Glimmering golden temples and sacred statues of Buddha; khlongs (canals), bustling with river boats and floating markets; sensuous silks and fragrant orchids; sparkling sapphires and rubies; exquisite ?spirit houses? and people with perpetual smiles on their faces -- that's what the Kingdom of Thailand is all about.
As one of the most developed and progressive nations in Southeast Asia, Thailand -- once known as Siam -- is bordered by Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia to the southeast and Malaysia to the south of Thailand's isthmus. The government is a constitutional monarchy, and Westerners are eagerly welcomed -- even though con games and price-gouging, aimed at tourists, can be rampant.
Thailand's roots reach back to the 10th century, but Bangkok itself wasn't founded until 1782, when Rama I became the first king of the Chakri Dynasty. Since that time, this ?city of angels? has been an economic and cultural powerhouse in the region. The current ruling faction is the People Power Party. However, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) staged demonstrations throughout 2008, showing their opposition to the PPP. While generally peaceful in their protests, PAD did temporarily shut down Suvarnabhumi Airport from November 25 to December 3, 2008.
Most cruisers call upon the port of Laem Chabang on the Gulf of Thailand, which is just two hours south of Bangkok, the nation's capital. Known as the Venice of the East, due to the many canals slicing through the city, Bangkok lies at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River and has been wowing tourists with its exotic temples, lavish palaces and teeming markets for decades.
If your cruise is embarking from Laem Chabang, you'll want to fly into Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and explore the city for several days before joining your ship. If you're merely calling upon Laem Chabang, your best bet is to consider shore excursions to Bangkok, although there are a few spots near Laem Chabang -- like the beach resort of Pattaya or the Jack Nicklaus-designed Laem Chabang International Country Club golf course -- that could be explored by those who have visited Bangkok extensively in the past and don't wish to make the two-hour trip north.
No matter where your travels take you, the people of Thailand will greet you with genuine smiles and a respectful wai (hands pressed together, as if in prayer, accompanied by a gentle bow of the head).
Bangkok Quick Facts
In 1782, King Rames I decided to move Thailand's capital to Bangkok from Thonburi, just across the river. The Grand Palace was built to serve as the official royal residence and has served in this capacity ever since, although the current king (Rames IX) makes Chitralada Palace his home these days. Easily toured on foot, the palace is most interesting for its unique Thai architecture, but be aware that you cannot enter any of the government buildings. On the grounds of the Grand Palace, you will also find Wat Phra Keo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Bangkok is, in fact, home to a plethora of temples and shrines, and there are several you should visit, no matter how crunched you are for time. Once you've seen the Emerald Buddha, visit Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn (www.watarun.org); Wat Po, Temple of the Reclining Buddha; and Wat Traimit, Temple of the Golden Buddha.
If you're intrigued by Thai architecture, silk and a good mystery, a visit to Jim Thompson's House (www.jimthompsonhouse.com) is in order. Jim Thompson was the ?best known foreigner in Southeast Asia? from the late 1940's through the 1960's. An architect by trade, he joined the U.S. Army during World War II and was the OSS station chief in Bangkok as the war ended. He decided to stay in Thailand and founded the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company. He also purchased land in the city and built an exquisite Thai-style home. In 1967, he mysteriously disappeared, while on vacation in the jungle of Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Today, you may tour his fascinating home.
Standard Thai is the official language of the land and is spoken by nearly 65 million people. There are actually several versions of the language -- street, elegant, rhetorical, religious and royal -- used in different situations. You'll hear/use street (informal between friends) and elegant (more formal) Thai most often.
English is generally understood and spoken at the airport, in the major tourist sections of the city and in hotels that cater to Westerners. Many Thai people do not speak English, but they do know a few key words, so you can generally get your point across.
To/From Laem Chabang: If you're embarking from Laem Chabang, your cruise line will offer an air/hotel/transfer package. Most lines will also allow you to buy the ground transfer a la carte.
If you'd prefer to go it alone, you can do so in a number of ways. The easiest is to book a transfer with a taxi or limousine service, like Image Limousine (www.imagelimo.com). A one-way, private sedan transfer from Bangkok to Laem Chabang should cost approximately 2,000 to 2,800 baht (per carload). If you're a bit more adventurous, take the bus from Bangkok's Eastern Bus Terminal to the cruise port for just 100 baht per person. The roads between Bangkok and Laem Chabang are paved and modern, and you'll travel south, along Asian Highway route AH19.
If your cruise stops at Laem Chabang on a one- or two-day visit, most lines will offer roundtrip motor coach service from the cruise port to downtown Bangkok. Once dropped off in the city, you're on your own for several hours to explore at your leisure. Alternately, you may arrange for a car service from the port, but the cruise lines' DIY options are often cheaper.
In Bangkok: Bangkok traffic can be horrendous, but you'll be able to get around easily and cheaply in the following ways:
Via Taxi. Taxis are easily hailed just about anywhere in Bangkok. The meter starts once you hop in; if the driver wishes to negotiate a fee, ask him to put the meter on, or get out and find another taxi. Various surcharges are levied when traffic is heavy.
Via Tuk-tuk. Motorized, three-wheeled carts called tuk-tuks are a popular and quick way to get around town. Just be aware that this mode of transportation isn't the safest, and you can get a bit dirty as dust is kicked up from the road. Negotiate a fee with the driver before accepting a ride.
Via Skytrain. The Bangkok Transit System's Skytrain (www.bts.co.th) offers two lines, the Sukhumvit and Silom, which run between 6 a.m. and midnight. You can buy one-day or three-day, unlimited-use passes at many hotels and at all stations. Via Subway. You can ride the subway (www.bangkokmetro.co.th) for 14 to 36 baht, depending on the distance traveled.
Via Bus. Various types of buses (air-conditioned and without A/C) travel across the city and are run by Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (www.bmta.co.th). Chao Phraya Express Boat. For about 10 baht, you'll be able to get to a variety of tourist attractions, via this ferry service. Many Riverside hotels have piers for easy, hop-on, hop-off access.
Staying in Touch
Bangkok is a wired city, and most hotels offer Internet access. There is also a plethora of Internet cafes across the capital -- you can't miss them as you walk down the street in major tourist or business areas. Expect to pay between 0.50 and 3 baht per minute. Before logging on, be sure to check if there is a minimum fee to connect.
Gourmands will tell you that Bangkok offers a heavenly array of restaurants and bars, with something delectable in every price range. Thai cuisine is a spicy blend of flavors, based on lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, basil, garlic, onion, ginger, coriander, mint, chili peppers, curry and eggplant. Popular menu items include vegetarian or shrimp spring rolls; chicken, beef or pork satay skewers, served with a coconut and peanut dipping sauce; pineapple fried rice; and Pad Thai, stir-fried noodles with eggs, tamarind, fish sauce, bean sprouts and red chili peppers, plus chicken, shrimp or tofu.
Have you tried the deep-fried banana flower or crispy morning glories? If not, head to Tongue Thai Restaurant (tel: 66-2-6399189), just around the corner from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Chareoun Krung Road. You'll find traditional Thai dishes, such as pad Thai, green and yellow curry, fish balls and lemongrass soup. The chef prepares each dish to be a spicy treat. If you require a milder version, just ask. The waitstaff can also provide photo menus if you're new to Thai food.
Want to mix some serious shopping with an outstanding lunch? Head to the Jim Thompson café (tel: 66-2-2559813) at Japanese department store Isetan on Rajadamri Road. If you've got some picky eaters in your group, this is a good bet, since they offer traditional Thai cuisine, Western dishes and sumptuous desserts.
For an upscale seafood buffet with a knockout river view through floor-to-ceiling windows, Lord Jim's (tel: 66-2-6599000 ext. 7680-1) at the Mandarin Oriental is the place. With an emphasis on seafood, you'll gorge yourself with scallops, tiger prawns, lobster, crab, mussels, clams, snapper and more. Meat lovers take note: Lord Jim's also serves succulent Wagyu beef.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Thailand's currency is the baht (pronounced ?bot?). Each baht (THB) equals 100 satang. Note denominations include 1,000, 500, 100, 50, 20 and 10. You'll find coins for 50, 25, 10, 5, 2 and 1 satang. We recommend visiting www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates.
While MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Diners Club are widely accepted, it's a good idea to carry baht for small market purchases. ATM's are everywhere in Bangkok: at all banks, in most hotels and restaurants, throughout the various shopping districts and at the airport. All major banks exchange foreign currency, and most ATM's will accept U.S.-issued debit and credit cards.
There really isn't much to do or see at the Laem Chabang cruise terminal, located in the Chonburi Province. This is Thailand's busiest commercial port and -- while Princess Cruises embarks from this location, and other cruise lines call here for Bangkok -- there's not much to do in the immediate vicinity. If you're a golfer, you may be interested in playing at the Laem Chabang International Country Club (www.laemchabanggolf.com), or head to the resort area of Pattaya for the beaches -- not nearly as good as Phuket, though -- and shopping.
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