Sawasdee Thailand

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Our flight out of Thailand departed five weeks after we first landed in Bangkok. During this time, we traveled in and out of the country to visit Vietnam and Cambodia, but Thailand — and especially Bangkok — had come to feel like home by the time we left. It is an easy country to love, with its friendly people, delicious food, very affordable prices, and beautiful weather. We were sad to bid farewell to Thailand, but at the same time, we left feeling certain that we will return and excited for the next stop on our itinerary.

We’re still not sure how we got so lucky, but we were re-booked on a flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong on Friday, December 5, the same day that Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport resumed full operation (read more here) and only two days after our originally scheduled flight. The only signs of the the previous week’s shut-down were a line-up of security officers on the road leading into the terminal, a dance group performing next to signs thanking tourists for their patience, and many flights showing a status of “Canceled” on the boards within the terminal. Based on what we read and saw on TV, in addition to a few conversations with other travelers on our flight, we were very lucky to have faced as little inconvenience as we did.

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Sign in Suvarnabhumi airport on its first full day of post-protest operation

During our final few days in Bangkok, we spent time hanging out with Dan’s friend Bill, who has lived in Bangkok for the past four years and was a tremendous host to us during our stay. We also took a final tuk-tuk ride and revisited some of our favorite restaurants where you can get a fantastic entree for US $2. We already miss all of the amazing food in Thailand, particularly the abundant and always delicious street carts. You can get everything from pre-cut & bagged fresh fruit (US 50 cents) to coconut & red-bean pancakes (US 60 cents) to grilled pork skewers (US 60 cents). But our favorite vendor has to be someone we spotted in Koh Chang, whom we affectionately refer to as the Banana Man. You couldn’t miss his rockin’ music — and his production speed was truly awesome. We can also vouch for his excellent product: banana crepe with chocolate sauce.

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Koh Chang’s Banana Man in action

Due to the shutdown of the airports, the streets around our guesthouse in Bangkok felt quite a bit more empty than they did at the beginning of our stay. We are very hopeful that the tourism industry will bounce back quickly, but there is no doubt that the country has been dealt a big blow. We also saw the effects of the shutdown when we visited Wat Arun on our very last day in Bangkok, where we practically had the beautiful temple to ourselves. From a very selfish perspective, it was quite an experience to wander up the steps and around the top platform of the amazing structure virtually on our own.

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View of Wat Arun

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View from the top of Wat Arun

Our very last stop on our very last day in Bangkok was at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for a cocktail. It was a beautiful setting that we won’t soon forget (never mind that the bill for our two cocktails and fizzy water amounted to more than one night’s stay in our guesthouse). Until next time, Bangkok!

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A taste of the good life at Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel

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Making it work

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We returned to Bangkok from Phnom Penh on a flight that arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport around 6p.m. on November 24. Little did we know that approximately 24 hours later, that airport would be overwhelmed by protesters and shut down entirely to inbound and outbound flights. (Read more here.) Had we returned one day later, we would have been caught in the craziness of the airport takeover. Two days later and we would have been stuck in Phnom Penh. So when we first heard the news, we were feeling pretty lucky about the timing of our travel arrangements. The only remaining problem: we had already purchased round-trip tickets to Krabi in and out of Bangkok that departed on the 26th.

We soon realized there was no way we would be flying to Krabi (which was to be our jumping-off point to the island of Ko Phi Phi), so we channeled Tim Gunn and set about making it work. After consulting our guidebooks and the recommendations of an old friend, we picked Koh Chang as our alternate beach destination. Koh Chang is a beautiful island on the Eastern Gulf Coast of Thailand, and most important, is accessible by ferry from a town that is accessible by bus from Bangkok. So, one five-hour bus ride, 45-minute ferry ride, and 30-minute songthiew ride later, we settled into our beach-front hotel and never looked back. (More on Koh Chang to follow in our next blog entry.)

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Koh Chang

When we first restructured our beach plans, we thought there was no way the protest would still be underway one week later when we were scheduled to fly to Hong Kong. How could Bangkok’s main transit hub possibly be out of commission for that long? Slowly but surely, however, we realized the protest showed no sign of ending and we needed to figure out a back-up plan for leaving Thailand. So that’s what we did yesterday. Luckily we were booked on Thai Airways and they have been doing everything they can to accommodate inconvenienced travelers. After a visit to the downtown Thai Airways office, we left with stand-by bookings on three different “evacuation” flights that were departing from a naval airport about 90 miles from Bangkok, as well as confirmed seats on a December 6 flight that was departing from BKK’s main airport. By the end of the day, a constitutional court had ruled that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was banned from politics for five years, which appeased the protesting PAD party and led to their announcement that they would leave the airports by Wednesday, December 3.

So, long story short, we have confirmed seats on a December 6 flight to Hong Kong and it appears that we will be able to fly out of the main international airport. Our time in Hong Kong is thereby shortened from four days to one day, but we’re determined to make it dim-sum-packed! We feel quite lucky compared to all of the other travelers who have been struggling to return to jobs or families back home, as well as all of the Thai merchants and businesses that rely so heavily on the tourism industry. We will be sad to leave Bangkok and Thailand as a whole. We’ve had a wonderful time here and would recommend a visit to anyone.

Bustling Bangkok

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This is my third trip to Bangkok, and I continue to discover more each time I visit. Few other places offer the energy and wide range of things to see and do than this city, which, aside from the fact that my friend Bill lives there, is why we’ll probably spend a total of about a week there.

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After landing at Bangkok’s modern new airport, we headed straight for our guesthouse which was about a five minute walk from the famous Khao San Road. Khao San is Bangkok’s large backpacker haven, a street lined with guesthouses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes, travel agents, and even fake ID stands where you can buy anything from a California driver’s license to a press pass. Aside from the employees at these establishments and the touts trying to sell you “Armani” suits and túk-túk rides, the population is predominantly faràng (foreigners like us). While many travelers claim that Khao San Road is not “the real Bangkok” since it is not representative of the rest of the city, it’s a spectacle in its own right, and a comfortable part of town to stay, as long as you’re not on the main road.

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More on túk-túks… a túk-túk is a three-wheeled vehicle – basically a motorcycle on the front with a carriage on the back, used as a taxi primarily for taking tourists around. They’re a lot of fun to ride and can outmaneuver taxis on the crowded streets, sometimes getting you to your destination faster than a standard taxi. However, the túk-túks in the touristy areas have a reputation for being a little shady. Given that the cars are unmetered and that tourists can be naive, it’s often necessary to bargain down from a ridiculously high price. Also, túk-túk drivers are given kick-back for taking faràng to shifty markets, creating a strong incentive for them to take you somewhere other than your agreed-upon destination. In some cases, they’ll tell you that your destination is closed in order to get you to go to a market first. In our case, the Grand Palace was “closed” until the afternoon, but fortunately we knew the scam and didn’t take the ride. Despite the shady tendencies, we both still love túk-túks and think they’re the most fun way to get around.

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Drivers waiting for passengers

Another option for getting around is by boat. Bangkok has a wide river going through its center with public boats running up and down stopping at well-designated stops. The boats operate much as they do in Venice, except that they are far more efficient, stopping at each dock just long enough for passengers to jump on and off.

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While we were in town, we saw many of the usual sights: Chatuchak Weekend Market, the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and countless other things. We also spent a lot of time doing things related to the election. On Monday, we visited the American Consulate, where we cast our ballots for the presidential election (which turned out to be a surprisingly difficult process). Then on Wednesday morning at 6:30am (6:30pm Tuesday EST), we met up with my friend Bill and some other Americans to watch the results come in. The bar we went to was packed with people and turned into a roaring party by the time that Obama was declared the victor. It was a great time, especially considering how pleased Abby and I were with the outcome.

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