Subject: Thailand - hotels, jeeps, and the 'middle lane'
Hi Ziners!

We had a very rushed trip to Thailand last week (too rushed to alert Kai, one of our members in Bangkok, I'm afraid) and learned a couple of things that might be useful for other Thailand trekkers.

I was there to do some research for a book but convinced my husband that this was an opportunity to spend some time together regardless of the reason and the less-than relaxed pace. He makes a great research assistant!

We started with an overnight in Bangkok (an incredible city that I enjoy to wander - but no time this trip). And proved a number of travellers' theories correct by getting an excellent deal on a room at Le Meridien President by using a local travel agent. I researched the deals on the internet (best one was 1900 baht but you had to have at least 2 days lead time) and tried phoning the hotel directly (2300) but, by calling a local travel agent (picked at random) the day before, we paid 1600 baht (about $41 US). The room was very comfortable and it's in a great location (on Ploenchit Road, right across from Erawan Shrine and the World Trade Center).

What surprised me was the fact that the travel agent didn't want my VISA number over the phone to book the room. I was willing to pay by VISA (at an additional 5% charge) - just to guarantee the room but he said no problem - it's guaranteed - just come into our office the next day to pay. Amazing trust - and, as it turned out, they got more of our business.

After attending the Thailand Travel Exhibition (which was disappointing), we flew to Phuket and spent two nights on Kata Beach in the Kata Beach Resort, a hotel/resort that has seen better days and, although comfortable enough rooms, even the deal the agent got us seemed overpriced (if there had been more time to get my act together, I would have checked out some of the bungalows in my database of those recommended by many travellers here and on other lists. I am glad, however, that we stayed in the relatively quiet beach of Kata rather than Patong. We had one enjoyable evening wandering along the main street and the beach. We 'people watched' in a local bar, feasted on excellent seafood and Thai curry in an unassuming restaurant on the beach, and enjoyed a quiet walk back to our hotel along the waters edge. Despite rain (rather normal at this time of year in Thailand), we had a good day on a boat tour to Phang Na - and James Bond Island.

We rented a jeep in Phuket and, except for its questionable condition (it gave us some trouble in the rain - which was almost constant), driving was really not as bad as we had feared. As long as you remember that there is a middle lane on all roads in Thailand and stay alert to that - it's ok. It's not painted on - just created by anyone who wants to pass (and oncoming as well as the car being passed are all expected to drive half on the shoulder). Quite effective - most of the time!

It got us north from Phuket up through Khao Sok National Park to Surat Thani, a quick jaunt up to the ancient capital of Chayia, then down to Nakon Si Thamarat, across to Krabi and back to Phuket. Khao Sok is a wonderful rainforest park - we only had a few hours but did a short hike and got drowned in a terrible downpour (I also got a leech on my foot which reminded me of Kai's story of camping around Kanchanaburi!). The drive on the old road between Surat Thani and Chaiya was a lovely one - interesting towns along the way and lush farmland. Between Surat and Nakon Si Thamarat (NST) was not quite as noteable. There's a great Wat complex in NST where we spent much time and nearby is the studio (and home) of a master shadow-puppet maker. We were lucky enough to have a show put on just for us and we watched the master punching designs out of cowhide for his famous puppets.

Drove through some spectacular mountain areas west from there to Krabi and saw an incredible sunset (cloudy sky, jagged black and emerald hills, red sun #) and ended up right in the middle of the finale of the Vegetarian Festival in Krabi (literally - firecrackers going off all around us - it was actually quite scary!). I understand that, not only do they parade through the streets setting off trillions of fireworks throughout the final evening of this week long festival but those really into the spirit of it (evidently of Chinese buddhist origins) pierce themselves with tree limbs, walk on coals, etc. We missed that part of the 'fun'!

Finally - a drive back to Phuket and flight back to Bangkok where we stayed, once again, at the Meridien and walked into the Siam Square area and found a great Thai restaurant where we indulged in our favourite foods one last time (for this trip).

Cheers from Hong Kong! Judy