Culture shock in Bangkok

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Nine hours in the air to Hong Kong, and then a mad rush through the HK "transfers" area.

Arrived at the transfer zone just as about 500 Asians arrived from a flight from somewhere, so I ended up at the end of quite the line-up. But it snaked around quite nicely, everything moving just quickly enough so you had to wonder just how they'd cope with a "threat" if they ever came across one. Thought I had just about enough time to check up on some of my internet-based finances when I discovered I'd dropped my boarding pass (you'll recall how much trouble I had in Sydney getting it!), probably in the washroom. It was easily fixed by the staff at the desk, but it left me with no time for anything except boarding. And people complain about all the waiting they do in airports!

A little bit about why I was checking my finances. In Sydney while I did have some time before boarding the plane I'd tried to acquire some Thai baht at the foreign exchange, but for some reason they wouldn't accept my Canadian debit card, and my Master Card was maxed out. (Before heading overseas, I'd arranged for my MC credit limit to be lowered significantly, so in the event my card was lost/stolen/decoded, there'd be very little spending room for the finder/thief. And, I'd just arranged for the MC bill to be paid, and then paid my internet services provider a big bill, using the room I'd thought I'd created on my MC.) To accomplish such things it's crucial that the electronic payments I've set up at my credit union be (1) available, and (2) swift. Unfortunately, they've been neither: the internet has been pooched in two hotels (Sydney and Bangkok—see below), and it's been taking about four days for a payment in the credit union to register at my MC bank.

I find it curious that big banks can make thousands of trades in time periods so short the entire system of global finance can be in mortal danger before anyone can notice, but it takes four days for the same banks to accept my credit card payment. It might have something to do with capitalism, but it's hard to be sure.

In any case, as I proceeded to Bangkok, and since I'd managed to be clever enough not to have too much Australian cash left, it had occurred to me that it was possible I'd end up in the Bangkok airport with not enough money to pay a taxi to get me downtown (around $15), and, if I got there, not have enough credit room to pay the hotel. Fortunately, the ATM in the airport graciously accepted my Canadian debit card, and my worries were over.

In Bangkok, taxis from the airport are closely regulated, which is good, as I understand that before the gov put a stop to it, it was a complete bollocks, with taxi drivers pretty much free to charge whatever they could get away with. Since farangs (foreigners) are largely considered to be walking ATMs (with some justification), it made for a chaotic scheme. So when you hire an airport taxi, you actually work through a middle-person. You tell her/him where you want to go, she tells you how much the driver will charge you, and that's how it works out. It's quite the drive from Suvarnabhumi Intl Airport downtown, but it's only $15 in the end. Anyway, my taxi broker asked how old I was, and when I told her, she said I was "still very handsome." I'd have paid her the $15.

My hotel is in the Khaosan Road area, which is Party Central for farangs and some young Thais alike. Not the most copacetic atmosphere for an old fart like me, but I consider it to be a better choice than the other area popular with farangs—Sukhumvit Road, where lots of expensive hotels and shopping areas are situated.

When I paid a brief visit to Thailand in 2007, Khaosan Road was a zoo, with farangs and Thais surging through the area, ready for all kinds of madness. I sat at the Hippie de Bar, and watched the construction site across the street, as huge cement trucks, way too big for the street at the best of times, pulled in and backed up, causing the impromptu Friday-night sidewalk pubs, consisting of a few coolers with beer and a few tables with chairs, to scramble to avoid being crushed, then reassemble when the trucks had done their business and left. All kinds of folks. It was great fun.

Couldn't do it now. There doesn't seem to be any such thing in Bangkok as a public sidewalk. Any free space that isn't taken up with some small-time commercial activity soon will be. And that's what's happened to Khaosan Road. It wasn't exactly a spiritual mecca before, but now all pretense of spontaneity is gone. The need for Thais to support themselves on the tourist trade has resulted in a now very narrow corridor for farangs to walk and be seen, with hawkers trying to get their attention. "Cocktails—very strong," "Buckets of vodka-Red Bull," read the signs held up by the folks trying to call attention to their employers. "You would look great in a suit," say the hawkers for the tailors. There are at least 50 retailers of t-shirts/muscle shirts, all selling the same shirts.

The Hippie de Bar is still there, but it's retreated from Khaosan Road, into the buildings, a fairly nice oasis that still serves great food to a mostly Thai clientele—and beer.

And since all the space off the street has been taken, much of the street is now taken with t-shirt and food sellers, to the extent that walking the street is very difficult.

It's comforting to see that the hill tribe women are still there flogging the little wooden devices that when stroked sound like frogs croaking. I've never seen them sell one of those, but I have noticed in the last couple days that their elaborate headdresses are popular with the American college kids that frequent Khaosan Road, and the women will sell them.

Recall that my camera ended up with a broken display in Australia, and that I needed to get it fixed. A little internet research indicated that the Ma Boon Krong (MBK) centre was a hub for computers, electronics, cameras, and such, and there are Lonely Planet reviews of some of the individual MBK shops. So on Wednesday morning I set off with my trusty "Bangkok's Map" for MBK, figuring I'd have a good, long walk, see some of the sights (such as the "Democracy Monument," a gift to the people of Thailand from the then King to commemorate the new constitution he'd given them) on the way, and find some transportation back when I'd completed my business.

But I hadn't got far when I ran into Kim, who wanted to know where I was going. I'd already learned that most Thai men who ask this question do so because they want to take you there in their vehicle, but Kim didn't have one. When I told him, he started asking me questions about how much I knew about where I was going and what there was to see, and he said, often, "You don't know anything!" Which was pretty true. So he took out my "Bangkok's Map," and started marking it up. "You go here to see Lucky Buddha (accent on second syllable) first. It's the oldest in Bangkok. Then to Thai Factory, where you can see all kinds of silk, special day, government charge no tax; then, what? You have no booking to Chiang Mai yet? Go to government Tourism Authority, get best price. Then Standing Buddha, only open today." And on and on. As I was wondering how I was going to get away, he began to tell me that most tuk-tuk operators were crooks, "they charge too much, they're government-subsidized, you can get one for 20 baht for three hours, take you to all these places." He showed me where to complain if I got the run-around from a tuk-tuk driver. Then he called one over, told him where I was going, and off I went, too polite to say no, and open to the possibility that it would be minor fun seeing some of these things.

And riding around in the tuk-tuk was fun, through loads of little streets crowded with shops and stalls. The Lucky Buddha was cool, I talked to the guy there about it, and he was very surprised that I knew the name of the King (Bhumibol) and Queen (Sirikit), though, really, there aren't too many places in Bangkok where you can't see a large portrait of one or the other. Met another guy whose cousin runs the "Thai Taste," on Dundas Street in Toronto. Then to the Thai Factory, which wasn't as Kim described it—it was just a large tailor outlet. Mind you, they offered a pretty good, hand-tailored suit for 8,000 baht (around $250), no tax, special day declared by government for foreigners.

Once I extracted myself from that, the tuk-tuk driver took me to the tourist authority, where I booked my flights for Chiangmai, then he took me to a jewellery wholesaler. "Just go in and look," said the driver. "They'll pay me." Except the wholesalers weren't too happy to see me; apparently they'd had visits from tuk-tuk drivers before, and they were tired of dealing with people who didn't really want to buy anything.

Smelling a rat, I told the driver I didn't want to go to any more such places, and he was to take me to the Golden Buddha (made entirely of pure gold!), which he did. When I finished (no photos, too many devout worshippers), I emerged to find the tuk-tuk driver had buggered off. Didn't even ask for the 20 baht! Must have got a better offer.

Somewhat relieved, I re-started my walk to the MBK Centre, except I was a distance from where I'd intended to start in the first place. Fortunately, I had my "Bangkok's Map," finding myself at the "City Parapet Mahakan Fortress" in pretty short order. Trouble is, the street names on "Bangkok's Map" and the ones on the actual streets are not exactly, or even very closely, the same. Or there's a system I don't know about/haven't figured out.

Long story short, I probably ended up walking half again the distance I needed to walk to the MBK Centre, getting lost, turning around (Wait a minute! I'm not supposed to be walking over a canal!) and was SO exhausted when I got there that I bought some "fresh squeezed orange juice" from a street vendor. Not OJ, of course, but some kind of orange-flavoured beverage. But never mind, it was delicious! And refreshing.

But then, to add insult to injury, the MBK Centre wasn't a hub for electronics, computers, etc. It was just a mall. The camera shops were small, and wouldn't do repairs. About the best I can say for the whole experience was I got the address and other contact info for the Nikon sales and repair centre, in a whole other area of Bangkok.

So, heading home, I decided this just might be the time to actually accomplish something for the day. So I swallowed my fears, and hailed a motorcycle taxi.

Now much has been written about Bangkok motorcycle taxis, much of it true. They do weave around traffic, you go by other cars, motorcycles, etc. with millimetres to spare, and it does seem like you're frequently a prayer away from an awful accident. The quick darts into the oncoming traffic's lane are a treat, especially when there's a bus coming. There are times when you just have to put your head directly behind the driver's helmet and not look, because you don't really want to see.

But on the other hand, these guys really know what they're doing, and they get through the hideous Bangkok traffic like no tuk-tuk or taxi can. It's the only way to fly. (And yes, he did end up charging me twice what he'd originally said he would—$6 instead of three, to go about 15km—but I learned from the experience a lesson in how to handle taxis/tuk-tuks.)

Back to the hotel, nap, and out to dinner, the rest of the day uneventful, except...

Sitting at my table on soi Rambuttri (at least that's what Bangkok's Map says), though, looking at the menu, I thought the sound I heard was a recorded concert/unplugged version of Tracy Chapman singing that song about driving in your car. When I eventually looked up, it was a Thai guy with guitar, and could he ever play and sing! The pad thai was forgettable, but the entertainment was not!

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