It is easy to shop til you drop in Bangkok but it can be an overwhelming experience in the heat, with the number of people on the streets and the choice on offer. Siam Paragon is a very modern high-end mall with all the designer labels and a big department store if you have big bucks to spend. It is actually worth visiting just for the fantastic open-plan food level with a huge choice of eateries including sushi, burgers, pizza, bakery and some very cheap Thai meals in the food court canteen which looked popular with locals. The supermarket seems pretty expensive though perhaps catering more to wealthy expats with money to burn on brands they recognise.
Opposite this mall is the Siam Center which has more high street clothes shops.
The Suan Lum night bazaar (nearest station Lumphini) has a great atmosphere with open-air bars and live music, definitely for tourists not locals but you can haggle and there are some good quality stalls and little boutiques run by small local designers and artists among the tat and souvenirs so you can find some unusual crafts and clothes. You can also get a foot massage or a fish spa and get a good cheap meal in the central food court. The night market at Patpong is not as seedy as you might think but only really sells the tourist tat like logo T-shirts and fake watches. You will be offered entry to a ping-pong show several times but the touts don’t hassle you much and there is nothing offensive on the street it’s all behind closed doors so you might just see a glimpse of a girl in a bikini. There are a couple of good shops offering the better standard of copy if you’re in the market for a fake handbag but they’re fairly arrogant about the value of their merchandise and start negotiations at inflated prices so it can be hard to make them budge enough to really get a real deal.
The main market experience in Bangkok is undoubtedly Chatuchak (also called JJ’s) which is only on at weekends. You can get the Skytrain to Mo Chit or use the Metro. It is an amazing sight to behold and hard work on a hot day but there is so much to see and Thai families come for a day out so it’s not just for tourists. There are plenty of weird and wonderful things to buy and eat. The fresh coconut icecream is delicious! Another place you can buy anything and everything but with aircon is MBK which is a huge shopping centre not far from the others at Siam but in a very different style. It is set over seven enormous floors and is more like an indoor market with hundreds of small shops and stalls and although you can get a map to help you navigate it would still be easy to lose track of time or the will to live if you’re not a hardcore bargain hunter. If you want to get round a few of these shopping areas, it is definitely worth getting to grips with the Skytrain system to avoid the traffic but the taxis outside the rush hour are fairly cheap as long as you make sure they use the meter which some drivers refuse to and quote a set rate upfront.
991/1 Rama 1 Road Pathumwan Bangkok 10330 Thailand
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MBK Center, 444 Phayathai Rd., Patumwan, Bangkok
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We paid 1400 Baht each (£28) for the full day countryside tour. Our tour guide Piu was sweet and friendly with good English but a bit shy and we would have liked her to talk and explain more along the way without waiting for us to ask questions. We boarded the train in Bangkok after a quick look round a local market to kill time and picked up our bikes at the other end which were in need of a good service but did the job. No helmets are provided. We were never cycling for more than 20 minutes at a time with frequent stops to look at local herbs and plants, try fried bananas from a foodstall and look at a temple. There were bottles of cold water provided and refreshing chilled wet wipes. We didn’t see another tourist all day which made a nice change but we didn’t have much chance to interact with the villagers we came across and expect they are very used to seeing Westerners on bikes as the same route is used every day. We had a lovely home-cooked lunch in a Thai house but ate separately from the family. We went on a Saturday so missed out on visiting a local school which was a shame but some local kids still came up to talk to us. It is a long day but if you tot it up, 3-4 hours in total is spent waiting at the station and then on the train which does feel a bit of a waste of time. In hindsight having travelled to other parts of Thailand and Cambodia this now seems on the expensive side for a day trip bearing in mind what you get for your money but you are helping the local economy and also paying for the privilege of an experience you would be hard pushed to do independently. If you are on a city break for a few days and want to do something different and get out into rural Thailand it is ideal but if you are travelling further afield for example to Chiang Mai then you will find far more lush countryside as around Bangkok the landscape is flat and full of paddy fields.
As holidaymakers rather than backpackers, we decided to get the overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai instead of flying, more for a different experience than to save money. We got the 1935 train which arrives at 0945 and as First Class with a private berth was full, we got tickets for the open-plan Second Class carriage costing 841 Baht each (about £17). You book two seats that face each other in a booth with a table then later in the evening a guy comes round and converts both those seats into a lower bunk made up with a sheet and blankets then pulls down another bed which is stored in an overhead locker and has a ladder to get up there but no window. They will ask at the station which combination you want and it is worth booking one up/one down so that you have your own curtained off area on one side of the corridor and can both sit on the lower level together if you are not ready to go to sleep when they turn the lights out. A woman comes round shortly after departure with a menu and you can order dinner. We paid 150 Baht and got soup, main course with rice and fresh pineapple slices. It is all lukewarm and in plastic bowls with clingfilm over so not exactly gourmet cuisine but felt like part of the experience washed down with a bottle of cold beer. You can also order breakfast but we took croissants with us. It is not warm on the train so take a fleece and it rattles along the tracks so earplugs would be a good idea. We didn’t sleep well with the noise and fairly cramped conditions. The shared bathroom is basic with a hole in the ground for a toilet. We were glad we had booked a flight onto our next destination as it’s a long, fairly uncomfortable journey but felt like an adventure!
This is an upmarket backpackers guesthouse popular with all ages. We paid £13 a night for a double room with aircon, ensuite, TV, fridge, free wifi and a small balcony with views towards the mountains behind. The house has character with murals on the walls and quirky decor. Our room was very spacious and homely. The bathroom was wetroom style and fairly dated and well-used but clean with a good hot shower. It is in a very central location but set back from the busy street so feels like a welcome retreat. There is also a huge roof terrace with sunloungers and a four poster bed where you can chill out. Staff are friendly and helpful and don’t push tours and trips but do offer both. They also own a massage shop across the road which is very cheap and a really relaxing environment with experienced trained masseuses. I paid 150 Baht (£3) for a head, shoulders, neck and back massage but was given this pyjama outfit to wear and had my whole body worked on for a full hour and came out floating on air! The room rate doesn’t include breakfast but there is a café next to a small swimming pool on the ground floor. Thai food was good and better value and taste than the Western menu. We actually went just along the road to another café for breakfast run by a lovely tiny lady called Eing who makes the most amazing banana pancakes!
7 Ratchadamnoen Road, Lane 1, Thapae Gate, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
We had booked a day trip online in the UK and paid a deposit with the total settled on the day. It cost £50 each but was worth every penny and genuinely does help sustain the charity. You can also walk into their office to book in Chiang Mai and organise a day trip or stay for longer as a volunteer which looked really tempting when you see the location and the accommodation. This is a great way of seeing Thailand’s elephants while learning more about their history and current conservation projects as opposed to seeing them begging in the street or hauling tourists around and doing tricks. The day trip was very well organised with structure but also allowed time to relax and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and incredible view of elephants wandering around the surrounding landscape. You are picked up from your hotel and the drive takes about 1h15 from Chiang Mai and you watch a video about the park en route. You get right up close to the elephants who all have names and stories. Visitors can feed them fruit then go into the river and wash them which turns into a big water fight! There are lots of opportunities for taking photos and the tour guides who really seem to care about the animals can answer any questions. The reality of the plight of some of Thailand’s elephants is made clear in an interesting if at times distressing documentary and the hope is that visitors will help spread the word. There is a fantastic fresh buffet lunch as well as free tea, coffee and water during the day and snacks in the afternoon. I would highly recommend the experience to anyone who loves elephants or wants to experience ecotourism at its best.
We paid 700 Baht (£14) for a four-hour evening class from 4.30pm which is plenty of time and doubles up as your evening meal. The school is based in the centre of town and you walk to a local market to look around and learn about ingredients such as herbs and vegetables. It feels as if you are cooking in someone’s home as it is very informal and also not a modern building with immaculate surroundings so don’t expect spotless new classroom facilities but there is enough equipment to go round so you’re always involved. Our session was split into two groups of about eight students. We were given an apron but a word of warning, wear socks as you remove your shoes on entering the house and hot oil splashing out of a wok hurts when it lands on your bare feet! Health and safety is perhaps not the main priority as you are given a big knife to work with and aren’t ever told to wash your hands before handling the fresh ingredients so I just made sure to pop to the sink between courses. We each chose which four dishes to cook from the menu and my husband and I chose different options to give us a wider repertoire and more to taste although you are given a good colour cookbook with all the recipes anyway. We made starters of spring rolls and fish cakes, a soup, a stir fry and a curry including fresh paste. You each make a portion for one then return to the dining table after making each course and eat together with the group which is sociable and gives you the chance to try other dishes. Some of the prep is done in advance by the staff but you still chop vegetables and herbs and learn how to assemble each dish following step-by-step instructions from the tutor. It is easy and really just cooking-by-numbers and requires no skill or experience. The teachers are doing a job and obviously run through the same process repeatedly so it’s not a labour of love and they don’t have an obvious passion for food or desire to share more knowledge about the dishes but it is a fun activity more than a serious learning exercise. We hope the authentic ingredients are available to buy in the UK so that we can recreate the Thai meal and show off to friends and family. The food did taste delicious and the class was an enjoyable way to spend an evening.
A fantastic find but the taxi driver didn’t know where it was so we drove down Street 240 for some time. Look out for a red and white sign saying BOOKS and also a sign for Naturae which is the healthfood shop and café in the same building where you are served a lovely continental breakfast with freshly squeezed juice. We paid $50 which included a $5 per night discount at their suggestion as our room had suffered a leak from above so there was some discolouration on the ceiling. The design throughout the shop and rooms is funky and modern with bright accent colours. Our room was light and spacious with dark wooden furniture, flatscreen TV, free wifi, kettle and a big walk-in shower in the bathroom. We were delighted with the terrace area which was larger than expected especially the promised plunge pool which was a long deep trough easily big enough for two to stretch out and cool off. It felt like a real oasis after a hot day in the busy city. You can also use the pool in the sister hotel, The Pavilion which is just round the corner. This would be more suitable if you want a full hotel service and perhaps reception staff with better English but the 240 is ideal for a city break. The style of the property epitomises the street it is named after which is full of chic and contemporary boutiques and cafes with a real cosmopolitan feel which we were surprised to find existed in Cambodia.
This hotel cost more than other accommodation we chose while spending three weeks on holiday in Thailand and Cambodia at $110 per night but was money well spent and felt like a real treat. Any hassle or stress was taken away with careful thought and faultless customer service as our every need had been considered and included in the room rate. We were collected from the bus station by a driver with air-conditioned car and taken to the airport at the end of our stay. A tuktuk driver was assigned to us for the duration and we could call on him all day and throughout the evening for lifts into town or to visit the Angkor Wat temples. Dawud was friendly and attentive with good English, telling us to relax and enjoy our holiday and waiting for several hours at times while we went shopping or on a boat trip. On arriving at the hotel to check in we were given cold flannels and refreshing lemongrass tea. The outskirts of Siem Reap away from the main tourist streets are scruffy with lots of litter. The hotel is a short drive out of town but walking in through the gate you find a leafy calm oasis in colonial style with tasteful décor and attention to detail. The swimming pool is small and simple with a waterfall wall. Our room was large with a ground floor balcony, stylish furniture, a modern bathroom with rain shower, flatscreen TV and free wifi albeit with a low signal. The bed had a mosquito net probably more for romantic effect than genuine need and at turndown they left a bedtime story each night which was a sweet touch. It was a haven to return to after a hot day exploring. Breakfast was excellent with fresh fruit, yoghurt and gorgeous home-made chocolate brownies! They used lovely local crockery and the buffet was kept clean and refreshed throughout service with a further option to order hot food cooked to order such as an omelette. Each table was given a plate of four croissants daily which we always took with us for later as they made the perfect picnic!
This is a small resort overlooking the sea with white-washed villas set around gardens and a tiny but attractive pool. It isn’t as polished perhaps as some of the bigger corporate hotels but that is part of its charm. There are various villa types and prices but none are basic boring hotel rooms and they range from about £35-65 per night. They are minimalist in design but with quirky touches and individual character. All the rooms are named after starsigns and we stayed in Taurus which had real wow factor with huge floor to ceiling windows and a private roof deck and we also had a couple of nights in Libra which was a cosy seaview and had a balcony, small lounge area and a massive bathroom which was half inside half outside so you could shower in the sunshine or under the stars! The rooms have a flatscreen TV and DVD player and wifi is available but charged at around £2 an hour with pay-as-you-go cards at reception. The staff are friendly especially a girl called Moi and they can organise trips and tickets but don’t pressure with you any sales patter. They also looked after our luggage when we went away to Koh Mak for a couple of nights and arranged a breakfast box when we had to leave early to catch a flight. The restaurant is slightly more expensive than others in the area but offers a good menu and a lovely location on the water’s edge where you can hang out in hammocks or sit at tables. A good buffet breakfast is also served here and included in the room rates. Warapura is good value for money as it offers a little luxury without charging a fortune. The resort isn’t directly on the beach but you can take a kayak out or walk along the road and reach Lonely Beach in ten minutes. We were pleasantly surprised and impressed with the area which we knew was popular with backpackers staying in basic bungalows. Despite having a reputation for wild parties, the atmosphere was really chilled and laidback with a slightly scruffy hippy feel and plenty of cafes and bars to suit everyone.
4/3 Moo 1 Koh Chang, Tahi Koh Chang, Trat, Thailand 23170
We spotted this restaurant driving past one evening and were very impressed with the authentic tasting Italian food. So many of the tourist restaurants offer the same boring menu and you can tire of Thai food and look forward to other flavours so this really satisfied that craving. The menu includes woodfired pizzas and home-made pasta plus desserts which can be hard to come by apart from fresh fruit so instead you can indulge in tiramisu, ice cream, pannacotta and chocolate cake. Delicious with friendly service and reasonable prices. Main courses are £5-7 which is pricey for the area but worth the extra money for the quality of ingredients and standard of cooking.
Kai Bae Beach
We flew into Trat having booked a hotel on Koh Chang hoping to find out once we got there how to make the transfer as it wasn’t one of the posh resorts who send a van to pick you up. It couldn’t have been more straightforward as there was a desk at the airport where you could book one ticket at a fixed fee that included an air-conditioned minibus to take you to the port and onto the ferry then drop you at the door of your hotel on the island. It seemed to be a monopoly as there were no other options available. Tickets were 470 Baht one way or 800 Baht return. It took an hour to reach Koh Chang then the journey time depends on how far along the coast you are staying. If you are arriving in Trat by bus, you can get shared taxis and minibuses to the port then board as a foot passenger and pick up another shared ride on the other side.
We only had a few days in Siem Reap but wanted to see more than Angkor Wat so decided on a different day out and were so glad we did. There are various organised tours to visit floating villages but many are said to take you to places on the Tonle Sap lake which are now overly touristy and therefore not very authentic. We got a tuktuk to drive us to a point where we could pick up boats for Kompong Phluk which is only accessible by water. Even the drive out of the city and through more rural villages was interesting and took about 30 minutes. We reached the pontoon where the boats depart and paid $20 each at an office where it looked like a visitor centre was being built. We had the whole boat to ourselves and only saw a few other tourist boats during the day. You travel up the river and reach a village where all the houses are on stilts in the water. It was fascinating to see how the local people lived. We then paid a man $5 to take us on a canoe and paddle through a flooded forest which was amazing and so peaceful and calm. Then we headed back into the village and saw children playing in the water and paddling home from school in canoes. Everyone was very friendly and didn’t seem to mind us being there as hopefully tourists help the local economy. We were taken to a local house which had set up as a restaurant and paid $5 each for a nice fresh lunch. The only downside to the day was on the return leg on the boat when we stopped at the temple and school which would have been a highlight had we not felt pressured by hawkers trying to sell us stuff. They approached us as soon as we set foot on the banks and then followed us round asking us to buy a bundle of exercise books for $6 or a pack of pencils for $3 saying they would be given to the schoolchildren to help their education. Other tourists seemed to have fallen for the scam, not realising it was just a money-making scheme as there is no way the materials would have cost that amount of money and even if the stationery ended up at the school, the cash was destined for the pockets of the local women who were peddling it. Enterprising maybe but we felt it spoiled an otherwise pleasant day out. We made an offering in the temple instead and would rather have given a cash donation directly to the school so be prepared and perhaps bring stationery supplies yourself instead. Otherwise we had a wonderful day out with an incredible insight into another lifestyle and the total round trip from Siem Reap took about four hours.
We booked the Mekong Express bus to travel from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It cost $11 each and was easy to sort out by taking a tuktuk to their office on the riverside. Buses do get booked up so don’t risk just turning up on the day. It was a fairly old coach but had aircon and a toilet and so we travelled in comfort. The journey takes six hours with a 30 minute stop at a nondescript town about halfway which is obviously where all the coaches stop based on the tourist restaurant full of Westerners which served basic local food at inflated prices but was still a better option than walking round a grotty looking town and being hassled by beggars including some with grubby-looking young children which was upsetting. We had been given a bakery box containing a couple of things we didn’t fancy eating and had already had breakfast at the hotel so like many other passengers we gave ours to the people who crowded the coach door asking for money. A cheap way to get from A to B if you want to save money by not paying for an internal flight and popular with all ages not just backpackers. You also pass through plenty of local villages with stilted houses so get a chance to see some Cambodian countryside away from the main tourist hubs and busy cities.
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