Workin’ on our Night Moves

by Nancy Bestor

Bangkok is busy seemingly at all times of the day and night. Like many other Asian cities, locals seem to live a lot of their lives outdoors. Thus people are everywhere, and when you combine that with the tuk-tuks, taxi’s, autos, delivery trucks, motorbikes and more, the city is bustling.

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So a night bicycle tour of Bangkok, although rated easy due to its flat terrain and approximately eight miles of riding, is a bit challenging. But based on the experience Bob and I had on the tour earlier this year, it is very much worth the challenge.

We booked our evening tour through Grasshopper Adventures. The three and a half hour experience cost about $36 per person, and included a mountain bike with lights, helmet, guide, water, snacks, and insurance. The tour got rolling around 6pm, and right off the bat our “peleton” of ten cyclists was riding down busy alleys and narrow paths. Cars and people didn’t really move out of the way for us, so we had to ride somewhat aggressively (a little hard for me) to maintain our position on the roads.

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We took our bikes on the ferry across the Chao Phraya River, Thailand’s biggest river, and traveled the back roads to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, and Wat Pho. Along the way we were cheered by children playing in the streets, high-fived by security officers, and gawked at by more than a few locals. It was awesome. A nighttime visit to the temples of Bangkok is a special experience. There are few, if any, tourists, and their stunning architecture is lit up to highlight ornate carvings and vivid colors.

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We also rode our bikes to, and even through, the Bangkok Flower Market (Pak Khlong Talat). It’s open 24 hours, but is busiest at night, when hoteliers and restauranteurs travel from far and wide to purchase flowers for their establishments. The market was stunning, and we rode our bikes directly through some of its warehouses before parking on the street and walking the rest for a slightly slower and up close experience of its stalls. We also ate some delicious chicken satay from a street vendor.

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We rode down narrow alleys that would be difficult to navigate without a guide and Bob and I even got lost at one point. We had stopped to take a photo of a temple, and before we knew it, the rest of our group and guide was gone. We quickly pedaled one way and then another down a street outside the temple, but to no avail. A kind Thai woman hollered at us and pointed in the direction that our tour had gone, and we found our way back to the rest of our people.

This tour was definitely a highlight of our Bangkok stay, and it showed us another side of this busy city. I’m not sure I’d want to commute by bike in Bangkok, but I’d highly recommend a night tour by bike with Grasshopper Adventures.

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We’re Only Happy When We’re Shopping

by Nancy Bestor

I’m fascinated with markets. Show me a market—any kind, anywhere, but especially overseas—and I am happy to wander aimlessly up and down aisle after aisle, perusing the goods on sale, watching folks make purchases, and getting a glimpse into how people in other countries live their lives. On our recent visit to Bangkok, Bob and I visited their Amulet Market, Flower Market, Talingchan Floating Market, Flashlight Market, Chatuchak Weekend Market, and the Wang Lung Market—all in just four days. Each and every market was mesmerizing, just like Bangkok itself.

When our frequent flyer tickets routed us through Thailand’s capital, on our way to New Zealand, we thanked our lucky stars, and arranged to stop over for five nights. We’d last visited Thailand 13 years ago, and had only spent two days in Bangkok, so we felt we were long overdue for another visit. We booked lodging in an out of the way neighborhood, which, although it required extra work to get to and from, proved to be a highlight of our trip. The Siamotif Hotel is an old wooden house, the hotel owner’s original family home. It is located in the traditional district of Thonburi, directly on the Bangkok Noi canal which is part of the Chao Phraya River. My is the proprietor of this charming nine room hotel, which cost us about $100 per night. Although not cheap by Thailand standards, our hotel was stunning in looks, service and accommodation, and included a full and delicious breakfast each morning. We could not have been happier. My and her sister Toon (two of seven daughters in the family) treated us as if we were family members, walking us to the bus stop, telling us to be careful, worrying when I felt unwell one morning, and making certain our experiences in Bangkok were everything we wanted. Staying at the Siamotif required us to take more local transportation to get where we wanted—including ferries and local red truck taxi buses— but in our eyes, this only added to its charm.

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We had no real agenda for our stay, other than to soak up as much Thai culture as we could, and there is no better way to experience Thai culture than at an open-air market. Markets in Bangkok are everywhere, and on our first morning, we took the taxibus to the Talingchan Floating Market, where we feasted on many Thai delicacies, including mango sticky rice and a whole fish—snakehead—with a delicious spicy green dipping sauce. Talingchan is a starting point for canal boat tours. We took a great one, semi-private (with just four others), for less than $5 each. The long boat toured us through the waterways, and for about an hour we saw Thai life from the river, up close and personal.

The Amulet Market was another hit that first day, where serious shoppers (all Thai, we were the only tourists) used loupes to closely inspect statues, buddhas and other talismans. The market was not well lit, and with statues and other talismans staring out at us as we strolled the aisles, it was quite atmospheric.

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The Chatuchak Weekend Market is likely the biggest market I have ever visited. The largest market in Thailand, Chatuchak has over 8,000 stalls, broken into 27 sections. Even with a map of the market, it is easy to get turned around, and from personal experience, if you see something you like, you should buy it, because you may never be able to find it again. We ate great Thai soups, then Pad Thai and papaya salad a little later (wandering in markets makes me hungry) and finally topped our meal off with coconut ice cream, which was the bomb. Our visit to Chatuchak Market was capped off with a foot massage. For 45 minutes, two very strong-handed Thai women rubbed and massaged our feet and lower legs, all for the low price of $5. I could definitely get used to that.

Another fantastic market was the Pak Klong Talad, or in words we can all understand, the Bangkok Flower Market. Although it’s open 24 hours a day, this market really gets going late in the evening and continues into the wee hours of the morning, as that is when fresh flowers are set up, and restaurants and hotels come to buy them. We were on a night bike tour when we visited (more on that in a future email newsletter), and were able to ride our bikes right through several of the market’s warehouses. Once we parked our bikes and walked along the market lanes, we were able to smell the tremendous variety of deliciously aromatic and beautiful flowers for sale. A visit to this market is a sensuous delight.

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Food stalls at all the markets produce an amazing variety of dishes that are both delicious and incredibly cheap. We got fairly good at ordering and eating small portions, so we could try more things more frequently. On our last trip to Thailand, one of our local tour guides told us that most Thais eat many meals out, because it is inexpensive (and dare I say delicious) for them as well.

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Another great window shopping experience was a visit to the religious shops block, Th Bamrung Meuang, which is one of Bangkok’s oldest streets. While not a traditional market, these two blocks house shop after shop of religious paraphernalia, including Buddha statues the size of a car, garb for buddhist monks, altars, and much more. This was fascinating, and again, we appeared to be the only tourists.

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We read in our Lonely Planet guide about a Bangkok neighborhood in which several families still make traditional monk alms bowls out of steel and copper. They are the only remaining folks that still make these bowls, as most monks today use inexpensive factory made bowls. The narrow street showcases a handful of different families working outside their somewhat ramshackle shops, hammering away at their creations. It was impossible for us to walk down this narrow alley and not buy a bowl. They are formed from eight separate pieces of steel, representing the eightfold path of Buddhism. The pieces are then fused with copper, and polished with black lacquer. They are beautiful, and we ended up carting home two of them in our suitcases. I highly recommend a stop here.

Try as we might, it’s virtually impossible for us to duplicate authentic Thai food at home. We can make good American Thai food, but it simply doesn’t compare to the real thing. Every once in a while, however, when I pull out some Thai seasonings, I smell something that reminds me of those Bangkok markets, and I smile. I’m ready to go back and wander the markets of Thailand some more.

Love Makes the SeeSaws Go Up and Down

by Nancy Bestor

So there I was, sitting on a curb putting a band aid on my sweaty, grimy toe. My feet, although comfortable in my Keen sandals, were tired after many days and many miles of walking the streets of Bangkok. Bob was chilling in the shade next to me, also in Keens. Before I could finish my first aide, a beautifully dressed couple approached, and asked if Bob and I would be willing to pose with them in their wedding pictures. That’s right, Bob and I are sweating in shorts and t-shirts—and don’t forget our Keen sandals—and a stunning couple in full dress and makeup want us to appear in their wedding photos. Without missing a beat, we said yes.

bangkokTheir two professional photographers took at least a dozen shots of the two couples next to each other. He even had us kiss our spouses (or soon to be spouses) for a pose. We didn’t do much talking—as professional models, we took our job seriously—but the wedding couple did ask if we were from America, and told us that they had once been to San Francisco. Before our shoot was finished, we did get a photo on our camera for our memory book too. As we went on our way, the bride and groom thanked us profusely. It’s hard to believe, but they were grateful to have two sweaty Americans in their wedding photos.

And that, in a nutshell is what I love about Thailand. Yes, I love the food—boy do I love the food. And I love its sites, smells and sounds too. But without a doubt, it’s the kind, friendly Thai people that I love most.

We were in Thailand for five days, on a roundabout journey to New Zealand. This being a short visit, we decided to stick to Bangkok, and take our time exploring all its wonders. We booked lodging in an out of the way neighborhood, which required a little extra work to get to and from, but proved to be a highlight of our stay. The Siamotif Hotel is in an old wooden house and is its owner’s original family home. It is located in Thonburi, directly on the Bangkok Noi canal, which is part of the Chao Phraya River. My is the proprietor of this charming nine room hotel, which cost us about $100 per night. Although not cheap by Thai standards, the Siamotif is stunning in looks, service and accommodation, and includes a full and delicious breakfast each morning. It was perfect.bangkok 2But again, the best thing about our hotel was its people. My and her sister Toon (two of seven daughters in the family) treated us as if we were family members ourselves, walking us to the bus stop, telling us to be careful, worrying when I felt unwell one morning, and making certain our experiences in Bangkok were everything we wanted. Staying at the Siamotif required that we take more local transportation to get where we wanted—including ferry boats and local red truck taxi buses— but in our eyes, this only added to its charm. We were all sad to say goodbye to each other when we departed. But this experience was not unique to this Thailand trip. The last time we visited, with our young children, Thai people fawned over them and hotel proprietors were in tears when saying goodbye.

On this trip, at the bustling Chatuchak Market, I fell down. I didn’t see a large crack in the pavement and tripped. Before I could even try to get up by myself, three Thai people were kneeling down beside me, checking to make sure I was okay, and giving me their hands to help me up. Food stall workers were delighted to have foreigners eating at their shops, and enthusiastically helped us try to figure out what they were selling. People riding the local buses pointed and told us where to get off when we were going to a floating market. And Thai children were fascinated with us, smiling, waving, and high-fiving us as we walked by.bangkok 3These are the experiences that we will remember. People being kind and friendly with one another. Because love really does make the world go round.

Got a World of Trouble on My Mind

by Nancy Bestor

Bob and I arrived at the Bangkok airport calm, cool and collected almost exactly two hours before our Thai Airways flight to Melbourne was scheduled to depart. We were headed from Thailand to New Zealand, via a short overnight in Australia, for a two and a half week trip to the South Island. We had plenty of time. We were set to eat a leisurely breakfast in the airport, and life was good.

We handed our passports to the ticket agent at the Thai Airways desk. “And can I please have your Australian visas?” she asked. “Ummm…..what?????” was the best answer we could come up with. “You need visas to enter Australia, for your flight that departs in two hours,” she calmly told us.

This is when I started to sweat. Neither Bob nor I had ever thought to check if we needed visas for Australia, because in our minds, Australia was not on our itinerary. (I know what you’re thinking…..we are travel “professionals”…..we own a travel store…..right? Apparently not so much.) Our flight was scheduled to arrive in Melbourne at 10:30pm, and we were to depart in the morning for Christchurch at 11am. Yes, we would leave the airport to sleep at a nearby hotel, but we weren’t really “going” to Australia. Apparently the Australian immigration authorities felt differently.

When we asked our calm and friendly Thai Airways ticket agent what we should do, she pulled out her phone and gave us a private company’s visa service website.

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“You might be able to get an Australian visa quickly through this website,” she told us. Bob pulled out his laptop right at the counter. “But can you please move away from the counter to take care of this?” she asked. Note: By this time our flight was leaving in 1 hour and 45 minutes, but she did not seem worried for us.

So we quickly moved to nearby seats and immediately began bickering. Could Bob type the information into the website any slower? Could I please find the credit card we would need to use to pay for these visas? And could I remove any more garments? Because now I was sweating profusely. And we were down to one hour and 30 minutes until flight time.

When filling out the visa information, we tried to choose the same day that we were applying for the visa as our day of travel, but the website did not allow for that. Apparently we were required to apply at least 24 hours in advance of arrival. So based on the advice of the same calm ticket agent (who still didn’t appear worried on our behalf), we chose the following day as our arrival date. Now we were both really sweating. And there may have been some swearing going on as well. We paid the fee of $39 each, for a 30-day tourist visa, and then waited for the email that would confirm our visas had been approved. Now we had one hour and 15 minutes to go.

Bob started surfing the internet. I asked him to stay on his Gmail page and keep hitting refresh. The bickering continued. And our flight was now leaving in one hour and 10 minutes.

Our ticket agent came over to check on us. “Any news?” she asked with a beatific smile. We told her we had filled out the online forms and were waiting for email confirmation. She calmly nodded and walked away. And our flight was leaving in one hour and five minutes.

With just under an hour to go, our ticket agent came back to let us know that our visas had been approved and we were set for travel that day. Strangely, she received this information before we did and already had our boarding passes in hand. She handed them over and sent us on our way. We hustled through security and gulped a quick cup of coffee. My sweaty blouse even had time to dry before we boarded. Crisis averted, marriage saved. And life was good once again.