I wanted to share my thoughts on our ‘worst ever’ port excursion as we learnt some important lessons from it, both about what to ask about when booking a shore excursion and also about what we took ashore with us that day. We were visiting Laem Chabang in Thailand on a Princess Cruise, which is what we call a ‘for’ port! It is a large industrial port ‘for’ Bangkok which is actually 125km away! Initially we had just planned to take a taxi along the coast to the much closer beach resort of Pattaya and maybe also visit an elephant sanctuary but after speaking to a friend and being convinced that it would be criminal to miss the Grand Palace in Bangkok we decided to book an excursion. The ships tour seemed to only cover the Palace and lunch before returning to the ship but an excursion available through Cruising Excursions offered both the Grand Palace and Wat Po, the Reclining Buddha, with no time wasted on lunch! We weren’t too concerned about eating as thought we would have a good breakfast, pack some snacks and see more of the city on that excursion. The company had a guarantee to always get you back to your ship on time so we booked. When the confirmation arrived we discovered that the entrance fees to the two main attractions of the tour (The Palace and Buddha) were not included and were to be paid directly to the tour guide in dollars. This actually made the ships and private tours pretty similar in cost over all but we were still happy to go with our choice because we thought we would see more. So lesson one is to check exactly what is included, we had never had to pay entrance fees separately before and so we didn’t even think to ask!
Cruising Excursions have an excellent reputation and provide excursions in most ports, however we did not realise that they do not run the cruising excursions themselves but subcontract local companies in each port. There were many people on on our trip who had used the company for multiple excursions on this cruise and were very happy with the service provided. I should say at this point that when we complained to Cruising Excursions they dealt with the matter very efficiently and gave us a full refund of so this is not a complaint about them as a company, in fact we were impressed by how well they handled the situation. However it does show that you are at the mercy of the local operator that they subcontract to and as you have no way of knowing who that operator is you cannot check for any reviews or feedback about them whereas if you book directly with local companies you can make those checks yourself. As it turns out I think our main problem was with the individual tour guide not even the company that he was employed by but I want to share it with you because it was such an unpleasant and stressful experience. It is also a lesson in when you should speak up and not just do what you’re told!
On arrival in Laem Chabang we met in Arrivals as agreed and were surprised to find that the group was quite large and we were to travel by double decker coach. Again we had assumed that we would be in a small group of 8 to 10 people because previous private excursions that we have booked have been that sort of size. We really dislike large groups because of the slow pace that they tend to move at. So that is the second question we should have asked when booking! One couple were missing so we had to wait while our guide tried to contact them which meant that we finally left the port (without the) half an hour late. Our tour guide ‘Chris’ spent quite some time explaining to us that the traffic was dreadful in Thailand and especially so in Bangkok. He explained that we would have to leave the city by three o’clock at the latest in order to reach our ship as he didn’t want us all left behind. He was very concerned that this late start was going to make things difficult for the rest of the day .
He was an unusual guide, I don’t think I have ever had such a poor picture painted of a country and its inhabitants by the person who was being paid to show it to me! We started with a seemingly random description of how corrupt the police in Thailand were, he even gave us a short rundown of how much you would have to pay for each type of infringement including, weirdly, the amount you would have to bribe the police if you killed someone! After an interesting explanation of the way to make money from your state provided accommodation, how to defraud a car hire company, how to get around State gambling laws and what extra services were available with various types of Thai massage Chris did not appear to be aware that he was painting the morality of his fellow countrymen in a fairly poor light.
Our guide then moved on to explaining that although lunch was not included by the company he felt it was essential as otherwise someone would ‘feel sick and giddy and have to go to hospital’, he suggested that he could organise a nice buffet in a hotel for everyone that would only cost $20 a head and would be the quickest option for a large group People said they were happy to just grab something as we went but we were told that local food would be bad for us & that you had to eat here for a few days before it didn’t upset you. Chris helpfully explained how Thai people fooled tourists by serving rat disguised as chicken and said that if you ate street food you would spend all afternoon in the toilet. At this point some of our more nervous companions decided that a nice buffet lunch would be for the best, those of us who did not want the lunch option were told there was nothing available in the vicinity so that we would just have to sit and wait for the others. One couple begrudgingly agreed to join the lunch on this basis. Chris then announced that because we were so tight on time and how far apart Wat Po and the Grand Palace were ( more on this later…) and how strenuous and hothe walking would be around the two areas we were to visit that he proposed the we use Tuk Tuks between them. It would cost about 100 Baht a head but save a long walk and add local colour to the day. Everyone everyone seemed happy with this idea so Chris toured the coach collecting the US Dollars for the entrance fee, the lunch and the Tuk Tuks ( at times using an exchange rate that was frankly astounding! As it turned out the company was quite bad at maths too as the actual entrance fee for the Buddhaturned out to be 100 Baht which should have converted to 3$ US not the 8$ US we were told that we would be charged. We spent an hour or so looking at the reclining Buddha and surrounding temple, Chris gave us no information about the history or about what we were seeing. Again, we would normally expect information either from a headphone system or from a guide not just to be taken to something and shown it but I suppose that the third question we should have asked! Will the guide show us around the places we are visiting? It did cross my mind that the difference between what we paid for the entrance and what it actually cost could have been for the hire of a sound system that we just didn’t get….?
We left the Reclining Buddha in the coach, drove straight past the Royal Palace and off through the Bangkok traffic to the Nuovo City Hotel which was twenty minutes away! We arrived to find that, exactly as we had expected, it was surrounded by extremely nice local cafes and restaurants. There was no way a hotel in central Bangkok is going to be more than inches away from a bar or restaurant! My husband and I declined Chris’ suggestion that we should sit in the foyer and wait for the rest of the group and we went out to find somewhere close by where we could keep an eye out for the coach returning. Another couple joined us after they demanded their money back from Chris because he had lied about the inaccessibly of alternative food. Those who had the buffet said it was fine and but overpriced, luckily the four of us who ate out, for less than the cost of one persons eating at the buffet, survived our experience and did not require hospitalisation!
On leaving the Hotel by coach Chris announced that it was a ‘very long way’ back to the Grand palace through the heavy traffic and that although he had said that we should use Tuk Tuks he now thought this was a bad idea because it would mean splitting up the group. He was afraid that someone would get left behind and lost, he was very good at playing on peoples fears! . ‘Luckily’ , he announced he had ‘just realised’ that his friend had a boat nearby and he could arrange for that boat to whiz us straight to the gates of the palace. That would save a lot of time and it would be just another 100 Baht a head. The only thing was that we shouldn’t tell others on the boat what we had paid as they would have paid $10 a head. So we set off on the boat whereupon the other tour guide announced to his group that both he and Chris were friends of the captain and how good it was of him to take us, so presumably they had been given the same spiel as us!
There followed a perfectly pleasant river trip, we saw the barge museum and fed cat fish by a temple, but it was not what we had booked and it certainly wasn’t quick!! We then dropped the other group at Wat Po and doubled back to the pier for the Grand Palace. We disembarked and walked to the entrance and I pondered lesson four which is that we should have stood up for ourselves a bit more and not been coerced into this boat trip. We knew that it had only taken twenty minutes to get there by coach, why did we believe him when he said it would take much longer to get back? Large groups seem to develop a herd mentality and lose the ability to think straight which is fine if you’re not being lied to….
By now it was 14.45 we had wasted two and a quarter hours going for a ‘quick’ lunch and we were back at a point only actually only about 5 minutes walk from where we had been at 12.30. Although the Grand Palace was supposed to be the main focus of the day Chris had chose to leave it to last so that now we were faced with the choice of only seeing it briefly or visiting it at all in order to be certain of being back at the ship for 1830. A small group of us said that we thought we should leave but Chris literally walked away from us and refused to discuss it even though it was him that had stressed at the start of the day that we should leave by 1500!
It was obvious he was rattled but did not want to loose face and then little things started to go wrong and we began to lose even more time. Two people were refused entrance due to their dress, Chris was striding ahead so had to run back and tell them where to meet us, brushing aside an offer of a cover up from one of the ladies in our group. He then bought the entrance tickets but was one short so had to go back again. He tried to split the breakneck speed tour into short sections but twice didn’t ensure that everyone heard where and when to meet so we ended up with people waiting at two locations and wasting even more time… Eventually we left the palace an hour later having seen very little and understanding even less. It was obvious that Chris was now quite concerned, he was striding ahead without checking that we were keeping up. Luckily one of our youngest and fittest members went back to walk with two of our slowest as Chris just got on the bus and made a phone call. I checked on google maps and realised that with an estimated two hours twenty minutes journey time we were going to miss the boat by ten minutes….
There is nothing like thinking you are going to miss a ship boat to make to concentrate your mind on the resources you have with you. On this occasion we had chosen to go ashore without a credit card due to many warnings about pickpockets in busy Bangkok. The credit card wallet also contains the photocopies of our passports that we normally carry with us so we didn’t have those either, in fact we had no ID other than our cruise card. The other thing I have learnt that you should take ashore was a means of charging our mobiles phones, as after a day taking photographs and checking our ETA for the ship my phone was getting dangerously low and I hadn’t even taken the emergency power pack which was sitting uselessly in our cabin! A few three people on board the coach were also getting concerned because the took nightly medication which they did not have with them and I now think that I would not leave the ship with out a small supply of essential medication in my bag just in case of emergency. So this is lesson five, just in case take bare essentials with you….
The traffic in the city was almost at a standstill and our ETA crept later and later, once we were free of the city the driver was going as fast as seemed safe but Chris disappeared to the lower deck of the bus and made no effort to communicate with us. Suddenly the coach ground to a halt, a member of the group said they saw a flashing blue light. In less that thirty seconds we were on our way again & when questioned Chris said it was ‘police’. It seemed to have resolved very quickly if so! Or was it related to that mornings discussion on bribe Tariffs? If we had been just tight on time rather than actually seriously late ( and, it turned out, reporting our position to the port office at regular intervals…) would Chris have collected a bribe from us all so that the police didn’t hold us up. I’m not sure but his odd behaviour and money making activities all day do make me wonder…
One of our group was struggling quite badly with a panic attack by now so after some serious prompting from another passenger Chris finally came upstairs to tell us that the ship was waiting for us and was tracking our position. After an outburst of angry comment that he had not thought this worth mentioning before, he said that he was not prepared to speak to us anymore and walked off downstairs. We finally reached the ship forty minutes late I have never been so relived in my life! As we disembarked Chris was holding out his hand for a tip….
The sixth thing I have learnt is that when you are in a large group tour like this that the cruise will wait as long as they can for you as long as they are receiving communications from the tour company about your position and ETA. Obviously sometimes a falling tide or other issue will make that impossible and we were obviously getting close to some sort of deadline as they had prepared for the possibly that they would have had to leave us behind. Sitting by the gate was on officer in full uniform with his overnight bag at his feet and a box containing all our passports which had been brought ashore from the pursers office. Apparently he was ready to accompany us to the next port because we were such a large group, otherwise our passport s would have been given to the port agent. I was told that our costs probably have been paid for by Princess and then reclaimed from Cruising Excursions due to their ‘guarantee’ but in the event the money wasnt refunded we would have been liable for it. I suppose being in a large group worked in our favour on this occasion, leaving thirty five people behind is probably harder than leaving eight!
So there we are, the whole day was appallingly badly handled, we gained very little understanding of Thailand and its culture. It appeared to be being run as a moneymaking exercise for the rep who we estimate made approximately 500 Bahts a head extra but would have been significantly more if I am correct about the fake police stop! The affect of his moneymaking activities was that we wasted over two hours in a day with a tight schedule and then only spent a very short time in the place that we all wanted to see with no information or guidance other than what was in the free tourist maps, it also meant that most people paid significantly more than they would have done on the ships tour. Cruising Excursions told us that Chris is no longer working for the tour company that they used and they gave us a full refund, as they did to other members of the group who complained . One of our group spent the next twenty four hours in the medical centre due to symptoms brought on by stress but had no long term effects as far as we know.
So our lessons learnt were….
1. CHECK exactly what is included before booking. If no meal is included check that one is not going to be added later.
2. ASK about group size and transport type if this is a concern for you.
3. ASK if you will be given any information on the places you will be visiting, either by the guide or a headphone system.
4. STAND up for yourselves if you feel that the tour guide is making a mistake or changing parts of the tour. Demand to know what is happening and document things if you are concerned.
5 TAKE a credit card no matter how concerned you are about its security, stick it in your shoe or bra if necessary. Also a phone charger and absolute bare minimum medication to get you to the ships next stop.
6 CRUISE ships try not to leave you behind and will make sure you have your passport if they have to go. It will either be with a ships officer or with the port agent.
There are a couple of Live videos from our day on our Facebook page if you want to take a look…..