Bangkok 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. We all look for different things for our holidays in terms of relaxation and cultural immersion.
When I travel, I have almost no interest in doing the things everyone else does. For many, Khaosan Road, Soi Cowboy, the backpacker hangouts and the bargirl party spots are what people mention, but that’s not 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, an excellent restaurant or two, and meet beautiful women who are not prostitutes. I found Tinder to be an excellent way to meet someone and have a locals experience. Tinder does not strictly have to result in a romantic liaison. 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. This would be an eye opening experience. Even at simply my arrival at Bangkok airport my senses were already keenly attuned to my 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, with a spa, lounge, and restaurant. For some reason Chinatown seemed a nice way to blend the urban chaos of two cultures and be saturated in a vibrant climate of hustle and bustle.
My package included either a 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! Insane right?
So 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 still seeking out only American tastes, I guess the Chinese visit Bangkok to taste their own food. But still, they must be very 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 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 walk back out, and the driver was still there. He had not gone to get gas. There was a reason for this too.
I was starting to get irritated at this point. We went to another boring, 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 avoid overt confrontations, and they disapprove of outbursts and arguments. You have to just smile and play along and stand your ground. Essentially, you can’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 are 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 along and stand my ground.
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 yeah 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.
Still, I almost got into an argument with the guy now because he tried taking me to yet another store. Is this how they make a living? Swindling tourists? So I definitely do not need a fucking suit, and take me back now, etc is what I started thinking. He didn’t care at all. I think with tuk tuk drivers, all rides lead to the tailor shop.
When we got back I handed him 100 baht and walked away. Fucking jerk. He didn’t even flinch and drove off. They do not care. I had another, more brief experiences with like this with a tuk tuk driver at a later location. And eventually I learned that indeed these tuk tuk drivers get some kind of credit for gasoline when they bring a passenger into a particular shop. Don’t know how that works.
I met Katy on Tinder. She was an American living and working in Bangkok. The first evening she invited me to a jazz club called Saxophone at the Victory Monument. This is what I enjoy, hanging out where other Thai’s hang out, just getting drinks and talking. And yeah, maybe there were other expats there, but not too many, and who cares. We visited a couple other spots and called it a night over beer and red wine.