I was in Bangkok last month for the 15th International Congress on Infectious Diseases (ICID), a biannual event which is THE conference to attend for ID people in the Asia Pacific Region. The first time I visited Bangkok was in 2008 when I attended the 13th ICID and I had great memories from that trip – free wifi at the hotel, great food, good company, awesome learning experience in the conference, heavenly massage and of course, near-orgasmic retail therapy (I went with one luggage and came home with three!).
This time, naturally, I expected more of the same – I even extended my stay in Bangkok by an extra day just so I could see the sights, something which I could not do on the previous trip. The venue was the same as in 2008 – at the Grand Centara Hotel which is located on top of the Central World in the heart of Bangkok city, a mega-mega mall, reputed to be the largest in Asia. Unlike my previous visit, this time I stayed at the venue of the conference itself rather than at the Amari Watergate Hotel which is a stone’s throw away.
I would like to share here the good, the bad and the ugly experiences I had this time round in Bangkok.
1. The 15th ICID conference
The good: With participants numbering in thousands, I must salute the organizers for pulling off the event quite uneventfully. I had a grand time listening to world renown speakers sharing their expertise as well as interacting and catching up with all my ID chums who happened to be at the conference as well.
The bad: There were quite a number of speakers who did not turn up for their presentations resulting in 11th-hour cancellations of some sessions. Also, the distribution of conference rooms could have been better – some rooms were packed to the brim and beyond while others were mostly empty during the concurrent breakout sessions. The daily servings of just pastry for tea/coffee break with no variety could be improved.Wifi access was non-existent in many of the rooms in the conference venue.
The ugly: None.
The good: The checking in was awesome – we were seated at the lounge and presented with a welcoming drink (much needed after a horrendous flight and drive through the traffic-choked streets of Bangkok!) before being personally helped with the checking in process by a really sweet young lass. There was free wifi (mainly available in the lounge). The room allocated to me was cosy but a little small (but hey, I can’t complain – how much space does a bloke need?). The channel selections on the TV was good. The gym was awesome and so was the sauna facility.
The bad: The supposedly free wifi in the rooms were hopeless. There was no toothbrush nor toothpaste provided (pretty pathetic for a 6 star hotel!)! And if I have to iron my clothes, I had to request for an ironing board which they will deliver but won’t remove until I prompted them 3 days later! The newspaper delivery to the rooms was inconsistent. The daily fare at the restaurant lacked variety.
The ugly: I was served by an evidently drunk concierge who reeked of alcohol and could barely stand up when I was asking for directions to the palace. He was hanging on to the concierge counter for dear life and he held on to my iPhone for an eternity while staring at it blankly when I showed him on my phone the places I’d like to visit, while mumbling incoherently. In the end, some one else took his place.
The good: This shopping complex is humongous! I could not finish browsing through all the shops located within this mammoth complex.
The bad: Unfortunately, stuff sold here were pretty middle-to-high end and so, for cheapskates like me, the retail experience here wasn’t all that satisfying. I also noticed that Bangkok (BKK) cashiers are terribly slow – this malady seems to be very prevalent at just about any nook and corner of BKK. It took me 30 minutes to make payment for an adapter (I forgot to bring one and the electrical plug points in BKK are not 3-pin-plug friendly) at one of the shops in Central World although there were no one queueing up at the time! The food court in this complex was on the high-end side, with a sandwich easily costing anything between THB 160 – 200!
The ugly: None.
The good: We had dinner on the first night at this place, which is a short distance from the hotel by car. It was like entering a different world altogether! We were greeted with welcoming drinks and plenty of ‘Sawadeeka” greetings and then ushered into a beautifully landscaped garden, not unlike any of the beautiful gardens in Bali – lots of exotic plants, stone and wood icons, fountains and ponds. There was traditional Thai music playing in the background and there was even a young lady dressed in traditional Thai costume performing a dance gracefully. I wish I have such a garden at home! Dinner was awesome, although it could be spicier. And the dance performed by 2 dancers (portraying the love story between a dragon and a fish) was really good.
The bad: The goods sold at the retail shop was incredibly expensive. Imagine paying THB 600-800 for a small silk purse!
The ugly: None
The good: This is the place to go if you are hard pressed for time and cannot make it to the Mecca of Retail Therapy (i.e. Chatuchak Weekend Market). The place is located right under the Amari Watergate Hotel in the shell of what used to be a shopping complex. The area contains more than 500 tiny shops tightly cramped together selling anything from glittery costumes for stage shows to fake hair, cheap but reasonable quality clothing and accessories. Prices here are so cheap, you’d be ashamed to bargain. The urge to splurge can be hard to resist here. I brought one of my colleagues here and in 3 hours she spent well over RM 1000!
The bad: The place badly needs ventilation and is definitely a fire-trap!
The ugly: None.
Mention “Patpong” aloud and chances are you will receive some “dirty looks” from people. This area is famous for the night market and infamous for the many go-go bars lining each side of the night market. The place comes alive as soon as the sun goes down and doesn’t rest until the wee hours of the morning, especially on weekends.
The good: For me, it was a good experience to finally see what Patpong is all about. We went in a group after dinner and literally did a tsunami walk through the night market while trying to avoid being repeatedly confronted by pimps and touts trying to get us to enter any one of the go-go bars. We exited the night market in a record time of 15 minutes and went for a Thai massage instead before settling down in a nice cafe for drinks before returning to the hotel.
The bad: The stuff sold here are priced exorbitantly! Imagined an obviously fake pair of Aussie Bum boxer was selling for THB 800!
The ugly: This has to be the girls working in the many go-go bars there. We did manage to peek into some of these establishments while doing our tsunami walk and what I saw was sad. Young skinny girls, dressed only in under garments that did not cover very much skin were dancing on a small stage holding on to steel poles in front of a big crowd of leering and lascivious losers. I am told the girls would perform stunts involving cigarettes and ping-pong balls and their pelvic muscles. Very very degrading indeed.
7. Thai Massage
IMHO, there are 3 things one must indulge in when one is in BKK – Thai Food, Retail Therapy and Thai Massage! Compared to the price in Malaysia, the Thai massage in BKK are relatively cheaper: between THB 250 -500 per hour. During my stay in BKK, I had a few sessions of massages – foot massages and full body massages – and they were all heavenly.
The good: Thai masseuse really know what they are doing. At no time did I feel like my back bone was gonna snap into a thousand pieces when they do the twist-and-turn thingy with my body.
The bad: One establishment that I went to did not have properly insulated walls and I could hear the ‘boom boom boom’ from the pub nearby. It wasn’t very relaxing mentally.
The ugly: None.
8. Thai Food!
What could possibly be bad about Thai food?! Enough said.
The good: It’s the place where every outed or closeted shopaholic which they would wake up to from death. It’s Retail Paradise! This paradise is 27-acres in size and houses more than 15,000 stalls – which makes the Pratunam market seems like a grocery store! The market only opens on weekends and sells anything and everything that one could ever possibly imagine or desire and at very affordable prices too! I bought most of my stuff from here. If you only have one weekend in BKK, this is where you should be!
The bad: None.
The ugly: None.
Like Patpong, mention “Silom” and you might get the sly look from others. Silom is famous for 2 things: its night market and its many gay-friendly establishments. Like its counterpart, there are a few male go-go bars here as well which features the male versions of the go-go girls and I am told, they also performs stunts involving the extensive use of the bulbocavernosum and bulbospongiosum! There are also quite a few massage parlours here offering male and female massages.
The good: The night market here comes alive after dusk and sells heaps of stuff – from good quality imitations of (mostly) male undergarments, to cheap T-shirts, handicrafts, sex toys (yes, you read that right), books, porn and non-porn DVDs and other knickknacks. The Aussie Bum boxers I mentioned earlier are sold for only THB 100 a piece.
The bad: None.
The ugly: Same as for Patpong.
Thai people walk slow. Very very slow – as if they have all the time in the world and because the pavements are so narrow on the streets of BKK, I often found myself huffing and puffing in frustration walking behind these slow walkers. Gaargh! – until one of my colleague told me to “Chill la! You are on holiday, for goodness sake!” and thereafter I made a conscious effort to slow my pace down.
Nevertheless, I just wish they would walk a bit faster!
12. Taxi and Tuk-tuk Drivers
The good: I am told that taxi drivers are supposed to use the meter and some really do and they charge the registered amount on the meter without making a fuss. Some taxi drivers don’t but they are also equally nice about it. The guy who fetched me from the hotel to go to the airport told me that he will not use the meter but will instead charge me THB 400 for the trip, to which I readily agreed because I was told that the actual fee is much higher (around THB 1000).
The bad: Unfortunately, some taxi drivers do not use the meter but quote really unreasonable prices. We had to fork out THB 120 per taxi for the short trip from Patpong back to the hotel only to find out later that the trip should cost only around THB 30-40.
The ugly: My worst experience was with taxi drivers who steadfastly refused to take me to my desired destination because they want me to go elsewhere. I had wanted to visit the palace on the one last extended day of my stay in BKK. The concierge at the hotel told me that a taxi could take me directly to the palace for THB 100 after which I could take the local boat ride down river and see the temples along the way for THB 25. Unfortunately, none of the taxi guys I approached was willing to take me direct to the palace! Instead, they insisted on taking me to the jetty downstream where I must then get on a tourist boat for a princely sum of THB 2000 per person to see the same sights! I am told the taxi drivers all get a cut from the people working the boats. In the end I didn’t get to see the places I had wanted to see and wasted a day!
The other bad experience was with a Tuk-Tuk driver who fetched my colleague and I from the Pratunam Market back to Central World (a distance of less than 500 meters) which involved squeezing through on-coming traffic and in between cars and buses along the way and he charged us THB 200! As we were heavy laden with the fruits of retail therapy, we had no choice but to give in.
13. The BTS and self-help tellers
To compensate for the traffic-choked roads, Bangkok has an extensive artery of elevated walkways for pedestrians which linked the many stations of the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS). I found the BTS to be an extremely convenient way to travel from one touristy spot to another in a relatively short time at a reasonable rate.
The good: People actually line up (unlike unruly Malaysians) while boarding or exiting the trains.
The bad: People, people, people! Too many people walking in too man directions (not to mention slow walkers!)
The ugly: The BTS stations have the most un-tourist-friendly system ever! In order to purchase a ticket from the automatic teller machines, and if you do not have enough coins (the machines do not accept notes!) you must first go to the manned counter nearby to exchange your notes for coins (the counter do not sell tickets!!!) and then head back to the automatic tellers, queue up and when your turn comes, insert your coins to buy the ticket! How dumb is that?! Why can’t they have machines that take notes as well as coins? And why can’t the manned tellers sell tickets?!!! It’s beyond comprehension!
Another unpleasant experience with automatic tellers in the city was when I had to top up the phone credit on my iPhone (I had bought a local SIM for THB 99 when I first arrived. No one could tell me how long THB 99 would last me but I soon found out that the data allowance lasts only 3 days or so with my internet usage – facebooking, email checking and occasional Google Map use). Unfortunately, the automatic teller only had instructions in Thai language! And when I sought assistance to top up my credit, I received an earful (expletives in Thai I expect) from the lady nearby – obviously berating me for being such an ignoramus (you see, everywhere I went, everyone thought I was Thai!). Taking money out using the ATM in the city was an equally trying experience although with a little bit of imagination, I eventually pressed the right buttons.
In a nutshell, my trip to BKK this time opened my eyes to the darker side of the city but I still love the place! I’d like to go back again and maybe spent an entire weekend in Chatuchak Market!
I’m wanna share with you here a hit back in the 80s – when it first hit the airwaves, there were plenty of hoo-hah over it. Now it’s all but forgotten but to me, it has a very catchy tune (and scandalous lyrics) and I found myself humming the song whenever I think of Bangkok!