Monday, June 30, 2008

Thailand on a shoe-string budget

Zalina Mohd Som (story and pictures)

RM1,000. Eight days by road from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. It was definitely a challenge in more ways than one. With so little money and so much shopping to do, how did ZALINA MOHD SOM fare?

Tuk-tuk ride.
Tuk-tuk ride.
Shopping for hand-made tribal garment at Chiang Rai night bazaar.
Shopping for hand-made tribal garment at Chiang Rai night bazaar.

TRAVELLING in Thailand has been described as “living off a tenner a day for the experience of a lifetime”.

The Land of Smiles has long been described as one of the coolest places on earth for those travelling on a tight budget.

It’s such a cheap and good value destination that many travellers from all around the globe – mostly backpackers and independent travellers — extend their stay from their initial plans.

Most backpackers make their way to Bangkok’s famous Khao San Road, known worldwide as an independent traveller’s ghetto for those with an adventurous, unrestricted travelling style.

However, adventurous women with a penchant for a little indulgence and comfort may prefer Her Own Way, a women-only tourism campaign by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

The Challenge

After a successful backpacking trip to Hongkong last year, my two girlfriends and I took on the challenge of eight days in Thailand, on a budget of RM1,000 each.

What we had on hand were confirmed flight tickets, booked six months ahead to allow us time to plan the itinerary between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. With our budget in mind, we would only stay a night in each town, in hotels where rooms cost no more than RM100 per night. We would also use the cheapest transportation available and at every possible opportunity, divide the costs equally among us.

Planning The Trip

We started our planning with the help of the Internet and consulting a Thai friend for ideas on possible stopovers. Then, with a tentative itinerary laid out, we went to the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s KL office in Menara Citibank to check if our plans and budget would work.

One of the staff told us: “RM1,000 may be a little bit tight as transportation will take the big bulk of your budget.” But we were adamant. We would stick to our initial plan and see how far we could go. From Bangkok, we would go to Chiang Rai and cover the north-eastern towns of Mae Sai, Mae Hong Son, Pai and finally, Chiang Mai.

One Night In Bangkok

Bangkok was easy to get around, so easy that it failed to leave much of an impression. The only things we remembered fondly were the Suk 11 Hostel where we spent 1,100 baht (RM110) on a triple-sharing room and the efficient public transport systems which included the BTS Skytrain, MRT Subway and the metered taxi.

We didn’t shop in Bangkok as we wanted to save our money for better shopping in Chiang Mai. However, we spent a lot of time in the Pratunam shopping area, covering the floors of Platinum Plaza and Pratunam Centre, both wholesale garment centres.

By the time we finished window shopping, our legs threatened to give way. We sighed with relief when we saw some massage outlets nearby where we spent 120 baht (RM12) each for 45 mins of foot reflexology.

Shocking Pink Bus

We woke up early the second day to catch a 7am bus to Chiang Rai at the Mo Chit Bus Terminal, about 40 minutes from our hotel. Since the journey would take 10 hours, we wanted the most comfortable bus but sadly, there were only two direct services to Chiang Rai with two departure times – morning and evening.

The premier class coach (950 baht) was full, so we had no choice but to take the first class coach (650 baht). It turned out to be nothing more than a typical executive bus – a double-decker with reclining seats and toilets. The interior was a shock, covered in bright, shocking pink from the seats to floor, and drapes to ceiling!

Not knowing what to expect on the journey, we bought some tidbits and bottled drinks the night before. But as soon as the bus started, the attendant, an impeccably-dressed woman, served us fruit juice and muffins. Four hours later, it made a lunch stop at an R&R area (we couldn’t tell the exact location as signboards were in Thai language) but there was nothing halal for us.

Luckily, we still had our rations! The highway (minus the tolls) was wide. Most of the vehicles we passed were trucks, express coaches and occasionally, 4X4 vehicles.

Chiang Rai, Day and Night

Luckily, we arrived in Chiang Rai before sunset. This allowed us, backpacks and all, to roam the town confidently in search of a suitable hotel. We settled on Starbright Hotel, a city hotel with a spa and restaurant, for a “special” rate of only 1,000 baht (RM100) for a triple-sharing room.

It was already dark when we finished dinner in a small Muslim restaurant, so we headed for the night bazaar near the bus terminal. We had arrived in Chiang Rai in the quiet of day but at night, the town came alive with brightly coloured lights and revellers who flocked to the night bazaar.

The bazaar was a maze of lanes between blocks of shops. There was, however, a stage in front of an al fresco dining area for cultural and cabaret performances. On sale were tribal crafts, bags, headgear, clothing, house deco items, souvenirs and hand-made items, cottage industry products and Chiang Rai printed T-shirts. Caught up in the frenzy of the night bazaar, we forgot to check out the rate for foot reflexology here.

The Golden Triangle

We were excited about our next destination, Sop Ruak, the gateway that borders three countries – Thailand, Myanmar and Laos – that formed the Golden Triangle. We would take the local bus to Chiang Saen, followed by a one-hour boat ride to Sop Ruak before catching a songthaew (open-sided mini van that seat passengers on two benches) to Mae Sai.

The non-air-conditioned bus wove nonchalantly through the countryside (the bus attendant even stopped in his village to send home groceries!) and reached Chiang Saen in an hour. Unlike Chiang Rai, this was a small, quiet town. The main road was wide, with most of the action happening on the roadside.

Not sure of our whereabouts, we approached a tuk-tuk driver for a ride to the pier. He quoted a fare of 180 baht but after much bargaining, agreed to half the price. Our euphoria at our newly-acquired bargaining skills disappeared when, just barely five minutes later, the taxi rolled to a stop.

We could have just walked! The pier was just at the end of the main road where it joined a road that ran parallel with the Mekong River. Across the river was the Republic Of Laos. Our egos bruised, we bargained hard for the boat ride to Sop Ruak. But the boat operator wouldn’t budge on the ticket price of 600 baht.

The one-hour ride in a small, motorised sampan along the murky Mekong River stopped mid-way on the Laos side before it went on to Sop Ruak. Don Soa Island in Laos was a small L-shaped village with a restaurant, shops selling local crafts and rest areas by the river.

There was nothing much to do here but shop and watch the scenery. It took another 30 minutes to reach Sop Ruak, on the bank of the Mekong and overlooking the confluence of two rivers – Mekong and Ruak — and the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Thanks to the notorious opium legends of the Golden Triangle which continued until the 1980s, Sop Ruak has its share of tourists.

However, the only opium you would find was in the Opium Museum here. Our destination was Mae Sai, near the Thai-Myanmar border, about 40 minutes’ drive from Sop Ruak. We could go by songthaew or chartered taxi. A local advised us to take the taxi (600 baht) which was more reliable. Mae Sai was bigger and busier than Chiang Rai.

Cars and trucks were double parked along the road leading to the Immigration Complex separating Mae Sai and Myanmar’s Taichilek. There weren’t many hotels and we stayed at Top North Hotel. At 1,500 baht, it not only cost more than the earlier places but was slightly inferior in terms of facilities.

Its only plus point was that it was just 200 metres to the Immigration Complex. Besides the cheap foot massage, it was shopping for us at Mae Sai. The China Market which snaked along the back lanes off the main road offered interesting local products as well as China-made ready-to-wear, electrical items and bags.

Irresistible Chiang Mai

The express coach to Chiang Mai was a pleasant surprise — in many ways. No shocking pink interior here. Instead, the jade green hues made the bus look spacious and helped us feel more relaxed. Checked-in luggage was tagged with labels similar to those used by airlines. The coach passed at least three checkpoints for inspection by both the Thai Police and Immigration officers.

Just as we were feeling restless, the bus rolled into Chiang Mai at 2pm.

With all our bags, walking far was out of the question, so we checked-in at the nearby Arcade Inn. We took two double rooms at 500 baht each as it did not offer triple-sharing rooms or extra beds.

When shown our rooms, we came to the conclusion that the hotel had probably never been refurbished since the day it opened for business.

We couldn’t wait to get out. For 120 baht, we took a songthaew to the heart of town where the daily night bazaar was located. By the time we had finished lunch, the bazaar vendors were starting to set up their stalls. This gave us the chance to get “first-customer” special price. In Thailand, the first customer of the day is considered good luck for business and shopkeepers willingly lower prices for their first customer.

Chiang Mai’s night bazaar, located on the pavements along a three-block stretch of Chan Klan Road, is legendary and definitely one of the best places for shopping.

Halfway through, we treated our feet to a much-needed one-hour foot massage for 100 baht. Revived, we continued to shop till midnight.

With only 4,000 baht for the next four days, we had to abort plans to go to Mae Hong Son and Pai as the transportation would have been too costly.

But frankly, we couldn’t get enough of Chiang Mai. As we were staying on, we knew we should get a better hotel, one in the area between the night bazaar and the famous Sunday Market inside the old city.

The Blue Parrot Guest House in Soi 3, Loi Kroh, was located halfway between the two markets. It looked new but service was good. Our room was spacious and best of all, we only paid 700 baht a night.

During our extended stay in Chiang Mai, we walked and shopped — from noon to late evening. Not content with the two markets, we headed for the modern Airport Plaza for more shopping.

It was only on the last two days that we booked a taxi to visit the elephant sanctuary, the tribal village at Mae Sa Valley and the three ancient temples in the old Chiang Mai. We rode a horse cart at the ancient village of Wiang Kum Kam (a mini version of Sukhotai) and shopped at the many showroom-factory outlets in San Kamphaeng Road a.k.a Handicraft Highway.

Did we regret not going to the two smaller towns? No. We still feel we didn’t get enough of Chiang Mai.

And the big question: Was RM1,000 enough for the trip?

Ermm… No. I ended up spending RM1,500, including buying souvenirs for the family, the daily massages and the unrestricted food and coffee.

But it was all worth it!

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