Sunday, May 24, 2009
Back 2 Bangkok
We flip through the pages of the menu in desperation for something that was both appealing and affordable. Everything, it seems, is market price, which in Thai roughly translates to whatever number pops into the waiter's head at a given moment. Multiplied by twenty. The fact that we're also white makes us easy prey.
"There are a few things back here that have prices," Laura says. Sure enough, the last few pages of the menu offer a range of dishes, chiefly noodles with a token prawn or small, unidentifiable piece of chicken, with a list price. I scan down the page and come to a sudden realization.
"Everything here is 300 Baht. It doesn't matter what we order. It's gonna be 300 Baht." We look at each other with the same expression of disbelief and resignation. We've been had. Again. We'd listened to the recommendation made by a local who had seemed genuine enough, who had pointed us in the direction of a restaurant with good local food made by locals and eaten by locals, and even arranged for a tuk-tuk to take us there in customary local style. This kind of shit isn't supposed to happened to us. We're veteran travelers, we're supposed to know what we're doing. We've been to India after all.
"My best piece of advice," said the man sitting in a corner of the coffee shop below our guest house, "is to not agree to be taken to any shop by a tuk tuk driver - they'll just end up screwing you around."
"Thanks," I had said, a note of confidence and bravado entering my voice, "I think we can handle it. We've been to India after all. We're pros at this kind of stuff."
Things had looked good on the outset. After leaving our guest house and packing away a hearty breakfast of one egg, hotdog, and two pieces of starchy white toast, we hit the streets with a healthy dose of optimism and anticipation as to what the day's experiences might have to offer. We were in no rush and we had no firm itinerary - it was our simple desire to get a feel for the city and its sense of character that had enticed us to come back in the first place. After all, the last time we'd visited Bangkok I'd spent most of my time looking for a hospital and calming the locals' fears that the mutilations on my neck and chin and the extensive bandaging of my arm was not a sign of leprosy.
As Laura would point out later, our biggest problem was the fact that we both were just looking forward to a relaxing long weekend. We clearly did not have our wits about us, as the guide books often warn. In fact, we were quite content to just go along like fish in a stream, letting the current take us wherever it might. What we didn't realize was that we were in fact salmon going upstream rather than down it, and that the struggle to fight against the raging rapids and sharp rocks would leave us utterly destroyed.
One thing that we had learned while in Chiang Mai, but sadly failed to apply in Bangkok, was the fact that Thais are extremely kind and hospitable, yet have this tendency to simply make up stories to tell tourists that aren't true. This strange phenomenon is impossible to understand, for there doesn't appear to be any kind of conceivable gain that would in any way benefit the person telling the story. The following day, when we'd decided to just do the opposite of what anyone told us, a security guard setting up a blockade a few blocks away from the Grand Palace informed us that the Palace would be closed until 3 PM due to private ceremonies honouring the anniversary of a royal family member's passing. He suggested we check out a few other temples in the meantime, and became quite irate when we simply said "Thanks" and went in the opposite direction. Not only was the Palace fully open to the public, but no such ceremonies were taking place. What the security guard had hoped we'd do and why remains a mystery.
This morning, having not yet adopted this strategy, we encountered a local, who like so many others, was excited to see us and happy that we chose Thailand, his home country, as a place to visit. After chatting for about ten minutes, we learned that he was also a teacher at a nearby high school, and by the smell of beer on his breath at 9:30 in the morning, was clearly enjoying his holiday to the fullest. Because it was a holiday, he informed us, the major temples such as Wat Pho (home of the colossal reclining Buddha) and the temples inside the Grand Palace (home of the emerald Buddha, which is not really made of emerald) would be closed until 1 PM for Buddhist prayers. He suggested we check out a few other temples (home to many other likenesses of Buddha) and circled them on the map we had with us. He flagged down a passing tuk-tuk and had the driver agree to take us there and back for a meagre 40 baht, which we felt was an incredible steal. And why not? We'd be back before 1:00 to see the rest of what we'd planned to see for that day and we'd still have another full day to explore other parts of the city, maybe rent some bikes, navigate the canals and floating markets Bangkok is so famous for, and so forth (none of this, however, was to actually happen).
After visiting a temple, our tuk-tuk driver asked us if he could take us to a tailor's shop on the way to our next destination. Laura and I were fuming, as this hadn't been apart of the original agreement, and we knew that the only reason he wished to take us there was so he could get a commission from the proprietors of the shop for bringing in rich white tourists. After arguing for a few minutes, he told us that for every ten 'potential' customers he brought to the shop, he would be given a free shirt. Being the bleeding hearts we are, we consented, but insisted that we'd only spend a maximum of five minutes inside, and that we weren't going to buy anything (which we didn't, but I did have the salesman excited by my interest in using a bright orange material for a shirt).
After leaving the shop, our tuk-tuk driver promptly pulled over, shut off the engine, and told us about another shop he'd like to take us. Before my sense of disbelief could set in, I simply lost it and ripped into his slimy, gum-disease ridden face and explained that there was no way in the ten courts of Buddhist Hell that we were going to go anywhere but what we had originally agreed upon. That was it. I'd had it. I was bitter at everything and everyone. We arrived at the next temple on our itinerary and I could really care less. Another fucking temple. Big deal. They're all the same. Why were we wasting our time? Why weren't we doing something we planned on doing instead of being here, miles away from where we wanted to be in the first place? What we needed to do was to just get back in our tuk-tuk, get back to where we started, get something to eat, get out of this heat, and salvage what we could out of this absolute disgrace of a day.
I suppose if the tuk-tuk driver hadn't decided to pull a disappearing act, that might have happened.
I try to think of a time in my life where I've been this bitter and disgruntled and I can't. It was hard not to dwell on it as Laura and I trudged laboriously along a wide boulevard kilometers away from the city center being baked alive by the scorching midday sun. My shirt was beginning to feel like a damp towel against my skin and the muscles in my back were seizing up and crying in protest against each new step I took. I was hungry and I was tired and I was pissed at the fact that we'd blown half our day.
And now that we'd spent nearly 700 baht for one shared plate of noodles and two beers in a country where anywhere else it might have cost us 60, I couldn't say I felt any more relieved. I wasn't even that full, to tell the truth. I'd had it with Bangkok. To hell with it.
The Grand Palace
The Bathroom of Our Guesthouse