Many Americans will return from their transatlantic summer vacations this year marveling at how much they spent in Europe. But it's important to remember there are other international destinations where costs remain blissfully low. Such a place is Thailand and its chaotic, bustling capital of Bangkok.
Bangkok, with its $1 meals of spicy Thai food and $10 hotel rooms surrounding breezy courtyards, has prices that are tough to beat. You can keep basic living costs down to $20 a day, and even when you add optional activities -- a full-body massage for $6.25, private tours of the khlongs (canals) in a long-tail boat for $5 to $10 -- the jolt to your wallet will be refreshingly light. And most of the elaborate wats, or temples, and golden Buddhas are free to view.
Round-trip flights to Bangkok are available for $596 from the West Coast (www.cheapflights.com). Packaged vacations, bundling airfare with five nights in a hotel, start at $629 per person out of Los Angeles this fall (www.go-today.com).
Once you're ensconced in Bangkok, your costs will be minimal. Full meals, including a bottle of soda, run as low as 85 cents in the simple restaurants patronized by local folks. There, little wooden tables are set on cracked tile floors under whirling ceiling fans and a chef stationed at the front window -- wielding a meat cleaver but wearing a smile -- offers two or three versions of roasted chicken in a spicy sauce piled high over plump rice.
Such down-home eateries are common, especially in the streets around the daily markets, but even at fancier places -- ones with full menus and English-speaking waiters -- dishes rarely run more than $2 to $4.
When looking for lodging, peruse the sale prices at www.asiahotels.com and www.hotelthailand.com, which often can put you into plush riverside properties such as the Peninsula or Shangri-La for less than $190 a night. Not that you have to go posh. At last check, www.hotelthailand.com was offering 19 hotels in the $10 range, and 50 in the $20 range.
As earlier noted, you could spend all day browsing Bangkok's buddhas for free, but the two most famous do charge a small admission.
Wat Phra Kaeo (about $6.25), in one corner of Bangkok's glorious Grand Palace, is a complex of pinnacled golden stupas, colorful demon statues two stories high and elaborately painted temple outbuildings. At the heart stands the bot housing the Emerald Buddha, more than 500 years old and the most venerated in Thailand. Although probably made of jadeite (not emeralds) and measuring just 2 feet tall, this statue is so revered that the king himself is in charge of changing the statue's three seasonal outfits, and the bot is routinely filled to capacity with the devout.
Just across the street to the south of the Grand Palace lies the 20-acre temple compound of Wat Po (50 cents). The massive Reclining Buddha, about 50 feet high and 150 feet long, lies under one long roof, propped up on his elbow. The hallway around his long body is dotted with smaller Buddha statues, which supplicants have covered with hundreds of loosely pasted-on squares of gold leaf. Wat Po also houses Thailand's most renowned massage school. Hour-long, full-body massages cost $6.25. (Show up early; otherwise, the wait can be hours.)
Shopping is another popular activity. For the best variety of handicrafts and bargains, browse the street markets or head to Narayana Phand at 127 Ratchadamri, an old-fashioned bazaar housed in a multilevel department store. You can find silk scarves for $4, fashion-label knockoffs, lacquered masks, carved wooden figurines and traditional musical instruments. It is all of the highest quality and inexpensive -- and bargaining is expected.