That I laughed out loud when we passed through a place called Bangkhen is somewhat indicative of my state of mind leaving Bangkok. Am addled. Truly addled. I’m trying to decide how I feel about the place and am coming with a bagful of buts and thens and if onlys.
Spot the sucker
Navigating our way from the airport to the city wasn’t bad. We caught the SkyTrain and then change to a metro, getting off at the stop as directed by the hotel. By this stage, we’d been up a solid 24 hours. Add that to the heat and humidity and you get a rather cranky cocktail. Of course, no one we asked had heard of our hotel and given that English is very much limited to tourist English in places and our Thai is so limited it doesn’t exist, it was a struggle to make ourselves understood. No one recognised the address either. One TukTuk driver gave up on us and a second, all smiles, went above and beyond the call of duty. He called the phone number we had and got directions. I asked him how much he’d charge to take us there, trying in vain to remember whether we were to avoid TukTuks or taxis and coming up empty. He said 300 baht. About €8. But then he smiled and said he’d take me for free. No charge. I assumed he was joking but I was enjoying the banter. He asked what our plans were and then asked if we’d already booked train tickets or plane tickets. I thought that odd but what hey… perhaps he had his reasons. Some 15 minutes later, he dropped us on a corner happily pocketing the 300 baht I handed him. Once his exhaust fumes had dissipated, we looked around. No sign of our hotel or any hotel for that matter. Eventually, after many asks, we found the alleyway that led to reception and checked in. I asked the chap what a normal fare would be from the metro to where we were. He said 100 baht. Not a wet hour in the place and already I’d been had.
I have a bit of a twin thing going on with my gullibility. I like that I trust people and would hate to be someone who didn’t. I’d hate to be suspicious and constantly on the alert. But the flip side of that is that I get done – and done regularly. I was on heightened protocol alert having read that the Thai people are very much about face…doing and saying the right thing is important to them and I was determined not to offend. Thinking about it – he didn’t cheat me – he just played me. He mentioned a figure and then said he’d take me for free. I was the idiot who, unasked, handed over the money. What he did certainly wouldn’t be keeping him awake at night. It wouldn’t keep me awake either. I was running on empty.
But over the next few days, I got a pain in my face trying to be nice to hawkers and TukTuk drivers. Where you going? Where you from? What you doing? At times I wanted to scream at them to leave me alone. But I’d smile and nod and say nothing. I’m probably giving myself an ulcer. I know this happens in places other than Bangkok. It happens anywhere you get tacks of tourists. But this week, it’s happening, for me, in Bangkok. I’m just too nice to manage this city.
Getting fed and watered in Bangkok
There must be 50 million blogs written about Bangkok and just about as many photos taken of the famous Khaosan Road – the backpackers’ paradise that rose to fame after being featured in the 2000 movie, The Beach. Lined with massage parlours, bars restaurants, cheap clothes shops, and stalls selling the usual tat for tourists – everything from sarongs to sunglasses to straw purses and bags. A couple of smart women had deep fried various insects and bugs, arranged them nicely on a tray and were charging 10 baht to take a photo. They have to be millionaires, judging from the number of times I’ve seen those photos online. I saw a chap selling small and large canisters of laughing gas. The staff at the Golf Bar wear t-shirts saying they don’t check ID. It’s not a difficult picture to paint.
But if you battle your way down the tiny walking street by Susie Q’s, you’ll come out on Soi Rambuttri and take yourself a little up market. Better bars, better restaurants, better food, better prices – all without the ‘OMG, I can’t believe I’m in Bangkok’ chorus. For sure!
We ate in a real restaurant that first night – but after that, it was street food only. Our road, Feung Nakorn, was lined with old ladies frying up pork and chicken and beef and some other stuff I couldn’t put a name to. We ate on the go – a bit of this, a bit of that, and more of the other. Delish. If we sat down to eat at all, we’d find a small mom-and-pop kitchen – usually an open fire with three or four tables and a tarp as a makeshift roof. After I spotted my second rat, I stopped paying attention. Hey, if you’ve seen one rat, you’ve seen ’em all. And when it comes to cleanliness, Bangkok ain’t no Bern. There was a morning market a few streets behind the hotel that had a fantastic array of freshly cooked food, served up against a backdrop of orange-clad monks with their alms bowls. And as for the iced coffee…it’s a big deal with all sorts of variations to be found. My absolute favourite was an iced flat white with a thick rim of caramel on the glass. Craft beer is surprisingly popular – wine less so. I’ve had to resort to either water or a cocktail.
Deciding where to stay in Bangkok
We checked in to the hotel – Fueng Nakorn Balcony – chosen because it was close to the main temples. Others might prefer to stay somewhere closer to a metro station, as it would make getting around much easier. There are hostels everywhere advertising beds in shared dorms for as little as €5 a night. The major chains tend to be out in the burbs, close to the SkyRail. In the heart of the city, it’s boutique hotels like ours that do a roaring trade. They have shared rooms and private ensuites – something for every budget and taste. Most importantly though, they do laundry. Granted it’s a two-day turnaround but hey – it’s laundry. And if you’re coming back to Bangkok after your few weeks in-country, you can leave all the stuff you thought you’d need but then realised you wouldn’t, and pick it up before you fly. And these people seemed really genuinely nice. No upselling. No touting. No tour pushes. Lovely.
Getting around Bangkok
For the most part, we walked the city, clocking up 12 to 15 km a day. I was still sore about that TukTuk guy and didn’t want to get outsmarted again. And I didn’t want to argue with taxi drivers about meters. So we walked. A lot. And it was grand. We ventured out to the burbs in search of a Chinese cemetery and for that we took a local bus (pay the conductor onboard). As we boarded, the conductor roared – Where you go? Where you go? I still wasn’t used to the rather accusative tone some Thai uniforms adopt – it’s not their intention to sound so, as all I met were extremely helpful, it’s just the way I hear them. She made sure we knew where to get off. We’d waited for over an hour for a bus that supposedly runs every 15 minutes. I felt like I was doing a survey. In that time, I saw two No. 25, nineteen No. 1, twelve No. 40 and a few other random numbers. As we travelled outwards, the city became more real. We passed through old neighbourhoods with ne’er a foreigner to be seen on the street. We hit upon some notably whiter areas with their high-rise apartment buildings and chain hotels: expats and more affluent tourists. We passed Chinese temples and Buddhist temples and mosques and all sorts. We took a ferry down the river (not the tourist boat, but the ones the locals use). We SkyTrained and metroed in from the airport. It’s all very efficient and quiet as everyone (and I mean everyone) is on their phone. Even the monks.
Seeing the sights in Bangkok
Visit a temple, get a massage, go shopping. Visit a temple, go shopping, get a massage. Get a massage, visit a temple, go shopping. It doesn’t matter what order you do them in, but that’s invariably what you’ll end up doing. Bangkok seems to be a landing spot for backpackers and those in-country for a few weeks. They fly in and fly out, spending a couple or three days in the city either end. They visit the temples – at least Wat Pho (with its 46-metre-long reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun (with its 70-metre-high prang). They get a suit made. And they have a massage. We were no exception. We even had a massage at a temple. The government-run masseur training school is in the grounds of Wat Pho. It’s twice the price of the back-street parlours but a good place to start if you’ve no clue what you’re letting yourself in for. My first massage lasted just 30 minutes, during which I had 47 winces and whimpers. My second, lasted an hour. I had nearer 90 winces and whimpers and three audible yelps. Relax. Relax. Relax, she said. This is as good as it gets, I reply, trying hard not voice what I was really thinking. I’m rather big on protocol and I didn’t want to offend but there’s something about a traditional Thai massage that brings out the botty coughs in me. Relax, lady? You really don’t want me to relax.
Conscious as I am of not offending, there’s no easy way to say that it’s all too easy to Buddha out. A priest friend of mine when visiting Budapest, asked that I not take him on an ABC tour – he didn’t want to see another bloody church. I felt the same after visiting just those two temples. So many Buddhas. So many. Hijacked by another TukTuk driver, we also saw the tallest Buddha – inconveniently covered in scaffolding- and the Smiling Buddha. We missed the Emerald Buddha, though. And a lot of other temples. Perhaps it would make more sense if I knew some of the backstory – but the only brochures available were in Thai, German, and Italian. And, of course, I didn’t do my research. So perhaps some of the figures I saw were of minor gods not yoga poses.
The shopping malls are massive. The Old Siam Shopping Centre has a whole floor of silks and other materials. And a massive food court with individual traders cooking up their specialities. And there’s the night markets, the floating markets, and the morning markets. Spoiled for choice.
But for all there is to do and see, and for all the magnificence of the place, the feeling that the city is one giant tourist scam won’t leave me. I read up on it albeit a little too late. Chance conversations with random people on the street were orchestrated. A chain of scam artists all in cahoots, from the helpful local who asked us where we wanted to go as we were checking the map to the chap waiting for his wife to the woman who may or may not have been his wife.
Can I help you? Where are you going? (First day, and I wasn’t yet tired of answering that question.)
The Royal Palace, we said.
Ah, but it’s closed today. It’s Friday. Have you seen the standing Buddha? Or the smiling Buddha?
Nope, we said, as he showed us where they were on the map.
Then he offered to get us a TukTuk and for 100 baht, he’d take us anywhere we wanted to go. Special tourist promotion ordered by the Government – for today – Friday. In return for this discounted fare, the TukTuk driver would get a petrol voucher (in India, it was a voucher for a shirt for his kid… but did I remember this in time? Hell no!)
When we came back to the TukTuk after seeing one of the Buddhas, our driver left us to go to the loo. There was another chap sitting on a chair, smoking. Waiting for his wife. Who was in praying. As it was Friday. (And yes, I’d noticed a lone woman inside praying.) He was all chat. He was a lawyer but not religious – not hard to believe. He told us of this Government promotion on that day – for tailormade suits. He’d seen it on the TV. He even showed us a photo of one he’d had made himself. He looked great. And then it was back to where he’d been on holidays.
Yep – you can write the script. We ended up at the tailor’s. Picked out the material. Got measured up. Even went back for a fitting. And then, having had a run in with the TAT (Tourist Association of Thailand), himself Googled Thai Scams. And lo and behold, there was our script – with all the players. And added to that one, another foiled attempt using the ‘it’s closed today’ line – those we escaped because I really wanted to see the cemetery and I googled it.
We’re due to pick up the suit in a few weeks. But the bank has been contacted and the process is underway. If it comes good, then we can cancel the cancellation. And maybe it will come good. I liked Peter. And no, I didn’t bat an eyelid at a Thai named Peter.
But it doesn’t end there.
We asked to go to the train station to get train tickets for Chiang Mai. Our chatty, friendly, super nice driver suggested the TAT office instead – it was less crowded, better English, easier to manage. And it was closer. There, the helpful man sent his chap to the station to get our Ayutthaya-Chiang Mai tickets, promised a driver would collect us at the hotel on Sunday and take us to the station where he’d give us the tickets from Bangkok to Ayutthaya. We paid. Cash. And later, when I check the tickets, I noticed the price – less than half of what we’d paid him. So back we went.
I could have played it smarter, better, more in keeping with saving face, but I was upset. He eventually agreed on a partial refund but refused to cancel the driver or the as yet unpurchased tickets to Ayutthaya. He was upset. I was upset. We were all upset. But I was most upset with myself. I’m just too gullible. I should have known better. I travel enough to know better. And if the train ticket he did sell us is a fake… deep breath, Mary, deep breath.
So, Bangkok – some great sights, some fabulous food, but so very difficult to know who or what you can believe. If I were Thai, I’d be a little ticked off that these bods were messing with my rep. And for the next few weeks, I have to be sure that I don’t fall into the ‘all Thais’ or ‘all Thailand’ trap. Big cities and big tourist traffic bring out the worst in people and those of us who are afflicted with an innate sense of politeness tinged with a tincture of gullibility, are easy marks. What a headache.
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