A friend and I just returned from exploring South East Asia in June and I wanted to provide a just-back-report. It’s a bit long, but I wanted to share the great things we found.
There were ATMs in the airport after baggage claim and customs. We found that all ATMS we encountered in Thailand – Bangkok and Phuket – charged a 150 Baht charge per transaction. It was definitely a place you want to make fewer large transactions. Machines would give out 20-25 bills at a time.
When we arrived in Bangkok, we jumped in a cab at the airport. We went through a line and told them our destination. We were given a ticket for the driver – but not sure what was printed on the ticket. Our driver spoke no English, and we spoke no Thai. He did understand "Marriott" or so we thought. It didn’t really help to show him the address on the confirmation I had printed. When he seemed to understand “Resort and Spa” we thought we were ok. We ended up at the Courtyard Marriott in the shopping area, but after an extra hour and a half (and twice the fare) of Bangkok traffic, we found our way to our new home - the Marriott Resort and Spa. One of the interesting parts of the journey was watching the traffic around us. Lanes seemed to be mere suggestions. Any area not filled by cars was filled in as motorbikes moved through the stopped traffic to get to the front.
We had a wonderful hotel experience at the Bangkok Marriott Resort and Spa, but I've done that as a separate review.
We arranged all of our day trips and tours using Tour with Tong based on what I’d found on Trip Advisor. All in all, it was so worth it! Having our own guide to explain along the way and focus on the things we really wanted to see gave more of an experience that we ever could have gotten alone or on a bigger tour. Here’s the link to Tong’s website if you are interested:http://www.tourwithtong.com/ She replies to all email herself, so if you don’t hear back in a couple of days, you might want to drop her a reminder. I’ve seen her calendar, and it’s crazy. Book in advance if you want her or one of her guides! Even if you don’t use her, there is a page on her site that talks about the major sites in Bangkok --- it’s great for helping you decide which things you really want to see. Additionally, she has some really good guidelines for how to dress when visiting the major Bangkok sights.
Tour with Tong – Bangkok City Tour by Public Transportation
Our first day was spent exploring some of the major sights in Bangkok. Based on our email discussions with Tong before the trip, we decided that using public transportation was likely the best way to get around as our interests were in a fairly small area of Bangkok where parking is difficult. Our guide for the day was Get. She is a lovely Thai woman with a fun sense of humor. Her love of her country was very obvious. We started with a quick review of the itinerary to get a better idea of what we were interested in seeing and how we would spend our day. Throughout the day, she was wonderful – she gave great information, answered all of our questions, and gave us all the time we wanted to take photos and enjoy the sights. She also did a great job of making sure that we got some photos of the two of us together at the major sights. After taking the shuttle boat from the Bangkok Marriott Resort and Spa to one of the main piers, we jumped on one of the river ferries with the locals. Fare was 13 baht per person, and you do need to pay for the guide. It’s much faster to get many places using the river instead of the streets. There is also a tourist specific boat with narration and a higher cost. The local boat makes a few more stops, but it was lots of fun! One tip – you have to be ready to get on / off when the ferry stops --- it makes very quick stops!
We started at the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew - Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which was a very short walk from the pier. Entrance was 350 Baht / person, but there is no charge for the guide (there was no charge for the guides at any of the sites either). Both were spectacular in terms of colors, the intricacy of designs and the amount of gold used. We were lucky enough to explore these sights on a clear day and the photos turned out beautifully! It was great to explore with a guide because it allowed us to ask questions and understand what we were seeing. It was also interesting to see the ongoing restorations required to keep everything looking new and fresh. The murals on the walls were beautiful, and Get was able to help us understand the story from the Ramakien that was illustrated. That part was definitely something we would have missed on our own. The other part that we probably would have missed without her guidance was the Wat Phra Kaeo Museum. It gives you a much better understanding of how the temple and palace have changed over the years, as well as the number of restorations. It’s definitely worth a few minutes to explore.
After a quick ride in a tuk-tuk (50 baht), we also explored Wat Pho – the temple of the Reclining Buddha (50 baht / person). It was fun to visit the Buddha and home of the original massage school in Bangkok. Your best bet in taking photos of the Reclining Buddha is to stand down near its feet. It’s the only way to get an unobstructed view of the entire thing. There four chedis, constructed to honor 3 of the previous kings. The detail of the porcelain inlays is wonderful and differences between them are interesting. The other buildings in the temple are also interesting --- including the Massage School. We didn’t stop for a massage there, but found one later in the day.
Afterward, we grabbed another tuk-tuk (50 baht) and headed for the pier. We hired a private long-tail boat for a couple of hours (1200 baht) for a tour of the canals and to see how some of the local people live and work. Stops included the Royal Barges Museum, Floating Market, Wat Arun and touring the canals (2-2 ½ hours). Water was a little rough going across the river, but much calmer once we were in the canals off the main river.
We made a quick stop at the Royal Barges Museum (100 Baht / person and 100 Baht / camera) to get a little insight into some of the pomp and circumstance of Thai culture. It was interesting, but probably not on the must see list for most people. Our boat was waiting for us to continue when we were done.
Further up the canal, we bought beverages from a woman in a boat as we approached a local market. This was a weekend only floating market – the Taling Chan Floating market on canal Khlong Chak Phra. This market is a little different from the floating market that most of the tourists visit, as it is primarily for locals. Foods, fruits and vegetables far outnumber the souvenirs here! Exploring the market allowed us to try several local fruits and dishes — the odd part was seeing people cooking in small wooden boats! Being with a guide that could answer questions about the local fruits and vegetables, as well as some of the Thai specialties we’d encountered was wonderful. Additionally, Get was able to point us toward the local dishes we had to try. Since we sampled a number of things in the market, we didn’t make a separate lunch stop. The crispy Thai noodles, the satays and the pomelos were our favorites. Along the canals, we saw people going about their daily life – cooking, washing, and enjoying the afternoon. We learned a little from Get about the spirit houses we saw outside each home (and many of the businesses) along the canal and throughout Thailand. We saw several water monitors in the water and on the rocks along the canals, as well as lots of fish (especially around the market).
We finished our tour for the day at Wat Arun – The Temple of Dawn (50 Baht / person)–a very steep climb but a great way to get a bit of a bird’s eye view of the city. It is so worth the climb to the top, as the views of the city skyline, the river and the Grand Palace are wonderful. One tip --- it’s a very steep climb, so coming down, you’re better off going backwards. You’ll want to use the hand rails in both directions. Both at the pier in front of Wat Arun and the main Ferry Pier across the river, we had to pay a 20 Baht fee for docking our boat there, since it was privately chartered. We hopped back on the local ferry to get back to the pier where we would catch the hotel shuttle boat.
Cost for a guide for the full day was 1500 Baht, which was well worth it!
Tour with Tong – Floating Markets, Tiger Temple, Bridge on the River Kwai
The next morning, we headed out of the city with Pook, another of Tong’s guides. Pook is young, energetic and has a quick sense of humor. We laughed all day! She did a great job of keeping us informed and entertained, as well as letting us sleep on the way back. She took lots of photos for us and made sure that the toilet stops would have a western option, in addition to the squat option. She also made sure we had bottled water and cool towels when we needed them throughout the day.
Our first stop was at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. They bring lots of tourist buses here, but when you have a long tail boat to yourself (400 baht for the boat) and have a guide that can made suggestions on items you absolutely must try, it really is a unique experience. We sampled fried bananas rolled in coconut, Thai noodle soup (excellent – I would do the spicy version Pook had if I did it again), and iced Thai coffee (good, but strong). I’m still amazed that our noodles were cooked over a gas fire in a wooden boat! As we made our way through the market, there were lots of souvenir stops available. If there was something you really wanted and didn’t get the price you had in mind, you could just move down a few stalls --- likely you’d see the same item again. We also took the boat outside of the market into some of the areas where the people live and work. It was quite interesting to see. I think what struck me most was how peaceful it all was! It felt like we got stuck in a traffic jam on the way back to our pier – 4-5 boats across in each direction didn’t leave a lot of room to navigate! But all of the drivers are used to this, and we worked our way out of the congestion.
Our next stop was Kanchanaburi. There is a very unique temple there called Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno. It has gained a reputation as a wildlife sanctuary. The local monks have been adopting animals from the villages for many years. In the late 90s, several tiger cubs were brought to the temple. Over the years, the tiger population at the temple has grown to 40+ – as a result, it is now known as the Tiger Temple. You see very little of the temple itself, but have the opportunity to interact with the amazing tigers. The animal interaction is SO worth it! We arrived around noon and had some time with the tigers under the trees before they went down to the canyon (which was much cooler than the canyon). Being able to be that close to and touch full-grown tigers was one of those once in a lifetime experiences. And there are so many you get to interact with! Additionally, they had a group of 10 week old cubs. Pook was great in helping us make arrangements to play with the cubs, as well as get us to the right place to take photos with the various tigers once they were ready. You hand your camera to the staff and they take your photos with the tigers. I was a little leary at first handing over my digital SLR, but it became apparent VERY quickly that the staff is used to pretty much any kind of camera, and does a really nice job! We went ahead and gave them the big camera for all the photos they took for us. We spent about 45 minutes playing with and bottle feeding the cubs. There were a total of 6 of us in with the 4 cubs during our timeslot. It was so much like playing with a puppy that it was easy to forget these are real tiger cubs! Watching them stalk one another (or us) was lots of fun. Note -- I decided that a long skirt would be the coolest option for the day, and it was; however, it turns out the movement of my long skirt was a distraction for many of the younger tigers. We paid 500 baht / person for entrance and 1000 baht / person to play with the cubs. The cub experience was the same price as the “special photo” – it was so worth it that we’d probably both do it again without thinking twice. Given that we’d gotten to take so many other photos with the big tigers, we didn’t do the special photo where they put the tiger’s head in your lap.
We had lunch in a small local place, while it rained buckets! I don’t remember the name of the place, but I got the impression that most of Tong’s tours stop here. We let Pook give us some suggestions on what to order (so that we didn’t stay with something safe), and lunch was wonderful! We had a green curry with chicken and a sautéed local vegetable (watercress was the closest we could compare it to) with prawns. Both were excellent! Along with a soda and a large beer, lunch cost us about 400 baht with a tip.
On the way back to the city, we stopped to see the replica of the Bridge on the River Kwai – built as part of the railway used to move Japanese supplies to Burma during WWII. The rain had stopped and everything was very calm. As a result, we got some great photos with reflections in the river.
It was a long day – about 12 hours, partly due to some traffic and construction on the way back into Bangkok. Guide, driver, and fuel (with overtime) ran about 5000 baht. Yes, this is a little pricey for a day in Thailand, but I can’t imagine a better once in a lifetime day!
Tour with Tong – Railway Market and Fishing Village
Monday, we took on a couple more unique experiences with Tong herself. Tong is definitely as much fun as people say she is. She loves to show people Thailand, she’s full of great stories, and can answer whatever you come up with. She has LOTS of energy and will keep you laughing. She, too, kept us supplied with beverages for the ride and made sure there were lots of photos of my friend and I together.
First stop was a market laid out on the Maeklong railroad in Samut Songkram (about an hour out of Bangkok). Everything you can imagine – fruits, spices, veggies, seafood, meats, etc was all laid out in the vendor stalls and next to the train tracks. Customers walked along the tracks themselves to see what was being offered. Eight times a day, these vendors must move their wares at just a few moments notice before the train comes through. We wandered through with Tong and saw how big the market really was! She found us a great spot in a stall with one of her friends that sells fruits and vegetables just in time to see the train. It was amazing to see everyone quickly move things as the train approached and how much more quickly things moved back when the train had passed. When items were on tables, the table was usually on wheels. Last thing to be moved was the awnings that keep the market out of the sun. They are moved right before the train comes, and are back in place before the train is out of sight. It was definitely cool to see and fun to sample various things in the market!
From there it was on to the fishing village. We took a boat to feed wild swimming monkeys in the mangrove forest. We didn’t understand why Tong thought we needed so much food – we took 8 big grocery bags filled with fruit. It was fun to watch the monkeys dive for the fruit we were tossing them, and the babies were really fun to watch. Once we saw how many monkeys there were, it made more sense why we had so much food. We took a boat tour of the area – oyster farms, mussel farms, and cockle farms. The tide was low, so you could see the crabs and mud skippers on the mud flats. After our tour, we headed out to the Fisherman’s House (a bamboo structure in the Gulf of Thailand) for a seafood lunch. The fish, shrimp, and crab were all amazing! The flavors were wonderful, although some things were a little spicy!
It was very peaceful, and a neat perspective on how people live outside of the city. It was an incredible way to spend our last full day in Bangkok! Lunch for 2 was 2000 baht. Guide + Gas were about 3000.
When we left Bangkok, the hotel got us a taxi. Metered fare was 370 baht and took about 35 minutes around 9 in the morning. We departed using Air Asia. One note on baggage charges for Air Asia in the Bangkok airport --- they will only accept credit cards as payment if your charge is over 500 baht.
Overall, it was a wonderful few days in Bangkok area!