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Thailand Archives

With certain exceptions, our travel style involves cheap and cheerful hostels, cozy apartments and hotels at the inexpensive end of the scale. (Our Tripadvisor reviews tend to be biased toward our more expensive experiences, as I haven't reviewed many of the cheaper places.) Yet we've wandered through a few fairly nice hotels, either because they were attractions in themselves or out of pure curiousity. In the unlikely event that I one day try to re-experience this trip with a budget two orders of magnitude greater, these are the places that I'd love to book.

I should note that these are not necessarily the nicest hotels that we know of in any given city, but the best that we've seen on this trip. For example, if I could stay for free at any hotel in London, I'd rather see what the Savoy is like than the Metropolitan. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever been amazed by any hotel so much as I was by the Taj Falaknuma in Hyderabad, where you can quite literally sleep like a prince. For reference, I've included some prices of the nicer, lottery-winner level rooms.

La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco (Churchill Suite, ~$2,200/night): Located near the medina (and only a few blocks away from our current apartment), La Mamounia looks less Moroccan and more European than its website suggests. Wandering through its halls, the colonial influence is easy to discern, but this is classic colonial, not a cookie-cutter continenal hotel. In the evening, when the hurrying throngs have whipped up enough dust in the market to inspire previously unknown allergies, La Mamounia is a clear, quiet and clean oasis. We dropped by to try a drink at the Churchill Bar, which was both overpriced and somewhat disappointing: despite displaying several nicer brands of alcohol, a Manhattan with a price tag over $20 was mixed with Four Roses. Setting aside the mediocre drinks, the Churchill and Italian bars are both elegant and comfortable, and I was impressed by the attentiveness and professionalism of the staff. If you're looking for a "low-cost" way to enjoy this location, the Sunday brunch is only about $150. If you try it, tell me how it goes. (That said, we encountered a first for a high-class hotel on this trip: free wifi in public areas.)

The Metropolitan, London, England (Park Suite, ~$1,000): We stopped for a drink at the sister of the Bangkok Metropolitan after picking up our Tanzanian visas from the nearby embassy. Far from the most extravagant hotel in Mayfair, let alone London, it nonetheless has a top-class bar which continues the Metropolitan tradition of knowledgeable and skilled bartenders. Worth it just for a tipple.

The Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, India (Grand Presidential Suite, price on request, upwards of $4,350): Pity Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, who had this palace built in the shape of a scorpion (for astrological reasons), only to realize that he had gone over budget. He ended up giving the palace to Nizam VI, the then-ruler of Hyderabad. The Nizam thoughtfully gave Vikar-ul-Umra the entire amount spent on its construction, saving him from financial catastrophe.

Taj Hotels have leased the palace and converted it into an extravagant fantasy. When we dined here one evening at a family gathering, we were able to watch as one of the guests arrived. A horse-drawn carriage drove him from the gates to the front courtyard. At this point an employee--although courtier seems more accurate--hoisted a gold mace and escorted the new tenant as if he were royalty up the marble steps to reception, as another attendant dropped rose petals before him from an upper balcony. Kitschy, yes, and perhaps they only do this for certain guests, but it fits with the setting. The Grand Presidential Suite, "once the sanctum sanctorum of the Nizam himself," is the most opulent option in a hotel filled with extravagant choices, and features a private pool.


Photo by friends J & J

The Oberoi, Agra, India (Kohinoor Suite, ~$5500): The bar at the Oberoi possesses a unique alchemical secret: it can transform the most staid and ordinary cocktail into one of the best of your life. The Manhattan recipe? Take a standard combination of rye, vermouth and bitters, and serve suffused with scarlet light filtered through tall, ornate windows that frame the sunset-pinked marble of the Taj Mahal. The Oberoi's view of Agra's unquestioned wonder of the world must be seen to be believed, and only hotel guests are allowed to have their drinks served on the balcony.

Unlike La Mamounia, the Oberoi's style speaks more to Agra's mughal heritage than colonial refinement, lightly reminding the visitor that he is elsewhere rather than giving hints of the comforts of home. We didn't get much further than the bar and the opulent lobby, itself an orgy of marble and stone, but supposedly each room has its own view of the Taj Mahal.

One Stop Shop Bangkok

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Much like that of Jakarta, the upper-class and expat life of Bangkok seems to revolve around massive, icily air-conditioned malls offering both foreign brands and high-end native goods. During our month in Bangkok, Tony and I visited Siam Square at least once a week on average, whether to see "Megamind" and "TRON Legacy" on its IMAX screen or to replace some outworn item of clothing. But aside from the extraordinary queues at Krispy Kreme (I was the only person who bought a single doughnut, and the standard order appeared to be the maximum two dozen), and the comfy loveseats that were the most expensive option at the movie theaters, there's nothing very interesting about Bangkok's malls. Their near-identicality to the malls of North America is an argument for the plausibility of Let's Go to the Mall! as an international hit.

While the ratio of tourists to Thais is probably higher at Chatuchak than at the malls, I still recommend the sprawling weekend market for only-in-Thailand entertainment value. I first heard of it in a JetStar inflight magazine that offered recommendations from various cities' locals who were in the tourist business. While I never got as fond of larb moo (minced pork salad) as the PR coordinator did, she was on target about Chatuchak: "you can easily buy several items of clothing, lunch and an hour-long massage for [$50]. Massages are around 350 baht ($12) an hour -- you can't say no to such prices."

That description might make Chatuchak sound like it's just a cheaper version of a mall, but it's vastly more interesting. Set on 30 acres conveniently located near a SkyTrain station, it's divided into 29 sections where thousands of vendors sell not just clothes, food and massages, but also Buddha statues, dining tables, books and CDs, flowering plants and fruit trees... everything you'd think of wanting to take home. If I had a permanent place to live in Bangkok, I'd be furnishing my home and garden entirely from Chatuchak. Plus there's the unforeseeable items you can't find even in a Wal-Mart SuperCenter, like smoking pipes and live scorpions (for pets or for dinner). The animal section of the market must be seen to be believed: puppies, bunnies, parrots, reptiles, rodents -- any living creature that can be fit into a carryable cage or aquarium, including baby crocodiles.

The only aspect of Chatuchak that isn't 100% awesome is intrinsic to its being an open-air market in Bangkok, i.e. that walking around it can get extremely hot and dehydrating. Visiting in the early morning (around 7am) helps you avoid both the crowds and the worst heat of the day; late afternoon ought to be good as well, but some vendors already close up shop by 4pm. I have heard from other travelers to Thailand that there are cool times of the year, but late January-early March evidently is not one of those seasons, so any outdoor activity should be planned accordingly.

You're likely to see a sign like this on any form of public transport in the world.

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This, on the other hand, I've only ever seen in Thailand.

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Here are a few pictures of strange and interesting signs that haven't really fit in any other entry.

An election poster, Lima, Peru (September 25, 2010):

Forgive my cynicism, but I somehow doubt that President Obama actually endorsed Dr. Davila.

The idea of studying up for a round-the-world trip seems perverse, but now that we're on the tail end of our journey, I do wish that I'd spent a couple of months learning a few skills before we set out.

  • Photography: I didn't really understand how much help a photography course would be until we started using our DSLR. With our old camera, I could write off the inability to take good photos of certain things as a technical limitation. Now I know that my camera is capable of getting beautiful shots of the fireworks at Hoi An, the sprawling neon lights of Bangkok, or the delicate colors of a butterfly's wings in Sydney. The camera lacks an "idiot button" allowing it to take more than passable photos without my involvement, however.
  • Motorcycle riding: Especially in Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, motorcycles often outnumber cars. In Ko Chang (where we are this week), motorcycle rental is the most convenient way to tour the island. I haven't driven a motorbike or scooter since I was underage and my parents let me take a (closely supervised) wheel in the Cayman Islands. Needless to say, a mountainous island with relatively sparse hospital facilities is not the place that I'd most like to learn.
  • Spanish: It would have been utterly unrealistic to try to learn every foreign language that we would need on this trip. Southeast Asia alone has a prohibitive variety of languages. Nevertheless, a grounding in Spanish would have stood me in good stead throughout South America. At the very least, I would not have needed a crash course in Spanish numbers from Pallavi prior to my Argentinian poker game.

On the other hand, I'm glad that we learned to scuba dive before we left Texas, as it has literally added another dimension to our travels. [1]

[1] Only those with the most literal minds will think that I'm violating the Oatmeal's style guide here, in that anyone planning on flying is already intending to travel in the directions "up" and "down." (Maybe NSFW. Also, I sort of want that shirt.)

It's always fun to see what happens to "American" brands that have gone global. I think we've seen Pringles all over the world, but we've found the widest and goofiest variety in Southeast Asia.

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Sure, there are your standards: Cheesy Cheese, Sour Cream and Onion. There's a few things you'd expect to see on any good Asian tour: Wild Spice, Bangkok Grilled Chicken Wing (part of the "street food" series), Seaweed, Grilled Shrimp, Softshell Crab. But then we leave the land of the savory altogether, and plunge into "fruit and nut" potato chips: Lemon and Sesame and the so-improbable-we-had-to-try-it Blueberry and Hazelnut.

Prediction: this will not become a hit in the U.S. anytime soon.

What's the word for those not-really martinis: appletinis, espresso martinis, mangotinis, and all those other overly-sweet concoctions? I'm generally not fond of such "something-tini" drinks, at least if they don't involve gin (or maybe vodka) and a whisper of vermouth. [1] I'll admit that this is a kind of name snobbery: it's not that such things can't sometimes be good drinks, but they're not martinis. I'm glad I let curiousity overcome my natural dislike of fauxtinis when we had our Valentine's dinner at Nahm, or else I would have missed the Met Bar's "C3 Martini" due to a silly prejudice.

IMG 0403The C3 perfectly captures the coconut and spice flavors of tom kha soup, a common Thai dish of which I'm very fond. The drink is served very cold: the humid Thai air had covered the glass in a thin sheen of condensation before the drink had reached our table. Garnished with what looked to be a floating kaffir lime leaf, its consistency is distinctly thick and soupy, and the pepper gives a sharply aromatic flavor lacking in many mixed drinks. Unsurprisingly, this cocktail perfectly complements Thai food, even moderating the hellish spiciness of some dishes.

Unfortunately, it's a bit of a sausage-factory drink: the effect is magical when you don't know what's in it, but loses its charm once you've seen it made. We went back to the Met Bar last night because I wanted to figure out the recipe. In case you don't want to know how it works, I've put my observations after the cut. 

Valentine's Day Dinner at Nahm Bangkok

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To celebrate Valentine's Day, we splurged on the special occasion set menu at Nahm, a restaurant helmed by an Australian with the controversial mission of "striving for authenticity" in a "decaying" Thai cuisine. In appropriate Greek tragedy fashion, Chef David Thompson recently suffered the loss of his London restaurant's Michelin star. Nonetheless, an Australian couple and their expat friends we met at Sky Bar had recommended Nahm to us as worthy of being our fancy meal out in an otherwise budget-minded stay in Bangkok. So we dressed up in some of the new clothes we'd acquired in Vietnam and set out with open minds and mouths.

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Despite having spent our first week in Thailand catching up on our to do list, we had time to see a few parts of the city, ride the train, and check out one of the local favorites: trendy rooftop bars.

We decided to take in sunset at the Sky Bar at LeBua and failed because we arrived a few minutes too late. One note when using an iPhone maps function in Thailand: the program will sometimes interpret a street number as a zip code, and deposit you at entirely the wrong end of the street.

While Thailand is generally a low-cost tourist destination, this business district bar swings high market, high-in-the-sky, and high-priced. Waiters in suits and waitresses in long fancy dresses greet you at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, then escort you past the outdoor dining area to the bar. On a weekday evening, it's an interesting mix of afterwork business people, elegant diners on a night out, and tourists in jeans. We ran into a very nice Australian couple who described to us their recent trip to Burma.

The view from the bar is unquestionably superb. On the sixty-fourth floor of the State Tower, the Sky Bar looks down over the bustling city and its neon lights. Bangkok skyscrapers are few and far between, which means that the skyline is mostly uninterrupted, and from here the haze of pollution that nestles over Bangkok is hard to miss. It was impossible to tell if the gibbous moon was red from normal atmospheric conditions or the smog, but either way it was pretty. As you turn away from the balcony, the gold-domed restaurant that caps State Tower is itself an image worth seeing at night.

That said, don't come for the drinks: what we tried ranged from disappointing to an outright titanic disaster. Pallavi's spicy gin and tonic wasn't horrible, but overdid the pepper to the exclusion of all other taste. "Earth," another Sky Bar specialty, claimed to be a mix of whiskey, a few other spirits, and lime juice, but was drained over crushed ice that watered it down to a thoroughly forgettable concoction: all that sticks in the mind is a sugary flavor of syrup. I moved to classics, but while the mojito was merely so-so, the Manhattan introduced me to the unpleasant concept of a fifty-fifty bourbon/vermouth split. It's a horrible potion that I hope never to suffer again, and I can't understand why any bartender would offer it to a customer, unless she wanted that customer never to return. By the way, all of these drinks are at New York prices (upwards of $12), and certainly not worth it.

We'll probably try another rooftop when we're back in Thailand, but while the Sky Bar is an architectural wonder, save yourself some money by buying a soft drink, watching the sunset, and heading for some other bar.

For instance, walk up the block to Jameson's Irish Pub Bangkok, where you can buy a relatively inexpensive glass of Hoegaarden that's about as big as your head.

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Greetings from Hanoi. We've arrived as the city prepares for Tet, the celebration of the lunar new year.

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There's much to catch up on since our last entry.

Things We've Seen

Things We Like