|Travelogue: Amazing Thailand 2000||
The long flight
It had been over a year since my last trip to Thailand A last-minute relaxation of inventory allowed me to buy a round-trip H fare from Seattle through Tokyo to Bangkok with upgrade to business class. The aircraft was a 777 on all four segments. The route was advertised as having the new First Suites, but I was just concerned about the new, more comfortable business-class seats since I doubted I would be seeing the interior of the first-class cabin.
Andrew picked me up at 11 a.m. for the 12:35 flight. The airport drive was extremely congested, so he drove to general parking and went in with me. One inside we wondered where all the people were who were congesting the drive. The airport itself was uncrowded. I was first in line for the one agent on duty at the 1K/FC checkin line. He saw that I had seat 15H and made sure that that seat was able to recline fully, since it was the last row of business class. Even so, he offered me 14B or H if I preferred. I had good memories of seat 15H from the CDG-IAD flight Hunnybear and I took last year, so I stuck with it.
I decided to pop into the 1K room to visit the angels and see if I could score a vaunted double-upgrade on one of the segments. No dice: the cabin was full by that time. I said goodbye to Andrew and stood in the single boarding line. Seattle does not have dual jetways to board 777s like most airports. Boarding was through the door in between the two halves of the business-class cabin, so economy passengers continued to file past the customers in rows 11-15 throughout the boarding process. One interesting thing about the 777 with First Suites: there is no row 10! The front of the plane has three rows of First Suites (1-2-1),then two rows of business-class, rows 8 and 9 (2-3-2), then rows 11-15 of business class (also 2-3-2). I have reservations in row 10 in March on my trip to Prague. I wonder what happens if I draw one of these aircraft?
My seat opponent was waiting when I boarded. He was a sleepy, chubby Hong-Kong Chinese who smiled pleasantly but didn’t say much during the flight. A hermetically sealed blanket and freshly laundered pillow were waiting on my seat. Preflight drinks were offered, but only champagne or orange juice. Water was available on request. I requested it. We had the good seats with massager, footrests, personal videos, laptop power, and noise-reducing headsets which were passed out along with an amenity kit.
I poked my nose into first-class to look at the First Suites. I must say they don’t look particularly comfortable compared with the previous generation of FC seats. They looked narrower. Only one employee was in FC. Business was full, with six employees. There were at least two 1K’s in coach according to the manifest.
We took off about 15 minutes late due to flow control. Channel 9 was available on this leg. There was a nine-channel video selection with two separate programs that repeated one after the other throughout the flight. Service was very friendly, especially toward me. One of my flight-attendant friends had emailed the crew that I was on the flight and asked them to be especially nice to me. Well, they were. The crew was very friendly, especially Megumi, who made sure I had everything I needed.
I always get the Japanese obento selection when I fly business-class Transpacific. It was yummy and consisted of a selection of a dozen tastes of different cold foods. I had a good cold sake along with it. After dinner came a plate of cheese (unimpressive slices of cheddar and brie) and fruit (grapes). Chessecake was also available. Godiva chocolates came around thereafter. One surprising thing about this leg was that they had only one hot-towel service on a 10-hour flight.
Despite our late takeoff we arrived early at Narita. I made the quick U-turn to reenter security and then asked everybody I could about an upgrade but was given the party line: no double upgrades. I went up to the lounge and asked if a 1K could go into the Fuji lounge. No, first-class only. I parked at a window table in the RCC with a telephone and connected to the Internet in Japan for the first time ever! Really, it was just like being at home once I found out that I had to dial the “03” area code before each call.
The layover was about two hours, then flight 875 was called for boarding at gate 35. Here they did have a separate entrance for first and business-class. Once inside the jetway, though, it changed to a separate entrance for first class only! I went to my familiar seat. On this leg the blankets were not hermetically sealed. I ordered the obento once again, a completely different one this time but also delicious. I slept most of this trip after watching Double Jeopardy. My seat opponent for this leg was a friendly Canadian coming from Honolulu. We chatted for about five minutes but the we were both too tired. The “business-class purser,” Matthew, came around and asked me to let him know if there was anything he could do for me. I said he could get me an upgrade. He said he thought that would be difficult on this flight. I checked the manifest just before deplaning and found that FC was full, all paying customers except for one positive-space employee.
We arrived on time in Bangkok. Immigration was a breeze. Right away I encountered the curious Thai way of being. They tagged my bag as first class in Seattle, but I didn’t see it among the first few bags to come off the conveyor. Then I realized there was a sign at the end of the belt saying “First Class Bags.” I went over and sure enough, there was my bag—right in the middle of a huge pile of first-class bags. I had to stretch and lift mightily to extract it from the middle of the pile. It was an attempt to provide good service to first-class customers, but not exactly executed in a convenient way. Welcome to Thailand.
I took a hotel limo to the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit (650 Baht). It was only a 15-minute drive and was charged to my room. The staff at this Luxury Collection hotel greeted me with many smiles. I signed in for the $110 rate I had reserved (including full breakfast buffet) and headed up to a moderately large room on the 28th floor with a view of the city. It was so smoggy the next morning I couldn’t actually see much city, but it’s the thought that counts. Waiting for me was a plate of shelled peanuts and a delicious assortment of tropical fruit. I ate three rambutans, a longan, and a mangosteen but left the mini-bananas and the other fruit that was available in the US. I decided to walk around and soak up the atmosphere before bed. I passed the amazing sidewalk food carts with everything from barbecued pork to roasted insects. I still ahven’t tried any of those.
I asked for a wakeup call for 9 so that I could leave the hotel at 11 for my 1 p.m. flight. I was told it could take up to 45 minutes to get to the airport if traffic was bad. Several of the hotel staff asked me if I would like to reserve the hotel limo (1000 Baht—why does it cost almost twice as much to go to the airport as [/I]from[/I] the airport?) but I told them I would take a taxi (350 Baht). It turned out the wakeup call was not necessary since I awoke well rested at 6:20 a.m. Bangkok time (3:20 p.m. the previous day Seattle time). A poet once said morning arrives in Bangkok like a greasy gray rag pushed into the corner of a room. I thought of that as I looked out my floor-to-ceiling window at the first quarter-mile of the city, which was all I could see because of the smog. Imagine what this city would be like with California emissions controls, I thought.
I did emails and FlyerTalk, then went down for my complimentary breakfast buffet. What a nice surprise! This is the best free breakfast I’ve ever seen. They served a full array of pastries, fruits, and cereals; Asian favorites like the dreaded hot congee; Thai favorites such as Thai Omelet and chicken stir-fry; and of course American fare: eggs benedict, carved turkey and ham, French toast and waffles, and eggs made to order. Coffee, orange juice and water were all included, as was tax and service. This breakfast would cost $25-30/person in most luxury hotels, so it’s really a tremendous benefit to have it included in the rate. Unfortunately on the way back I get up too early to enjoy it, but they also have complimentary cocktail hour in the evening. And I think United will feed me.
I got a bit antsy and checked out a little early. I confirmed that Thailand has actually lowered their VAT to 7% from 10%! Unheard of, lowering a tax! The only glitch in checkout was that I was charged 10 Baht (27 cents) each for three local calls. The sign in the room said local calls were complimentary because I was on the Executive Floor. The clerk happily removed them and put the whole bill on my MasterCard (American Express continues to lose all my foreign business because they charge double the commission on foreign purchases that FirstUSA and Bank of America do).
I asked the bellman to call me a taxi and asked how much it is. He said 350 Baht ($10), which is what I expected. I asked if that was flat rate or a meter charge. He tried to understand me and asked if I wanted a taxi who would use the meter. I said it didn’t matter, just find me a good taxi who would not cheat me. He did as I checked out and loaded my bags into the taxi. I was about to leave when I noticed I had left a plastic carry-bag with the two bottles of wine I was given on my flights (one on each leg; a consolation prize for not getting the vaunted double upgrade). The bellman asked my room number and dashed up to get it for me. He soon returned with the bag, smiled, and disappeared before I could figure out how much to tip him. The Thai people honestly do not expect tips, but appreciate it when they are given. In this hotel, 10% is added to the bill for service, but it’s OK to tip extra if you want to.
I tried to establish with the taxi driver whether the 350 Baht for the trip included the toll. He didn’t speak much English at all, so I smiled and resigned myself to a rip-off I had experienced before in which the taxi driver asks the passenger to pay the toll, then asks for the entire agreed-upon amount upon arrival. It was only a buck. Sure enough, as we sped through the light traffic to the toll booth, he asked me for 30 Baht to pay the toll. I handed him some coins. But when we arrived at the airport he asked for 320 Baht! An honest taxi driver in Bangkok. Not only that, but he didn’t have any change. When I tried to give him 400 Baht, he shook his head and took only three 100-Baht notes from me. I opened my change purse and had no coins left and he smiled and said “OK.” A Bangkok taxi driver accepting less than we agreed! This must be a high-profit-margin trip. I gave him about six one-Baht coins I had and we called it a morning.
I had made a reservation last night on the 1 p.m. flight to Phuket using United Connection software. There are two secrets to domestic travel in Thailand. First, always fly business class on Thai Airways. They fly widebodies on one-hour flights, have fabulous service, and charge only 500 Baht ($13) more for business class than coach. You also get full status miles on Star Alliance for flying business class and only half for flying coach. Second, Thai has no advance-purchase discounts or last-minute penalties, and they don’t do advance seat assignments, so you may as well just buy your ticket at the airport for maximum flexibility. I got into a very short queue at the Thai ticket counter (which is separate from the checkin counter and across the lobby on the side closest to the airport drive). The agent found my reservation, sold me a ticket, entered my United 1K number, and put the 2830 Baht ($76.50) on my MasterCard.
I walked across the lobby to the Royal Executive checkin, where there was no line but a family was trying to tear their kid away from playing with the red carpet and rope in front of the counter. When they did, I checked my one bag to Phuket, got an aisle seat, and was asked to please wait in Executive Lounge. I headed for a big sign saying VIP lounge, just steps away, and plunked myself down to read while I waited the hour and a half till boarding. I was a little bit of a nervous Nellie about the non-existent traffic, I guess.
The domestic Thai lounge is a nice big room with complimentary soft drinks and light snacks, but nothing like the international lounge with full bar and quite an assortment of eats. Still, it’s a nice place to wait. When it was time, I headed down a secret back corridor to an exit just before security. There’s actually another door that real VIPs can go through to bypass security entirely. I don’t suppose they’re worried about the Prime Minister blowing up a plane. Just before security there is a red metal cylinder with a round hole in the top mounted at a 45-degree angle from the floor. A large sign over it says “Clear Gun.” I still have no idea what that is or what it’s used for.
There was no separate line for business class, so I just go in the queue and boarded the Airbus 300-600. I has seat 12B, which was the second row—perfect. The bulkhead seats on this plane are slightly narrower than the rest due to the curvature of the nose. Apparently they don’t assign them, or assign them last, because they were the only empty seats in business. Immediately upon being seated, I got a thick hot towel, choice of newspapers, and a welcome drink: choice of iced tea, water, or fruit juice. The airshow was running. Lunch was an absolutely delicious Phad Thai with shrimp, along with another choice of soft drink, followed by another hot towel. All this on a one-hour flight! The purser came by and asked how I liked lunch and I raved about it.
My seat opponent on this flight was a middle-aged Scot named Jock. He takes two and a half months off every winter and comes to Thailand. We had a great talk about where to go and what to do in Phuket At least I think we did—he had a very think Scottish accent. He was trying to tell me about a spa called the “Heedwee,” which finally he had to spell for me, tracing the letters with his finger on the seat back in front of him. It was “Hideaway.” He was staying right next to the Sand Inn, where I was staying, so he offered to share his car.
For some reason we parked the plane at a bus gate rather than at the open jetway right next to it. The Thai crew made the coach passengers exit from the tail and wait until all the busy-ness passengers had exited into the buses before they let them leave. The bus drove about 50 meters and dropped us at the terminal. My brother was waiting for me in baggage claim, having arrived from Chiang Mai 20 minutes earlier. Baggage came out in the wrong order, so I felt right at home. We collected our bags and Jock and looked for the driver with the sign saying “Mr. Gock.” Apparently the Thais can’t spell “J.”
The ride from HKT to Patong Beach is about 45 minutes through a variety of scenery: freeway, small town, and hills. We finally arrived at the Sand Inn and tried to chip in for the car, but Jock insisted that it was taken care of already. When we persisted, he said we could buy him a beer if we saw him around town. I said we sure would.
My brother and I have stayed at the Sand Inn many times. It’s a nice clean hotel with good air conditioning and good location, right at the opposite end of the main entertainment street, Soi Bang La, from the beach. The staff recognized and greeted us. They always give us rooms on the third floor. There is no elevator, but they carry your bags up. Mike and I changed and headed straight for the beach for a little dip in the Andaman Sea. The water was perfect.
After a late-afternoon run on the beach, we had dinner at one of my favorite places in Patong, The Buffalo. I always pronounce it “Boof-alo” because that’s they way it was pronounced by the crazy Latvian guys who introduced me to it last year. We had Chateaubriand for two (Australian Beef), which was excellent, a bottle of St.-Emillon, and shrimp cocktail. The total came to just over 2000 Baht ($45) for the both of us, and half of that was the wine, which is not cheap in Thailand. This was an expensive meal in Phuket. Steak, shrimp, and lobster are expensive here. Everything else is pretty cheap, especially Thai food.
We did a bar tour tonight, but I called it quits pretty early, pleading jet lag.
Grand forced march
We woke up intending to have breakfast, but instead had lunch. Mike wanted to find a place that served a lunch buffet, so we made a few calls and asked around. All the buffets seemed to be either breakfast or lunch. So instead we walked over to Sabai Sabai, one of my favorite Thai restaurants. It’s a tiny open storefront with seating for about 30. I ordered my favorite, fried beef with basil leaves and a fried egg on top. Mike had a delicious calamari salad.
After lunch we walked around to the various dive shops. Scuba Cat is my favorite, but we also checked out South East Asia Divers and Santana. All of them had signs outside advertising the day trips available. Scuba cat had a nice two-dive trip scheduled tomorrow to Shark Point, with a second dive at the wreck of a ship called King Cruiser. Mike had actually dived King Cruiser a few days after it sunk and found a small treasure, the captain’s log book. This was a few years ago. We booked the trip (2100 Baht + 650 Baht for full gear, or $75) and then headed up to the Novotel at the north end of the beach. This is a relatively new hotel and Mike hadn’t seen it. They have a wonderful seafood restaurant that we plan to have dinner at later in the week.
We walked back along the beach, taking in the sights and being accosted by jet-ski salesmen every 20 meters. Mike recounted the story of a man he knew who, every day for four years, passed an old Indian gentleman on his way to work. Every day, the Indian gentleman would say to him, “Change money?” Finally, after four years, the man was going on a trip and actually needed to change some money, so he went to the Indian gentleman. Out of curiosity, he asked him, “You know, I’ve been passing you for four years, never once responding to your offer to change money. You see me every day. You must recognize my face. Why did you keep asking me if I wanted to change money for four years?” The Indian gentleman replied, “You’re here, aren’t you?”
By this time we were hungry again and went to the Japanese restaurant adjacent to the Bahn Sukhothai hotel across the street from Sand Inn. Mike had a very good sashimi assortment while I, a little reluctant to eat raw food in Thailand, had a passable chicken-and-egg donburi. Mike ordered a zombie and I had a Long Island Tea that tasted like a mai tai.
We rested a couple hours to recharge, then headed to the Rock Hard Café, a perennial hangout, as we saw that they were now offering pitchers of frozen drinks. But it was also happy hour, and Mike calculated that ordering individual drinks was actually a better value than a pitcher, by 20 Baht per five drinks. So we ordered mai tais that tasted like mai tais.
After a few rounds it was time for dinner, so we went to one of my favorite places, the K-Hotel. The hotel and restaurant is run by Germans. It is quite a large restaurant, all outdoors, with white plastic tables spread out among trees decorated with strings of miniature white lights. They have a very large selection. We both got the Shepherd’s Spit, a mixed grill of four different meats, along with some chilled Burgundy. The Thai waitresses don’t understand “Burgundy,” so you have to say it in German, “Burgunder.” It was comical to see two Americans trying to speak German with a Thai accent to communicate with the waitress.
We did a little more bar hopping, then Mike called it a night. Back at the Rock Hard Café, the show had started, so I watched that for a while and ran into Karen, one of the owners, who introduced me to another Mike, an American. We had a round, then headed over to the Flash A-Go-Go to watch the show there. It was pretty good and I had never been there before. I had diving early, though, so I didn’t stay too long.
The dive truck came to pick us up at 7:30 sharp. These are covered pickup trucks with two facing bench seats in the back and a luggage rack on top for the gear. They are always driven by a Thai (in the right seat) with the divemaster sitting in the left seat with a checklist of hotels to pick up divers. We were joined by several a German couple, a single German man, and two peppy young English women just staring out on a six-month world adventure.
The dive started from Chalong Bay, which meant we had to transfer to the dive boat by wading into the sea a few steps and climbing into a rickety longboat. The longboat, propelled and steered by a propeller at the end of a preposterously long pole, took us out to the deeper water where the dive boat could moor. A small breakfast of bananas and a salami sandwich on a bun awaited us, along with complimentary coffee, tea, and water. Soft drinks and beer were available for 20 and 60 Baht respectively, but, as our German guide told us, “for divers the beer is for after diving. When I see a diver drinking beer at lunch, then I know he does not want to do the second dive.”
The first dive was to the wreck of a ferry called King Cruiser. A rather large ship, holding 888 passengers when it was alive, it has become after only two and one-half years an artificial reef teeming with sea life. It has been interesting to see the progression of the ecosystem over the last two years. When I first dived this wreck, it was covered with barnacles and some shellfish. Now it’s thickly encrusted and full of fish too. Visibility was excellent today and the current was nonexistent, so it was the best wreck dive I’ve had. We saw a couple of my favorite: lionfish!
After the dive the English girls were smirking about the fact that the Germans referred to exploring the wreck as “penetration.” Deborah, the brunette, said that she was a bit leery as she didn’t know what to expect. I reassured her that it was normal to be a bit nervous before your first penetration. She retorted that they’d progressed quite a bit, because they used to be nervous about “going down.” I didn’t touch that one. Both of them were working on their Advanced Open Water certification, so that counted as their deep dive. Neither one experienced the vaunted nitrogen narcosis, also known as “the rapture of the deep.” So far my Hunnybear is the only one I know who got the rapture. Lucky her! To see if you are “under the influence,” the instructor has you write your name backwards on the surface and then again at depth, timing each one. The blonde English girl’s name was Anna, so I’m not sure how revealing a test it was.
Lunch was a very spicy Thai meal with two chicken dishes, one with red curry and one with white. I enjoyed it, but it was a bit too spicy for some. After our surface interval, we suited up for the second dive, Shark Point. This site has three reefs in a line, all with lots of fish and anemones. It’s very amusing to hear the Germans try to pronounce “anemone.” After our guide did the briefing, once saying “ann-e-moans” and once saying “an-enemy” I baited him by asking what varieties of anemone we would be seeing. “Orange ones,” he said.
I think this is the nicest day dive from Phuket, because the visibility is good and there is always quite a lot of fauna. As the site’s name promised, we were rewarded with a two-meter tiger shark immediately upon descending to 22 meters. He was a beauty. We saw many lionfish and towards the end a beautiful blue-and-white striped sea snake. And there were countless anemones.
The water temperature was perfect and the weather couldn’t have been better. This was a five-star dive trip. We reversed the process we used to board, climbing into the longboat and wading ashore to the waiting truck, which dropped us off at the hotel.
For dinner, I wanted to return to The Old Fisherman restaurant, a pricey affair on a terrace at the Novotel overlooking Patong Beach. Andrew, Hunnybear and I ate there last visit and enjoyed it very much. We were not disappointed. The service was superb. Two Thai girls in traditional dress played live Thai music for the six customers throughout the meal. The warm breeze blew though our hair, or what’s left of it, as we enjoyed a seafood basket for two. The basket contained Phuket lobster, rock lobsters, prawns, shark steak, a whole grilled fish, mussels, and two crabs. Our waitress brought a tray of five sauces to try on the variety of dishes. I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea that tasted like one, and we had a nice bottle of French Muscadet to compliment dinner. Total cost was a very pricey 4200 Baht ($110) including tax and service, but almost 2000 Baht of that was the wine. I think this is about as much as you could possibly spend for a meal in Phuket.
After dinner we took the air-conditioned Novotel taxi (150 Baht to anywhere in Patong) to the new Molly Malone’s Irish Pub. Jock had told us about this on the ride from the airport. It was a bit disturbing. It’s the only place I’ve ever been in Thailand that didn’t look like I was in Thailand. Except for the people smoking, this place could have been in Seattle. We listened to an excellent three-piece Irish band (each musician played several instruments), but when they finished their set we left our Heineken pints half finished and walked back towards the hotel.
We had a quick nightcap in the Rock Hard Café (which was actually water for me—I have a pretty high tolerance for alcohol, especially when I’m a couple of kilos overweight, but Mike can drink me under the table without much difficulty), but then I pled fatigue and once more retired.
Those Funny Thais!
Mike wanted to rent a couple of bicycles and pedal around the island, but that sounded to hot and dangerous to me, so I suggested we rent a jeep instead. We walked down to the beach road, where there were several jeeps for rent lined up. We asked at the first one, a Suzuki actually, and were told it would be 800 Baht ($21) for the day. We asked about a nicer-looking green one, but they wanted twice as much, so we took the gray Suzuki. We paid in advance and I left my passport with them as a deposit.
With Mike navigating in the left seat, I drove off. Our first mission was to find the only Starwood property on the island, the Sheraton Grande Laguna Beach. We weren’t exactly sure where it was because Laguna Beach was not on the map, but I remembered it being a couple of beaches north of Patong. I took a wrong turn, though, and we ended up turning toward the middle of the island, toward Phuket Town, which I had visited on the last trip with Andrew and Hunnybear and which I had no desire to return to. Mike attempted to identify roads, but it was difficult because all he had to work with was pink lines on the tourist map. Oh, for Hertz Neverlost!
While we were finding our way back, we saw a sign for an orchid farm so we stopped. Mike kept reminding me to drive on the left side of the road. It’s not so hard when there are other cars, but pulling into driveways and so on I really had to think! We parked at the orchid farm and talked to the host there, who it turns out was hosting an elephant show that had started 15 minutes earlier and lasted an hour. There were three large buses full of tourists here to see the elephant show. We asked about the orchids, and the host pointed toward the buses, which were parked off to the side, and said, “Bus, next.” We didn’t know whether he meant that the buses would be taking people to see the orchids next or the orchids were next to the buses. It turned out it was the latter. Mike speaks fluent Thai, but he likes to hold it in reserve until he really needs it.
The orchids were there, row after row of them. Only a few were in bloom though. Either it’s not the season or they were cutting them as soon as they bloomed. It is a farm, after all. Satisfied with orchids, we headed off. I asked Mike if he could ask directions to the Sheraton, so he started a high-powered conversation with the elephant-show hostess, dressed in traditional Thai garb. He got directions from her, then as we got into the jeep a taxi driver came over and reiterated them. We thanked him and drove off. Of course, while we had overall directions to the place, we didn’t remember whether to turn right or left out of the driveway. We picked left, which took us to something called the Rajabaht Institute, which was having some kind of celebration involving screaming children and balloons. Policemen directed us in a detour around the institute, which left me singing “I’ll be your Ra—jabaht!” to the tune of Roundabout by Yes.
Eventually we made it onto the main highway, still under construction as has always been since I first came to Thailand. We needed to go to the Two Sisters monument (Mike: “A statue of the two sisters who did something.”) and then turn left. We did, and saw a sign for Laguna. This main highway is crazy. It’s a divided highway, but portions of one direction are closed intermittently, so there is frequently oncoming traffic on “your” side. Combine that with the fact that lane markings mean nothing to the Thais and it can seem dangerous. I chose a large truck to follow to run interference for me.
It was just a short drive from the roundabout to the Laguna Beach complex, which turns out to be five resorts all sharing a common lagoon. They have a mutual agreement regarding use of common facilities, so for example you could stay at the Sheraton but use the tennis courts at the Banyan Tree (not to be confused with the Westin Banyan Tree, very nice five-star hotel). We parked by the tennis courts as a matter of fact, and walked to the reception lobby where I asked to see a room.
We were asked to sit for a few minutes, then were greeted by a sunny Thai girl in traditional yellow garb wearing an orchid. She showed us a standard room, which was kind of seedy looking and had a view of about two meters of their 800-meter-long swimming pool which snaked through the property. I asked to see what room they would put Platinum guest in, so she called down to the lobby and then showed us a room on the SPG floor, slightly larger, with slightly better amenities. I then asked about the villas they had by the lagoon, and she said we needed to return to the lobby because reception divided between standard room and villa room.
Well, asking about the villas apparently put us in a different class of guest, because along came two glasses of pomello juice and two thick cool wet towels. The sunny girl came back and told us that when we finished our drinks she would show us one of the villas. We did and she escorted us into the private villa area, which wasn’t really all that private because there were a ton of these villas crammed in around this swimming pool. We entered a very nice large two-bedroom suite with sliding doors leading to the pool from each room. The bathrooms, like the ones in the standard rooms, had sunken shower/tubs covered in blue tile. The room was nice but there was no privacy at all: half a dozen guests were swimming in the pool five meters from our living-room door. We thanked sunny and I whipped out a 50-Baht note to tip her since I enjoyed her service so much. She nearly fell over backwards! She did a Thai bow and said very earnestly, “Kup kuhn ka” (“thank you, kind sir, for your money”).
Mike and I decided that this kind of resort, isolated from anything else on the island and crammed full of tourists and conventioneers, was not our bag baby. For luxury, the Novotel in Patong beach has this beat I think. And the prices they are asking are outrageous: $190/night for a seedy standard room and $575 for the poolside villa we saw.
We decided to do a tour of the southern tip of the island because Mike remembered a place where he got some great batter-fried shrimp. So we drive back through Patong, following the beach road this time and waving at the jeep-rental folks as they recognized us driving by. The beach road went up a steep hill at the southern end of Patong and then ended without warning in a dirt road under construction. We backtracked and found our way back to the heavily traveled southern beach road.
The Thais leave no room for error when they drive, and the yellow line in the center of the road means nothing to them. It was not at all uncommon for me to encounter a motorcycle taking a sharp curve on the wrong side of the road. People pass all the time crossing the yellow line with short visibility. Mike says the death rate is quite high, and in fact one of my dive instructors was killed in a motorcycle accident the year before. We were careful about passing, but what do you do if the guy coming the other was isn’t?
We made our way through the nice village of Kata, on to Ra-Wai, where Mike remembered getting shrimp. We parked in front of a souvenir stand and walked over to a nondescript bare-bones restaurant where Mike really opened the throttle on his Thai, ordering us what he hoped was batter-fried shrimp. They came and they were! We split a plate of 10, then ordered a barbecued fish to go with it. All the while we sat quietly, looking out onto the cerulean ocean from the very southern tip of Thailand. “Once in awhile the Thais build something good in a spot with a nice view,” Mike remarked. The barbecued fish was great and we decided to head back.
I did a solo sunset run tonight, dodging Thai boys playing soccer on the beach, Jet-Ski vendors grounding their wares at full bore, and European tourists doing their best to avoid tan lines.
Dinner tonight was at another steak house, this one recommended by a guy on the dive boat. It’s on the same street as the Buffalo, Soi Patong Resort, and it has a Danish name that means “Round Tower.” I had a 200g imported (from New Zealand) pepper steak and Mike had the tenderloin. Both were superb, and we had a bottle of Chateau UAL Médoc accompanying with no corkage fee. The total was 1000 Baht ($27) for the two of us.
We stopped by Smokey Joe’s Roadhouse for a bit, then headed over to the Flash to watch the Silly String show, but by 11 I was exhausted and headed for bed.
We both slept in today and it was almost lunch time by the time we rose, so we decided it would be a good day for suki. The best suki place in town is right here in the Sand Inn on the second floor: Chopsticks. We avoided the window tables around the edge because they get too hot. Instead we took a table by the entrance. Mike is the suki master, so he ordered for both of us: an assortment of vegetables, tofu, chicken, and a couple eggs all to be self-cooked in the bubbling kettle of hot water in the center of the table. We dumped it all in except the eggs because Mike likes to have a separate “egg flight.” When it was done, we removed the suki with a slotted ladle and spooned some of the secret red sauce over the top anong with garlic, peppers and lime. The only thing better than eating the suki is drinking the soup left in the bowl! Lunch came to 518 Baht ($14) for the two of us including service.
Although the American Medical Association (AMA) has decided that you do not, in fact, need to wait an hour after eating to safely go for a swim, we decided to play it safe and rested a bit before heading to the beach. Mike went for a power swim while I just splashed around. The beach was very crowded as the annual convention of the European Commission on the Abolition of Swimsuit Tops (ECAST) was in town. The water temperature was once again perfect, although there were some sea lice or jellyfish stingers in the water. It was a lazy afternoon.
After a sunset run, I grabbed my bottle of Chateau UAL white Burgundy from the refrigerator in the room and Mike and I took a tuk-tuk to Ban Rim Pa, reputedly the best Thai restaurant in Phuket. Well, I think this place is one of the best restaurants in Thailand. They served what Mike calls “good American Thai food.” Every table has a water view in this wooden building built on a cliff. We were seated at a large table for four. Waiters immediately poured water and unfolded our cloth napkins. An ice bucket was brought for our wine (corkage fee 400 Baht or $11). We both ordered one of the four set menus (one is vegetarian) consisting of an appetizer of minced something in pastry shells, beef curry, fried chicken wrapped in a leaf, spicy seafood salad, stir-fried vegetables, and steamed rice. Dinner included a light dessert assortment with watermelon cut into the shape of hearts, pineapple cut in the shape of butterflies, a rambutan, and one of those jellied things they serve on Thai Airways. The bill came to just under 2000 Baht ($54) including tax and service.
One attraction of Ban Rim Pa was the American piano-bar player. We listened to his playing during dinner and it was much more enjoyable than the elevator music they piped in at Chopsticks (“Moon River” in 4/4 time was over the top). He was between sets when we finished eating, so we took a couple of seats at the piano and awaited his return. He came back in a few minutes, but did not acknowledge us and just jumped right into his next set. He played with great mastery, but he never once looked up from his keyboard or responded to any of my genial comments. It was quite a bizarre experience. We soon decided to head off.
The tuk-tuks waiting outside the restaurant wanted 100 Baht to go anywhere, so we walked a few meters and found one willing to take us for 40 Baht to Smokey Joe’s. This was the first time the experienced the Thai phenomenon of picking up additional passengers in the middle of a fare. An older Swedish couple jumped in halfway there. When we reached our destination we jumped out. I decided to see if I could order something off the menu, so I asked for a Long Island. It arrived, made perfectly and strong!
I didn’t want to leave without taking in some Thai kick boxing. There is a boxing bar called (for some reason) Vegas Beer Bar right next to the Rock Hard/Smokey Joe’s. The boxing was very real sitting right at ringside. Many times they have a foreigner, usually a Frenchman, challenging one of the Thai kick boxers and getting his butt kicked pretty badly. Unfortunately no one had made the challenge tonight, although when I asked about it they thought I wanted to fight! Well, I’ve seen Fight Club and that’s close enough for me. I am ze lover, not ze fighter.
We had breakfast today at the Euro Deli in the lobby of Sand Inn. They have very good breads and omelets there, but the “American Breakfast” is kind of French, meaning two small fried eggs, a fatty hot-dog-like sausage, a fatty slice of mystery meat, and so on. Mike ordered it (180 Baht or $5 including OJ and coffee) and enjoyed the bread but that was about it. I fared much better with the mushroom omelet and sliced pineapple, 150 Baht ($4).
I should mention that it’s possible to eat in Thailand for much, much less than we spent. Even in the tourist areas, good Thai food can be had for 40-50 Baht per dish ($1-$1.50). Outside of those areas the price falls to 20 Baht. We were not particularly price-conscious and with the exception of wine and a few overpriced restaurants in Bangkok, fine dining in Thailand is a bargain by global standards. Nevertheless, I had seriously depleted my cash reserve and needed to get some more, so we went to the ATM. It’s amusing to see your bank balance in Baht. My checking account, pregnant with funds waiting to pay off my December charge cards, came to a bit over (Dr. Evil) one…million…Baht. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?
I use a lot of cash in Thailand because it is common to charge an additional 3% for using a credit card. I suppose, given that I usually get at least 5 cents/mile, that I could still some out ahead using the UA Mileage Plus card, but I just pay cash as a rule. Besides their money is cute. We stopped by a travel agency and I bought a business-class ticket to Chiang Mai to match Mike’s for tomorrow, paying cash to avoid the 3% surcharge. As I’ve said before, business class is only a few dollars more than coach, and there are no special advance-purchase fares. Very convenient.
We spent midday exploring Patong beach and wandering in and out of alleys and shops. All the while, we were in a bit of a quandary. We wanted to experience the steak at the Round Tower or Rundetårn, but we also wanted to cap our Phuket trip with a visit to our favorite hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurant, Mr. Good’s. We solved the problem by having lunch at Rundetårn and dinner at Mr. Good’s. Lunch was a repeat of the pepper steak. I ordered mine medium this time. Last time I ordered it medium-rare, which is a very difficult thing to do in Asia. Why? Asian languages do not distinguish between the sounds of “r” and “l” (known as “liquids” to phoneticists) and instead have one liquid sound with the tongue kind of in the center of the mouth that sounds a lot like “w” with the mouth open a bit wider. The brunt of this disquisition is that “rare” and “well” sound almost identical to the Thais. The menu at Rundetårn suggests ordering your steak “red, medium, or well done.” This increases what information theorists call the “Hamming distance” between the possibilities. Hamming distance is defined as the number of mistakes that can be made transmitting one piece of information before you reach another valid possibility.
However, since last time, after Mike carefully explained to the waitress that we wanted our steak medium-rare, placing his arms like a dial in front of his face and marking off the positions of “rare,” “medium,” and “medium rare” and putting an airy X through “well done,” my steak came pretty rare. So this time I ordered medium. It was excellent. The fries accompanying tasted like they were fried is some yummy saturated animal fat instead of the tasteless so-called healthy hydrogenated poly-something companies use in the U.S. that the AMA has just decided is actually worse for us than butter. Go figure.
After the nice lunch we unwound and prepared to do all our favorite things for our last night in Phuket. I watched a little TV, discovering on CNN that AOL was merging with Time-Warner, and finding on another channel a French movie with French subtitles. Go figure.
We went across the street to the outdoor café at the Rock Hard and had cocktails. Now that I had had success in ordering Long Islands even if they weren’t on the menu, I tried it again and there was no problem. In fact it was happy hour, so cocktails were only 75 Baht ($2). Working the bar was Nung, my favorite cocktail waitress from the last few trips. She always remembered me, was very attentive, and brought me my favorite drink. She has short hair and the Thais call her a “tom,” for tomboy. Anyway, when she found out it was my last night she brought me a T-shirt and bought us a round of drinks. The cocktail waitress informed us that “him” had paid for the drinks, motioning back to Nung.
After cocktails we headed over to Mr. Good’s. I had had a brief bout with Buddha’s revenge earlier but was now fully recovered and ready to go wild on seafood. Mike and I used to stay at a really modest hotel right next door, which is how we discovered the place. On my first trip, before I was even Premier Executive, I flew in on a paid business-class ticket (only $1149 at that time). I think I was the only one paying to be in business-class who didn’t get upgraded, so the United flight attendant had presented me with a bottle of Dom Perignon from first class. On that trip, Mike and I drank the Dom right here at Mr. Good’s with some excellent seafood. So we have good memories of the place and United Airlines made a good investment of a $80 bottle of wine, since I’m now a loyal 100,000-mile/year flyer.
We ordered four yummy shrimp spring rolls and eight oysters on the half shell which were served with an assortment of sauces. That was followed by two rock lobsters Thermidor (lobsters excellent, cheese sauce just OK) and the prize of the evening, six giant tiger prawns batter-fried with dipping sauce. These prawns weighed 150g each! The total for this feast, including a 650-Baht bottle of Chilean chardonnay, came to 2600 Baht ($70).
The only thing we hadn’t done that I wanted to do was play the pound-the-nail-in game with the girls at one of the zillion outdoor bars lining the side streets of Bangla Road. We found one immediately. This game involves using the chisel end of a hammer to pound a nail into a stump, one stroke at a time. These girls who work at the bar are experts at it. I did better than I remember, actually hitting the nail a couple of times, but I need a whole lot more practice to play in their league. One more nightcap at Smokey Joe’s, heartfelt goodbyes to Nung and to Karen, the American part-owner, and we were ready to sleep in and catch our 11 a.m. car to the airport tomorrow.
The ride to the Phuket airport took only 40 minutes over the nearly complete death-defying superhighway, so we arrived in time to switch to the 12:10 flight to Bangkok. This was no problem for the agent at the Royal Executive Class counter. I’m really stunned by how few people, having paid hundreds or thousands of dollars to get here, don’t fly business class domestically for the extra $13. Probably they are so used to business class being exorbitant that they don’t even ask.
Our flight to Bangkok is again on the Airbus 300 widebody with 48 business-class seats and a large number of coach seats behind the curtain (allegedly—I’ve never actually been back there). Newspapers, hot towels, and water/tea/juice service once again come with alacrity. All was well until we started revving up the engines for takeoff. After briefly rolling forward down the runway, the pilot quickly throttled down and braked. Mike and I turned to each other. “Uh-oh.” “That can’t be good.” Sure enough, the pilot announced that we would be returning to the gate because of technical problems.
Since there was another flight leaving in an hour (our original flight), Mike and I decided to get off. “Change flight?” The stewardess asked? “Yes, change flight,” I replied. That became our password as we wove our way past an army of Thai Airways employees down the stairs, into a waiting bus (which drove the 50 meters to the terminal), up stairs, and back to the gate. They put us back on our original flight one hour later, changed our connection to Chiang Mai back, and moved our baggage. “Why are they letting us do this?” Mike asked. The delayed flight left just a moment before ours, but we felt safe. A mechanical problem like that could easily have mushroomed into a much longer delay. At least three Thai Airways agents were working on our problem, which is in sharp contrast to any US airline where one agent would be working on the problems of 50 people.
We got the front row of the new plane, also an Airbus 300, and this time the front row didn’t have the slightly narrower seats that the flight down had. They were the same size, although the front row had no footrest. It did, however, have a private video monitor in addition to the main projection TV. Lunch was a breaded chicken in white wine sauce served with carrots, green beans, and potatoes. It was tasty if uninspired, although I was hoping for more of that Phad Thai. As on the flight out, they showed as short documentary (or “documentation” as they called it) in honor of the King’s auspicious 72nd birthday. They don’t pass out headsets, so the whole audio program goes out over the PA system at a volume just to soft to hear clearly. I didn’t catch the whole thing, but the upshot was that the King was very generous and loved the Thai people because he traveled around the country and visited them even though he wasn’t required to. Of course, the fact that he lives in Bangkok might have something to do with his desire to travel.
We arrived In Bangkok about five minutes late. Mike and I made a short detour to the Thai Airways checkin counter to make sure our United numbers were on the tickets. They were. So we headed to the Royal Executive lounge only to be told that our flight was already boarding. We took the back route to security, passed the Clear Gun without it going off, and went through the checkpoint. The Thais are really into form, but it often lacks substance. I have a metal business-card holder that beeps like a banshee when I forget to take it out before going through. But when I beeped, they simply ran the hand-held scanner over me. It went off in both pockets, but they just waved me through without checking to see what made it beep.
So we proceeded past two Burger Kings to gate 66 and boarded our 737-400 to Chiang Mai. We were once again in the front row. Thai has 12 business-class seats in the 737 as contrasted with United’s 8. There was no video. This flight also had no meal service, but it wasn’t due to the length of the flight, but rather the time of day. They did, however. Come around with an assortment of foil-wrapped snacks. I chose the “crispy baby clams Thai snack.” It was good. I wish United would serve this because it’s a high-protein, low-carb snack, but I don’t think I’d be in the majority.
After a short 55-minute flight to CNX, we deplaned at the small airport (the crew held the curtains closed so that coach passengers couldn’t even think about pushing their way forward until we had exited) and awaited our bags. It was less than five minutes before they came, and our bags were among the first five. Our luggage tags had our old flight information crossed out and the new numbers written in in crayon.
A taxi to anywhere in Chiang Mai is 100 Baht ($3) in a nice air-conditioned car. I went to the Westin Riverside Plaza where I was greeted very pleasantly and checked in. I used a UA 50% off coupon to get a rate of $70 per night. The agent ran after me after checkin and remembered to collect the coupon. The bellman recognized me from last year’s trip with TripTalker and Hunnybear. He escorted me to a fabulous room on the 20th floor. This room had four large windows with a 180-degree view of Chiang Mai, including the mountain. I had a river view last year, but really it was nothing special, so I was happy with this. The room had no Heavenly Bed, but there was a nice fruit bowl with two place settings awaiting me. The bathroom was enormous with a separate tub and shower and a useless alcove with a statue of some Thai woman. Here’s the best part: the bathrobe was embroidered with “Starwood Preferred Guest”! I went for a treadmill run at the health club before dinner.
Mike and I had been looking forward to returning to the best Thai restaurant in Chiang Mai, Galae, an outdoor place at the base of the mountain. They have a table roped off permanently reserved for the King. He wasn’t there tonight, but we had an assortment of delicious northern Thai dishes accompanied by a bottle of French Bordeaux with the preposterous name of Chateau Canteloup. It was fine and arrived in an ice bucket. Each Thai restaurant has only one person who knows how to open wine bottles, so they always present you with the bottle for your inspection, then take it away out of sight. It returns opened, and for all you know it’s been drained and substituted with Chateau Bangkok Sewerwater.
Tonight they were playing Christmas music. Don’t ask why. So we listened to The Little Drummer Boy played on traditional Thai instruments as we ate a very spicy beef dish, deep fried shrimp, and Phad Thai that was almost as good as the airline food. Fortunately they segued into easy listening after “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and we ate a delicious pork panang to the tune of “Feelings,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and “Juantanamera.” The bill came to 1400 Baht ($38) for the two of us, including 790 for the wine.
To get to this restaurant you need to negotiate a round trip with the taxi driver. Fortunately Mike speaks fluent Thai. If I had to do it myself I would ask the concierge and it would cost more than the 400 Baht ($11) Mike negotiated. The driver took us direct to the Night Bazaar, which I think has the best crafts in Thailand. There are lots of interesting wooden things that you don’t see in Phuket or Bangkok. The place is surrounded by tiny bars, and we had a nightcap before taking a tuk-tuk back to the Westin, calling it an early night because tomorrow we are climbing the mountain.
Wat’s new, pussycat?
Mike showed up at the prearranged time of nine o’clock with sun block, mosquito repellent, and two large bottles of drinking water. We went down and tried to get a tuk-tuk to the zoo, which is at the base of the road leading 11 kilometers uphill to Wat Suthep, the magnificent temple atop Mt. (Doi) Suthep. The tuk-tuk drivers were out for blood this morning, though, as they sometimes get at large tourist hotels, and wanted 150 Baht for a trip that should have cost only 50. So we walked around the corner and hailed a red truck instead.
Tuk-tuks in Chiang Mai are blue triangular vehicles built on motorcycle chassis. There is a bench that can hold three people in back, a driver’s saddle with handlebars in front, and a canopy covering. Each tuk-tuk has one or more colored lights hanging from the canopy, but I was unable to find rhyme or reason to their existence. One tuk-tuk had a green one lit constantly. Another had a yellow one, also lit constantly. A third had a pink one that flashed when he made a left turn and a yellow one that never lit.
Red trucks, in contrast, are covered pickup trucks with two facing bench seats in back. They are used by Thais to go in a general direction and cost only 8 Baht each, but stop and pick up and let off passengers constantly. The driver of the red truck we took negotiated 80 Baht to take us both exclusively to the zoo after unsuccessfully trying to sell us a tour of places we didn’t want to go. Mike lamented that they didn’t seem able to tell the difference between a tourist and a white man who has lived here for 12 years and speaks fluent Thai.
We started the long upward hike, water bottles in hand. Chiang Mai was extremely hazy today so there wasn’t much in the way of view. Also, all but one of the little “vista” shelters that had been built along the road faced directly into groves of trees and so there was nothing to see. All along the way red trucks honked at us, asking if we wanted a ride. About midway we passed a construction crew. One man was sprinkling water on a pile of gravel while four others sat and talked. They said in Thai, “What are they doing? Why are they here? They are going for a walk. They are exercising. Yes, they are exercising.” Mike noted that they were able to crack it in only a couple minutes.
Motorcycles and cars were breaking down right and left, but our legs held out, and soon the wat was in sight. The last kilometer was a very steep grade, but we finally arrived at the little village of vendors at the base of the temple. Here one could buy typical Thai souvenirs and also food and drink. The one item I remember from my last visit with Hunnybear and TripTalker was “banana inside,” a waffle-covered banana served on a stick with optional chocolate syrup. As we passed the stand, sure enough the vendor droned, “banana inside!”
The climax of our journey was the climbing of the long, steep stone steps leading to the temple. There must be well over 100 steps, flanked by two golden sea dragons serving as balustrades. We could smell the burning incense and hear the ringing of the bells as we reached the top, home of a very nice wat. Even at the top, the view was blocked by thick haze. I wondered what Thailand would be like with California emission controls.
We took a red truck back to the Westin, also for 80 Baht, and were joined by a young blonde German accounting consultant on a three-week solo holiday through Thailand. She had just arrived in Chiang Mai and was scheduled to spend a week here, then go south to a small island even Mike had never heard of. She was concerned because she had never told the truck driver where she wanted to go. When he didn’t stop at the base of the mountain, Mike offered to tell him in Thai to take her to her hotel inside the old city. He did, and all worked out well.
Like many cities of antiquity, Chiang Mai was once a walled city. Very little of the ancient wall remains, however what does remain is beautiful and impressive. Where there is no longer a wall, a moat still circles the old city. Inside are a large number of wats, but also normal buildings and businesses.
We had the buffet lunch at the Westin (330 Baht = $9 each including tax and service), which was a very nice international setup with carved beef, an assortment of interesting Thai foods, some western dishes, and a nice dessert spread including banana ice cream. Coffee was included in the price. After lunch I tried to book a ticket to Bangkok for tomorrow night through the business center, but after I began I remembered that it was a tremendous hassle. In addition to the 3% surcharge they wanted to charge for use of a credit card, I had to make an appointment to see the travel agent in person so they could physically run my card. Instead, I hopped on the back of Mike’s motorbike and he drove me to a good travel agent who printed out the ticket in no time with no surcharge.
We spent the afternoon hanging out at Mike’s penthouse condo with a spectacular wall-to-wall view of Chiang Mai and the mountain we had just climbed. We decided on a Bavarian restaurant called Haus München, near the Night Bazaar, for dinner. We sat out on the patio and did some people watching as we each consumed a huge, Fred Flintstone-sized leg of pork. With a nice French Beaujolais (580 Baht), the total came to 1000 Baht ($27) for the two of us.
As we sat there, we saw a police officer dressed like a commando trooper and a parking attendant dressed like a field marshal. The Thais love uniforms. The doorman at the Westin is dressed like an admiral and salutes me whenever I come in, smiling broadly all the time. In addition to the commando uniform, the police must have a dozen other types of uniforms. The forest service workers on the mountain were dressed in full camouflage, like soldiers. Amazing Thailand.
We spend the rest of the evening barhopping but didn’t stay out too late after our exertions. Tomorrow we climb another mountain…using a rental car.
The Highest Point in Thailand
Mike and I had arranged the previous day to rent a car from North Wheels. The price was 1300 Baht ($35) for 24 hours, including pickup and delivery. At 10:30 sharp an agent met us in the lobby of the Westin Riverside Chiang Mai to drop off the car and take a credit-card impression and copy of my passport and driver’s license. I checked out, noting that local calls were 10 Baht (25¢) each regardless of length. This seems to be a standard throughout Thailand. The bellman loaded the luggage into the car, Mike and I climbed into the red Toyota Soluna, and we headed off.
The Westin is near a road called “the superhighway.” That’s the actual name of the road, which at least for the part we traveled over is a two-lane road under construction. Just before we reached the airport, we turned left and headed for Thailand’s tallest mountain, Doi Inthanon. It was about an hour’s drive over typical Thai highway (mostly two-lane) to get to the base of the mountain. The English signs disappeared as soon as we left the tourist area, and indeed there was nothing much other than the houses and shops built right on the roadside for most of the trip. Beyond them were rice fields, marshes, and greenery.
The highway was well regulated with universal traffic-control devices which the Thais gleefully ignored. One particular intersection had a traffic signal with green arrows pointing ahead and to the right. But both directions of oncoming traffic had both arrows lit simultaneously! That would work fine if people drove on the right here, but they don’t, so anyone following the advice of the right arrow would be directed right into the stream of oncoming motorcycles, farm vehicles, and vegetable trucks.
From the base of the mountain it was another 45 minutes drive up an extremely well-marked and well-maintained road to the summit. We passed through two military checkpoints manned by forest-service workers in camouflage. I thought we were going to have to pay some sort of admission fee to get in, but they just waved us through. Maybe we were the one millionth customer. Just before the top of the mountain were two stupas—ornate Buddhist towers—containing holy relics. These were constructed by the Thai Air Force (I guess anything above a certain altitude is their responsibility) in commemoration of the auspicious 60th birthdays of the king and queen. Any birthday that’s a multiple of 12 is auspicious, but the 72nd, which the king recently celebrated, is doubly auspicious. The air was quite thin here at an altitude of 2280 meters.
Some kind of gathering of military bigwigs, or possibly parking attendants, was here today, so men dressed as MPs kept directing us to park in different places. We climbed about 100 steps to visit one of the two stupas, which had a wonderful view. It was great to see Thailand without the smog.
We went on to the summit, 2565 meters. There was a sign there saying “The Highest Point in Thailand,” but the sign was not actually at the highest point. A few steps higher is a shrine to a former king, built right on the very peak. An adjacent peak is home to a radar station, and a sign warns that taking photographs of the radar station is forbidden. Mike said they are probably worried about the Burmese gaining insight to this advanced technology so that they can use it to their advantage as they invade by bicycling through the mountain passes.
Just below the summit was a visitor center and nature trail. The trail was beautiful and quiet, and since tigers have been hunted to extinction on Doi Inthanon in the last 40 years there was no danger other that running out of breath climbing up and down the stairs or getting clothes caught on the barbed wire that prevents people from leaving the wooden walkway. A sign here said that this was the “gateway to the Himalayas.” As breathless as we were just from this small hike, Mike mused at what kind of trek the Dalai Lama must have had when he fled Tibet.
Mike asked the forest ranger, dressed like a Green Beret, what other sights we could see as we made our way down the mountain. He suggested Mae-Ya Falls. We followed the signs, which took us quite a bit further than we expected, this time over a much lower-quality road, one lane in many parts. We once again reached a military checkpoint. This time we did have to pay 50 Baht ($1.35) admission. Doi Inthanan’s highest waterfall was quite spectacular, falling 280 meters over 30 tiers. It’s a 500-meter walk to get from the parking area (populated as always by vendors) to the falls. We just had time to enjoy it briefly before we headed back to have dinner before my flight to Bangkok. Curiously, we were stopped again at the checkpoint on the way out. Mike thought they were going to charge us more money. I thought perhaps they were going to refund some because we hadn’t stayed very long. Neither. The commando just stamped a few things on the ticket and handed it back to us.
On the road back as we approached Chiang Mai we discovered Thailand’s solution to rush-hour traffic jams. Policemen wearing orange vests and white face masks and gloves stood at nearly every intersection, frantically waving their hands to instruct drivers to continue driving in the same direction they already are going. I found it quite distracting. We filled up with gas at a Shell station, protecting my long-time investment in Royal Dutch Petroleum, for 215 Baht ($6).
Despite Chiang Mai’s ever-present traffic jam, we reached the Westin at 5:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before the restaurant opened. That was enough time for a drink. I ordered a Long Island while Mike decided to sample the Mai Tai. (You just have to say “Mai,” because you’re in Thailand.)
Dinner was at the China Palace, and the menu (but not the prices) reminded me of the very overpriced China House at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. We ordered hot and sour soup, Peking duck, and Ma Po Tofu, which was not on the menu. The Peking Duck was an amazing production: the chef came out with a huge meat cleaver and removed the skin in front of us. He was assisted by three waiters plus the headwaiter (who waited on us personally throughout the meal) supervising. In Thailand, unlike America, the duck is served in two courses: first come the pancakes with skin and scallions, flavored with hoi sin sauce. Only after that is finished do they bring the duck meat, which has been cooked with vegetables and oyster sauce. I prefer the American way, with huge pancakes and duckmeat in the sandwiches.
The food was very good, although I suspect it contained quite a bit of MSG because my brain felt puckered later. We drank the house red wine, which was advertised as Australian but came out French. The bill came to about 1500 Baht ($40) including tax and service, about half for the wine. They did a tremendous job of serving us in the one hour I had requested and I was out the door at 7:02. I was supposed to meet the car rental agent at the information booth at CNX at 7:30.
The short drive to the airport took less than 20 minutes despite the traffic, and marked my first attempt to drive in Thailand at night. Other than almost taking out a motorcycle pulling out of the Westin parking lot, I did pretty well. Upon reaching the airport, though, I missed a turn and ended up at some kind of VIP military terminal, or possibly employee parking for parking attendants. A dozen Thai men dressed as British colonial officers, actually carrying swords, climber into a minivan right in front of me. Admirals, generals, and women in all kinds of different-colored matching outfits streamed like ants through the drop-off loop. I had to throw down a move to get to the exit lane, but fortunately my Boston driving experience came in handy. A Seattle driver would still be sitting there, turn signal flashing plaintively.
I found the parking lot, took a ticket as instructed and pulled into the first space I could see. It was 7:28. When I got out of the car I realized that I had double-parked behind another car—I didn’t notice because this was the only car in the area that no one had yet blocked in. I furthermore realized that this was actually bus parking, which was why the spaces were long enough to double-park in. The buses, unable to park in their spots, stood in rows behind the cars, leaving just enough space for the cars to get out—at least a few of them. If this had been Seattle, SWAT teams and legions of tow trucks would be there, outraged and on the attack. In Thailand, though, things work themselves out.
The agent was not at the information booth, so I checked in at the Royal Executive counter and quickly got my boarding pass. I returned to the counter and waited another five minutes before the agent arrived. “Where you stop car?” “Stop car near bus.” “Near bus?” “Yes, near bus.” “Tank full?” “Yes, tank full.” Hertz Rapid Return has nothing on this, let me tell you.
There is no Royal Executive Lounge in Chiang Mai, but your business-class ticket does come with a coupon for a free non-alcoholic drink at the bar or restaurant. Thai Airways stopped serving alcohol domestically two years ago, and that includes lounges. I got a mineral water and soon was boarding flight 121 to Bangkok.
To my delight, this flight was on a 777. Only 17 of the 42 business-class seats were full, but coach was pretty packed. They configure this aircraft in 2-4-2 in business and 3-4-3 in coach. The seat was noticeably narrow, which would be a bit uncomfortable on a long flight for someone like me who’s a couple of kilograms overweight. The seats did have footrests and personal videos, although the only program on this 55-minute flight was the airshow. They came by right away with hot towels, drinks, and newspapers (no meal because of the time of day) and soon we were docked in BKK at gate 68.
My bag came off quickly, but after a little Boston terrier puppy riding in a carrier. I found the taxi line and remembered that at the domestic terminal you can get a cab for only 50 Baht more than the meter fare, while at the international terminal they soak you for a flat rate of 500 Baht. When we arrived at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, the police had put up “No U-Turn” signs at every intersection, so we couldn’t get to my hotel on the other side of the seat without going 20 Baht out of our way. Still, at 280 Baht including the surcharge and the tolls, it was the cheapest taxi ride I’ve had yet in Bangkok.
The people at the Sheraton welcomed me back and gave me a nice room on the 30th floor. I think there was a river view, but it was hard to tell as I arrived after dark and left before sunrise. Waiting for me, in addition to the fruit bowl and two bottles of water, was a plate full of bar-shaped cookies. Unfortunately, also waiting for me was a four-inch winged cockroach, prowling the bathroom floor like a lion pacing in his cage. Normally I’m not squeamish, but there’s something visceral, hardwired in the ancient reptilian part of the human brain, that sent me as if magnetically propelled to the extreme far corner of the room, where I hit the speed-dial button on the phone and called for help. Moments later, a Thai butler came wearing a green vest and bow tie, carrying a broom and covered dustpan with handle, and speaking perfect English. He scooped the unwanted visitor live into the dustpan, peered in to verify he was there, and apologized. “This is a problem in Bangkok for five-star hotels,” he said.
I thanked him and tried to connect to the Internet, but I couldn’t get an outside line. Once again I called for help. After a couple of unproductive conversations with the operator, who also spoke perfect English with a hint of a Creole accent, they sent up another butler. He tried a few things and finally had them connect up a direct line for me. I knew if I started to read FlyerTalk I’d be up for another hour, and it was already almost midnight, so I just sent Hunnybear some email, ate the rambutans and sapodilla, and bunked in for the night. I had a 5 a.m. wake-up call.
Pizza for breakfast
Five a.m. came very early today, but two of the three alarms I set went off and I was downstairs on schedule at 5:20 to get my taxi. I asked for the meter rather than the flat rate of 350 Baht since I knew from last night that it was only a 150-Baht trip plus the tolls. This morning, in light pre-dawn traffic, the driver took the expressway but not the tollway, saving me 30 Baht. We arrived at the airport at quarter to six. The trip cost only 185 Baht ($5) including the toll. I gave him 200 and wheeled into the terminal.
International departures was divided into two terminals. Terminal 1 was for Thai Airways and terminal 2 was for everyone else. United was at the very left end of terminal 1. Passengers had to pass through luggage screening before checking in. There was a long line at the x-ray machine right in front of United, so I went to one of the other ones that had no line. Then, once inside, I wheeled over to a sign at the UA counter that said Premier/1K. They asked me the security questions, put stickers on my bags and e-ticket, and showed me to a business-class checking line. “1K checkin?” I asked. The agent gestured once again to the business-class checkin line. So I went and stood behind a Japanese businessman waiting at an empty counter for about five minutes. After that time, when no one had even talked to the guy in front of me, I want back and insisted that 1Ks were allowed to check in with first class. The agent went and verified that, then nodded and gestured to me to go across the aisle to the FC checkin. I had a brief wait there before I was waited on.
I had reserved seat 10F, the back row of the front business-class cabin. But when I got my boarding pass, as expected, it had turned into 11F. The planes with First Suites have no row 10. So I was in the bulkhead row right behind the galley. I had no time to visit the RCC, let alone the Thai Airways Royal Orchid Lounge, because the flight was already flashing “final boarding” when I cleared the exit interview. So I went directly to the gate. One of the stickers from security had transferred itself to my sleeve as I walked over, which the Thai girl asking the second round of security questions found incredibly amusing. So I took it off my sleeve and stuck it on her arm. She found that amusing too.
The heat was blasting full bore as I entered the 777. I joked with the steward that I didn’t realize we got a complimentary sauna. He said I should see the massage afterwards. These guys are always flirting. My seat opponent was a fit-looking middle-aged man with a pony tail who turned out to be a consultant for staged fights. He was down at Phuket FantaSea, a dinner show, teaching the Thais how to fight realistically.
The movie selection on this flight was kind of poor. I started watching a silent movie called Sunrise but got bored quickly. Breakfast, served on Noritake china, was a ridiculous choice of “breakfast pizza” (pizza with some eggs thrown on top) or chicken blobs. I ordered the chicken, which was so overcooked as to be difficult to cut with a knife, let alone edible. This was the worst meal I’ve ever had in UA business class. They changed the chicken out for me for one that was slightly less rubber but still inedible. Finally I asked if they had any eggs in coach. Well, talk about saving the day: the business-class purser brought me a delicious omelet-stuffed-croissant with black mushrooms from FC. Later in the flight we got a tiny plate of cold, overcooked shrimp. At least it was edible. Salt and pepper were served in paper tubes resting in a cheap plastic cone. Dessert was “mocha mousse,” a tasteless, gelatinous hockey puck that was mostly air. The only thing that was any good was the Médoc. I fired off a letter to UA as soon as I got home telling them that I considered both the selection and quality of this meal unacceptable. If I want bad service, I’ll fly Northwest. Fortunately, with tailwinds this leg took only five hours and 10 minutes.
The continuation of flight 876 to Seattle was at gate 28B, in the new part of the terminal. I went to the UA customer-service counter there, which had an agent working but a sign saying “position closed.” I went around to the side and was acknowledged in spite of that. She told me that the flight was delayed an hour because of the incoming aircraft. I showed my 1K card and asked if I could wait in the first-class lounge, but once again I got the party line. The RCC in this part of the terminal was newer but still very cramped with not enough work carrels. I grabbed the only empty one and went on line for the entire two hours until they announced boarding.
When they made the announcement, I went down to the gate and saw a huge line. I went up to the counter, showed my ticket to the agent, and said, “business class.” She gestured to the long line. I wasn’t about to wait in some long line just to get on a bus and wait, so I stood where I was and then noticed that a flashing sign above the door said first/business on the left and economy on the right. So I walked through the economy line and went right on to the left of the ticket taker. They crammed us all onto the same bus, though, and we arrived at the airplane after coming very close to a JAL 747-400! We waited until the 11 FC passengers had exited their private bus, then went in. I had the same seat with my same seat opponent for this leg.
As always, when there is any kind of delay, UA cancels the preflight drink service. I find this ridiculous. Thai Airways serves drinks, newspapers, and a hot towel to every business-class passenger on every domestic flight no matter how short. On this flight I got nothing before departure, not even newspaper service, even though I was sitting in the plane for 20 minutes before the door closed.
I had my third obento meal of the journey. It was once again excellent. A crusty gray-haired old stewardess, when I mentioned that it was my favorite meal, said that she didn’t like them (like I cared) and that they cost UA $25 each (like I should be impressed). I told her I appreciated it. Service was perfunctory on this leg. I’ve had much better business-class service on the Atlantic routes, and I suspect that Pacific service in business class is worse in general. I certainly didn’t come away glowing and eager to fly United again like I did on my three BC trips to Europe last year.
One thing that was an improvement on this leg was the cheese plate. The brie and cheddar were both sharp and tasty. I saw three good movies on this flight: For the love of the Game, The Hustler, and Patch Adams, which was good because I wasn’t at all sleepy. After the meal service, the flight attendants pretty much stayed in the galley for hours and hours, ignoring the passengers who were awake, but responding quickly to the call button. I’ve become less and less shy about using the call button instantly whenever I want anything. But I would prefer more attentive service for sure.
Breakfast was served before we touched down in Seattle. I had a pretty good omelet with mornay sauce. Upon arrival, the stewardess thanked us for flying “the friendly skies.” I always like that, but she was really dating herself. Customs was a breeze and my bag was the first one off! Due to increased security, they made us go through double-secret metal detectors on our way out of customs! I guess they’re worried about people taking weapons out of their checked baggage and hijacking the airport or something. Pluto was waiting to meet me, a welcome sight, and he drove me home where I now had to stay up another 12 hours to get back in sync. Hunnybear came home and made me a yummy swordfish for dinner.
This was my fourth visit to Amazing Thailand, and I just like it more and more. I showed Hunnybear the pictures I had taken with my new digital camera, some of places she had been and some new to her. I always come back with a glow that shines through even beyond my sun tan. I appreciate the Thai people and their playful, no-worry way of being. And I remember that the Thai word for “thank you” is .
© 2000, Richard Brodie
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