OT Travel Itinerary: Bangkok And More In Monsoon

Raining travel deals make Bangkok the best budget holiday destination, especially in the monsoons
Bangkok And More In Monsoon
The pretty scene does not, of course, prepare you for the mercurial urban jigsaw that Bangkok presentsShutterstock

Why do I have to do all the budget stories? I guess it's because I'm lean and mean. (We are not accepting sniggers at this moment.) The chief had been firm. Yes, I could have a nice time, but I'd better watch the wallet. I'd sniff out juicy travel deals for our dear readers, but never stoop so low as to suggest they (sniff) go backpacking. On my return I'd offer a reassuring parable for these troubled times, its message loud and clear that luxury travel (indeed, the luxury of travel) was alive and well, and, pleasantly, more affordable. The choice of destination was unanimous. I was off to Thailand - Bangkok and beyond, where I knew I'd get the most bang for my buck.

It's a lovely landing, in the still of morning, past endless fields of paddy swollen with rain, directing the gaze gently towards the rising sun. The pretty scene does not, of course, prepare you for the mercurial urban jigsaw that Bangkok presents. A little later, as I stare out of my hotel room at Bangkok's legendary sprawl, I know I'm someplace special. But then I'm also staying at someplace special. This is the Lebua, a boutique hotel that occupies the top floors of the State Tower, Bangkok's second tallest building. If I had to give you just one reason to stay at the Lebua (although I can think of several), it would be for The View. Once you've signed an undertaking promising not to go skydiving from one of their balconies, they'll throw open the balcony doors for you.

But what am I doing in a suites-only luxury hotel on this pilgrimage of parsimony? Well, that's the thing. Competition in Bangkok's hospitality market is cutthroat, and this glam hotel and others like it are suddenly very affordable (see "The Information"). What's more, even if you pay rack rate at the Lebua, you'll come away feeling each penny's been well spent.

Pink Bar at Lebua Bangkok
Pink Bar at Lebua BangkokLebua

Later, at sunset, as I pop my complimentary glass of Laurent- Perrier rosé champagne at the roof-top Sky Bar, I watch a storm roll in over Bangkok. I do not even have to lift my head to see the clouds. When I look back at the hotel, I see The Dome, a collection of restaurants where just two years ago a remarkable meal was offered, for which patrons had to shell out a mere one million baht per head (a million dollar dinner has now been plotted). Dinner that night at Sirocco, the hotel's al fresco roof-top restaurant (the highest such in the world, I'm told), is no less noteworthy, if nearly not so pricey. It's a logistical nightmare, serving fine food under such fickle skies, prone to the occasional gale-force wind and impromptu shower, but one that is ably met. The minutiae of the meal are incidental. The venue - under the stars on a warm Bangkok night, the notorious traffic at a standstill far below - is the main ingredient. When a spot of rain threatens to dampen dessert, an army of umbrella-wielding waitstaff materialises out of the woodwork. (Service is an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at the Lebua. You cannot turn a corner without being immersed in a sea of sawasdees.)

Monsoon rides on the Chao Phraya
Monsoon rides on the Chao PhrayaFlickr

It's impossible to take in all of Bangkok's storied delights on a single trip. So every time, I try and do a little bit. Next morning, a punishingly early wake-up call is rewarded with a boat ride on the Chao Phraya, Bangkok's sublime and muddy lifeline. Thonburi, the old capital, lies across the river. As this is a "Lebua experience", there's also a pretty personal butler in tow.

I'm sleepy, but Bangkok is all scrubbed up and ready to face the day. The grand riverside hotels of Bangkok - the Oriental and the Peninsula - slip by. Water taxis transport office-goers from the suburbs into the belly of the city. The sun's a gentle shade of pink. In my hand is a champagne flute, with rosé tipple to match. We slip into one of Bangkok's many canals. Modest homes, their fronts on stilts dug deep in the water, teeter giddily in our wake. Two monks on a boat seek alms. The figure of a Chinese water god stares back benignly at us. There are fat catfish near a riverside wat, fearless, fed by the god-fearing. When we turn back to arrive at Wat Arun - Temple of Dawn - the sun, as if on cue, is a ripe yellow disc. There's golden champagne to match.

By the time we return, we're famished. The man behind Lebua's rise, its chief executive and Delhi boy Deepak Ohri, has a surprise in store, one that at least reduces the photographer to a grateful stupor. Plump pooris stuffed with peas, chholey cooked just-so, alu-tamatar ki subzi - a homely Indian spread in the heart of Bangkok. Sanjoy's been in Korea all past week, so this is the first proper Indian meal he's had in a while.

The Lebua is in Bangrak, an old Bangkok district, one of the first to be settled. It may be old but its name, meaning "village of love", makes it ageless. Just round the corner, on Thanon Charoen Krung (Bangkok's first road), a historic pawnshop does brisk business. There are small roadside tailors (just like home), Chinese medicine stores and, further up, a nice new massage parlour offering introductory discounts. Massages in Bangrak cost half of what they do in the tourist trap of Sukhumvit. A delicious session later, my feet are rested and raring to go somewhere.

Can't Miss An Island Trip

I'm off to one of Thailand's famed beach destinations. But which one? Koh Samui, I think. Why, I like the name. But I'm not going to take the 65-minute flight into Samui. I'll travel the old-fashioned way, on an overnight train (cheap as chips, luxurious by Indian standards, and I'll save on hotel rooms).

All Indian Railways officials should be made to intern on Thai trains. I am booked in a second-class AC compartment. There are two seats on either side of the aisle. The upper bunk is lifted away when not in use. There's a proper ladder to approach it, not those rudimentary apologies our trains have. You can order a nice meal (I recall a choice of at least eight different curries) and a drink (alcoholic) with it. Best of all, the attendant prepares each and every bed for the night (and unmakes all of them at the crack of dawn). Just the one caveat "Do not make loud noise after 10pm."

The train chugs along the metre-gauge track. By night, the darkness claims all. By morning, we're passing a landscape as lushly impenetrable as the night. We disembark at Phun Phin, the station wrapped in a blanket of rain. Then there is a bus, and then a ferry. And finally we are there, in the embraces of a sultry tropical isle, far from the cares of the world.

A Few Days in Samui

An aerial view of Koh Samui, Thailand.
An aerial view of Koh Samui, Thailand. lkunl/Shutterstock

Cookie-cutter hotels abound in a holiday hotspot like Samui. The accommodation that finds most favour though is the bungalow or villa, a throwback to the days when only the most intrepid backpackers ventured out here. Of course, the villas are much nicer these days. I'm staying at Villa Tanamera, which (sweet coincidence) is set in sleepy Bangrak village. It's not far from the Big Buddha, a massive golden idol that sits on an island in the sea. Courtesy the downturn in tourism, tariffs are down by 50 per cent from last year, and I can rent one of the bigger villas. The tastefully designed villa has two bedrooms, and a staircase that leads to a private terrace. Beyond a slim path is a little gate, past which is a pristine beach. The manager, Tan, settles us in nicely.

There is much to fill the days in Samui. Look outwards, and atolls in a shimmering sea beckon. Turn the gaze inward, and the densely forested interior yields waterfalls and elephant safaris. In the event, Tan persuaded us to sign up for a daylong trip out to the Ang Thong Marine National Park (where The Beach was shot).

We are picked up early from our hotel. Breakfast is on the boat - croissants and coffee, freshly cut fruit. The crowd is typical mostly European, some Americans, a tight-knit gaggle of Japanese, sundry other Asians. An hour into the ride the boat drops anchor at Koh Thai Plao. We set out in a train of kayaks to explore the limpid waters. The sea is gentle and the kayaking easy. Wind and water have been at work for thousands of years on the limestone canvas proffered by the island.

The result is dramatic karsts that soar into the sky. We paddle along, enjoying the slight challenge posed by the sharp barnacles that cover the rocks around us. Then, through a little opening, we all slip in, one by one, into a patch of sea completely enclosed by limestone bluffs. This is a magical mystery tour. Back on board, there's chicken curry for hungry kayakers. The boat then sails to Koh Mae Koh, an island where the deafening shrill of cicadas leads visitors to a massive saltwater lagoon, connected to the sea only by an underground channel. In this virgin pool (no jumping allowed), vast schools of fish rest in the shadows. Stare at its green expanse long enough and you realise why paradise is always a tropical state of mind.

But this is a modern-day paradise, and there is a price to pay. Later that evening, when I get off my motorcycle taxi at Chaweng, Samui's most developed and happening beach, and walk along its main thoroughfare ("The Strip"), I can't help but congratulate myself for not staying here. The Strip is no different from an overcrowded shopping street in Bangkok. The beach is worse than Chowpatty on a weekend. Some guys are peddling photo-ops with exotic fauna (illegal). Ladyboys are inviting passers-by to the free show at Christy's Cabaret (legal). I'm hungry.

Cuisine and A Surprise

Dinner is in an oasis of calm, at The Mangrove, a Belgian-run fine dining establishment near Villa Tanamera. The restaurant, which overlooks a clump of mangroves, is empty. The island is seeing fewer footfalls this year. There's also a full moon party somewhere. Add to that a football match on the telly and their primarily English clientele is missing in action. Their loss. It's a meal I'll always remember (if I'd come on a Wednesday, I could have had a three-course dinner for under 600 baht, but this meal was almost as reasonable). Although the emphasis here is on European food, we stuck to Thai. Both the Penang curry and grilled king prawns were excellent, as was the surprisingly smooth coconut créme brûlée. But then in Thailand it is impossible to eat badly, even on the streets. Earlier the same evening, I had snacked on perfectly grilled baby octopuses and squid at a wet market down the road (10 baht per skewer). I was back the next morning for a Thai Muslim breakfast of chicken pulao, accompanied by fried onion and sweet chilli sauce (25 baht).

A Red Shirt in Bangkok
A Red Shirt in BangkokWikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, a rather more ominous sauce was cooking in Bangkok. The previous evening, we had seen the Asean summit being called off on the TV. Now a concerned sms from Delhi ejects me from my Edenic frame of mind.  A state of emergency has been declared in Bangkok. We reach the train station to find that our train's been cancelled. But, no matter, another is available. And who should we run into in the carriage but a cosy Bengali family. Each one of them glued to a book, they were mildly concerned about the situation in the Thai capital. I had imagined the train to be my Big Idea, but these adventurous souls, returning from a balmy few days in Phuket, had beaten me to it. A truly humbling moment for any travel hack, for, wherever we go, the resourceful 'bhadralok' has already been.

We reached Bangkok the morning after the red-shirt protests had come to their violent climax. This is not to underplay their political and social ramifications, but for the tourist in Thailand riots, rallies are never more than minor inconveniences, if that. Now it was Songkran, the Thai New Year, and the only thing I had to fear were the water guns with which everyone was mercilessly spraying everyone. Nevertheless, there was work to be done and I promptly hit the malls. (There is nothing like shopping to beat recession blues.) And so this fable comes to an end. The writing on the wall is crisp. Luxury on a budget - A foreign break that doesn't break the bank.

The Information

Getting There

To reach Bangkok from India, you can take a direct flight from major Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, or Kolkata. Airlines such as Air India, Thai Airways, and IndiGo operate frequent flights. From Bangkok, you can reach Koh Samui by taking a domestic flight with airlines like Bangkok Airways or Thai Smile, or by taking a combination of bus and ferry services. Alternatively, you can fly from India to Surat Thani and then take a bus and ferry to Koh Samui. This route offers flexibility and scenic views along the way.

Where To Stay

I stayed at the Lebua on State Tower in Bangkok. It's a luxury hotel with grand views of the city. Prices start at 5,060 baht.

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