Thailand

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Imagine yourself in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, one of a dozen resplendent buildings within the sacred confines of Bangkok's Grand Palace. Saffron-robed monks tiptoe silently across the marble floors in the midst of their devotions, as normal Thais -- men, women, and children -- silently pray to the memory of Buddha, the timeless philosopher, to ease their way to heaven.

Stroll through the cluttered streets of Banglampu, a lively district only blocks away, its streets pungent with the aromas of Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian cuisine, its sidewalk cafes noisy with the chatter of visitors conversing in a dozen European and Asian languages. August through October, a short afternoon monsoon downpour may drive people inside for an hour, but soon the sun breaks through and the cafe tables fill right up again as though nothing happened.

After touching down at Bangkok's modern Don Muang International Airport, take an airport bus ($3) to the city center and ask for the Manohra Hotel, only a few blocks inland from the renowned riverfront Oriental and Shangri-La hotels. (To reach other downtown hotels from the bus station, hail a "Taxi-Meter" cab for about $7-8.) Its forecourt crowded with the latest-model BMW and Mercedes sedans, the Manohra offers most of the comforts of its famed neighbors but at a fraction of their prices. A "deluxe" double room which last year rented for $125 now goes for only $78, a "superior" room for even less ($66), breakfast, tax and service included.

Thai this one on for size

Or consider the Royal Hotel in the Banglampu district, just blocks from the Grand Palace. Stroll through its spacious lobby lit by cascades of chandeliers, and ask the price of a completely comfortable and modern air-conditioned double room with private bath, cable TV, and direct-dial phone. The uniformed clerk will say "thirty-five dollars" -- and that's for a "deluxe" room, breakfast included; a "superior" room costs even less. Take a table among local and foreign diners at the comfortable lobby cafe-bar or in the spacious Raja dining room, order a meal of Western or Asian cuisine, and your check will probably come to no more than $8 or $9 per person, drinks and tip included.

If the Royal's full, call the Bangkok YMCA's Collins International House, a big, modern hotel in an embassy and banking district with plush-carpeted hallways, powerful air conditioning, a large swimming pool, and big-city comforts for $40 double in a superior room, breakfast included; standard rooms cost even less.

These are only a few of literally dozens of comfortable, modern Bangkok hotels at eye-popping prices. The modern Viengtai Hotel in Banglampu has guest rooms which in cleanliness and comfort could pass muster with J. W. Marriott or even Conrad Hilton, but they cost a mere $45. There's even a swimming pool.

Too much? Virtually next door to the Viengtai is Orchid House, a tidy pension boasting a spotless sidewalk cafe/bar/restaurant and air-conditioned double rooms with private baths for a mere $10 double. The rooms are small and simple but quite clean and safe.

The Atlanta Hotel is a living piece of history, carefully retaining its faded Art Deco decor. Its hallways may be in need of paint and its severely simple rooms show the use of many decades, but the adventurous, romantically inclined traveler will find them clean and serviceable, and they cost less than $15 double, private bath and air conditioning included; a large, air-conditioned suite capable of sleeping four is only $30. The hotel's delightful swimming pool is set in a lush tropical garden just off the lobby.

Cuisine for a pittance

But the Atlanta is even more famous for its cafe-restaurant. Also pure Art Deco, it serves Western, Thai, and Indian dishes priced at $1 to $2 per plate and boasts the largest selection of Thai vegetarian dishes in the world. Its menu (in English) is a beginner's course in the beauties and philosophy of Thai cuisine. Luncheon is served to the graceful tones of Thai music written (they will tell you proudly) by His Majesty, the King of Thailand, who is an accomplished composer.

More upscale? The centrally located Silom Village Trade Center has several sparkling-clean restaurants. Ruen Thep is reached by a small bridge across a pool filled with fat carp. Order a beautifully presented plate of fresh red snapper with sweet-and-sour sauce for $5, or chicken with cashews, for $3.

Nearby, the Central Department Store has a top-floor restaurant called "The Terrace," serving tasty plates of fried rice with beef, chicken, or pork for $3, and elaborate noodle dishes for only a few cents more and this is in a bright, modern, air-conditioned dining room.

The cheaper Chiang Mai

Get out of cosmopolitan Bangkok and prices are even lower -- sometimes astoundingly low.

Chiang Mai, 440 miles northwest of Bangkok, is regarded by many as Thailand's most livable city. It has over 300 temples -- almost as many as Bangkok -- and is the country's handicrafts center. You can fly there for $50, but why not go by overnight sleeper train and save a night's hotel cost? The train fare, first-class bed included, is a mere $30; an adequate second-class bed is half that.

Beside the devaluation, Chiang Mai presently has a hotel room glut, so prices are unbelievably low. A room at the posh, five-star, 526-room Sheraton Chiangmai might be worth $250 in New York City, but can be yours for an astounding $75 here. But why pay even that much? The 444-room Chiang Mai Plaza has most of the same amenities yet charges only $45.

But these are luxury hotels. The completely comfortable middle-range hotels have even more Thai character and yet charge much less. The Galare Guest House, as much a modern hotel as a guest house, has fully air-conditioned rooms for $24. The Riverfront Guesthouse is a large, traditional teak house featuring a good Thai restaurant and air-conditioned rooms with private bath for a mere $15. Want a modern hotel with swimming pool, TV, and telephone as well as air-conditioning? Try the Anodard Hotel, at $10 a night. Remember, these are the better hotels, not rock-bottom budget places, and there are many more like them.

A visit to the hill tribes virtually for free

From Chiang Mai, it's easy to arrange a trek to visit the country of the hill tribes of northern Thailand. This once-in-a-lifetime experience -- like everything else in Thailand -- is now astonishingly cheap. A four-day, three-night trek can cost as little as $35; a deluxe seven-day, six-night trek including river rafting and elephant riding is only $60 -- and that's not the price per day, that's for the entire weeklong experience, simple lodging and meals included. Check with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) office (tel. 66/53/248604, fax 248605) on the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road near Nawarat Bridge for recommended trekking companies.

Go now! Thailand is among the world's friendliest, most interesting, and most beautiful countries. Right now you have the opportunity of the century to see it.

Thailand MiniGuide

Information Tourism Authority of Thailand, 61 Broadway, Suite 2810, New York, NY 10006 (tel. 212/432-0433, fax 212/269-2588);

Airfare

Normal round-trip excursion fare: New York to Bangkok, $643 to $882; Los Angeles to Bangkok, $555 to $754.

Bangkok

Manohra Hotel, 412 Surawong Rd., Bangkok 10500; tel. 66/2/234-5070; fax 237-7662

Royal Hotel, 2 Rajdamnern Ave., Bangkok 10200; tel. 66/2/222-9111; fax 224-2083

Bangkok YMCA Collins International House, 27 South Sathorn Rd., Bangkok 10120; tel. 66/2/287-1900, 287-2727; fax 287-1996

Viengtai Hotel, 42 Tanee Rd., Banglampu, Bangkok 10200; tel. 66/2/280-5434, 280-5392; fax 281-8153

Orchid House, 323/2-3 Rambuttri Rd., Banglampu, Bangkok 10200; tel. 66/2/280-2691, 280-2692

Atlanta Hotel, 78 Sukumvit Rd. Soi 2, Bangkok 10110; tel. 66/2/252-6069; fax 656-8123

Atlanta Hotel Cafe-Restaurant (see hotels above)

Ruen Thep, Silom Village Trade Center, 286 Silom Rd., Bangkok; tel. 66/2/234-4448, 235-8760

The Terrace, Central Department Store, Silom Rd., Bangkok

Chiang Mai Sheraton Chiangmai, 318/1 Chiang Mai-Lamphun Rd., Chiang Mai; tel. 66/53/275300; fax 275299

Chiang Mai Plaza, 92 Sridonchai Rd., Chiang Mai; tel. 66/53/270040; fax 272230

Galare Guest House, 7 Charone Prathet Rd., Chiang Mai; tel. 66/53/821011; fax 279088

Riverfront Guesthouse, 43/3 Chang Khlan Rd., Chiang Mai; tel. and fax 66/53/273885

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