Korean Air First Class with credit card points: Bangkok to Dallas via Seoul

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Setting up for dinner service on the Seoul to Dallas leg of our journey home via Korean Air first class

We love playing the credit card miles and points game and are always on the lookout for an exceptional bonus or a great redemption deal. We charge everything to credit cards–every little bit adds up, but we ALWAYS pay in full at the end of the month. I emphasize the “always” because I encourage everyone to take advantage of the great freebies to be had by using credit cards, but only so long as you never charge more than you can pay at the end of the month. If you can’t afford to pay in cash, don’t charge it to a card. Period. Interest rates eat people alive and can cost way more than any perk you might get from accumulated points. That warning aside, here’s how we paid for two first class flights (one 5 hours long and one 12 hours long) with credit card points.

For 190,000 Korean Air miles plus $409.54 in taxes and fees (95,000 points and $204.77 each), I booked our two one-way first class flights from Bangkok via Seoul to Dallas. I booked the flights as one trip, Bangkok to Dallas, even though Korean Air does not offer a direct flight for this route. This saved 60,000 miles over booking the trip as two separate flights (Bangkok-to-Seoul and Seoul-to-Dallas). Given the 1.5-hour taxi ride during rush hour in Bangkok, security at both Bangkok and Seoul and a 6-hour layover in Seoul, we traveled 27 hours to get home. First class elevated the experience from excruciating to pleasurable and was a great use of our points.

When I’d first decided that Bangkok would be our departure city for our final flight home, I did an initial search to determine which airlines flew out of there to Dallas. I preferred an Asian airline to wind up our extended Asian trip so focused on those. With a working knowledge of which airlines I could book with points we had and which airline had the best redemption rates, it was easy to choose Korean Air, an airline whose first class product I’d had my eye on for a while anyway. Korean Air is known for good award availability and decent redemption rates. A quick search on their website confirmed that reputation.

The first step, after finding available award flights that fit our plans (and creating Korean Air Skypass accounts), was to link David’s and my Skypass accounts. Korean Air allows families to pool miles, but they do require husbands and wives to provide a marriage certificate. We scanned ours and emailed it and soon we could see on the Korean Air website that our accounts were linked. In addition to great award availability, Korean Air has very generous free hold options, so I put our chosen flights on hold while David and I moved the necessary miles. I put in 60,000 Starwood points which, with their standard 25% transfer bonus, credited as 75,000 Korean Air miles. 30,000 of those points went to purchase two one-way economy class tickets from Seoul to Shanghai in October. The remaining 45,000 was applied to the first class tickets from Bangkok home. For years now American Express Starwood card has been my go-to card, although others get primary usage for awhile if I’m trying to meet a spend for a specific bonus, get extra points or benefits at a hotel or airline linked to a card, etc. I find Starwood points to be very useful and versatile, much more so than AmEx’s Membership Miles which I’ve found decreasingly good value for over the twenty years or so I’ve had my formerly-preferred Platinum AmEx. [With the benefits greatly reduced in recent years and other premium cards offering more, I’m seriously considering cancelling my Platinum card. More about that in a future post.]

David transferred 145,000 Ultimate Rewards points that he’d accumulated with his Chase Ink business card. Those points came from a sign-up bonus and from using bonus points offers on that card wisely: The card pays 3x points for purchases at Office Depot/OfficeMax and we buy fee-free gift cards there for gas, groceries, Amazon and much more to take advantage of the extra points.

Once the miles were in our Korean Air account, we had to print out an award redemption form, sign it and email the form and copies of our driver’s licenses to Korean Air. Korean Air is a little different to deal with than other airlines in things like this and and requiring a copy of marriage licenses. They also frequently ask to call you back when you telephone them rather than just take your call. But, they do call back as promised, and I’ve found them to be helpful and easy to deal with. There may be some slight language issues from time to time, but speaking slowly and clearly usually solves any problem.

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Lounges are less than impressive at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. With our Korean Air first class tickets, we got access to the “first class” upper floor of Louis’ Tavern CIP First Class Lounge. Nothing to write home about. (We also had access to the main floor via our Priority Passes.)

We had a slight disappointment on our 5-hour flight from Bangkok to Seoul several weeks before departure when I received an email saying the plane had been downgraded so that our first class seats were now “Sleeper” seats rather than the Kosmo Suites we’d originally booked. On board, this turned out not to be a problem. The seats reclined to a virtually flat state, were wide and comfortable and David and I liked being able to sit next to each other. (The contained pod configuration of many first class seats leaves us isolated, especially since we both like window seats.)

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Appetizer on the Bangkok to Seoul leg of our trip home: mango and smoked salmon with seared ahi tuna

We were the only first class passengers on the 9:45pm flight, so received extra-attentive service. The food turned out to be excellent as well. I was impressed that they managed to turn out moist, perfectly-cooked shrimp with airplane facilities. After dinner, we stretched out and slept well for a couple of hours or so before landing.

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Pan-seared prawns with saffron sauce served with mashed potato and vegetables

Surprisingly, our flight attendants knew nothing about Korean Air’s first class lounge in its home base, Seoul. They checked on the Internet when we landed at 5am and informed us that the lounge was closed until 5am. So, we headed to the Asiana Lounge, the only Priority Pass lounge open at that hour. Although the Asiana Lounge is nice, the closest it has to sleeper chairs are 4 or 5 chairs with ottomans in semi-private, slat-walled cubicles. David and I staked out a couple of those. The food laid out looked good and varied, but I wasn’t hungry. I wandered down to the Korean Air first class lounge when it opened, but finding no better chairs than what we had and less of a food choice, we opted to stay at the Asiana lounge. I’d read mediocre reviews of the Korean Air lounge online–and lots of calls for them to up their game–so wasn’t surprised. The only perk that I’d meant to take advantage of but didn’t was a free engraved metal luggage tag that the Korean Air first class lounge will do while you wait. Oh well.

Time actually passed relatively quickly in Seoul before we were on our final flight. Our plane was equipped with Korean Air’s Kosmo Suites. They’ve got a newer, even more private, product called Kosmo Suites 2.0 that I’d like to try sometime although, if anything, I was feeling a little too isolated from David. The first class cabin was set up in two rows of a 1-2-1 configuration and we’d chosen the two window seats on the left side. Two other first class passengers took the two window seats on the far side. The four seats in the middle were empty. Our flight attendants were more than happy to set up my meals in the aisle seat across from David, so that solved my lonely dinner issues.

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Happy as a clam with my dinner set up across the aisle from David

Dinner was a truly enjoyable 8-course affair. I won’t bore you with too much detail, but will hit on some highlights just to emphasize the pay-off for playing the miles and points game: We chose Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2007 (a $160-170 bottle) to accompany the first courses. The Perrier-Jouët pink champagne served on our earlier flight was good; this was something special! A tiny goblet of prawns and berry gelée served as an amuse bouche, followed by lobster medallion, king crab salad and roquefort in roasted pepper.

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King crab salad, lobster medallion & roquefort in roasted pepper

Other courses included a salad made table-side and a roasted red pepper soup.

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Salad made table-side…a far cry from the limp, peel-back-the-plastic-wrap type served in back!

I don’t usually choose beef as a main course, but the red wine selections were so good, I based my dinner around the wine. A Vosne-Romanée, one of my favorite Burgundian wines caught my eye immediately. The Korean Air offering was delicious…but then there was that $100 bottle of 2007 St-Emilion Grand Cru. I had to have both. Of course!

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My main course: grilled beef tenderloin with meaux mustard sauce served with baby pumpkin mash, bell pepper timbale, oven-dried onion rings and dried cherry tomato

David opted for the seared black cod which was beautifully presented, wrapped in thin slices of white yam.

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David’s main course: Seared black cod covered with yam served with yellow paprika sauce, potato tower with ginko nut, fava beans and dried cherry tomato

Dessert included both a delightfully tart lemon tarte and excellent cheeses, with quality aged port and cognac.

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Lemon tart with ultra-rich vanilla ice cream

Full and sleepy after our feast, I returned to my original seat where the attendants had made up my bed with a thick feather-bed-style “mattress,” duvet and nearly full-sized pillow. Comfy in the soft cotton jammies provided by Korean Air, I snuggled under the duvet, stretched at full length with one arm flung over my head and still not touching either end of my pod. Heaven!

I slept well, but was awakened when I became too warm. A word to an attendant, and things were cooled off again. My only criticism would be that the usual dryness of air travel seemed magnified. I wish airlines would do more to try to humidify their cabins, although I confess to total ignorance as to what that might entail in the way of equipment, extra water weight, etc. Korean Air did give us small misting bottles of water just prior to take-off and I did make use of that, gratefully breathing in the refreshing mist. We also received Davi amenity kits with wine and grape-based products from a California company founded by one of the Mondavi family.

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Davi amenity kit

Another light meal was served before landing. We opted for the free range chicken from South Korea’s Jeju Island, fruit and cappuccino. I can’t say we weren’t tired and jet-lagged when we landed, but it wasn’t bad at all, especially given the 11-hour time difference between Bangkok and Dallas. We’d had a fantastic experience and Korean Air provided a great end to our 2 1/2 month Asian adventure. I can’t imagine the misery we would have been in if we’d flown sitting up in the back…and the money we’d have spent if we’d paid cash for first class luxury. Hooray for miles and points!

Bangkok’s Grand Palace during a time of mourning

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Mourners at the Grand Palace

We left the condo at 7:15am on the day we chose to visit the top site in Bangkok, the Grand Palace. Everything I’d read said to get there at least 15 minutes prior to the 8:30am opening time to avoid crowds and to beat the worst of the heat. We arrived at our neighborhood Sathorn Pier just in time to catch a commuter boat to the Tha Chang pier which is the Grand Palace stop. Since everything went so smoothly, we arrived much earlier than we’d planned, exiting the covered market that abuts the Tha Chang pier at 7:45am. Although we had more time than we needed, it turned out to be an interesting experience to be there so early.

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On the morning commuter boat to Tha Chang: River plants and left-overs from the previous night’s Loi Krathong floating offerings
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Just off the Tha Chang pier: A monk blessing those who gave him morning alms

Instead of going straight to the main entrance, we turned right along the same path we’d followed the previous day to see if free water was still on offer (provided for mourners traveling to the capitol to pay their respects, but also offered to tourists and other visitors). We were running low on water at the condo and planned to pick some up after our palace visit. Sure enough, the tables were still set up and food and water already on offer. We accepted a cold bottle for the day’s tour, then headed back to make our way to the main palace gate.

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Contents of a free boxed lunch we were given near the Grand Palace: rice, fried chicken, and larb gai (a minced chicken salad)

The street in front of the palace is closed off to all but official traffic and security check points set up. After passing through scanner stations and metal detectors, we walked nearly a block to reach the main gate where white-uniformed guards stood watch. A few tourists had already gathered and more trickled in as we waited. Still, it wasn’t too a large crowd and boded well for our visit.

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Tourists waiting for the Grand Palace to open

Soldiers formed rows just inside the gate and eventually two marched in a sort of goose-step towards the two guards at their posts outside. We watched as they performed a changing-of-the-guard routine that included a prolonged adjusting of the new guard’s uniforms by the retiring guards. Collars were straightened, hems of jackets tugged, epaulettes adjusted.

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Changing of the guard begins

Soon after the changing of the guard, the first of many waves of mourners were led through the main gate. They all wore black and many carried photographs of the recently-deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej clutched to their chests. The king was much-loved by his people and they have poured into the capitol to pay their respects. I read that visitors to the Grand Palace are being limited to 10,000 per day. The mourners we saw all wore name tags, presumably related to this limit and part of an organization system going on somewhere out of our sight.

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Mourners dresssed in black entering the Grand Palace main gate, many holding photos of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej
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Yet another huge wave of mourners being led into a side gate of the Grand Palace

It was incredibly touching to see the real grief displayed by the Thai people.  All over Thailand, we encountered large tributes and displays of photographs of the long-reigning kind. The photos depicted him at seemingly every stage of his life: young man, avid photographer, in middle- and old-age, playing his saxophone, in full royal regalia, visiting a memorial with sweat dripping from his nose, in military uniform comforting a hospital patient and on and on. Black and white bunting draped walls and buildings everywhere. Black clothes are de rigeur now for Thais and are prominently on display in clothing shops and stalls. If a work or military uniform is not black, people wear black arm bands or black ribbons pinned to their shirts and dresses. Videos played on display screens on skyscrapers in Bangkok, in parks, on subway screens. David and I saw one woman nearly brought to tears as she watched a film of the king on a subway car screen. The genuineness of the general grief is unmistakable.

After the morning waves of mourners were inside the palace compound, we tourists were admitted. I hurried through security while David pulled on his over-pants and I ended up buying the first tickets of the day. At 500 baht ($14.30) apiece, these are some of the most expensive entrance tickets to be found in Thailand. The tickets include access to Wat Phra Kaew (the Emerald Buddha Temple), The Royal Thai Decorations & Coins Pavilion and Queen Sirikit Museum of Textile, which are located within the Grand Palace compound, and to Vimanmek Mansion Museum on Ratchawithi Road. At least, the tickets usually include all this.

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What the ticket usually covers

A notice at the ticket booth inside the palace compound informed us that the Emerald Buddha Temple was closed for the day. This was a real disappointment since we’d seen emerald Buddha temples in Chiang Khong and Chiang Mai and even a replica of the statue in Chiang Mai. We were looking forward to finally seeing the real thing. Oh well, we chalked it up to more out-of-the-ordinariness due to the mourning period, and our minor disappointment seemed trivial in comparison to the grief around us. Still, this meant we made a fairly quick sweep through the area of the compound around Wat Phra Kaew. The temple and structures surrounding it were magnificent and, of course, over-the-top in their ornateness.

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Chedi, Royal Pantheon and other structures within the Temple of the Emerald Buddha complex
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Cleaning the Emerald Buddha Temple
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Royal Pantheon

High-ceilinged open galleries run all around this portion of the palace compound and they were filled with the thousands of mourners we’d watched enter the palace earlier. They fanned themselves in the heat, but waited patiently for their turn to file past the king’s bier.

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Hordes of Thais wait in the hot open corridors of the Grand Palace complex for the chance to pay final respects to their king

It was still fairly early in the morning when we exited the area around the Emerald Buddha Temple to view the Grand Palace itself. We encountered another large group of mourners outside, but the Grand Palace is not open to tourists. Well, OK. We’d budgeted a lot more time for this visit and there was no more to see here. So, we moved on to the The Royal Thai Decorations & Coins Pavilion only to be told the decorations portion was also closed. The Coins Pavilion is an unimpressive little museum and we made a quick sweep through displays on the second floor of Thai coins through the ages, spending most of our time standing in front of the two air conditioning vents that actually blew cold air. Downstairs, yet another tribute to the dead king took up the majority of the small space.

Hmm. There was nothing left to do, but head back towards the main gate of the palace compound–now mobbed with later-arriving tourists–to the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textile. It didn’t sound all that intriguing, but we had the tickets and the building looked nice…and air conditioned. The museum turned out to be a surprise hit. It housed two main exhibits: the first on khon, a very stylized traditional form of Thai dance; and the second, a display of clothing worn by Queen Sirikit and created by famed French designer, Balmain.

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Crowds of tourists just inside the Grand Palace main gate later in the morning

Unfortunately, photos aren’t allowed inside the main exhibits, so I can’t provide any here. Both exhibits were fascinating, though. Queen Sirikit devoted much effort to reviving the khon form of dance, which had died out. Costumes worn by khon dancers and patterned after royal garb had to be recreated from old written descriptions. In the beginning of this revival, silk from China was used, but with Queen Sirikit’s encouragement, the silk industry was revived in Thailand and Thai silk is now used. The characters in khon are celestial beings, demons, monkeys and humans. The dancers wear masks and elaborate headdresses and jewelry. They mime action while a chorus sings the plot of stories based on Ramakien, the Thai version of Ramayana, the Indian epic. The museum displays not only costumes and masks, but also has rare video footage of old khon productions along with modern film slowing the slow process of dressing each actor. Dressing involves intricate folding of copious amounts of cloth, layers of both clothing and jewelry, and even sewing the dancers into their costumes.

The display of Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe beginning in the 1960’s reminded me very much of an exhibit of Jacqueline Kennedy’s clothes I’d seen at the Musée de la Mode in Paris. Jewel-toned suits with three-quarter sleeve jackets and pillbox hats gave way to sequinned cocktail dresses and gorgeous formals. Queen Sirikit wanted Thai elements and fabrics blended into western-style dresses. The effect was unique and beautiful. Period photographs and videos of the King and his petite and pretty Queen on trips to the west accompanied the exhibit.

We made one final stop at the museum, where photos were allowed. This was billed as an activity room, but turned out to be primarily a space where visitors could dress up in faux khon costumes and pose for photos. As the first to visit for the day, we had the full attention of the bored young woman in charge of this room and were soon hustled into costumes and coached in “classic” khon poses. The laughable results are below for your viewing amusement:

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Leaving the museum and the Grand Palace compound, we crossed the street in search of more free water. En route, I was stopped by a reporter for a Thai television station who asked to interview me. His questions, like those of the students who interviewed me at Hellfire Pass, had to with what I thought of Thailand, “how the death of the king effected me,” and whether I wanted to return to Thailand. I think the questions and the concern had to do with whether I, as a tourist, was put off or influenced by the mourning going on around me. All I could say was that I loved Thailand, my heart was touched by the grief of the Thai people, and that, yes, I’d love to come back.

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Bangkok: Wat Pho reclining Buddha, Wat Arun & more

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Bangkok has a pretty manageable list of must-sees. The Grand Palace is probably top of the top, but everything I’d read said to get there before it opens to avoid the massive crowds and highest heat. We were tired after our drive from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok (and a first-night-in-Bangkok stop at a brewpub David had to check out), so we really didn’t want to get up that early on our first morning in the capital of Thailand. Number two on my list was Wat Pho and its famous reclining Buddha. We knew it would be hot and crowded, too, but heat and crowds are pretty much a given for Bangkok and we weren’t going to miss the city hiding out in the air conditioning.

One of the many selling points of our AirBnB condo is its closeness to both the Skylink overhead railway and the main Sathorn water taxi station. The express boats (water buses) that ply the Chao Phrya River run from Sathorn to Wat Pho and the Grand Palace (side-by-side on the same side of the river) along with many other stops. There’s a tourist boat that costs several multiples of the regular boats, but is still a bargain. We opted instead for an express boat that’s ridiculously cheap at 14 baht (40 cents). There’s an express boat pier, Tha Tien, just in front of Wat Pho. Unfortunately, it is closed for renovations. That meant we needed to ride one stop further to the Tha Chang pier that sits in front of the Grand Palace, and walk back to Wat Pho.

The express boats are identified by colored flags. We’d read to get on the orange flag express boat, but staff at the pier told us to go ahead and get on a blue flag boat (the first to dock after we arrived) that would also stop at the Grand Palace for the same price. Boats pull in and out frequently, never stopping long. The tourist boat docked just next to the other express boats. There’s a private boat offering tours, but we ignored those touts, who were asking much more. There are also water taxis and long tail boats. The Chao Phrya is a busy river, teeming with water craft of all types.

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A blue flag express boat
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Looking back at the Sathorn Pier (also known as “Central”) as we pull away

The boat ride itself is fun and a great way to see the city. It’s actually fairly cool, too, since it makes a breeze, you’re in the shade and on the water. In less than half an hour, our boat dropped us off at the Tha Chang pier where we walked past stalls of vendors set up in a covered market to exit by the white walls of the Grand Palace. Since the palace wasn’t our destination for the day, we turned right, putting the walls of the palace to our left and walked along a sidewalk lined with stalls offering free food and ice water. All this is part of the on-going mourning period for King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The generosity of the Thai people and camaraderie in their grief is touching. We assumed the refreshment was primarily for Thais journeying to the capitol to pay their respects to their king who lies in state in the Grand Palace. As foreigners, we were hesitant to accept the offered food and drink, but were repeatedly urged to do so by the Thais (who, of course, couldn’t help but see our obvious otherness). We gratefully accepted icy bottles of water as our walk to Wat Pho was long, hot and getting hotter.

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Free food and cold water at tents set up all along the Grand Palace; part of the nationwide mourning for King Bhumibol Adulydej. Note how nearly everyone is dressed in black.

At Wat Pho, we paid our 100 baht ($2.86) per person entrance fee, then pulled on the long pants we’d brought to wear over our shorts to comply with the temple dress code. As expected, the temple housing the famous reclining Buddha was a mob scene. The temple is long with two relatively narrow halls that run down either side of the Buddha. Large square columns separate the halls from the statue, which is so large, it’s hard to take in as you can only see parts at a time except for when he is viewed from one end or the other.

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Crowds viewing the reclining Buddha which lays behind the pillars to the left
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The only was to view the giant Buddha in its entirety is from one end or the other

At 150 feet long, the Buddha is gigantic, but the detail work on his face and mother-of-pearl inlaid feet is equally impressive.

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Buddha’s feet

Beyond the temple housing the reclining Buddha, many other stupa, temples and shrines dot the grounds of Wat Pho. We wandered in the shimmering heat, admiring the dramatic lines of the structures and the ornate ceramic, paint and mosaic work that covered nearly every inch of some of them. Clearly, Thais love bling and are big believers in more is more!

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Stupa ornamented with ceramic flowers and embellishments
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Galleys lined with Buddhas bring a welcome respite from a sometimes overwhelming ornateness
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A courtyard at Wat Pho
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Flower offerings placed before a seated Buddha

Reaching the far side of the temple complex, we happily accepted more free ice water in cups. I gulped some and splashed the rest on my face, neck and arms. David and I both peeled out of our long over-pants. We needed a break from the heat! A quick search on our phones turned up an air-conditioned restaurant not far away. I’d had some slight misgivings about the restaurant since it was located in a small hotel–usually not a great sign–, but the restaurant at Inn a Day turned out to be stylish, cool, and serving really great iced coffee and good food. Happiness!

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Bliss is iced coffee and green curry chicken in an air-conditioned restaurant!
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Shrimp pad thai

Refreshed by our break, we headed back towards the Tha Chang boat pier, detouring to explore a fish market tucked behind the pretty colonial era buildings that line the road in this part of town.

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Colonial buildings in the area along the river between Wat Pho and the Grand Palace
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Dried fish makes for a pungent market
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Smelly work. This group was, I think, making ingredients for fish sauce. Whatever it was was fishy, dark and entrail-y-looking.

Exiting the fish market and strolling back along the cafés and shops in the colonial buildings, we made a serendipitous detour into a covered market that turned out to lead to one of the many ferry piers along the river. For 3.5 baht (10 cents), we hopped a ferry to the far side of the river and Wat Arun.

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On the ferry with the scaffolding-covered stupa of Wat Arun visible on the far bank

Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn) is famous for its massive, beautifully-decorated stupa. The entire structure is now covered in scaffolding with a temporary structure at its very top that is unfortunately reminiscent of an outhouse. Needless to say, we were less-than-blown-away by the stupa, although the glimpses of it through the scaffolding hinted at the hidden beauty. The rest of the temple complex is lovely, though, and we admired the pastel flowers covering the walls of one temple and the blingy gold and mosaic work of the building’s trim that wouldn’t be out of place on a Mardi Gras float.

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Detail work on a temple wall at Wat Arun

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Giant guardians outside a small temple near Wat Arun

Having enough of the heat, we hopped another boat bound for Sathorn Pier and home. Upon debarking, we made a slight detour to explore the riverfront Wat Yannawa, a temple with a unique boat-shaped shrine that we could see from our condo balcony. Stalls were set up on the temple grounds and the place bustled with activity that hinted at more to come. Later, hearing broadcast announcements that wafted up to our condo and seeing throngs from our condo balcony at Wat Yannawa, we realized it was Loi Krathong, a holiday famous for its floating lantern offerings. Candles, flowers (and fingernail and hair cuttings) are placed on banana leaf (or sometimes bread) holders and set afloat upon the water at night. In Chiang Mai, Loi Krathong is occasion for the famous flocks of floating lanterns released into the sky.

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Boat-shaped shrine at Wat Yannawa, near the Sathorn Pier
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Ladies making Loi Krathong floating offerings with banana leaf bases and flowers

Looking beyond Wat Yannawa, we got a good view of the 49-story derelict and supposedly haunted Sathorn Unique building. We could see the other side of the Unique from our condo along with an adjacent parking garage with overgrown ponds on the roof and had been curious about the story behind the abandoned buildings. It turns out that the building is one of a dozen-plus such derelict skyscrapers in Bangkok, forlorn remnants of the Asian financial crash. At one time, there were reportedly more than 300 unfinished high-rises in Bangkok. Apparently the Sathorn Unique was 80-90% completed when the crash hit and work was halted, so it’s structurally sound, but a wreck inside, and now a destination for urban explorers. The rumors of the Unique being “haunted” or cursed in some way arise from claims it was built on an ancient burial ground and that it casts a shadow on Wat Yannawa. In any case, it’s a strange and strangely intriguing structure.

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Wat Yannawa worship and traditional medicine center with the Sathorn Unique in the background. Our AirBnB condo is in the left-most of the two towers behind the Unique.

 

Driving from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi

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Suburban Bangkok traffic

We took our final AirAsia fight of this trip from Krabi to Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok. Don Muang is Bangkok’s old international airport, now replaced by Suvarnabhumi as the city’s main international airport. Don Muang–the oldest operating airport in Asia and one of the oldest in the world, for that matter–is now primarily a regional and low-cost carrier hub. Most flights from Krabi go to Don Muang and that suited our purposes perfectly, given the airport’s location on the north side of the city. Our next destination was Kanchanaburi of Bridge on the River Kwai fame, WNW of Bangkok. I researched various ways to get to Kanchanaburi and decided a rental car would be ideal…if David was willing to do the driving.

I’ve done my share of driving in foreign countries, on both sides of the road, but one of the luxuries of my late-in-life marriage to David is leaving the driving to him. He actually loves challenging driving (and is fine with wrong-side stick shifts) and I’m a pretty darn good navigator, so we make a great team.

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Nerves of steel!

Bangkok, though, has a reputation of being a driving nightmare and there’s that always-present worry about accidents or police shakedowns in a third world country. Still, a car would be ideal and online research led me to believe it wouldn’t be that bad given the location of Don Muang. (Had we flown into Suvarnabhumi Airport to the south of the city, we’d have had to drive across Bangkok to get to Kanchanaburi. No way!) I showed David what I’d found and he was game for the drive, so I booked a rent car with Sixt…but made it cancelable in case on-the-ground experience in Thailand changed our minds. After two weeks in Thailand, David felt more confident than ever, so we made the drive.

Sixt provided us with a nice mid-size sedan with automatic transmission(!), Google Maps was up and working on my phone via my Thai SIM card, so all was good as we pulled away. Don Muang is a long airport whose length runs along a major highway. To get out of the airport, we had to drive through parking lots and drop-off lanes to reach a U-turn bridge to get us going north on the highway; no big deal.

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Yes, I know. The sign spells “Don Muang” differently. The airport spells it the way I have. Mostly. Thai spelling is a very changeable thing.

Traffic, as expected, was heavy on the highway with scooters and motorbikes weaving in and out among cars and trucks. We encountered our first problem when we tried to make our first exit. Massive construction of an overhead road was going on along the length of the highway and the exit was blocked. Thank God for Google Maps! We just kept trying to head west and after a series of Google re-routes that resulted in a lot of backtracking as we made long parallel straightaways and squared-off U-turns, we finally got onto the right road. Google Maps predicted 2h25 to go 142 kilometers (88 miles).

Traffic was insane in the early part of the drive as we made our way through Bangkok suburbs. [See lead pic.] Cars and passenger trucks mixed with tuk tuks, songtaews, motorbikes and brightly-painted big rigs. Major town signs usually had English, but not always. Most road signs were in indecipherable Thai squiggles and swirls. Worse yet, Google Maps would often show road signs and directions in Thai, not English. The robot lady still talked in English, but her “turn right’s” and “turn left’s” often came at the wrong time and I’d have to zoom into our little moving icon then tell David, “No! Not here!” more often than I would have liked. It required a lot of attention on both of our parts. Meanwhile, cars and motorbikes cut in and out around us. Traffic would occasionally come to a stop on a major median-divided road, to allow a stream of cars from the other side to U-turn. We could figure no pattern to that, and when I got the chance to research it, I found an expat message board where someone attributed it to “telepathy,” like us finding no rhyme nor reason to when cars would yield.

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Trucks sported all sorts of decoration.

Things got better as we moved into the countryside. The roads, all along, were in good shape, not much different from what we’d see at home (if you don’t count the temples, rice fields, loose cows and other signs that we weren’t in Kansas any more).

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Not unlike home, except for the Buddha

Thais protect themselves from the sun and it’s common to see people, especially on motorbikes, with their heads fully covered by cloth with only eye holes. It’s vaguely alarming-looking, like a bunch of bank robbers on the loose.

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Roadside vendor avoiding the sun

Getting hungry, we started looking for somewhere to grab a quick lunch. By now, we were used to and fond of Thai street food, so a local open-air market looked promising and we pulled in. A songtaew overloaded with locals pulled in beside us. This crowd headed to tables and vendors at the front of the market, but David bee-lined for a cloud of smoke emanating from the very rear of the big space, far from the other vendors. An old lady with a bandaged food greeted us eagerly while a man tended skewers on the grill. When we asked the price, she replied “5 baht,” about 14 cents. Sure we must have misheard, David asked her again, but got the same answer. Um. OK. She got out a plastic bag and quickly added several skewers. When we asked if it was chicken, “gai,” she nodded and repeated “gai.” Inspecting the skewers, I spotted a heart and some other odd bits. We asked her what part of the chicken those were. She waved her hand around her stomach. Intestines. That’s what I thought. The skewers were split down the middle then wired shut around the meat. Some of the skewers held flattened, unidentifiable meat with small bones visible. It looked like chicken back. Maybe. David tried pointing to his leg and chest, asking for more familiar cuts, but she just nodded and added another skewer, bringing our total to five. When she mentioned sticky rice, for 3 baht, we happily bought 2 plastic pouches for a grand total of 30 baht or about 86 cents. She’d moved her crutch aside for us to sit down, but I told David we should eat in the car, both for a/c and so we could spit out anything we wanted without offending her.

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Inedible barbecue with strange beaky bit on the right

Back in the car, we inspected our lunch. We tried nibbling on the flattened, bony meat, but could only get the tiniest bit of food. Were you supposed to just crunch through bone?! Giving up, we moved on to the tripe. Curling my lips back, I tried a bite…but couldn’t get through. An odd beaky looking bit was equally impervious to my teeth. Hmm. The barbecue sauce wasn’t bad, though. We quickly wolfed down our sticky rice and tossed the rest of our “lunch,” afraid to feed it to the two dogs wandering the front of the market for fear of choking them. Oh well, back on the road.

We arrived at our Kanchanaburi hotel without incident. The drive, while a little frazzling in some places (for me anyway–David has nerves of steel), wasn’t bad. It was nice to have the car, for privacy, comfort and just to be free to follow our own whims and timetable or lack thereof. For about $30/day, it wasn’t a bad deal either. It also turned out to be a great way to escape the myriad tours being touted in Kanchanaburi. More on that later.

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Great roads in the countryside (This is between Kanchanaburi and Tha Kilen the day we did the Death Railroad.)

Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016