Live Talk Transcript: Thailand

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Reid Bramblett and Jason Cochran answered your questions about Thailand

Reid Bramblett and Jason Cochran answered your questions about traveling to Thailand Tuesday, July 6, at noon EST.

Reid Bramblett holds the somewhat dubious distinction of having authored both The Complete Idiot's Travel Guide to Europe and Europe for Dummies. His love affair with Europe began at age 11 when his family moved to Rome and proceeded to spend much of the next two years exploring Europe in a hippie-orange VW campervan. Reid experienced a budget continent of campgrounds and picnics with the locals, though mostly he remembers having to sleep in the VW's moldy pop-top. After a brief stint as an editorial assistant at a travel publisher, began writing European guidebooks for Frommer's, Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness, Idiot's, and For Dummies. He joined the Budget Travel editorial staff in 2002. He champions such underdog Irish causes as real ales, traditional Celtic music, Irish cheeses, hurling (that's a Gaelic sport, not what happens after too many whiskeys), pub grub, and tramping around bogs and wind-bitten downs in search of ancient tombs.

Jason Cochran is Senior Editor of Budget Travel magazine. In addition to writing for publications such as Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, and Arena, he wrote questions for the first season of ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He recently spent two years backpacking around the world, visiting six continents and over 40 countries. A current resident of New York City, he has also lived in Chicago, Atlanta, Key West, and Cape Town, South Africa.


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Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: Hello! We're both online and primed to answer your every question about the beauty and appeal of Thailand. We'll get started right away:

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Towson, MD: Hello to you both...Can you list the top five absolute MUST SEES in Thailand?

Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: Jason here. I've gotten this question many times. Naturally, it's a matter of taste, but here are my top five, which hit many of the bases and span the country:

  • Bangkok: Wat Phra Kaeo and The Grand Palace: This luxurious, over-the-top complex of royal pavilions (check out those fantastic gilded sculptures!) is home of the famous Emerald Buddha (actually made of jade) and once the stomping grounds of the King of Siam, fictionalized by Yul Brynner. Nearby is Wat Pho, which houses the enormous Reclining Buddha. The huts on the grounds are the best place to get a cheap traditional Thai massage. The price? About $5 for an hour.
  • Chiang Mai: In northern Thailand, a city of monasteries, busy markets, and tourist-friendly courses in everything from Thai cooking to Thai massage. It's also the gateway to the jungles of Hill Country.
  • The islands: Each island suits a different taste, from the youth-oriented party isle of Ko Phagnan and Ko Samui to the more upscale, top-drawer resorts of Phuket. Sands are soft, waters are warm. (We sort through the identity of each of these islands in Budget Travel's July/August issue, on sale now.)
  • Sukhothai: The ruins of a city that until the 15th century served as the first capital of Siam, during the peak of its power in the region. Like Angkor Wat, it lay undisturbed in the jungle until the nineteenth century, but unlike its Cambodian counterprt, it's now well-kept, landscaped, and easy for travelers of any age or physical ability to navigate. It gives a peek into Thailand's long and varied history.
  • Kanchanaburi: Toss in a little recent history at the site of the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai, where the Japanese drove Allied soliders and hundreds of thousands of Asians into slavery and starvation to create a short-lived railway line. Lest you get too depressed at the painful wartime memories, the area is beautiful, with caves, raging rivers, and lush jungle national parks nearby. Tourists who come for the bridge, turn around, and return to Bangkok are really missing something.
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    Cabin John, MD: Reid, Have you seen or heard of $500 RT fares to Thailand (from NYC)? Someone told me they saw that, but could not remember where. Seems like an urban myth, but I thought I'd ask.

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: That would be a great fare, but not one that'll come along very often. (We saw a lot of those types of tickets last year, when the specter of SARS, war in Iraq, and general vague terrorism fears were keeping people away from travel in general and Asia in particular in droves.)

    We've had a lot of questions about how to find cheap tickets or any ongoing sales, so here's a blanket answer.

    You have to do your homework. Don't just run a query through Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. Double-check those with sidestep.com (only for PC users), and at cheapflights.com. Check out the sales pages at all the major US airlines -- but don't forget to surf over to the Asian airlines as well, such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Air, and (naturally) Thai Airways. Right now, Cathay Pacific is selling roundtrip from Sept through Nov for $636 from LA or San Francisco, $806 from New York's JFK (book by July 31).

    You should be able to find fares in the $600 to $700 range from Los Angeles, about $100 more from New York (it'll be a bit more difficult to match these up with airfare to LA or NYC from somewhere else in the US, but major airlines all have intertwining alliances that should help).

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    Kennewick, WA: Is the second half of April really a horrible time to go weather-wise? What should we expect at that time of the year versus, say mid-January?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: In April, expect intense heat and humidity. I'm not being facetious -- Bangkok in April, right before the rainy season kicks in, can be oppressive to even those used to tropical climates, and the searing glare of the sun can turn an idle sightseeing stroll into a grueling trudge. It's still do-able (I myself have tramped around the country at that time of year -- boy, what an exotic way to lose weight!), but for more reasonable temperatures, December and January are the better months. (Jason)

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    Los Angeles, CA: My friend and I are interested in traveling to Thailand with very little itinerary. For example, not booking hotels or ground transportation in advance. We basically want to fly in, go where the wind takes us, and fly out. We're extremely adventurous and flexible, and believe this attitude will add to our experience. Others think we're being irresponsible. Any thoughts or suggestions?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: Jason here: Yes -- I think that's a terrific idea. Frankly, most of the international budget travelers who are touring Thailand right now (Australian, British, Kiwi, etc.) are doing so on the fly. Since Thailand's tourist industry caters so heavily to independent travelers, it's enormously easy to pick up ideas and change your direction. When it comes to travel, Thailand is a very informal country. Bus tickets can be purchased minutes before departure, plane tickets can be had hours before takeoff, and at every train station, proprietors of guesthouses will forever be clamoring for your custom. Everywhere you stay (particularly in tourist hubs like Khao San Road in Bangkok), you'll hear tips and suggestions from your fellow travelers ("Don't go there -- it's not worth it" or "Don't miss this little town we found!") that will enrich your travels. My first trip to Thailand was completely unplanned. I arranged a plane ticket to land me in Bangkok and another to fly me out of Singapore a little over a month later. I filled my time once I arrived and I never got crowded out of something I wanted to see. If you're as adventurous as you claim, I dare say that you may even be a little surprised by how well-trod Thailand has become and how easy it is to tour. Die-hard travelers, in fact, report a little annoyance with how easy Thailand is these days.

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    Boston, MA: I know Thailand's a very popular destination these days: what are the most over-rated or over-touristed sights I should avoid?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: Jason: Some people may want to smack me for saying this, but I am not a big fan of some of the markets held around the country, particularly the night markets in Chiang Mai and in Bangkok's Patpong. They are decidedly touristy. Visitors usually come away with overpriced Chinese-made trinkets or ridiculous souvenirs that, once they get home, will never see the light of day. The one great thing about many of the markets, though, is that they serve inexpensive and fantastic food. If you go to a market, go to eat. Reid: The Bridge on the River Kwai. It's got a fantastic story behind it, but it's just an iron bridge over a river. It's not about the beauty of Thailand. It can be a moving experience, but if you're choosing it over a true antiquity such as Ayutthaya or Sukhothai, you're selling yourself short.

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    Camp Verde, AZ: Is the language going to pose problems ?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: Not really. English has become the world's common tongue, and you'll find it spoken (or broken, which is usually good enough) just about everywhere -- especially on the tourist circuit. Outside of America, most people are used to interacting with people who don't speak their languages. Most countries are small and most languages are spoken only locally, so people like the Thai know how to communicate with foreigners without using a common tongue. International tourism is big business in Thailand, so language barriers don't present much of a problem. You'll be fine.

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    New York, NY: I am getting married in Thailand in January. We are going on our honeymoon in the islands then. What 3 islands would you recommend for a romantic honeymoon? Also, do you know a good place to find elaborate Thai flatware in Bangkok?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: First off, congratulations!
    Thailand can be a terribly romantic spot, and January is a great time to go, weather-wise. Picking an island is a pretty personal thing, and depends on what sorts of things and what kind of scene you are into. You can get the gist of five of them in my article in this month's BT magazine, which is also available on this site today (msnbc.msn.com/id/5023648).

    For utter romance? Definitely skip Phuket, which is overbuilt and overrun with tourists. Ko Samui has a well-developed infrastructure, and plenty of sightseeing opportunities as well, but for some it's getting a little too commercial (nothing like Phuket yet, though).

    I'd stay steer clear of Ko Phangan as well, unless you guys are ravers (every full moon, the beach at Hat Rin becomes a raging party of booze and designer drugs with thousands of 20-somethings jumping to trance beats; happens again on the half-moon). Ko Phi Phi is getting a bit crowded, but is still stunningly beautiful.

    If all you're looking for is a lot of sun, sand, and time to spend alone together, my pick would be Ko Lanta. It retains that feel of being all by yourself out on a tropical Asian isle, utterly relaxing, wither perfect surf and temperatures. A true dream destination, and the sum of what the Thai isles are supposed to be all about.

    As for flatware in Bangkok, I'm afraid I haven't a clue. One place I'd suggest to start is at the government-run Narayana Phand, a kind of department store of traditional Thai crafts at 127 Rajadamri Road (between Petchaburi Rd. and Ploenchit Rd., just down from the Grand Hyatt Erawan). They have the highest quality everything on 3-4 floors. I don't recall seeing flatware (probably because I wasn't looking), but there was loads of tableware and other ceramics (along with silks, carved wood, statues, musical instruments, and a hundred other artisan items), so it's a good bet.

    (Funny aside: my girlfriend and I actually ate with some gorgeous flatware in Le Grand Bleu restaurant on Ko Phi Phi -- forks and spoons so nice we both actually commented on them [not normally our sort of dinner table conversation]. Another couple in the restaurant clearly felt the same way, as we overheard them asking the waiter where the utensils came from and then interrupted their meal to bustle up the street to that shop. However, once we actually started eating with the things, they turned out to be incredibly conductive of heat -- uncomfortable to hold in our hands, and burning our lips. I guess the lesson is: buyer beware.)

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    Fort Worth, TX: My husband and I will be in Bangkok the first week of October. We have 2 days of sightseeing planned for the city, but have a 3rd day open for an excursion outside of Bangkok. Ayutthaya has been offered as a possible excursion, and I've heard it's worth seeing, but we are more interested in flying from Bangkok to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. Would it be worth it for us to try to see as much as possible of Angkor Wat in one day, or are we better off going to Ayutthaya, since it is closer to Bangkok and takes less time than Angkor Wat? Thank you.

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: While it is possible to fly from Bangkok to Angor Wat and back in one day, you'd only get a few hours in the complex -- a complex which covers 300 square kilometers! There's a reason tickets are only sold for three-day and seven-day entry periods; it's impossible to do the site any sort of justice in less time.

    Save it for next trip, and spend the extra day exploring Ayutthaya, as you said, or just hanging around Bangkok. Two days is already barely long enough for such a fascinating city. Ride a long boat through the khlong (canals) that thread through the city. Wander the residential neighborhood of northern Banglamphu where folks still live in wooden houses and play out their lives in courtyards and narrow alleys. Return to Wat Po for an hour-long, full-body Thai massage. Go shopping for traditional crafts in the Siam Square area. Browse the markets. Visit temples. Cruise the river on the public ferries. Bangkok hides a thousand delights; you just have to take the time to discover them.

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    Southfield, MI: Hi, is Thailand safe for a young woman to travel alone?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: As safe as you could hope for. Violent crime is quite rare in Thailand, as the local police can be quite unforgiving with lawbreakers. It tends to keep people in check. In fact, by our State Department's own admission, Bangkok's crime rate is lower than that of many American cities. Tricksters and petty thieves are more common, so thwart them with the usual precautions: Don't dally with strangers, don't accept food or drink from someone you don't know, be streetwise, and so on. Besides, there are so many independent travelers in Thailand right now, you may even find it a struggle to stay solo. It's incredibly easy to link up with other travelers, make friends, and travel as a team. And should something terrible happen, health care is amazingly inexpensive -- just a few bucks for an X-ray or a cast. It makes you wonder why we have to pay so much for the same procedures back home.

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    San Francisco, CA: Is Thailand safe for Americans?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: For the same reasons as above, yes. The Thai are friendly people and they have no beef with the American style of life. In fact, they're adopting it more and more. Thai shopping malls are full of multiplexes and Dairy Queens and one-hour photo shops, and every Thai teenager has a flashy cell phone glued to his or her hand. There are a few poorer areas that are experiencing some domestic problems: along the Burmese border, for example, and in the deep south of the country near the Malaysian border, but these problems have been sporadic and they have nothing to do with American tourists. (Thailand, by the way has sent -- and lost -- men in Iraq as part of the American-led coalition.)

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    Vernon, CT: I am headed to Thailand for 2 weeks and I have $1,500 to spend on food, hotels, etc. Do you think this is enough? Thanks.

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: Thailand is still wonderfully, exhilaratingly cheap. Simple hotel rooms in Bangkok and beach bungalows on the islands start at $5 to $10 -- maybe as much as $10 to $20 for really nice mid-scale places. Full meals start at under $1, and usually clock in around $2 to $5 (at really, really fancy places you may spend $25 per person on massive, gut-busting feasts). So yeah, you got plenty!

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    Edison, NJ: I am going to honeymoon in Thailand next summer (2005) for 2 to 4 weeks. Is this a bad season to go in terms of the weather? Is July better or worse than August? We are looking to stay at remote beach locations, as well as some towns and cities. What are your top 3 (or 5)? Any other suggestions?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: Jason here: I answered a Top Five query a few entries back, but to follow on the weather-related portion of your question: Thankfully, you won't find the "monsoon" season in Thailand to be anything like the rainy season in, say, India, where life feels like a ceaseless deluge. Think of Thailand's rainy season as a relative of the rainy season in Florida, which coincidentally happens around the same period. You'll have sunny, warm days periodically interrupted with the odd heavy cloudburst and incidental tropical storm, but in general, you'll still be able to travel around the country and see what you want. Just be prepared for unexpected, warm passing downpours. If you want nearly guaranteed fine weather, go from December to February. As I also mentioned above, March to May can be insidiously hot and humid.

    If beach-going is part of your plan, be aware that on the southern peninsula, the weather is markedly different between the east and west coasts. On the west coast, the best time to visit is November to April, and on the east coast, the best period is May to October. The coasts aren't very far from each other, but their weather systems are worlds apart.

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    Floral Park, NY: I loved your article on Thailand. I am planning on going the end of August, but I heard it is monsoon season. Is this a completely bad time for me to go? I would be going to Phuket and a couple islands you wrote about. Help!

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: Yeah, that is the height of Monsoon Season. That doesn't mean it'll be raining constantly or every day -- more like sudden downpours each afternoon, that they clear off to sunny again. It gets really humid, though. If you can put off the trip until November or December, so much the better.

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    New York, NY: I'm off to Bangkok and the southern islands in a couple weeks and wanted to know what I should pack. I don't want to lug around a lot of luggage, I was hoping to bring 2 backpacks or even one big one. Do you think this is enough? Oh, I'm going for a little over 2 weeks.

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: A single backpack is ample. Thailand is a hot country, so you won't want or need much clothing. A couple of bathing suits, a few T-shirts and pairs of shorts, and a good pair of walking sandals should do you. Don't bother with make-up or elaborate evening wear; I can't foresee an occasion when you'll need to dress up -- the Thai beach towns are gloriously informal.

    You can buy anything else you need, from batteries to sunglasses, for next to nothing once you're there. But save a little space for the one article of clothing that will be indispensable for you: a brightly colored sarong. You can buy one for a few bucks anywhere you go, since they're on sale positively everywhere. They're the Swiss Army Knife of Thai vacation fashion; they function as skirts, they stand in for beach towels (and they dry quickly), they become headdresses when you come out of the shower, etc. The other item you'll buy there will be a ubiquitous roll-up straw mat that you will sit upon when you're on the sand. They also cost a few bucks, and one will last you two weeks. Light linen or cotton pants are also available for a few dollars everywhere -- for those times you need to cover your legs, such as in a temple. They'll be cheaply made, but they'll certainly last two weeks.

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    Los Angeles, CA: What's the cheapest way to get to Thailand?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: In addition to airfare sales like the stellar one we touted above, we're big fans of the cheap air-hotel packages offered by a number of companies these days. They get you discounted airfare plus a handful of nights in a hotel, and the whole package doesn't cost much more than airfare alone probably would if you bought it on your own.

    For example, In September and October, Go-Today.com will fly you to Bangkok and put you up in a three-star hotel for five nights for $679 double from Los Angeles. Compare that price to the rate I just got on Delta from Orbitz (the airport code for Bangkok is BKK, by the way): $678 in late September. So for $1 more, you get five nights in a hotel and a transfer from the airport in Bangkok -- not a bad deal! OctopusTravelPackages.com is selling five-night packages in four- and five-star hotels from September to November for $959 double. Most of the time, you can extend your return flight date and stick around for a while, traveling independently, but those first five nights in a paid-for hotel really help a traveler get their feet on the ground in a new country. It's an ideal set-up.

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    Mountain Home, ID: My husband and I are going to Thailand in mid-September. We made our travel arrangements with a travel company, Djoser. What can you tell me about this company?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: Djoser (pronouned "JOE-zer"), a company that originated in the Netherlands but now has an American office, has quite a following with the tourists who have discovered it. It specializes in escorted tours (as opposed to the air-hotel packages noted earlier in our chat). Budget Travel has received many positive notices about its guides and the company's organization, so we would say it's an excellent option. If you end up going with Djoser, please send us a note and let us know what you thought of it so that we may continue to keep tabs on the quality of its tours.

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    Burlington, NC: Just how bad are the mosquitoes on these islands and are they seasonal? Also, is there ever any surf on Thai beaches?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: First, the little biters. Mosquitoes are a bit worse throughout Thailand during and just after the rainy season (June through October), but they are a nuisance all year round -- though the risk of catching Dengue Fever and Japanese B encephalitis from one of them is greater during the rainy season. Frustratingly, the breed of mosquitoes that's out by day can carry dengue; those out by night are the type to carry malaria, so it's no like you can trick them.

    It's really more a time-of-day, issue than a time-of-year one. Mosquitoes are out feeding in the early morning and again in the late afternoon/early evening. In the end, it's easiest just to plan to be indoors during these swarming hours. Also, be sure to wear long sleeves and pants as often as possible (spray them with permethrin for extra protection; you can get it at www.rei.com), bring plenty of DEET repellant for your skin, keep windows and doors closed during those morning and evening hours, and treat that mosquito netting around your bed with respect.

    That said, the islands are actually infinitely better than the interior when it comes to flying blood-suckers, if for no other reason than the steady light breeze off the water keeps them at bay (seriously; you can be sitting at a beachside restaurant, completely bug-free, then walk just one block inland to where the buildings cut off the breeze, and all of a sudden it's feeding time.)

    Speaking of beaches, no, there's no surf to speak of in Thailand; a bit during monsoon season, but really that's more of some ripples you could conceivably ride a board on, not something you'd go out of your way to do.

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    Hopewell Junction, NY: I will be traveling to Thailand in September. Do I have to worry about chicken virus? Should I take any precautions, like maybe not going?

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: You must be referring to the headline-making avian flu. Relax -- there is no evidence that you can catch it from another human. In order to get it, you'd have to spend an awful lot of time fraternizing with chickens. As long as your accommodations aren't in a henhouse, you'll be fine. Neither the World Health Organization nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- two of the planet's most trigger-happy groups when it comes to issues of contagious disease -- have deemed the avian flu worrysome enough to issue any travel warnings. It would be a shame for you to cancel your Thai adventure because the press has failed to adequately portray the nature of the disease. For official assurances, refer to the State Department's fact sheet on the topic: travel.state.gov/avian_flu_factsheet.html

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    Cloverdale, CA: Hello Reid & Jason, I am going to Thailand at the end of this month for 5 months on a study abroad program at Thammasat University in Bangkok. I've read different articles about appropriate clothing for women but wondered if you can give me any insight into this. I was told that I need to bring along a "uniform" of a white shirt and a black skirt. I know you are a couple of guys, but can you tell me what would be appropriate in skirt length. Also, I have a tongue piercing. How is that looked upon? Should I remove it before I go? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: We think it's great you are being so conscious of social norms. Kudos. More people should travel as respectfully as you. Even as guys, we know to recommend that you cover as much skin as possible. At the beach, fine, wear a bikini. But in Bankgok, spend your days in pants or, when in school with that uniform code, a demure skirt down to at least mid-calf. It'd be best if you just ask the school how long a skirt is appropriate (for all we know, ankle-length is the rule; or maybe it's a ultraprogressive, miniskirt type place -- though we doubt it). Short-sleeve blouses are OK (a concession to how hot it is over there).

    As for the tongue stud, you're on your own. It'll definitely set you apart as one of those wacky foreigners. Your tongue is going to be punished enough by the nuclear-hot spices in the food over there, so maybe you'll want to take it out now and let the hole heal before subjecting it to Thai cooking! have a great time; we're jealous.

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    Reid Bramblett & Jason Cochran: Well, that's it! We had a great time. Sorry we couldn't get to every question, but we hope this helped.
    Sawat dii, khap. (That's goodbye...also hello, which is a nice sentiment)

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