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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thailand: The Great Escape

Ever since moving to Moscow all you do at vacation time is fly back home to Mallsville or Snoozeburg. This time you want something exotic, but you also want something familiar. What to do? Follow the Russians to Thailand.ANGKOK -- At the Thai consulate on Moscow's Eropkinsky Street, on a wall where you would expect to find slick panoramas of palm beaches or shining temples, there is a fairly humdrum poster of a grimy Bangkok street corner. The only thing that faintly catches your eye are some happy-looking Thais cooking and serving food on the sidewalk. The photo quality is even bad. Only then do you figure it out. The poster's caption explains to the skeptical, in Russian only, that food can be found on any Bangkok street. A meat-and-potatoes message, but it's one that's worked. Along with the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Paris, Thailand has quickly become a destination of choice for Russians with money. Sure, former Soviets haven't traveled all the way just for street snacks, but they have come because Thailand offers a feast of things -- food, sun, shopping, beaches -- at very un-Moscowish prices. Bangkok, the steamy capital of six million, is where you start your journey. In a matter of six minutes at clean and newly-renovated Don Muang International Airport you should be able to exchange all those American banknotes no one in Moscow would take, buy a sliced quarter of pineapple or a mango for the equivalent of 40 cents, and grab a taxi from the efficient dispatcher. Once on the road, the cabbie will likely say: "Highway. Tirty baht. Tirty baht." Trained in Moscow economics, you may suspect a scam and refuse to pay 30 baht, about $1.20. Don't. The toll highway is faster and avoids by far the worst aspect of Bangkok life, its traffic. It's said by the early 21st century Bangkok's streets will come to a complete halt and people will just go back to walking. Thankfully, metered taxis are air-conditioned, very clean, cheap and available everywhere. Bangkok is also home to noisy machines called tuk tuks -- motorcycle-type machines with three wheels and a passenger shelter. These crazed golf carts are fun at first, but on long trips the air pollution will tickle your throat and turn your white shirt gray. Driving is on the left side of the road so renting a car may be an adventure for many. Bangkok has plenty of sights, although there are only so many Buddhist temples you can see. The royal family's residence, the Grand Palace, is full of photogenic buildings, but on a 35-degree day the expansive grounds will kill you. For fans of spectator sports, the city offers kick boxing (Lumpini Stadium, Tel. 251-4304) and kite fighting, a team sport enjoyed at Lumpini Park. Patpong Road has been notorious since the Vietnam War as the city's red light district, although it's not as rough as you might think. Sadly, many women who ply their trade here have been "sold" by their rural families to help cover farming debts. Patpong's edge is softened today by a bustling night market where hawkers sell fake Calvin Kleins, fake Levi's and fake everything else. All prices are negotiable. For the foreigner living in Moscow, bargain shopping may be Bangkok's biggest draw. Chatuchak is a delightful weekend-only market the size of the Kremlin on the outskirts of the city that sells everything from pet fish and jeans to old copies of Life magazine. Central and Robinsons are department stores with branches around the city where you can pick up reasonably-priced socks, underwear and other necessities for the return to Moscow. The city has plenty of air-conditioned malls that quickly cure homesickness. A must is the Mah Boon Kroon Shopping Center's sixth floor, home to a sprawling cafeteria where you can see, smell and point at various Thai dishes. Seeing your food is not a bad idea, because the variety of Thai cuisine is so immense you would need months to sample the basic dishes. Our favorites were spicy papaya salad, Thai fried chicken, roast duck, chicken in coconut soup and fried pineapple. I couldn't look at bull ball soup and deep fried locusts, and the beef curry at one dinner was so hot it left my tongue trembling through dessert. Foreigners trade tall tales about how they chomped on some Thai chilis for the first time and ran around the restaurant drinking other diners' water. Hot here means very hot. Explain you are a farang, or foreigner, and ask the waiter to hold the chilis. Every major street corner in Bangkok is home to a settlement of food hawkers. The sanitary conditions may seem questionable, but we ate on the street regularly and had no problems. "Thai Hawker Food" is a paperback sold in English bookstores that can help you find your way through this culinary jungle. Some eating traditions: Thais love to eat in groups, so the appearance of food is an easy excuse for striking up an acquaintance. Second, if you invite someone out to dinner, that means you pay. None of this each-man-for-himself stuff. The capital has plenty of world-class hotels as well as hundreds of cheapies that can be as low as $5 or $10 a night. We stayed at the faultless and pricey Shangri-La Hotel, where all the rooms have a view of the Chao Phraya River and quick access to river taxis. The service was top notch (Tel. 8-10662-236-7777). Bangkok offers a lot, but you don't want to get too carried away. Thailand's greatest natural resource is its Gilligan's Island-like beaches, where for pennies you can sample papayas and bananas that have not made the long journey to the northern hemisphere. This is your chance to find out what longans and litchis are. Package tours out of Moscow tend to concentrate on Pattaya, a resort just south of Bangkok popular with Russian tourists. Having fallen out of favor in recent years, Pattaya offers some good bargains but you won't find visitors raving about the place. The real Gauguins-to-be head for the islands in the south. Phuket and the surrounding islands are well-developed, some say too much, but they still manage to draw crowds. One of the most popular spots is Ko Samui, a coconut-exporting island where locals swear tourists were unseen a decade ago. The islanders, who wave and shout hello when you ride by on a bicycle, will warn you in a serious, hushed tone to watch out for the occasional coconut falling on your head. Ko Samui is clearly in the early stages of mega-development. Its one main road circles the island and, unfortunately, the narrow pavement has become monopolized by some pretty fearless truck and motorcycle drivers. Why they drive so fast on an island where there clearly is nowhere to go is anyone's guess. The cheapest way around the island is by minitruck, pick-up trucks that have been refitted as buses. Mountain bikes are great on the narrow paths. Nathon is Ko Samui's main town, and it begins to seem cosmopolitan when you have been here a while. Nightlife gets rowdiest in Lamai Beach and the best beach is probably Chaweng. Ko Samui is teeming with cheap accommodation. Lodging tends to take the form of a bungalow, which are often built a few feet above ground and range from waterless sheds to luxury teak homes. Hot water is often not included and sometimes bathrooms are shared. Some of these places are so cheap that roaming Europeans reenacting the hippie phenomenon boast about living here for months after losing their jobs at home. We stayed at the isolated Laem Set Inn, a nice spot where no one back home could ever find you. It has its own beach, a beautifully landscaped pool and a quaint library out of Robinson Crusoe. Gourmet Thai dinners are about $10 a person. The British owner is chummy and the staff very helpful (Tel. 8-1066-77-424393). Ko Samui is easily accessible from Bangkok. Return flights on Thai Air are about $160. A one-way sleeper on a train and boat connection can be had for about $20. This is Thailand, so even the train offers a selection of spicy dinners and beverages. If you're stuck in Bangkok on business, the city offers all kinds of daytrips. The Chao Phraya Express Company runs a cruise along the river and north of the city for just $8 (Tel. 222-5330). Dozens of tour companies offer day-trips to the famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak about 40 minutes south of Bangkok. Ayutthaya is an impressive ancient city of ruins that was once the kingdom's capital. It is about an hour by train or bus. Call us tacky, but for some silliness we visited an American-style water park and slide on the eastern edge of the city. Siam Park is $4 and 45 minutes away by taxi. If you're returning to Moscow, Bangkok is a good place to stock up on books. Asia Books has outlets in various malls, and Elite Used Books at 593/5 Sukhumit Road has used books in English, French and German. For the foreigner living in Moscow, Thailand is ideal for solving that vacation-time conundrum: You want to visit an exotic locale, but you've been in Moscow so long that deep down you secretly want the predictability and store-bought pleasures of home. Thailand is exotic, and it offers the familiar characteristics of a consumer culture -- like sales staff that smile in delight even if they dislike you. In Bangkok you will find stacks of books published in English about culture shock and the niceties of living in Asia, all of which should bring a chuckle if you have come from the otherworld of Moscow. Making your way in Thailand is a snap. If you don't know a word of Thai and speak Russian like a native, you will likely find it easier traveling in Thailand than in Russia. It's relatively cheap to fly from Moscow to Bangkok, cheaper than from North American or European cities. One of the best deals currently offered is a non-stop economy return on Aeroflot for $770. Call Asia Express in Moscow at 166-1196, 166-1295. Discount travel shops in London also offer good deals.