Monday, March 29, 2010

What we're looking for when we're looking to travel

I'm full of hatred for the travel industry this morning--probably because I'm writing pitches for certain Travel Media, feeling depressed by the commodification of experience and the relentless pace of "new, undiscovered, un-touristy." There was a great essay on World Hum last week by Eric Weiner on "Why Tourism is not a Four Letter Word" that summed up some of these feelings. Weiner identified the Travel Snob as just that person who is, in point of fact, a tourist like everyone else, but puts on airs about it.

Weiner says the most loathsome tourist the tourist who considers themselves not a tourist. Well, it's irritating I agree. But then I recall that time my dad made me take a tour bus to the Tower of Pisa and we had to squeeze into the very last two seats *and the tour was arranged so that there was no time to go up the tower* and....let's just rest on the idea that tourists and Travel Snobs each inhabit their own circle of hell. And then also, on the other hand, let's not take it too seriously, we're all on vacation, folks.

So what am I upset about? I understand why all of this "new, different, gimmicky," etc. coverage has to exist. News organizations are not in the business of telling you about things that are not new. Unless, there's something new about it being old, like "New Orleans, still kinda the same!" (a very nice story in Travel + Leisure). But in the aggregate it creates a....fundamental lack of gratitude for the places as they are. I've been researching Jamaica and found in the New York Times two stories from the past few years about the quieter, alternative destinations of Port Antonio and Treasure Beach. They sound nice, they probably are, and they'd probably suit me better than Negril, since I don't care so much about seeing live Reggae and smoking dope, but....sometimes the obvious destination is the magical one. My husband Ivan and his good friend Kay are huge world travelers, and they tend to love the semi-obvious. Bali. Belize. Negril. I find that wholesome. Negril is gorgeous, that's where all the music is, and these places became huge, obvious destinations for a reason, and often they aren't "ruined" by being so.

Anyway, I'm off to create news, because that's what they pay me for, but I'm always excited to see stories that take a step back in some ways. Like this New York Magazine piece on "Do Almost Nothing in Culebra." That felt different to me, and fresh, and like what a real vacation would feel like, instead of a continued desperate quest to do the right thing, set onesself apart, continue striving....

Friday, March 12, 2010

How to choose a hotel in Bangkok

When I'm choosing a hotel, I'm usually trying to find the most "real" neighborhood—I like to stay where I'd live, if I lived in the city I'm visiting. That means out of the tourist ghetto, not as close as possible to the local Gucci store, away from anything labeled Marriot, and so on.

Except in Bangkok. In Bangkok I—and you, if you are taking my advice—want to stay in one of the insane luxury towers on the Chao Phraya River. The towers are close to some major temples, the little streets surrounding them are stuffed with Thai Silk stores, jewelers, one-hour photos, tailors copying clothes, and every other tourist amenity. Any taxi that picks you up around here can take you to Kao San Road, no problem. (That's the backpacker mecca immortalized in the movie The Beach; more on how difficult it is to communicate with cab drivers and get around Bangkok, later). When I was in my 20s, these hotels—The Oriental, the Shangri-La, among others—were the most luxurious places I'd ever been able to afford to stay. Rooms these days are around $350 a night, maybe less depending on how/when you book. These are perfect, gleaming, travel-magazine-porn-shot hotels. Silk carpets and enormous air-conditioned lobbies and uniformed porters and people in livery handing you orchids when you walk in, rooms with marble shower stalls and beds with bolsters and a concierge on every floor to greet you and hustle down the hall to open your room door for you. They're really, really nice. And the view—of the slow, gray, churning river far below, of boat traffic and bridge traffic and other luxury hotel-high rises, and the enormous city all around you—is probably not what you'd be looking at every day if you lived in Bangkok, but it's so wonderful, I don't care.

Also, I find arriving Bangkok from NYC to be overwhelming, and I like to hide out in an oasis like the Oriental and acclimatize to the heat and humidity and time difference for a little while.

Still, people who want the same level of luxury for less $$ could try any of the big hotels that aren't on the river. My brother once got a great deal at Le Meridian, and he felt that it compared favorably to the Oriental and didn't cost as much. At some point, it's all so luxurious, what's one orchid or view or slightly more favorable location for a pool more, or less?