24 Hours in Bangkok (Thailand – Part 2) April 8, 2010Posted by jorkat in Bangkok.
We suffered our first flight delay in Koh Samui after over a year of somewhat uninterrupted travel. Fortunately, it was in an outdoor terminal and it was over 30 degrees outside – Hooray! The flight was from Samui to Bangkok and would last only 45 minutes or so but the delay ended up being over 2.5 hours. However, it did give me a chance to finish writing my first Thailand blog post and catch up on email as they had Wifi throughout the waiting area.
The most frustrating aspect of the delay was that it was cutting into our already limited time in Bangkok. We had heard from a variety of sources that we wouldn’t need/want more than a day or so in Bangkok so we had already booked our train tickets to Chiang Mai for the following evening. As I sit here in the Bangkok train station writing this almost exactly 24 hours since our arrival, I couldn’t agree more.
Sorry about that. What I think was the Thai national anthem just erupted over the loud speakers at the crack of 6pm and everyone in the station immediately rose to their feet in unison. I was a little late in joining them but was happy to oblige. Here’s a picture from where we were sitting before the sudden display of patriotism.
I’m emotionally and psychologically exhausted. Bangkok can be a very fun and exciting place but it takes some time to get your bearings and adjust to their way of life. If someone asked me to define Bangkok from a tourists perspective in 5 words or less, the following words would immediately come to mind.
Bargaining. Scams. Carbon Emissions. Dirty/Cheap. Ok, that’s six words but I couldn’t decide between dirty and cheap. These don’t exactly paint a pretty picture so let me elaborate a little on our experience and attempt to explain my rationale for these unflattering adjectives. Despite their negative connotation, I wouldn’t have wanted our experience to be any different.
I felt like I was constantly on guard to keep us safe, avoid getting swindled by con artists, and had to negotiate for almost everything knowing full well that my opponent was trying to screw me because I’m a naïve foreigner. The irony is that I was constantly doing the math in my head to convert their currency into Canadian dollars and would often be haggling over less than a dollar. This is what they do though and we are big fat dollar signs in their eyes so the price quoted is always well above market. We lost a couple minor battles early on, but I’m pleased with our overall performance and feel like we fared quite well, relatively speaking.
Southeast Asia and Bangkok in particular are famous for a mode of transportation called “Tuk Tuk’s”.
They’re everywhere. Drivers sit on every street corner, particularly in the tourist areas and will offer a lift to almost everyone walking by. If you’re a tourist they’ll always quote you an exorbitant price at first hoping that you’re one of the only people in Asia that hasn’t read a Lonely Planet. If you’re patient and willing to negotiate, you can get just about anywhere in the city limits for a couple bucks. As you’ll see from this video, it’s a great way to see the city if you don’t mind near death experiences combined with the carbon monoxide from the exhaust of thousands of tuk tuk’s which might kill you sooner.
Our trusty Lonely Planet Travel Guide recommended five things that everyone should experience during a short trip to Bangkok. Despite a somewhat rocky start to our day (which I’ll discuss at the end of this post), we managed to do four of them with the fifth being an hour outside the city limits.
1. We wandered all over the infamous Khao san Road and did some serious people watching. I haven’t learned much Thai but I’m pretty sure the literal translation of “Khao san” means “drunk people making bad decisions”. I’m not sure who’s seedier, the sketchy tourists in search of bargains and other forms of gratification to satisfy their appetites, or the locals trying to make a buck by any means possible.
A bunch of guys along Khao san kept challenging me to ping pong matches on the street after it got dark even though there didn’t’ appear to be any tables around. They were always very discreet as they quietly approached us on the street, and I must concede that I was very tempted to accept their advances. But I hadn’t played since last August in Hong Kong and didn’t want to embarrass myself so I politely declined. Seemed like nice guys though.
Katie and I have sampled foot and body massages in almost every country we’ve visited so far but the foot massage on the street next to Khao san was the best one yet. Only $6.00 for one hour in a comfy chair on the sidewalk, with live music playing in the background. Khao san also had an impressive collection of cheap t-shirts and street vendors every 20 feet selling pad thai for less than a dollar.
2. The river ferry along the Chao Phraya River was the second must-see sight that we visited that day. It’s just like a bus on water, costs 30 cents and got us from the top of the city to the bottom faster than any tuk tuk could have.
3. The Sky Train. This sounded cooler than it actually was. Nothing to write home about. Just an above ground subway which gives decent views of the city core. Definitely a nice eco-friendly alternative to a Tuk Tuk though.
4. One of the helpful tips in our guide cautioned us to be weary of any smooth talking strangers who offered to help you, particularly if they told you that something was closed and offered to take you somewhere else. So what happened when we showed up to our fourth must-see attraction (the Grand Palace) and were told by a smooth talking stranger that it was closed until noon because the Monks were praying?
Me: “Well golly, we’ve got pockets full of money and plenty of time to waste, what do you recommend that we do?”
That wasn’t exactly what I said but it feels like that in retrospect. The guy was dressed in plain clothes, spoke excellent English and starting rhyming off cities in Canada as soon as he saw the flag on our bag. He told us it was closed until noon but since it was just past 10am we could come back in a couple hours. He also informed us about the dress code further cementing his perceived legitimacy.
He then pulled out a map and showed us three other temples/shrines within the area that we could visit in the meantime. We had two hours to kill so why not? He then pointed out that the Tuk Tuk drivers wearing dark blue vests are employed by the government and won’t try and scam you like all the others. For only 60,000 baht ($2) one of these legitimate drivers would take us to these three other venues and have us back here by noon. Wow, this guy is the best!
Now, we were aware of a similar situation in which our friends had gone on such an excursion in Bangkok and ended up being taken to a variety of tailors, markets, jewelers, etc. against their will. What happens is that these shops pay the Tuk Tuk drivers to bring unassuming tourists to their stores. As a result, we clearly said to our smooth talker and our actual driver, “No other stops”, to which they agreed.
As promised, we were taken to our first destination and were quite pleased with the experience. It was a buddhist temple with excellent views of the city called “The Golden Mount”.
After leaving the temple we immediately found our driver and hoped aboard eager to visit our next attraction. He then informed us that he had to go to the bathroom and would be right back. Hmm, he just sat waiting for almost an hour and now he has to use the bathroom? Our Tuk Tuk also happened to be strategically placed in front of some random guy sitting in a chair on the side of the road who immediately engaged in conversation. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, he starts talking about this wonderful tailor where you can get cheap custom suits. We knew right then and there where our next destination was. Sure enough when our driver returned and we hit the road, he informed us that we would be making a quick stop and that we wouldn’t have to buy anything. We tersely objected at which point he stopped and got out on his hands and knees begging us to spend 5 minutes at this tailor. He explained how he doesn’t make any money and that they would pay for his gas if we at least visited the shop. We agreed as long as it was the only stop that wasn’t a temple or shrine that we initially agreed to.
I was pissed, mostly at myself, as it had finally dawned on me that everything that had happened over the last hour or so had been by design and we had walked right into it. The Grand Palace being closed, the smooth talking stranger and the random guy in the chair were all a perfectly crafted scheme. At this point I wasn’t exactly in the mood to be hounded by some tailor to buy some crappy suits. Just as we were about to sit down and listen to his pitch, Katie shot me a glance and whispered, “might as well have some fun with this.” She couldn’t have been more right.
I had to spend 5 minutes there anyway and was planning on buying some cheap suits in Vietnam so why not educate myself on the materials and process. I started hammering him with questions about design, fit, materials, pricing, lining, etc. I expressed genuine interest in all of the most expensive fabrics and marvelled at how I could get such high quality craftsmanship at such a low price. I could see the wheels turning in this guy’s head as he tried to refrain from looking too excited.
Once the mandatory 5 minutes were up and I had finished milking him for info, I asked him how long it would take to make a few of these fine garments. Here’s how the exchange went:
Me: How long does it take?
Him: When do you leave?
Me: In 4 hours.
Me: Yeah, our train leaves for Chiang Mai at 6pm. Didn’t I mention that?
Him: (Flustered) Time isn’t your problem, it’s ours. We could have them ready for you by then. Or you could pick them up when you come back.
Me: You just said that a good suit takes multiple fittings and that your shop prides itself on its craftsmanship and attention to detail. Surely you can’t prepare such a high quality suit in such a limited time frame. We weren’t planning on coming back to Bangkok either so picking them later isn’t an option
Me: I tell you what, you’ve been very helpful today and I really want to buy some suits from you, but I’m just not comfortable rushing through such a detailed process that you take so much pride in. Why don’t you give me your card and if we come back to Bangkok sometime, we will definitely come back.
Him: (Dejected) …Ok, let me get you my card.
JorKat – 1, Tailor – 0. We left the store with a hop in our step as if we’d won one for the dumb tourists. The thrill from this small victory didn’t last long though. As soon as we boarded our Tuk Tuk, our driver started trying to sell us on just one more place he wanted to take us. No F&%$ing way. He pulled over and did the whole begging thing again but we flatly refused. After trying to reason with him unsuccessfully for a few minutes we finally just got out and walked away. We hadn’t paid the 60,000 baht yet so no money was lost and we did still get to visit the first beautiful temple.
We quickly figured out where we were on a map, hailed another driver and got a ride back to a different entrance to the Grand Palace which was wide open and had never been closed in the first place. A valuable lesson learned with less than an hour of our valuable time wasted. Fortunately, our experience in the Grand Palace made it all worthwhile.
For alternative commentary on a recent Bangkok experience and some more breathtaking pictures of the Grand Palace, check out the Mulloskey blog here.