By LARRY ANTHONY PANNELL
No matter where you plan to visit in Southeast Asia, Thailand is an ideal starting point.
And whether the Land of Smiles is your final destination or just a stopover in route to Cambodia, there are ways to make sure that your visit is as pleasant and hassle-free as possible by taking into consideration a few key issues.
As a general rule, if you are flying internationally, you will probably be arriving at Suvarnabhumi Airport, also known as BKK. If you are flying domestically, it will be Don Mueang Airport, known as DMK.
Here, then, is an insider’s guide of what to see, eat and do to make the most of your Thai holiday experience:
First, a word about getting around and transportation: Do NOT use a flat-rate taxi. You will end up paying much more than you would using one of the metered taxis, which are available everywhere. This is especially true going to or from the airports. And don’t let your hotel arrange for a taxi either, as it also will try to give you a flat rate.
Another option that I use all the time in Bangkok is the Grab taxi. They are equivalent to Uber, which is no longer operating in Thailand. Just download the app on your phone, and you are ready to go. If you use Uber at home, the only difference with Grab is that you do not prepay. It will tell you the amount, how long until your driver shows up and you decide if you want to accept. And, like with Uber, you will be able to track the location of your ride. A Grab taxi is usually nicer than a standard cab because they are personal vehicles. The driver usually speaks English better than regular taxi drivers because many are students. Also, a Grab cab is usually less expensive than a regular taxi
Both airports are far from most areas of the city. You can expect to spend between 30 and 45 minutes to get to where you are headed. It is best to tell the driver that you want to use the highway. This will save you time and it is well worth the extra $2 to $3 for the tolls. With the tolls, I averaged $12 from the airport to Khao San Road and it is about the same price from either airport.
If you are also traveling domestically in Thailand but are arriving or leaving from at Suvarnabhumi Airport, you will need to take transportation to Don Mueang. There are connecting flights at Suvarnabhumi, but they are few and far between, almost always a long wait and considerably more expensive. The airports are about an hour apart without traffic and, depending on the time of day, you might want to double that time to be on the safe side.
There are many people that love the city of Bangkok and enjoy spending time there. But for me, the keyword is “city.” Everyone that knows me well knows I hate cities regardless of where they are in the world. I consider Bangkok and places like it a “jump-off point” and usually if I am there it is in transit to somewhere more remote.
On my first visit to Bangkok, I wanted to see the “famous” Khao San Road in the heart of the backpacker community. I spent a couple days there experiencing what it had to offer and to start the cool down period of recuperating from jetlag after a 21-hour flight from Los Angeles.
There are any number of places to stay in the Khoa San district and they are fairly reasonable for a tourist area. I paid $40 per night for a large room that was very clean and well appointed. I’d like to also say quiet, but nothing is quiet at Khoa San Road at night until well after midnight.
During the day, the district is relatively quiet, though busy, but nothing like what you will experience at night. Around 4 or 5p.m., street carts and booth vendors start to show up and the road is closed to vehicles for the most part. As the evening progresses, the area gets busier, louder and crazier.
Beer is both abundant and inexpensive in Khoa San, which no doubt contributes to its rowdiness and party atmosphere. By 8 p.m., the place is wall-to-wall people to the point you can hardly move as you inch your way through the crowd. It makes Disneyland look like a ghost town.
I personally love eating street food from the food carts. Here, you will find food stalls selling everything from spicy pad thai and alligator slowly roasted on a skewer to grilled snake, scorpions and spiders. There are also many restaurants on Khoa San Road, but count on them to be usually double if not triple the price of the food carts.
If you have never been to Bangkok, I would suggest staying on Khoa San Road at least for a couple days. It is just one of those places in the world that you should experience. There are also a number of temples that you can visit within walking distance.
Some of the must-see sites in Bangkok are the Royal Palace (with its beautiful Emerald Buddha), the Temple of the Dawn, the Floating Market, Wat Pho (with its massive Reclining Buddha) and the Chatuchak Weekend Market.
For quality souvenirs and an interesting Vietnam War-era spy story, be sure to visit the Jim Thompson House and Museum, where you can find the best Thai silk and have a traditional Thai afternoon tea.
The Khoa San area is also a centralized enough that you can easily visit many of the famous sights, attractions and upscale shopping malls of this very modern city. And if you are like me, it makes a great jump-off point, not only for other places in Thailand, but also for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
From Bangkok, I headed to Chiang Mai.
Like Bangkok, many people love this very large city in northwest Thailand and there is a large expat community that calls Chiang Mai home.
During my visit, I went to the Chiang Mai Night Market. There you will find a myriad of places to eat, as well as row-upon-row of vendors for shopping.
Chiang Mai also has many great restaurants and temples.
From Chang Mai, you can take a bus to the Pai, Thailand’s backpacker paradise, or explore Doi Suthep, just 12 kilometers outside the city, with a 13th century temple that is home to a large white elephant shrine as well as a replica of Bangkok’s renowned Emerald Buddha.
You can also visit a nearby elephant sanctuary and Wat Phra Sing, a Buddhist temple and monastery founded in the 14th century that houses two Buddha statues.
In short, whether you choose Bangkok or Chiang Mai as your base, Thailand is an ideal starting point for exploring the rest of Southeast Asia.
And Thailand is also a great place for weddings and honeymoons, which, of course, constitute an entirely different type of starting point.
Larry Anthony Pannell is a professional photojournalist originally from southern California who is also a licensed acupuncture physician with a degree in traditional Chinese medicine. Since 2010, he has served as an “acupuncturist at sea,” offering his services on several international cruise lines while traveling the Seven Seas. He specializes in landscape, travel, nature and wildlife photography, and more samples of his work can be seen on his webpage. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.