A Vacation That Enlightened and Entertained – Thailand and Hong Kong Part 1
By Anthony Adler
A trip to the Far East had always teased our sense of curiosity and wonder, but we had hesitated on several occasions fearing it was just too long a journey for our children. With our kids now in their early teens, we decided it was time to take the plunge, albeit with a little trepidation. We nailed down the parameters first. We had a two-week time frame, and that put certain constraints on the amount of time we were willing to spend in airports. We had to choose our destinations carefully, finally deciding to fly non-stop from Los Angeles to Bangkok, then fly to Phuket, on to Hong Kong and then back home. We would have liked to have also visited northern Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, but that would have to wait for another trip.
I don’t like to fly, though business class on Thai Airways was quite nice. The service was exceptional and the food was surprisingly good. My wife and I had a meeting with tourism officials in Bangkok scheduled just a few hours after our arrival, so we needed to be fresh after an 18-hour flight. I generally don’t advocate the use of drugs, but I must admit that the Ambien prescribed by our doctor allowed our whole family to sleep nearly ten hours on the plane. We were wide awake and ready to go when we arrived. We cleared customs quickly and were whisked away by our private car and guide.
For our family, how we travel is as important as where we travel to. There are wonderful luxury hotels in Bangkok, and we had the good fortune to stay at the Mandarin Oriental (formerly known simply as The Oriental). We now understand why this hotel is consistently listed as one of the top five hotels in the world. Located on the legendary Chao Phraya River, its location is outstanding. Yet, it is the service we will always remember. We were greeted with genuine kindness and warm smiles. Every floor has a butler. During the three nights at the hotel, we never put our key in the door to our two-bedroom suite. Our butler would literally race to open it for us. While the hotel is a landmark and the grand dame of the Mandarin Oriental chain, our suite and all the rooms were modern with the newest technology and quiet air conditioning.
We began each day with a buffet breakfast at The Verandah restaurant located directly beside the river. It’s truly an idyllic setting filled with businessmen in suits and aristocratic vacationers from around the world. Our family felt like we had stepped into an old movie as we watched the barges and small boats sail by. The buffet seemed to have everything imaginable at its various stations, but the chefs offered to custom make us anything else we might desire. They encouraged us to try exotic beverages, coffees and teas, all which were included in the price. We loved the milky coconut drinks.
We had heard mixed reviews of the tailors in Bangkok. I went for a fitting at a highly recommended tailor. Suffice it to say that it’s best to wait to Hong Kong if you want quality workmanship. It will cost more there, but sometimes you do get what you pay for.
We hopped on the BTS skyway, a terrific monorail system connecting much of the city, and headed over to Pantip Plaza. This multi-story shopping center is a haven for techno geeks like my boys. Hundreds of stores and booths sell everything from computers, printers, cameras, phones and software. CDs and games sell for just $3 and $4. Of course, there is one caveat you should be aware of; much of what you find there is counterfeit. My kids advise that if you do buy any software, make sure you run it through an anti-virus program before installing it on your computer.
Next we purchased inexpensive sim cards for our unlocked cell phones at MBK, a giant shopping center with 2,500 stores. For about US $10, we were able to call back home and call each other for an entire week. For a buck or two more, you can buy the same cards at any of the 7-11 convenience stores located throughout Bangkok.
Now it was my wife’s turn, so we visited one of Bangkok’s more exclusive shopping centers. Siam Paragon is a five-story ultra-modern complex selling everything from Ferraris to Jimmy Choo shoes. Not everything is a bargain here, but it is a lot of fun, even for non-shoppers.
We were beginning to feel the effects of the time change, so we ventured back to our hotel where we had a casual meal under the stars. After our delicious pizza at Ciao, we retired to our magnificent suite not wanting to close the curtains on the moonlit skyline of this incredible city.
After enjoying another breakfast on the river, we took the subway (MRT) to the famous Chatachak Weekend Market. This is the granddaddy of all flea markets with over 8,000 stalls selling everything from fashions and foods to reptiles and furniture. It’s very busy with over 200,000 visitors on a typical weekend. We were glad it wasn’t a hot day when we went. Nearly every vendor is willing to bargain, so bring your negotiating skills.
Our boys wanted to explore the area around our hotel, and we felt comfortable letting them do it on their own. My wife and I had scheduled a visit to the hotel’s Oriental Spa, known as one of the best in the world. It is located just across the river from the hotel in a restored century-old teakwood house. We chose the 90-minute couples treatment in the dedicated Ayruvedic Penthouse. Ayurveda is the science of healthy living from the ancient and rich traditions of India. You begin by meeting a doctor to design the perfect treatment for your physical and mental states. The next step is a massage to completely relax your body and soul. We liked it a lot!
Spice Market at the Four Seasons Hotel was recommended to us for their great Thai food. The sleek and modern hotel had a big convention going on, so the lobby was bustling with activity. The restaurant is intimate, but still excellent for families. The chef was more than willing to accommodate my food allergies and my son’s vegetarian limitations.
When people think of Bangkok, they often perceive it to be one big red-light district. This simply isn’t true and certainly isn’t fair. While there are adult shows and prostitution, most of it is limited to certain areas, just as it is in other large cities. The most famous area in Bangkok for naughty behavior is Patpong. It’s one of those places that most tourists visit, even if it’s not their cup of tea. The main street is also a busy shopping area at night with souvenir stalls in the middle and Go-Go Bars and adult shows on either side. We were surprised to see many families shopping the stalls there, including those with very young children. We found it a bit uncomfortable when hawkers approached us with adult menus and offers of free peeks. Our kids ignored it and the younger kids we saw didn’t seem to be interested, but I would think twice before bringing preteens and young children. Nevertheless, I must say that the area was clean and that we never felt unsafe. We purchased a laser pen for my older son from one of the vendors and headed back to our hotel.
My wife and younger son had an early breakfast before taking a class at the Mandarin Oriental’s Thai Cooking School. They had a wonderful time and have been trying ever since to duplicate the dishes they prepared in class. My older son and I slept late and then went to lunch across the river at the Peninsula Hotel. Prior to lunch, we were able to tour a few of their guest rooms. We can see why the Peninsula’s reputation is right up there with the Mandarin Oriental’s.
We saved the big sightseeing trip for our last day in Bangkok. First we went to the Grand Palace. This outstanding architectural achievement with its Emerald Buddha is an absolute must-see for tourists of all ages. Then we chose to travel by longtail boat on a four-hour journey through klongs (canals) and waterways, passing government buildings and large temples at the beginning to smaller temples and floating markets as we entered a much more rural environment. It is a tour we would certainly recommend if you like to go off the beaten path.
There were so many things on our list to do in Bangkok and we would not have time to do most of them. Still, we had a sense of euphoria about how we discovered a whole new world, conquered Bangkok’s transportation system, dined like royalty, experienced some culture and developed a kinship with the Thai people.
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