Around the Traps South East Asia – Part 17
Bangkok low season:
Having just spent the first week of July in Bangkok, I can wholeheartedly agree with the Stickman’s assertion it’s the best month of the year to be there. The continually overcast skies bring the temperature down substantially and even though the threat of rain is imminent throughout the day, the fact is it normally doesn’t come down till later in the afternoon. What’s also very noticeable as one meanders around lower Sukhumvit is the significant reduction in people on the streets, compared with the peak season months. The low season is a time of year when the hustle in the bars along Soi 4 seems less aggressive and there may just be a bargain to be had. Or so we’d like to think. The Thai approach to business when times are tough is normally the opposite of what common sense should dictate; when the pickings are slim it might be a good idea to downscale the rates. In the go-go bars of Nana, you’d be waiting forever for this to happen. However, further down the soi the rates seem to be a whole lot more flexible. I was staying at a budget hotel towards the lower end of the soi and one afternoon decided to try a massage at an establishment next door. I picked out a breasty girl from the line-up at the entrance, and was told a one hour oil massage was 500 THB. I then inquired about the going rates for extras and was given the “up to you” routine. Not being one to shy away from a potential bargain I said, “I pay 1,000 for everything in Phuket, massage and extras.” She looked at me for a few seconds and then, surprisingly, nodded in the affirmative. Later on she confided that I was only their third customer for the day. In the end I got a one hour oil massage and some horizontal folk dancing for 1,000 THB. Yes, in the right areas of town in the low season there are still bargains to be had. Even in Bangkok.
It seems as though the drive from Suwarnabhumi into lower Sukhumvit is at its worst at peak hour on a week-day, and even more so if it rains. I normally plan my trips to the Big Mango so that I arrive at around midday on a Sunday. On this latest trip I couldn’t avoid a late afternoon, week-day arrival and to make matters worse the rain created a log jam of traffic, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before. Normally Iopt for the skytrain. Unfortunately I’d been in Chiang Mai for a few days and was carrying a bunch of camera gear and lights for an onward trip to Vietnam. A taxi was my only option and it was a patience-testing one-hour and twenty minutes before being dropped at the hotel entrance on Soi 4. After checking into the hotel I made my way along to Soi 8 for a latish dinner at The Kiwi. For anyone who’s spent a bit of time around lower Sukhumvit you’ll probably be aware of the short-cut onto Soi 8, from Soi 6. It’s convenient but a bit like running the gauntlet as you negotiate the two BJ bars which occupy the corner of the laneway. But a few seconds of harassment is worth it to avoid the continuous melee at the intersection of Nana and Sukhumvit.
Even though it’s the low season, the crowding on the skytrain seems just as bad as the high. One thing which makes me shake my head in bewilderment is the tourists who line-up at the ticket / change counters and buy a single fare, only to have to go through the whole patience-testing experience for the return trip. Is it so hard to work out? When you arrive at Suwarnabhumi it’s train fares 101; go to the ticket counter and ask for 200 THB in coins. Or get one of those cards with a heap of credit on it. Generally, the ticket counters at Swampy are never as crowded as downtown. I mean seriously, who wants to negotiate the following?
I think most guys who go for a drink around the lower Sukhumvit area would agree that the prices one might pay for a beer, a barfine, and sexual liaison are not exactly a bargain anymore. A sign of the times that prices in Bangkok are beginning to enter the nonsense zone are there for everyone to see. Anyone for a bargain condo at the intersection of Soi 6 and Sukhumvit? Starting at a mere 30 million THB. Whatever will they think of next?
Further along Sukhumvit you’ve now got durian being offered as boutique food in cafes. With the Chinese demand pricing the “king of fruits” off the scale, it won’t be long before this stuff is worth its weight in gold.
According to the latest in Thai news on the web, the drop-off in Chinese tourist arrivals into the kingdom is quickly being replaced by the rise in numbers from India. The first of this wave was seen recently along lower Sukhumvit.
TBH I can’t really point fingers at these guys as I’ve done the same myself on numerous occasions when taking the skytrain from Swampy. Speaking of Swampy, is anyone getting seriously peeved with the bussing situation? It’s been going on since 2013 and I guess there’s no real end in sight until the new airport extension is completed. Whenever that may be. One would hope the Thai planning department has taken in to consideration the expected swell in tourist arrivals and are constructing something which is looking at least 20 years ahead. I’m expecting that once the 2nd stage is finished, we’ll still be bussing in from the outfield.
One of the great things about staying at the lower end of Soi 4 is you’ve got easy and quite direct access to Benjakitti Park for a bit of morning exercise, if you’re so inclined. If you head to the end of the soi then take a left and skirt the edge of the Tobacco Monopoly, you’ll be at the north-west entrance to the park in about 10 minutes. It gets quite crowded in the afternoon with Thais doing their exercise routines but at 9 AM the place is fairly empty. After an hour or so of doing laps around the lake, I normally head off to Terminal 21 for a coffee and to cool off. The walk back to the hotel past Nana Plaza is entertaining, and a bit of an eye-opener to see how many guys are already in the bars at midday.
Something which one can’t fail to notice when in the big mango, or any other large urban environment for that matter, is the preoccupancy so many people have with their mobile phones. My take on it is that city living seems to engender the phone dependency / addiction simply through boredom or having little that’s worthwhile to do, apart from hanging out in cafes. Big cities, phone-gazing, and cafes seem to go hand in hand. This is in stark contrast to spending some time out in the bush, where often times there isn’t phone signal and phone-gazing is replaced by hiking, treks, and exploration.
A trip to Chiang Mai:
One of the benefits of flying with Bangkok Airways is you get the use of an economy lounge. Up until recently they had direct flights from Phuket to Chiang Mai but for one reason or another, they’ve been terminated. It’s now a double hop via Swampy and having access to the lounge, with its free coffee and snacks, is certainly well appreciated. For anyone heading up that way I highly recommend using the services of GRAB to get from the airport to your hotel, etc. Grab isn’t allowed to pick up passengers at the airport exit doors, but they can collect you at the front gate. My Grab fare to Baan Pong Lodge, approx. 30 km from Chiang Mai, was a good deal cheaper than prices being thrown at me by the airport taxi mafia.
While there seems to be plenty of rain falling in the south, in the north it’s not the case. A couple of travel specialists I know in Laos tell me reliably that the north of the country is in a drought. Apparently the first rice planting has been missed. Up in Chiang Mai it’s not much better. The following photo is of a dam, just up the road from Baan Pong Lodge, and water levels were well down for this time of year.
Another Vietnam Sojourn:
After four hectic days in Bangkok I boarded a Vietnam Airlines flight bound first for Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, in Northern Vietnam, and then a few days relaxing in Ho Chi Minh City. To get there I had a double hop from Swampy, via Hanoi, to a smallish city north of Da Nang, called Dong Hoi. Phong Nha Township is approx. 32 km from Dong Hoi and transfer was arranged with the guesthouse I was staying at. The primary purpose of my trip to Phong Nha was to undertake a 3 day / 2 night caving and trekking tour through the national park with a local tour company called JUNGLE BOSS.
Phong Nha is the caving equivalent of base camp at Everest. Everything that happens at Phong Nha is about caving and trekking, and there’s no other reason to be there. The national park is an imposing jungle covered karst terrain potholed with countless caves. Of the estimated 300 in the national park, only 30 or so are currently developed for sightseeing. Phong Nha has some gigantic caves and one, HANG SON DOONG (with internal diameters of 200 meters), is currently listed as the world’s biggest. Many of these larger caves can only be visited as part of an adventure tour which normally involves a serious amount of trekking over some rugged terrain. For those who are interested a full trip report can be seen on my website.
After 8 days in Phong Nha, I took a flight down to HCMC with the intention of spending some time with an old flame and getting a few pics around the city. For anyone who hasn’t been in HCMC city recently it’s quite a shock to see how crowded the airport is these days. I think I can safely say the crowding, or over-crowding, there is now probably worse than one would encounter at Don Mueang. With the upsurge in tourism to Vietnam, combined with the increasing affluence of the local population, the crowds are absolutely chaotic and both airports – domestic and international – are well past capacity (The day flew I back to Phuket, I’ve never seen crowding like it at an international airport).
Most people traveling to HCMC will normally book their accommodation in District 1, either at the central tourist area or at the backpackers / travellers area. Having previously stayed in this area on a number of occasions, and knowing how congested it has become, I opted for District 7; a more sedate location a bit further out from the central tourist area.
One of the main problems with District 1 these days (and has been for the past 3 years) is large swathes of the downtown area have been blocked off by construction works for the new public transportation system. A wide area which runs from the walking boulevard to Ben Thanh Market has been barricaded off; in effect creating traffic log jams in the wider vicinity. For anyone who’s interested in seeing how bad the traffic congestion can get in HCMC, check out this You Tube video.
The backpackers / travellers area in Phạm Ngu Lao also seems to be more crowded and chaotic than ever with the narrow lanes filled to the brim with hawkers and pestering street vendors. Prices have also increased and what’s noticeable is the cost of food and drinks is double what it was three years previously. I think the word is well and truly out on Vietnam and it’s no longer an off the beaten track location. The problem HCMC now has, when comparing it with Bangkok, is there’s no mass / public transportation system of any kind to enable tourists to easily/conveniently move around the city. The project that’s currently being worked on is a skytrain system but according to an expat I spoke with in PHATTY’S SPORTS BAR, that won’t be completed any time soon because work has been stopped for a year due to a lack of government funding.
One thing in the city’s favour, when it comes to cheap transportation, is the availability of the GRAB service. For the week I was there I used GRAB BIKES every day and found it was the quickest way of getting through the constant traffic jams. To be honest the cost of a GRAB is so cheap, it’s ridiculous. The most I paid for a trip of up to 7 km was 40k VND (less than 2 USD).
Staying in District 7 is definitely a much better option if you’re looking for a quieter, less traffic affected area. Although something to keep in mind if you’re thinking of staying there is it’s a predominantly Asian (Korean) tourist area and most of the bars and massage shops cater to these people i.e., the signage and advertising tends to be in Korean and Japanese language. However, District 7 also happens to be a more upmarket type of area where many long-term western expats live in and, and gravitate towards, to get clear of the tourist hordes and rip-offs over in District 1. By and large prices in District 7 are no more than in District 1 and good quality hotels are often cheaper. The place I stayed at – Ngân Hà Apartment – is quite new and has modern apartment type rooms for just USD 55 per night, including breakfast for 2. It also has its own fully provisioned coffee shop attached and serves up some excellent cappuccinos and lattes.
For some naughty boy action there’s not much in the area apart from the massage outlets with the pick being SU SU, for extras. If you’re just after a bog standard oil massage then a great place to go is massage 99. They provide a seriously good therapeutic type massage for aching muscles, and not just the crappy tourist rub down you often get in District 1.
Another advantage of staying in District 7 is you’re only walking distance from HCMC’s best suburban shopping mall: VIVOCITY. The supermarket there is an excellent place to stock up on Vietnamese coffee at the cheapest prices you’ll get in town. I used to buy my coffee at Ben Thanh market in District 1 and even after bargaining like hell, and thinking I’d got a good deal, I was still paying 50% over the supermarket prices.
For those who may feel like splashing out on a decent imported steak and a bottle of good red, there’s a branch of the ARGENTINIAN STEAKHOUSE nearby the CRESENT SHOPPING MALL. However, the prices at this branch of EL GAUCHO’S seem to be a good deal more than in Bangkok.
In conclusion I enjoyed this latest trip to Vietnam but can honestly say I was quite happy to get back to Phuket. There was a time when I was seriously considering moving there but these days I’m not so sure if it would be a viable option. The mountain scenery, trekking, and caving in the north of Vietnam are certainly superior to anything in Thailand, and the beaches are probably equally as good. But when it comes to residing in one of the larger cities – Saigon or Hanoi – the big drawback is the traffic chaos and the lack of a decent public transportation system. Da Nang, with its wide boulevards, may be the exception to this but the issue there, as with the rest of the country, is access to inexpensive food stuffs. Vietnam does not have anything like a MACRO to be able to buy cheap fruit, veg, chicken, and pork. Yes there are local markets, but from what I’ve seen of them hygiene or the lack there of, seems to be a real issue. Having done numerous trips to Vietnam I think one of the major concerns for westerners is the lack of good quality protein in the food. Noodle soups and spring rolls are great every now and again but it’s not something I would like to live on indefinitely. Whenever I do an extended trip to Vietnam (2 – 3 weeks) it’s a certainty I’ll come back 4 – 5 kg lighter. Not that it’s a bad thing but the feeling while I’m there is that I’m constantly starving. And the prices for a decent western meal in one of the bars or restaurants are definitely on the expensive side. As an example a meal of fish and chips, with a small salad, at PHATTY’S SPORTS BAR in District 1 is the equivalent of 15 USD, which to me is a bit over top for a third world country. Compared with Thailand access to decent protein is definitely a lot more difficult, and expensive. As an example, in Phuket (Kathu) I can buy 2 good sized chunks of barbecued chicken at a nearby local restaurant for 80 THB. Food of all types is definitely superior, and cheaper, in Thailand.
And finally the age old question comparing Vietnamese ladies to Thai. Are they more attractive? There was a time when I thought they were but after numerous trips there my honest opinion is “on average” Thai women are better looking. However there is a caveat to this. On average Thai women, these days at least, are also fatter than Vietnamese ladies. There’s also the spec which appeals to you. Vietnamese women generally tend to be fairer skinned than Thai ladies and this normally appeals to Asian males more than westerners, who often have a liking for the darker skinned ladies in Thailand. The upside to Vietnamese ladies is they generally tend to have a greater curiosity about the wider world than the Thai, and can be more interesting to talk with. The downside is they seem to be a lot more money focused, to the point of being almost ruthless. In this regard, Thai ladies tend to be a bit more laid back. However, when it comes to a work ethic I can’t fault Vietnamese ladies. I’ve always said the best service I’ve had from a “working girl” was with the Vietnamese, and the worst “star fish” (disinterested, entitled attitude) was with Thai service ladies.
Very interesting to hear your thoughts on what is happening in Saigon, how the tourist numbers have increased to a point that prices in the areas those tourists hang out have shot up. It was inevitable, wasn’t it? A LOT of Thailand-based expats have been looking around for an alternative and many have talked up Vietnam but what you’ve said – and assuming things will continue to move in that direction – means that a move east might be a case of out of the frying pan and in to the fire!
The author of this excellent article can be contacted at : [email protected]