Our flight is scheduled to leave at 1:55 AM and we arrive at LAX at midnight. We walk into Tom Bradley terminal and by now we have the process down. Because we only have carry-on luggage, we bypass the luggage screening and walk straight to the check-in line. We wait less than 3 minutes and are soon standing in front of a Cathay Pacific agent in the first class line. Unfortunately, we are not traveling first class but instead way back in steerage. Suddenly, without comment, she is walking away from us with our passports. I think, "this is never good" and we wait, watching her as she stands meekly waiting for her supervisor. Five minutes pass and they are at the counter farthest from us. I get nervous. Finally, she returns and only when asked, explains to us there was a problem with the passport reader on her computer. Whew!
We get our boarding passes and head upstairs to the food court with an hour to wait before the gate opens. As usual, there are only two places open at this time of night, the Hagan Daaz counter and McDonald's. We realize this has become a pre-trip ritual; 10 McNuggets, a bottle of water to share, and a scoop of ice cream for David. I guess we make do with our options. I watch the departure board for our flight, those leaving around us and dream of all the other possible destinations. Tonight most are headed to Mexico and South America.
By the time we make it to the gate, there is a long line waiting to board. We wait longer, and finally are able to get on the plane. The flight is full, with no open seats visible. Fortunately, there is still space available in the overheads and because this is a 747, our roll-aboards fit nicely, wheels in and on their sides. The seats are narrow, but we are booked in our favorites, one of the few rows in the back with only 2 seats instead of 3, so we don't have to share wedged in with a stranger. They have seat back video screens with lots of movie choices, but this is a slightly older plane so we don't get games or footrests as we have in the past. No matter, it's so late that I actually get to sleep for a couple of hours. We eat the first meal about 45 min after take-off; a surprisingly palatable penne pasta with a pesto cream sauce. The flight goes well, with some "scheduled" turbulence which the captain warns us about on takeoff. I do get a shock however when I look at the video screen with the in-flight info. For some reason I had been under the impression during my planning that this was to be a 12 hour flight; it is 15 hours which turns out to be almost 16 as we fight the jet stream. I watch the movies Transamerica and Aeon Flux during the trip and sleep more than expected albeit fitfully. Breakfast is served 2 hours before landing; choice of eggs or congee, I opt for eggs.
We land late in Hong Kong and ask if we have time to make the boarding for the connecting flight to Bangkok. We are directed into an security line almost immediately after deplaning. Only one screener is open and it's moving frustratingly slow. An agent comes by and people behind us ask if they will make their connection to Cebu and we leap to ask if we will make ours. The agent looks alarmed and pulls us out of line. She slaps some Cathay Pacific transit stickers on us, passes us off to another agent and we take off in almost a full run with our luggage and an older Vietnamese woman headed to Hanoi in tow. Reaching another, shorter security line, we pass through it, up an escalator, and are told, "Hurry, you have 5 min!" We sprint down the concourse and arrive at our gate where they close the outer doors behind us. I have to wonder, what if we had not spoken up in line? Again our seats are in the back and we drop into them breathing heavily and sweating. Then we wait almost 20 min for push back. This is a newer plane (with video games and footrests) and I amuse myself with video Solitaire and my book during the 2 hour flight. We eat another egg breakfast.
Bangkok Day 1
April 7, 2006
On arrival, immigration is frustratingly slow and it takes up almost 1/2 an hour to get through. We have no problems getting baht out of the ATM, there are 5 kiosks from five different banks to choose from; turn left after exiting immigration and walk about 100 ft. Next to the ATMs is a small cafeteria style place where we buy a big bottle of water (35 baht) to break our 1000 baht bill for the taxi.
The heat envelops us like a wet blanket as we exit out of the terminal and find the taxi queue. The line is long and there are no taxis waiting. We stand as rogue taxies cruise by, looking for takers. I want to wait because supposedly, this line will get us a meter taxi instead of having to bargain for a usually inflated flat rate. Finally, fleets of taxis arrive all at the same time, and we reach the head of the line. I tell the woman behind the desk where we are going, the Westin, and she says "350 baht." I'm confused because behind her is a giant yellow sign which clearly states it is meter price, plus 50 baht airport surcharge, plus any expressway tolls. I start to ask her to explain, but she ignores me and with a long line behind us, we are shuffled into a cab. The driver asks us where we are going and I say the Westin and he says "what number?" Again, I'm confused and I hand him the print out of a map in Thai that the Westin had sent me. I wonder why we even bother telling the taxi booth where we are going.
The driver looks at the folded piece of paper and does not open it. It appears he cannot read Thai any better than I can. Finally, we figure out he's asking which soi it's on and I tell him 19. We move out and the meter is not on. After much back and forth, we discover that we've agreed to a flat rate of 350 baht at the Taxi queue. I am flummoxed as to how I've allowed us to get into this situation with all of our experience and planning. This is not the first time we've taken a cab in Bangkok. I settle down after realizing we are probably overpaying by only a couple of dollars, but that's not the point and it irritates me. The driver does not take the Expressway, saving himself about 60 baht. Chalk it up to exhaustion, but I do know I will never allow this again-lesson learned.
The trip is fairly quick, with no traffic until we get closer to Sukhumvit road. We arrive at the hotel and we are met by a wai-ing female "doorman" who takes our bags and directs us to the 7th floor reception. No problem at check in, and while we are not given any upgrade because I am an SPG member (Starwood Preferred Guest), we are offered an upgrade to a club floor room for $50 a night. While tempting, we decline as this is the room I'd booked via Priceline to save money. We're given a King bedded, non smoking room, on an SPG floor however and it's quite nice done up in muted green and gold tones.
The room is decent sized, average for a US chain, and certain much larger than most European hotel rooms. Of course, it has the Starwood signature "heavenly bed" which is truly heavenly. There's a good sized glass work desk with data ports, and free coffee, tea and bottled water. The room includes an electronic safe, mini-bar, lighted closet, hair dryer, and iron and ironing board. The bathroom is well appointed with cool metallic blue tiles and separate glassed in shower. Single sink with the usual amenities. There's no fruit on the fruit plate and I figure this is because we paid with Priceline, but later someone arrives with a banana, two green skinned tangerines (shockingly sweet and juicy) and two unidentifiable brownish fruits which look like small oblong potatoes. My only complaint is that there is no knife with which to cut them. There are some little touches I appreciate; the bathroom has a retractable laundry line over the tub and a scale, there are full length mirrors, and the coffee station has paper to-go cups.
While the hotel is nice and the room very comfortable, I don't believe it is 5-star as Priceline suggests, at least not our room. There are some small details which would not be overlooked in a 5-star hotel. There's a giant smudge on our window, which never gets cleaned. In the bathroom, some of the caulking around the tub looks like it was put on with a trowel and just left in thick lumps. In the shower there's some mold in the grout and the wooden slats on the shower floor are very uncomfortable on the feet. The hallways and elevators are not air-conditioned and are very hot and humid.
We shower and head out for our first duck and rice meal. I'd pulled a recommendation off the Fodor's board for a place only a block away. It's called Yon Kee and it's on a corner about a block to the right down from the driveway to the Westin. There's no sign, but its the first place with hanging ducks you'll see. We ordered a large Chang beer and two plates of duck with rice. I wish I could say how fantastic it was, but I can't. It wasn't bad, and the beer and food certainly hit the spot, but it was just average (240 baht for 2 plates and a large beer). I guess that means I just need to continue my quest for the perfect duck.
Hot and sweaty, we go back to the room for a break and end up sleeping for 4 hours. I am at odds with myself; the desire to go out, to see and do wars with the desire to sleep. Finally, when it gets dark, we drag ourselves out to the Night Bazaar. This place is new to us, not in existence the last time we were here 4 years ago. We go up into the Skytrain station, past the 7-11 and the guy in front selling fried bugs from a cart (I still want to try these!). I stand in line to get change because the ticket machines only take coin, and only when finished, discover that the stop we need is on the Subway system, also new to us, not the Skytrain. We go down to the street and walk, searching for the entrance. The entrance turns out to be on the corner of Asok and Sukhumvit about a block further East.
We descend and wait in line again to buy our tokens. The token machines are very user-friendly, computer touch screens and have an English option. They accept both coins and bills, unlike the Skytrain machines. They automatically start with the station you are in and you touch the screen to tell it where you want to go. Our four-stop trip cost 18 baht each. I didn't see a way to buy more than one token at a time. You feed the machine and it gives you a black plastic token and your change. Take the token to the gates and rub it over the sensor for entrance. The train tracks are enclosed behind glass doors so there's no chance of anyone falling onto the tracks. When leaving, drop your token into the exit gates and they open.
We exit at Lumphini station and follow the signs to the Night Market, emerging right at it's entrance. The first thing we see is an area set up with food vendors. We peruse and keep walking.
Eventually, we find the main food court area complete with large screens playing European soccer and a huge stage with Thai bands performing cover songs in English. The Pussycat Dolls seem very popular right now.
Walking the entire perimeter, we check out the stalls and are not impressed with what we see. Nothing looks appetizing and most of it looks dumbed down for tourists.
Heading back to the the first place for food, we find a stall making noodles on a flat griddle. We order one, which fulfills David's craving for Pad Thai; this one has lots of tofu bits, an egg, and two fat shrimp still in their shells. It's really good for 35 baht and goes well with the large Tiger beer I get from the beer vendor for 75 baht.
I return to the vendors and order noodles with Pork for 25 baht. The girl behind the counter drops the noodles into hot water with a strainer. Then she takes a plastic water bottle filled with something dark red, looking like Burgundy wine and fills a large ladle with it. She drops the ladle into a vat of hot water and pulls it out pouring the mixture over the noodles in a bowl. She then heats some pork slices in the broth and adds some meat balls, presumably also pork. Topping the bowl with cilantro, she hands it to me with a smile.
I pay and then ask her what's in the bottle with the red liquid. I have a sneaking suspicion which she confirms by pointing to the veins on her wrist; it's pork blood. Ok...with a deep breath I walk back to the table. I tell David, "I think I just made a big mistake" and explain to him what I've just purchased.
He says "well, go at it" and says he's full from the Pad Thai. Yeah right. I pick out a piece of cooked pork, and while it's a bit tough, it tastes fine. I try one of the meatballs and it's also fine, but I just can't get myself past the congealed flecks of blood in the broth to slurp it down. I find myself suddenly full too.
Not so full that I can't stop and buy a box of little coconut custard cups filled with sweet and savory bits. These are so yummy, but served so searingly hot that they take off the roof of my mouth as I stuff them in. Still, they're not as good once cooled, so try and eat them as hot as possible.
We leave the food and go off to walk through the market shops. We buy 2 silk ties for David and 10 raw silk scarves in varying colors to give as gifts and for me to keep a couple. I find myself not willing to bargain too hard, the prices are already very reasonable, but I ask for a discount for buying so many and the vendor obliges. We walk a bit more and then go back to the hotel to crash.
However, once off the subway, we decide to check out the infamous "Soi Cowboy" only a block from the hotel. It's a sad holdover from the time of US soldiers on R&R in Bangkok during the Vietnam war, a street filled with "hostess bars" and neon. The girls in matching theme outfits (skimpy dresses or raunchy cowgirl short shorts) stand outside the bars hoping to entice the roaming paunchy, balding, middle aged men inside. The girls cat-call and cajole the men walking by; it's clearly a buyers market here. However, for some reason, it doesn't have the seaminess of the ping-pong go-go bars of Patpong, nor the obnoxious street vendors, and unlike on Patpong, we are not approached as were are clearly not the desired demographic here. We walk the length of the street, turn and go back to the hotel.