Bangkok Trip Report

This page has my opinions about my July 2000 trip to Bangkok, Thailand. My trip was a prize won from www.thaikitchen.com - makers and importers of very good Thai foods and seasonings - see their web site and try their fine products.

Disclaimer: I stayed only in the Bangkok area, and mostly in the Siam Square area - so my observations are not based on all of Thailand. Bangkok has so many neat things that it's a vacation all by itself. Of course there is much more to see in Thailand than just Bangkok. I assume most of Thailand is less dense, modern, and Western-friendly than Bangkok - and more like other South-East Asian countries. Rather than a total and accurate guide to Bangkok, my notes are intended to identify what you don't find in guidebooks, and how Bangkok is different than other places I've been to. I make no attempt to completely describe Bangkok or Thailand. Finally, I went in July, which meant there was a bit of rain, and it was less crowded and hot than during peak season - which suits me fine.

Synopsis: I strongly recommend Bangkok as a place to visit - I recommend it over Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Florida, Japan, the Philippines, or Hong Kong. Reasons for this include value, fun, variety, and safety.

Misconceptions: Much of what's in Thai tourbooks does not seem to apply in Bangkok. (But if you go, read a Lonely Planet book first.) The air was much cleaner than the media projects. Yes, there was auto exhaust - but no worse than any other huge city and 20 times cleaner than Hong Kong. Most of the Thai do not smoke - most of the smokers there are foreigners.

When dining, Thais do put forks in their mouths, and what Thais eat is different than what US Thai restaurants serve. Despite what American Thai cookbooks say, Basil is not used much in cooking (and if you find it on a menu, it is not as flavorful as the basil found in US Thai restaurants). Thais don't eat much seafood - pork is very popular. Portions are small, and they don't over-order or over-serve food. I like spicy Thai food. My experience was that Thai food served in popular Bangkok restaurants was not spicier that what's found in most (San Jose, CA) Thai restaurants. I tried ordering from the "Spicy" menu sections, bringing local Thais with me to restaurants, and only ordering spicy dishes - but the most spicy was milder than my favorite San Jose restaurant when I order "medium spicy".

Traffic was average for a large, busy, city - not horrible like media says. You don't need to speak, read, or understand any Thai at all - in Bangkok, the majority of Thais know some English, and for every sign that's in Thai only, there are 3 with English. GPSs don't work too well in Central Bangkok - too many tall buildings and metal structures. Transportation is excellent, taxis are everywhere. Our dollar goes far - on average you get double what you get in the States for your dollar. Exceptions are imported goods - they cost the same or more than they do at home.

No crime, no graffiti, no bums, almost no litter, very few beggars - but lots of pushy touts and sales people. And Thais in Bangkok do expect tips from foreigners.

Shopping in Thailand is best if you are a small lady, or wish to buy trinkets to decorate, food, or orchids. (The orchid flower, expensive in the US, is very cheap and plentiful in Thailand.) Nothing else seemed to be a real bargain in Thailand. And, while prostitution and sleazy places are in Thailand - you won't find any pornography or nasty stuff unless you really want to seek it out.

The Thai People: The people in Thailand do smile about 10% more than Americans, and are much friendlier to foreigners than any other nation I've been to, including the US. If you look lost, within seconds someone will "help you". (Sometimes they lied to get me to go to places they get kickbacks from.) Despite what the guidebooks say, Thais are not all happy at their jobs. All I met were polite, though some times they lied to save face or make profit.

I found at least half the helpful people lied or tried to profit off advice given to me. As an example: I wanted to buy a stamp to mail a postcard at my hotel. The front desk said I needed to buy it at the gift shop. I said it was closed - they smiled and said it was open. I checked again - it was closed, I asked when it would be open, I was told it was open. There were many idle employees that could have checked, and the gift shop was 15 feet away, so either the staff is not allowed to check the status, admit the status, or ?

While Thais are friendly to strangers - we had several interesting experiences. One was a taxi-driver who was as bad as they get. We had just completed touring the Grand Palace, and our guide hailed a metered taxi for us. Both he and we told the driver we wanted to go to our hotel in Siam Square. He said Yes, OK. After we took off, he shut off his meter. We said Meter On please. He said that's ok, 100 Baht to get us to hotel. (That was a fair price - $3 USD). But, then he said he was going to take us to a super discount store first, as it was on the way to the Hotel. We said no, we did not want to go anywhere but the hotel. We repeated this dialog about 5 times - each time we demanded to go straight to the hotel - each time he used a different reason why we were going to the discount center. I had my GPS on, and I could see he was going away from the Hotel, but it was a short ride to the destination.

If there was heavy traffic, we would have bailed from the cab - but there was no traffic - we were going 40 MPH most of the time. We decided to avoid any confrontation - and just to just bail when we got to the destination. We got there, a jewelry store in an industrial area. I handed him 100 Baht, and we just walked away, ignoring what he was saying as we left. (Better to get a new taxi than trust that bozo). As we walked away, we discovered we were in a poor area of town, lots of railroad tracks, pollution - no big stores or taxis nearby. We felt safe, and half-way enjoyed being lost in some unknown and polluted part of Bangkok - but we felt hot and tired too. Eventually, we found a TukTuk driver - who agreed to take us back to the Hotel (2.7 miles away) for 70 Baht. It was a dirty, crazy, and unique experience - but we got back ok. (The driver's eyes were so red - I think he was stoned...)

There were several other experiences that were "funny". A tip is when you are standing still on a street, looking a bit lost; when someone walks up to you - pretend you are talking to a politician - most of the time they are lying. E.g.: What are you looking for? We're looking for the MBK shopping Mall. Oh, that's closed now, it's only 10:30, they don't open till 12:30, but I can show you some shops that are open, and have better prices than MBK. (MBK actually opened at 10 AM, and has the best prices around.) However, all-in-all, the Thai are very nice and moral people - I think the occasional lying and "funny stuff" is just an attempt to earn a living in tough times. (And unlike big cities in the USA, there are few beggars in Bangkok.)

The Hotel and Siam Square The Novotel Hotel in Siam Square is as good as it gets - great room, quiet, safe, great location. But, there are a few quirks. First, unlike the advertisement, there were no safes in the rooms, but the staff are superb and we trusted them, and nothing was taken from our unlocked bag. Some things to mention are that the lower floor has a goofy Italian restaurant, a noisy disco, and a breakfast buffet. Restaurants are covered below. The room was their most inexpensive - their basic room, for $144 a night - pricey for Bangkok - but the room and this hotel were great and inside Siam Square - walking distance to everything, and in a very safe and fun location.

The room was very nice, better quality than $200 hotel rooms in other big cities. It had no clock and advertised no wake-up service - perhaps Thais staying in hotels stay up very late and get up late? It had a king-size bed, sofa, mini-bar, etc. Good view and Aircon too. One strange thing was we'd leave in the morning, come back in the afternoon - and find room service moved stuff around (phones, trash cans, and TV remote controls). Then we'd go out at night, come back and find things moved again! We wondered about this, but on our 3rd night, we found out what was happening - room service at this hotel is twice a day - morning and night. At this hotel, we had to use the "do not disturb" sign on the door. We stayed on the 11th floor, and the disco could be heard very slightly - and it goes to 3 AM, so on a lower floor, it might be noticeable. Finally, the hotel always got good taxi drivers for us, had excellent room service, was clean, and had very good staff.

Beer: Thailand's regular domestic Singha beer is good - but not what Americans get in USA's Thai restaurants - and Thailand's stores and restaurants don't seem to be promoting it. Some don't carry it - and if they do, only the regular kinds - not the premium kinds. (What you get in American Thai restaurants seems to be export malt liquor, with a much richer taste than regular local Singha beer in Thailand. And Thai beer is expensive - ordering one beer can double your restaurant bill! Thai whiskey (I didn't try it) is cheaper than beer (per "dose") but any imported liquor is expensive.

Update on Beer. Shortly after I put this web page up, a person connected with the makers of Singha beer said the above paragraph was wrong - there is only 1 kind of Singha beer. We had a long email conversation and it basically boils down to me insisting it *is* different versus a well-respected, quality company and it's quality people. We agreed the difference could be explained by the age of the beer. Singha beer served in Bangkok is fresh, and what we get (if we are lucky enough to find it) in the States has traveled by boat and is months old. Perhaps the aging brings out the flavor of the beer. In Bangkok, it really did seem to have a lighter flavor and have less alcohol than what I get in the States on occasion. In summary, to me, it seemed Singha is very good in Bangkok and even better when aged and brought here. Also, the Singha rep wanted everyone to know that the reason Singha costs so much in Bangkok is the deep taxation Thailand imposes on beer.

Restaurants The goofiest Italian restaurant on earth may be at the basement of the Novotel Siam Square hotel next to the disco. The food was very good - but here are some odd things about it: The only diet soda I found was diet Pepsi and Coke. We did not eat anything from a street vendor - we stuck to popular big restaurants - street vendors seemed to have flies crawling on the food. We had only good experiences with the food in big indoor restaurants. And prices were always less, and quality was usually better, than in similar US restaurants.

One experience we found all too often was "too much" service, especially during lunch when restaurants are open, but have few customers. Most big restaurants are busy at night, but not during the day. Going at lunch was eerie. The experience below occurred several times at different restaurants: That strange experience did not happen every time, some restaurants had service the same as a USA restaurant. If the above experience is too weird - go only to busy restaurants where they won't be able to micromanage and oversee your dining experience.

Specific Restaurant recommendations: The best Asian seafood restaurant on earth is the original The Seafood Market. It was expensive - about 70% of what a USA restaurant would charge - but had the freshest, most expertly prepared seafood I've ever had. It's a supermarket with fresh seafood and vegetables of all kinds, you get a shopping cart and buy your dinner. Then after you pay, a waiter offers suggestions on how to cook it, you choose, and they cook, and you get really good food. We went for lunch, there were few customers, and about 20 employees working - but they didn't watch or crowd us excessively.

Right across the Novotel Siam Square hotel is the Ban Khun Mae restaurant. This place at lunch produced the eerie experience of the "watching employees" but again at a dinner, when they were busy, it was normal. They had good Thai food spiced as good as we get in San Jose, CA.

The Thai restaurant at the World Trade Center (an upscale shopping mall) was good. All in all, we never had a bad restaurant experience at any upscale restaurant we tried in Bangkok.

Specific Landmarks and Places:

The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo. This amazing place had some of the most interesting architecture and artwork I've seen in a long time. TheWat Pho is also a must-see, and has the giant reclining Buddha. At these places, best to hire a guide there, and they won't let you take photos inside, and you cannot wear a tank-top or shorts. (We never saw any Thai people wearing tank tops or shorts during our entire trip.)

The Ancient City was ok, nothing special. The Ancient City is described in books as a must-see if your are short on time in Bangkok. Seeing just one real landmark in Thailand is better than seeing all of the Ancient City.

The Crocodile Farm and Zoo near the Ancient City is a must-see. You see many thousands of crocodiles, from eggs to full-sized monsters. You see many varieties of them, and a show where brave/foolish guys put their feet, hands, and head inside giant crocodile mouths. It's very exciting, but you wonder how long it will be before there is a tragic accident. As our tour guide (I recommend hiring tour guides when going to landmarks in Bangkok) explained, "no accidents yet". At the same place, there is an open zoo, with tigers and bears and lions on chains where you can walk up and pet them. I'm sure the adult cats were drugged but I still had no urge to pet them. Just for fun, we sat down next to a baby lion. We jumped when he seemed to want to take a piece of our leg. It was a cute little baby, with a mouthful of big teeth. Still, it was fun.

There were other animals there, but my favorite part was the elephant show. 4 smallish elephants did a bunch of tricks with very little trainer supervision. Among the tricks were elephants: riding a tricycle, walking a tightrope - and turning around on it without touching the ground, dancing, taking money from willing spectators and putting it in the trainer's pocket, walking over people lying down without stepping on them, standing on 2 legs, tossing rings into a basket, and many more tricks. The poor Japanese volunteer from the audience was humiliated when the elephant, after walking forwards and backwards over him, without killing him, used its trunk to kiss him on the mouth, then sniff his genitals, repeating a few times. He was trying to spit out the elephant "taste" and was obviously sorry he volunteered! Each elephant did more tricks with more skill than any elephant I've seen at a circus, and there were 4 of them. A very interesting show.

The Floating Market tour was nice - not so much seeing people selling from boats, but the wonderful views of going through the rivers and canals of Bangkok.

Shopping: Right next to the Novotel hotel is the 5-story MBK indoor flea market with several large stores. MBK is best for shopping for small-sized womans clothes, jewelry, and trinkets. The cell phone and lamps looked great - but they won't work in the USA. For shopping, ignore the night market area of PatPong. It was reported to have great shopping as well as sleazy men's clubs. Prices are higher than MBK, the vendors more pushy, and it was hot and crowded compared to the air-conditioned MBK mall.

All in all, Thailand is Amazing.