Wednesday, July 16, 2008

River express boats

Formerly known as the 'Venice of the East', Bangkok still has an excess of waterways that offer a great way of getting around. River express and canal boats regularly ply several routes unaffected by the constant traffic on the roads, and are very cheap too. Often cited as one of the top bargains available in Thailand is the 1 hour 15 minute boat trip from the pier near the Oriental Hotel all the way up to Nonthaburi, a Bangkok suburb, for only 10B (0.25 US$) per person. The Khlong Saen Saep canal boats go across Bangkok for the same kind of price also.

The river boats go up and down the large Chao Phraya river, and there are around 20 main stops. They can be substantially quicker than the equivalent journey by road. For example, a trip from the Grand Palace to the Silom district could easily take over an hour by taxi, while the boat ride will only take around 15 or 20 minutes.

The boats are long, fast, and normally colored white with a red stripe. Fares vary slightly according to the destination, they're between 5B and 10B. Boats seem to come around every 20 minutes, start at 5.30am and the last boat leaves each end at 6pm.

It's very easy to get confused when trying to take a River Express boat. At each pier, there is a cross river service (costing 1B or 2B), these leave almost constantly throughout the day. These are much smaller boats and often fairly empty, and are normally waiting by the pier when you get there. When you see (or hear the whistle of) a River Express boat approaching the pier, don't hesitate as they only wait for a few seconds. Everyone scrambles to get on and off as quickly as possible, and a slight delay will cost you a place on the boat. Tickets can either be bought on the boat or at the pier. Piers are marked in English and Thai, so it's easy to know where to get off.
A description of the route the express boats run is shown on the next page.

The Tuk-tuk

Doing a similar job to the taxi is Thailand's ubiquitous tuk-tuk (ตุ๊กตุ๊ก). So named because of the sound of their engine, these are motorized rickshaws and are popular amongst tourists for their novelty value. They are occasionally faster than taxis in heavy traffic as weaving in and out is easier, but generally about the same or slower. Without any luggage, 3 people can fit into one fairly comfortably - it's possible to fit more in but it gets a bit cramped. Fares always have to be bargained for, and it is sometimes possible to bargain tuk-tuk drivers down to less than the taxi flagfall of 35B when they make good value. Most times, they offer no savings over a taxi, except perhaps if you're good at bargaining and can speak good Thai. The initial price they quote is likely to be well over the going rate, but it's easy to bargain it down to a more reasonable one if you know roughly the equivalent taxi fare.

It's essential to bargain the price with tuk-tuks before getting in. If you only ask after the ride, it's likely to end in a request for an ridiculous fare which can obviously lead to an unpleasant situation.

Just like taxi drivers, the tuk-tuk drivers mostly come from the rural northeast of Thailand and don't have to undergo any training (some will not even have passed a driving test), so don't be surprised if they sometimes have no idea where your destination is. A subtle point to remember when in one is not to rest your feet on the rail near the drivers head, as doing so is extremely disrespectful towards the driver.

As tuk-tuks are open-ended, they expose passengers to the high pollution levels in the middle of Bangkok's roads and offer almost no protection in case of an accident. There is theoretically a ban on new tuk-tuks as they are so noisy and polluting, but it doesn't really seem to be being enforced at present. Nevertheless, many of the local residents are not too enamoured with tuk-tuks nowadays and, were it not for their popularity with tourists, the days of the tuk-tuk on the streets of Bangkok would surely be numbered.

Ericsson Completes Thai Airport 3G Network

ASIA Thailand : Ericsson has successfully completed the turnkey project of designing and integrating a multi-operator In-Building Solution (IBS) at the Suvarnabhumi Airport, Thailand's new international airport. The Ericsson IBS solution enables commuters and staff members of the airport, poised to be a major transportation hub in South East Asia, to enjoy advanced communications with seamless and high-quality coverage, as well as international roaming services.

The IBS system incorporates six different technologies, including WCDMA, and GSM. This solution will also be the foundation for the airport's in-building communications network to migrate smoothly to 3G in the future.

Ericsson was awarded the contract for the IBS solution for the new airport by the country's top five mobile operators -- Advanced Info Service (AIS), DTAC, True Move, Hutchison CAT Wireless and Thai Mobile.

As the prime integrator, Ericsson was commissioned to provide a comprehensive range of services, including program management, network design, installation, integration and testing for the combined wireless application solutions that will serve the five operators' customers.

Wichian Mektrakarn, Executive Vice President for Operations at AIS, says: "By cooperating with Ericsson in developing the GSM mobile network at Suvarnabhumi Airport, AIS believes that our customers, tourists and visitors will benefit from a premium quality network that provides high quality services for both voice and data communications. At the same time, they will also enjoy the value-added services that AIS is offering them."

Chutichai Napasab, CTO, Hutchison CAT Wireless, says: "We are confident that Ericsson's In-Building Solutions will deliver smooth connections to our customers in both mobile telephony and wireless internet. This is important as we believe Suvarnabhumi Airport will be a key hub for international and domestic commuters."

Vichaow Rakphongphairoj, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer, True Corporation Plc, adds that "True Move is happy to work together with Ericsson along with the other mobile operators for this IBS project. This mutual appointment reflects the good cooperation between Thai mobile operators and Ericsson in providing solutions that are optimised for superior end-user experience."

Hans O. Karlsson, Country Manager of Ericsson Thailand, says that this contract further strengthens Ericsson's leadership in in-building communication solutions.

"This is indeed a significant milestone for Ericsson Thailand and we are honoured to have the trust of the country's five largest mobile operators to develop and implement the best-in-class in-building communication solutions, adding that Ericsson's global experience and strengths had been key in ensuring the success of the project, backed by a strong local presence and expertise," he added.

Under the project, around 1,200 antennas were installed to cover the whole area of the new Suvarnabhumi Airport, including 563,000 square metres of public area and car park space. Scheduled to open late this year, the airport is expected to serve up to 45 million passengers each year and this number may double to 120 million when the airport's second phase is completed.

Suvarnabhumi international airport

Officially opened on the 28th September 2006 to replace the aging Don Muang airport, Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi international airport is actually in the nearby Samut Prakan province about 25km to the east of Bangkok. Suvarnabhumi was named by King Bhumibol Adulyadej and means "the golden land" in Thai, although it's English spelling is certain to lead to mispronunciations by visitors as it's actually pronounced like 'su-wan-na-poom'. Though Don Muang airport had three terminals, Suvarnabhumi has only one (very large) one that handles all international and domestic flights. At a size of 563,000sq m, Suvarnabhumi's terminal building is the second largest in the world.

Over 40 years in construction and eventually opened shortly Thailand's 2006 coup that removed Thaksin Shinawatra from power, Suvarnabhumi has had a controversial history of extensive delays, corruption allegations, political meddling, media reports of flawed construction and massive budget overruns - and that was all before the airport even opened.

The final bill for Suvarnabhumi stands at over US$3 billion and while it's undoubtedly a very impressive and modern structure, the Thai newpapers report new problems with the airport with embarrassing regularity. Issues range from the most serious of cracks on the runway and other construction problems to complaints from passengers of poor signage, long queues and inadequate facilities. In the initial period after opening these problems were compounded by up to 100,000 Thais coming to visit and picnic in the airport each day and putting strain on the airports facilities, but with waning public interest this is thankfully no longer a problem.

The root cause of the problems appears to be a rush to open the airport before it was really ready, and several senior Airports Authority of Thailand officials have been removed from their posts as a result of the mess. Latest (February 2007) reports are that Don Muang airport is to be re-opened for both international and domestic flights, to relieve some of the pressure from Suvarnabhumi and to allow the much needed repairs to take place. How this will work in practice is unclear at this point, but it could well mean passengers needing to travel between the two airports (a one hour or longer journey) in order to board a connecting flight. If you think this could affect you, you're well advised to check with your airline as soon as possible for the latest news.

If you've previously used Bangkok's Don Muang airport, note that it's no longer necessary to pay the 500 baht per person Passenger Service Charge at Suvarnabhumi. From February 2007, the charge was increased to 700B but it's now included in the price of your ticket. The departure tax for domestic flights is 60B, collected at check in.

Suvarnabhumi is organised into 4 separate levels:

Level one is the bus and taxi lobby where you can go to get downtown.

Level two is the arrivals area.

Level three is the "Meeting Center" level, where the majority of Suvarnabhumi's facilities are.

Level four is departures.

In addition, there's the separate Public Transportation Center (PTC) building which is about 10 minutes from Suvarnabhumi terminal. Free shuttle buses regularly ply the route back and forth between them leading from level one. If you want to get a public bus downtown or to a destination other than Bangkok, you need to head to the PTC first while if you're getting a taxi you can get one either from the terminal building itself or the PTC. More details are on the taxi and other ways downtown pages.

ATMs (with Cirrus/Maestro, Visa, Mastercard, Plus and others) and currency exchange are available at the airport 24 hours a day. The exchange rates available at the airport are generally not that much worse than in the city itself, and so you you won't lose out too much by changing money here. Internet access is available, but at a cost of 500B an hour it's up to 20 times (!) the price of internet cafes in Bangkok itself.

Other facilities at the airport include bars, restaurants (mostly fast food with Pizza Hut, KFC, Burger King etc... but there's a good and cheap Thai foodcourt on the walkway between the International and domestic terminals), a couple of decent 24 hour bars, duty free and normal shops, a small branch of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Hotels Association, and car hire. Trolleys are available but can't be taken past immigration. The THA can get you better rates at mid-range and expensive hotels than you would get as a walk-in, but you still pay more than the going rate. Make sure you have some idea about where you want to stay and what kind of prices you should be paying for it. Different hotels pay them different rates of commission so don't be surprised if they suggest other hotels to one you decided on - they aren't impartial by any means.

The airport has one attached hotel, the 4 star Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel which is only 5 minutes away via an underground walkway. It has all the facilities you'd expect and rates start at around $90 a night.

Getting downtown is cheap and not too much of a problem, and there's no lack of options either: Taxis, airport buses, normal buses, limousines, boats, the train and even a helicopter are all available. When you book hotels in Thailand, your travel agent will likely offer airport transfers as an extra which may well be very overpriced - don't bother if it costs any more than US$15 or so (in total, not per person).

When leaving it is also possible to claim back VAT on certain goods you have bought in Thailand - the forms for this can be got at shops displaying "Vat Refund for Tourists" signs in the city. Take the forms, the goods themselves and your passport to the tax refund counter (which is in the departure hall), pay the 100B service fee, and you will be given the refund. Note they require to see the goods bought, which can be very inconvenient if they are packed away in your baggage. You must have spent a minimum of 5000B, and 2000B in each transaction, to qualify for this. It's a bit of a cumbersome procedure overall, which discourages many from taking advantage of it.

Pasteur Institute (Snake Farm) สวนงูสถากาชาติไทย

This interesting spot is located at the corner of Henri Dunant Road and Rama IV Road west of ChulalongkornHospital. It is a section of the Thai Red Cross, where one can have cholera, smallpox and typhoid inoculationsas well as rabies treatment. The institute has become a popular tourist attraction because of its large collectionsof live poisonous snakes.The snake farm is open to the public everyday between 8.30am and 4.00pm on weekdays and 8.30am - 12amon public holidays. The extraction of venum from the snakes is demonstrated daily at 10.30am and 2.00pm. onweekdays and at 10.30 on public holidays. Admission fee is 70 baht.

Bangkok hotels

There's a huge range of accommodation in Bangkok, and fortunately there's never any real problem getting a room at any time of year, whatever your budget. By international standards, room rates are generally very good value - ranging from the 50B (a little over 1US$) guesthouse dorm bed right up to The Oriental hotel, consistently voted as one of the best in the world. This is in part due to devaluation of the Baht in 1997 and it's continued weakness since, from which prices have never really recovered to their level beforehand.

For the majority of visitors to Bangkok, your budget will probably dictate the area where you stay. Banglamphu (Khao San Road) has many cheap rooms in the 100-300B range. For this you will generally get a basic small room with a fan with a shared bathroom. This is a very popular backpackers area, and the abundance of competition keeps prices fairly low. A slight step up for budget accommodation can be found in the Siam Square area. Sukhumvit road is another of Bangkok's big tourist districts, and has a very large range of hotels with rooms generally ranging from 700B up to about 2000B. Top end hotels are found all over the city, the very best (Oriental, Peninsula, Shangri-La, Royal Orchid Sheraton) tend to be located by the river, and around the Siam Square area.

Other than price, it's important to consider what you want to do while in Bangkok when chosing a location for a hotel. Bangkok's international reputation for pollution and congestion is not undeserved, and it's worth staying in the area where you want to spend most tim, as getting from one side of the city to the other can, to say the least, be a bit of a challenge. The relatively new skytrain connects the Silom, Siam Square and Sukhumvit road areas, and makes getting around here fairly painless - these are all good areas for shopping and nightlife, but with limited sightseeing opportunities. Many of the main tourist attractions (Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun) aren't on the skytrain line but in the Ko Rattanakosin district - depending on the traffic, it can take over a hour to reach here from Sukhumvit or Silom.

In Thai hotel terminology, a single room is one with one double bed, a double room has two. Therefore, it's perfectly normal for a couple to check into a single room. Prices are generally the same whichever you ask for, or only very slightly more expensive for a double. An additional charge that may apply is the 'joiner fee' that is levied by some hotels to try and prevent any 'guests' joining you in your room overnight. Another price that has to be paid is the 7% tax in that all accommodation in Thailand is subject to. The cheaper guesthouses will incorporate this into the price (or just not pay it at all), but for most of the 3* or better hotels this will be added to your bill on top of the rate you're quoted. On top of this, an 8% - 10% service charge is often levied also (If you see prices quoted elsewhere as 2000B++, that is what the ++ means). This is well worth bearing in mind when considering hotels, as obviously it can make a substantial difference to the total cost. It's also an important thing to ask any travel agent booking rooms for you, as some don't mention to try and make their prices sound lower while others quote all-inclusive prices.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Shopping in Bangkok

Thailand and Bangkok have developed into one of the best and most popular shopping locations in Asia, and with good reason. Prices are low, quality generally high and the range and variety is pretty amazing - silks, gemstones, tailor-made clothes and traditional handicrafts are all highlights of Bangkok shopping. Most shops seem to be open 10.00am to 10.00pm everyday of the week, and nightmarkets carry on even after this time - all very convenient in being able to go shopping at basically any time you want. Buying a shopping map is very useful in order to get the most out of shopping in Bangkok - despite the garish colours, the 'Nancy Chandler' map is actually very useful and probably the best.

Silks, nielloware, lacquerware, silverware, bronzeware, pewterware, pottery, gemstones and jewelry and all types of handicrafts are particularly good souvenirs of a trip to Thailand, while clothes and tailor-made clothes are widely available and inexpensive. Fake goods of all types abound and can be bought at a fraction of a cost of originals. There are different manufacturers of fake goods, so the 'Rolex' watch costing 6000B will be better than the 2000B one, which in turn is superior to the one at 500B.

Most vendors and staff at stores speak good enough English, though non-fixed prices are often bargained by you and the vendor taking turns in typing numbers into a calculator. It's worth learning how to say the numbers in Thai - this is easy, will save the calculator routine and may well get you cheaper prices too.

Street stalls and shops on the street will generally have lower prices for the same product than those paying premium rents in hotel shopping arcades and some higher end shopping centers and department stores. The price difference can also reflect on the quality of the product though.
Duty Free shopping can be done at the Thailand Duty Free Shops Company branch in the World Trade Center on Ratchadamri road. Goods can be pre-ordered here and then picked up at the airport - you have to show your passport and airline ticket in order to make a purchase. It's not really worth it unless you are particularly short of time at the airport.
Many of the larger and more specialized shops now offer shipping abroad, and they will sort out the necessary documents and permits for this. Insurance should also be included. If you don't feel comfortable with this, there are specialized companies that will do it and sort out the arrangements for a fee. The GPO also has a parcel-wrapping service, and smaller items can be mailed from here. Another option is to go Thai Airways office on 485 Silom road and, for a fee, they will ship them and sort out documentation for you.