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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Thailand: budget travel

This post is designed to help discount travellers. Those who have unlimited budget and/or used to travel 5 star all the way will not benefit from it.
Please note that recommendations given are my personal opinions and in no way represent gospel truth. I just thought I'd give back to travel community,as I have benefited tremendously from other's posting their experiences.

Arrival:

Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok is great and very easy to navigate with prominent signage in both Thai and English languages throughout.

Upon arrival exchange some money straight away, as you will need Thai Baht to travel to the city. Airport exchange rates are not the best, so only exchange what you need for that day-about $100US is usually plenty.
In the city, in my experience Asok money exchange has consistently the best exchange rates (located around the corner from Clinicneo, it's just a small window manned by Asian guy-NOT Thai).

The best way to get to the city is the train. Taxis are available, of course, but there is usually a line AND road congestion in Bangkok is horrendous.

Train is fast, clean, air conditioned, goes every 20 min or so and costs a fraction of a taxi fare.
Train does not operate past midnight or before 6am so make sure to book a flight that arrives well within train operating hours.

Follow the signs "Train to the city" to the basement level. There are two trains available: express and regular (all stops). Difference in travel time between those is only about 15-20 min and the amount of people on the train-regular one gets crowded with regular commuters. Total travel time is about 30-40 min.
Regular train price is 45TB and express is 90TB. In comparison a taxi ride would be about 500-600TB.

Purchase the token for the train from the token vending machine-it is user-friendly and all you need to do is touch the screen for the station you want to go to. If you are going to the city, you will need the final station: Phaya Thai where you can interchange for Sky train (city train) network and to MRT.

Personally, I prefer to stay in hotels located along Sukhumvit District (this for me includes Siam and Thong Lo). The area is great and Sky train network runs along it, so even if you are walking, there is no way to get lost.
The area is famous for it's street markets, massage places (both regular and erotic variety), street food and fine restaurants, amazing shopping (many malls of Siam, famous MBK mall) and various reputable beauty clinics (for those who are interested in cosmetic tourism).
Couple of traditional Thai "red light" districts are located along there as well.

Sky Train travel:

Once you arrive at the Phaya Thai station on airport train, follow the signs to Phaya Thai Sky Tran station-it's a 2 min walk along covered walkway.
You will need to determine which station you need to travel to (where your hotel is). There is a map of Sky train network posted by ticket machines.
Next to each station is a circled number-that's the price of a train ride to that particular station. Recently there were machines installed that accept bills in addition to coins-only machines, but there are cashiers that will exchange your bills for coins. Note that cashiers do NOT sell actual tickets-they only exchange the bills for coins. You will need to go back to ticket machines to purchase your ticket.

Thai station attendants are generally very friendly and will let you through the big gate if you have a suitcase or a large bag. You will need to give them your ticket so they can run it through the machine. Make sure you hold on to your ticket, as you will need it to exit at your destination station. If you lost it, you will be asked to pay a full fare in order to exit.

Hotels:

There are literally hundreds of budget hotels in Bangkok.
The best site to choose one in my opinion is www.agoda.com. I recommend reading the reviews carefully,as many hotels do not look exactly like the photos shown and rooms could be very small and/or windowless.

My personal favorite is Sawasdee Sukhumvit Inn Hotel located just a couple of minutes walk from Thong Lo station. Not only is is clean and has many amenities that other similar priced hotels don't offer, their price includes full  hot cooked breakfast in the morning. They also have desk staff 24/7 which is not always the case in budget Bangkok hotels.
To find this hotel, exit Thong Lo station on the side your train was and continue walking in the direction the train was going. Cross major Street (Thong Lor) and keep walking until you come to the corner on which big Marriott Hotel is sitting. Turn into that Soi (small street) and walk all the way to the end. Sawasdee Inn is located there. It's painted bright yellow and purple, so you won't miss it. Understand that it is not visible from the beginning of the Soi, so don't hesitate.

Things to do in Bangkok:

Shopping: plenty of street markets and proper Western-style malls along Sukhumvit.
MBK (located at National Stadium station) is well-known for it's bargains.
One of my personal favorites is Terminal 21 mall located at Asok station.
The only famous market that is NOT in Sukhumvit is Patpong, but you can easily catch a Sky train there (Sala Daeng station)

Food: street food is perfectly safe to eat, but if you are not a fan, Terminal 21's food court (located in the basement) offers "sanitised" version of it along with many other scrumptious treats.
There are also dozens of restaurants of all types from moderately priced to extravagant all along Sukhumvit.

Beauty tourism: many reputable clinics located here. They offer variety of procedures from microdermabrasion to lasers to surgery. Clinicneo, SVJ Laser Clinic, Lollana are just a few examples.
Note that good clinics are not dirt cheap (contrary to what some believe), but they are cheaper than their counterparts in US,New Zealand and Australia. Many also offer treatments that are not available in New Zealand.

Tours/sightseeing: There are many agencies located along Sukhumvit where you can chose your entertainment.:Zoo, animal sanctuary,floating market, temples, elephant riding. They have books and brochures to show you and can combine several attractions. Make your arrangements there and they will come and pick you up from your hotel at arranged day/time.

Massage places: Most are pretty good, but do shop around and look at the prices. As a rule, the closer you get to Siam, the higher the prices. Places that offer "erotic" massage are fairly obvious (it's the way the girls are dressed and how they approach you).

Travel to other Thailand destinations: Thai trains are great! Train to Chiang Mai, for example. You can book an overnight one: it's much cheaper than flying (and actually is faster, considering all the time you save having to arrive to airport in advance and all the hassles of checking in and collecting your luggage at arrival) and very comfortable. It also saves you one night of hotel stay.
Unfortunately, you cannot book train tickets online. you have to buy them at the station. It's located right at Hua Lamphong MRT station.
Make sure to plan and buy your tickets in advance, as they do sell out-trains are very popular with both locals and tourists.
I recommend buying S class: second class air-conditioned. What an experience!
To learn more about trains, check out this site: http://www.seat61.com/Thailand.htm#.VFlarvmUdQc

If you want to catch some rays by the sea, the fastest and easiest way to do this is taking a bus to Pattaya. Bus depot is located at Ekkamai Sky train station and buses depart every hour from 7am until 10 pm. It's about 2 hr ride (depends on traffic).

Other popular Thailand destinations are Phuket and Koh Samui. You can catch overnight  intercity bus to those. You have to be careful to choose VIP first class air-conditioned one and try to book a seat on the second level OVER the driver-it will give you huge leg room. At the bus station you'll find many ticket agents stick their heads out of the windows and call out trying to get you to buy tickets for their bus company, so make sure to ask what you are getting and look at the seat location map carefully.
VIP first class buses in Thailand are better than some airlines: they are clean and the seats are wide and recline almost horizontally, you are provided with bottled water (and sometimes a snack) and a blanket.There is one big TV upfront, but movies (mostly Western) are often translated in Thai. Sometimes they are only subtitled in Thai, though.
Overnight intercity buses make a couple of stops and there are vendors with great selection of fresh hot and cold food and drink waiting.
There are toilets on the buses and the the stops.
Interstate bus station is located at Mo Chit station, but you will have to catch either a taxi or a one of those motorcycle guys to get there from the station-it's not quite walking distance, especially when you have luggage.

BTW, motorcycle guys are perfectly safe, but be careful to discuss the price before you mount the bike and especially for those who go from the bus station to Mo Chit, make it abundantly clear that it is Mo Chit you want to go to, otherwise they will strike up a conversation asking what your final destination is and take you there (at significantly higher cost that Sky Train).

If you live in New Zealand or Australia, the best travel insurance for travelling to Thailand is from 1 Cover, NOT Southern Cross. Southern cross only covers public hospitals (NOT private) and the difference in Thailand between the two is HUGE. Also, 1 Cover will cover all injuries sustained on any licensed mode of transportation-this includes motorcycle guys.

I find Thailand pretty tourist-friendly and reasonably safe as long as you follow common sense precautions:

Leave your Rolex at home.
Same with your expensive jewellery and designer handbags.
Keep your bag in front of you at all times and don't leave it unattended
Only carry whatever cash you might need (many places accept credit cards). Don't flash wads of money.
Don't get drunk in (any) public places.
Don't accept drinks from strangers.
If some guy tells you to come with him to a "special" shop where his friend will give you a great deal on *whatever* probably don't go.
Avoid making ATM withdrawals in dark/isolated alleys. Generally stick to major malls and banks,as there are "fake" ATMs that will "skim" your card.
Choose hotels that have in-room safes, BUT understand staff has codes to open them. So hide your documents/cash in several different spots. Use hotels with many, many good reviews-less chance of theft.
It's best to be back at your hotel by midnight, but I realise many (especially guys) go to Thailand to party all night, so it's up to you.

Have fun!

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