Thailand: Sandy Beaches to Bustling Streets
Since COVID began, I have been at home, thoroughly immersed in work and routine life. I was never really an enthusiastic traveller, much less when nobody pushed me. I went on a few trips during college (mainly because of FOMO) and two visits to Coorg and Chikmagalur while in Bangalore. Laziness, finance and my tendency to stay clear of risks led to the state where I kept desiring to travel without concrete action.
Keeping this behaviour in sight, I always desired a partner who thinks differently from me when it comes to travelling. And God just listened to me. My spouse is a travel enthusiast (perhaps because she hasn't travelled much till now). So when she nudged me to go on a trip somewhere, I decided to break my bubble and take on the adventure.
I have never been to any place outside of India. So, a foreign trip was definitely on my mind for a long time. When planning, we considered many options - Bali, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore — all countries nearby to India.
At last, we settled on Thailand, partly because the flight tickets were the cheapest at the time of booking for Thailand. Another destination top on my list was Bali, Indonesia. However, the lack of a direct flight from Jaipur/Delhi to Bali meant that I had to spend some extra time on the flight (along with increased flight costs), so we decided to go with Thailand.
We had planned to visit Thailand for our honeymoon in January 2023, but we had to reschedule the trip due to unforeseen circumstances. We decided to reschedule it for June, which, although a low season in Thailand, has humid yet decent weather for roaming around. Meanwhile, we went to Manali for a short honeymoon trip.
I did some research on popular payment methods in Thailand. For one thing, cash is still king there, at least for a tourist. Many shops accept QR code-based payments, and a few also accept cards. VISA and MasterCard rule in card space. The acceptability of Diners Club is pretty much limited to Airport lounges. My HDFC Diners Black Card was turned down everywhere I tried.
Anticipating this situation, I had already kept enough Thai Baht for day-to-day expenses. I got an exchange rate of 0.4 baht per rupee in Jaipur. In Phuket and Bangkok, I saw a few exchanges offering rates of 0.42 baht. Don't exchange your money at airports; instead, carry at least ฿4400 for Visa-on-arrival fees and a few hundred bahts to pay for transportation from the airport to your hotel.
I last boarded an aeroplane in March 2020 when I returned to Jaipur from Bangalore, seeing the signs of imminent lockdown. After that, I didn't get any chance to board a flight. So I was very excited about air travel again. Alas, my passport also got an opportunity to be useful to me after sitting idly for so long.
During this trip, I got to visit three airports - Jaipur Airport (JAI), Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) and Phuket International Airport (HKT).
The plan was to fully utilise Diners Black's unlimited international lounge accesses. However, due to hiccups by HDFC, the add-on card for my wife didn't arrive on time, so we had to settle with one Diners Black with unlimited lounge accesses and one DreamFolks card with only two lounge accesses. We decided to utilise only the two lounge accesses available to us. Both of these visits were at the DMK airport - one in the Coral Executive Lounge in the domestic terminal and the other in the Miracle Lounge in the international terminal. I was unsure if they would allow my wife as both cards had my name, but they decided to show two separate visits for me. Makes sense, as the cards were different.
Thailand provides visas on arrival for Indian tourists. We reached DMK early morning at 5 AM. As we had a subsequent (but not connecting) flight to Phuket at 10 AM, we were confused about whether to take the Visa first or go to immigration first. Later we figured it out. If we had a connecting flight, we could have approached immigration and claimed our baggage first before getting a Visa at the final destination airport. But as our flight was not connecting, we had to get the Visa first. There was a long queue for Visa-on-arrival. It took us a good 1 hour to get our passports stamped. The fee is supposed to be ฿2000, but they took ฿2200 per person from us. The process is simple. You fill out a form and stand in a queue. When your turn comes, provide all your documents (including flight tickets, hotel bookings etc.), pay the fees and give your passport to them. After some time, they will come back outside with batches of stamped passports.
After getting our Visa, we proceeded to the immigration counter. Here also, the process was smooth. They took our fingerprints and photo and put an entry stamp on our passports. After this we claimed our baggage and waited for 2 hours to board our next flight.
Another thing that we researched was whether to use an Indian sim with international roaming activated or buy a local sim. International roaming packs of Indian telecom operators are quite expensive, so it was economical to buy the local sim.
I read on the Internet that the sim providers at airports sell sim for a premium, so it is better to buy from the city. My experience is different. We didn't buy the AIS sim at the airport and waited to reach Phuket city. Inside the city, we didn't find any vendor selling AIS sim. Everybody was selling dTac sims. The pricing was the same everywhere, ฿299, but the benefits provided were different. At last, we decided to settle on a travel sim by dTac, which needed no documents and provided 50 minutes of calling and (not truly) unlimited internet for 7 days. This was more than sufficient for our daily needs.
Several transport options are available at the Phuket airport to reach your hotel. The private taxi costs ฿800 for the Patong area, and a shared minibus costs ฿180 per person. We opted for the minibus because it was economical and didn't compromise on comfort either. Around ten people can sit in a minibus, and the driver drops you at the hotel.
We reached our hotel, The Silver Resortel, at around 2 PM. I booked this hotel mainly because of the excellent reviews on booking.com and its proximity to Patong Beach and Bangla Road. The hotel was equipped with all the necessary amenities and facilities. Like many other hotels in Phuket, they asked for a security deposit of ฿500 which was refunded at checkout.
It has been 5 years since I stepped into a beach town. So, the first thing I did after a quick nap was to run towards the beach. We forgot to take the free beach towels from the hotel, so I had to sit in the sand. In a way, it was a good thing. The sea was rough in Phuket as it is the rainy season there. It was first beach visit for my wife, so she was equally excited. We sat on the beach for 2 hours, played in the pristine, chilled water and thoroughly enjoyed the sunset.
After coming from the beach, we decided to search the area for a good Indian Vegetarian Restaurant. While roaming around, we reached the famous Bangla Road, the party point of Phuket. And boy, what a spectacular scene this was! People were wandering around freely. Bargirls and ladyboys wearing skinny clothes try to lure customers into the clubs. Open clubs playing music, customers having "deep" conversations while sipping beer, a lot of vendors selling every kind of stuff and people performing on the road. Being in such an environment was a new experience, but I did not feel intimidated or threatened by anyone.
In our search for food, we reached Amritsr Restaurant and ordered Kulchas. We weren't expecting good taste, but we were surprised. The food was tasty, though somewhat bland. The waiters and manager treated us nicely, and we left with a good impression. Throughout my trip, I did one thing wrong - converting Thai Bahts to INR every time I decided to make a purchase. Comparing the prices in Thailand to their exchange rate pricing in India was incorrect. This made me conscious as I found everything expensive compared to India. We spent ฿180 at Amritsr, which seemed very expensive for a Kulcha. But we were to get more surprises in days to come.
While planning for the next day, we were confused about tours to Phi Phi Island or James Bond Island. After watching some Youtube videos, we decided to visit Phi Phi Islands this time and leave James Bond Islands for another trip. While travelling back to the hotel from Amritsr restaurant, we stopped at a few tour agents and queried about the tour plans. The thing with these tour operators is that they quote exorbitant prices. It is always advisable to bargain and try to bring the costs down.
The first agent gave us a quote of ฿3600 for a two-person trip. After haggling with her, she pretended to talk to her boss and agreed to ฿3000. We were unsatisfied with this price, so we decided to try elsewhere. The last agent we tried finally gave us a price of ฿2500 for two people. On talking to him about Phuket City Tour, he agreed to a total cost of ฿4600 for two persons. So that was what we could bargain. ฿1250 per person for Phi Phi Island Tour and ฿1100 per person for the City tour. We tried to negotiate a bit more, but the agent did not relent, so we decided not to pursue further.
The next day started early. The tour started at 7.30 in the morning. The minibus picked us up from the hotel, and we were transferred to the eastern coast of Phuket, where we were provided breakfast. As vegetarians, we had to satisfy ourselves with fruits.
After breakfast, we boarded the speed boat along with 30-35 people. This was my first sea ride, so I was quite excited about it. We visited 4-5 islands throughout the day and stayed on the boat for over 5 hours. We had lunch on Phi Phi Island, a fully commercialised island with many resorts and restaurants.
Our tour also included Snorkelling, but we weren't confident about it, so we decided not to do it. I am definitely going to try it someday in future, though.
After a gruelling day at sea, we came back to our base at around 6 PM. From there, it took another 1 hour to reach our hotel in the Patong area.
For Dinner, we decided to visit Hare Krishna Vegetarian Indian Restaurant . This was one of the most economical yet satisfying restaurants we tried on this trip. The food was good, the hospitality was great, and the bill was pocket-friendly.
On our way back to the hotel at night, we decided to go back to the tour agent from whom we took the Phi Phi Island tour and booked the Phuket City tour package for ฿2100 for two pax.
The city tour was scheduled from 10 AM to 4 PM with no lunch included. We visited Tiger Park, Big Buddha, Chalong Temple, a Cashew Nut factory, a Honey farm and Elephant trekking.
The Tiger Park has many tigers ranging from big, medium and small sizes, which are domesticated in such a way that you can go near them, touch them and pat them. I don't know if they were drugged, but I didn't feel good seeing them. I didn't see any visible signs of brutality there, so I don't know if it is just the result of their upbringing in human vicinity or the effect of any drug.
Big Buddha has a very large idol of Buddha and a small temple dedicated to Buddha. It has some good scenes. Apart from that, I don't see any significant value in this place.
The next stop was the Chalong Temple. This is another one of several Buddhist temples we visited on this trip. There are many temples in this complex, all of which were alien to us. So we did what a Dharmic believer would: bow and pray to the idol.
After this, we went to a Cashew Nut factory and Honey Farm. It was likely the collaboration of our tour operator with these two enterprises to help increase their sales to foreign tourists. The products were of good quality and unique because you probably won't find similar things anywhere else.
After these, we went to the last stop - Elephant Trekking at Nopparat Elephant Camp. I regret going there. I could clearly see overworked elephants and their mahouts using a sharp objects to pierce them and keep them on track. However, at that time, I enjoyed the experience of sitting on an elephant. The mahout even allowed me to freely sit in his place and ride the elephant. This was risky and could have resulted in an accident, but nothing wrong happened. I would not support them by going there again. But the other side of this story is that this money is the only way the elephants could survive while being in captivity.
This marked the end of our city tour. We were dropped off at our hotel by the tour operator. After taking some rest, we decided to head to the beach to enjoy the vastness of the ocean for one last time for a while.
After returning from the beach, we decided to go to another vegetarian restaurant - Kailash Parbat . We found it to be okayish despite its high ratings on Google.
After dinner, we booked our minibus to Phuket airport, which cost us ฿200 per pax. We had to board our minibus early the following day; we decided to bid farewell to Phuket and left for the hotel after roaming around Bangla Road for an hour.
I found Phuket to be a friendly and safe city to roam around. We missed visiting many things - the most prominent being Phuket Town. However, we thoroughly enjoyed whatever we could see. The local people we interacted with were humble and behaved patiently and calmly with us. Being a tourist city, people will try to coax you, so one needs to be alert constantly; overall, the people appeared friendly.
Before I start describing the trip, let me spend a moment praising Bangkok. I have not travelled extensively, so my experience is limited. I haven't seen any city more modern than Bangkok. I feel pity for the condition of Bangalore when I compare it to Bangkok. Even if I compare the poshest portions of both cities, there is simply no comparison. Everything was absolutely top-notch - the roads, the traffic management, the comfort of pedestrians, and the traffic infrastructure. I especially loved the public transport of this city. It was functional and well-connected with each other. All three modes - buses, MTR and BTS function together in tandem to serve the city, which also helps in relieving the traffic on roads. Absolute beauty!!!
The next day we reached Phuket airport to board our flight to Bangkok by 7.30 AM. We had to wait at the airport till 10 AM for the flight to take off. We reached Bangkok by 1.30 PM and took a Grab cab to our hotel. I liked the interface of Grab more than any other ride-hailing app I have used till now. It was easy to use and smooth (looking at you, Uber). The ride cost us ฿310, which is not that high if I compare it to the bus fare of ฿116 I paid while returning to the airport later in the trip.
The hotel I booked was the Lyf Sukhumvit 8 Bangkok. The hotel looks nice on paper, but the lack of basic facilities and the farce of shared spaces (I assume this is to save costs) made it a not-so-value-for-money hotel for us. The room was tiny, particularly for a couple. There was no telephone, fridge or wardrobe in the room. You need to go to the reception to get all the necessary daily use items like towels, comb, toothbrushes, pen etc. It is usual for 3-star hotels to not provide these, but I haven't seen a 4-star hotel not providing them anywhere in the room. The bathroom was shared one - meaning that you can't use the toilet and bath area simultaneously because the door is sliding without locks.
However, there were some positives as well. The interior of the hotel was very innovative. The ideas of a shared kitchen and shared workspace on the ground floor were unique.
As we left Phuket quite early, we didn't get a chance to have breakfast. So we were starving when we reached Bangkok. We decided to explore the hotel later and find a restaurant for quick lunch. We found Dosa King to be very near, so we proceeded to have lunch there. We liked this restaurant so much that we came here twice after this visit. The food here was excellent, the ambience was good, it didn't hurt our pockets much, and the owners were amiable.
As we were filling our stomachs, we started looking for a nearby mall for a quick visit. And we found one at walking distance - Terminal 21. It is a massive mall with many shops selling various items, primarily apparel and related accessories.
The next day, we decided to roam the city on our own. We had a list of monuments ready to visit - Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Grand Palace, Emerald Buddha, and Wat Saket. The idea was to explore public transportation in Bangkok.
We first boarded the MTR to reach Wat Pho. It was my first experience travelling on a metro train. I never found any need to travel in a metro in India. Bangkok has two types of metro - the overhead BTS and the underground MTR. We reached an MTR station and got the token by paying at an automatic vending machine. Next, we boarded the train, which was crowded, but still, the people organised themselves nicely.
The day was very humid, and the sun was shining brightly. We were drenched during our short walk from the MTR station to Wat Pho. But alas, we reached there. The entry fee to Wat Pho was a whooping ฿200 per person, which is too high. But then I realised the entry fee for foreign tourists to enter historical monuments in Jaipur. And it all started making perfect sense.
There are many Buddhist temples on the premises of Wat Pho. We got bored walking around because we didn't opt for a guide. Nothing made any sense as we were not familiar with the history. But I guess, even with a guide, my feelings would not have been any different.
After our experience of Wat Pho, we decided to rethink our visit to Grand Palace. Seeing the considerable entry fee of ฿500 and an expectation of an experience similar to Wat Pho, we decided it was best to go to something other than Grand Palace. But mind it, the Grand Palace is the most visited tourist attraction in Bangkok, and if you are interested in museums, you should definitely see it.
Next, we decided to visit Wat Arun across the Chao Phraya River. It was a long walk to reach the boat ferry. It is yet another overcrowded Buddhist temple with people doing photoshoots in traditional Thai costumes.
From Wat Arun, we decided to go to Wat Saket. To reach Wat Saket, we had to take another ferry to go back to the other side of the city and then board a bus to Democracy Monument and then walk from there.
While we were walking towards Wat Saket, we found another attraction - the Statue of King Rama III . It was a nice little resting point for us with some good photo points.
We wanted to go to Wat Saket as it is termed a good sunset point by many online blogs. Unfortunately, when we reached there, the weather had turned cloudy, and the sun was nowhere in sight. We waited there for 2 hours for the sun to show up, but this didn't happen, and we had to return disappointed. Nevertheless, we clicked some lovely pictures.
After Wat Saket, we decided to call it a day, and returned to our hotel after having dinner at Saras Veg Food . This was our most expensive dinner on the trip, but I found the food average.
While walking to Saras Restaurant, we stumbled upon an Ardhanarishvara statue on a busy street. I was pleasantly surprised to see this. You perhaps won't find this iconography in many places in India.
The next day of our trip was solely reserved for mall visits. Bangkok is known for its huge malls, and we decided to spend one day visiting them. We didn't have anything specific in mind for shopping. We visited the Platinum Mall, the Palladium Mall, The City Complex and The Market. We completely missed Central World, the largest mall in Bangkok. It never came up in our research somehow. We will visit it someday, hopefully.
After having dinner at Maa Pure Vegetarian Indian Restaurant , we decided to walk to the bus stand. On our way, we passed through Baiyoke Night Market , which is a wholesale cloth market. I saw a lot of Indians shopping there. As there was a light shower, we decided to leave the place and reach the bus stop quickly.
The day brought an end to our visit to Thailand. The next day, though our flight was for 7.30 PM in the evening, we packed our luggage, had an early lunch at Dosa King (again) and left for DMK airport by around 1.00 PM to avoid paying the hotel for one extra day. We had to wait outside airport security for 3 hours before our luggage was checked in. Once we cleared the airport security, we decided to go to Miracle Lounge and sit until our boarding started. However, our flight got delayed due to technical issues, and we reached Jaipur Airport late by 2 hours.
We jumped our initial estimation by around 10%, primarily because of the costs incurred due to the rescheduling of flights. As there were four flights in our itinerary, the costs increased significantly. We could have planned it better by booking Jaipur to Phuket and Bangkok to Jaipur flights. But Jaipur to Bangkok return flights were cheaper when we booked them initially.
Our next significant expense was on hotels, food and activities. I found The Silver Resortel for a reasonable price, but the decision to opt for Lyf could have been better. We spent most of our daytime outside the hotel, so we could have stayed in a 3-star hotel for a much lower price.
We wanted to eat in vegetarian restaurants only. And vegetarian restaurants in Thailand are rare. Due to this, the cost of eating in such restaurants is high. As the demand is high, restaurants serve non-vegetarian food to every stratum of society. But, these Indian vegetarian restaurants have to aim at tourists only due to less local demand. So accordingly, their prices are high as well. We had to spend around ฿1000 a day on food, despite eating homemade thepla for breakfast for the first 3 days of our trip.
Activities in Phuket were another significant expense. These could not be avoided, and by going in the low season, we saved quite a bit on it. According to some YouTube blogs, what we did for ฿1250 requires at least ฿1700-1800 in the regular season. So definitely, we saved a bit here.
We found the shopping to be expensive there. I don't know why people go to Bangkok to buy stuff. I found everything to be costly by Indian standards. It may be futile to convert everything into INR, or perhaps people want to feel nostalgic about Bangkok by buying stuff. Nevertheless, we didn't purchase many unnecessary things and spent only on souvenirs for friends and family.
We missed visiting many attractions in Bangkok and Phuket, most notably Phuket Old Town, James Bond Islands, Karon Beach, Kata Beach in Phuket and Central World and various Night Markets in Bangkok. Still, there will always be such things in a travel plan. You simply can't cover everything.
Nevertheless, Thailand was my first international trip, which will always be memorable for this reason alone. I loved visiting this amazing country, and the hospitality of the Thai people really won me. I plan to come to Thailand again to explore its northern ends soon.