I did some sightseeing in and around Bangkok lately and I’ll share some of my impressions and experiences with you readers in this month’s column.
Although I had already seen it, I revisited the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Pra Kaew) in the historic centre of the capital on Rattanakosin island; it’s conveniently located within walking distance of Khao San Road, the city’s backpacker ghetto which seems to be modernising rapidly.
The Grand Palace and the temple are open from early morning to early afternoon (8.30 to 3.30 pm). I have to admit I’m not completely sure of the hours, but I do remember that they don’t close for lunch. Admission is 250 baht for foreigners, free for Thais. Make sure to dress properly or you won’t get in. Shorts and sleeveless shirts are a definite no-no; the rules for footwear have apparently been relaxed as even flip-flops are admitted nowadays. If you’re not properly dressed, you can rent some decent attire inside the palace grounds. It is never closed, so don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise unless you want to become the victim of a scam.
Tourists visiting the Grand Palace often do so with a guide. However, there is really no need to, as individual tourists can now sign up for two free daily tours, at 10 am and 1.30 pm. I went on the morning one with a local guide called Geoffrey whose English was quite good and easy to understand, which is not always a given in the Land of Smiles. The tour lasted about an hour and a quarter and was completely free; many of the sightseers however – and there were about a dozen – did give Geoff a tip; to his credit, he didn’t ask for one.
Just a word of advice for the tourists who want to see everything in detail: once the guided group left the compound of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha to go to the Grand Palace, there was no return possible. If you want to photograph everything in detail or spend more time in the temple complex, it’s a good idea to go early, go around on your own, take pictures and then join the free tour. This will give you more time to enjoy your 250 baht entrance fee.
After the temple sightseeing I was hungry and thirsty and made my way to Khao San Road for lunch. As I walked along the Chao Praya, I saw a new and very nice restaurant where I had a decent masaman curry. I was pricier than on the main drag, but still very reasonable. Although I also wanted to see Wat Pho, I was already knackered so I put that off for the following week.
Wat Pho is located just behind the Grand Palace and it’s one of the nicest temples in Bangkok. Main attraction inside the temple grounds is the huge Reclining Buddha. It rests in one of the main buildings and is quite difficult to capture in just one snapshot. There is one main entrance for foreigners in this particular building. Thais can also enter it on the side (look for the sign: for Thai people only). Don’t forget to take off your shoes before entering; there are lots of pigeon holes where you can keep them and a donation box for the visitors feeling generous. There was a separate shoe storage area for Thais (again with a sign: for Thais only). Admission to Wat Pho is a very reasonable 50 baht for foreigners (and probably free for Thais as the admission prices were in English only).
I have to admit that at this point I was getting a bit annoyed with the Thai system of apartheid. Isn’t every man equal in the Land of Smiles? Shouldn’t this be reflected in the admission prices? I’ll get back to this later. Also, do Thai feet and shoes smell like roses? Is that the reason why they can’t be stored together with the tourists’ untouchable shoes? Is it because Thais don’t like queuing that they need a separate entrance?
Other tourist attractions I visited lately include Dusit Zoo and the Ancient City. The zoo is a nice and relaxing oasis of green, conveniently located in the centre of overcrowded Bangkok and although it isn’t a world-class zoo, it’s definitely worth a visit. Foreigners pay 100 baht to get in, Thais 50 baht.
The Ancient City or Muang Boran as it is called in Thai, is on the outskirts of the capital and takes a longer journey to get there. High rollers can go by taxi all the way, which would probably cost around 300 baht from the city centre. I wouldn’t recommend public transport all the way because there is no direct bus and you might end up losing a lot of time, but if you take a bus to Bangna, you’re a 100 to 150 baht taxi ride away from it.
The Ancient City is a big park in the shape of Thailand where replicas of all major tourist attractions – mainly temples and ruins - of the whole Kingdom have been built. It’s an excellent way for people staying in Bangkok for just a couple of nights – or anyone else not knowing what to do and looking for an interesting day trip (like me) - to see what Thailand has to offer. The best way to get around this vast park is by bicycle. Unfortunately, private cars are allowed into the park, meaning that the only people I saw cycling were foreigners, whereas Thais were merrily polluting the air driving around in their air-conditioned vehicles. The entrance fee is 300 baht for foreigners and 100 baht for Thais. Rental fee for bicycles: 50 baht for both Thais and aliens.
Perceptive readers might have noticed the dual pricing system that is often used in Thailand. Some also call it double pricing or price discrimination, although the former often doesn’t even come close to describing the practice accurately. Thailand is not the only country in the world to do it, but in my opinion that doesn’t really justify it. Tourists don’t like it and long-term expats hate it. It’s often labelled unfair and backward; some would even call it government-backed, daylight robbery.
Personally, I sometimes don’t really care about paying more. I don’t mind shelling out a fistful of baht to see Bangkok’s amazing temples or a fistful of dollars to see Cambodia’s world-famous Angkor Wat temples or Peru’s breathtaking Machu Picchu. I do object, however, to give another Thai example, to paying 400 baht (about $12) to enter a Thai national park where there is often nothing more to see than lots of trees and a pitiful waterfall.
In 2006, tourist entry fees for national parks were doubled to 400 baht whereas prices for locals remained unchanged at 20 baht. You read that correctly, foreigners now have to pay twenty times more than locals to go tree-hugging. Instead of raking in more tourist dollars, I wouldn’t be surprised if overall entry fees actually went down in 2007.
It can get even worse for unsuspecting tourists if they use transportation such as tuk-tuks or private taxis, book daytrips with unscrupulous travel agents or go to restaurants in some touristy areas. Operators of said services aren’t averse to charging unsuspecting foreigners a multiple of the regular price.
What bugs me most about the above-mentioned tourist scams is that both TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) and police are more than aware of them, but seem unwilling to do anything to stop these malpractices. It’s about time authorities realised that letting dual pricing continue and not putting a stop to scams is more damaging to Thailand than they think. As people are usually more inclined to share stories about bad experiences than good ones, keeping these practices alive tarnishes Thailand's image worldwide. Instead of remembering Thailand as the Land of Smiles, tourists might think of it as the Land-where-you-get-ripped-off-with-a-smile and never come back again.
Finally, if Thailand really wants to join the club of civilised nations, isn't it time they outlawed the dual pricing system? Thailand is a very popular tourist destination, so there must be a lot more creative and satisfying ways to make tourists spend more money. By the way, how would Thai tourists feel if they were asked to pay a double, triple or even higher entrance fee to the Eiffel Tower or the London Zoo? If Thais have enough money to travel to far-away lands, they must surely be rich, so they should pay a lot more than locals, no?
Even though most Thais defend the policy with the flawed argument that ‘all foreigners are rich’, many seem to realise it is unfair to use price discrimination. Why else would operators and ticket booths use the rarely used (and to tourists undecipherable) Thai numbers for entry fees for locals and ordinary (Arabic) numbers for tourists?
I do hope readers aren’t put off by this inconvenient Thai truth and still visit the aforementioned attractions because they are worth it. The Grand Palace and Wat Pho are must-see attractions, while the Ancient City and the zoo still offer fairly good value for money, especially if your wallet is full of tourist dollars.