Getting bang for your buck in Bangkok

Max and Jenny Williams do a ‘quickie’ tour of Bangkok.

max and jenny williams on a rooftop restaurant in bangkok

We arrive at the quite modern Suvarnabhumi International Airport at a sensible hour, fresh from an eight-day resort stay in Khao Lak Thailand, and excited about our upcoming ‘quickie’, three-night stay in Bangkok.

We hop on the skyrail from the airport direct to the city (about 25 minutes and 35 baht each – about A$1.50). Modern, seamless and runs every 15 minutes or so – how good is this? Melbourne, get your act together. As one of the world’s most liveable cities, we still don't have rail access to the airport, after 47 years. Melburnians and travellers alike (35 million a year use the airport) are still puzzled by this lack of vision.

Back to Bangkok – I remember visiting 20 years ago when there was no rail access from the airport or around the inner city. The roads were clogged and the exhaust fumes formed a layer of unpleasant black smog that hung low over the city. Although many people say it’s ugly, the above ground public transport network (rail, road and skyrail) has significantly improved Bangkok’s infrastructure. The flow of traffic seems bearable and the air pollution is minimal for a city with a metro population nudging 15 million. During the day, the sun is actually bright for our whole stay.

Taxis are cheap and are abundant as are the tuktuks. It’s probably better to get a metered taxi for medium distances. They are air conditioned and have relatively conservative drivers – unlike the tuktuk drivers (negotiated fare, usually more than taxis).

tuktuk bangkok

The tuktuks are basically motor bikes with colourful open covered boxes made of stainless steel on the back and are much smaller and more manoeuvrable than taxis. Tuktuk drivers seem to have a death wish. A lot of their machines are hotted up, with large exhaust systems that emit deep burbling sounds of which V8 owners would be proud. Their mission is to get to a destination as fast as possible, seemingly crossing as many lanes and zebra crossings as they can and swerving and weaving in and out of traffic. They brake hard at every opportunity so that you can test the strength of the chrome bar behind the driver’s seat with your teeth. It doesn’t seem to matter that they scare the crap out of you. Despite all this, a tuktuk ride in Bangkok is a must (so long as you don’t mind white knuckles and your travel insurance is up to date)!

We check into our five-star Banyan Tree hotel that we booked through Luxury Escapes – and at $699 for three nights, it is a great deal. It has all the trimmings: spa credits; the use of the Living Room, a relaxing space that provided complimentary, all-day light beverages and snacks; a daily cocktail at the Vertigo bar (60 floors up); a superior room on the Club floor section and late checkout. The facilities and service are certainly at a five-star level.

We are the only people on a private, five-hour Multicultural Market tour we pre-booked through Viator (a TripAdvisor company) but with a WithLocals guide. It cost us $36 each, which is very good value, but we still have to pay for transport and lunch. We are met at the hotel by our guide ‘Meow’, and take a short taxi ride to the Chao Phraya river, then hop on a local ferry to the flower market, five stops upstream.

The ferries fly coloured flags – local orange, tourist blue. We take the orange option and are loaded onto the ferry. A guy up the back blows a whistle that sounds like a bastardised version of a Boatswain's call to indicate to the driver what to do. The short toothless lady collecting money and/or tickets (15 baht, about 60c one way) bellows out instructions as she makes her way through the crowded boat. We look at each other and laugh at this comical scene. As soon as the last person is on, the whistle blower does his stuff and we are off – no longer than 20 seconds from go to whoa!

bangkok market

The tour continues and we walk through mostly local areas with no tourists. We wander through genuine silk stores – evidently most of the tourist markets sell fake silk. We slowly make our way through four blocks of the covered market which sells the usual cheap stuff for the locals. We have lunch in the Indian sector in an upstairs emporium where you purchase vouchers to buy food from the stalls. Apparently, this voucher system ensures an equitable rental system, but I’m not sure how that works. The food is really good and cheap, and we are now energised enough to cope with the heat (36°C and humid) and the next part of the tour.

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    15th Jul 2017
    Great story and everything spot on in description. We were in Bangkok in March on a sImilar Luxury Escape and thought they are just the best packages available. Love Bangkok and hope to visit again soon.
    15th Jul 2017
    Good luck with the climate. Great for Queenslanders maybe.
    15th Jul 2017
    Good to see a happy ending to your stay
    15th Jul 2017
    Just go. Beautiful climate rain or shine. Distance from, say, Betong near the Malaysian border to Mae Sai on the Myanmar border would be a couple thousand kilometres, that and the elevation of the north western border area can see a climatic change from equatorial to, well sometimes even cool.

    Great train journey Betong to Bangkok (though you will by-pass a lot of wonderful parts of thailand. Excellent buses from their north to Chang Mai/Chang Rai or Nonghai/Vientiane but there is so much to do and the driving so good that you will find a car or 4WD handier.

    On driving. You can get a local licence for I think it is 1 year only (while residents get 10 years) and that is OK but take an international licence with you by preference as you can spend a half day getting the Australian embassy papers then working through the Thai licencing system.

    Thai road statistics are not very happy but if you take a moment to invest yourself with the local driving nuances driving can be a good experience and satisfactorily safe. Elements like the coundown monitors on traffic lights mean that nearly everybody obeys them. Police who are armed and historically have not all been above corruption or some violence couldn't give a bugger if you drive past them a bit over the speed limit as long as you appear to be doing so in a safe manner. Liberties and precautions of those types make you wonder what a free country should look like... even the word Thai is said to equate somewhat with the term "free man"

    The country is industrialised, modern in outlook has an economy probably around the 20th largest; it seems to have ways of ensuring that its few problems have little impact on most. The country, customs and food are an intense pleasure to mingle with. Thai are relatively well-educated, they are well-fed and have good access to knowledge and communcation. Back and forth between civilian and military rule it has remained an outstanding example of enlightened monachy.

    Despite the bogans mentioned in the article, Thai manage to remain enormously hospitable to Australians. Be there.
    16th Jul 2017
    I enjoyed reading your story but felt I should add that it is possible to have a wonderful holiday and/or stopover short stay in Bangkok without it costing an arm and a leg. Perhaps the most significant thing, for me, is that at Terminal 21 a multi-storey mall you can go to the 5th floor and eat in Pier 21 which serves traditional Thai street food for an average price of 40 baht and watch it being prepared for you - and if you want a longer stay Airbnb have a multiple supply of condiminiums which are very cheap especially if you stay for a month as I did and will again in September while attending the 19th International Dance and Music Festival - concerts sponsored by the embassies represented in Thailand and really giving one 'bang for your buck'
    And fortunately it appears that the army is going to allow Thai street food stalls to stay - they are amazing and a great way to meet locals!
    Have actually stayed at the Banyan Tree hotel, back in 2001, when I was able to get a suite for $25.00 American a night and enjoyed the views from the rooftop, without eating!

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