Getting from Airport to Downtown Bangkok – Expat Tips and Tricks – Part One – Airport Rail Link

Its not only the first time tourist to Bangkok that may find it a little daunting when trying to figure out the most efficient and economic way of getting from the airport into downtown Bangkok.  In this series, we will examine the different options that are available for getting from the airport to downtown, and we will set out the benefits and pitfalls of each option.  Today’s blog will look at the light rail option, the Suwarnabhumi Airport Rail Link.

Gateway to Bangkok – Don Muang or Suwarnabhumi airport?

When arriving in Bangkok by air, there are two different airports that service the city.  The original is Don Muang (IATA code DMK), which is on the northern border of Bangkok.  This is the airport that American GIs during the Vietnam War in the 1960s would have used when going on R&R in Bangkok.  It has undergone quite a bit of refurbishment and upgrades since then, but the international terminal has a very dated feel, and it is currently being used by budget airlines such as Air Asia, Scoop/Nok Air and Lion Air.

Unless you want to experience some 60s nostalgia, we recommend you avoid landing at Don Muang if you can.  A lot of the charter flights from Russia/Ukraine and China land here, and as a result, the arrivals immigration area can sometimes be really jam packed.  Recently, immigration processing often took between two and four hours (i.e. just waiting in line) due to huge numbers of simultaneous arrivals.  The worst times tend to be around 9pm to 2am, when immigration manning decreases, but flight arrivals increase.  Note, in recent press releases, immigration have vowed to decrease wait times, but… well, you have been warned.  The other issue with Don Muang is it tends to be more expensive to get into Bangkok with fewer options.

The other, newer airport, which opened in late 2006 is Suwarnabhumi (IATA code BKK), located in Samut Prakan province, just east of the Bangkok border.  This airport is conveniently situated right along the Bangkok to Chonburi/Rayong motorway (one of the best motorways for getting into Bangkok).  This airport has much better facilities compared to Don Muang and is serviced by most major (non-budget) airlines.  Immigration times are significantly shorter than Don Muang and the queuing system is better organised (so less chance of queue jumpers, and it is clearer as to which line you should be standing in).  Suwarnabhumi also has a a rail link into the city as well as more bus and shuttle services.

Option 1 – Airport Rail Link

Our favourite option for getting quickly to downtown Bangkok is to take the Suwarnabhumi Airport Rail Link (abbreviated to SARL or sometimes SRTET).  This option is currently only available from Suwarnabhumi airport (although a rail link is currently under construction for Don Muang, which should be completed sometime in 2018).  This link heads due West from the airport, into the centre of Bangkok, following parallel with roads such as Rama IX, Petchaburi, Sukhumvit / Ploenchit and Phattanakarn Rd, heading all the way to Phayathai Road in central Bangkok.

SRTet Map

The Suwarnabhumi to Phayathai route consists of eight stations in total.  The final station of the SARL is Phayathai, which puts you very close to Victory Monument in Bangkok.  Victory Monument is a good spot for getting transport to China Town/Khao Sarn Road (for all you backpackers).  Phayathai Station also interfaces with Bangkok’s original skytrain system, the BTS (Bangkok Transit System), which will get you to the newer parts of Bangkok such as Ploenchit Rd, Sukhumvit Rd and Silom Rd. If you need to transfer onto Bangkok’s subway, the MRT (Mass Rail Transport), then get off two stations earlier at Makkasan Station instead of Phayathai.  The MRT is useful if you wanted to get to either northern Bangkok (e.g. the weekend market, Asoke Road, or to the main Bangkok train station (Hualamphong) on the edge of China Town.

The cost to take the SARL is baht 45 for the full length, and is less for shorter journeys.  There is sometimes reference to an express train service, but this was suspended a few years ago (if it ever does return, the price is likely to be a flat rate of baht 150).

To catch the rail link, from the main arrivals hall, look for the escalator (or elevators) heading down.  Get off at the basement level.  Tickets can be purchased either at the official kiosks (attached to the gates) or else via the ticket machines.  The bank just before the rail terminal in the basement is one of the better options for changing money within the airport.  The banks and exchange counters on the arrivals level tend to give worse exchange rates.

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Benefits of the SARL

This is probably the fastest option for getting into the centre of Bangkok from the airport.  It is also the cheapest option.  The trains include luggage racks where you can stow your suitcases, so they are passenger friendly, and given you are getting on at the first station, you should be able to get a seat rather than have to stand.

Downside of the SARL

Travel by public transport when you have lots of baggage is probably not for everyone.  Even though the SARL has baggage stowage options, once you transfer to some other form of public transport (e.g. BTS or MRT)  those options do not have baggage stowage compartments, and can get very cramped on weekdays (and I wouldn’t even contemplate it at rush hour).

Another downside is if you are staying in locations not easily accessible to any of the mass transit options, for example in China Town, Dusit, on Khao Sarn Road or Soi Rambutri.  In those situations, there will be alternative cheap transport options to get you significantly closer to your hotel.  Also, if you are planning on walking down busy side streets with suitcases, keep in mind that Bangkok sidewalks are not great, and on side streets often non-existent.  This means you will be walking along the road with motorbikes, cars, trucks, tuk tuks, angry dogs etc.  One tip to overcome this is to spend the initial baht 45 to get you as close to your destination as possible, and then from there grab a taxi for the final leg.  You generally need to grab a cab travelling along the main road rather than one that is parked up at the base of an SARL station as the latter often don’t want to use their meter.

The final downside is there is no rail option from Don Muang (yet), so if you are arriving at this airport, you will need to look for other options.  We will cover some of these in the next part of this series.

 

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The Western Attraction to Thailand

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Bangkok Skyline on a muggy day

The big mystery that many a Thailand tourist or expat has struggled with is why are Westerners so captivated with Thailand?  What is it that makes tourists keep coming back, notwithstanding all of the scams, political unrest and corruption?  Why do Westerns suddenly pull up stumps and move to Thailand, often working in a dead end job for less pay than they earned in the West.  Why do retirees give up the comforts of (usually free) Western medical care for a more challenging life in a developing country?

Many authors and bloggers have offered their own opinions on the matter.  For instance:

  • I’ve been to Thailand more times than I can count. I’ve lived in Bangkok twice, and if I stay away for more than a year, I feel as if a piece of me is missing… People often ask me why I return to places I’ve already visited instead of exploring somewhere new. Well, that’s an easy answer: it’s because I feel attached to them. I feel at home when I’m visiting them. And Thailand is probably the one place outside of the US where I feel most at home.” (Nomadic Matt, “11 Reasons Why I Love Thailand”; http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/11-reasons-why-i-love-thailand/).
  • “I was sick of living what I felt was a routine, soul-crushing, pencil-pushing, life-sucking existence. I realized that I needed a challenge that would let me feel….. anything different!” (Maya Datani, “What to Expect When You Move to Bangkok”; http://www.ajarn.com/blogs/maya-dattani/what-to-expect-when-you-move-to-thailand/).
  • “When I’m behind Thai people who are moseying down the sidewalk while munching on a skewer of pineapple, I slow my roll too. I no longer glorify a frantic, fast-paced lifestyle, nor do I believe that being stressed is the only path to success.” (Casey O’Connell, “11 American Habits I Lost When I Moved to Thailand”; http://matadornetwork.com/notebook/11-american-habits-lost-moved-thailand/).
  • “I can live comfortably on our pension here and live a good lifestyle, where at home it’s pretty hard [and] you’ve got to cut corners.” (Ken Bingham, quoted by SBS Dateline, “Champagne Lifestyle on a Lemonade Budget: Why So Many Aussies Are Moving to Thailand”; http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/09/09/champagne-lifestyle-lemonade-budget-why-so-many-aussies-are-moving-thailand).
  • “It’s cheap, its beautiful, its filled with employment opportunity, its got a wild nightlife, and its got food, lots of it” (paraphrased from Kevin Cook, “5 Reasons Why I Left America to Live in Thailand”; http://monkeyabroad.com/5-reasons-to-live-in-thailand/).

Nomadic Matt provides a very representative list of reasons for why Thailand is so popular with tourists.  In his blog, he highlights the delicious food, the warm weather, the friendly (and beautiful) locals, the great travel experience, the international environment, the convenience (of purchasing anything at any time of day), Bangkok (a reason it itself – the city that never sleeps), and the price.  I would agree with most of Matt’s list, and I certainly get the impression from other travellers that these are largely their reasons for visiting Thailand as well.  In addition, I think another reason, not often mentioned, is the exoticness of Thailand, mixed with an element of danger, but there is always the ability to retreat back into familiar Western territory (ie back into the expat areas of Bangkok).

For expats, I can certainly understand the allure of Thailand.  It presents that break from the Western debt-trap that most of us succumb to.  The 9 to 5 routine and the 25 year mortgage that many of us are stuck with.  Moving to and working in Bangkok creates an exciting break from this routine and freedom from the shackles of debt.  Thailand provides a complete lifestyle change, where you can travel to work by boat if you want to (as Jim Thomson once proclaimed in an interview) or work out in the forest, surrounded by tigers and elephants.  However, that sense of adventure also comes with the knowledge that there is security nearby and an ability to retreat back to Western comforts when homesickness sets in.  In that sense, Thailand does offer both ends of the spectrum.  It has Western style conveniences and old world Asian charm.  Bangkok alone offers that dychotomy with some of the world’s larger shopping centres, glass sky-scrapers and modern light rail systems, coupled with golden temples, wooden boats plying concrete lined canals and the occasional lost elephant meandering through the traffic.

Even for retirees, I can see the attraction.  A western pension goes a long way in Thailand, where the average income is far lower than the West and the cost of living commensurate with that difference.  Add in the high quality healthcare (but only at particular hospitals), warm weather, and the ability to choose either fast paced excitement or slow tranquility, and it becomes a no-brainer to me as to where I plan to spend a good chunk of my retirement years.

All of the above are certainly compelling reasons for visiting or moving to Thailand, but there are plenty of other countries that offer similar benefits.  I don’t believe the above factors truly explain why, as examples:

  • Thailand is currently one of the most popular tourism destinations (Bangkok is currently the second most visited city in the world);
  • in the last ten years Thailand has received a surge of expatriates seeking employment, particularly in Bangkok, but also in all other corners of the Kingdom; and
  • Thailand has become a major retirement destination for Westerners, especially with Scandinavians and Britons, where it has become one of the largest foreign retirement destinations for those nationalities.
Wooden bridge on Ko Samet
Wooden bridge on Ko Samet

My own  view is that there is a more subconscious lure that Thailand provides, that Westerners are not necessarily conscious of.  It isn’t just that visiting or living in Thailand is exciting, but that you feel good while there.  I believe this positive experience arises because of the nature of Thai people and Thai culture.  It is after all, the people of a country that shapes the experience that others will have in it.  In Thailand, everyday life is built around the concept of “Sanuk”.  Sanuk loosely translates as “to have fun”, but its true meaning goes beyond any concepts available in the Western world.  Whilst Westerners see “fun” as a shallow experience, Thais use sanuk as a yardstick for measuring their everyday experiences and how well their lives are going.  They seek out sanuk experiences in all of their daily encounters.  Whether it is at home, whilst shopping, going to school or going to work, each experience should be sanuk, and if it isn’t, then it should be avoided.

This sanuk attitude to life creates a playfulness in the average Thai person that is hard to find in Westerners.  In Western eyes, it perhaps makes Thais seem more immature or childish, but to Thais they would rather enjoy life rather than take everything too seriously and become stressed out.  In fact, Thais commonly criticise Westerners for always looking so serious or “thinking too much” (yes, thinking too much is a criticism in the Thai language, not a compliment).  This sanuk culture is, in my opinion, a critical reason for why Thailand is so addictive.  Yes, it does have a lot of other benefits that are attractive, but its the sanuk-ness that make is the icing on the cake that makes Thailand addictive.

However, be careful with the addictiveness of Thailand.  Although there are many positives to visiting and living in the country, there are some major downsides too, and often they are not so obvious to newcomers.  The Thailand-based author, Christopher G. Moore perhaps defined the concept the best in his book “The Big Weird”, where he refers to it as “The Sickness”.  Although Moore’s concept was described with the single Western male traveller’s exploits in mind, the sickness is a reference to how Thailand becomes so addictive to the Western traveller that he (or she) cannot control their need to keep travelling to or remain living in Thailand, no matter what the toll it takes on their Western careers (and relationships).  With more experience in Thailand, the sickness gradually fades until sometimes the opposite extreme arises, where the Western expat begins to actually loathe Thailand.  Unfortunately, some have burned so many bridges that return to their homeland is no longer an easy option.

Accordingly, be careful with the addiction that is Thailand.  Yes, it has become an extremely popular destination for Westerners for a large variety of reasons (travel, work, retirement), such as weather, low cost of living, less stress, escape from the Western debt trap, and great food.  In addition to these, I believe what makes the country truly addictive is the Thai sense of sanuk and the overall playful nature of the Thais.  However be aware that the honeymoon phase (or the sickness as Mr Moore refers to it) does not last forever, so for those contemplating living in Thailand long term, make sure you always have an exit strategy.

 

Thailand and my loss of innocence

Bangkok Sunset
Bangkok Sunset

The following is a piece I originally wrote for Stickmanbangkok.com a few years ago, although I have updated it slightly to reflect my current situation.  It provides an interesting account of Bangkok in the 1980s and highlights the underbelly of life in Bangkok.

I first moved to Thailand at the age of 9, way back in the early 1980s. Bangkok was a very different place then. There were very few foreigners and very few of the Western conveniences of today that make life very easy for those seeking a Western existence in an Asian paradise.

Notwithstanding the scarcity of Western convenience, life in Bangkok was very good. Western food and supermarkets did exist, as did some great shopping centres. However, travel was required and the traffic and pollution in the 1980s was really something to experience. Given foreigners were few and far between, Thais had little experience with us and gave us a lot more respect compared with today.

The other nice thing with there only being a few foreigners, was that the ex-pat community was quite small and intimate. People built a strong circle of friends and most people knew each other. As a result, every time we took a trip to one of the main ex-pat hang-outs such as the British Club, Silver Bell (the only NTSC video rental place), Villa Supermarket (the original at Suk soi 33), the US Embassy Commissary, or Central Chitlom, we always bumped into people we knew.

For some, life in Bangkok in the early 1980s meant a very sheltered existence. I knew people who lived in gated compounds where 100% of the residents were ex-pats. For example, the US Embassy had a couple of compounds just for the family of their employees. For the friends I knew that lived in those areas, they lived an entirely Western existence. They only interacted with other Western kids, ate primarily Western food, only spoke English, and of course, attended ISB, which in those days was almost exclusively foreign (only students with foreign passports could attend; although some exceptions were made for members of the Thai elite).

Rather than being sheltered, I actually lived in two different worlds. On the one hand, when attending school, or attending at ex-pat enclaves, I lived a very Western life. On the other hand, my house was in Phrakhanong, whereas most Westerners lived along Ekamai and almost nobody lived beyond the Rama IV/Sukhumvit intersection. My after school friends were therefore the Thai kids that lived around my house and I spent a lot of time getting to know them and Thai culture.

Both worlds were great fun. Notwithstanding the traffic, Bangkok felt like it afforded more freedom back then than it does today. I felt a lot more invincible, was happy to do as I pleased and go where I wanted to. Part of this feeling is tied to the lack of certain laws or at least lack of enforcement (at least against foreigners). However, I also believe another big part was the fact that my innocence was still intact at the time.

My innocence, or lack of understanding of how the system really works in Thailand, allowed me to feel a false sense of freedom and safety. Interestingly, I exercised those freedoms at the time and never had an issue. For example, by the time I was 11, I often traveled either alone or with friends my age all over Bangkok on public transport. I never had any issues. One time, we created a rocket launcher and fired rockets from a friend’s balcony trying to get the rockets to fly into the open window of an apartment in a nearby building. No one ever came up to stop us (the security guards thought it was funny). Another time, a friend and I went roof-jumping. We managed to walk across several of our neighbour’s roof-tops. Some neighbours came out to see what was going on, but just smiled and laughed when they saw us up there. For most things we did, people just turned a blind eye or laughed. Only occasionally did I get told off, but that was the extent of the punishment (including the time a friend and I knocked on all the doors of the rooms on one floor of Hyatt Central Plaza hotel).

By the time I was 13, my friends and I were old Bangkok hands. We felt like we had complete run of the city. We easily navigated around the city area on public transport and often ended up playing around Patpong. Although I never felt like I was ever at risk, Patpong was certainly a little shady and the touts would sometimes hassle us, trying to get us into a club to see a ping pong show. At 13, we also discovered that we could purchase alcohol from convenience stores without any issues. We could also go to night clubs (e.g. the Palace or NASA) but that didn’t hold our interest (we actually spent more time buying pirated games at computer stores – buy 10 floppy disks and for nothing extra, get them filled up with software and games).

Even into my early twenties, when I no longer lived full time in Thailand, I still had my innocence intact and thought Thailand was a wonderful free place and a great playground for young and old alike. As a result, my dream had always been to return to Thailand one day and live there permanently.

Slowly, over time, my innocence was gradually erased, kind of like layers peeled off of an onion. As each layer was removed, Thailand became slightly less attractive.

The first eye-opener for me was the military crackdown on protesters in 1992. This of course wasn’t a first for Thailand, but amazingly, the 1973/75 clashes were never brought up during my education at ISB and when I did first learn about it, the incident was played down. During the 1980s, everyone seemed to pretend that all was sweet. A military government was in power and other than one or two attempted coups that only had minor loss of life (e.g. a reporter getting in the way), there weren’t any dramas and things seemed stable. However, the 1992 incident left a sour taste in my mouth.

Fast forward to the rapid expansion of Bangkok in the mid 1990s, with double digit economic growth and corruption so blatant and “in-your-face”. The politicians did so little to try to disguise the corruption, and that too left a sour taste in my mouth… or maybe that was the som-tam. In any event, when the 1997 currency crisis hit, I actually just thought “som-nam-na” (serves you right). Of course (and I didn’t know this then), many of the ones who deserved to be punished were not as affected as everyone else.

When the skytrain was finished in late 1999, I was actually quite happy again and I mistakenly thought Thailand had turned around and was now heading towards a true “developed country” status. The massive development of infrastructure, shopping centres, and all the other things that make life more Westernised were all great. For me, Thailand as a regular holiday destination was great. However, with each visit, I came to recognize the dangers that existed, that lay hidden beneath the surface.

Having grown up and spent a considerable part of my life in Thailand, I learned many things about the Thai system and realized just how exposed we all are. By this time, I had built a nice collection of senior Thai contacts that were useful in the event I ever had a problem. However, the problem with this Thai system is that no matter who my contacts are, there will always be the risk that I will piss off someone who is more senior than my most senior contact or who has contacts that are more senior.

A friend of mine, who is a Westerner with Thai citizenship, presents a classic example. His parents have lived in Thailand long term. They have held very senior positions in companies in Thailand and are good friends with many of the elite. They purchased a beautiful piece of land near the ocean. One day, the owner of an adjoining block, a military general, decides he would like to own their land. Even a personal photo of my friend’s father meeting with the most important person in the country was not sufficient to dissuade the general and of course the general’s offering price for purchase was well below market value.

So how has my loss off innocence affected me? I still spend a lot of time each year living in Thailand. I still enjoy all the great things that Thailand has to offer, such as getting spoiled at beach resorts, wandering aimlessly in huge air-conditioned malls, and eating from any one of a plethora of great restaurants. However, I am always cautious never to try to stand out from the crowd, don’t try to piss off the wrong people, and try not to end up on the wrong side of the law. I’ve actually never had a really bad experience myself, but just knowing that it can happen is enough to leave that sour taste in my mouth. I would never make Thailand my exclusive home, with no ability to quickly retreat to another country and I would never keep any serious cash in a Thai bank nor would I invest in property using anything more than hobby cash (i.e. money that I don’t intend to use for investment purposes). In fact, I am presently building in Thailand, but I don’t view this as an investment in any way and if the worst happens, then so be it, I can always abandon the project if need be.

I guess things wouldn’t be so bad if I had retained my innocence. I suspect that the chances are that nothing really bad would ever happen to me in Thailand, or at least I doubt the risk is any worse than what could happen to me in the West. However, it is the understanding of how things actually work and that if it goes wrong, it can really go wrong without any safety net, that lingers in my mind. I no longer feel the sense of freedom I used to and would love to have my innocence returned. Knowledge can be a curse sometimes.

The Unfortunate History Behind the Erawan Shrine

View of Erawan Shrine with Grand Hyatt Erawan in the background
View of Erawan Shrine with Grand Hyatt Erawan in the background

August 17, 2015 is a day I won’t forget easily. I spent the day on the ground in Central Bangkok, collecting photos and information for my up-coming Bangkok travel guide. At about 6:10pm, I tried texting my friend in order to organise a meeting place for dinner. However, for some reason, the internet was not working, notwithstanding that I had a full signal and 4G connection. By 6:45pm, in frustration at not being able to get the internet to work and feeling hungry, I boarded a skytrain away from the Erawan Shrine area.

At 6:55pm, ten minutes later, a pipe bomb exploded on a bench in front of the Erawan Shrine, killing 20 people and maiming and injuring 125 more. It also damaged vehicles and destroyed several motorcycles. No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, although the key suspect seems to be a Turkish based terrorism organisation known as the Grey Wolves. One Turkish national was arrested after his land-lady tipped off police, although he is not believed to be the person who actually deposited the bomb at the shrine. The remaining terrorists involved in the bombing are still at large and have most likely fled the country.

The 17 August bombing is not the first tragedy to befall the area surrounding the Erawan Shrine and the Rajphrasong intersection. In fact, this particular part of Bangkok has experienced quite a lot of misfortune over the years. It all seems to start with the construction of the Erawan Hotel in the early 1950s. The intention was that this hotel, in what was then very much the outskirts of Bangkok, would rival the other luxury hotels of Asia, such as the Bangkok Oriental, Hong Kong Peninsula and Singapore Raffles. Unfortunately, the project was plagued with problems: construction costs blew out well beyond the original budget; numerous accidents took place on site, with many construction workers getting injured or dying; and the order of marble from Italy for the hotel (which cost a considerable amount) ended up sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

The owners of the project took spiritual advise that stated that the site was plagued by bad karma and it would be necessary to appease the unhappy spirits by constructing a significant shrine and making offerings. The Thai government agreed to assist and the shrine (known in Thai as San Thao Maha Phrom) was designed and constructed under the supervision of the Department of Fine Arts. The statue chosen was that of Brahma, which interestingly is the Hindu god of creation and has nothing to do with Buddhism.

The original Erawan Hotel - courtesy of 2Bangkok.com
The original Erawan Hotel – courtesy of 2Bangkok.com

In any event, after the shrine was commissioned and blessed in 1956, the problems befalling the area seemed to stop, at least for a time. In addition, the shrine quickly became a significant icon to Thais, who made offerings to it regularly, including commissioning Thai dancers to put on a performance. A lot of Thais, both pedestrians and motorists alike, also put their hands together in a wai (prayer like gesture) as they pass the shrine.

In 1987, the original Erawan hotel was demolished and replaced with a more modern building and shopping centre on the same site, known as the Grand Hyatt Erawan. The new construction retained the original shrine, unaltered, other than adding some additional side features such as a shaded area (sala) for the dancers and for sale of merit items such as incense.

Erawan Shrine
Erawan Shrine (note this is the replacement statue)

In March 2006, the shrine was vandalized by a mentally ill Thai man, who smashed the statue of Brahma with a statue. He was subsequently killed by a mob of angry Thais. The original statue had to be replaced with a new one.

The return of misfortune to the area started on 31 December 2006 at 6:00pm (and into the early hours of 1 January 2007 – at Central World). Various bombs went off around Bangkok during this period, including several just around the Erawan Shrine, including one diagonally across the road at Central World shopping centre, and one at the nearby boat pier. These bombing seemed to be internally politically motivated, although the initials for an Afghanistan based terrorist cell (IRK) were found inscribed at several of the bomb sites. The death toll was 3, with 38 others injured. The death toll could easily have been higher, but after the initial bombs went off at 6pm, the New Years Eve countdown at Central World (which attracts thousands if not tens of thousands) was cancelled.

Red Shirt Occupation
Red Shirt Occupation of Rajphrasong – 2010

Further misfortune hit the area in April and May of 2010 when tens of thousands of “red shirt” pro-democracy demonstrators converged at the Rajphrasong intersection and effectively closed off that part of central Bangkok for a month. By May, the army moved in with soldiers, snipers and armoured personnel carriers, causing armed skirmishes and damage to buildings around the intersection including the Siam Cinema and Central World shopping centre. Interestingly, the Erawan Shrine itself was untouched. Over 100 people died in the area as a result of the incident.

The area then had various minor incidents, including being occupied by further protesters (this time yellow shirts – who oppose any red shirt based government and instead seek a “quasi-democracy” controlled by an unelected council) in late 2013 and early 2014. There were various scuffles in the area at the time, such as when yellow shirts sought to restrict people from voting at what they considered to be illegitimate elections, but no real casualties.

There have also been various foiled terrorism attempts that sought to target the area, including the Israeli embassy and Israeli nationals (which used to be located on Lang Suan Road, just a block away from the shrine) including the attempted bombing in 2012 and again in 2014. These were all linked back to Hezbolla. As a little footnote, there were also two terrorism incidents in the 1970s that occurred on this particular block; the first being the 1972 Black September invasion and hostage crisis at the Israeli Embassy and the second being an attempted bombing at the US embassy (but the truck carrying the bomb got stuck in traffic and when a police officer interrogated the driver, the terrorists abandoned the truck (at the Rajprasong intersection) and fled on foot.

The above information is great food for conspiracy theorists, and tells quite a good tale. The more I look into the details, the more interesting things become. For example, the man who vandalized the shrine in 2006 evidently had Arabic tattoos and there was a lot of speculation at the time that he had been instructed to commit the vandalism, for one of a variety of reasons including to assist then Prime Minister Thaksin, for reasons of black magic, and for reasons of terrorism.

Although I have added an air of mystery and conspiracy to this particular post, my personal views are that it is pure coincidence that all of the above events have taken place around the Erawan Shrine. The Shrine just happens to be located at one of the busiest intersections in Bangkok. In addition, it is a popular place for both locals and tourists. Tourists can see Thai dancing for free, Hindus and Buddhists can make merit (Chinese tourists in particular target the Erawan Shrine for this purpose). Because the area is a significant intersection with major hotels and Thailand’s largest shopping centre across the road; plus it is near the US, UK and former location of the Israeli embassy; and one of the most popular spots to celebrate New Years Eve, it becomes a natural choice for terrorist attack. It is however unfortunate that cowards choose to make their political points via needless death to innocent civilians.

Notwithstanding my own close call (and this wasn’t my only close brush with being a victim to acts of terrorism) I continue to refuse to allow it to “terrorize” my behaviour and my travels.

Pattaya: The Comprehensive Guide – voted on Koh Samui Sunset

Pattaya: The Comprehensive Guide
Pattaya: The Comprehensive Guide

Recognition for all the hard work on the first of our travel guides is finally starting to emerge.

The expat forum site Koh Samui Sunset recently cited our guide as the number one regional guide for Pattaya.  The link to their guide book review is here (opens in new window): http://www.kohsamuisunset.com/thailand-travel-guide/

The Amazon link for the guidebook is here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00P7XAZSC

Hopefully, this can now trickle into a few more sites and get a bit more attention.

For those interested in Thailand based guides, we have been busy this year and we have a few things about to be released.  We typically aim to publish in about October or November, in preparation for peak tourist season in December.

Our coming line-up for this October is as follows:

1. The October 2015 revision to Pattaya: The Comprehensive Guide.  This isn’t just an update on information, but a big format change, with new types of information, some really fun challenges for readers to do while in Pattaya and completely revised maps.

2. Bangkok: The Comprehensive Guide.  As with the Pattaya guide, we are aiming to bring out the best travel guide for Bangkok that has ever been written.  The guide will contain details that have never been mentioned in any other guide.  Bangkok will never be the same again.

3. Dating Thai Girls Online: The Comprehensive Guide (Including tips and tricks to ThaiFriendly.com).  The title says it all.  However, we don’t just explain how to find compatible partners, but discuss the cultural aspects of dating in Thailand, warning signs in relationships, and how to make a relationship work.  We also expose various erroneous myths about Thailand and its women and discuss the negative implications of how some people abuse dating sites.

Bangkok’s Hidden Classic Cinema – Scala

Scala interior
Scala – Bangkok’s classic art-deco cinema

Whatever happened to the good old days of movie cinemas, where you would enter a grand entrance with fluted columns, large winding staircases and gabled ceilings.  Attendants wore uniforms complete with hats and gloves, and there was only one large screen, not eight, sixteen or twenty-four small screens.  The large cinema would often even have balcony seating.

Notwithstanding numerous proposals to knock it down, Bangkok has so far managed to retain one of its icons of classic cinema, namely the Scala Cinema.  This beautiful icon to the movie world is a pioneer of the Vietnam conflict era and was a popular location for American service personnel and their families who were stationed in Bangkok during the conflict.

Exterior of Scala
Scala today is largely hidden due to all the larger, more modern buildings popping up all around it. Most tourists walk by without ever realising it is there.

It opened in 1967 in Siam Square (on land owned by Chulalongkorn University), and has remained timelessly unchanged since its original opening, whilst everything around it has transformed significantly.    The Scala is owned by the Apex cinema group in Thailand, who built two other cinemas nearby (all of which opened in the 1960s).  The others were the Siam (the largest at the time) and the Lido.  The Siam perished by fire during the 2010 Red Shirt riots.  The Lido suffered a fire in the 1990s and lost its original ambiance, being redeveloped into a small multiplex.  Just recently, the Lido closed its doors for good due to plans to turn the site into a shopping mall.

Other old-world cinemas around Bangkok have almost all succumbed to similar fates as the Siam and Lido.  For instance, the President (part of the Hollywood shopping street complex) was torn down and turned into apartments.  The Hollywood was torn down and the site is currently under development (possibly a multi use building of apartments, offices and shopping).  The Villa cinema building still stands on Soi 33, but is un-used.  Thailand’s original cinema, Chalermkhrung Theatre, still stands, but is now used exclusively for theatre rather than screening movies.

Scala is therefore the only remaining classic cinema in Bangkok.

Instead, as in the West, Bangkok has replaced all of its classic large screen, multi level, cinemas, with modern multiplexes housed in shopping centres.  The big move these days is more cinemas, and more luxurious options including gold class micro cinemas with table service, members lounges and private bars, kind of like flying first class on an airline.  The modern changes are nice, but every now and then, it is nice to return to the roots of cinema and refresh memories of going to cinema as an experience, rather than just catching up on the latest instalment of blockbuster franchises.

The Scala is therefore the only classic cinema remaining in Bangkok.

On the outside, the building is nothing special and in fact is easily missed by most tourists, especially given all of the other flashing signs and modern buildings in Siam Square.  However, once you step inside you are rewarded with an instant step back in time when you are greeted with the lovely art deco interior, with high ceilings, intricate columns, a large staircase leading up to the mezzanine level, the intricately patterned ceilings, the large hanging chandelier, and the old-school ticket booths.  To add a bit of an Asian touch to the building, the walls are all clad in interesting wooden carvings.

Scala interior
The gorgeous columns, and intricate ceilings. Everything about this place shows old world attention to detail.

When you purchase a ticket, they still hand-write your seat number manually onto the ticket, and you then present it to a yellow jacketed cinema attendant who can show you to your seat.  In the main cinema itself, the seats are arranged in a slight arc around the main screen, so as to improve your viewing angle no matter where you sit.

In addition to the classic experience, the Scala Cinema is also a good place to see some of Bangkok’s more famous expatriates, who continue to frequent some of the old Bangkok haunts.  One notable regular is Bernard Trink, also known as the Night Owl.  Bernard is internationally known for writing the nightlife column for the Bangkok Post and for coining the phrases “TIT” or “This is Thailand” and “I don’t give a hoot”.

Sadly, the entire Siam Square area of Bangkok is currently undergoing massive renovation, and the area inhabited by the Scala is currently slated for demolition in 2016, to be replaced with a modern shopping centre.  To be honest, the thing that was really nice about Siam Square was that it contained old world Asian shop houses containing boutique stores, mixed in with market-style side-street stores, all selling locally designed fashion items.  The modern shopping centres will be too expensive for these boutique stores to set up in.

You can find the Scala Cinema on Ploenchit Road, at the intersection with Siam Square Soi 1.  It is directly opposite the Siam Centre/Siam Discovery shopping centres.  To get there by BTS, get off at Siam (Interchange) Station, and take the southwest exit.

Another reason to go to Scala is because it is currently one of cheapest cinemas in Bangkok, with prices being around the 100 baht mark.  The more up-market places in Bangkok are now getting closer to the 200 baht mark for movies (and lots more if you go for gold class or equivalent).