Destination of the Week: Bangkok
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From the first sight – and smell – of it, travelers recognize that Bangkok is a thumping, slightly seedy thumping heartbeat of Southeast Asia. Unlike some of its more sedate neighbors, this bustling metropolis is a forest of high-rise buildings, a swamp of smoggy traffic jams and contains warrens of some of Asia’s liveliest nightlife – not to mention the heat. But don’t let that deter you from exploring the other offerings of the city, from markets to temples. It’s also a traveler- and points-friendly place. For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG Contributor Kate Gammon takes us to Bangkok.
WHAT TO DO
Bangkok is the largest city in Thailand and has 14 million inhabitants in the city and surrounding areas. Sprawling on the banks of the Chao Phraya River delta, the city is prone to floods, extreme heat and humidity. At just 14 degrees north of the equator, Bangkok is also, according to the World Meteorological Organization, one of the hottest cities in the world with temperatures averaging 86°F. Still, it’s one of the top places to visit in the world and expects to host more than 12 million tourists in 2013.
The city’s full name “Krung thep mahanakhon amorn ratanakosin mahintharayutthaya mahadilok popnoparat ratchathani burirom udomratchanivetmahasathan amornpiman avatarnsathit sakkathattiyavisnukarmprasit” is listed as the world’s longest location name by the Guinness Book of Records. A rough English translations equates to: “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city of Ayutthaya of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.” Fortunately, instead of that mouthful, we can just call it Bangkok.
No visit would be complete without a stroll around the impressive grounds of the Grand Palace, which epitomizes bygone gilt splendor of Siam’s royal history. The palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (as Thailand was known) since the late 18th century with the court and royal government based here until 1925. The royal family now lives elsewhere, but still use the Grand Palace for official events.
The palace sprawls over 2 million square feet, its ground dotted with ornate buildings and small gardens. One of the temples here, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (or Wat Phra Kaew), was built right around the same time as the Grand Palace itself and houses a small statue of the sitting Buddha about a foot-and-a-half tall made of green jadeite (no, it’s not emerald!) and clothed in gold. It’s a must-see stop on any visit here, as is the nearby Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Thai Coins where you can check out the king’s official vestments.
Near the palace complex is Wat Pho, a Buddhist temple that contains around 1,000 images of the Buddha including the famous golden Reclining Buddha which measures up at 141 feet long, 45 feet high and rests on pillow boxes of jewel-like glass mosaics. Visitors can drop coins into the charity pots behind the statue for good luck. The temple is also said to be the birthplace of Thai massage, and you can even get one at the massage school next door.
One of the city’s most notable architectural landmarks is Khmer-style Wat Arun, also known as the Temple of the Dawn, which towers at nearly 300 feet tall and it is surrounded by four smaller prangs, or spires. You might recognize it as the image on the country’s 10-baht coins, and it is covered in a mosaic of colorful Chinese porcelain shards. The climb to the top is steep but worth the views.
Enough time on the ground for one day. Get a bird’s-eye view of this metropolis from the 61st-story rooftop bar at the Banyan Tree hotel, the Vertigo Grill and Moon Bar. The sunset views from here are amazing, and there’s always good people-watching once the fancy clientele starts filtering in. Just remember that you’ll need to wear closed-toed shoes and pants – my husband learned the hard way (slipping on borrowed tux pants several sizes too large and shoving his feet into loaner shoes).
The traffic in Bangkok is notorious, so it’s worth using the boats that ply the river to see the city from the water and skip hours of traffic jams, plus the people-watching is fantastic. You can take the mundane express boats, but also tourist boats (with blue flags), which stop at different piers near tourist attractions, and offer announcements in English. They charge a flat fee of 150 baht (about $5) for a day pass. Single ride tickets are 30 baht.
When night falls in Bangkok, a whole different city comes to life. Start your evening in the night markets, which despite selling your typical schlock, are well worth a visit to check out some street culture and pick up a few cheap souvenirs, not to mention noshing on some tasty (and typically safe) street food.
Pick up all the iconic t-shirt and silk sarongs you can pack at the Patpong market (near the Sala Daeng Skytrain station), or hit the Pak Khlong Talad (near the Saphan Taksin station) for a glimpse of a more traditional night market that is busiest just before dawn when the flower shipments come in from across the country.
For some more upscale shopping, the Central World Bangkok Shopping Centre is a steel-and-glass megamall with more than 500 stores, 100 restaurants and cafes, 15 cinemas and a dedicated kids’ area. The icy air-conditioned space can make for a nice break from sweating on the city streets and canals.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is Bangkok’s major international airport and is serviced by all the airlines that fly here except regional carriers Nok Air, Orient Thai and Air Asia, which still use the old Don Muang Airport. Both these airports are about 20 miles from the city center, so be prepared for a long journey into the city.vSuvarnabhumi opened in 2006 and is now the busiest airport in Southeast Asia. There is only one terminal building for both domestic and international flights depart, but it is enormous (by some measures the world’s largest), so allow time for getting to or from your gate and immigration and customs processing can take a while.
Travel time to Bangkok is about 17 hours from the West Coast, 22 hours from Chicago and 20 hours from the East Coast of the US. Every alliance is well represented here including Oneworld with Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Qantas; SkyTeam with KLM, Korean Air and Air France; and Star Alliance with Thai Airways (of course), United, Singapore Airlines, Asiana and Air China. Thai Airways no longer operates non-stop flights from the US, but you can transit here through Seoul ICN. Flights from North America tend to route through Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul or Hong Kong.
The airport is also a major hub for other Southeast Asian destinations including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and other destinations within Thailand.
To get to the city center from the airport, travelers can catch a taxi from the first floor (one floor below arrivals) and expect to pay about 300-500 baht and have change ready for the toll booths along the way to avoid being overcharged at your final destination. The ride should take about 45-60 minutes depending on traffic.
A far better option is the Airport Rail Lin, a high-speed train service to downtown Bangkok, which is cheaper than a taxi and much faster since it avoids Bangkok’s horrendous traffic. Trains run from 6:00 am until midnight every day and travel at 100 miles per hour. The non-stop Express Line brings you directly to either Makkasan or Phaya Thai station in under 20 minutes for 90 baht each way, while the slower City Line is a commuter rail line stops at all stations.
Bangkok is one of Asia’s (and the world’s) biggest cities, so there are points hotels for everyone.
Park Plaza Bangkok Soi 18: This stylish modern hotel is centrally located in the Sukhumvit neighborhood. Like most Bangkok hotels, it has an outdoor rooftop pool – perfect for the mid-afternoon cool off. The Park Plaza also has a whirlpool and gym. Internet is free in the 125 rooms as well as the lobby areas. The rooms start at 2,200 THB ($75) for a standard room in May or 28,000 Gold Points per night.
Millennium Hilton Bangkok Hotel: Overlooking the Chao Phraya and city skyline, this hotels’ special touches include daily newspapers, fluffy bathrobe, flowers and fruit. Suites are more than 700 square feet and include executive lounge access and a rain shower. The hotel has 543 guest rooms and suites with river views, also has eight restaurants and bars. The hotel is just a few miles outside of Bangkok’s bustling city center, and has a free shuttle boat running from the private pier to Saphan Taksin and River City every 20 minutes. The rooms start at 5,700 THB ($200) per night in May or 30,000 points for a free-night redemption as this is a Category 5 property.
The Conrad Bangkok: This 391-room hotel is in the central business district and its rooms are plush and feature contemporary Thai-style luxury with silk embellishments and natural wood. Features in the standard rooms include 50 MB in-room broadband and WiFi Internet access (for a charge), a unique glass wall separating the bedroom from the bathroom with a free-standing bathtub and separate shower stall with both handheld and rainfall showers. The rooms also have Herman Miller Aeron chairs. The rooms start at 6,300 THB ($220) in May. This is a Category 5 property and requires 40,000 points for a free-night redemption. This is also part of the Visa Signature Hotel collection.
Grand Hyatt Erawan: Well located right across the street from the largest mall in Bangkok, this hotel’s 380 rooms have amenities like a marble bath with separate shower, walk-in closet, desk with enhanced work lighting, high-speed Internet and king bed with plush duvet. More pampering comes with a bathrobe, slippers, distilled water, fitness center access and 24-hour laundry and valet service. In addition to ten restaurants and bars, traditional afternoon tea is served daily to the accompaniment of a classical trio. The hotel will be undergoing renovation until October 2013, but is a Category 4 property and requires 15,000 points for a free-night redemption.
Hyatt is planning a second hotel in Bangkok – the Hyatt Regency Bangkok Sukhumvit. Expected to open in 2017, the hotel will have 300 guestrooms, including 26 suites. Additional hotel amenities will include a six treatment- room spa, a fitness center, a swimming pool, and a club lounge.
JW Marriott Bangkok: While it isn’t the newest hotel on the block, you might say it’s aging gracefully. The 402 rooms contain 32-inch LCD flat-panel TVs, satellite & pay-per-view. A rooftop pool keeps travelers cool and happy. The hotel’s sake bar, one of eight places to eat and drink, features more than 100 different kinds of sake to tickle the tastebuds. Travelers give the hotel high points for attentive service and friendly staff. The rooms start at 5,440 THB ($190) for a deluxe room in May. This is a Category 5 property and requires 25,000 points for a free-night redemption.
Intercontinental Bangkok: This hotel is in a great central location and has a selection of five restaurants and leisure facilities, including an outdoor pool on the 37th floor and full-service spa with signature Thai treatments. 381 guest rooms come newly renovated using a contemporary color scheme with silver, natural wood and mirrored accents. The guest rooms were designed with business travelers in mind — with high speed internet access, ergonomic workstations, rain shower separated from bath tub area, and LED TV with DVD player. The rates start at 5,780 ($197) for a deluxe room in May. This is a Category 6 property and requires 35,000 points for a free-night redemption.
There are also more Priority Club properties in Bangkok: Holiday Inn Bangkok,The Holiday Inn Express Bangkok Siam, The Crowne Plaza Bangkok Lumpini Park, the Holiday Inn Bangkok Silom, and the brand new Holiday Inn, a Bangkok Sukhumvit 22.
W Bangkok: Contemporary, trendy and comfortable, this chic enclave is located in the business district and close to the SkyTrain. Its decor is inspired by a Muay Thai aesthetic, and all the space-age lighting you’ve come to expect from the W. Their 407 rooms all have iPod docking stations, special rain showers, and signature Bliss amenities. The Woobar serves fashion-forward fusion cocktails like Waitais and Woojitos. The rooms start at 5,200 THB ($180) for a Wonderful room in May. This is a Category 4 Starwood property and requires 10,000 points for a free-night redemption.
St. Regis Bangkok: Facing the Royal Bangkok Sports Club – want to watch the guys hit golf balls, anyone? – this recently opened hotel has 227 rooms (57 suites) done up in a Thai décor meets state-of-the-art technology style, and each room has a city or golf course view. A spacious marble bathroom with a separate shower and bath complete the urban sanctuary. Every traveler has the option of calling upon the St. Regis butler service, which includes complimentary beverages at any time of the day. The pool is on the 15th floor, surrounded by city views and lush greenery. Though the original Bloody Mary was invented at the St. Regis in New York in 1934, here you can try the Siam Mary (Thai chilies make an appearance)! The rooms start at 5,780 THB ($197) for a deluxe room in May. This is a Category 6 Starwood property and requires 20-25,000 points for a free-night redemption.
Also around town are the Westin Grande Bangkok, the Sheraton Grande Bangkok , the Royal Orchid Sheraton Towers, the Plaza Anethee Bangkok, the Four Points Bangkok and the Aloft Bangkok. There is also the Le Meridien Bangkok, which Brian recently stayed at and was upgraded to an Avantec Suite.
Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a program exclusively for American Express Platinum Card cardholders, who are eligible for extra benefits such as room upgrades, free continental breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more.
At the Sukothai, part of the Amex FHR program, you’ll receive a complimentary lunch or dinner for up to two people per room, excluding alcoholic beverages, taxes and gratuities, once during your stay.
Same goes for the Four Seasons Bangkok — complimentary lunch or dinner for up to two people per room, excluding alcoholic beverages, taxes and gratuities, once during your stay.
At the St. Regis Bangkok, you’ll receive automatic noon check-in, a room upgrade, daily breakfast for two people, 4pm late checkout and $100 spa services credit to be used during your stay.
At the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, you’ll receive automatic noon check-in, a room upgrade, daily breakfast for two people, 4pm late checkout and $100 spa services credit to be used during your stay.
At the Peninsula Bangkok, you’ll receive a complimentary formal afternoon tea service for up to two people per room, once during your stay – in addition to automatic noon check-in, a room upgrade, daily breakfast for two people, and 4pm late checkout.
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, US Bank FlexPerks, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
At the Banyan Tree Bangkok, you’ll nab the best available rate guarantee, an automatic room upgrade upon arrival (when available), free in-room Internet or Valet parking, complimentary continental breakfast, late 3PM check-out (when available), VIP Guest status and $25 food or beverage voucher – and yes you can use that voucher at Vertigo bar. Just don’t look down!
At the Conrad Bangkok, you’ll nab the best available rate guarantee, an automatic room upgrade upon arrival (when available), free in-room Internet or Valet parking, complimentary continental breakfast, late 3PM check-out (when available), VIP Guest status and $25 food or beverage voucher.