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Friday, March 13, 2009

Something more annoying than the Bangkok heat:

I arrived in Bangkok yesterday morning at about 6AM via the night bus from Chiang Mai. It was a relatively pleasant 11-hour bus ride, including a midnight stop at a rest-stop where I got a fresh guava and a bag of dried dragon fruit chips for a dollar. I wasn't too keen on the part where at about 2AM the bus pulled into a gas station and just sat there for 30 or 45 minutes, for no apparent reason, doing nothing while the 50 passengers inside all exuded heat and made little exasperated grunts (in chinese, german, french, italian, australian, etc, but not thai) until we finally got going again.

Anyhow I was about 2/3 asleep by then, so I hardly noticed what was happening. I walked around for a while until I found a nice, cheap room, which didn't take long considering that this is the first time on the trip where I've arrived somewhere without either a reservation, a guidebook, or some kind of map. I managed to find a room for about 5 dollars a night on my 3rd try. The room is about the size of my mom's walk-in closet. Seriously. The single bed takes up about 80% of the floor space, and I can sit on the bed with my back against one wall, my knees bent almost up to my chin, and my feet both touching the other side. I know that for another 2 bucks a night I could get a better room but...I am tired of withdrawing and spending money and decided to try to live for 4 days on about 50 dollars. And I have to save about 15 of it for the airport, where I may or may not get fined for overstaying my visa by one day.

Now, about the resterday (portmanteau). I slept a little longer while it wasn't too hot, cleaned up, headed to the tourist info office on the corner to get a map, then set off. I just wandered in the direction of the super-huge temple with the "emerald buddha," but before I got there turned down a side street with people selling weird little coins, amulets, and inscribed stones. According to my map, there's a market at the end of the street, which is where I was intending on scrounging up some wonderful 75-cent pad thai noodles. But some dude stopped me and in surprisingly good English told me that it was the Buddha's birthday and that the place I was going was going to throw a big festival at 1pm (by then it was hardly 10) and that I should instead head up north a little to see the special 40-foot tall buddha, because admission was free until the afternoon. I told him I'd walk there and he said I should take a tuk-tuk (a thai taxi, basically an open cart attached to a motorbike) to make sure I get there and to the other attractions in time. I had been told to be wary of people telling you the places you wanted to go were closed, so I just thanked him and went on. I stopped at some little shrine to an old king and another guy came up to me and started giving the same story, chatting me up about where you from and where you go and how long you stay. I was already on my guard because of the previous fellow - who had actually been dressed pretty nicely, claiming to be a music teacher at the university - but couldn't quite get up the nerve to just walk off. Anyway he gave the the same rap, also making sure to let me know that the Buddha was 40 meters tall. I thanked him for the help and told him I'd walk that way, but that I didn't want to ride in a tuk-tuk because I'd rather get a good look at the city on the way. He insisted that it would only cost 40 baht (about a dollar) and I said I had no money anyway, at which point he slammed down my map on the shrine and started grumbling and I can only assume cursing.

I went on towards the huge temple and stopped at a restaurant and ordered some spicy egg salad and cold chinese tea for $1.50. Then I went into the temple complex and found myself in the middle of seriously about a thousand or more foreigners. I even had to fend off some old korean aunties who tried to hand me a damn pamphlet about the cult of the holy mother! The tickets to go in were over $10, so I skipped the main tourist attraction in Bangkok. Whatever. I'm a little tired of traveling, at this point.

I left the throng of mostly-whities and walked around the giant white castle-like perimeter of the temple complex. A Thai dude was following me, so I stepped off to the side to let him pass me, and he stopped and started up the exact same conversation; whereyoufrom ohfromcalifornia? ahiknowwashingtondc howlongyoustayinbangkok youcomeherebefore yourfirsttimeinthailand whereyougonow, then he asked for my map and circled the places with celebrations going on, and added that in order to celebrate the Buddha's birthday, the government was subsidizing tuk-tuk rides and I could get taken around all day for only about $1. I didn't believe him and said thanks but no thanks, but he even hailed a tuk-tuk for me (!), which stopped at the side of the road even though I was waving it on and shouting for it not to stop. Then the first dude went off and the driver got out and gave me the SAME spiel AGAIN. I was hot and broken down and couldn't handle being accosted every 20 minutes for the rest of the day, so I got in, agreeing to pay him 50 cents for a trip to the lucky sitting buddha and the marble temple, with stops at the government silk compound (you can watch them weave!) and a special jewelry expo (in between). I had my doubts but...

On the way to the lucky sitting buddha (by the way, in my amateur estimation, 50% of buddhas are standing, 48% are sitting, and 2% are lying down) we got stopped by a cop, so I figured if I were getting scammed I'd be told. However, we made it through the checkpoint and he took me to some small temple, which was totally un-festive and empty, except for 2 guards (1 in an army uniform) at the front and then a temple guide inside, with a clipboard and some forms. He talked to me about the 4 sitting buddhas, one of which was in a plastic case and allegedly made of gold. Looked like all the others. Except for the case. Seemed like a nice enough guy, and he told me a bit about the temple and the wall-murals, so I was nearly convinced of the legitimacy of the whole operation.

I joined up with my driver again, who had been waiting for me in the parking lot as we had agreed, and then it was off to the "silk factory," which was actually some Indian dude's shop only about twice as big as the aforementioned closet-room I'm s
staying in, though with shelves of silk. I told him I didn't want anything and didn't need a suit tailored, and he grumbled as I left. I got back in the tuk-tuk and didn't ask why I hadn't seen any weaving.

Then he took me to the "Marble Temple," which is a place on the map and one of the recommended temples on the Official Bangkok Tourist map. Again, it was deserted, except for two guards at the entrance. I asked one if it was a special day today, and he said yes, it was buddha's birthday. Then he asked if I had gone to a jewelry store yet and I said no, that was next. He asked if I was going to buy a ring and I said no. He said "I think American tourists are stupid." I thanked him (really, I didn't even know what else to say - mind you, he was wearing non-camouflage army fatigues) and went in. The temple was alright and I wandered around for a while, but made sure to check the name on my way out. Sure enough, I had been taken not to the Marble Temple (Thai name: Wat Benchamabophit) but to some other place, "Wat Saraya Vasam) or something. Not knowing where I was map-wise, I didn't let on that I knew what was happening, and instead just got back in and commented on how great the temple was!

On the way to the jewelry expo, the driver explained that to get a free government gas coupon for him, I had to spend some time in the store. I said I wouldn't buy anything, but he said I didn't need to. I asked how long, he said just a little while. He dropped me at the "expo" which was actually a little jewelry store about the size of your average McDonald's kitchen. I tried to draw out the fake-browsing and excuse-making process as long as I could, but I couldn't manage and started to make my way out. The woman who had been trailing me in the store and necessitating all those excuses told me I had to buy something for my dude to get a voucher, so I caved and bought a $3 wooden bookmark. I left and, upon entering the tuk-tuk, was asked if I had bought a ring. I said no and asked if he had gotten his voucher. He said no. I said he could probably get it because I had purchased the bookmark, but he just went on. We had agreed that he would take me to the 40 meter buddha, but he said the tour was over and dropped me off back where he had picked me up. I gave him his 50 cents and went off, just wandering around trying not to make eye contact with anyone, figuring I either was a novice tourist or at least looked like one, despite my dirty pants (been wearing them for 3 months!), Korean shirt, long greasy hair, out-of-control beard, and cheap corny baseball cap from a Malaysian Salvation Army.

I realize that at this point the story has lots of momentum to it and something awesome should have happened, like me reporting the dude to the authorities and them cuffing him, or some other tuk-tuk driver trying to trick me and me giving him a super Muay Thai elbow to the cranium. Or maybe he got in a terrible karma-crash trying to chase down another passenger? But actually I just walked around, sweating a lot, ignoring other guys who tried to start ostensibly friendly conversations, passing through a gigantic market completely empty of foreigners, buying savory jackfruit, and doing the usual.

So the moral of the story is: don't trust people who speak English. Except me.