Shortly after we returned from an elephant ride through the jungle, the talk turned to an equally astonishing aspect of traveling in Thailand these days.
"We're staying in a three-star hotel right now," crowed a British visitor, "and it's costing us 20 bloody dollars!"
"Well, I just bought a pair of pants for $2 last night," a woman from New York chimed in. "And I talked them down from three!"
As my wife and I discovered on a recent visit, Thailand offers the traveler more than its share of eye-popping wonders. We floated down a steamy jungle stream on a makeshift raft and were confronted by natives swigging Mekong whiskey and brandishing huge spits of meat. We indulged in a traditional Thai massage while lying on a tropical beach as soft as baby powder. We enjoyed superb meals in a country where Thai food is known, refreshingly, just as "food."
But even as one samples Thailand's transcendent wonders, it's impossible not to indulge in tacky calculations about how darned cheap they are. A huge Thai dinner for two, drinks included, for 440 baht--wait a minute, that's only $11! Hey, let's have a look at a dessert menu!
Thailand has long been a good travel value, but the "Asian crisis" has turned the country into a 24-hour sale-a-thon for Western tourists. A year and a half ago, the exchange rate was about 25 baht to the dollar. After peaking at more than 50 baht earlier this year, the rate has stabilized to around 40 baht to the dollar. The 50 percent currency devaluation amounts to a half-price sale for U.S. travelers--a vivid reminder that, in the days of a global economy, one country's economic meltdown is another's holiday bargain.
Of course, Thailand isn't the only bargain in Asia. The currencies of South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have all belly-flopped since last summer. But the exchange rate isn't the only factor that goes into computing travel value. In late April, a travel agent breathlessly told me that Indonesia was "a super bargain" and hinted that I'd be wasting my money to go anywhere else in Asia. But then, it's hard to appreciate a great deal on a hotel when you're holding a wet handkerchief to your mouth and waiting for a helicopter from the American Embassy to airlift you to safety.
Thailand, by contrast, is one of the more stable governments in Southeast Asia, a constitutional monarchy that recently reshuffled its government in response to just the sort of public discontent over the economy that turned nasty in Indonesia. While still an agrarian society (Thailand is the world's leading exporter of rice), the country's cities are filled with busy, well-educated folks driving late-model cars and yakking on cell phones. Its people are unfailingly friendly--the Thais are world-class smilers--and view foreigners with curiosity rather than suspicion.
Thailand has a well-developed tourist industry that's launched an aggressive campaign to attract much-needed foreign currency to supplement the country's pending economic bailout by the International Monetary Fund. Although the language barrier can be daunting--the Thai language is tonal and thus nearly impossible for tourists to master even with a phrasebook--most Thais speak at least a smattering of English. (The words sometimes come out in funny ways, though; one Thai shopping center advertised itself as "The completeness center for everything you can find.")
But even if the only Thai words you know are "pad thai" and "Singha," you won't exactly have to rough it, and you certainly won't go broke. For not a lot of baht, you can live like the king of Siam himself, taking in Thailand's wonders while folding your arms and imperiously pronouncing, "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera."
It would be nice if you could make the bargains in Thailand drop like ripe mangoes from the trees. But the current Thai sale-a-thon should be accompanied by a line of fine print: "Not all items have been reduced." Startlingly cheap deals often lie side by side with overpriced trash. More than once, I came across hotels separated by 20 feet and $200. Some hotels and restaurants, particularly those owned by multinational companies (i.e., those with recognizable brand names), have begun to adjust their prices to match the dollar equivalents of two years ago, or simply quote prices in U.S. dollars, wiping out bargains generated by the depreciated baht. Domestic inflation, which often accompanies a currency collapse, has begun creeping up.
To root out the best bargains in Thailand, many typical travel rules apply--do a lot of comparison shopping; don't be shy about haggling, since it's a longstanding tradition in Asia and a buyer's market besides; and don't be afraid to walk away if the price isn't right. (And don't be surprised if walking away produces excited cries of "No, wait, wait!")
But an even better method of finding deals in Thailand is to adopt a particular frame of mind, a philosophy to guide you on your journey. Take a cue from Thailand's dominant religion by following what Buddhists call "the Middle Way," a path that avoids both excessive self-indulgence and extreme self-denial. The Middle Way method of traveling in Thailand sidesteps both high-end restaurants and hotels, where prices are often just as steep as anywhere else in the world, and super-cheap accommodations, which in a place like Bangkok can be downright scary.
After clearing customs, we passed through a flock of imploring touts and grabbed one of the metered taxis, whose fares, unlike independent cabs, are set by the city. Forty-five minutes and a scant $7 later, we arrived at the Peachy Guest House, located in Bangkok's Banglamphu section. The Peachy, it turns out, is aptly named--it's the pits. But at an astounding $3.25 a night, it has a right to be.
The first clue that the Peachy might not be up to world-class--or even Middle Way--standards was when the manager came to the door shirtless, apparently having been woken from a deep sleep. He assigned us to Room 220, which turned out to be hard to find because one of the 2s had fallen off the door. The room consisted of a musty mattress with no top sheet or bedspread, a splintered wooden dresser with a dirty mirror and a rickety wicker chair, all surrounded by leprous plaster walls. The bathroom and shower were shared facilities located down a dim hallway lined with pictures of King Bhumibol, whose portrait is omnipresent in Thailand. The current king of Siam, incidentally, looks nothing like Yul Brynner, more like an adult version of the science whiz in school. But be forewarned--the king is revered in Thailand and criticizing him in public is officially against the law.
Staying at the Peachy was certainly a good way to get a quick start the next day. It's best to begin your day early in Bangkok, since it takes a long time to get around this congested city of narrow streets and more than 6.5 million residents.
Taxis are plentiful and cheap--you can go almost anywhere in Bangkok for under $5. Taxis are supplemented by tuk-tuks--three-wheeled scooters with a two-passenger back seat covered by a canvas canopy. Tuk-tuks offer a complete assault on the senses--the motor spews blue smoke and sounds like a leaf blower about to explode in a shower of sparks. Many tuk-tuk drivers seem to have recently escaped insane asylums, crazily weaving through traffic while cackling to themselves.
On our first day, we quickly visited the Grand Palace, the residence of the king of Siam until the constitutional monarchy was established in 1932. It's overrun by tourists and picture-takers--imagine the Air and Space Museum with massive gold Buddhas, a soaring red-roofed temple and ornate carved dragons. We fared much better walking 10 minutes to Wat Pho, the oldest (16th century) and largest Buddhist temple in Bangkok and largely ignored by visitors. Wat Pho is a complex of nearly two dozen ornate structures, including one housing a massive 140-foot-long gold Buddha, shown reaching nirvana. Just gazing at the serenely sublime statue is nearly enough to give you a "contact nirvana" of your own.
Other Wat Pho buildings contain monks' quarters, along with an elementary school. As we passed the school, a girl of about 6 caught our eye and acknowledged our American "howdy" waves with the traditional Thai greeting, a serenely radiant smile coupled with a slow, reverential bow with hands folded prayerlike at the chin. There was so much soul contained in that simple gesture that it took our breaths away, and it remains one of those travel images you carry around with you for life.
Perhaps the best part of Wat Pho--and one of the best values in all of Bangkok--is the on-site school of massage, which convenes each afternoon. There, under the watchful gaze of their teachers, students give traditional Thai massages for the astounding price of $5 an hour. Thai massage is aggressive, involving hard twisting and rubbing of muscles, particularly in the feet and legs, along with cracking of the joints.
Thai massage is widely available in small parlors throughout the country, at $5 to $10 an hour. However, you should be careful about what kind of massage you're getting. Nonsexual massage is usually billed as "traditional" or "ancient" (even though the other kind of massage is probably older).
Bangkok's renowned sex trade, by the way, isn't nearly as pervasive as one might imagine. Most of Bangkok's go-go bars and sex clubs are crammed into a few small areas, the most famous being a four-acre district around Patpong Road. Far from being a classy adult entertainment area, Patpong Road is more like Times Square before the cleanup, a joyless strip of neon patrolled by aggressive barkers trying to herd customers into clubs. By all accounts, Bangkok's sex industry has inflated its prices to compensate for the depreciation of the baht. The looming presence of AIDS makes the sex clubs one of the worst deals in Thailand.
I'd never make it as a food critic in Thailand because all of my reviews would say, "The food was great and the prices were cheap." Those who frequent Thai restaurants in the United States will recognize most of their favorites--satay, pad thai and various kinds of yam (spicy Thai salad), along with some dishes that haven't made it to America, such as chicken-fried cartilage and pork jowl. A dinner and beer for two that's $30 to $40 at Thai restaurants in the States will set you back about $10 here, and it's not hard to find more modest restaurants that charge half as much. Many restaurants and bars provide karaoke music as entertainment, featuring Thais singing American Top 40 tunes in unaccented English. Never have I heard Jim Croce's "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song" sung with such conviction.
Unwilling to repeat the horror of the Peachy Guest House, we made a more careful survey of Bangkok's accommodations for subsequent nights (if you're bargain-tripping, it's best not to make reservations). At the high end, hotels such as the Royal Orchid Sheraton offer luxury rooms, sweeping river views, 24-hour room service, tennis courts, swimming pools and the uncanny sensation that you've never left America. Rooms at the Sheraton are about what you'd pay in America for comparable digs--rates start at $220 a night.
Threading the path between the Western excesses of the Sheraton and the Gandhi-esque asceticism of the guest houses, we settled at the White Orchid Hotel in the city's Chinatown district. Rooms at the White Orchid feature all the amenities you'd find at a Holiday Inn--color TV, a minibar (containing such delicacies as "cuttlefish-flavored peas" and "liquid essence of chicken"), a decent shower and a fine free buffet breakfast with good coffee--all for just $30.
In the nightstand beside the bed was "The Teachings of Buddha," placed there by the Buddhist equivalent of the Gideons. Paging through the book while lying in a comfortable $30 hotel room, I reflected on the wisdom of the Middle Way, thinking that Buddha's next reincarnation should be as a Thai travel guide.
Bangkok is as typical of Thailand as New York City is of America; loud, fast, vibrant, dirty and ultimately not very representative of the rest of the country. If you're not a fan of big, bustling, smoggy cities, you'll want to escape to the mountains north of the capital or the beaches to the south.
If you're not in a hurry, one of the more civilized ways of getting around Thailand is by train. We took an overnight sleeper car to the town of Chiang Mai, 465 miles north of Bangkok, a 13-hour journey I was genuinely sorry to see end. An air-conditioned first-class sleeper to Chiang Mai costs a ridiculous $30 a person, an amount that wouldn't get you from D.C. to Philly on Amtrak. And the food on Thai trains is a lot better than the microwaveables on the AmCafe car--we had spicy shrimp soup, fried rice, fresh fruit, orange juice and coffee, all prepared on board and served in our cabin.
Night was falling as our train chugged out of Bangkok. In the gloaming, we watched scenes flash past the window as though cast by some unseen movie projector: an outdoor market teeming with gesticulating customers, a karaoke singer belting a tune in a smoky bar, dozens of Buddha shrines perched on pedestals illuminated by tiny lights. When you compare being lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the rails with the tortured half-sleep you usually get on a plane, it's hard to feel that transportation has progressed in the 20th century.
At dawn, we woke to rice paddies awaiting the summer rains. We pulled into Chiang Mai station around 9 a.m. and were greeted by a throng of aggressive touts promising cheap taxi rides and holding up pictures of hotels. The best defense against touts in Thailand is a benign smile, which seems to enfeeble the Thais the way Kryptonite does Superman.
Chiang Mai, ringed by fog-laced hills and dotted with temples, is a popular jumping-off point for trekking into the countryside. Dozens of trekking firms line the streets surrounding the town's Main Square, offering guided adventures that last from half a day to more than a week. Once a relatively obscure exercise, trekking has become popular to the point where some trekking firms now promise "non-touristic adventures" and, for longer treks, vow, "You will not see any other tourists!"
We opted for a day-long trek ($12), enough to get a taste of Thailand's back country without getting the full flavor of, say, malaria. We traveled by van for an hour accompanied by five other tourists (instantly breaking the non-touristic promise), arriving at the edge of Doi Inthanon National Park, southwest of Chiang Mai. There, we rode an elephant.
Even though vans full of tourists regularly visit the elephant camps, the elephant ride itself was surprisingly authentic, even dangerous. We climbed atop a tall wooden platform and clambered onto a metal seat secured by thick rope to the elephant's back, about 12 feet off the ground. A guide hoisted himself onto the beast's neck, tucked his bare feet behind the elephant's gargantuan ears, and off we went.
I was expecting a gentle orbit around a flat gravel track, something like the Dumbo ride at an amusement park. Instead, the elephants lumbered into the jungle along a distressingly narrow hillside path, with a 30-foot drop into a creek just an elephantine misstep away. At several points during the journey, the elephants stopped to feed, leaning precariously over the edge of the trail to snatch succulent forest greenery with their trunks. In America, you'd never get this far without having signed a three-page release form.
The elephants plodded up a steep hill into a small village of straw huts inhabited by the Karen tribe, one of more than a dozen semi-nomadic tribes that inhabit the hills of northern Thailand. Some of the more remote hill tribes near the border of Laos and Burma rarely see Westerners, but the tribes close to Chiang Mai have grown accustomed to the sight of white people bearing autofocus cameras. Our arrival was met by studious indifference; several boys were playing a game with hardly a glance in our direction.
We rode to the final leg of our trek, a raft ride down a jungle stream. The rafts were simple Huck Finn affairs, crossed bamboo logs lashed together with ropes.
Halfway through the hour-long ride, we drifted over to an embankment where we encountered a small group of hill-tribe party animals gulping Mekong whiskey and gnawing on a spear of some sort of meat. They offered to share their good fortune with the sort of sloppy insistence characteristic of those drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. I contemplated trying the whiskey, but opted to placate my wife, whose look said, "Don't even think about it." The meat I never considered, especially since we had recently seen several dogs walking along the stream unattended.
At night we sampled one of Chiang Mai's featured attractions, the Night Bazaar--five blocks of street vendors offering great deals on glitter T-shirts, wraparound sunglasses, barrettes and oversize belt buckles. Walking through the crowded bazaar with merchants tugging at your sleeve the whole way was like passing though a gigantic spanking machine. I broke down and bought a tiny gold Buddha, an acknowledgment of the Noble Truth that all travelers, even those in Thailand with the baht in a free fall, are subject to suffering.
The only down side to Thailand's prices is that they turn you into a cheapskate. I found myself refusing a cabaret because they wanted 800 baht for the ticket, when in America, a $10 costumed floor show would have seemed like a good deal. I became curt with a taxi driver when he charged us 300 baht for a 15-mile cab ride, even though I knew that $7.50 would hardly get you beyond Zone 2A in the District. And faced with a choice between an average deal on a rental car and a cheap one, I chose the latter, a decision I quickly came to regret.
From Chiang Mai, we flew Thai Airways south to the beach resort island of Phuket (stop smirking--it's pronounced Poo-get). At the tiny Phuket airport, Avis was out of rental cars, sending us into the eager arms of Airport Car Rent, an independent agency across the street. It gave us a choice between a compact car at $35 a day and a Suzuki jeep for $22.50 a day, one of the few times the reality of American-style prices invaded our Thai fantasy world. Somehow, the thought of spending $35 a day on a car seemed wasteful--why, that's five Thai dinners! Seven hours of Thai massage! So I chose the larger and suspiciously cheaper Suzuki jeep.
Bad move. As I sat in the shuttle van waiting for a staffer to drive us to our vehicle, the rental guy came out and starting miming steering with his hands. No, he explained--you're already in your car. It turned out that I had rented the six-seater jeep they used as an airport shuttle, complete with "Airport Car Rent" painted on the door, a humiliation they felt was worth knocking off a few hundred baht a day.
The jeep handled like a cement mixer. As my wife later informed me--my eyes were grimly locked on the road--the drive down the western coast of Phuket island is exquisite, dotted with white sand beaches and sheltered coves nestled around lush green hills.
I rumbled the jeep further south to Karon, a quiet village with a gently curving, gorgeous beach. We checked into the Marina Cottages, clean, comfortable bungalows perched on a bluff that cost $60 a night, the most we would spend for any accommodation in Thailand.
Even in popular Phuket, it's not hard to find great deals, often right next to crummy ones. For instance, the Royal Meridien hotel overlooking Nai Harn Beach, near the southern tip of Phuket, features deluxe suites with sea views, a beauty salon, a boutique, tennis courts, a swimming pool and on-site Thai massage. The cheapest rooms at the Meridien are $280 a night, climbing to $900 for the Admiral Suite.
But drive through the Meridien parking lot, down a pocked gravel road, over three rickety one-lane wooden bridges and you'll come to the Jungle Beach Resort, where double rooms start at $13.75, and a deluxe beachfront bungalow 30 yards from the water $50. The staff was friendly and more than a little surprised to see us. "How did you find us?" the manager asked incredulously. But I still had more to learn about the perils of straying from the Middle Way.
By our last day on Phuket, the jeep was making grinding noises, as though the engine were eating itself. As the jeep labored up a steep hill, it began to vibrate violently like one of those paint-mixing machines at the hardware store. I pulled over to the side of the road, hoping a five-minute rest might "fix" the problem. When that didn't work, I put the jeep in first gear--the only one that worked at this point--and limped to the next town, transmission screaming.
I phoned the rental company, and after explaining the situation in great detail--repeating "Car bad! No want!" over and over--they promised to send a replacement in an hour. Yeah, right, I figured. We hunkered down for what was sure to be a long afternoon of recriminations and triplicate claim forms. Incredibly, two good-natured fellows showed up within the hour and handed over a new car, no questions asked, and I didn't have to sign my name. Avis, take note: Thai car rental firms are trying even harder.
As it happened, the jeep had died in Karon, the nicest beach in Phuket. We walked to the far end of the beach and comforted ourselves with the only sensible remedy to a stressful day--a Thai massage. As I lay on a downy mattress getting a $6 massage, listening to the crashing surf and watching the sun dance off the jade green water, I couldn't help but think, "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera."
Tom McNichol last wrote about guidebooks for the Travel section.
Thailand, the Middle Way
GETTING THERE: Air fares to Bangkok are higher in the summer; most airlines drop prices after Sept. 1. United Airlines is quoting a $1,230 round-trip fare from Dulles to Bangkok, with restrictions. The price drops to $1,076 after Sept. 1.
Cathay Pacific Airways is offering an All Asia Pass, good for 30 days of travel to 17 Asian cities, including Bangkok, for $999 ($899 if you purchase it online--http://www.cathay-usa.com). You must travel between Aug. 20 and Dec. 15, and the pass is valid only for flights out of New York City.
Air fares to Asia are volatile, so it's worth consulting travel agents, ticket consolidators and travel Web sites. Thai Airways' Web site (http://www.thaiair.com) has details about flights within Thailand and to other Asian destinations. Thai Airways is offering an "Amazing Thailand Fares 1998" pass good for any four domestic flights within Thailand for $179.
Don't forget an obvious source: the airlines themselves. I got the cheapest available fare to Bangkok by calling United directly; its price beat even the consolidators'.
GETTING AROUND: For the love of Buddha, don't rent a car in Bangkok: The streets are hopelessly congested and people drive like fools. Taxis and tuk-tuks are plentiful and cheap, although communication can be difficult. It helps to have someone from your hotel write down your destination; grab a business card from your hotel to direct drivers on the way back. The most pleasant way to get from some points to others is by riverboat.
Taxis, tuk-tuks and songthaews (converted pickup trucks used as buses) are also available in Chiang Mai, and the town is small enough to explore on foot. Bicycles and motor scooters can also be rented near the town's Main Square.
Renting a car in Phuket makes a little more sense, allowing you to tour the coast at your leisure. Rates range from $20 to $45 a day.
WHEN TO GO: Thailand has three travel seasons--high season is November through February, featuring the best weather but high prices and crowds. March through May is the hot season, but prices are lower. June through October is the rainy season, featuring the lowest prices of the year coupled with severe but usually brief afternoon thunderstorms. September and October are ideal, skirting the height of the rainy season while still taking advantage of smaller crowds, lower prices and cheaper air fares. WHERE TO STAY: Bangkok has an unusually wide range of accommodations, ranging from dirt cheap (with the emphasis on dirt) to expensive. Anything calling itself a "guest house" offers Spartan backpacker digs; the Chart Guest House (58-62 Khao San Road) seems the best of a suspect lot, featuring rooms ranging from $2.50 to $10 a night, e-mail service and a pleasant restaurant. Among luxury hotels, the Oriental Hotel (011-66-2-236-0400), the Shangri-La (011-66-2-236-7777) and the Royal Orchid Sheraton (011-66-2-266-0123) are the most opulent, but are not bargains (standard rooms at the Sheraton start at $220 per night).
The best values are in the middle range; the White Orchid Hotel in Chinatown (409-21 Yaowarat Rd., 011-66-2-226-0026) is clean, comfortable, central and a great deal, with most rooms $30 to $40, climbing to $130 for a deluxe suite. The Siam Orchid Inn near the shopping district of Siam Square (011-66-2-255-3140-3) is also an excellent value; most rooms are $30 to $40.
In the Phuket province town of Karon Beach, Marina Cottages have cozy bungalows overlooking the beach for $60 (011-66-76-330-625). Near Nai Harn Beach, the secluded Jungle Beach Resort (011-66-76-214-291) has bungalows from $10 to $55.
WHERE TO EAT: There are surprisingly few sit-down restaurants in Bangkok; many natives snack at the numerous noodle stands that line the city's streets. The Whole Earth Restaurant (71 Sukhumwit Soi 26 and 93 Soi Lang Suan, near Siam Square) has outstanding food, reasonable prices and a large vegetarian menu. The Windmill Restaurant (543-545 Silom Rd.) features excellent curries. There's also a stretch of good restaurants along Sukhumwit Road in the new downtown area.
In Chiang Mai, the Aroon Rai Restaurant (43-45 Kotchasarn Rd.) has a huge two-level seating area and very cheap prices, about $1 to $2 for most entrees.
On Phuket, where seafood is a specialty, the Old Siam Restaurant on Karon Beach Road in Karon features dining on a second-story terrace overlooking the beach. At the Coconut Cafe on Nai Harn Beach, you can enjoy a $3 lunch of fresh seafood and a huge Thai beer.
INFORMATION: Tourism Authority of Thailand, 212-432-0433, http://www.tat.or.th. The Amazing Thailand Web site (http://www.amazingthailand.th/index.html) features a searchable database with information on shopping and tours.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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