Our trip started with a 4:15am wake up at a hotel near the Portland airport. We had a 7:00 flight and spending the night at a hotel the night before is preferable to a 3:00 wake up at home in order to make the drive.
We were flying Korean Air which doesn't fly to Portland so we had an Alaska flight to San Fransisco. It went well, Alaska is one of the few airlines that I like. We then had a 2 hour layover and boarded our flight to Seoul.
My last flight to Seoul was in 1996 when I was on my way to my one year tour in Korea at the end of my enlistment in the Army. I remember the flight as being pretty miserable even though I lucked out with a bulkhead seat. Part of that was that I was smoker at the time and things like nicotine gum and patches were prescription only. It was also before I found out about the benefits of Ambien on long haul trips.
We flew Korean because it was inexpensive, our tickets were $400 cheaper per person than our tickets the last time we went to Thailand in 2010. It also has a reputation of providing pretty good service. Our flight was on a B747-8. I can't remember the last time I was on a 747. They are somewhat unique because after you board and walk by the lucky people in business class (they call it Prestige class) you walk by a staircase that goes to the upper level. I. In this case it looks like it is configured as part of the galley.
The service is very Korean. Very formal, orchestrated and polite. The stewardess (they are all young women) are dressed in outfits with rather ornate scarves and stiff bows in their hair.
All of this would be great if we were in the seats that I thought we were in, on the windows. Instead, we ended up with the middle middle seats. The plane has a 3-4-3 configuration and we were in the middle of the 4 middle seats, with a Korean gentleman on either side of us. The legroom was ok, but shoulder room was difficult.
I took Ambien, and was barely able to sleep for about 3 hrs. I watched a few movies, wrote the previous paragraphs, but was mainly miserable. The flight just seemed to drag on. As time went on, time seemed to continue to slow. I don’t understand how people can have jobs that require regular long-haul flying.
Last summer I was at a conference and talked to a guy who was an executive with one of the largest IT services company. He described his previous week. The US to London to Dubai to Australia and the back to the US. All in one week, and it sounded like he had weeks like this on a monthly basis. His company paid for business class which would make it more tolerable (and what did these flights cost - $40k?) but not something I could ever do.
We finally landed at Seoul Incheon. It is a rather new airport and very well ranked – I think it normally appears in the top 5 airports in the world, not that we had much time to explore. We landed and little early and I think we ended up having about an hour and a half on the ground before we took off on our final flight.
The last leg ended up being 6 hours. We again were on a 3-4-3 configuration, but this time we at least had seats on the aisle. So while I ended up next to another couple Shannon at least had the aisle. Not that it was a great flight for her. She hadn’t slept on the previous flight and the moment she fell asleep on this one the stewardess woke her up for food service.
The Seoul to Bangkok leg was on an Airbus A380-800. It was our first flight on one and I not been so exhausted, I normally would have gotten pretty excited. I didn’t even mention the fact to Shannon until I started writing this.
The A380 is the largest passenger jet in the world. The first time I saw one a few years ago I was in a 757 or something similar and we taxied next to it and the way I just described it to Shannon was that it was like I was in a Honda Fit and we pulled up next to a lifted F-350. It is the reverse of the time I was taxiing into one of the New York airports and we pulled up next to the Concord. That was like being in a mini van and pulling up next to a Ferrari. The A380 is two levels the entire length of the plane and can hold 535 passengers in a 3 class arrangement (which is what we were in – and I had to look this up, I am not quite that much of an aviation nerd).
Shannon and I got up to use the restroom and I walked back first. We were in the far back of the plane and I went it to the restroom and walked out and Shannon was standing there and told me that they had a store. Sure enough to I walk into what I thought was a galley and there was a duty free store. On both flights they had pushed duty free sales pretty hard, which is now common on a lot of international flights, but on this they had display cases so you could see a number of the things they had for sale.
We finally got into Bangkok just after 11:00. At that point we had been in the air for about 21 hours. It was a really long walk to get out bags. We finally end up finding the right carousel (we went to another Seoul flight first) and waited quite a while for all of the golf bags to come off first. I had realized that we were at the wrong carousel when all that we saw come off were golf bags and I look sound and see nothing but men. We then went to the right one and all that was coming off was golf bags too. I don’t know if the trend had started the last time we were in Thailand, but one of the things I figured out is that a new trend has started since I was stationed in Korea and that is golf vacations to Thailand.
Golf is ridiculously expensive in Korea and I mean truly astronomical. Every inch of flat land in South Korea is either built on or farmland which means there are basically no golf courses. The few that do exist are members only and when I was there 20 years ago it was $500k-1 million to join. I am guessing now it could be $5 million. Golf was, and I assume still is very popular, but back then playing golf meant going to a driving range. Most people who ‘played’ had never actually been on a golf course.
I think in the mean time someone figured out a very lucrative business model. Fly Korean men to Thailand to play golf. Charge the rates that by Thai standards are expensive but relatively modest by Korean golf cost standards and then stand back and watch the money roll in.
We got our bags, went through immigration and customs and grabbed a taxi. The taxi has sticker on both of the back windows that were just odd. The no guns and no hand grenades (didn’t know they had a problem with those here, Cambodia sure) There was one with a woman who had a leash with a man on all fours attached, another with a woman off of American mud flaps with musical notes new her butt (Shannon figured out that it was no farting) and then there was another with the same woman and a hand reaching out to fondle her (that one actually makes sense with some of the stories I have read about men and Thai prostitutes).
Speaking of Thai prostitutes, the hotel that we stayed at was in Sukhumvit, which is in the modern commercial center of Bangkok, and is across the street from Soi Cowboy which is one of the red light districts in Bangkok. When we checked in there was a westerner who was checking in a bar girl so he could take her up to his room. She gave the hotel clerk her ID card, which they photo copied. It's odd but it makes sense to me.
I had no idea if many of the prostitutes are thieves but having a copy of their ID would remove almost any chance of that happening. I will never understand Thai culture as they we very conservative in their dress, they do not show public displays of affection and yet they are ok with prostitution.
We finally turned off the lights at 1:30. The next morning I was awake around 7:00 and Shannon shortly thereafter. Adjusting to other side of the world time zone changes takes both of us 3-4 days. It can be pretty miserable at times, even with the assistance of Ambien.
Our hotel and room was nice. Everything in the hotel was white and most of it was marble. The hotel was the Grande Centre Pointe and it is in the same building as the Terminal 21 mall. Malls may be dying in the US but they are not in Thailand. Terminal 21 is new since we were here in 2010. Last time we were here we stayed in the same area at the beginning of our trip at a smaller hotel just down the Soi, or side street. I like this area of the start of the trip. When you walk out of the hotel in the morning you definitely know you are in a very different place. It is overwhelming.
This isn’t a nice quiet little area. This hotel, versus the one we stayed at last time, is right on Sukhumvit road and you walk out into a mass of people. It is in an area known as Asok, which is the major cross street on the other side of the hotel from the Soi, Soi 21. It is an area where the BTS, elevated light rail, and MTS, the subway, converge. It is the best spot in Bangkok for public transportation. The BTS is concrete and so Sukhumvit is totally covered by it.
It smells, in the way only SE Asia smells. It is hot and humid. Traffic at this intersection has been in a total traffic jam for probably the last 15 or 20 years. Taxi drivers roll their eyes and silently curse when you tell them Asok is your destination. It feels like you are stepping into Blade Runner.
I am a big believer in choosing hotels most of the time based on location. I would much rather be near the sites or in a neighborhood I like than stay at some hotel because of the amenities. There are exceptions to this. The 14th century converted convent on the outskirts of Evora, Portugal, Apartment Baltazar in Dubrovnik because Evo was the best host ever, the Edgefield in Portland because what isn’t great about a McMenamins with the 8 or so bad scattered across the property.
We left Portland Saturday morning and went to bed at 1:30am on Monday. We just had Monday and Tuesday in Bangkok. Those 2 days we spent out of our time in the malls on Sukhumvit. There is one in particular that we like that I think is unique as we haven’t seen another one like it anywhere else.
The mall is called MBK. It is 7 floors and contains 2,000 stores and restaurants. It has some of the things you would recognize like Burger King, Dairy Queen, Starbucks and Pizza Hut. Most of the shops are really more like kiosks and parts of it as really like a market. You can buy just about anything there except it doesn’t have a lot of the fresh food. But you need a locksmith, massage, Chinese medicinal herbs or any sort of inexpensive clothing or electronics they have it. Several of the floors are focused on a specific type of item like clothing or electronics.
Shannon didn’t bring a lot of clothes on this trip and planned on buying stuff at MBK. From one vendor who had a space that was probably 8’ x 15’ she bought 6 skirts/dresses for less than $40. On Monday for lunch we were looking for this food court they have and thought it was on the 7th floor. We didn’t find it but there were a number of other restaurants, including both western and SE Asia chains (Swenson’s is a SE Asia food and ice cream chain as one example). We were hungry and lazy and had Pizza Hut. Tuesday we went back to find the food court and went to the 6th floor and it was there but there was an international food buffet. We went to 5 and did find it.
We also went to the same food court on our last trip and ran into the same issue as the first time. I forgot that the stalls don’t use cash. You have to any fist and put money on a card and then you use the card to pay for your food. We went to a stall that sold Thai food, we got our food and then went to pay and the guy working pointed out the place we needed to pay. I didn’t know how much it was going to be so I put 300 baht on the card which is $8.34. I had 3 different Thai dishes and rice and Shannon had 2. That was less than $4. We had fresh fruit drinks which were a couple of dollars and then I get a steamed pork bun because I wanted to try it and still have about $1 left on the card. I could have gotten a refund but it works well as a souvenir.
We also went to several other malls. The big trend in Thai malls these days is themed Zones. ‘Summer’, ‘Winter’ ‘Rainy’ were the themes in one, ‘London’, ‘Istanbul’ and ‘Paris’ in another. The designs in the zones we then built around the themes. They also tend to put a number of similar types of stores together. Banks, cell phone carriers and other electronics were all normally grouped together.
Siam Paragon is the swankiest mall with the top designers – Prada, Versace etc. One of the Siam malls has an aquarium. Central World has an ice skating rink. Several of them have the same stores in most malls around the world. The Body Shop, Carhart (slightly different clothes than we get in the US, I think they figured out places like Thailand don’t need heavy winner coats) H&M, Zara are all there. In many cases in several of the malls. It isn’t any more than a few miles between MBK at one end and Terminal 21 at the other but there are several of the biggest world wide chains spread out across the malls. I have never been in an H&M or Zara in the US but I have in Croatia. I have bought items online from Uniqlo which I would describe as a Japanese Old Navy but had never been in a store until Bangkok. The most interesting item that is hot in more ways than one in Bangkok malls right now are the puffy lightweight down jackets. I don’t now why anyone would ever purchase one here as I don’t think the temperature ever drops below 60 and even then that low is rare but there were on sale everywhere.
We did buy a few things. I bought a different wallet to carry, more of a pub really that I can fold up bills, throw in a credit card and keep change in. I also bought a padded case for my iPad mini. Shannon bought a bag to carry around. There are some of those design items that we regional companies that we don’t see in the US. Nicely designed and inexpensive.
The other thing that we needed to get were local SIM cards. I bought an Amazon Fire phone late last year as my Amazon Prime membership was coming up to renew and for $140 I got a year of Prime ($99 normally) and the phone. Not a great phone but for $41 dollars I can’t complain. Shannon has my old iPhone 5s. Just so that you now how much the carriers overcharge us to data we both got SIMs on the Thai carrier DTAC for 49 baht for the SIM and 300 baht for 12 GB for 30 days. That is $9.73. And we also got unlimited wifi at the carriers hotspots around the country. Not bad.
Monday night we went to Patpong. It is interesting in that it is both a red light district and a night market. You can buy a fake Bose Bluetooth speaker and go see a ping pong show (If you don’t know what a ping pong show is you can Google it).
We then went to bed. I woke up at something like 3:00 the next morning and somewhere around 3:30 I heard a light knock on the door and after we didn’t answer the phone rang. I answered it, but they hung up. They then called again and it was the night manager wanting in because the smoke detector apparently went off on their master panel. We then end up with the night manager and 2 other guys who come in with a ladder and do something with the smoke detector. Shannon was not happy. I was already awake so it didn’t bother me as much.
I was able to sleep for a while, but not a lot after. We went out to the malls on Tuesday and then Tuesday night went to Asiatique. Bangkok used to have another better night market that has been shut down and the land is being developed. In the meantime, they have opened a large night market/entertainment districting the Chao Phraya river that runs through Bangkok.
We took the subway to the river and then caught a free boat to Asiatique. They have a late Ferris wheel, a ladyboy show, a Muay Thai fighting show, restaurants and stalls filled with vendors. It is slightly interesting in the way that the malls were interesting, but not as good as the authentic market, even if it is a tourist market, was.
Wednesday we were up before 7:00 for a busy day of travel. First was a flight from Bangkok to Surat Thani which is a town south of Bangkok on the peninsula that runs from Thailand, down through Malaysia and then to Singapore. Surat Thani is the gateway for the low cost carriers in this part of the country. We were flying Air Asia, which we have flown before. And by low cost I mean low cost. They charge for everything and even after
We got to the airport just in time to check in before our deadline, make it through a very fast security check (we flew through the old airport Don Muang which is domestic only and so security was like pre 911 US – shoes on, liquids are ok in your carry on) and a quick stop at Starbucks before we went to our gate only to be told that we had to hurry all the way across the airport because the gate changed. We make it to the new gate as they are making last call announcements and walk out to stand on a bus to be taken to the plane which is sitting on the Tarmac. We wait for 15 or 20 minutes on the bus as other people slowly trickle in. Then they drive us to another part of the airport and have us get off and walk on the plane. This flight was just over an hour.
We land, get our bags and find the place to catch a bus to the ferry terminal. We are the last people on that bus and it takes off. We then had an hour and a half bus ride through small towns across the Thai peninsula. The bus was a double
We finally got to the ferry terminal. Mixed traffic, trucks, cars and mopeds below and passengers in the middle deck. We had an hour and a half ride on the ferry during which we able to watch a very bad Thai music competition show whee all of the lead singer of the bands wore sunglasses and had women dancing behind them. With one act the woman had pillows. It was very, very bad.
We finally arrive at Ko Samui, the island we will be at for the next week. We got a taxi and went to our hotel. Ko Samui is rather large. We arrived at the southwest corner of the island and our hotel is at Chaweng, which is on the northeast side of the island 15 miles or about 30 minutes away. We got to our hotel at 2:30, an hour earlier than planned.
I will write more later about our time on Ko Samui.