Thailand Tour, January 2004, with SmarTours travel.

$999 (+$120 in "taxes")

Saturday: Getting to Bangkok.
Start packing at 12am (too much work!) and get a taxi for Sylvia's place at 4am. Catch a ride from her sister to Oakland and take the first SWA flight of the day to LAX. Plane is mostly empty. LAX - what a zoo! Weird bus system, and the lovely and unsigned separate line for luggage and passenger check-in. A check-in so slow that the girls don't move in the time it takes for Khai and I to deal with the bags. When we get up to the counter, the lady asks if we'd mind being put on a different flight...given what we had seen so far of KAL, not a chance in hell. It literally took an hour to check in.

KALs 747 is perfectly fine - 3-4-3 seating with good leg room, vital given the first leg to Seoul is 5930 miles. We end up flying pretty close to SF on the great circle, next time use a vendor that leaves from SFO. Lots of movies - two Korean ones, the Kevin Costner Western that is just what it looked like, and many times a short video on stretching to avoid that deep vein thrombis problem.

Korea is interesting - it's snowing outside and everyone has heavy coats on. I'm in shorts. It's a clean, almost sterile airport, with $2/50min internet access. We left before the NFL conference championship games so access to ESPN was nice. One of the restaurants had a sign indicating no US beef.

The second leg is 6 hours on a 767 - 2-5-2 seating and not quite so nice. I'm getting tired and stiff. But in time, we're there. The airport is warm and moist and mostly empty at this midnight hour. Customs is easy, we find the tour and off to the hotel. In bed at 3:30 with a 8:30 wakeup (10am departure) for day 1.

Tuesday (yes, Tuesday thanks to the dateline): Bangkok day 1
I get up a bit past 8:30, eat at 9:50. Hotel (Holiday Inn) serves a western style buffet - bacon, eggs, sausage, pasteries, etc. Decent and easy to eat quickly. Of course, it turns out that 10am Thailand time is like 10am Hawaiian, or Mexican, or [insert your favorite vacation spot].

Wats - we start out by visiting notable Buddist temples, typically with a English name beginning with "Wat." Wat Trimitr has a solid gold Buddha - 5 tons in mass. Wat Po has a 150ft long reclining Buddha. Last we went to the White Marble Temple. Shoes off, pants on, hats off. I brought my convertible nylon pants which allowed me to stay in shorts more of the time with very compact legs when I needed it. Most temples permitted cameras, but not all. The video camera was useful for the latter - I could get a decent pan from the entryway.

We come back to the hotel at 1 and have the afternoon off, having declined to do the optional river tour. Instead we're going shopping. The hotel was just a couple blocks away from the Skytrain, the Bangkok equilivent of BART in the Bay Area (losing money, limited routes) - in fact the ticket system was essentially identical. 25 baht (65 cents) to go 5 stops to the giant mall zone. It was fast, came every 5 minutes, and avoided the terrible traffic on the streets.

We started in the Discovery Center mall which looked like most any other. I finally get Sylvia interested in prescription sunglasses and we find her a good pair that runs 3170 baht complete. We probably could have gotten a rebate at the end for the VAT had we known the procedure - oh well. Then we got to the MBK - a huge 7 floor bazaar of shops ranging from department store size to 5x5ft spaces. Sylvia finds the custom length jeans quite inviting - they cut and sew the hems in minutes. 600B each ($15) was the price managed. Without a doubt it is variable pricing, but there are many vendors so you can try more than one.

Dinner - a welcome dinner at the hotel's Thai restaurant along with dancing cultural show. Unfortunately it was typical tour routine - non spicy plain thai food and very light on the culture. It would encourage us to eat on our own going forward - I didn't want a repeat of my China tour where I felt I might starve. Back to bed - Holiday Inn (Silom) is great. Nice beds, the typical Asian style power system (doorkey turns on electricity), A/C very powerful.

Night Market - Hotel is located about a mile away from Patpong, known for the sex shows and flea market. Open till 2am. All sell sam variety of crafts, clothes, and watches. I'm looking for a $5 rolex for my coworker, Christian, but most are in the range of 1700-2300B (40-50). I ask for a cheaper watch and one woman is greatly offended, abruptly wrapped up the watches and said "go quickly." This was a rare time I saw a Thai angry - generally they are polite to a fault and do not tolerate the opposite. Raising your voice or losing your temper guarantees no success.

Money- roughly 38-39 baht per USD. Cokes are 12 or 13B, highest was 20. Bills comes in 20, 50, 100,. 500, and 1000B. Coins are 10, 5, 1, and .50. I left all my 1B coins for the hotel tip and then found that outside the big city many bathrooms charge 2-3B. Keep your little coins for that sort of need.

We have two guides on our trip - Nok and Mona. Both stayed through the entire tour, unlike the China tour where there was one overall leader, and one local one for each city visited. Both are in their 30s and single. Nok has just finished a master's in religious studies.

Wednesday - Bangkok Day 2
Got up at 9 - headed back to the MBK. Sylvia finds the pair of white jeans she was looking for but negotiates too hard. Offers 600, vendor down to 620, or 600 without the hem. Sylvia doesn't realize this is a 50 cent difference, opts for the no cut, probably should have started walking instead. Later we paid someone else 30B to do it.

Kai and I leave the girls to go see Pantip Plaza, the place for technology and pirated goods. First to find it! We overshot a bit (big lettering was Computer City, little lettering is Pantip) and were quite hot by the time we arrived. A&W float for 38B seems expensive, but very welcomed. We see two mormons there. Plaza is no different from any other computer swap meet. Pricing is pretty much the same. Software shops have books of covers, but no prices listed. Lots of the titles are outdated versions - Photoshop 6, etc. DVD prices are absurd - 600 each, down to as low as 130 ($4+).

Coming back we're too tired and opt for the Tuk Tuk ride. 50B for a wild Mr Toad Ride as he crosses two lanes over the line to rush ahead. The most disconcerting part with these rides is that at my height inside, I can't see ahead very far at all.

More jean shopping - I decide I should get one. Probably should have gotten a couple pairs for now as I slowly get back to shape. 600 for the jeans, 200 for a fake deisel belt.

Back at the hotel I take a quick swim before Kai and I go off to Muay Thai - kick boxing, at Rajadamnern Stadium. We went hoping to see blood and violence but settled for a couple good matches and several yawners. Thankfully the girls stayed home, saving us the whining not too mention 1900B each. We got Ringside Seats - the ultimate tourist section. It was indeed close to the action. Ringside sells for 1500B (the other 400B was for the private transport to/from), the next section is just outside and sells for 800B. I'd say it would make more sense to make your own way over there and get those. The 500B outer ring seats were crowded and behind a fence, but that was where the noise and the betting was.

There were 10 fights, with #7 being the main event. Thai boxers are not big- the weight classes we saw ranged from 100 to 128lbs. Each fight had five 3 min rounds, though the first one seemed to be a warmup most times. By the 3rd the crowd has bet on someone and they cheer every blow landed by their guy (though often the blows seemed punchless, or missed). We never figured out the scoring. Of the seven we watch, 2, 6, and 7 were good. 1, 3, 4, 5 were sleepers.

Dinner - wandered out late to Silom Village. Food fine, but service awful. Ended up giving up on waiting for dessert.

Thursday - Bangkok Day 3
9am departure for the Grand Palace (optional tour). We can only see the grounds and the emerald Buddha inside Wat Phra Kaew - Palace is in use due to the arrival of Dutch dignitaries. Very crowded, no cameras inside that temple. On the grounds was a sand scale model of Angkor Wat in Cambodia - it was perhaps 30ft square. We then moved on to the Teak Palace, which is exactly what it sounds like. It was used by the queen, and the concubines (?).

Thai massage - 500B for 2 hours of calculated torture. We had a private room big enough for the 2 of us. It can be gotten much cheaper, but sometimes privacy and hygiene is sacrificed. Right shoulder blade in particular was left aching for days. Not sure about this. Sylvia complains that her's was too soft on her.

Dinner- first stopped to look at Oriental Hotel, which had Chinese New Year celebrations going on. Then looked for a restaurant in the guide book named Harmonique which we found to be closed. 'Conveniently' there was a Tuk Tuk driver standing by who was happy to stuff all 4 of us in for a ride to Silom Harbor Village, a slightly more expensive version of Silom Village. Fish at both places tended to be 60-150B/100g, roughly 8-19$/lb.

Continue on to Part II.