the food available may not be as fresh as it could be as again, it needs to be brought over from the mainland. With seafood one hopes that you'll be ok as there are fishermen operating in the waters surrounding the island but with some other foods, particularly meats such as chicken, pork and beef which must be brought over, they may not be as fresh as they could be. Have you ever seen the boats that everything is brought over on?
Samet is small and frankly, there isn't a huge amount to do there. If you are happy just lazing away on the beach, reading, swimming and just relaxing the days away, you'll probably really like it but if you are looking for an exciting time, this is not the place. I have never stayed more than three days and doubt if I could stay much longer than that - but that is me and you could well be different.
All over Thailand you find Western men chasing Thai women but it is al a little different on Samet. There are a bunch of handsome Thai boys on the island who chase Western females. Some of these Thai guys are just trying to bed a Western woman for the fun of it while others are in it for the money. Yep, you got it, the Western woman pays him!
Ko Samet has a real lack of nightlife and the last time I was there you could not find any of the girly bars so popular in other parts of Thailand. There are a few beachside bars but they are not of the girly variety! If you really want to go there with a companion, pick up someone in Pattaya and take her along with you.
Every time I have visited the main beach at Samet there has been a group of transsexuals hanging around, dressed up on drag. I guess that there is some sort of cabaret show (or funny show as the Thais refer to it) held on the island but I've never actually seen it. The katoeys are harmless (unlike their Bangkok counterparts) and seem more than happy to pose and have their picture taken with tourists, especially Asian tour groups which come over for the day.
The beaches at Samet are not that big and it's unfortunate that some tour companies now include Samet as a half day trip for Asian package tourists. Arriving late morning all equipped in exactly the same coloured tour group supplied clothes, these tour groups contribute towards crowding the main beach and generally making it less pleasant while they are there. They usually piss off mid-late afternoon and a degree of tranquility and serenity can once again set on the beach and you have every opportunity to watch the sunset go down with your tilac without them all gibbering away in that foul Chinese language.
One disappointing aspect about Samet is the quality of accommodation available. A lot of very average places charge an awful lot for what they offer. Plenty of places charge several hundred baht a night for a VERY basic room with a fan and cold water shower - which is far too much really. I have heard that in the high season they might charge a lot more. It's quite simply a case of supply and demand and the demand for Samet is most definitely there. There are more higher end places opening but you'll be lucky to escape paying less than 3,000 baht a night. I don't know about this as I always thought that the appeal of Samet was a more rustic spot, and the idea of higher end places sort of puts me off - or at least that is my perception of it.
While one does not want to spend too much time in their hotel or bungalow during the day, in Ko Samet this is further discouraged by the fact that at many establishments the power is off during the day. The beachfront restaurants still have power so if you absolutely need to sit under a fan, head for one of them. Some of the dearer establishments do have power right throughout the day.
Almost all of the hotels and guesthouses on Samet have a restaurant at the front that backs down on to the beach. Unfortunately, a lot of the chairs and tables in these restaurants go a fair way down the breadth of the beach making the beach feel a lot smaller than it actually is. You can use the deck chairs and umbrellas at most of these restaurants free of charge if you are either a paying guest at that particular hotel or are buying food or drinks in that particular restaurant. If you just wish to use the chairs and are neither of the above, there is a 20 baht charge for the use of the chair.
Samet can get quite busy at the weekend, especially long weekends, when Bangkokians escape the madness of the capital and rooms can be hard to come by. Samet is one of few places in Thailand I would not head to without making a reservation first as there is only a limited number of places to stay, and there are even less in Bahn Pe, on the mainland.
I used to really like Ko Samet, but I have gone off it. The encroachment of beach chairs and umbrellas on the beaches means there is less area to play and makes the place less scenic. Add to that the tour groups who come over for the day and make a huge amount of noise and the idea of it being a quite, relaxing place suddenly comes into question. Add into the equation the fact that accommodation is either expensive, or over-priced, and I find that I have crossed Ko Samet off my list of places to stay. What I prefer to do is to leave Bangkok on Saturday morning and drive straight through to Bahn Pe where I take the ferry over to the island and spend most of the day there. Late afternoon I take the ferry back to Bahn Pe where I hop into the car and drive to Pattaya where you can find very good accommodation at reasonable prices, as well as great restaurants and of course, a thriving nightlife.
If I wanted to go somewhere close to Bangkok for a relaxing few days away at the beach I would choose Hua Hin. If one checks into one of the beachside hotels a little outside the main downtown area of Hua Hin you can find a huge, beautiful trip of beach all to yourself which is much to my preference than the chaos now found on Ko Samet.
Sunset at Ko Samet
Warning 1: The people selling boat tickets will always try and sell you a return ticket - there is NO benefit in buying one whatsoever! You might lose the ticket, you may decide to come back by a different means i.e. speedboat and occasionally they play games with the ticket saying that it is no longer valid or it is for a different boat so basically, don't bother.
Warning 2: There are a number of agencies on or near the main road at Bahn Pe who take bookings for accommodation on the island. Why do they offer their service? They make a commission so if you are on a tight budget do yourself a favour and wait until you get over to the island where you can go hunting for accommodation yourself. They may try all sorts of tricks to try to get you to book with them 9ncluding the classic scare tactic of saying that almost everything is full!
Pros: Not too far from Bangkok and relatively easy to get to. Beautiful beaches on a paradise island. Low level of development - comparatively.
Cons: Not a huge amount to do there - but some would consider that a bonus. Accommodation is expensive for what you get. It can get busy during the high season and the beach can get over run.
The Bottom Line: Paradise is only four hours from Bangkok. A little pricey given the poor infrastructure but a nice place that appeals to some, and not to others.
Ko Samui, once known as an affordable destination and a backpacker's paradise, is the second largest island in Thailand. It sits on the opposite side of the mainland from its bigger brother, Phuket. For so long the backpacker's domain, this island has been rapidly moving upmarket over the past decade and most of the development appears to be in the upper sectors of the market.
You can reach Ko Samui on Bangkok Airways and a return flight will cost you the best part of 8,000 baht for a flight that is a little under an hour. There are several flights between Bangkok and Samui every day. You can reach the island overland by travelling by Bangkok to Surat Thani by road and then taking a boat across. This could take many, many hours and unless money is tight, I would fly. Khao San Road travel agents offer deals from Khao San Road to Samui direct. I am not sure what the latest prices are, but I should imagine it would be in excess of 500 baht.
Samui is a pain to get to from Bangkok. If you have money to spend, little time or both, obviously the quickest way to get there is by plane. Bangkok Airways which owns the airport at Samui has a monopoly and they are rather expensive to say the least. Current return airfares between Samui and Bangkok are around 7,500 baht. Why is it so expensive? Well, there is no competition, is there? Thai Airways does not fly to Samui and that is a great shame for prices are too dear when you consider that Thai only charges 6,000 odd baht for return airfares between Bangkok and Phuket which is a lot further away than Samui... And just to make things worse, Bangkok Airways uses these old ATR-72 aircraft, hardly the most comfortable planes around. It seems that with even the smallest amount of turbulence you are getting thrown around in the sky. Give me a nice, big American manufactured aeroplane any day!
The other options for getting to Samui are far cheaper but take forever. First there is the train / bus / boat combination which costs around 500 - 600 baht depending on whether you buy tickets directly or go through a travel agent. If coming from Bangkok, you take the train to Surat Thani, the bus from Surat Thani to the port and obviously the boat over the water. This journey takes upwards of 18 hours! Finally there is the bus and boat combination and this takes about 16 hours and can cost as little as 300 baht. The choice of expensive transport or a slow boring journey has kept me away from Samui recently. I would love to go down for a holiday but frankly, it's a hassle to get there!
Samui is dominated by two beaches, Chaweng Beach which is the largest and most popular beach and Lamai Beach which is a few kilometres south and also very popular, although perhaps a little quieter as it is smaller and has less places to stay than the heavily developed Chaweng. There are other locations all over the island including Big Buddha and Bophut. This photo on the right shows what Chaweng used to look like a few years ago - this is the MAIN road going through the area just up from Chaweng Beach and the main drag where shops, restaurants etc are. This general lack of infrastructure is what I did not like about Samui on my first visit but that has all changed and the infrastructure has been developed markedly since my first visit back in 1998.
Chaweng is all the action, dance and song part of Samui where people say that they have come for the "laid back atmosphere" but really all they seem to be doing is drinking, smoking all sorts of weird substances and partying until they drop. The beach itself is quite long and in my mind, it is nice but somewhat over-rated. For my money, you cannot compare this beach to Karon in Phuket or even Lamai, the other big beach on Samui. It is a few kilometres long so even with the hordes traipsing to and are setting up camp on Samui, you can always find your own little plot somewhere along the beach.
Lamai Beach is my favourite beach on the island, a gently curving beach that while a lot shorter than Chaweng, is nicer, in my opinion. Very picturesque, Lamai seems to feature in more postcards than its bigger and more popular brother, Chaweng.
While everyone does it all the time, it really is hard to compare Phuket and Samui as they are quite different. Phuket is THE Asian international beach destination and Ko Samui is the up and coming star. Phuket has lots of high rise hotels while at this stage, Ko Samui does not, but I would not be at all surprised to see this change in the VERY near future. Phuket has a reasonable infrastructure with sealed roads all around the island while in parts, Samui has dirt track style roads. Phuket does not really appeal to the budget traveller or backpackers whereas Samui does. Samui does not have much of a sex tourism scene though it is growing. Compare this with Patong Beach on Phuket which has a thriving scene that, if it continues, will one day challenge Pattaya. Phuket has a huge number of international restaurants whereas a lot of the eateries on Samui are still Thai style places.
The infrastructure on Samui is still coming along and for many that it is one of the big appeals about the place. The island is seeing a lot of development at present and a lot of it seems to be at the mid to upper sector tourists - after all, these are the big spenders and are the ones that the TAT seems to want to attract the most. This is not to say that the bottom end of the market will disappear as the demand from this type of traveller is still very strong but it does demonstrate the changing face of Samui. Wherever you go on the island, you can hear the sounds of band saws, and hammers & nails as groups of Thai builders hurry to put up the next establishment in time for the next high season. I don't know if you can still get a bungalow for 150 baht if you look really hard, well, you never know.
Pattaya used to be the place for sex and sand in Thailand and still retains the crown for the sex and sand capital of Thailand. Phuket started to go this way in the early '90s and now has a very well developed bar scene with sois and sois full of bars with girls for hire. For a long time Samui seemed largely exempt from the sex for sale scene. Sure, it did exist but it was never really anything like was available in other places. This has since changed and Samui now has a flourishing bargirl scene. Thai girls flock in from the poorer parts of Thailand to meet the wealthy Western men and now that Samui's identity is slowly changing from a backpacker hangout to another Asian beach paradise, so to do the wealthier tourists arrive. There is an ever increasing demand for girls on the island and the girls are going to Ko Samui in ever greater numbers. Chaweng Beach even has a couple of gogo bars.
Nearby Samui is Ko Phangnan and not far from Ko Phangnan is Ko Tao. Ko Phangnan is where a lot of the backpackers end up these days, a smaller island that is a short boat ride north of Samui. There is nothing on this page at this stage as I have never been there. It happens to be the home of the Full Moon Party when everyone parties all night and gets silly on dope and all sorts of other illicit and dangerous substances - not really my idea of fun but many seem to have a real blast there. Ko Tao is said to be one of the best places in Thailand for diving, although again, I have never been there.
Pros: Nice beaches. Has a nice atmosphere, not too quiet but not too developed. Still affordable - but for how much longer?
Cons: Getting there from Bangkok is a little pricey. Too many backpackers arguing over who has paid the least for this or that.
The Bottom Line: A nice alternative to Phuket. It is not as developed as Phuket, which may or may not be to your taste.
Hua Hin, approximately 200 km southeast of Bangkok, has been a popular weekend getaway for Bangkok Thais for decades and has gained popularity with foreigners over the past 15 or so years. Over this time it has developed with more big hotels, more restaurants and more things to do and today it is a very real beach holiday alternative to Thailand's more popular beach resorts of Phuket, Ko Samui and Pattaya.
Hua Hin is home to Wang Glai-gang-won, the beautifully named palace (it means the palace a long way from worry or anxiety) where HM The King used to reside. Almost everyone reaches the pleasant seaside town by road, be it private car, minivan, taxi or bus. You could take the train but it is slow, and it is hardly worth flying there as you can get there by road in less than 2.5 hours from Bangkok.
In the downtown area there are a couple of 5 star hotels, namely the Hilton, the large hotel set beside the beach, right in the best location, as well as the beautiful Sofitel Resort, a lovely low rise hotel complex that attempts to preserve some of the old Thai traditions. There are many 4- and 5-star venues a little outside the main downtown area. It would be handy to have a car to drive between them and downtown. While local transport options exist, having the use of your own vehicle would be much more preferable. Hotel shuttle buses operate between resorts and the downtown area but can be rather pricey.
There are a number of mid range hotels in downtown Hua Hin which in this particular beach area means 1,000 - 2,000 baht a night. Prices vary greatly between the different Thai beaches and islands! For this you get the usual air-con room with hot water shower, cable TV and a fridge. The newer the hotel and the closer it is to the beach, the more you will pay.
While Hua Hin might not be on the backpacker trail, there are a number of guesthouses, some of which are set by the bay - some are even on wharves right over the water. There are also inexpensive accommodation options in the heart of the nightlife area, or back up on Phetkasem Road, that is the main road that runs through Hua Hin which is perhaps 400 - 500 metres back from the beach - easily walkable.
Hua Hin is very popular at the weekend when middle and upper class Thais flock there. As such, the rates charged at hotels outside of the traditional December to April high season can be much higher on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as holiday weekends. You can get some very good deals in the low season on weeknights! Also, if you need to get back to Bangkok in a hurry, the roads going back to the capital can be quite suggested on Sundays as Thais and expats return.
The beach is very nice - long and the sand is white and soft. The words hua hin in Thai mean head of rocks and the beach has many, many rocks.
If you like horse riding, then Hua Hin is the beach for you. Small horses are ridden up and down the beach at Hua Hin by their handlers who try to sell you the romance of a beach horse ride. I really do not know how much it costs these days. Several years ago it was 350 baht an hour but I would not be surprised if it was double that now.. Personally, I think they are a pest. Some of the riders are aggressive in the way they ride the horses, at high speed, close to people trying to relax, and they are aggressive in the way they try and get you to part with your hard-earned.
There are fewer beach chairs and umbrellas for hire in Hua Hin compared to other more developed beaches in Thailand where the whole beachfront can be taken up by vendors. At the main beach entrance, there's a relatively small number of chairs and umbrellas for hire, but that part of the beach isn't so nice.
In addition to Thais who flock to Hua Hin at the weekend - who tend to stay at hotels and in large condo buildings outside of the main city centre - Hua Hin seems to be popular with Europeans. It's hardly the place for a party animal and the nightlife couldn't be described as bustling. Frankly, if you are young or at least young at heart, then you may want to consider somewhere else. Still, there are plenty of young people just chilling out in Hua Hin, including many Western couples.
I first visited Hua Hin in 1999 when Soi Bintabaht was only soi of naughty bars for Westerners. The nonsense was contained in this small soi and didn't spill over into areas. That has all changed now. There were perhaps 12 - 15 bars back then but goodness only knows how many there are now? More like 50 I should imagine. The bars are small, each with a handful of girls and in a way they feel a little out of place in Hua Hun. They should really be transplanted over to Pattaya.
With that said, the bars in Hua Hin is more pleasant than their equivalents in the other parts of Thailand. In Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket, the girls are often hard and silly. In the bars of Hua Hin attitudes of the ladies are cheerful for the most part, and drinks prices remain reasonable. Prices are a fair bit lower than other areas. Still, let me re-iterate that even though there is an increasingly bigger bar area in Hua Hin, if such things interest you then you would likely have a better time in Pattaya or Phuket.
I hear that the Hilton Hotel has a disco but I have never been there myself. I'm not sure about other nightlife opportunities because whenever I go to Hua Hin, it's to relax, not to party.
Several kilometres south of the main downtown Hua Hin area is Khao DaGiap, which translates as Chopsticks Mountain. On the mountain is a very nice Chinese style Buddhist temple which overrun with monkeys. They're mischievous but fun to watch as they fight each other for bananas and other treats that visitors can buy. It's worth visiting and well worth an hour or two of your time.
Another Hua Hin I never bore of is King Rama 6's Summer Palace, a very small part of which is pictured here, which is located about 15 km outside of the main city area, on the main road between Cha Am and Hua Hun. It's an unusual palace complex, and like Khao DaGiap is very much worth visiting. I've been a number of times and it's disappointing to se few Western tourists there. I think most people who go there would enjoy it. Entry is a paltry 30 baht - although getting there and back will cost you much more.
Eating out in Hua Hin is great! You can get fantastic inexpensive Thai food at the night market. The seafood restaurants that hang out over the bay are for my money the best in a major tourist town in Thailand - great food and fair value for money - not such an easy combination to find these days!
Downtown Hua Hin has many Western food restaurants and even the fast food outlets are represented. There are many Italian restaurants and you can find them next to each other. If you like Italian - and I do - then try Pizza Mia which is directly opposite the City Beach Resort on a road that leads down to the main beach entrance. It's been voted one of the best Italian eateries in Thailand and I love the place!
Pros: A lovely beach that stretches for mile and miles, Hua Hin has a very nice holiday atmosphere, and is a great place to relax. Not as over-touristed as Phuket, Pattaya or Samui.
Cons: The beach is rocky in parts and getting accommodation can be tricky at the weekend.
The Bottom Line: A very nice beach resort that is sufficiently close to Bangkok as to be easily reachable for a couple of days away.
About 25 km north of Hua Hin on the way to Bangkok is Cha Am, a beach that curiously you'll read much less about in the guides and brochures than Hua Hin, but which at the weekend seems to be almost as busy, if not busier than its more well-known neighbour, Hua Hin itself.
Pictured here, Cha Am is a long beach which is very popular with Thais and becoming increasingly popular with Westerners. The beach area itself is not quite as nice as Hua Hin but as it is not an area of royal residence, as Hua Hin is, the rules are less relaxed and unlike Hua Hin you get lots of people selling things on the beach, something which very much appeals to the Thais, funnily enough. Yep, they see people bothering them every couple of minutes wanting to sell them something as an opportunity whereas the average farang sees it as a nuisance which bothers their leisure time. don't ever believe that Thais and westerners are not very, very different.
Like Bang Saen Beach, Cha Am is very popular with Bangkok Thais, as well as upcountry Thais, who flock their in droves at the weekend. Good luck trying to find a place to park your car, if that is how you choose to travel there, especially if you are only there for the day. (If you stay in a hotel then you'll be able to get parking there without much trouble). On weekdays the beach is quiet and relaxed and you can have big sections of the beach to yourself.
The big advantage of Cha Am over Hua Hin is that generally speaking, Cha Am attracts Thai tourists who are a bit more sensitive to price than Westerners. That means that things are cheaper. it also means that there is less in the way of restaurants that directly target Westerners but that is not to say that Westerners will have any problems there, quite the opposite. More and more Westerners seem to be heading to Cha Am and I was amazed at how many Western tourists were there on my last visit. The majority seemed to be older Europeans and I would not be surprised if Cha Am is sold as a cheaper alternative to Hua Hin, or perhaps it even gets some of the overflow from Hua Hin in the high season.
I have to say that I am not a huge fan of Cha Am. OK, truth be told, I really have not spent that much time there, just a few hours, but the very reason for going there, the beach, is not all that special. I really think the beach at Hua Hin is much nicer and so I'll always choose Hua Hin over Cha Am. Still, if you are sensitive to price, then Cha Am offers you nice Thai beach resort at very reasonable prices.
Pros: Cheaper than Hua Hin, especially in the case of lower end accommodation.
Cons: The beach really is not that special.
The Bottom Line: An alternative to Hua Hin.
Ko Chang, which means Elephant Island in Thai, is the second largest island in Thailand and is located on the Eastern Seaboard, most of the way towards the Cambodian border. The island is part of a national park, but unlike Ko Samet, you do NOT have to pay a fee to enter the island. The fee on Ko Chang applies only to some of the inland areas and to the area with the main waterfall.
Comparisons with Ko Samet are inevitable. Ko Chang is similarly priced in terms of accommodation and restaurants. The infrastructure in Ko Chang is also similar with electricity being a problem at times and not all bungalows offering electricity running for 24 hours. If travelling by the most common form or bus, boat and then songtaew, the beaches at Ko Chang take about seven hours to get to from Bangkok, whereas the beaches on Ko Samet can be reached in four. To get to Ko Chang from Bangkok, you need to take a bus (around 170 baht) from the Eastern (Ekamai) bus station to Trat and this takes around 5 hours. From Trat, you take a songtaew (30 baht) to the coast and from the coast, a boat (50 baht) over to the island. Once you have landed on the island, songtaews (30 - 70 baht) are waiting to take you to the beaches, the bulk of which are on the west coast. So, the total cost to get to one of the beaches in Ko Chang is around 300 baht. Note: The bus from Bangkok to Trat may drop you off on the main highway, before you reach Trat at a location from which you can get a songtaew straight to the coast, thus saving you a little time.
There are several beaches on Ko Chang, most on the western side of the island. They are all ok, but in my opinion, none of the are as nice as the best beaches on Samet, Samui or Phuket. That's not to say that they are not nice, more that the beaches elsewhere are really good. But, the beaches do have other things going for them.
Due to its relatively isolated location, in so much that it really isn't that close to other popular tourist spots, Ko Chang does not suffer from the boatloads of day trippers that Ko Samet suffers from. It also seems free of jet skis and parasailing though you can hire a kayak if you wish and boat trips are always available. Like every beach spot in Thailand, you get the beach vendors trying to sell you stuff but unlike Pattaya where they will sell you just about anything, in Ko Chang, they are not pushy and only seem to sell things relevant to your beach holiday like food and sarongs.
For me, where Ko Chang lets itself down is that it is overpriced for what you get. The principles of demand and supply have pushed prices up to what I believe are unrealistic levels. I'm more than happy to rough it and stay in rustic, sometimes even rudimentary locations, I expect the price to be commensurate with the what you get. In Ko Chang, I feel that this is not the case. You pay a lot of money and get VERY basic accommodation. This has been an unfortunate trend at all of the Thai beaches and islands since late '97, except for Pattaya, where prices have really only moved in line with inflation.
For those who want to meet one of Thailand's maidens to help them enjoy their stay that little bit more, Ko Chang is not the best place. There is a complex of beer bars on White Sands beach with about 20 or so bars which are very much in the Pattaya style. Ko Chang did not use to be on the sex tourist trail but as it has become more developed and as more and more holidaymakers spend more time there, so has the demand for beer bars increased - and been satisfied by local entrepreneurs! Many of the sex tourists taking it easy on Ko Chang picked up their temporary lovely in Pattaya and brought along for the ride. For the foreign girls, there are a lot of Thai guys who hang about on Ko Chang waiting to pick you up.
I have heard that Ko Chang gets quite a bit of rain with just about everyone that I know who visited there telling me that I needed to pack an umbrella. Well, the time that I was there was no exception and it did rain a little every day - and this was NOT in the wet season. Still, the showers only lasted a little while and were soon replaced by the sun.
The internet is available on Ko Chang but when I was last there in March 2001, and it was VERY expensive at 6 baht a minute. (It must have come down in price a lot since then, surely!) A lot of basic items are also a lot more expensive on Ko Chang than the mainland as they have to be shipped over. Ice creams are about 25 - 50% dearer on the island than the mainland as are canned drinks. Toiletries are perhaps 20% more. Very little of what you would typically buy on a beach holiday is actually made on the island other than the bottled water. For some strange reason, beer is cheaper on the island than on the mainland with Heineken available in the restaurants for 40 - 50 baht for a small bottle. There are few places on the mainland where you can get it at this sort of price!
Quite a few foreigners seem to fall in love with Ko Chang and stay on indefinitely, picking up a job in one of the beach side restaurants or perhaps doing something a little different such as running a dive shop. I can't quite work out how they manage to keep the job as a Thai would do the equivalent job for around 4,000 baht - and that's working 6 days a week. The restaurant / bungalow owner is not going to pay them a Western wage! Still, they seemed happy so it all must be working out ok.
Ko Chang would be a good place to go when you really want to get away from it. It really is a lot quieter than all of the other beaches and islands listed on this site and at night, you do feel like you are on an island, away from civilization. It is a good place for a quiet scene. If you want a bit of action and razzmatazz, then this is most definitely not the place to go.
Pros: Quiet, with only a limited number of visitors. All beaches are still relatively quiet. Its location away from other popular spots means no tour groups come over for day trips. Doesn't suffer from jet skis and other noise pollution.
Cons: Accommodation is not that flash and is downright expensive for what you get. It's a long way from Bangkok, and most of the other "popular" places in Thailand. There are a lot of mosquitoes, some apparently malarial. The beaches are nice, but not fantastic, especially compared to some of the other beaches in Thailand.
The Bottom Line: Often described as an unspoiled Thai beach, what they fail to tell you is that it lacks a lot of basic infrastructure. I strongly believe that Ko Chang is a bit of a love it or hate it type of place - you really need to know what you want from a beach holiday and think about whether Ko Chang fits.
Just two hours by bus from Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is another of the provinces close to the capital that receives a lot of tourists. There are quite a few things to see and do though apart from the Erawan waterfalls, none of them are that impressive on their own. With all of these attractions combined together however, Kanchanaburi makes a nice break away from Bangkok for a day or two.
The Erawan waterfalls are a series of seven tiered waterfalls set about an hour and a half by bus away from the main town. The waterfalls are all in a national park which means that foreigners get ripped off to the tune of 200 baht while the locals only pay 20 baht. This park has the usual collection of park rangers on duty whose job it is to stop the Thais from littering within the park. Yep, I say the Thais as foreigners do not really have the culture of littering in quite the same way that Thais do.
From the main park entrance, the walk from the start to the top waterfall takes about an hour or more and towards the last couple of waterfalls, the track is actually pretty bad and for older trekkers, there are some points that may prove impassable. At the time of year when I was there, there were parts were you actually had to wade through water ankle deep - though I am not sure if it is like this all year round. Still, most of it is fairly easy. It must be said that the further along the track you walk, the more impressive the waterfalls get and there are many opportunities to take some nice photos. Buses go to and from the national park once an hour or so.
There is a nice river running through the city and you can go for a ride on these sort of Thai style speed boats that is a bit of a thrill for a few minutes though fairly expensive. When I was last there, we paid about 200 baht for what can't have been more than a few minute dash down the river. Fun but overpriced.
Kanchanaburi is one of the hottest provinces in Thailand and if you are there during the hot season, with many of the attractions being outdoor type things, it may become unbearably hot. Personally, I don't think I would like to visit during the hot part of the year.
There are several museums, including a war museum. They are worth a nosy if you like that sort of thing and there are some interesting bits and pieces in the war museum. There are the usual collection of Thai temples and they are always worth a nosy though there is nothing as impressive there as the temples along the river in Bangkok. A friend tells me that there are some caves somewhere but I have never been to them so cannot comment. He seemed to think that they were well worthwhile.
The Death Railway is what most people who visit Kanchanaburi see. Historical significance aside, it's just a small bridge. It's amusing to watch all of the Japanese going oooh and aaah at the site of where their forefathers mistreated huge numbers.
In the immediate area of the bridge, Thai vendors fight for the chance to sell the usual Thai food, snacks, cans of Coke etc at tourist prices. Still, this sort of thing happens all over the world so I shouldn't really complain. I don't know exactly what it is but there is something that I find awfully tacky about this particular attraction. You can get for a short ride on the train from the bridge to the main station that lasts all of a few minutes and cannot possibly cost more than a few baht.
The next most over-rated tourist attraction is the cemetery of the dead allied soldiers who died building the bridge. I guess it is fascinating to see how many of your fellow countrymen the evil and sinister Japanese killed and pay our respects, but other than that, visiting a graveyard has never been my idea of fun. There is also a cemetery of some Chinese settlers in Kanchanaburi although the historical significance of that one escapes me.
There is a shopping centre in Kanchanaburi Called "Kan" though you would be best advised to save your shopping for Bangkok. In the area immediately surrounding the shopping area are a number of street vendors serving the usual mix of tasty Thai style street food.
One thing that Kanchanaburi is very good for is accommodation with there being a number of cheap hotels and guesthouses to choose from. Some of them have nice locations set down by the river and they are very reasonably priced. Most of these guesthouses also rent out bicycles and although I have never done it as I prefer to get around by foot, I imagine exploring Kanchanaburi town by boat would be fun. There are also a few restaurants set down against the river.
A previous edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook mentions that the samlors in Kanchanaburi are a rip-off and never was a wiser word been said. Myself and a friend had an issue with a samlor driver where he tried to rip us off and in the end, he started pushing and shoving my friend and we had to get a policeman to sort out the problem, which he did, in our favour.
Pros: Close to Bangkok. Lots of attractions. Most things are affordable.
Cons: Some locals in the tourism industry are badly jaded. Double pricing by samlor drivers, national park operators, boat operators.
The Bottom Line: A nice place for a short break away from Bangkok that has a little bit of everything, history, nature and culture. It's a fairly nice sort of a town.
The northern centre of Thailand, many Thais feel that any visit to Thailand should include a trip up to the northern capital - and time allowing, I agree.
Tourism is a huge part of the local economy and the city of Chiang Mai is set up very well for visitors. Accommodation is available in all price ranges, though there are not that many flash places in the centre of the city. If you are looking for lots of 5 star options, you won't have anything like the range of properties that are available to you in Bangkok.
Chiang Mai seems to be home to a zillion guesthouses and a lot of mid-range places, but far fewer really top end places. And prices for a decent place to stay remain reasonable and are not nearly at the same lofty levels as what a room goes for in Bangkok. For less than 1,000 baht you can get a perfectly decent hotel in the city centre, and for half that you can get a perfectly adequate guesthouse, even less if you want to be cheap.
In Chiang Mai there is heaps to see and do. Chiang Mai is different to Bangkok in terms of what to do too. Most of the things to do are outside - temples to see, markets to visit, hills to climb, hill tribes to visit. This is not the place for large glitzy shopping malls but rather, a place to get in touch with the culture of the country.
The city itself is pleasant with a lot of temples and there are a couple of very impressive temples outside the city including Doi Suthep which to me is probably the most impressive temple complex I have ever visited. It is in my mind a MUST visit attraction if you make it up to Chiang Mai. It is up a hill overlooking the city of Chiang Mai and it takes about half an hour to get there from the city centre. The picture on the right here was taken at the temple on Doi Suthep.
Another of the popular trips is to Doi Inthanon, which is the highest point in Thailand. It too is worth a visit but bear in mind that it is quite a hike from Chiang Mai and it is a big trip to go there and come back, not quite a full day, but more than half a day. It's a pleasant spot and well worth venturing too also.
On my first visit to Chiang Mai, which was not until late 2004, 6 and a half long years after first moving to Thailand, I was amazed at the differences between it and Bangkok. First of all, the weather is much more pleasant, it is cooler (though this depends on the time of year), has less pollution and at night it was genuinely cool. There was no air-con in our hotel room and not even the fan was used! Secondly, the food up in Chiang Mai is a little different to what is available in Bangkok. They have their own northern food which is a little different to food from other parts of the country. Apart from the khao soi, sort of crispy noodles in a mild curry, I did not really care for food from this part of the country, to be honest, though that is more a personal preference type of thing than anything else. The people in Chiang Mai are noticeably friendlier, more polite and generally a whole lo nicer than people from any other part of the country, or at least the places I have visited, which is most of it. People just seem more gentle, more polite, less harried and seem to have a genuine concern that visitors really do enjoy themselves.
The north of Thailand, of which Chiang Mai is the centre, has done a much better job preserving the culture of the country, and indeed the region, than any other parts of the country and Chiang Mai is THE place to go to celebrate the major Thai festivals like Songkran and Loy Kratong.
It is ironic that it took 7 years living in Thailand before I made it to Chiang Mai for the first time. It is something I want to fix and an extended stay up there is well in order! I have only spent two days up there and thus my report on that part of the country is relatively short.
Pros: Very well set up for tourism, affordable, pleasant people, pleasant environment and heaps to see and do! It is much more a cultural visit than is Bangkok.
Cons: I can't think of any but some might consider it a bit quiet compared to Bangkok.
The Bottom Line: Very much worth visiting!
Isaan, the Thai name for the northeast region of the country and home to around 20 million folks, happens to be the most traditional but also poorest part of the country.
Not too many Western tourists make it up into Isaan and it is hard to argue with those people that do not go there, for there are not too many "must sees" in that part of the country - especially when you consider that there is a distinct lack of Westerner friendly tourist infrastructure, unlike the capital, Chiang Mai and the beaches and islands of the south.
Many tourists choose Thailand for the sun and sea and the shopping, none of which are prevalent in the Isaan region. While many people believe Chiang Mai to be the second largest city in Thailand, it isn't and that title actually belongs to the city of Korat, which is also known as "the gateway to Isaan" as it is the first province in the Isaan region that you reach if you're travelling from Bangkok. Unremarkable in appearance, Isaan is a predominantly agricultural part of the country.
What Isaan does offer to visitors to Thailand is a chance to get a glimpse at a more traditional way of life and it is my experience that people who feel a true affinity towards Thailand and the Thais thoroughly enjoy their time travelling throughout Isaan.
Should you mention to any Thai friends that you intend to travel into the Isaan region, you'll sure get a smile, or even a comment or two, for many Thais from outside the region have never been there - and many simply wouldn't be able to comprehend why a Westerner would want to go there for fun. Unfortunately the people of Isaan are looked down on by much of the Thai population who often view them as no more than poor farmers.
Isaan has the reputation of being very hot, something which I have never really understood. I have travelled throughout Isaan many times and have spent a lot of time in Korat. I have always found Isaan to be a bit cooler than Bangkok and certainly cooler than the central regions and the south. You seem to get more sunshine in Isaan than in other places and for sure there are less public facilities with air-conditioning, but as for the region being the hottest part of the country, well, I think I would actually dispute that. Anyway, don't be put off by people saying it is extremely hot as I have never found the heat to be too much, and yes, I have done a lot of travelling in the region in the hot season.
If you decide to travel into the Isaan region, and travel overland, be it car, train or bus, there are two major routes. The first and most popular route is to follow highway 2 from Bangkok all the way up to Nongkhai. This road passes through the major cities of Korat, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani and on to Nongkhai. This was the route of my first venture into Isaan and I have done this route a number of times. It is fun, and easy, but really there is not a lot to see or do with a few exceptions.
Nakhon Phanom in Isaan sits on the banks of the Mekong River with Laos opposite.
My preferred part of Isaan to tour through is the southern section. From Bangkok, go up to Korat and from there head east through Buriram, Surin, Si Saket and Ubon Rachathani. With the exception of Ubon, the 3 other provincial capitals are fairly small and frankly, not too interesting to the casual tourist. There aren't too many reasons to stay in these places. So why go this route? Well, assuming you go by bus or train, the scenery is a lot nicer in this part of the country and you get a lot more of the beautiful green rice paddies than you do if you head up to Nongkhai, especially at the end of the rainy season. Secondly, and of much more importance, is that there are some really nice ruins to see in this part of the country. The lower Isaan region is home to many old Khmer style temple complexes and to me, these are a lot more interesting than places like Ayuthaya. The Khmer ruins at Phimai in Korat province and Phanom Rung in southern Buriram are two of my favourite attractions in Thailand, both in excellent condition. Phanom Rung is especially good since not so many foreigners make it there and it is not over touristed like so many spots in Thailand are. In fact all throughout the southern part of Isaan you will find various temple ruins, some of which are merely a small pile of stones, but some of which are a whole lot more. In my Stickman Weekly column of 13/10/2002 I wrote a lengthy travelogue of my journey through southern Isaan so if you want to read more about that part of the country, check out that particular column. And in my Stickman Weekly column of 17/10/2004 I wrote a lengthy travelogue of my journey into the heart of Isaan, a travelogue that many people seemed to enjoy reading. Finally, if you enjoy my nonsense travelogues, I wrote a piece on 19/10/2003 about a journey into the lower north of Thailand.
As many of the historic sites in Isaan are out of the way, and not necessarily located directly in towns or cities, getting around to see them all can be an arduous affair if you do not have a rental car or a car and driver. Undoubtedly the best way to visit the region is by car. Public transport will get you everywhere but you may be forced to endure long waits for the bus to leave and slow trips on non air-con rural buses. Still, you can meet some real characters on such buses and if you aren't in any hurry, this can be a real fun way to get around.
The major centres of the Isaan region are slowly progressing into bigger, more modern cities. If you really want to get a picture of traditional Isaan, you need to get away from the major centres of Korat, Khon Kaen and Ubon which are slowly becoming Westernised with improved infrastructure, increasing numbers of Westerners visiting and even all of the Western fast food chains setting up there. These cities are quite urbanised and parts of them are not particularly different from the suburban areas of Bangkok.
There are many quaint, tranquil spots in Isaan. One of the funny things about the place is the early morning when you are woken by the dogs and the chickens. I have never worked out who starts first but think it's the dogs that start howling and then the it's the turn of the chickens to start. Once the chickens have stopped then the dogs resume and on it goes. Sleeping through the early morning is not the easiest task in Isaan.
While Bangkok may be cheap, life in Isaan is a lot cheaper and here are some sample prices that I have paid in the region in the last couple of years. Obviously prices vary from centre to centre and shop to shop but on the whole, everything that a foreign traveller is likely to spend money on is a lot cheaper in this part of the country than any of the other regions. You can get really good hotels at incredibly cheap prices too. One such place is the Wong Vong Hotel in Buriram where you could get a fantastic room with all the mod cons for just 540 baht a night. Unbelievable value! I guess the price has probably crept up a bit since I was there, back in 2002, but I bet it still represents excellent value. There are hotels like this all over Isaan and where ever you are, you never need pay a lot for a decent room. In fact in many places you might not even be able to find a hotel for 1,000 baht a night - the most expensive hotel in the town is often cheaper than that!
One of the difficulties of travelling in this region is that the level of English is pretty low, especially outside of Korat, Ubon and Khon Kaen, the three largest and most developed centres. Yes, you can get buy on English alone but even in some low end hotels, no English is spoken and there aren't even any signs in English! Experienced travellers will get by just fine but those folks who have not hit the road before may struggle a little. Further, while general costs are a lot lower for pretty much everything, the locals do know that the foreigner has a lot more money in his pocket and in a lot of cases, particularly the places that do get a few tourists, may try to charge you more than the locals. Obviously, speaking Thai completely negates this. Remember, a lot of the folks that work in the tourism industry in other parts of the country originally came from this part of the country and word filters back about what the silly farang is prepared to pay!
While crime is not especially high in this part of the country, one needs to exercise the usual caution because there are a lot of very poor people there and many of these people live on no more than 1000 baht a month! Flashing several thousand (or more) baht around may attract attention from people that you would probably rather not meet. Further, with the people being so incredibly poor, single male travellers may get certain offers that may not (or may) interest them. A good friend went in to the deepest darkest depths of Surin province and to get to his intended destination, had to use some of the local off road transport. He was sitting on the back of a quasi bus cum pick-up truck and all of the locals were staring at him - some of them had likely never seen a white person in real life. They were talking about him but as his Thai wasn't so good, he couldn't understand what was being said. He was travelling with a Thai friend who did some translating for him. One of the women started asking his friend if he would be interested in her 17 year old daughter - who was also in the pickup truck! My friend politely complimented her and said that the girl was very attractive. After a few questions ascertaining my friend's financial status, the mother went on to say that she would like the daughter to go and live with my friend in Bangkok and she would look after him very well and do whatever he wanted her to do. All my friend had to do was to look after the daughter and send a small amount of money up to the mother every month...TRUE STORY!
The people of Isaan are, in my opinion, the friendliest people that I have met. I have never met so many truly wonderfully warm people and I continue to return to this region just to enjoy the warmth of the people and their remarkable hospitality. The ladies in the above photo (taken at the central market in Korat) are just one example of how these people continue to smile and enjoy life despite the curve balls that life in the poor, rural areas of Thailand continues to throw at them. If you really want to see the genuine, traditional Thailand, then Isaan is arguable the best place to go. Try and go with someone who speaks reasonable Thai and has either lived in Thailand for a while or has been there a few times and that way you will likely have a far more enjoyable experience.
I don't know if it is good luck or what, but whenever I have been in Isaan, the sun shines strong and days are generally cloudless. This gives great opportunity for taking photos and the good weather helps to keep a smile on your face. Obviously if you go in the middle of the rainy season, it won't be like this though!
It is possible however that you will find Isaan boring. Let's be straight about this as it is quite different from all of the popular places to go in Thailand. Isaan is for those who genuinely want to taste a traditional rural slice of Thailand. I have taken a few people up there and some have admitted to me that it was less then enthralling. But those who genuinely love Thailand and the Thai people and who really are interested to know what the real Thailand is like, this is the place for you. Also, to get the most out of it, speaking Thai to a high level really does make a difference. A lot o the rural people speak little to no English so the inability to communicate does reduce your chances of doing anything more than functional conversation, ordering food, specifying how many nights you want to stay in a hotel etc.
The food in Isaan is known for being particularly spicy, and a lot of the dishes from the Isaan region also contain bla-ra, that is fermented fish sauce, something which most Westerners and indeed most Thais not from the region do not really care for. A typical Isaan meal would consist of a number of dishes from region and be accompanied by sticky rice, which is rolled into balls with the fingers. Typical dishes of Isaan are larb (a spicy salad, usually with some sort of diced meat such as pork, beef, chicken or duck). Other popular dishes are gai yarng (grilled chicken), nam dok (a spicy salad where the meat is cut into larger pieces rather than diced) and the ubiquitous som tum (papaya salad). This last dish is popular Thailand wide, but it is generally agreed that the best som tum, pictured below, comes from the Isaan region.
I have always felt some of the best, tourist friendly places to try Isaan food are some of the venues on the Mekhong up in Nongkhai. It is a quite delightful setting, sitting there, overlooking the mighty Mekhong and looking across at Laos, which itself is famous for its own cuisine, much of it very similar to Isaan food, and said to be even hotter!
Korat, also known as Nakhon Rachasima, is located 250 km northeast of Bangkok and if you travel to the Isaan region by car, bus, or train, it is the first province you will reach.
Korat is also the largest province in Thailand with a population of about 6 million, although like many of Isaan’s province, many of these people live and work outside of the province.
Downtown Korat really doesn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions. The city square in the heart of downtown is home to the Ya Mo statue and is a revered image for locals of Korat who will visit the statue and make a wish. You could spend an hour or two wandering around this area, getting a feel for the area, but I think any longer than that and one may start to get bored. There is a large market nearby which is interesting if you have not seen any fresh markets in Thailand, and Korat is also home to the largest shopping centre in the Isaan region, called The Mall. There you’ll find branches of all of the usual Thai chain stores and American fast food restaurants. It is of no real interest if you have jut come from, or are about to go to, Bangkok.
There are many temples in downtown Korat but frankly, if you have seen a few Thai temples already then none are particularly impressive nor worth going out of your way for.
There are a handful of very small hangouts in Korat where the local expat population hangs out. There is a piazza shop and a Lebanese restaurant right next to each other – the Lebanese restaurant in particular has very good, inexpensive food. It also has a large screen TV with cable so if you ever want to watch a major sports event that is the place to go. In another part of town is Bule’s Saloon, German owned restaurant with German and other Western food. I have eaten there a couple of times and it is ok. Many of the Westerners resident in Korat are older, and I get the feeling that the very slow pace of life in the city suits them well.
There are a number of very reasonable hotels in Korat for around, or a little over, 1,000 baht a night, which gets you a comfortable room and a buffet breakfast. At the bottom end of the accommodation market, some of the rooms for just a few hundred baht are a bit average, so if you are on a budget make sure you check out the room before handing over your hard earned! I would not recommend spending any more than one night in Korat as there is not a lot to do. Even the nightlife is a bit sleepy.
The most impressive attraction in Korat is not in downtown Korat, but 50km north up the main highway in Phimai. There you can find some very well preserved old Khmer temple ruin, and in some ways the Phimai Historical Park reminds me of a very small version of Angkor Wat. This is well worth checking out, in fact the little town of Phimai is a pretty place with some nice parks and is worth spending and hour or two wandering around. Buses leave Korat for Phimai frequently.
200 km up the main highway from Korat is Khon Kaen, the place I have always considered the heart of Isaan. This is where you find the best university in Isaan, as well as what I believe is the best hospital.
Like Korat, Khon Kaen is hardly a pretty place, and neither is there a great deal to do there, either in the provincial capital, or outside it for that matter. However, I have always enjoyed visiting Kohn Kaen and have found the people in the town to be very friendly and it is easy to meet up with people to hang out with.
To me, the only place worth checking out in Khon Kaen is the 9 level temple which is a couple of kilometres south of the city centre. It is an unusual design and is rather attractive. There's a pleasant lake nearby surrounded by a park where you can stretch your legs.
Khon Kaen seems to have more of a nightlife scene than Korat. There are a few bars where the local farangs meet, and in a lane very close to the Sofitel Hotel there are a number of discos and bars. Like I say, the locals are friendly and while the sight of a farang I not completely unusual in Khon Kaen, the locals are till curious enough about us that they may well approach you and try to find out more about you.
The Charoen Thani Princess Hotel in the centre of the city provides excellent rooms at a mere 1,100 baht a night and is where I always stay when I am in Khon Kaen.
Another 100 or so kilometres up the road from Khon Kaen is Udon Thani, a smaller provincial capital which has proven to be popular with Westerners in recent years and even has a thriving farang bar scene. There are probably more farang oriented bars and restaurants in the city of Udon than in any other centre in Isaan, and this is no doubt due to the high number of girls from Udon who work in Bangkok and Pattaya where they meet a Westerner, get married, and then they both go and live happily ever after in the Thai countryside. Udon is said to have both the highest number of Westerners in Isaan, as well as the highest percentage of Westerners for a province in Isaan.
Sai-grok Isaan, Isaan sausages, for sale in a market.
The city of Udon doesn't have any major tourist attractions, or at least none that I am aware of. The provinces attractions are well outside the provincial capital and include national parks and Ban Chiang, a site where a lot of old fossils and relics were found and a spot said to be of archaeological significance. A friend who has visited was not that impressed but that said, I have not been there myself.
In downtown Udon there is a large shopping centre with a greater vibrancy than any of the other shopping centres in the major centres of Udon. Here you will see far more Westerners than anywhere else in Isaan, some are tourists and some are locally based. I guess most make it to Udon with their teeruk.
Across the road from the shopping centre and behind a row of shops is a strip of beer bars, a la Pattaya, that frankly I am surprised are allowed to operate. Directly opposite the shopping centre are a handful of bars, Differen Bar (Yes, that is how it is spelt), Tong's Bar and Barberry. Barberry has women available for the naughty boys and Differen Bar had coyote dancers, at least the last time I was there, in early 2007.
This shopping centre is where many of the more well to do Udonites venture at the weekend and I cannot imagine what they think of establishments opening that target farangs directly, bars and restaurants.
Food in Udon Thani is very good. Westerners rave about the Irish Clock, a small Irish bar which I have yet to try. There is also a very, very good Italian restaurant called Roma Piccolo which is superb. It is located a bit outside the city centre, out on the road past Big C. It is well worth going out of your way for!
On thing I will say about Udon is that the people are very friendly, and the farangs who live in the province, both in the provincial capital, and in some of the surrounding districts, most seem to be fairly happy and in no hurry to up and go elsewhere. As far as actual interesting tourist spots go, Udon is not really famous for a lot. There is Ban Chiang, museum of some pottery remains and relics found in the area that apparently date back to prehistoric times, and there is Phu Foi Lom, a pleasant park atop a hill. Apart from that, I personally have not seen a lot of any great interest in Udon, but that said, like most of Udon, the thrill is in the vibe, and interacting with the people, as opposed to the actual tourist sites themselves.
About 50 kilometres or so up the road from Udon Thani is the pretty city of Nongkhai which sits on the banks of the Mekhong River overlooking Laos. The city is a little non-descript but the people are very nice and there are a number of very pleasant restaurants on the banks of the river looking across at Laos.
A little outside the city is Sala Gowgoo, one of my favourite tourist attractions in all of Thailand. It is what I could best term a Buddhist statue park where you have a large number of concrete Buddha images. Amazingly, there is just a 10 baht entrance fee. It is a little outside the city so you'll have to get a songtaew to take you if you do not have your own transport but this really is a must see location. I find it all very fascinating and it is all the better if you can take a Thai along with you to translate some of the story that is told across the statues. If you go to Nongkhai and do not visit Sala Gowgoo then you really have missed out on something rather special!
Nongkhai has a solid stream of foreigners passing through every day, especially the backpacker variety, who are usually on their way to or from Laos. Nongkhai is a charming little town which is well worth a day of your time. Like so many of the towns in Thailand that have a river running through it, Nongkhai has many excellent restaurants on the edge of the banks of the river, looking across the Mekong River at Thailand's nicest neighbour, Laos. Although these restaurants do target foreigners, the costs are still very reasonable and the ambience at some of them is just wonderful. Imagine kicking back in a riverside restaurant looking across the Mekong River as the sun sets over Laos. A typically cool Isaan evening, swigging back your choice of poison, and nodding your head at some rugged looking, toothless local who has been telling you a story for the last half hour that has yet to include one word you understand. He smiles, you smile and everyone is happy!
Nongkhai has developed a lot in the last decade. I visited in 1998 and then again 2007, and the differences were huge. The whole riverfront area has been developed into a pleasant spot with Thai style salas (pavilions) where you can sit and relax in the shade and enjoy the view across to Laos. There is now a great number of guesthouses right in the riverfront area and the rates are more than affordable. From what I saw from signs posted, air-con rooms could be had for less than 500 baht per night, a very good deal indeed. And there are a heap of new riverside restaurants, the sort of venues that I never bore of. If you find yourself in Nongkhai, it is definitely worth staying a night, and if you want to chill out, stay for a few! The downside about Nongkhai is that it is a sleepy little town and there is little to do after dark.
Roi Et, meaning one hundred and one, is one of my favourite spots in all of Isaan. The city is very pretty with a lake in the centre, of which there is an island in the centre of the lake. The people are nice and the city is home to many temples, all of which are walkable.
Roi Et has the tallest Buddha image in Thailand at approximately 65 metres in height and it towers over the city.
The first time I went to Roi Et the I had only planned to stay one night but I liked it so much I stayed two!
There are a small number of Westerners resident in the Roi Et area so there are at least a couple of Western oriented restaurants including the White Elephant which is just over the canal from the Roi Et City Hotel as well as a pizza shop which overlooks the lake and is the de facto meeting place for Westerners living in the area.
Truth be told, as pleasant as Roi Et is, unless you really like the Isaan region, you may find it boring. There are a lot of temples in the city, and it is pretty, but there is little to do. Like many of the "smaller" provincial capitals in Isaan everything closes down early and come 9 PM the city can feel like a bit of a ghost town!
There is a bar area just outside the city moat. Ask any tuktuk driver to take you to "rong bier" and they will know the place. In the area are a number of Thai style venues where very cheap alcohol can be had. To give you an idea of just ho cheap it is, even in 2010 large bottles of Singha beer in one of the entertainment venues were running around 80 baht...which is only about 20 baht more than you would pay in a 7 Eleven store!
The city of Nakhon Phanom is one of the farthest flung cities in Isaan if you are coming from Bangkok and is approximately 700 km from the capital.
The city itself does not have any specific attractions to draw Western tourists other than that it is simply a very nice spot, on the banks of the Mekhong River with very nice views across to Laos. The city itself is clean and there is a very nice river front area where people hang out and jog in the late afternoon.
About 55 km south of the city is the most revered of all of the Buddhist temples in Isaan. That Phanom is a large, beautiful Buddhist temple of which the style reminds me of many temples I have seen in Laos. 55 kilometres might sound like a long way, but it is well worth going out of your way to check out. I am not sure what local transport is available but imagine that there must be buses running between Nakhon Phanom and That Phanom. You could always get a bus to Mukdahan, the province on the Mekhong immediately to the south, as I imagine they must run through That Phanom.
There didn’t seem to be anything in the way of bars or restaurants specifically for the small number of Westerners in the area although there is a bar area not far from the river front. BarKoo was the most popular of the bars that are all within a stone’s throw of each other. These bars server good food at very reasonable prices in addition to the Tex Italia restaurant in the little square which serves Thai versions of some favourite Western dishes.
Historical Places / Temple Ruins
All over Thailand there are many great historical sites with old ruins that fascinate you and stimulate your brain to consider how the world used to be. Most of the best preserved ruins are in the central, northern and northeastern areas of the country. As you travel around different parts of the country, so you will notice different styles of ruins in different areas.
One of the great things about the ruins in Thailand is that these truly fascinating historical sites are affordable to enter - especially when compared with such historical sites around the world where an entry fee of $US 20 to see a European castle is not out of the question. Where I do have a problem with the pricing of such attractions in Thailand is the blatant dual pricing that is in effect at so many of these sites. Ayuthaya, Sukhothai and the various other locations with historic ruins all charge the foreigner three to four times the price that the Thai pays. More often than not, the Thai pays 5 - 10 baht and the foreigner pays 20 - 40 baht. To really rub salt into the wounds, at all of these places, the prices for foreigners is listed in English and the prices for Thais listed in Thai script including using the seldom used Thai script digits. This way, 99% of foreigners do not know that they are actually being ripped off by being asked to pay more for entrance to the site than the Thais. While I do not condone it, a friend of mine claims that at many of the sites, it is possible to walk in side or back doors without having to pay. His justification for this being that if they would charge the same price for foreigners as they do for Thais, he wouldn't have to resort to this. In my opinion, he has a fair point so if you get a chance, jump the fence! Having seen him in action, I can confirm that this is VERY easy to do - especially at many of the sites in Ayuthaya.
Heading north from Bangkok, about 20 km or so south of the main temple area in Ayuthaya is the Summer Palace at BangPa In, pictured below. Now this is a very impressive attraction with lovely, manicured grounds and a very warm feeling about it all. There is a bit of history in the palace with various buildings on the grounds being home to previous generations of royalty. To get to BangPa In, most people get off the train at the BangPa In train station and get a motorbike or a tuktuk to the palace. Alternatively you could get there by car. The Bangkok to Ayuthaya bus may stop somewhere around there but frankly, I do not know. The palace grounds are not that big and unless you are feeling lazy or have bad legs, I wouldn't recommend taking the electric power vehicles to drive around the palace. They cost 400 baht an hour for foreigners or 250 baht an hour for Thais, but either way, I think they are a little in the expensive side. Besides, an hour is not really enough time to get around, read some of the history and of course, take lots of photographs. BangPa In, like so many of the attractions in Thailand, really is a photographer's paradise so bring lots of memory cards or lots of film! Entry price is 100 baht and for Thais is cheaper, just 30 baht. Grrr. You would almost certainly visit BangPa In the same day you would visit Ayuthaya.
Ayuthaya is really easy to get to from Bangkok - in fact it's perfect for a day trip if you are not planning on going any further north. You can either take the train from the main train station at Hualompong which takes about an hour and a quarter and costs a whopping 15 baht (probably increased since) or alternatively, you could take a bus from Mo Chit bus station which costs a bit more but gets there quicker. If you ever find yourself at either Victory Monument or Future Park Rangsit, just north of the airport, from both of these places several minibuses offer a service to Ayuthaya and just depart when the van is full. Keep a look out for vans with small plastic or cardboard signs in the window or on the side that are usually in Thai, occasionally English. Just ask one of the guys hanging around the vans and they'll point you in the right direction.
Once you have arrived at Ayuthaya, you have to decide how you wish to get around. You have a few options available to you and far and away the cheapest is to hire a bicycle at 30 - 50 baht for the day. Ayuthaya is flat so getting around on a bike is easy. The only problem is that some of the ruins and temples are quite a way from each other so you will have to do quite a bit of cycling and further, while they are not too difficult to find, one can also get lost! Road maps can be damned confusing in Thailand!
The ruins at Ayuthaya are spread over a wide area and in many ways the entire town is an historical park. Just wandering / cycling or driving around, there is no shortage of eye candy and exploring is half of the fun. Most people seem to head for the main temple in the centre of town with the three pagodas but there are some equally impressive temples round about. Like I say, explore and see where you end up. I maintain that to see Ayuthaya comfortably, a car would be best, but if that is not possible, you can hire a tuktuk for a few hours to take you around. They charge around 400 baht for 3 - 4 hours and will take you to 3 or 4 of the best temples. If you're lucky, the driver might even speak enough English to give you s bit of history about each of the temples. alternatively, if you know where you want to go, you can just hire a different tuktuk to take you from one historical site to another which will cost 40 - 60 baht per journey. The central area of Thailand can get very hot during the day and Ayuthaya is no exception. Many people find that by mid afternoon the heat has got to them and it is time to either return to a local guesthouse or make the trip back to Bangkok.
There are other old ancient ruins all over the country and I gather that the ruins at Sukhothai, in the north, are very impressive. Further, scattered throughout Isaan are various ruins such as those found at Phimai, not far out of Korat. These historical sites tend to be quite busy at the weekend and on public holidays. During the week they are usually a lot quieter though if you are really unlucky, you may get there at the same time as a few hundred Thai school students.
Lopburi is a funny place. I had lived in Thailand for well over five years before I visited it and during that time, no-one had said much to be about it, so I wasn’t really expecting too much. When I finally made it there, I was almost dumbfounded about not having visited it sooner. It is a relatively small city, but there is plenty to see and do and you could easily spend a day wandering around, looking at the wealth of attractions.
There is a huge old palace and beautiful grounds which is pretty much in the middle of city. The ground are huge and you can get a fairly good feel for what was once the old capital. There are these huge doors there that took me a while to figure out, oh, they're for the elephants! Anyway, in what I believe is called something like the old city palace, you have the grounds to explore and a very nice museum to wander through. Entry is a ridiculously cheap 30 baht.
Scattered around the city area are various temple ruins, most of which are a few hundred years old. None are as impressive as the ruins of Ayuthaya or Sukhothai, but are worth looking at nonetheless. Perhaps the most popular attraction in the city of Lopburi is the temple ruin in the centre of the city that is home to hundreds of monkeys. These little monsters are everywhere and they are a great laugh though be careful as they are famous for stealing things from visitors and have been known to run off with sunglasses, wallets and cameras! It is a little perturbing to see the monkeys run across a major inner city intersection between two temples and a bunch of shops, but the traffic seems to slow down for them and they seem to get by ok. The monkey temple is probably the pick of the Lopburi attractions. You could do Lopburi as a day trip from Bangkok or on the way heading either north from Bangkok or south, back to Bangkok.
You're well and truly in the north when you reach the old town of Kampeng Phet. Although home to the Kampeng Phet Historical Park, I get the feeling that not a lot of visitors make it to this town and fair enough too. There are a lot of historical parks in Thailand and the one here is not the most impressive, but that is not to say that it is unimpressive either. Quite different from, any of the other historical parks, this one is in a semi forested area just a few km from the city centre. On the day that I was there, there were no other visitors at all which gave it all an eerie silence. A few local Thais were exercising in the area but apart from that, it was deathly quiet, almost a little unnerving in a country where one gets used to constant noise. If you are touring around the north by motorbike or car and / or you are particularly fond of such historical parks, then this town is worth checking out. But if you are reliant on public transport or are feeling a little templed out, then Kampeng Phet could be cross off your itinerary. If you do stay in Kampeng Phet, I found the Phet Hotel in town to be very pleasant and offered good value for money. 650 baht or a single room which was nice, and as with many reasonable hotels in the provinces of Thailand, it included a buffet breakfast too!
Many people seem to overnight in Phitsanulok, a very pleasant northern town that must be a bit past the half way point from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The city itself is pleasant without being startling to the foreign visitor and it has a nice river running through it along with a nice temple complex with a one of those large Khmer style phallic whatever you call them things in the middle. Yeah, yeah, old Sticky doesn't know what they're called in English. To find out more about the lower north of Thailand, check out the travelogue that I wrote and used as the opening piece in the Stickman Weekly column of 19/10/2003.
It took me a long time to get there but I finally made it to Sukhothai and boy, was I impressed. The main Sukhothai historical park has several very well restored temple ruins (if that makes any sense?) within one large park which would probably be a couple of square kilometres, a size that you could just about walk around. To me, the ruins up here are a lot more impressive than Ayuthaya and are easier to get around and more stunning visually. The ruins themselves are quite some distance from Sukhothai town itself, some 20 km or so I'd say at a guess. There is a charge to get into each of the temples within the park, or you can just buy a 30 day pass which gets you into all of the temples within the historical park, all of those just outside it, which are a few, and some others quite a distance away. The pass is priced at a very fair 150 baht, whereas each temple, if entered individually, would cost 30 baht. The strange thing though is that at almost every temple I checked out in the area, I was never once asked to show a ticket. That is not to say that I condone people just wandering in without paying, but it would be possible. While more impressive than Sukhothai, at least to my eyes, it can be seen in a shorter amount of time due to the close proximity of al of the ruins. You could conceivably see most of it in less than 3 hours, though some people will no doubt want to spend the entire day.
I still haven't made it up to Sri Satchanalai and hope to do that the next time I am up in the north, I will check it out. If it is even half as good as Sukhothai, pictured below, then it must be something really worth visiting.
Stickman's Bangkok Tour
I like it when friends come and visit me in Bangkok. Not only is it great to catch up with them and show them around but they can bring me all of the goodies that I miss from home. From time to time, friends are just passing through Bangkok very briefly and I may only have 24 hours, sometimes less, to show them around. If you do not know your way around, Bangkok can appear to be one big giant, dirty, drab and grey city, just as you can see in the picture here. But if you know where to go, you can have a lot of fun. This is the little tour that I take them on.
The beauty about this tour is that you can start it anywhere that the skytrain goes to. So, make your way to the nearest skytrain station and once you get there, you have to find the easiest way to get to Saphan Taksin station. If you are on the Silom line, this is easy, just get on the train that says that it is going to Saphan Taksin and get off there. If you get on the skytrain on the Sukhumvit line, you will have to make your way to Siam station and once there, will have to change on to the train going to Saphan Taksin. All pretty easy really.
As you make your way around the sky train you will get a nice elevated view of the city, a city that looks far better from the comfort of the sky train than it does from ground level. In the area around and just after Sala Daeng station, you will be going past the commercial district of the city and will see some of the tallest and flashest buildings in the Thai capital, many of them with the banners denoting that they house the Thai office of international banks and multinationals.
When you arrive at Saphan Taksin station, you need to exit and walk towards the river. You should notice that there are two small piers there and one, just to your left a little, should have a sign saying Chao Praya Express Boat. That is the boat that you want to take. But, do not go to the pier yet... You should notice that you are underneath a bridge and a little to your right is a flight of stairs. Walk up the few short flights of stairs and walk across the bridge. From the bridge you can get a nice view up the river, looking roughly in a northerly direction. You can get a nice angle from here if you want to photograph all of the big hotels on the edge of the river, as below. You can walk across the bridge to the other side and go down the stairs at the other side. Walk to the bottom of them and you should see a small boat. This boat just goes backwards and forwards across the river at 3 baht per person. Take the boat across to the other side, back to where you were. Once you have got off this boat, you want to go to the Chao Praya Express Boat pier that will be just a little over to your right.
Now, it is important to note that you want to take a boat that is heading from left to right, i.e. towards all those big hotels that you can see over on the right. As an option, you can take a boat heading down river, that is right to left. There are just three stops down to the end of the river. If you decide to take this option, just get on another boat heading back up the river. You can get some nice river photos if you go down this way. The fare to the end of the line is just a few baht.
When you get on the boat, tell the ticket seller that you want to go to Ta Dien and the fare should be 10 baht. As you head up the river, you will get an excellent view of many of Bangkok's, and indeed the world's, finest hotels. On the right, and not looking nearly impressive from the outside as one may expect from it's reputation is the Oriental Hotel. On the same side of the river and in the immediate vicinity are the Sheraton and The Shangri-La. Directly opposite the Oriental Hotel is the recently built Peninsula Hotel. As you go further up the river, you will start to see more of the old city with several Buddhist temples on either side of river. The ever impressive Wat Arun, or in English, The Temple Of Dawn is an impressive site on the western side of the river. This temple is the marker to tell you that you are almost at the port where you should get off, Ta Dien.
When you have got off at Ta Dien, you simply have to walk about ten metres and get on to the cross river ferry that will take you over the river to Wat Arun. There are various points up and down the river where you can take a ferry that just runs backwards and forwards and the fare costs all of 3 baht.
Once you make it over to the other side, you can have a look around Wat Arun, pictured here. It's only 20 baht to get in but that is still too much given that Thais get in for less than that. In all truth and honesty, this temple looks better from the other side of the river and is largely unremarkable up close but as it is so cheap to get over the river, it's worthwhile looking at it. There are a lot of scam artists in the area around here selling the usual junk at the usual inflated for foreigners prices. You also get the obligatory souvenir sellers, the ice-cream sellers, the Coke at crazy price sellers etc. This can be a nice place to sit and relax and enjoy watching life on the river. Beware of the cut out boards with pictures of traditional Thai costumes painted on them and a hole for you to put your head through so your picture can be taken "wearing a traditional Thai costume". In the bottom corner, most inconspicuously placed, it says 40B meaning the cost for a photo is 40 baht (for Thais it's free). This really is a scam so don't bother taking pictures here unless you are willing to pay the 40 baht.
The Chao Praya River is one of the most interesting places in Bangkok and there is always something going on with long tail boats zooming foreign tourists around, barges transporting cargo up and down and the police boats hunting for wayward Khao Sarn Road backpackers who may have found a nice spot on side of the river to have a toke on cheap Thai weed. If you know anything about engines, you will notice that a lot of the long tail boats have old car engines running them, ranging from the ever popular 1600 twin cam Toyota engine to a few American V8s.
After you have finished wandering around and presumably photographing Wat Arun, it is time to head back across the river. Once you get back over there, walk right through the pier building and you should come out into a small side street with a lot of tuktuk drivers who will try to convince you to allow them to take you somewhere - walk past them and about another 50 or so metres and you are at an intersection where you can see a street right in front of you and two large compounds with white walls on either side. Here you have Wat Po on the right and the Grand Palace on the left. These are two of the most impressive and famous temples in Thailand. It's up to you which one you visit (or you can see both) but I personally prefer Wat Po as it is less crowded, costs only 20 baht to get in as opposed to 200+ for The Grand Palace - and t houses the impressive reclining Buddha. The style of architecture in the two temples is fairly similar so I will stick my neck out and say that unless you are a big fan of Thai Buddhist temples, seeing one is enough. So, go for a wander around either of the temples.
After you have seen the temples, you can abort the tour and head to wherever by taxi (or any other means) or continue with the tour. If you decide to continue, you can now head up towards Sanam Luang, a big, somewhat nothing park where Thais often go at the weekend and then on to Khao Sarn Road, the backpackers domain of Bangkok. Or, if this does not appeal, you can just return to where you came from. Depending on the time of year, you may want to walk up to Sanam Luang. This big park attracts lots of Thais to the many fortune tellers, tarot card readers and so forth at the weekend. Even the poorer Thais can be seen throwing silly money at these impostors to hear some sort of positive words about their future. Sunday is the best day in this area, particularly from November to February when the weather is best.
You need to head to the main road, Sanam Chai Road, and this then leads on to Rachadarmnoen Road. As you walk along Rachadarmnoen Road, Sanam Luang, the large park will be on your left. You need to follow this road for about 1.5 km which can be hard going in the hot season as you are now heading for the Golden Mount, aka Wat Saket.
Walking along Rachadarmnoen Road, you will see a huge monument at a large roundabout. This is Democracy Monument. Don't ask me what it represent as I'm not entirely sure... You need to cross the road at sometime so that you are on the opposite side of the road to McDonalds which is very close to the monument. Walk another few hundred metres and you will see the Golden Mount. This under rated tourist attraction is a strange sort of Thai temple set on a hill that allows really good views of the old part of Bangkok. Go for a wander around, take some photos and enjoy yourself. Once you have finished there, you want to wander back down and on to the main road. You should see that the main road goes over a bridge. Under this bridge is a canal and there is a canal boat stop there. This particular stop is the last one on the line so you do not have to worry about getting on the wrong boat as there is only one to get on. Get on the boat and ask to go to Central World Plaza. The journey shouldn't take much more than 12 minutes and you will get to see some interesting places along the journey including the houses of people who live right alongside the canal - some are flash while others are less than desirable but they are all interesting. Twelve or so minutes later and the boat will make it back to Central World Plaza, the large shopping centre right in the centre of Bangkok. From here you can get a bus or a cab to anywhere. I hope you enjoyed Stickman's Tour Of Bangkok. Depending on what options you take, the whole tour will take about 4-5 hours.
Having had the good fortune to do a lot of travelling in my life, I can compare the Thai holiday experience with that of many other countries and I can confidently say that of all of the places that I have been to, no where compares with Thailand for such a range of great diverse destinations. Sure, Thailand is now very heavily touristed and for those wanting to explore somewhere new where no white man has ever shown his face, Thailand may not be the ideal destination for you. Despite rising prices, particularly in the places that tourists go, Thailand remains very affordable and is still a lot cheaper than any Western country. And if you speak some Thai and manage to avoid being scammed, you can do things super cheap if you so desire. While Thailand may still be considered a developing country, in some parts of the country, especially the heavily touristed areas, the infrastructure really is not that much different to some Western countries. Everything is sort of good enough, if you know what I mean! If you do make this wonderful country your choice for your next holiday, I am sure you will not be disappointed. Go along with an open mind and you'll have a great time.
And don't forget the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market which is in Rachaburi province, about 100 km southwest of the capital and well within reach for a day trip, or even a half day trip. You can read more about a trip to the Thailand Floating Market here.
For more information about Thailand, check out these links:
Living and Working in Bangkok - Employment in Bangkok, Thai food, the weather in Bangkok, internet connections, learning Thai, long-term accommodation in Bangkok, getting along with Thai people, problems for residents, the Thai police, Bangkok transportation etc - all written by me.
Thailand wi-fi list - a list of free wireless internet connections in Thailand.
Translations of commonly heard Thai words and phrases
Baht - 1). The unit of currency in Thailand. 2). The unit used in measuring the weight of gold in Thailand.
Khao Sarn - It is the name of the main road in the backpacker infested neighbourhood of Bangkok, but did you know that in Thai it actually means "un-husked rice".
Ko - Thai for island.
Kop khun - Thai for thank you!
Ta - Thai for port or pier.
Teeruk- Thai for darling.
Wat - Thai for temple.
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