Celebrating Songkran in Thailand
It was on the evening of Wednesday 2 April that I set off to Thailand for the twelfth time. After a full day of work, I had just enough time to get home, tidy up a little and to shower before the taxi arrived at 7.00pm to drive me the short distance to Heathrow’s terminal four.
Booking around four weeks prior to departure, I wasn’t exactly spoilt for choice when it came to choosing an airline for the 6,000 mile trip to Bangkok. Without a budget, I’d have happily booked myself onto a direct flight with Thai Airways or British Airways, paying the £800-900 that both were after. Only two carriers were coming up at a reasonable price – China Southern Airlines and Etihad Airways (of Abu Dhabi). Both were indirect flights, meaning that a stop en-route and a change of aircraft was necessary.
At a little over £480 return, I settled for China Southern Airlines. To many, this is probably an airline that you won’t know of. The don’t have an enormous presence in the UK (with just one daily flight linking Heathrow and Guangzhou) but they are – I found out recently – the fifth largest airline in the world both for passengers carried and fleet size.
After some dinner at Wetherspoons in terminal four, I set off through security and waited for the flight – the first of two. The 11 hour flight to Guangzhou (next to Hong Kong for anybody wondering) was followed by a 3-hour stop and then 2 hour 30 minutes in the air to Bangkok. It really was to be the longest journey ever to Thailand.
The one advantage of flying with China Southern was the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner operating the flight out of Heathrow. It is Boeing’s most recent creation and over the past couple of years it hasn’t been out of the press – having been riddled with all sorts of problems. For somebody who flies and with an interest in aviation, I was rather looking forward to the trip.
The trip was a surprisingly pleasant one and was over in no time at all. The biggest problem was the inability of any of the staff to speak English but this seems to be a common problem with Chinese airlines. Flying with China Eastern Airlines back in 2007, the crew couldn’t understand my drinks order – and I had only asked for a Coke. Whilst China Southern were marginally better, the dinner service was a confusing experience. One of the meal choices was apparently ‘chicken and breaker’. “Breaker?” I asked. “Yes, breaker”. I looked blankly at the stewardess and she looked blankly back at me. I tried my luck again. “What is breaker?” Getting nowhere, she put the chicken and breaker dish in front of me to look at. I think she meant broccoli.
The airport in Guangzhou wasn’t the best I have ever come across. It was dirty, the toilet facilities were just holes in the floor and with carpet tiles lifting all over the place, you had to really watch your step! Still, it did offer free wireless internet, even if it was slow and if a number of websites were blocked including popular social media websites like Facebook. This is the norm across China.
Thankfully, the wait was over and I was at last on my way to Bangkok. The shorter flight wasn’t quite as good as the overnight from London but China Southern did serve a dinner on the way, which was surprising. Apart from the rice tasting of mothballs, it wasn’t bad and it was a more than adequate portion size for the short sector.
A little after 10.00pm local time (21 hours since leaving home), the flight landed in Bangkok. The normally long queues at immigration were short and baggage delivery was quick, so it wasn’t too long before I found myself in a taxi.
For the first nine nights, I was to stay in Pattaya. Some of you will know it for being one of the sleazier and scummier resorts in Thailand, with it’s booming sex industry and markets full of big name knock-offs. It was also Pattaya that featured in international news towards the end of 2013 when a ferry to the nearby island of Koh Larn capsized, killing six.
It was back in July 2003 that I first visited Pattaya and it has come a very long way since then. The endless rows of bars have disappeared and in their place are shopping centres and chain hotels. The odd bar still exists and there are still a countless number of western men spending their money on company but this is a city changing for the better. Pattaya wants to attract families and not just western men who visit for its seediness.
Thailand is cheap for just about everything. Getting around is unusual but very cheap. Aside from motorbikes and scooters, the Baht bus is a popular way of getting from A to B. Like a taxi at home, you can flag down an empty bus and agree a fare to a destination of your choice or you can hop onto any of the many vehicles going into and out of town. These cost just 10THB per person per trip (about 18p on the current exchange rate) and since there are no designated pick up or drop off points, you really can get on and off wherever you like. Baht buses are pickup trucks with two benches in the back. There are no seatbelts – just the odd bar to hold onto. Those travelling with children shouldn’t have too much trouble picking up metered taxis instead, which are ordinary cars with seatbelts and air conditioning.
Accommodation in Pattaya was at the VN Residence 2 in the popular but quieter Prathumnak area. Having met my family in Thailand, it made sense for us to rent an apartment as it was cheaper than multiple hotel rooms. For around £44/night, we stayed in an enormous two bedroom apartment on a complex with its own pool and a gym. It was a small development so it wasn’t uncommon to be the only people taking advantage of the pool. The beach was within 5 minutes walk and countless places to eat were available locally as well.
Our preferred way of getting around in Thailand was on motorbikes. The cost of hire was just 650THB per week (around £12.00) and with fuel costing around 55p a litre, it was cheap. It’s an eye opening experience and definitely not for the faint hearted though. Roads in Thailand are very busy all of the time and it seems that road users have little regard for one another. Despite me having right of way in the last days of my trip, a coach driver very slowly pulled across the road right in front of me. Be on your guard and expect the unexpected and both you and your bike will make it through the week!
Thai food, in my opinion, is the best in the world. For those not keen to sample Thailand’s spicy delights, western restaurants are widely available, serving up more familiar dishes, along with fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC. But there’s no fun in visiting Thailand and eating pie, chips and Big Macs. For the most authentic and best value food, eating from the street vendors is unbeatable. There are no shortage of motorcycle kitchens cooking up less desirable foods but many offer the tastiest salads, pancakes, rice and noodle dishes and more. It’s almost like a buffet restaurant as you work your way from one stall to the next.
Eating in Thai kitchens is highly recommended as well and you’ll find no shortage of them in Thailand, no matter where you are. Look out for wooden shacks along the road. If you smell food and see lots of people sat inside, then chances are you have found one. The look of some of these establishments (like the street vendors) may put some off but eating from them has never caused me any harm.
For first time visitors to Pattaya, a visit to the Alcazar Cabaret on Pattaya’s second road is a must. The cheapest tickets are 600THB (around £11) and a show lasts around 45-50 minutes. To be honest, much of what you see in the show is bad. The stars of the show mime badly to popular songs, their dancing is more moving about on the spot and the sets are all a bit flimsy, but what is special about Alcazar is that all of the women in the show were born men. Their transformations are impressive even if the rest of the show is terrible.
The sleaze that I spoke about earlier on can still be found on Walking Street, which runs parallel to the beach. It is the red light district of Pattaya but it is enormously popular and is worth at least one visit. A countless number go-go bars and clubs line both sides of the street and the Thai staff have no shame when it comes to promoting theirs. Walking from one end of the street to the other, you’ll be invited to dozens of ‘ping pong’ shows. The ping pong show is nothing to do with table tennis, however.
Watching the sun go down in Pattaya is best done from the naval base or the big Buddha, both of which sit at the top of Prathumnak hill. From the naval base, you have a panoramic view of the city and the Andaman Sea. Both are free to access. Personally, I think that the naval base is better. It offers a fantastic elevated view of the city, an almost perfect view of the setting sun, and, if you are around at 6.00pm, you get to see the Thais singing along to their national anthem as well.
With half of the family now heading off home, two of us continued to Bangkok and enjoyed a stay at the Chatrium Riverside Hotel. It was to be my second stay at the hotel as I stayed only six months previously. It’s a 5-star accommodation sat right on the Chao Phraya River, with first class service, a brilliant swimming pool and a complimentary boat service, which runs to and from the central pier, from where guests can easily access the city’s attractions. You can read my review of the hotel on Trip Advisor (see the link at the top of the page).
The minimal additional charge for a river view is a must at the Chatrium Riverside. Nothing beats waking up in the morning, pulling back the curtains and seeing the city and river from 21 floors up.
With only 48 hours in Bangkok, we took a ride on the Chao Phraya tourist boat, which costs 150THB (£2.75) for unlimited use or 40THB (75p) per one-way trip. The boat starts from the central pier and makes frequent stops along the river, with somebody providing commentary throughout the trip. It made sense to do the trip in its entirety and to see the various temples and monuments of Bangkok from the water.
The following day, we braved the regular boats, which run like buses and are much cheaper than the tourist boat. A one-way ticket from the central pier to Wat Pho (the Reclining Buddha) was only 15THB (27p). From here, we could cross the river for just 3THB (5p) to get to Wat Arun – probably Bangkok’s most iconic temple.
Our trip to Bangkok coincided with Songkran, which at first seemed quite exciting. Songkran is Thailand’s new year celebration. It is a big holiday in the country, celebrated over seven days and things get a little bit crazy since the Thai people and visitors to the country celebrate with water. Songkran is one big water fight and anybody daft enough to go outdoors is at risk of a soaking!
We chose the wrong evening to go looking for Patpong night market. In no time at all, we found ourselves amongst thousands of revellers armed with buckets of water, water guns and even fire hoses. I didn’t want to be a part of the celebration and headed back to the hotel – staying mostly dry.
Just like every other trip to Thailand, this one too had sadly come to an end, so we set off for our 2.00am flight home (again stopping in China). The taxi driver seemed reluctant to use his meter though and instead insisted that we pay him 500THB (£9.25) for the 30-minute trip to the airport. Hotel staff told us that a metered taxi should cost in the region of 450THB (£8.30) so we decided not to make a fuss. Close enough is good enough.
We weren’t going to give a tip though and we didn’t react when the driver told us that the trip to the airport would normally cost 1,200THB. Nor did we give the taxi driver the extra 75THB requested so that he could take the toll road back to Bangkok, avoiding the Songkran traffic.
After another 24 hour door-to-door trip, we arrived back at home. The following day I had to return to work.