Bangkok: Travel Secrets

I love Thailand! I’ve been to Bangkok on work or leisure, more than a dozen times already, and can never get enough of it. Many of my friends keep asking me for “tips” on the destination. So I thought I’d pen it down in a post, once and for all. A word of caution: A vibrant city like Bangkok keeps evolving. This advice is valid as on Jan 2012, and may be more relevant to Indian travellers that are budget-conscious, than those that travel with no limits. So, here goes…

  • Visa rates keep changing – Check the latest consulate webpages to factor it into your plans
  • Thailand allows visa-on-arrival for many countries, but if you’re travelling with family, I’d suggest you get the paperwork done before leaving your country – The consulate is very efficient in processing visa requests
  • From the airport, a cab ride into the city center will cost you about 350-400 THB plus toll fees; If you’re travelling alone, you can also consider taking the Airport Express (skytrain) to a central location
  • Bangkok has terrible traffic congestion for much of the day; The fastest (and often, cheapest) way to get around is to take the BTS skytrain or underground MRT
  • Local SIM providers offer many options for prepaid cards with wild variations in call/internet rates; Find out the best plan for your needs by asking more questions on sms/call/data charges
  • If you’re travelling on work, and include some entertainment stops, research to find out if your ticket can be purchased at a discount by showing your work papers; Many places will also offer “international tourist” discounts!
  • Unlike most places in India, you may not save much money by showing up at the venue and buying the ticket – Online ticket sales will probably be at the same price but include free transport to and from your hotel
  • Most hotels will have “contact cards” at the reception with the hotel’s contact details and address printed in both Thai and English – Carry copies with you since many locals do not speak/understand English
  • At most popular malls in the city, there will be a designated place to queue up for cabs/taxis; The queues will be long during peak hours but are the quickest way to get a cab, unless you want to pay atrocious amounts for a “tuk-tuk” ride back to your hotel
  • Be wary of tuk-tuks that charge you very low fares or offer to take you for free, in exchange for a “quick stop” on the way. Google to know more on this.
  • If you’re travelling with kids, do consider including SafariWorld/MarineWorld, Siam Ocean World and DreamWorld in your itinerary; Bangkok’s Dusit Zoo is also a fun way to spend the day
  • If there’s one mall you must visit during your stay, make it MBK (National Stadium); 4th floor is full of gadgets & electronics, 6th floor has an inexpensive food court and the 5th floor has a newly-opened upmarket food court
  • Siam Paragon also has a very good food court on its lobby level, in addition to Siam Ocean World
  • If you’re a vegetarian, please check before you order; Many Asian countries include eggs, fish and chicken in their definition of “veg”!
  • Thailand offers some amazing architecture, and I’d recommend Wat Traimit, Wat Po and Wat Ben. If you’re visiting temples, research the dress code – many of them do not allow shorts, sleeveless shirts and other casual wear.
  • The Chaophraya River Cruise is a nice and expensive way to see all the major sights along the river while enjoying an international buffet, but you can catch a ferry at very low cost by hopping on to river taxis if you’re in the mood for some adventure
  • The Siam Niramit cultural show is a musical extravaganza of very high production values (similar to the Alangkarn shown in Pattaya), but plan to reach there a few hours ahead of the show time to experience the rest
  • Thai folks are warm, friendly and speak in a peculiar dialect of English – you may take a while to understand their version but when you do, it’s fun!

Remember, Bangkok can be a perfectly valid “family destination”, and is nothing like the reputation it used to enjoy some years ago (unless, of course, you go looking for it). Hope you get to experience all that it has to offer…

Mumbai Local

After some years, I found myself taking one of Mumbai’s local trains to go from one end of the city to another.  I also ended up tweeting about everything I experienced during that journey.  This short poem has evolved from those tweets…

LED displays
Improved ventilation
Faster fans
And cushioned seats
Mobile phones
Seem to be with all of you
Everything looks new in a Mumbai Local

Shoe-shine boys
AH Wheeler
The smell of popcorn
Eunuchs onboard
Pocket radios for some
And a Ray Ban too!
Life sure is interesting on a Mumbai Local

Abusive cop
Scared little kid
Girlfriend-Boyfriend
And an office exec
Vegetable vendors
And a Parsi bawa too
Every one takes the Mumbai Local

Fast train screams past
Marine Lines sea breeze
I arrive at Churchgate
By a window seat
Reached in no time
In 6 rupees too!
Is there anything better than a Mumbai Local?

Bombay to Goa!

I’ve been driving for more than 15 years.  There were years when the office commute itself was a 50 km/day affair (in Mumbai’s traffic that’s quite a distance to cover).  There were also the occassional trips to Pune via the Expressway, but even on a same-day-return journey, that added up to just about 380 kms in a day.  I have always harboured the desire to drive coast-to-coast across the US, and also explore India by road.  But, hadn’t attempted a really “long drive”… until last week.

We had planned to do a Bombay-to-Goa with both our kids, and I’m happy to report that we all made it back in one piece, and are raring to go again!

The distance is about 650 kms, each way.  And, to get the full experience of a long drive, we decided to do it in one stretch.  The planned drive time was about 14 hours, each way, but we ended up clocking nearly 17 hours!  It was a memorable trip, and I was really pleased that, in spite of a back operation a few years ago, I was able to do this.  We chose the superb NH4 route instead of the usual NH17 one, and it was a fantastic experience…

Here’s what I learned from my first long drive:

– Start by 5 am for a >12-hour road trip; A half-hour in the morning is worth two by evening
– If travelling with kids, carry enough food in the cabin (not in the boot), in case you’re stranded
– On a long road trip, the journey is as important as the destination; Don’t be in a hurry to “reach”
– Wear comfortable attire and shoes – whatever you’re most comfortable in, including floaters
– Plan your route in advance and key-in important via points into your GPS – it will do wonders!
– Don’t start with six options and assume that you’ll decide on the way; Re read above point
– Carry enough water and consume it as frequently as possible; Car ACs dehydrate you
– Don’t take a new car / new pair of shoes / new camera on a long road trip; I didn’t
– Don’t forget to pack your sense of humour with you – no one likes a cabin full of grump
– Know a little about the kind of food you’ll encounter en route e.g. Kolhapur = Spice
– There are at least 20 people in Goa who run at 5.30 am; Watch out for them when you drive!

For the record, the best way to go from Bombay to Goa is from Mumbai to Pune via the expressway and then onto NH4 (buttery-smooth six-lane ribbon of tar!) past Satara – Kolhapur – Nipani (right turn) – Ajara – Amboli (ghats) – Sawantwadi – joining NH17 and then onto Mapusa/Panjim/Madgaon.  Also for the record, the worst way to cross the ghats (mountainous region) is via Anmod.

For those of you who’re interested in our particular travel log, here’s what happened:

(All distances from Powai) Started at 5.15 am. McDonalds @ 6.12 am, 42km. Hit NH4 near Baner (Pune) @ 7.45 am, 145k.  Khed tollbooth @ 8.45 am, 180k. Passed thru Khandala ghats (before Satara) @ 9.30 am, 225k. Next tollbooth @ 249k. Break for lunch @ 1.15 in McDonald’s (opp. side) at 384k. Past Hattari SEZ @ 3.15 pm, 460k.  Entered Belgaum city @ 4.30 pm.  Went via Khanapur road (NH4A) upto Anmod ghats.  Took a few wrong turns trying to follow a “shortcut”, and got lost in the wilderness of a 133 sq. km nature reserve with no sign of civilisation until about 9 pm, when we hit NH4 again near Ponda.  (This last part is entirely optional, and I don’t suggest you try it.)  Then, hit the road to Madgaon and reached Colva @ 10 pm.

(All distances from Colva) Started @ 5.30am. Sawantwadi @ 92k, 7.45am. Amboli ghats end  (Kamat’s hotel) @ 8.55 am. Hotel Minerva @ 2km before Ajara @ 10:15 am, 152k – very clean loo.  Hit NH4 @ 12PM, 192k.  No decent place to eat except McD @ Kolhapur and Sai Food Court @ 265k and some more options @ 285k.  Taswade tollplaza @ 2.35p, 315k. Asal Satara has great food on the opp. side via service road @ 355 k. Last tollbooth on Mum-Pun expressway @ 8pm, 540k. Expressway ends @McDonald’s @ 8.20pm, 570k.  Then, pray that the city traffic does not take all the joy out of your long drive (as it did to our’s).

Happy journey…

P.S. Thanks for all the help, DM.

Read Also: Bombay to Goa – Part Two

Amazing Thailand

I love Thailand! 

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Thailand on four earlier occassions, some work and some vacation.  And, it was for a business partner meet that I visited the cities of Bangkok and Pattaya, this July.  Here’s what happened next…

Checked in at a lovely sea-side hotel in Pattaya
Headed for the Pattaya Tower observatory
Shopped till I dropped!
Fish Spa pedicure in the mall
Much-needed foot massage
More shopping!
An awesome traditional Thai massage experience
Business conference and Gala night dinner
Won an award for excellent business support provided!!!
Walked on Walking Street till 2.30 am
Headed to Bangkok, stopping at the giant Gems Gallery enroute
Visited the magnificent Temple of the Golden Buddha (Wat Traimit)
Dinner cruise on the Chaophraya river
Shot all the glorious temples on both sides of the river, from the boat!
Quick trip to another Thai temple before breakfast
4 hours in the shopping maze of MBK
And finally, took the evening flight back to Bombay

What a ride!!!

P.S. Photos will be posted on the photoblog, through July-Aug 2010

Location Based Future

TechCrunch recently featured a guest post written by the famous Robert Scoble – one of the most popular (stalked) users of location-based services and someone who has more than 8,000 friends on Foursquare already!  The post was about what the location-based world could look like in 2012, and what might keep it from happening:

It’s January 2012 and you’ve just gotten your new Android 3.0-based phone. You’re going on a road trip so you start up the newly-released Foursquare. Gone are the checkins of 2010. Now you tell it where you’re going. This time we’re headed to Harrah’s at Stateline, Nevada. But this is no Foursquare you’ve ever seen before. They’ve finally integrated Waze, Tungle.me, and Yelp information into it. So, let’s discover more of what happens on our trip.

As we pull out of my driveway in Half Moon Bay we cross a geofence that sends alerts to the various systems that I’ve connected to Foursquare. Tungle.me knows I’m meeting Mike Arrington for dinner at Harrah’s. He gets an alert on his mobile phone that I’m on my way and Glympse sends him the ability to watch my progress so he’ll know if I’ll be on time. Plancast lets me know that four friends are attending the Black Eyed Peas concert at Harrah’s tonight. I see that Siri is offering to find me tickets, so I ask it to find me some tickets under $400 each…

… When we arrive at Harrah’s, we cross another geofence which lets Arrington know we’re here. It also checks us into Foursquare, and tells us: “there are 29 other people we know about, including three of your friends.” Then Siri (which received a message from our geofence) chimes in with: “are you still having dinner with Mike Arrington at 8 p.m. at Friday’s Station Steak & Seafood Grill?” I answer: “yes.” That goes away, but on screen is a Yelp review about that restaurant and I realize that the attire is dressy and I only have jeans and t-shirts. So, I ask Siri: “are there any other four-star restaurants like Friday’s Station nearby?” It answers with a list from Yelp and then it starts showing places that still have spots left for us this evening by querying OpenTable’s APIs. Siri then tells me it has found two seats for tonight’s show at Harrah’s outdoor arena, and asks if it should buy them from Stubhub?

Read the whole thing.  It’s fascinating.  And, the best part is that most of the technology Scoble talks about is already here!  It’s just not talking to each other, yet.