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Photos and stories from many of my travels in the past 5 years

Arriving at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok

Thailand 2009: Day 1 – Suvarnabhumi, Pantip Plaza, Fotofile & MBK

Date: Dec 13th, 2009

(All currency conversions below are approximations as of the date of posting)

My flight landed at 5am at Suvarnabhumi International Airport. My first impressions of the airport? Big.

Arriving at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok
Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok (taken on my Nokia E72)

But sometimes I wonder if it’s too big for its own good. I took a lot of travelators after disembarking and then took a right… to take some more moving walkways.

Moving walkways at Suvarnabhumi Airport

I finally reached the counter where Visa on Arrival applicants had to queue up. The 15-day Visa on Arrival scheme is only open to a few countries, India being one of them. I decided to opt for Visa on Arrival because before departing, I got to know that up until March 10, 2010, there are no fees. So, basically free. Since my travel was going to be on a budget (‘cos in Thailand, you can do it on a budget) , I figured it was one of the things I could save money on. And I wasn’t the only one. The entire line was 90% Indians with the remaining 10% from countries I couldn’t probably spell correctly off the top of my head.

The form I had downloaded and filled up in advance was of no use as the form given at the counter looked different. I took the new form, filled it up, attached two passport-sized photographs and waited in line.

Annoyingly, there was only one officer manning the counter that time and it was painfully slow. So slow that by the time I got my passport stamped, it was 2 hours that I had stood in line! Very tiring. I probably won’t do Visa on Arrival next time if this is how it is going to be. After that, I collected my luggage fairly easily (I mean, after 2 hours, it was bound to be on the conveyor belt!) and then finished up all the procedures to get out the airport.

Then began the second phase of ‘annoying’. Suvarnabhumi has a network of escalators and lifts that only connect even and odd floors. For example, if I needed to get to the 3rd floor from 4th, I had to take the escalator to the 2nd and then take a lift to the 3rd floor. It was quite confusing but I had to get to the Dtac counter at the airport. I took a local prepaid SIM from them and it was weird how easy it was to get one. I mean, they looked at my passport but other than that, I don’t even remember filling up a form or even giving them photos, an address proof etc. like how it is out here. I even activated GPRS and got my number. Cost me 199 baht (Rs. 277).

Once my number was activated, I then headed to the ground floor to take a metered taxi to Petchburi Road.

Taking a metered taxi from the airport to Petchburi Road
Most of the taxi drivers don’t speak English

I decided to head straight to Petchburi Road because it was where Pantip Plaza was located. But first, I needed to get a room. I asked the taxi driver to stop at First Hotel Bangkok on Petchburi Road. The ride cost me 320 baht (Rs. 440). I went to First Hotel because it was on the main road and it was one of the hotels I had selected based on internet research. The lady at the reception showed me the rate card which showed over 2000 baht for a single room but soon scratched it and said she can give it to me at special rate of 1600 baht  (Rs. 2,200) but the check out time was 12pm. I took the brochure and told her that I’ll be back. I stepped out because even though 1600 baht seemed like a good deal, I wasn’t going to be in my room much as my plan was to freshen up and then step out to get my camera. I also intended on leaving for Krabi that night itself.

I walked up a bit and was approached by several taxi drivers who said they could find me good hotels  but I decided to go on without their help. Then a Tuk Tuk driver who was posted near Pantip Plaza called me and asked me if I was looking cheap rooms. Now, during my research on Thailand, a common word of advice I came across was to avoid Tuk Tuk drivers. Mostly because they often charge tourists the same amount of money (if not more) the taxis charge. This guy offered to take me around for 30 baht. I thought, what the heck. Couldn’t be any worse than our autos right? But then he told me about his ‘plan’. He would take me the tourism office and there, he asked me to just sit and listen to what the guys had to offer based on my needs. He asked me to sit for at least 10mins so that he would get a “gas coupon”. I went to the tourism office (which turns out was just an authorized travel agent) and the guy there showed me a hotel which would cost 1600 baht. I then told him that was the same rate I could have stayed at First Hotel and I needed a place I could stay without that annoying 12pm check out rule. He then lowered it to 1400 baht (Rs. 1,900) and said it was no problem, I could check-in now itself.

So I paid for it and went to The Best Bangkok House. It was just off Petchburi Road and not very far from the overbridge to Pantip Plaza. The A/C room I got was clean and well equipped with a working TV (& remote), refrigerator, clean bathroom and a twin size bed. They have internet but only at the reception and you had to pay for it.

I took a nice warm bath and just as I stepped out thinking I’ll go shopping, the fact that I was up all night and how painful it was at Suvarnabhumi, the snooze-factor started to kick in. I was sooooo damn tired and just crashed on my bed.

I set the alarm for 12pm but only got up at 1:45pm. Realizing I didn’t have much of the day left, I headed straight for Pantip Plaza.

Ground floor at Pantip Plaza
Pantip Plaza in Bangkok

Pantip is Bangkok’s (if not Thailand’s) most popular IT mall. And by that I mean, the hub for grey market goods and pirated CDs, DVDs, software etc. It’s like National Market in Bangalore, only this is a 5 storey building with escalators and air conditioning. I checked Pantip first because I also had ask around for some stuff my friends wanted. A lot of the shops stocked the Canon 7D and it was available for as low as 52,000 baht (Rs. 72,000). I also asked around for the Tokina 11-16 f2.8 wide angle lens but most didn’t stock the Canon mount.

I then took a taxi and headed to MBK Center.

MBK Center, Bangkok
MBK Center, Bangkok (actually taken on 21/12/2009)

MBK used to be one of the biggest malls in Asia when opened in 1985 but even though there are swankier malls in Bangkok, it remains hugely popular even to this day. The reason I went there was for a store called Fotofile. When researching for camera shops of repute in Thailand, Fotofile was a name that often came up among photographers. They also happen to manage the official Canon store in MBK.

I got my Canon 7D body from them for 55,800 baht (Rs. 78,000). I also picked up a nice camera bag for 1500 baht (Rs. 2,000).

Canon/Fotofile at MBK Center in Bangkok
Top left: Kosin, the sales guy I mostly dealt with
Old Canon camera on display at the Canon store in MBK
Old Canon cameras on display at the showroom

Fotofile has like 2-3 stores in MBK alone and more in and around Bangkok. I went to the one on the ground floor as they stocked second hand lenses as well. They too didn’t have the Tokina lens so I ended up picking up the Canon 10-22mm f3.5 wide angle from them and since I didn’t feel like going back to Pantip, I picked up a 16GB CF card and a filter for the 10-22mm from the same store.

The good thing about buying from popular stores like Fotofile was that I could bargain (everything I picked up, I bought it at lower prices than what they initially quoted) and they are authorized to offer the 7% VAT Refund for tourists.

NOTE: The 7% VAT refund  can only be claimed at the airport upon departure and you need to hand over a yellow form which is filled up at the store and given to the buyer. I saw some Indian tourists trying to show a bunch of receipts at the office in Suvarnabhumi and were denied. The minimum amount is 2000 baht I believe and it can even be a collective amount. For eg: if I bought from 4 different stores in MBK or Siam Center, I can get a 7% VAT refund form from a counter at the mall for the 4 bills totalling 2000 baht or more.

Grey market stores may be cheaper but all they are really doing is excluding the taxes they are supposed to impose on the sale and thereby passing on that reduction as a “discount”. Most stores (the many small ones) in Pantip Plaza do not give 7% VAT Refund.

Coming back to Fotofile, I ended up picking up everything on my credit card, for which they said there will be a 2% surcharge. I decided to reserve the cash in case of emergencies.

After picking up my gear, I went to the food court at MBK to grab something to eat. The food court at MBK works on a coupon system. You pay 100 baht (it can be any denomination) and you are given coupons in sums of 5, 10, 20 and so on totalling 100. They had several counters catering to all sorts of variety but I opted for a sea food fried rice.

The seafood fried rice I had at the MBK food court
Sea food fried rice consisting of prawns and squid (85 baht)

After lunch and encashing the remaining coupons, I walked around the same floor and came across a lot of clothes shops. Not branded ones but just small ones selling T-shirts and other gear. I’ll write about all this in detail in a later post. I picked up a pair of shorts because I really didn’t feel like wearing pants in the Thailand heat for the rest of my journey.

I remember the travel agent telling me that the bus to Krabi would leave at 5:30pm but by the time I was done with shopping, it was already past 6pm. I was quite tired with all the running around and told myself that this was supposed to be a vacation and decided to take it easy and leave for Krabi the next morning. Plus, I only needed to check out of my room 9am the next day.

I freshened up and checked out my haul.

The camera bag, 10-22mm lens, Canon 7D, 77mm filter and 16GB CF card
All the camera equipment I bought from Fotofile (Photo taken on the E72)

I kept the batteries for charging and stepped out for dinner which was mostly deep-fried sausages from a street vendor near Pantip Plaza where an open-air karaoke was taking place and some snacks from a 7-Eleven.

My room at the Best Bangkok House hotel
The room I stayed in. Also the first photo I took on my 7D with the wide angle lens

I re-packed and called it a night after that as I had to wake up early the next day.

Other posts in this series:

Getting ready for my trip

The day I left for Thailand

Day 2 – Bridge over the River Kwai and Tiger Temple (Wat Pa Luangta Bua) in Kanchanaburi

Taking the bus to Chiang Mai from Bangkok

Day 3 – Maesa elephant camp, ‘long-neck’ tribe village near Chiang Mai

Day 3 (Part 2) – Chiang Mai Night Market

Day 4 – Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai… and back in town

Day 5 – Leaving Chiang Mai for Phuket

Day 5 (Part 2) – One night in Phuket

Day 6 – Leaving Phuket for Ao Nang by bus (via Phang Nga)

Day 7 – Touring Koh Phi Phi (Maya Bay, Monkey Island & Bamboo Island)

Day 7 (Part 2) – Exploring Railay, Krabi

Day 8 – Flying from Phuket to Bangkok

Day 8 (Part 2) – Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok

Day 9 – MBK, Siam Paragon… and ‘little Arabia’?

Day 10 – Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha

Day 10 – Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and finally leaving Thailand

Figures, lessons learned, and things I couldn’t do


The day I left for Thailand

I had booked my departure for Dec 13th thinking I would get my Canon 7D by then (I paid for it on November 25th). I waited and waited and as the week before the flight neared its end, I started to get worried. It hadn’t even arrived by Friday, Dec 11. I was contemplating postponing my flight but that would have cost me thousands of rupees with last minute cancellations and new bookings — and as mentioned earlier, I wanted to be back in time for Sunburn in Goa.

So I decided to go ahead with my trip — and pick up a second Canon 7D from Bangkok which I would then sell upon return. I finished my work and only left office at 10:30pm that day. The next morning (Sat, Dec 12th), the first thing I had to do was to get foreign currency. I went to the HDFC Bank close to my house only to be told they wouldn’t be issuing any foreign currency because it was a Saturday and the foreign markets are closed (they also said they can’t give dollars based on Friday’s rates). It was one of those “Oh crap!” moments — until they told me I could try UAE Exchange close by. Fortunately, they were open for business (guessing maybe because they were headquartered in Abu Dhabi. Edit: Wow, I didn’t know the company is owned by a Shetty). I withdrew Rs. 60,000 from my account and got it exchanged for 10,000 Thai Baht, $200 in Traveller’s Cheques and $700 in cash. I planned on carrying so much cash as I needed to buy a wide angle lens from Bangkok.

The thing is, UAE Exchange sold me the Thai Baht at a rate of 1.6:1 rupee when it was 1.3, citing that it was “high demand” currency. I really couldn’t argue because, a) first time dealing with foreign currency and b) I really didn’t have much time.

After I got my currency, I went back home and started to pack. I actually didn’t have much to pack. I wanted to travel light and I knew I would be shopping from Thailand. I was advised by colleagues at work to check out bags from Wildcraft as it would be convenient to have just one big bag instead of carrying several. But when I checked them out, I really didn’t feel like spending Rs. 2500 to Rs. 3000 for what were in my eyes, branded hollow sacks.

So I just went back and decided to take my laptop bag and a sports bag borrowed from my younger brother. I finished packing and made sure I had all my papers in order. I had multiple copies of my flight ticket, copies of my Passport and a Tourist Visa form I downloaded off the Thailand Embassy of Foreign Affairs. Instead of taking a taxi or asking my brother to drop me at the airport, I thought I’d take the airport bus (the ‘Vaayu Vajras’) as I had always wanted to check them out.

My brother checked the routes and we decided to drive down to HSR Layout and catch the bus from there. I boarded the bus in front of BDA complex at around 8pm. The ticket fare was Rs. 150. My flight was scheduled for 12:30am and I was told the journey would take 1 and 1/2 hours. It took 2 hours. It was my first time going to the new Bangalore International Airport in Devanahalli and my lord — is it FAR! The roads to the airport was great but it felt weird sitting in the bus on what seemed like forever to get to a flight which would take me to a different country in just under 4 hours.

I checked in, finished all the procedures walked around and arrived at the boarding gate by 11pm. [Tip: Don’t bother carrying a bottle of water to the airport (unless you finish it by then), you’ll be asked to dump it at the security check-in],

My impressions on the new airport?

Meh. After all the delays and the amount of money spent, it really is just a glossy industrial shed. I do wish the HAL Airport is re-opened for at least short domestic flights. Anyway, I checked out the Duty Free, which was okay if you wanted to buy booze — and not much else. Checked out the food court, the restroom (it was clean, in case you wanted to know) and then just sat there. I switched on my laptop and logged in to the free BIAL Wi-Fi service, which took a while to figure out how to get connected. But hey, it’s free for an hours use.

Come 12am, it was time to board. I got in and headed to my window seat only to find some moron already sitting in my seat. I tell him that’s my seat and he points to his and says in his broken English to sit there instead. And then I tell the moron to get up. He mumbles something about it being ‘the same thing no matter where I sat’. (Gawd I hate such people)

The in-flight food was okay. Steamed basmati rice with nice boneless chicken curry and the usual sides you get in an economy class flight on an Asian flight route. The service was good, not that I requested it often. They had ‘Post Grad‘ as the in-flight movie. Looked like some chick-flick starring that Gilmore Girl. I didn’t bother watching it because I was busy reading through the manual for my newly-acquired Nokia E72, which I planned to use in Thailand.

The moon from my window seat
The moon from my window seat. Taken on my Nokia E72.

I didn’t sleep much either. I mean, after lunch and dinner, you’re already half-way through your journey. I was scheduled to land in Bangkok at around 5am.

Other posts in this series:

Getting ready for my trip

Day 1 – Suvarnabhumi, Pantip Plaza, Fotofile & MBK

Day 2 – Bridge over the River Kwai and Tiger Temple (Wat Pa Luangta Bua) in Kanchanaburi

Taking the bus to Chiang Mai from Bangkok

Day 3 – Maesa elephant camp, ‘long-neck’ tribe village near Chiang Mai

Day 3 (Part 2) – Chiang Mai Night Market

Day 4 – Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai… and back in town

Day 5 – Leaving Chiang Mai for Phuket

Day 5 (Part 2) – One night in Phuket

Day 6 – Leaving Phuket for Ao Nang by bus (via Phang Nga)

Day 7 – Touring Koh Phi Phi (Maya Bay, Monkey Island & Bamboo Island)

Day 7 (Part 2) – Exploring Railay, Krabi

Day 8 – Flying from Phuket to Bangkok

Day 8 (Part 2) – Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok

Day 9 – MBK, Siam Paragon… and ‘little Arabia’?

Day 10 – Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha

Day 10 – Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and finally leaving Thailand

Figures, lessons learned, and things I couldn’t do

Getting ready for my first Thailand trip

The travel bug bit me when I first went to Rajasthan in 2005. Since then, I’ve been to Rajasthan once more, Goa twice, Pondicherry twice, New Delhi, Agra, Mysore (I lost count), Kerala (a bunch), Coorg twice and few other places from where Bangalore isn’t too far.

All there is left for me to explore in India is the North-Eastern stretch — from Kashmir all the way through Nepal or Darjeeling.  But I need to plan a heck lot for that given the logistics and the weather conditions. So when it came to thinking about traveling abroad, South-East Asia seemed like a logical first choice. After all, budget flights were aplenty and it wasn’t too far. The places I was initially planning on going were Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

After much research, I scratched Singapore of my list. I realized how well marketed that place was. If you have never seen a world-class city before, I can see the appeal to some Indians but to me, it really didn’t offer me anything compelling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure its an awesome place to live, but as a tourist destination, I wasn’t impressed.

Now, Hong Kong is yet another ‘city’ destination (like Singapore) but what a city it is!

I would go just for that view at night.

Then, there is Malaysia. Interesting mix of races, a nice city in Kuala Lampur and coastal destinations like Langkawi.  Then there is Thailand, which was a ‘must-go’ after watching ‘The Beach‘ (mediocre movie, awesome soundtrack!).  Of course, if I had the money, there isn’t a place on earth I wouldn’t want to visit (okay, maybe not Saudi Arabia and some countries in sub-Saharan Africa).

Back in the South-East of Asia, the other destinations I’d love to visit are Vietnam (all thanks to the Top Gear special from 2008), Bali and Cambodia. But the problem with destinations such as those are the cost of flights to get there.  Because there are so many Indians visiting Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, flights are aplenty and the competition keeps prices reasonable.  But no so for the other countries.

Anyway, back to my trip. My initial plan was to go on holiday for 2 weeks since I had 11 days of leave I had to use up before year end. I decided not to go to Hong Kong right now as it isn’t a cheap destination (read: getting there and hotel room rates) so I just thought I’d do Malaysia and Thailand first.

Then, something came up in Goa. I wasn’t really keen on Sunburn 2009 … until they announced Armin Van Buuren was going to be there! I LOVE AVB’s music. So I thought I’d keep a few leaves for that because I knew some friends who were interested in going for that as well.

I then cut my trip down to 10 days and started budgeting the cost of flights to Malaysia and Thailand. I started off with Tiger Airways as Air Asia had no direct flights from Bangalore. There was a flight from Bangalore to Kuala Lampur via Singapore (6 hour stop over) available for Rs. 13k (return, incl. taxes). I thought it was a good deal since I felt I could use the stop over time to use the Singapore Airport bus tour to see Singapore city instead of simply wasting time at Changi. But I later learnt that, even though that tour is free, regular Indian passport holders need to have a transit visa just to enter Singapore airport.  So when I factored in the cost of Singapore visa, Malaysian Visa, the flight to KL and then from there to Thailand, it was coming to a bit much for just 10 days (the Thai Visa-on-arrival is free).

So instead, I decided I’d just focus on Thailand for now.

I went to all the popular online ticketing sites but ended up with a good deal from Yatra.com. A return ticket from Thai Airways for the dates I picked cost me around Rs. 17k. But at the time of booking, I saw a field for ‘Yatra Promotion Code’. So, I googled for ‘Yatra coupon codes’ and found a few sites that listed them. Some worked, most didn’t — but I eventually got one that saved me a good 5-10% off the ticket price. The final cost was Rs. 15,740 (incl. taxes).  There was a cheaper flight from Sri Lankan Airlines but that included a very long stop over at Colombo airport which made the total duration of the flight 9 hours. The Thai Airways flight is a direct flight from Bangalore to Bangkok and back (3 hr 45 mins journey time).

The places I wanted to visit in Thailand were Krabi, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Kanchaburi and then Bangkok. I decided not to got to Koh Samui because the Full Moon party for December had already gotten over on Dec 2nd and I really didn’t want to stay for the one on Dec 25th & the New Year party. Plus, it can be dangerous if one is alone, which I was going to be. So I decided to keep Koh Phangan and Koh Tao for next time.

I paid for my Canon 7D on Nov 25th and booked my flight for Dec 13th, thinking 2 and 1/2 weeks was a long enough time for it come and for me to get the hang of it. I wanted to spend a few days in Krabi province — mostly Railay and Ao Nang.  In Krabi I wanted see the Tiger Cave Temple, which 1200 stairs up on a hill is where, they say one can see the Andaman sea.  Railay was pretty much a backpacker’s haven, also popular for rock climbing. Ao Nang is the sea side tourist town of Krabi and a base from where I would take the tours to Phi Phi island and the many other islands (like ‘James Bond’ island) . After spending at least 3 to 4 days in Krabi, I would head to Phuket, which was 2 hrs by road. After spending a day there, I would head to Chiang Mai (for the temples, the ‘Long Neck’ tribe) and then Kanchanaburi (for the Tiger Temple) and then finally back to Bangkok (for the Weekend market, the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and then shopping).

Well, that was the plan. But as you’ll see in the next few posts, things didn’t really go according to plan. And that sucked.


Other Thailand posts in this series:

The day I left for Thailand

Day 1 – Suvarnabhumi, Pantip Plaza, Fotofile & MBK

Day 2 – Bridge over the River Kwai and Tiger Temple (Wat Pa Luangta Bua) in Kanchanaburi

Taking the bus to Chiang Mai from Bangkok

Day 3 – Maesa elephant camp, ‘long-neck’ tribe village near Chiang Mai

Day 3 (Part 2) – Chiang Mai Night Market

Day 4 – Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai… and back in town

Day 5 – Leaving Chiang Mai for Phuket

Day 5 (Part 2) – One night in Phuket

Day 6 – Leaving Phuket for Ao Nang by bus (via Phang Nga)

Day 7 – Touring Koh Phi Phi (Maya Bay, Monkey Island & Bamboo Island)

Day 7 (Part 2) – Exploring Railay, Krabi

Day 8 – Flying from Phuket to Bangkok

Day 8 (Part 2) – Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok

Day 9 – MBK, Siam Paragon… and ‘little Arabia’?

Day 10 – Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha

Day 10 – Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and finally leaving Thailand

Figures, lessons learned, and things I couldn’t do

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