Bangkok easily conjures up images of a bustling, chaotic city that is exotic and rich in culture. A city that assaults the senses and challenges the visitor to be open minded and try new things. Those ideas would be accurate. My visit only scratched the surface of experiencing Bangkok. I can only report on the interesting things I saw and did, knowing it was only a glimpse.
My visit to Thailand would last a full month, with only the first five days in Bangkok. You’ll hear that even five days is too much, but I knew that this would allow me enough time to explore a few different aspects of the city. For some reason, I welcomed the chaos and congestion.
When I travel, I often have no interest in doing the popular things everyone else does. For many, Khaosan Road, Soi Cowboy, the backpacker hangouts and the bargirl party spots are what people explore, as if walking past a lot of bars and fighting off prostitutes is a rewarding and enlightening pursuit. That just ain’t my bag. Bargirls, ha ha, we all know they are there. Not interesting.
My interests are generally to try and meet friendly locals at my destination, experience the cultural sites, go to a cooking class, a jazz bar, the theater, an excellent restaurant or two, and meet beautiful women who are not prostitutes. I don’t always do those things, but I will research those options. I found Tinder to be an excellent way to connect with locals and have a a more personal experience. Tinder is not strictly about hookups. I have made many friendly connections abroad via this app. (All women of course 😉 It can result in a new friend in a foreign locale, a tour of locals spots, maybe dinner with their friends.
I’ve done a lot of travel in my life, but at 45 years of age, this was my very first trip to Asia. In my twenties, my brother lived in Taipei for work for several years, but I was never able to visit. So for this first trip to Asia I expected an eye opening experience. Even at simply my arrival at Bangkok airport my senses were already keenly attuned to the surroundings. I took in the scene carefully, the smells and sights of new and different people.
I actually decided to stay in Chinatown at a nice little boutique hotel, the Shanghai Mansion Bangkok. They have a spa, lounge, and restaurant with excellent an full breakfast included. The staff was gracious and welcoming, with your arrival treated like a small celebration.
For some reason to me Chinatown seemed a nice way to blend the urban chaos of two cultures and be saturated in a vibrant climate of hustle and bustle. The hotel was as sanctuary, but once you step out on the sidewalk the bustle hits you immediately.
My package included either dinner or a one hour Thai massage each day. Because I was one person staying in a double occupancy, this meant I could potentially have two one hour massages each day! So – nice room with powerful AC, very reasonable minibar, full breakfast, two massages per day for about $75/night. Not too bad right?
My everyday sights and sounds outside my hotel were that of China. There were many sidewalk restaurants that became packed in the evenings with Chinese tourists. People complain about Americans traveling abroad and seeking out only American tastes, I guess the Chinese do the same – they visit Bangkok to eat their own food. However, with some research these sidewalk restaurants are quite good. I’d have to try.
I loved the atmosphere. It was just the bustle and chaos I expected. There was an alleyway street market next to my hotel, as well as a fantastic high end Chinese restaurant called Chinatown Scala (no website). Their dishes focused on crab and shark fin soup, and you could watch them cook through the windows right from the street.
My attitude about my first few days was to acknowledge that I am in a unique and unfamiliar culture, be patient, and be ready for whatever comes up. I accepted the fact that I would make mistakes. Hopefully these would be low risk mistakes, and they were.
The first day I decided to simply follow some tourist sites and head to the The Grand Palace and Wat Pho temples. I wanted to get the high profile tourist sites out of the way. Like any visit to a new city, I had no bearings, and zero familiarity with how to proceed. The hotel grabbed me a tuk tuk off the street and they took me to The Grand Palace for 100baht, or about $3. I was let off, and began walking aimlessly trying to simply find the main entrance to the Palace. The Grand Palace occupies a large city block, and is surrounded by a white, non descript wall. it’s very heard to tell where to go or where to start. This is how confused I was – I was now aimless walking around like a sitting duck, just trying to find the way in. The Thai pick up on this like a cunning animal zeroing in on clueless prey (perhaps any Asian culture that spots a clueless tourist). Little did I know I was about to fall for the most classic of tourist scams.
A “helpful local” approaches me and tells me The Grand Palace is actually closed for several hours due to a ceremony of some kind. Ok, I have absolutely no idea. Is this true? I can’t even find the front door and I’m already walking in circles. He suggests taking a tuk tuk tour of a few other temples, and they would bring me back here in time for the Grand Palace to reopen. So he recruits another tuk tuk driver to drive me around to a bunch of other temples until it reopens for 100 baht.
“And he’ll drive me around to three other temples, and just wait, and then bring me back right here?”
Who knows. 100baht is $3, and I have time to explore. This could be a little driving tour of the city which is frankly, I was open to. So we did that.
The driver tells me it is national tailor shop day or something. The tailor shops are having sales, and I should be very interested in this. I have absolutely no interest is buying a suit right now, or ever, or even shopping. He repeats its several times, and I start to wonder why the fuck he is pushing tailors and suits on me when I am here to sightsee.
Now, I have traveled a lot in my life. More and less than many. However, most of my travel has been around Europe, where tourist scams are less intricate, rarely even encountered, and totally avoidable. I’ve also been deep into Guatemala with a backpack, and deep into Mexico (Mayan ruins and colonial high altitude cities in Chiapas, and the jungles in the Yucatan.) I backpacked around Morocco when I was in college, and I’ve been to South Africa. In late 2016 I visited Mexico City and ended up wandering around half lost in one of the most notoriously dangerous narco murder neighborhoods in the city. And everything was cool. I’m not an adrenaline junkie or extreme risk taker, but I like to think I am fairly attuned to the street smarts necessary to navigate travel in some questionable destinations.
So with my tuk tuk driver everything started out friendly and nice. The first temple he took me too was really nothing interesting, even by my wondrous and amazed novice eyes. And this is when it started to dawn on me that I am now part of a ruse. Oh I get it! These are the small, boring temples, and 100 baht to them is a lot of money. It became even more clear in the next moments.
We stop at a shop and the driver says I must go in and look around, and he will get gas – I think this is what he said. He holds my elbow and points to the front door of a tailor shop, a big store, the best one in town, and they’re having a sale! As I walk in I wonder just what the fuck is going on here?! I don’t need a suit. I am actually doing what he told me to do. My first day in Bangkok, and I am voluntarily walking into a tailor shop, the last place I would visit.
The guy in the store starts showing me a catalog of suits, and can I interest you in a shirt? Maybe a tie? I start laughing to myself because this is not why I am in Thailand, what the fuck is going on? I am laughing wondering at how surreal this is becoming. But actually I’m more laughing because it’s my first day in Thailand so who cares. As long as I don’t get swindled out of cash, I’m ok for now. I walk back out, and the driver was still there. He had not gone to get gas. There was a reason for this too.
However, I was starting to get irritated at this point. We went to another boring and small temple. Eventually I determined that Buddha statues are everywhere, and it’s really not that interesting to visit yet another temple. But here’s the thing: you cannot reason with tuk tuk drivers. They are an indigenous species that cannot be negotiated with rationally.
One thing I read in my research into Thai culture and people is that they disapprove of confrontations. You just smile, behave graciously, play along and stand your ground. Essentially, you won’t win a confrontation with these people. I read a humorous anecdote somewhere describing it this way. If you are a tourist and you have a confrontation with a Thai and though you may be clearly in the right, they will still call all their friends and neighbors to beat the shit out of you and you will lose. Best to smile and go with the flow.
I realized I had been swindled to some degree. But it was still ok, because I had time to kill, it was only $3, and this was a classroom and I was the student.
We went to another tailor shop. The lady I encountered at the entrance knew exactly what was happening. I still did not know what was happening. And it was rather humorous when I walked in with absolutely no interest in shopping, with a look of befuddlement. She said “Just pay him off and walk away…”
“Ok yes but I have no idea where I am and I would have to get another tuk tuk to take me back, so I may as well just stick it out with this guy and end up back at the Grand Palace.” I responded to her. I was laughing inside and increasingly intrigued by trying to figure out what exactly was going on.
Next I almost get into an argument with the guy now because he tries taking me to yet another store. Is this how they make a living? Swindling tourists? At this point my attitude is “I definitely do not need a fucking suit, and take me back now.” He didn’t care at all. With tuk tuk drivers apparently all rides lead to a tailor shop.
We had apparently run the course of this scam, and now we were headed back to The Grand Palace. I was still somewhat patient, but there were no more smiles and humorous misunderstandings. When we got back I handed him 100 baht and walked away. Fucking jerk. He didn’t even flinch and drove off. This would not be the last time I dealt with stubborn and scummy tuk tuk drivers.
Keep in mind, I showed up to this party without my pants on. Unaware of the all the basic scams that might come at me. A tuk tuk driver can be your friend or your enemy, but you choose to play along and try and make it a win win, or at least be smart enough to not empty your wallet.
So the famous tuk tuk scam is now on my radar. Usually how it works is you get a 10baht tuk tuk tour of the city in exchange for entering a jewelry, tailor, or souvenir shop of some kind for a few minutes. In exchange the driver receives a gasoline voucher from the shop for bringing in a potential customer. You don’t have to buy anything. The value of the voucher is greater to the driver than his gas consumption and time spent. My experience closely matched this outline, which I read about a month after the fact.
What I found so amusing was how closely my real life experience was to this well known scam. In a way, it’s not even precisely a scam, because you are only paying 10 baht for a tour of the city and a couple of short inconvenient stops. My experience as was textbook. I was out only $3, I had a tour of the city and now I know. No major problems on Day One!
The rest of the day I meandered around this most popular tourist neighborhood. I visited The Grand Palace and Wat Pho, and took a ferry across the Chao Phraya River to the Wat Arun Temple, which was under some construction. The temple architecture is whimsical and highly decorative. Like most tourists to Bangkok probably, I had little understanding of the history I was seeing, but I didn’t really mind. I think for many people Asian history in general, and Thai dynastic and royal history in particular, are fairly vague topics. In Europe you kind of know the broad events, the Roman Empire, Greek architectural influence and the influence of democratic themes, the Renaissance and art history, etc. You just absorbed this from your education, where Asian history was more or less glanced over. This makes some sense because our history was spawned from Europe. But Asia, now that is really really far away!