Monday, September 24, 2012

Review: Thailand ราชอาณาจักรไทย 2012

I used my (unexpected) leisure time to finally realise my first trip to Thailand. Since many people I know already been there and told me a lot of good stories, my expections were high. Of course I was not disappointed, Thailand offers a fantastic mix of culture, party, and relaxation.

Thailand's capital is the start for most journey's. You can easily reach all domestic targets by plane, bus, or train. Anyway, you should also spend at least a couple of hours in this city.

UDEE hostel, 10 minutes away from Saphan Khwai BMT (Bangkok Mass Transit) station. Very nice and calm hostel in an back alley. English speaking reception. Single/Doule rooms  available for round 1,000฿. In walking distance of Chatuchak Market (opened on weekend). I chose this hostel because it is close to the Northern Bus Terminal and since I didn't want to be in reach of the Khao San noise. Reservation ahead is strongly recommended (at least in high season)

Grand Palace:
Although this is a tourist hub it is a must-see. It is a central place of Thai religion and culture and the palace area, surrounded by a defense wall, features hundreds of buildings and many different styles of architecture. Central spot of interest is a small Buddha made of jade (Emerald Buddha) once discovered by an abbot in Chiang Mai. It literally sits on top of a golden pyramid in the central temple and is surrounded by all imaginable styles and sorts of Buddha statues.

If you go to Bangkok, do not leave without at least a quick stroll over Yaowarat Street at nightfall. Though night markets are pretty common in Thailand, this Chinese influenced form is really worth a visit. If you dare, try the street food or at least sip a pomegranate juice. If you have more time, also walk through the back alleys and discover the amazing vitality of this Chinese branch in Thailand.

Sirocco Sky Bar (State Tower):
Basically famous from the movie Hang Over 2 this bar is simply a grand spectacular. First the con, you have to buy at least one drink for around 650฿ to enter the viewing platform, but keep in mind that there is and admission fee or most viewing points in big cities. You get rewarded with an incredible panoramic view on the whole area of Bangkok. If you would like to bring home skyline pictures of Bangkok, this is the place to be. Attention: Make sure to be appropriately dressed, this is a upper-class bar, hotel, and restaurant. Short pants or flip flops are not accepted.

Golden Mount:
This is an alternative to the above mentioned panoramic view of Bangkok. This small temple on top of an artificial hill offers some nice views on the Grand Palace, Banglamphu, Phahurat, and the northern outskirts of Bangkok. Entrance fee is about 10฿. On the foot of the hill you find some wood workshops offering souvenirs.

Kao San:
This is the most touristic place in town. Absolutely jam-packed with bars, hostels, and stores selling souvenirs, suits and other stuff this street probably never sleeps. People looking for Mc Donald's or Burger King will be successful here.  

Public Transport:
MRT/BMT and Airport Rail Link:
Getting around Bangkok is rather easy to manage once you realized that there are three major train/metro lines (no shared ticket, individual operators). One is going from the airport to the western town center (round Siam Square) and there is definitely no reason to take any other means of transport to get from the airport downtown. Rate is around 40฿ and it takes about 20 Minutes. The second line (MRT) looks like some kind of inverted C starting on the south-west bank of the river and ending at national stadium. The third line is going from north to south. Be prepared that the area around Chinatown, grand palace, and Khao San are not accessible via metro. The second best way to move north-south is using a public ferry. Rates are about 15฿ per trip and there are several piers.

The common legend of the Túk-Túk drivers squeezing the Baht out your pocket by offering package city tours is real. You will get this offer probably each time you step on a Túk-Túk. Keep in mind that a "No" without further explanation is mostly the most effective method. Unless you are in the mood, try to avoid the standard chats with the driver always leading in the same direction (please visit shop/ferry/pub of my friend; Túk-Túk drivers get commission or gas vouchers). Don't forget: this is business for them.

Hua Lamphong is located east of Chinatown and is best accessible via MRT. There are night train connections to most major cities in the country.

I travelled to Ayutthaya by bus from Northern Bus Terminal. It is rather uncomplicated and convenient to travel shorter to medium distances by bus. Most buses are equipped with air conditioning and prices are rather low.

View from Sirocco Sky Bar, Bangkok
TIP Clothing: I am definately one of those greenhorns which packed way to much and also wrong clothes. Even in rain season (monsoon, peak in september) do not bring long clothes. It is simply not necessary (except you are doing a jungle hike or bike tour, than long light cloth is recommended). Temperature will not dall below the mid 20 degrees celsius. Pack shorts, t-shirts, and open shoes. In the best case you have syntentic fast drying clothes. Keep in mind that almost every hotel has a laundry starting from 8฿ for a pair of socks to 30฿ for bermudas and t-shirts.

I took a day trip (by bus from Bangkok) to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was once the capital of one of the three important kingdoms that later were unified and became what we know as Thailand today. Strategically most convenient the city is located on an "island" between three rivers which continue their way south as one (Chao Phraya). If you came to Thailand to visit ancient temple sites and learn something about the history, this is one of the most important places to see. Listed as world cultural heritage the island features several sites which could fill a whole day visiting package. The most important sites are:

Wat Phra Mahathat:
Looking on the typical picture postcards motives in one of the souvenir shops in Thailand, you typically find a picture of Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi (Ley) and a picture of a Buddha head overgrown by a mangrove. Latter you find at Wat Phra Mahathat. Eye-catching are the headless Buddha statues which were beheaded in a raid by the Burmese.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet:
Comparable in shape and design to Wat Phra Mahathat is the Wat Phra Si Sanphet. This site was also built in the 14th century. 

When you arrive at the "bus terminal" you best take a Túk-Túk to the train station and walk to the city center. You just have to cross the river with a small ferry (15฿). 

Chiang Mai:
Founded in 1292 as the new capital of the Lanna empire Chiang Mai today is the second biggest city in Thailand. It's located on the west bank of river Mae Nam Ping. The former rampart is nowadays a ring road in a perfect square shape. Inside the ring you find a typical Thai city with low buildings and narrow roads. The new cultural center of the city is emerging east of the old town between the ring and the river. Here you find international hotel and food chains and the famous night market. 

The first two nights I spent in Raming Lodge & Spa on Loi Kroh street. For a rate of about 1,500
฿ per night it was a good choice. Breakfast and one 1h massage per day were included in the room price. Rooms are large and clean.
The last night I spent in Be Bee hostel on Ratchaphakhinai street. I paid 150฿ for a single/double room with shared bathroom and shower. Expect this hostel to be the most simple category available.

TIP Hotel Contacts: Always make sure to have the contact information of your hotel available in local language. Taxi, Túk-Túk, or Sorng•Taa•Ou drivers often do not speak English. Most hotels offer small business cards with contact information in Thai and sometimes even small maps. Not being adequately equipped can lead to inconvenient situations when you are out of walking distance during night time (believe me, I know what I'm talking about).

Wat Chedi Luang:
This temple is located in the centre of the town and looks like a bit like a pyramid. If you are in the mood, chat with one of the monks walking around and get more details on their daily life and rituals.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep:
On a regular day without rain clouds it is easy to spot this temple on the hill west of the city. Like a small golden star in a night sky the building twinkles in the surrounding green of the rain forest covering the hills. For me personally it is the most beautiful and interesting temple I visited during my stay in Thailand. The road leading there is very good and it is a nice (it is not necessary to stop on the view points along since you get a fantastic look on the city from the temple site itself). For people who love trekking there is also a beautiful trekking route and you can get more details in the tourist information at Huay Kaew waterfall (near Chang Mai zoo). The temple itself features an impressive golden Chedi and a replica of the jade Buddha.

Night Market:
The night market is located on the area around Chang Khlan road. Many stands are located in a roofed area but the market already grew into the regular streets. Basically you find all sorts of goods here reaching from fresh vegetables and fruit over street food to clothes and handcrafted knickknack. If you're looking for a very typcial and authentic Thai market, this is not the place to go.

Night Life:
It took me one day to find out that there is also an alternative night life to the small pubs and bars in Tha Phae (thank god). It seems that the party starts at "Zoe in the Yellow" and the surroundings pubs. The clubs are located in Ratvithi road and are easily recognized by a big guitar standing outside. It is really a nice place to start the evening with life music and several pubs playing different kind of music. Everyone who also made his/her way through the creepy back alley to find the toilet knows what I'm talking about. Expect to find mostly Europeans and Australians here. Later (at about 1 AM) the crowd moves further to Spicy which is only about 200m away (Chang Moi road). Spicy is a regular club playing international dance floor music. Make sure to go to the second floor (if first floor is empty).

Doi Suthep-Pui National Park:
Chiang Mai is a centre for all sorts of leisure activities reaching from biking to zip-lining. Most of those activities are offered from the numerous "travel agencies" in Chiang Mai for rates between 1,000
฿ for a one-day tour to 4,000฿ for a multi-day tour. Most of these activities take place in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Since I didn't participate in the tours I can't tell you more. I hired a scooter and went to Mae Rim on my own to check out the facilities. About 15 km west of Mae Rim you find a lot of facilities offering activities (Shooting Range, Go-kart, Bungee etc.). I made my way further to Nam Tok Mae Sa Waterfall. The reddish water makes an interesting contrast to the surrounding jungle.

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

TIP Hiring a Scooter: If you do not dare to enter the traffic on your own (e.g. with a scooter or bike) pick a day (e.g. sunday morning) which is not so busy to start and get acustomed to the traffic. Thailand is left handed traffic. Rates differ from city to city and season. In Chiang Mai the day rate was 150฿ for a small scooter (still running 90km/h) and on Phuket 200-250฿. Be prepared that scooters are usually rent without any insurrance and you are fully responsible for theft and all sorts of damage. 

Ko Phi Phi (Don):

Unfortunately I arrived during a longer rain period (24/7 heavy rain) and actions were limited but still you could recognize the main feature of this island. I described it to friends as "heaven and hell" since the tropical beauty during day time changes to a hardcore on the beach partying location around 11 PM. Geographically the island is divided into two parts (east and west) and is connected by a sandbank. Located on the sandbank is the only town, Tonsai. Mostly Europeans and Australians frequent the bars (Woody's, Slinky and so on) on the northern side of the bank. If you came here for a rest you should definitely pick a guesthouse or hotel on the southern side of the bank.

The best view on the famous Ko Phi Phi Ley you get from long beach. Just take the wooden walk way east of Tonsai. One beach before you find the Viking Nature Resort which serves good Thai food at fair rates.

Talking about Viking Nature Resort. I moved in the next day. The small wooden bungalows are fantastic (though sporadic). I used a beautiful and sunny day to climb the viewpoints and took the jungle path to Rantee Beach. Finally I could  take a swim in the wonderful ocean. If you're also indenting to use that trail make sure to bring sturdy shoes. Anyway it's worth it and a fantastic escape from the Tonsai hustle.

Need to know:
-Island Admission Fee (what they call a cleaning fee) 20
-View Point, 20฿ (seems to be depended on the season, I didn't have to pay)

How to get there:
By Ferry (3-4 times a day) for about 1,000฿ (return or two-way) from Phuket, Ko Lanta, or Krabi.
Long Boat, Ko Phi Phi Don

Krabi Town:
I arrived completely exhausted at the ferry pier of Krabi and picked one of the advertisers standing in front of the building. The guy I met is the owner of one of the guesthouses in town and it turned out to be a good choice (500฿, A/C, single/double room, including the ride from the pier to town. You get far cheaper rates if you book in advance or sleep in a shared room).  J.P. Mansion is located in the center of Krabi only five minutes away from the city center. The big pro is the owner who is very kind and supportive. The in-house bar is a meeting point for backpackers. Tours and trips can be booked here.

In town you got a main street with several shops and even a small shopping mall selling all sorts of clothes. One highlight definitely is the "Krabi Walking Street" from Friday to Sunday evening. Thai (and English) hits are smashed live on a small stage and market booths gather around the central square. The market is far more authentic than others I visited and you can acquire lots of local food and goods. Make sure to try the street food. If you are looking for a place to sit you got a couple of restaurants selling sea food on the road next to the river.

On my stroll through the city I also checked the Pak-Up Hostel (recommended by Lonely Planet). It made a pretty good and fancy impression from the outside. There are lots of other hostels in this neighborhood.

Hot Waterfall (and Hot Spring):
About seven kilometers east of Khlong Tom (40km south east of Krabi Town, Route 4) you find one of those natural wonders which I would like to know how it must have been for the first humans discovering this spot thousands of years ago. A small river runs through the jungle and you can stroll along on a beautiful concrete walk-way leading you to a small waterfall which washed out perfectly smooth whirl pools to relax in after a long day of touristic agenda. I recommend  coming here later the day to make sure that you have your own pool. Highlight is taking a swim in the cold river the hot stream is flowing into. Open till 6 PM,  Admission fee 80฿.
Huay To Waterfalls:
Close behind the entrance to Khao Phanom Bencha National Park you find Huay To Waterfalls. There is a circular hiking path with beautiful views on the waterfall and the surrounding jungle.

Lotus Effect
TIP Detailed Maps: One thing I do know better for my next visit to Thailand is to bring more detailed maps. If you are indenting to do some motorcycle or scooter tours, make sure that you don't have to rely on those tourist maps they have available as hand-outs in the hotels. Since road signage is generally very poor (except for main roads) it is strongly recommended to prepare in advance. Check for approximate distances between crossroads and take a double look in to a street, sign posts may be only visible after a close look.

Ko Samui:


Ibis Bophut Samui Hotel

Actually this is a really good hotel. You can't compare it to the European Ibis hotels (except for the rooms). The hotel has two pools, a (more or less) private strip of beach. Different sorts of massages are offered at fair rates. I paid 1,700฿ for a room with sea view including breakfast.

Bo Phut:
One of Ko Samui's beautiful beaches. In comparison to the other spots I visited this beach is the most touristic place. The central promenade features all common sorts of international restaurants. Make sure to bring an additional budget to acquire a tailor made suit. Due to the massive amount of shops offering tailor made suits here you can really make a good bargain. I saw shops offering two suits, two shirts, and two ties for 600฿.

Attention: If you're travelling alone or if you are looking for nightlife, Bo Phut definitely is the wrong spot. Locals call this beach the honeymoon beach.

Chaweng is one of the two centers for nightlife. If you are looking for party just ask the locals to guide you to Green Mango. The whole area around this club seems to be an 24/7 entertainment area. Green Mango itself is fantastic club with two huge dance floors. DJ's play international dance hall hits and techno. The standard Thai alcohol bucket costs around 400฿.

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