Introduction: I recently began writing letters to send to my friends and family regarding my experiences here in Japan. I've received some encouragement to release the letters net-wide and am doing so in the hopes of providing some entertainment and maybe even some useful information...
I managed to take another fall vacation this year. My goal is to visit at least one "foreign" destination per year. Due to its proximity to Tokyo and low cost, a friend, Hiromi, and I chose to go to Thailand. We didn't make specific plans until the last couple weeks before the trip and ended up going to Phuket, a tropical island in the south and Bangkok, the capital and biggest city.
Airfare was very reasonable from Japan to Bangkok at Y45,000 ($475) round trip plus B4000 ($160) round trip between Bangkok and Phuket. The flight between Tokyo and Bangkok takes six hours and Bangkok and Phuket just over one hour. The time difference between Tokyo and Thailand is a minimal two hours (so 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time).
Just as an orientation for my far away brethren, Thailand aka Siam is located in Southeast Asia. It's bordered in the north and east by Laos and Cambodia and in the north and west by Myanmar (Burma). Southwest coastal areas are adjacent to the Andaman Sea which is essentially part of the Indian Ocean; the southeast coastline is against the Gulf of Thailand which leads into the South China Sea. The southern tip of Thailand abutts Malaysia. Geographical size is roughly the same as France. Its unique in southeast Asia in that it's never been colonized by any nation.
The flight from Tokyo to Bangkok was my first experience with Air India. Before I departed, my Indian coworkers warned me that the stewardesses aren't chosen either for looks or service. (How they are chosen was never established.) With this in the back of my mind, I boarded the airliner.
Our seats were only one row behind the row in front of the main door, behind first class and close to the kitchen. While passengers were still boarding, I was amused to watch the Indian fellow next to me pushing his stewardess call button in a rhythmic fashion, maybe five seconds apart, bong ... bong ... bong. Despite the fact that there was a stewardess nearby not doing anything in particular, she never made any motion to indicate that she heard the call. Finally, the guy called out to her and asked her for a glass of water. She promptly fetched a glass of water for him but it was from the top of the tap, apparently, so the guy had to call back to her to add some ice. This was something I thought should have been common sense to begin with. If this are how Indians are treated, I wondered about how the rest of us would fare.
However, in the end, the biggest irritant of the flight turned out to be a young Australian(?) lady and a toddler across the aisle. Due to her age, seemingly under 18, and her inattention to the child, I judged her to be his elder sister. She was letting the child run up and down the aisle -- even out of sight into first class. The crew members were visibly annoyed as they tried to perform their chores. They asked the girl to take care of the child on more than one occasion but their reprimands had little affect. DB.
We arrived in Bangkok around 4:30pm where we were pleased to collect our luggage and make it through customs in less than an hour. We exchanged money for Thai "bahts" in the terminal and then walked to the domestic terminal, maybe a ten minute walk. We bought tickets to Phuket and made the 6:00pm flight to Phuket which apparently departs hourly all day long. As an aside, Thai Air was quite impressive. The airliner seemed new and the service was quite good -- although admittedly it's difficult to judge on such a short flight.
It was dark in Phuket when we arrived. I made my way to the tourist information desk and asked where I could rent a car. She immediately phoned somebody and, in poor English, told me to wait for a moment and that it'd be cheaper from whoever she called. I was a bit suspicious that maybe she was hooking me up with her brother-in-law or something but decided to wait and see. Some guy pulled up in an Suzuki Jeep-like vehicle with "Airport Car Rent" written on the side and drove us to their lot across the street. This was also where other lots such as Hertz and Avis were also located.
It turned out to be B900 ($36) for rental of the same Suzuki he drove us in -- four wheel drive manual transmission with air conditioning. This seemed reasonable (prices listed in the guide book were around B1200) and we were on the road by 7:30pm. He kept my Japanese license and asked me to drive with the international license and show this along with the rental receipt to the police if there was any problem.
Since I have literally only driven once since I was home for vacation in January, I had been looking forward to getting some driving practice in. Thailand is a right-hand drive country like Japan and Britain so, before I pulled out, I had to consciously think of which lane I needed to stay in.
The trip from the airport which is on the northern part of the island to Karon beach on the southwest, where I had made plans to stay, took about an hour. Phuket roads are almost entirely two-lane roads. Similar to Guam (and perhaps other tropical islands?) there were dogs _everywhere_. Most of them seemed to know enough not to dart in front of traffic -- I suppose these were the survivors. Given the number of dogs, I was surprised to see only one dead dog in four days on the island. There were scooters (mopeds) everywhere as well. It was common to see two people on a little 50cc scooter -- often with girls riding side saddle on the back. And on that first drive, we saw a man, wife and two kids -- an entire family -- on a single scooter. Worth a picture but the moment was fleeting. Another memorable moment was the sight of a group of 15-20 people sitting on the ground outside an abode in front of a solitary television.
It took a little time to find the Marina Cottages* where I had made reservations (based on readings from the internet). Marina Cottages are located on the edge of Karon Beach towards Kata. I didn't know what to expect but was pleased to find that they were an excellent place to stay. However, they were, in fact, pricey for Thailand. One night was supposedly around B2000 ($80) but three nights brought the price down to B1340 ($54) per night for a very clean bungalow containing a king size bed, nice tiled bathroom, refrigerator, private balcony and air conditioning. Given that decent rooms can be found for as little as B200 ($8) elsewhere we were definitely living it up.
Actually, I could imagine spending a honeymoon there. The bungalows were quite secluded, surrounded by palm trees and lush tropical foliage. All the walkways were, in fact, wooden catwalks raised several meters from the ground below. It made things seem truly exotic and tropical.
That night we ate dinner in the hotel restaurant by the pool to take advantage of the complimentary Mai Tai cocktail coupons we were given. Like many restaurants, it was open-air. When the temperature is 75-95 (22-34) degrees year-round, who needs walls? We were the only customers, not particularly unusual it seemed (in the off-season anyway). Burning at our feet was incense giving the air the sweet smoky smell that I will forever associate with the Orient. Although it was burning for the practical reason of warding off mosquitos and insects -- it is the smell of temples and the tropics in foreign lands for me. Our ears were filled with the sounds of a nearby fountain along with the croaks of frogs in its base.
The meal turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip. We ordered fried rice served in a hollowed out pineapple, a banana flower salad, shrimp cocktail and a Thai noodle dish -- all quite good. I ordered the banana flowers simply because I'd neve seen, heard or tasted them before. They turned out to be layers of light yellow, thick leaves (for lack of a better word), kind of nutty in taste. Very good as a garnishment. By the time we finished it was after 11pm so we turned in.
The next morning the pick-up truck from Aqualand Diving** came to pick me up at the front reception as I had already made plans to dive with them from Japan. I had actually contacted two other dive shops, Fantasea and Southeast Asian Divers by fax but only Aqualand could provide the requirement my friend had -- a Japanese scuba diving instructor. Aqualand was quite responsive and good and I would recommend them. For reference, two boat dives with lunch (no equipment rental) came to B1250 ($50).
I met Robert, the German proprietor of Aqualand, on the launch point off of Phuket Bay. He wasn't going to join us but was instead going back to pick up my friend so she could start her scuba lessons. The boat, a large 40(?)-footer hired for the dive, was pulled up to the docks. I boarded along with a Japanese instructor/dive master named Hiroko, an English dive master named Leslie and maybe six or seven Japanese divers.
As the boat pulled away, it ripped off a chunk of the already rickety pier. I found out later that usually the tide doesn't allow the boat to pull up to the pier so it's not a totally routine maneuver. Instead, the boats are usually anchored out in the bay and customers are taken to them by "long-tail" boats -- long, canoe-shaped boats propelled by a motor with a long 6 meter or so propeller shaft -- which can be hired on most Thai waterways.
The boat ride to Raya Yai, an outlying island to the south, was a good 1.5 to 2 hours. On the way, Leslie told me the story of a trigger fish hanging around the reef which had a tendency to attack divers. He'd actually punched it once as it charged him and it had butted Hiroko's head once -- pretty funny. All of the Japanese but one girl were completing their certification dives with Hiroko. Leslie led the girl and myself on a drift dive exploring the reef. The water was 85 (29) degrees so I went sans wet suit.
The dive was a very pretty tour of the reef -- 40 minutes with a max depth of 63 ft (19m). I was about halfway into the dive playing with the coral -- watching the little sea "plants" pull back into their holes as I waved currents of water at them -- when I felt something hit my fin. I thought perhaps maybe I'd brushed some coral although I didn't think I was that low. I looked behind me to see a large sized trigger fish with a mean face charging my fins and trying to take a bite out one of them! It was maybe 8-10 inches high and 12-14 inches long, kind of black and orange in color. Its mouth wasn't very big but big enough to take a little chunk of flesh out of a person; all of a sudden I felt naked without a wet suit on.
As I backpedaled, the fish charged me a few more times as if I were a matador and he the bull! After putting some distance between myself and the reef, he turned around and gave up chase. The rest of the dive passed without incident.
After a lunch of fried rice and fresh cut pineapple, watermelon and a fruit similar to lychee we headed back in for our second dive. It was the same island but on a different part of the reef. Nothing specific to report since I can't specifically identify most of the sea life I see. Just the wondrous feeling of feeling like I'm swimming inside a vast aquarium.
I met up with Hiromi back at the cottage around 6; she had been snorkelling and swimming at Kata beach after scuba class. After cleaning up, we watched the sunset from Karon Beach and then headed out for a drive and dinner. We drove into Karon, just a few minutes away. Shopped around a bit and ate at another open air restaurant in town. Ended up buying a couple of pictures made from buffalo skin. The making of the pictures involved painstaking cutting of the hide on a wooden template to form the design and then hand painting. I chose a tropical fish scene, Hiromi chose Galuga, an Indian/Asian god.
The next day Robert had arranged for me to dive with Santana Divers who were diving at a local spot called Shark Point. Santana has its own boat which I boarded along with maybe 12 other divers or students. Shark Point turned out to be a small craggy rock sticking out of the water. I was teamed with a dive master and the three Japanese divers after it was discovered that I could speak Japanese. One of the divers was the same girl I had dove with the previous day.
After the four of us jumped into the water, one of the Japanese guys lost his fin. I looked down in time to see it quickly sinking out of sight. Our leader didn't want to waste time getting another fin from the boat so he gave one of his fins to the diver and dove with only one.
We dove down to a depth of 60 feet (18m) and dove back and forth around the base of the pinnacle. The current was too strong to allow us to circle the base and was, in fact, strong enough to feel like a wind as particles of sand swept past my bare arms and legs. Surprisingly, we found the lost fin sitting on the bottom and the dive master and diver switched fins back. Then, the highlight of the dive, we came across a leopard shark resting on the ocean floor.
The shark was about two-meters in length, the size of a man but smaller in circumference. After we watched the shark for several seconds, it roused itself and swam in a circle giving us a once-over and swam lazily away. Although this type of shark is said to be harmless I couldn't prevent my heart from quickening when it swam straight towards me as it started its circle. What a thrill to see such a creature in its own environment. Shortly before finishing the dive we saw one more leopard shark -- this one only about one meter in length -- swimming off in the distance.
After boarding the boat, getting out of our gear and rinsing off with fresh water provided by a desalinizer on board, lunch was served in short order on the top deck. The boat was 10 minutes towards our next destination, Ko Dok Mai, when one the dive masters just sitting down to eat asked, "Where's Thomas?" to another. They looked at each other and then ran back down to the bottom deck; when the boat pulled a 180, we knew that Thomas wasn't on board.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later "Thomas" and his partner were back on board. We found them bobbing in the water by the sharp pinnacle where we had originally gone down. No harm was done but a strike against Santana for professionalism.
Our next destination, Ko Dok Mai, was essentially a cliff or butte sticking several meters out of the water. This was to be a "wall dive" which is where you dive and look at a vertical surface instead of the bottom. We swam down in poor visibility fighting the current along the way. I felt like I was swimming into a vortex as I could see nothing around me, only the divers below me towards whom I was swimming. We got close to the "wall" and out of the current. We started working our way back and forth starting at a depth of 69 feet (21m), my deepest dive of the trip.
Nothing much to note except that we saw a poisonous lion fish shifting position as it awaited an unwary fish to wander by. We also saw another leopard shark, this one about 1.5 meters in length. Then shortly before we surfaced, I saw what looked to be a small school of barracuda although I could have been mistaken. Back on the boat, we stowed our gear and took up various positions on deck to enjoy the ride back.
Back at the hotel, after Hiromi and I had cleaned up, we headed out for dinner to a place in her guide book called Rang Hill. Rang Hill appears to be the highest driveable point in the area and affords a view of the town of Phuket below. The road wasn't well marked but we stumbled across it without much trouble. At the top is a park ("Fitness Park") and at least one cafe/restaurant. We found a parking spot in front of a restaurant and walked down a lighted path to check it out. It was an open air restaurant, like most, and afforded us a view of the city below.
I was impressed by the view, not for what I saw, but what I didn't see. I could see lights like street and home lights all below but I couldn't see one billboard or fast food sign anywhere. Although I hadn't really thought about it before, I couldn't think of anywhere else I've been where I can overlook a town of 50,000 people without seeing a McDonalds or similar sign. It was quite refreshing actually to not see any such familiar sight.
We ordered too much because we were used to dining in Japan where food comes in smaller portions. Thai food can be very spicy so if you don't know what you're doing, you're liable to end up with a very hot dish. It's perfect for those who think true tex-mex is too mild, but for the rest of us, ordering Thai food can be risky business. Anyway, the food was quite good and I managed to survive the super hot stuff.
On the way back we drove through Patong Beach which is on the western side of the island, north of Karon Beach. The majority of Phuket's night life catering to tourists is located here and, as we drove through, we could see several open air bars and restaurants. We stopped and walked a little bit through an open market with tables piled high with coconuts, durians, bananas and other tropical fruits. In the center was an area of food stands where various dishes could be bought. Since we were tired, we didn't stay long and soon headed back to Marina Cottage.
The next day, Aqualand returned to pick us up and I tagged along with Hiromi back to Raya Yai where she was to do her open water certification dives. The weather was overcast but the rain held off and we headed out on the hour+ boat ride.
We tied up in the same bay I had seen two days before. It was worth returning to, though; the blue tropical water, white beach and palm trees formed a picture worth remembering. What a heck of a place to do ones open water dives, I thought, as I remembered my certification dives back in 58 (14C) degree Stoney Lake, Michigan. Big difference.
Once again I dove the reef with Leslie. This time three other divers, Japanese guys, were also on the dive. I was checking out the reef for sea life when right in front and below me I saw what could only be a moray eel. It was sitting in a hole waiting for prey to come along, all black with a nasty look that meant business. As I drifted over him, I quickly ascended in order to ensure there was a safe distance between him and me. The others had drifted ahead so I took one last look, wishing I had a camera, and moved on. We finished out the dive for a dive time of forty two minutes and a maximum depth of 60 feet.
Back on board the boat we ate lunch and whiled away the time talking while waiting for the open water divers to complete their second or third test dives. Then, after a couple hours, the boat dropped us off towards the end of the island so we could tour a different part of the reef and drift back. This dive was uneventful, however, it was my longest dive ever at 49 minutes. Max depth was 65 feet.
Shortly after returning to Phuket, we were hit by a squall just after we had finished unloading. It lasted less than half hour probably but it was enough to give everything a good dousing. Back at Marina Cottage, we had already checked out so we threw our stuff in the Suzuki and headed off to look for a place further north along the western side of the island, closer to the next day's destination.
Again we drove through Patong, this time without stopping. We headed towards Kamala Beach, driving through steep windy roads with much of it still under construction. Although I had read about a place in Kamala, we didn't see it and eventually found ourselves at Surin Beach. We drove along a road by the beach and found a very nice looking bungalow resort just down the road. However, upon finding that the price was something like B4,000 ($160) we knew our search for accommodations wasn't over. However, they helpfully recommended some cheap bungalows called Bang Tao down the road and they even called ahead for us.
At Bang Tao Bungalows we were able to rent a one-room bungalow for only B500 ($20). It wasn't extravagant but it was clean and included a TV, fan and air conditioning. It also included hot water but it shut off on us after a short while for some reason. The main drawback of the bungalow was that the bathroom also served as a shower room -- there was no shower stall, just a drain in the corner. So taking a shower meant getting the bathroom floor and toilet all wet. For one night, though, it was fine.
The next morning Hiromi took an early morning swim while I took a shower then we headed off towards Phang-Nga, the next province north of Phuket. Phang-Nga is on the mainland and can be reached simply by crossing a bridge on the northern tip of the island. Although Phang-Nga probably has other attractions we were going to hire a boat and tour the waters of the channel between Phuket and Phang-Nga which are famous for islands rising abruptly out of the water in a variety of shapes, colors and rock formations.
We followed Leslie's directions, crossed the aforementioned bridge, turned right at the first main intersection, and then turned right again at another road which sported a fading sign that said "James Bond Island" along with an arrow pointing the way. This road, windy with many washed out portions, seemed to go on interminably but eventually we drove through a small village and reached the sea. We were met shortly by a boy who spoke English quite well.
A sign was written which listed two tours, one was "Crystal Cave, James Bond Island, Limestone Cave" and the other "Hong Island, Ice Cream Island, Panak Island." We took Leslie's advice and asked to mix tours and go to see Crystal Cave, James Bond Island, Hong Island and Ice Cream Island. We settled on a price of B800 ($32) for the long-tail boat and driver rental and were soon on our way.
The area was extremely scenic -- blue-tinted water with rocky islands rising starkly out of the water under a cloudy blue sky. Our first stop was Hong Island which was an island in which are various tunnels and caves that sea canoists can traverse. We took a spin around the island and then headed on to Crystal Cave.
Crystal Cave is in a nearby island. We landed on a small beach only about thirty feet wide and climbed into a cave just a few steps away. It got dark quickly so we couldn't go very far until our guide came in with a weak flashlight. We ventured in a little further past stalactites hanging from the ceiling until we came to what must have been the cave's namesake -- glittering formation on the floor. It's a bit hard to describe but it looked like shallow pile of sand on the floor except it was hard to the touch with a feel like sandpaper. As the light shined on it, glittering reflections of light twinkled back at us.
The next site was Ice Cream Cove. This was an island where the rock sides looked something like streaks of melting ice cream. On one side, there was a rock overhang over the water. On the underside were stalactites as in Crystal Cave except these hung down as if the island was made of ice cream and it was actually melting.
Our final stop was James Bond Island, made famous by the fact that it was a location filmed in the James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun. The island itself is simply a large rock rising about 80 feet out of the water, only about 20 feet in diameter. It is unusual in that the top is larger than than the base, probably due to natural erosion.
Right next to the island is Ao Phang Nga National Park, an island with enough beach for small boats to land and to set up souvenir stands containing cheap souvenirs like small wicker baskets and little teddy bears made only of small seashells. It looked like it was possible to explore the island further but we had ran out of time and asked to head back. A half hour later we were let off at the pier where we had started; the whole outing took about four hours.
From there we headed straight back to the airport which was about an hour away. We returned the Suzuki and boarded our plane with no problems. We arrived in Bangkok at about 7, an hour after our departure.
Ignoring the various offers of rides, we obtained a taxi from a special taxi desk which set us up with a ride to the Patpong area for B380. A quick word of explanation is in order. In Bangkok, taxi fares are traditionally negotiated in advance based on the desired destination. In just the past couple years, however, they've also begun introducing the traditional meter system. In addition, small golf-cart-like taxis called tuk-tuk's can also be hired. These have the advantage of being cheaper and more maneuverable and faster on crowded roads. The disadvantage is that they can only carry two, and they are open to the heat and filthy exhaust-laden air.
Since we had no exact destination in mind, we got off at the Patpong area but not before the taxi driver told us how terrible traffic was in Bangkok. I had to agree with him, it was certainly pretty crowded but at least it wasn't a dead stop at the time. We stood on a corner with our luggage at our sides trying to get our bearings and figure out where we were.
No sooner had I pulled out the map when a young man came up to us to offer his assistance. As it was obvious we were looking for a place to stay, he offered to show us a "good" hotel. He showed us where we were on the map, right across from Convent Road on Silom Road, and the direction he wanted to take us was the same as I wanted to go so we decided to check out the hotel.
After a 5 minute walk along Convent Road and another 5 minutes along a less busy side street we arrived at the hotel. I forgot the name already but it was rather pretentious for a rather drab hotel. He showed us a couple rooms and tried to convince us of the spaciousness. Since he hadn't even hinted at discounting the stated price of B850 ($34) and the rooms had no appeal save the fact that we were already there, I declined, saying we were looking for "cheap not spacious."
This being my first real experience with a "tout," I was happy to find that he didn't seem angered by the rejection and took it in stride. In fact, on the way back, he helped direct us to the Bangkok Christian Guesthouse which I had discovered in the travel guide and knew was nearby. The Bangkok Christian Guesthouse promised rooms for B640 including breakfast and the guide book was on the mark. However, that price was for a single room with a single bed. A double-bed or double twin-bed room was maybe B150 extra. We had elected to stay in the single room when he claimed he couldn't sell a single room without placing a cot in at for an extra charge which was about the same as a double room. I doubt if this had anything to do with morality but he claimed it was the hotel rules. By this time I was pissed because he hadn't told us that in the first place, so we moved on.
So, we were back on the road with our suitcases -- what a drag. The guidebook promised a nearby Swiss Guest House but after searching high and low I determined that the Swiss Hotel we were looking at had taken its place. I confirmed this fact inside and didn't consider staying there for more than a second after hearing the price. I forget exactly what it was -- something around B7000 ($240) I think.
By this time it was starting to get late and we were both ready to find a place and clean up. I decided to try calling the New Fuji, also listed in the guidebook. I was pleasantly surprised to find them offering us a room at B750 even though the guidebook said rooms started at B1000. I reserved a room and we decided to take it, come what may. We walked back to Silom Road, ready for our first tuk-tuk ride.
Looking as we were -- like we'd just stepped off the boat -- the first guy offered to take us there for something like B200. I blew him off and stuck to my guns of offering 20B for the ride. We found a taker a minute or two later for 30B and quickly hopped on. The New Fuji was close but it would have taken us a good 35 minutes to walk so it was money well spent. We hopped off, grabbed our bags and entered the New Fuji hoping we hadn't made a mistake.
The hotel looked like it had seen better days. It had all the basic trappings of a good hotel -- porter, sight-seeing desk, etc -- but looked like it had been well used like a couch that you know is ready to discard but just too comfortable to throw away. The lobby looked decent enough and I signed in before looking at the room. We were led to our room on the third floor and were pleasantly surprised to find a clean room with a decent bathroom awaiting us. With cable TV as part of the deal it seemed well worth the price, particularly in comparison to the place the tout had taken us first, so we happily settled in.
As it wasn't quite as late as we felt, so we cleaned up and headed out for a walk and dinner. We walked up the road towards Patpong -- an entertainment district famous for its night life. In the main area of Patpong are numerous stands set up selling T-shirts, silk and leather goods, watches and souvenirs. Along the sides are various strip bars. Given the tropical climate, many were open and I could see in to see the bored faces of girls trotting on a podium clad in the skimpiest of tops and bottoms. I heard later that they wear less on the second floor of these establishments but I didn't take the opportunity to see for myself.
Walking through Patpong back to Slilom road we decided to whimp out and eat at McDonalds. Nothing much remarkable about it compared to other McDonalds across the world. The main difference was that the menu was written in both Thai and English, different from the Japanese and English I'm used to. Interestingly, the teriyaki burger sold in Japan was also sold there except that it was called a samurai burger. After walking around a bit we soon called it a night.
The next day we intended to do the sightseeing related stuff but when we stepped out of the hotel and saw the rain we decided to make it our shopping day instead. Before we'd gone more than a dozen steps we were accosted by a tuk-tuk driver eager to do our bidding. He offered us 20B for one hour shopping tour to anywhere we wanted to go -- particularly to the Chinese Centre, a shop he seemed very sure we wanted to go. After determining that he would eventually take us to Siam Square, our desired destination, we agreed and hopped on.
It's very common in Thailand to be entreated to visit this or that store because the person will get some kind of monetary kickback from the store based on the amount you end up buying. Our tuk-tuk driver soon took us to the Chinese Centre which didn't interest us but we entered it anyway. In what I later found to be typical, it was a two story shop with jewelry on the ground floor and fabrics, clothing and souvenir items on the second floor. We walked around a bit finding nothing of interest.
We appeared in front of the tuk-tuk a scant 5 minutes after we had left him. He did not seem perturbed that we had not bought anything and was ready to take us to another place. It took a bit of convincing but we refused and had him take us to Siam Square directly. He warned us that it was closed until afternoon but we headed over anyway. I knew from my readings that the advice of these guys was always going to be based on getting one to visit their stores, not necessarily on the truth.
At Siam Square, however, I was surprised to find that some stores really were closed. However some appeared to be open. Once again, while we were standing around and getting our bearings we were approached by a friendly stranger. This time it was a woman, probably in her thirties. She said she was working for Mitsubishi in Thailand. She spoke in understandable English and was just starting to learn Japanese.
She "kindly" offered to take us to a good store nearby for souvenir and jewelry shopping. This made me wary but I figured it wouldn't hurt to look. On the way, she enticed us to check out "her" tailor. Again, we figured it wouldn't hurt to look and stepped inside.
The proprietors (father and son) were Indian, spoke English well and were very personable. We sat us down with various clothing catalogs and told us they could make pretty much any style in the catalog within 24 hours. Enticed by the low prices, by the time I had left I had ordered a silk/linen suit and three pairs of slacks, along with some silk shirts. Hiromi ordered a nice flower print silk dress and we were asked to come back later that day for a final fitting. The silk/linen suit & three extra slacks (two silk/linen, one cashmere) cost only about B7500 ($300). So we left with hope in our hearts that we were really getting a good deal.
Our Thai lady friend had stayed with us the whole time at the tailor even though we spent quite a long time there and supposedly she had to go to work. She said she had called in and could be late. Why she would bother, I couldn't imagine unless it was only to escort us to the souvenir store we had been on our way to in the first place. Probably if we bought anything at either place, she would get the usual kickback for bringing our business so maybe it was worth losing the time at work. She didn't spend time with us in the store but instead took her leave after showing us the place. We looked around. The place was similar to the Chinese Centre we had seen in the morning and we found nothing of interest.
After that we stopped by the nearby Hard Rock Cafe for lunch. It was pretty much the same as Hard Rock Cafe's the world over, hardly worth remarking about. But the food was good and we left satisfied. We had promised to go back to the taylor's that afternoon for a final fitting so we stayed in the Siam Square area shopping at the plethora of stores, small to large. Nearby was Thailand's first shopping center, the four story Siam Center. It was just, basically, an American style mall and not particularly interesting although Hiromi was happy to find a Wacoal outlet and stocked up on ladies undergarments.
Late afternoon we returned to the tailors for our rough fitting which went without incident and stopped back at the hotel for a rest and to change. We headed back up Surawong Road to Patpong in search of dinner. Once again we perused the myriad of souvenir stalls -- mostly selling silk goods, t-shirts, leather purses, watches and the like -- and stopped for dinner at an outdoor snack bar.
We had happened across the Marble House which was listed in the Lonely Planet guide as a legitimate massage parlour so we headed inside for a world-famous Thai massage. We were led into individual rooms separated only by curtains and given robes to wear. After changing, a middle-aged woman masseuse gave an extremely thorough massage from the tips of the toes to the tips of the fingers lasting about 50 minutes. It was mostly a pressure kind of massage, unlike the rubbing kind requiring massage oil, and well worth the small fee. I forget exactly but it was between B150 and B300, more than reasonable.
The next day, we headed out to hit the various sight-seeing spots. We headed down the road to The Oriental -- famous as a 100+ year old 5-star hotel which has housed celebrities of all sorts. After walking around the lobby, we made our way to the river ferry pier and boarded the Chao Phraya River Express. The river express was probably Thailand's best bargain, something like B10 per ride. The boat steamed up to the pier, slammed the engines in reverse and abutted the pier just long enough for people to jump off and on. This mode of transportation is probably not recommended for anybody not fully able-bodied; the embarking/disembarking procedure would probably be considered dangerous in the U.S. In any case, the short ride to Tha Ratchawong afforded us with a refreshingly different view of the city.
After disboarding, we made our way to Chinatown, stopping for a delicious snack of tapioca from a street vendor. Within the bowels of Chinatown is a seemingly endless array of wholesalers of foods, fabrics and other goods. We walked along Soi Wanit 1, basically a long alley lined with all kinds of little stores. We didn't buy much but it was worth going just for the sights and sounds. We ended up outside the Central Department Store where we took a short rest and walked a bit more before taking a tuk-tuk to Wat Pho, Thailand's oldest temple famous for its large gold reclining Buddha. The architecture was interesting. Temple buildings were covered with bright paints, gold leaf and even ceramic tiles, quite a contrast from the plain wooden temples of Japan. The place was still under renovation so I expect it will be even more striking when done.
From there we made our way to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). This is basically a compound filled with various palace and temple buildings some of which are 200 years old. The temple houses a sacred emerald Buddha, sitting in a throne high above the heads of worshippers. It stands under a meter high but is over 500 years old and has a long history of movement due to various ancient wars and events.
We headed back towards the river and another pier and found lunch at an open-air restaurant next to the river, close to the "amulet market" -- a myriad of vendors selling Buddha images and amulets. After waiting out a heavy downpour which came up, we made our way to the pier for a ride back to the Oriental on the river ferry. The ride back was uneventful but pleasant nonetheless.
We went back to the hotel so we could clean up and pack for our midnight flight. Our tailor-made goods had been delivered as promised and turned out to be quite well done. After packing up, we picked a dinner place from the guidebook and set out with a tuk-tuk driver. This was the most frustrating experience yet. Although our negotiated price was reasonable enough -- B50 -- the driver took various short cuts, even going away from our destination at times. This wasn't a problem, the problem was when he tried dropping us off well short of our goal threatening that the traffic jam would take "two hours" to get through. He even had the gall to suggest we try a restaurant that we happened to be nearby. Admittedly traffic was bad but not two hours bad. Unfortunately we were on a fairly tight schedule so I made him drive a bit farther and then we hoofed it the rest of the way. If I could do it over again, I'd probably pretend I had all the time in the world and say "Two hours? Fine, I like riding in tuk-tuks."
So we had a decent but rushed dinner and got back to the hotel in time to collect our things and head to the airport for the ride home to Tokyo. All in all, it was a great experience and I was pleased that we had spent most of our time in Phuket enjoying the tropics. Two days was plenty for spending in Bangkok which, although fascinating in many ways, is not necessarily the place to spend a relaxing vacation.
* Marina Cottage, Karon Beach, Phuket
Phone: (66 76) 330-625 Fax: (66 76) 330-516
** Aqualand Diving, Phuket
Phone: (66-076) 294-094 Fax: (66-076) 294-071
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|Created: October 15, 1995
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2005