Bangkok's Wat Arun -- Temple of Dawn
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Bangkok (Laem Chabang) Overview
Glimmering golden temples and sacred statues of Buddha; khlongs (canals), bustling with river boats and floating markets; sensuous silks and fragrant orchids; sparkling sapphires and rubies; exquisite "spirit houses" and people with perpetual smiles on their faces -- that's what the Kingdom of Thailand is all about.
As one of the most developed and progressive nations in Southeast Asia, Thailand -- once known as Siam -- is bordered by Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia to the southeast and Malaysia to the south of Thailand's isthmus. The government is a constitutional monarchy, and Westerners are eagerly welcomed -- even though con games and price-gouging, aimed at tourists, can be rampant.
Thailand's roots reach back to the 10th century, but Bangkok itself wasn't founded until 1782, when Rama I became the first king of the Chakri Dynasty. Since that time, this "city of angels" has been an economic and cultural powerhouse in the region. The current ruling faction is the People Power Party. However, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) staged demonstrations throughout 2008, showing their opposition to the PPP. While generally peaceful in their protests, PAD did temporarily shut down Suvarnabhumi Airport from November 25 to December 3, 2008.
Most cruise ships call on the port of Laem Chabang on the Gulf of Thailand, which is two hours south of Bangkok, the nation's capital, though smaller ships often dock at Klong Toey on the Chao Phraya River, right on the outskirts of the big city.
Known as the Venice of the East, due to the many canals slicing through the city, Bangkok lies at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River and has been wowing tourists with its exotic temples, lavish palaces and teeming markets for decades.
If your cruise is embarking from Laem Chabang, you'll want to fly into Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and explore the city for several days before joining your ship. If you're merely calling upon Laem Chabang, your best bet is to consider shore excursions to Bangkok, although there are a few spots near Laem Chabang -- like the beach resort of Pattaya or the Jack Nicklaus-designed Laem Chabang International Country Club golf course -- that could be explored by those who have visited Bangkok extensively in the past and don't wish to make the two-hour trip north.
No matter where your travels take you, the people of Thailand will greet you with genuine smiles and a respectful wai (hands pressed together, as if in prayer, accompanied by a gentle bow of the head).
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Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) • Hong Kong • Kelang (Kuala Lumpur) • Kobe • Koh Samui • Langkawi • Mumbai (Bombay) • Nagasaki • Osaka • Penang • Saipan • Seoul (Incheon) • Shanghai • Sihanoukville • Singapore • Yangon (Rangoon)
Liquor made in the area includes several varieties of beer, whiskey and rum. Be on the lookout for rice-based Mekong whiskey, Sang Som Thai rum and Beer Chang (a pale lager). For those who eschew alcoholic beverages, go for cha yen (a Thai version of iced tea). It's made by combining red tea leaves, star anise, sugar and evaporated milk. The creamy sweetness is the ideal complement to the spicy food you'll be eating. You're also sure to sample a variety of refreshing smoothies, made with combinations of fruit, such as tamarind, pineapple, bananas, mangoes and rambutan.
Looking for a hip and trendy version of Bangkok's best cocktail? Venture to Siricco's outdoor sky bar, located on the 64th floor of a residential/office tower. The martini menu is just about as good as the views overlooking the city. Give the rose apple martini a try, but beware that our cost for four drinks there was a whopping $95.
Thai silk has been a sought-after commodity ever since the first Western travelers made their way to Southeast Asia. Look for ties, scarves, robes and dresses. Many talented tailors are also available to custom-design clothing for you.
Standard Thai is the official language of the land and is spoken by nearly 65 million people. There are actually several versions of the language -- street, elegant, rhetorical, religious and royal -- used in different situations. You'll hear/use street (informal between friends) and elegant (more formal) Thai most often.
English is somewhat understood and spoken at the airport, in the major tourist sections of the city and in hotels that cater to Westerners. Many Thai people do not speak English, but they do know a few key words, so you can generally get your point across. Otherwise, we found it useful to carry a Thai version of our hotel address and the address for the port, Klong Toey. They came in handy more than once.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Thailand's currency is the baht (pronounced "bot"). Each baht (THB) equals 100 satang. Note denominations include 1,000, 500, 100, 50, 20 and 10. You'll find coins for 50, 25, 10, 5, 2 and 1 satang. We recommend visiting www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates.
While MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Diners Club are widely accepted, it's a good idea to carry baht for small market purchases. ATM's are everywhere in Bangkok: at all banks, in most hotels and restaurants, throughout the various shopping districts and at the airport. We also found that dollars and euros were welcome at small stalls in places like the Patpong Night Market, although you're paying a higher conversion rate. All major banks exchange foreign currency, and most ATM's will accept U.S.-issued debit and credit cards.
Where You're Docked
When visiting Bangkok, most cruise ships either embark from or call upon Laem Chabang, a container port about two hours south of the capital. Smaller ships often dock at Klong Toey, right on the Chao Phraya River on the outskirts of the big city.
There really isn't much to do or see at the Laem Chabang cruise terminal, located in the Chonburi Province. This is Thailand's busiest commercial port, and there's not much to do in the immediate vicinity. In fact, passengers have to travel by shuttle or taxi just to go between their ship and the front gates. If you're a golfer, you may be interested in playing at the Laem Chabang International Country Club (www.laemchabanggolf.com), or head to the resort area of Pattaya for the beaches -- not nearly as good as Phuket, though -- and shopping. The same goes for Klong Toey -- there are no services for travelers.
When ships overnight in Laem Chabang, it's a long day to visit Bangkok; depending on traffic conditions, it could take two hours or longer to get there. On the other hand, while those smaller ships lucky enough to dock at Klong Toey are surrounded by the same industrial portage, town is only a 15- to 20-minute ride.
To/From Laem Chabang: If you're embarking from Laem Chabang, your cruise line will offer an air/hotel/transfer package. Most lines will also allow you to buy the ground transfer a la carte.
If you'd prefer to go it alone, you can do so in a number of ways. The easiest is to book a transfer with a taxi or limousine service, like Image Limousine (www.imagelimo.com). A one-way, private sedan transfer from Bangkok to Laem Chabang should cost approximately 2,000 to 2,800 baht (per carload). If you're a bit more adventurous, take the bus from Bangkok's Eastern Bus Terminal to the cruise port for just 100 baht per person. The roads between Bangkok and Laem Chabang are paved and modern, and you'll travel south, along Asian Highway route AH19.
If your cruise stops at Laem Chabang on a one- or two-day visit, most lines will offer roundtrip motor coach service from the cruise port to downtown Bangkok. Once dropped off in the city, you're on your own for several hours to explore at your leisure. Alternately, you may arrange for a car service from the port, but the cruise lines' DIY options are often cheaper.
To/From Klong Toey: We pre-hired a car to take us from the airport to the cruise port. The cost was about $45 for the 45-minute ride. While docked there, our ship operated a complimentary shuttle into the center of the city; it departed on an hourly schedule.
In Bangkok: Bangkok traffic can be horrendous, but you'll be able to get around easily and cheaply in the following ways:
Via Taxi. Taxis are easily hailed just about anywhere in Bangkok. The meter starts once you hop in; if the driver wishes to negotiate a fee, ask him to put the meter on, or get out and find another taxi. Various surcharges are levied when traffic is heavy. A note for those whose ships are in Klong Toey: only the pink cabs are actually allowed inside the port gates -- and it's actually quite a hike to berth 22A.
Via Tuk-tuk. Motorized, three-wheeled carts called tuk-tuks are a popular and quick way to get around town. Just be aware that this mode of transportation isn't the safest, and you can get a bit dirty as dust is kicked up from the road. Negotiate a fee with the driver before accepting a ride.
Via Skytrain. The Bangkok Transit System's Skytrain (www.bts.co.th) offers two lines, the Sukhumvit and Silom, which run between 6 a.m. and midnight. You can buy one-day or three-day, unlimited-use passes at many hotels and at all stations.
Via Subway. You can ride the subway (www.bangkokmetro.co.th) for 14 to 36 baht, depending on the distance traveled.
Via Bus. Various types of buses (air-conditioned and without A/C) travel across the city and are run by Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (www.bmta.co.th).
Chao Phraya Express Boat. For about 10 baht, you'll be able to get to a variety of tourist attractions, via this ferry service. Many Riverside hotels have piers for easy, hop-on, hop-off access.
Watch Out For
Always negotiate fares before you get in tuk-tuks. If the driver offers to give you a tour, he'll also try to stop at shops where he's made a commission deal with the owners. You won't get a bargain, and you won't enjoy your tour. Steer clear of these offers!
With taxis, make sure your driver turns the meter on. We noticed ours didn't bother until we insisted.
Also, credit card cloning is a big problem in Southeast Asia. Before leaving home, call your credit card companies, and let them know you'll be traveling to Thailand and approximately how much you plan to charge. That way, if your card is cloned, your credit card company may spot it -- and shut down the bogus charges -- faster. (If your credit cards are smart chip" enabled, you don't have to worry about this.)
In 1782, King Rama I decided to move Thailand's capital to Bangkok from Thonburi, just across the river. The Grand Palace was built to serve as the official royal residence and has served in this capacity ever since, although the current king (Rama IX) makes Chitralada Palace his home these days. Easily toured on foot, the palace is most interesting for its unique Thai architecture, but be aware that you cannot enter any of the government buildings. On the grounds of the Grand Palace, you will also find Wat Phra Keo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Bangkok is, in fact, home to a plethora of temples and shrines, and there are several you should visit, no matter how crunched you are for time. Once you've seen the Emerald Buddha, visit Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn (www.watarun.org); Wat Po, Temple of the Reclining Buddha; and Wat Traimit, Temple of the Golden Buddha.
If you're intrigued by Thai architecture, silk and a good mystery, a visit to Jim Thompson's House (www.jimthompsonhouse.com) is in order. Jim Thompson was the "best known foreigner in Southeast Asia" from the late 1940's through the 1960's. An architect by trade, he joined the U.S. Army during World War II and was the OSS station chief in Bangkok as the war ended. He decided to stay in Thailand and founded the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company. He also purchased land in the city and built an exquisite Thai-style home. In 1967, he mysteriously disappeared, while on vacation in the jungle of Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Today, you may tour his fascinating home.
Been There, Done That
If you've seen and done all there is to do in Bangkok, take a break and visit one of the city's many skyscrapers, which house rooftop bars. Enjoy a drink and an eye-popping view. A few of our favorites include the Sky Bar (tel: 66-2-6249999) at Sirocco restaurant at the top of the State Tower, the Long Table (tel: 66-2-3022557) on the 25th floor of the Column Tower, and Vertigo (tel: 66-2-6791200) on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel. Beware: you're paying for those views! Our bill for four cocktails at the Sky Bar, about $95, was as lofty as the 64th-floor view. It was worth every penny ... once.
Bangkok is an incredible metropolis, but it's important to understand that many Thais still live the old ways in various fishing villages outside the city. Take a "Tour With Tong" (tourwithtong.com) to a typical fishing outpost, where you'll spend the day with a local fisherman and his family. You'll arrive by Thai long-tail boat, visit the fisherman's bamboo stilt home, eat a traditional seafood lunch and meet a local monkey troop along the way.
You will either love or hate Tiger Temple (www.tigertemple.org), a Buddhist monastery that's also home to tigers and other wildlife. Here, you can pet a tiger and have your picture taken with creatures that probably shouldn't be close to humans. The monks say they are saving these wild tigers from poachers; conservationists say the monks' methods are not sound. You'll need to decide for yourself.
If you've got time on a Saturday or Sunday, take the Skytrain to the Mo Chit station, and head directly to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. This place throbs with action, as 15,000 vendors hawk their wares to over 200,000 visitors each day. Spread over 35 acres, stalls are organized according to the merchandise sold -- housewares, clothing, ceramics, amulets and antique Buddhas, live animals, etc. Prices are fair, and bargaining is encouraged and expected. If you're looking for Thai crafts (bronzeware, lacquerware, silk items), you'll find them here. Chatuchak can be chaotic, so do yourself a favor and purchase Nancy Chandler's Map of Bangkok (www.nancychandler.net), which charts, stall by stall, each vendor at this market, as well as those on Sukhumvit Road and in Chinatown, Greater Bangkok, Central Bangkok and Banglamphu.
The Damnoen Saduak floating market is a must-visit for any newcomer to Bangkok. About an hour and a half outside of the city (in Ratchaburi Province), you'll find this busy khlong, clogged with long-tail boats that are piled high with every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable. This is mainly a produce market, but you'll also find typical souvenir items -- albeit nicer and less expensive options can be had directly in Bangkok. Take a taxi, or hire a private car, and spend a few hours exploring. It's a typical tourist trap, but you'll get some amazing photographs to show your friends and family back home.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a Bangkok visitor who didn't stop in at least one jewelry store. There, you'll find excellent deals on sapphires and rubies, and Thai jewelers are very adept at custom-designing or copying pieces of jewelry. Shop at reputable stores -- not those recommended by your tuk-tuk driver -- and know how much similar gems or gold would cost here at home. Try SJ International (www.sjjewelry.com; tel: 66-2-2432446; 125/8 Sawankhalok Road) or Venus Jewelry (www.venus-thailand.com; tel: 66-2-2539559; 167/1/2 Withayu Road).
Gourmands will tell you that Bangkok offers a heavenly array of restaurants and bars, with something delectable in every price range. Thai cuisine is a spicy blend of flavors, based on lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, basil, garlic, onion, ginger, coriander, mint, chili peppers, curry and eggplant. Popular menu items include vegetarian or shrimp spring rolls; chicken, beef or pork satay skewers, served with a coconut and peanut dipping sauce; pineapple fried rice; and Pad Thai, stir-fried noodles with eggs, tamarind, fish sauce, bean sprouts and red chili peppers, plus chicken, shrimp or tofu.
Have you tried the deep-fried banana flower or crispy morning glories? If not, head to Tongue Thai Restaurant (tel: 66-2-6399189), just around the corner from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Chareoun Krung Road. You'll find traditional Thai dishes, such as pad Thai, green and yellow curry, fish balls and lemongrass soup. The chef prepares each dish to be a spicy treat. If you require a milder version, just ask. The waitstaff can also provide photo menus if you're new to Thai food.
Want to mix some serious shopping with an outstanding lunch? Head to the Jim Thompson café (tel: 66-2-2559813) at Japanese department store Isetan on Rajadamri Road. If you've got some picky eaters in your group, this is a good bet, since they offer traditional Thai cuisine, Western dishes and sumptuous desserts.
For an upscale seafood buffet with a knockout river view through floor-to-ceiling windows, Lord Jim's (tel: 66-2-6599000 ext. 7680-1) at the Mandarin Oriental is the place. With an emphasis on seafood, you'll gorge yourself with scallops, tiger prawns, lobster, crab, mussels, clams, snapper and more. Meat lovers take note: Lord Jim's also serves succulent Wagyu beef.
Bangkok offers a dizzying array of accommodations, from low-cost hostels to ultra-luxurious, five-star hotels. Begin your search by selecting an area to serve as your home base. If you're a first-time visitor to Bangkok, there is no choice: You'll want Riverside digs with easy access to the myriad of transportation options offered along the Chao Phraya River. Head to Sukhumvit if you'd prefer the newer part of the city, but be sure to stay north of Soi Asoke; a red-light district is to the south. For all you shopaholics and those who desire quick access to the Skytrain, the best option is a hotel in Siam Square and Pratunam. A bevy of upscale hotels may be found in Sathon. And, finally, for those simply looking for something clean and cheap, seek refuge among the backpackers in Banglamphu.
Riverside: Two excellent and mid-priced hotels in the Riverside district are the Royal Orchid Sheraton and Shangri-La. While the rooms at the Royal Orchid may not be spacious, they all face the Chao Phraya River. This 28-story hotel provides gratis shuttle-bus service to the Skytrain and boat service to Saphan Taksin station. At the Shangri-La Hotel, some of the guest rooms are beginning to look a bit tired, but the public areas are gorgeous, and the river views are outstanding.
For a Riverside splurge, consider either the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok or the Peninsula Hotel. It's people-watching at its best at the Mandarin Oriental, which welcomes celebrities from all over the world. You'll be wowed by the amazing spa, Thai cooking classes, nightly riverside BBQ's and exquisitely decorated suites. Over at the Peninsula, you'll be equally pampered, and the rooms are larger (even if the location of the hotel itself isn't as good as some of the other riverside digs).
Sukhumvit: The Westin Grand Sukhumvit is the place to book if you require more attention and assistance than the average hotel provides. Just reserve an Executive Club room or suite; both include access to the Club lounge (think free drinks and snacks) and a butler to tend to your every need. The suites are ideal for families, and the regular guest rooms are moderately priced.
Banglamphu: Old Bangkok Inn is an inexpensive, 10-room guesthouse with small but comfortable rooms. Breakfast and in-room Internet access are included in the nightly rate, and the staff is extremely attentive.
Staying in Touch
Bangkok is a wired city, and most hotels offer Internet access. There is also a plethora of Internet cafes across the capital -- you can't miss them as you walk down the street in major tourist or business areas. Expect to pay between 0.50 and 3 baht per minute. Before logging on, be sure to check if there is a minimum fee to connect.
Here are our choices for the best ship-sponsored shore excursions:
Best Choice for an In-Depth Introduction to Bangkok: Since most cruise ships spend several nights in port, many offer two-day shore excursions that combine sightseeing and restaurant-hopping with hotel stays, right in Bangkok. Upon docking in Laem Chabang, you'll join your tour bus for the two-hour ride to Bangkok. Once in the capital city, you'll begin exploring the famed canals and Chao Phraya River. English-speaking guides will take you to a variety of destinations, including Wat Pro Keo, Wat Arun, Wat Traimit, the Grand Palace, Chinatown and various shopping complexes and markets. You'll stay overnight at a Bangkok hotel and will enjoy an evening of Thai food, dance and storytelling. Duration: 24 hours.
Best Choice for a Shorter, Less Strenuous Tour: Due to the heat and humidity, people don't always wish to run themselves ragged in Bangkok. If you fall into that category, opt for a shorter day-tour of the city, via motor coach. Most often, you'll visit Wat Suthat, which houses a Buddha and features 28 Chinese pagodas. Across from the shrine is the Giant Swing that was once used in the dangerous "Ceremony of the Swing," which often killed the Hindu priests participating in the ritual. Time will be set aside for a Thai-style lunch, as well as a shopping spree before you head to Chinatown or visit the Grand Palace and several breathtakingly beautiful temples. Duration: 6 to 7 hours.
Best Choice for Food Lovers: If you've already seen much of Bangkok, consider a shore excursion to a cooking school or restaurant that will teach you how to prepare authentic Thai cuisine. Cap off the demonstrations with an extravagant lunch. Duration: 5 to 6 hours.
For More Information
Tourism Authority of Thailand (www.tourismthailand.org; 66-2-2505500)
Bangkok Tourist Division (www.bangkoktourist.com; 66-2-22576124)
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia (boards.cruisecritic.com)
Independent Traveler Message Boards: Asia (www.independenttraveler.com/community)
--by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic Contributor; updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief.