Thailand as a tourist destination (by itself or in combination with neighborly Malaysia/ Singapore, etc) has been in vogue for some while in India. But unfortunately, majority of the schemes, offered and availed are ‘package tour’ varieties.
We have reservations about package tours. Sharmi says ‘package’ rhymes with ‘cage’ not without good reasons. I don’t disagree.
Thailand packages are tediously limited to Bangkok and Pattaya (that’s how they are bundled up by travel agents here); and for the more desirous ones, add-ons are Phuket or Krabi. Ditto, while discussing Thailand with colleagues who have visited it, all they had on offer were superficials limited to these destination. And here is what we observed – Bangkok, where we spent maximum time was the most uninspiring; despite all its glitzy malls, tourist spots, shopping centers, et al and Pattaya, which we drove across, did not appear much different. Actually, both the places had ‘TOURISTY – NOT AUTHENTIC’ tag imprinted bolder than the fonts here for any discerning traveler to see. Our best memories of the country extend beyond (and almost exclude) these two places.
Now about the preparations (some of them I actually did; others, I would have, had I known).
- Car rental
There are many inter/national operators (Avis, Hertz, Budget, Thairentacar etc) offering self-driven cars across Thailand. I booked a Toyota Vios with AVIS (www.avisthailand.com or avis.com), opting for a manual transmission (geared) over auto transmission (gearless).
The rental cost 900 Bhat (B) a day and included tax and basic insurance. This excludes petrol and other add-ons (viz. GPS, additional insurance, baby seat etc.)
Pre-booking the car is easy (and advisable) – log on to renter’s website, give some relevant details (personal data, arrival and credit card details, etc.) and that is it! There is no Pre-payment involved. Payment is done at Bangkok when the car keys are handed over.
The rental companies have their counters at the Suvarnbhumi airport arrival lounge near gate no 8, where you present yourself upon arrival. After tallying the booking details, they shuttle-transfer you (family/bag/baggage) to their office located some 3-4 kms away within the airport area. Once there, you will go through the paperwork and collect the car keys.
Full rental amount should be paid at the beginning. In addition, your credit card is blocked for 20,000 B till return of the car. The card should thus have appropriate credit limit, because after blocking of card for certain sum the card’s operating limits come down by that amount.
- International Driving Permit (IDP)
That is the next (or probably the first) query. Does an Indian driving licence automatically permit one to drive in another country? Answer is ‘yes’, ‘but’.
Well, it goes like this – you need to have a valid driving licence, which is clean for at least previous one year. On basis of this original licence, local RTO dept issue a booklet, called, International Driving Permit (IDP). The IDP, along with your original driving licence makes you eligible to drive in the next country.
IDPs are issued by zonal RTO offices (there is an MHA site, as also others, describing the procedural requirements) at a cost of INR 500/-. There are also some ‘toutish’ sites which offer services for obtaining IDP at exorbitant rates, don’t fall for them. I got my IDP from the RTO near ITO (Indraprastha) and the proceedings were quite smooth. Though claimed to be a process of one day, they took three days but without much hassle. The IDPs are valid for one year from date of issue.
There is one catch here. A mandatory requirement for obtaining IDP is production of a visa. So, even if Thailand offers visa on arrival, you will need to obtain your visa from India itself to be able to obtain the IDP. No sweat though, because Thai embassy through VFS guys [http://www.vfs-thailand.co.in/disclaimer.html] processes the visa requests quite efficiently if you have basic documentation in order [http://www.thaiemb.org.in/en/services/visa.php].
To be on the safe side, give yourself about 7 days from date of obtaining visa for the IDP. To be further assured, make a trip beforehand to the office from where you plan to obtain the IDP and have a chat with concerned officials there.
Going conversion rate is approx 1Bhat (B) = INR 1.6.
With my deficient sense of economics, simplest conversion solution I found was to convert INR to USD ($) before departure, which re-converts easily into Bhat, across a large number of money-changing stores and banks. Bhat, by itself is difficult to come by in India (a guy at CP quoted INR 175 for 100 B).
Debit and credit cards, which works fine, should preferably be used for bigger expenses/ withdrawals, because these transactions inherently entail additional charges due to inter-country transaction. I show here some transactions, as they cost me, for benefit of the readers below:-
ATM (Debit card) withdrawal of 5000B in Thailand = My bank deducted INR 9980/-.
Credit card purchase of 6684B = Credit card company deducts INR 11,424/-.
- Pre-departure Shopping
I add the topic here because of this simple reason – do not buy anything in preparation for a visit to Thailand (a tendency which has been developed through visits to US/EU nations). Almost everything, including daily need/grocery items cost either same or less than the price India. So, why not go empty handed and buy local stuff like the locals.
This is purely an individual’s call. A read through of ‘Lonely Planet’ (LP) is recommended since it provides comprehensive view on the country/ geography/ connectivity etc. Thereafter, you can explore the internet for detailed info.
LP actually helps us in 2 ways, first, as said above; and second, travellers wishing to avoid touristy destinations may simply opt for a place not covered in the LP. That’s how we selected Bang Saen beach – its absence in LP meant that it is a destination for the locals rather than foreign tourists.
Points one could consider for itinerary planning are as follows:-
1. Suvanrnabhumi International Airport is located on the south-eastern periphery of Bangkok. Since we were to take the car soon after landing; and not keen to trudge through Bangkok traffic, we had three directions available – South (Pattaya, Rayong and on to Cambodian border)/ East (Prachinburi and further on to Cambodian border) and North through eastern periphery of Bangkok (Ayuththya, Chiang Mai and so on).
2. North south stretch of Bangkok-Chiang Mai in connected by NH 1 for major portion and the road condition is quite good.
3. One also needs to take into account preferences about destination, viz. southwards travel would have been drive along beaches/ seaside.
4. Condition of roads/ driving conditions in the desired sector.
LP stands in good stead as far as getting an overview of the destination is concerned.
There are many sites giving info about Thai tourism, as, visitthailand.com, thai.com, thailandforvisitors.com, etc. but limited info is available about places which are out of tourism circuit and also on driving conditions/ roads etc.
Another good source is Richard Barrow logs/blogs ( richardbarrow.com; bangkok-daytrips.com; thaitravelblogs.com), which give regular accounts of travels/ visits in and around Bangkok.
‘Tunein.com’ is a good way of getting the local flavour through FM radios, if so inclined.
Bollywood-wise, ‘Ready’ – a Salman Khan starrer exhibits Bangkok. There are many others, of course.
- (Sign) Language
Majority of Thais do not speak or understand English, especially in areas beyond the tourism envelop. If you plan to drive across, expect to use a lot of sign language. A basic Thai vocabulary of daily need words would certainly help.
If driving a car across the country for a few days, it is advisable to procure a local SIM card. A ‘True’ card cost me around 60-70B, with 40-50B talktime (including international). I needed to top it up once for some 50B. Call charges within Thailand are quite reasonable. Buying SIM is like purchase of any other stuff across the counter, no need to provide ids and photos and filling up of forms, etc.
Skype option can also be explored. All the places we stayed were wi-fi enabled and our skype enabled mobile phone was handy. This may be with or without credit, depending on available arrangements back home. Skype, though, is not a substitute for mobile phone, specially if driving cross country.
This is desirable if you intend to do cross-country self drive (other option is GPS, available with car renters and I discuss this in next part). We bought two ‘Thinknet’ maps (Northern Thailand and Central Thailand). They are available at 7/11 outlets and cost 120B each. Buying a bi-lingual map is advisable because it helps when you seek directions from locals, majority of whom are more comfortable reading Thai.
Bangkok/Pattaya are home to variety of scams/scammesters, as has been brought out in various sites/blogs like this one [www.bangkokscams.com] ; but if you ask me, observance of basic prudence and precautions would steer one clear of an undesirable circumstance on most occasions. As I have said earlier, Thailand in general appeared to be very family-safe and tourist friendly country.
Moving on to next parts, where I cover the travel, starting from our arrival at Suvarnabhumi Int’l airport.
PS – Do keep in mind that monetary issues discussed above are based on a conversion rate prevalent in Mar 2012 (1Bhat = INR 1.6 and 1 USD = INR 50). Things seem to have changed since; and not for good.