Our 2nd day in Bangkok was supposed to be a relaxing day spent visiting the tourist sites of Old Bangkok. It ended up much more than that.
Old Bangkok lies on the Chao Phraya River and is where most of the old temples are located. Within the old city lies the Grand Palace, the former residence of the Thai royal family and the domain of Wat Phra Kaew, the most important (and impressive) temple in Thailand. The area is full of wide boulevards bordered by trees, low rise buildings, gardens, and canals – parts of Old Bangkok actually remind me of Les Champs D’Ellyses in Paris. The only downside to the area are the multitudes of camera-totting tourists pouring out of huge, air-conditioned tour buses.
Catherine and I had just stepped out of Wat Pho (the largest Wat in Bangkok – a “must see”) and were heading towards the Grand Palace. Waiting at a corner to cross the street, a man working at a stall smiled at us; “Where you come from? Where you go?” He told us that the Grand Palace was closed for lunch. Nice guy, I spoke to him for a few minutes. He beckoned over a tuk-tuk driver; “You go on tour and come back in an hour when the Grand Palace is open, my friend will give you a tour for 50 baht.” He suggested the Standing Buddha temple, the Lucky Buddha temple, and a visit to the Export Center where they were having a “One week promotion on Thai gems.” Catherine and I said okay, we’d see the temples, but would skip the Export Center.
Driving around Old Bangkok by tuk-tuk is a great way to see the quiet parks, temples, and lazy life outside the main tourist spots. The small streets are devoid of traffic and flanked by large, leafy trees. Birds chirped and I spotted a peacock picking at some seeds in the gardens of a small temple. We stopped at a Wat; the Standing Buddha temple (there’s a standing Buddha and a sign indicating that this is “The Standing Buddha Temple”) We got out, walked around, then got back into the Tuk-Tuk and headed for the next destination on our tour.
The Lucky Buddha temple was another very quiet temple, empty except for two men, one a Caucasian, who got out of a taxi at the same time we pulled up. We took off our shoes and went inside. The temple was actually quite small and a bit disappointing and we ended up talking to the other tourist, a friendly American guy who had just arrived from San Francisco. He was travelling around with a Thai “friend”. We started discussing travel plans and comparing itineraries. He asked where we were visiting while in Bangkok and we explained we were taking this little private tour before going back to the Grand Palace. I mentioned that our friendly Thai at Wat Pho had suggested the Export Center – did he know anything about it? “The Export Center, of course I know about it – I come here every year and buy gems there and resell them in the States.” With that he pulled out a receipt and a small package – the receipt was for the equivalent of about US$3,000. Damn expensive I thought. “The Export Center has a sale one week of every year where they waive all export duties. It’s a special promotion by the Thai government meant to encourage tourism – you should go and have a look.” He opened up the package and showed us his gems. “Blue Sapphires, very popular in the US, I can resell them at twice the price when I get back.”
I continued talking to the American while Catherine did the thing to do at the Lucky Buddha temple; she knelt in front of the bronze Buddha and held in her hand what can best be described as a circular cylinder with lots of little sticks in it. She shook the cylinder until one of the sticks fell out – the Thai friend of the American explained “This special. You pray, Lucky Buddha make happen. Look at paper” Catherine excitedly unwrapped the paper from the stick and read the message. The fortune was quite cryptic; “Not as expected. Activities turning out to be unsuccessful. Keep cool. Be careful. The bone you pick with others will only be your own. Patient recovering. Legal case defensible. Outstanding debts not likely to be refunded. Company not available. Good luck approaching”. Catherine didn’t look so excited anymore and spent the next 10 minutes analyzing the Lucky Buddha fortune. It wasn’t the typical, happy fortune you usually get out of a fortune cookie; “Your faith in other’s goodness will be generously rewarded” or “Your ability to juggle many tasks will take you far” come to mind. Anyway, I don’t believe in that stuff, but I could see that the fortune had bothered Catherine.
The tuk-tuk driver: “Now go Export Center.” I had to admit I was curious after having spoken to the American, selling sapphires at double the price would cover this vacation. “Ok, let’s go to the Export Center.”
The Export Center was a jewellery store. Large, it was very popular with tourists – the place was packed. It didn’t take long to get help though; the manager came over, sat down, and explained about the Thai government sale, the waiver of duties, asked if we were looking for jewellery for ourselves or if it was for resale, what kind of jewellery we wanted, etc. The story was the exact same as given by our American friend. Catherine and I looked at each other and decided to go for it.
We paid $3,000 US for a set of Blue Sapphire jewellery inlaid in 18 carat gold. The manager gave us a certificate, and, upon our insistence, arranged to have the sapphires sent to Montreal by courier. The paperwork done, the manager shook our hands “I have associate who will take you around Bangkok, give you good time. Pim will give you tour, arrange massage, take you to eat. Whatever you like. Compliments of Thai Government.”
Pim was a smiling but rather unattractive girl. She seemed eager to practice her English though, always asking “You understand what I say?” She thought a massage would be good for us and, after the excitement of our purchase, we agreed. We were taken to a very large massage parlour. There were no tourists in sight, and judging by the smiles and looks, it was obvious that we were far off the beaten tourist trail. It didn’t take long to be taken into a dorm sized private room with 3 flat beds on the floor. We insisted that Pim also take a massage and we were soon all wearing funny striped pyjamas and lying on the floor. Three smiling, laughing middle aged Thai women entered the room and introduced themselves.
Minutes later my feet were getting oiled and rubbed, my masseuse laughing at the cracking noise my toes made when she pulled them. She started bending my legs in positions they had never been, pulling my knees onto my chest and sitting on my legs until I thought my knees would pop up through my head. She dug her fingers into my thighs, her fingers like the back end of a hammer pulling out my muscles. She straddled me and rubbed, snapped my arms back and forth, squeezed me some more, then dug her fingers into more joints and laughed some more while I screamed. After about 15 minutes I realized that I was in a state of relaxation that I’d never experienced before. We ended up getting a 2-hour massage, total cost $6 US per person (we only paid for Pim, the Thai government was footing the bill for Catherine and I.)
Pim took us for lunch at a restaurant on the banks of the Chao Phraya river. The Chao Phraya is not beautiful, the water is brownish and not very appealing. But it is peaceful and relaxing, the occasional barge, ferry, or colourful tour boat breaking the silence, a light breeze off the water keeping us cool and fresh.
Next was a Bangkok canal tour. We boarded a long-tailed boat at the quay about 50 feet from the restaurant, a boat piloted by two elderly gentlemen. Soon we were out bouncing on the waves of the Chao Phraya with great views over the river and the Grand Palace on the far bank, the sun reflecting off the golden spires of Wat Phra Kaew. The boat turned off into a canal and within minutes we were in an environment we would have never imagined would exist so close to the city center. Off to the sides were people’s homes, schools, monasteries, even areas of open grassland where you could imagine yourself in the middle of rice fields far from any city. We saw brown children in underwear jumping in the water at what appeared to be a school, smiling and waving excitedly at us as we passed by. The wooden houses along the water all had porches overflowing with plants and vegetables. From the porches, stairs led down to the water where a small wooden boat would often be attached. Dogs lay in the shade under high fronds, women worked in little gardens. Bangkok’s canals (or Klongs as they are called) used to be the main mode of transport a hundred years ago when many of the city’s residents lived along the river and the network of canals that feed the river; the city was actually dubbed the “Venice of the East.” It is still the fastest way to get around most of the city. The problem with the canals today is pollution – almost half of Bangkok’s sewage is untreated and goes directly into the canals or the river (which explains the Chao Phraya’s colour – nope, that coffee colour is not wholesome sediment from far away mountains..) Serious infections from the water are common, sometimes resulting in death. The most famous story is that of 21-year old Apichet Kittikorncharoen, the lead singer of the successful Thai rock group “D2B”. In 2003 he crashed his car into a canal, was pulled out and given CPR. Doctors thought he would make a quick recovery. But fungi had entered his lungs during the dunk in the canal – 2 weeks later he had a massive brain hemorrhage. After 4 brain operations, Big (as he is known) is still recovering.
It was 5 PM and we were all a little tired. We drove back to where Pim lived and dropped her off, letting her get changed (she had arranged for a show for that night) while Catherine and I went to get a coffee. We actually ended up in a McDonald’s, a pretty pathetic place for a coffee I know, but Bangkok doesn’t seem to have many cafes…Anyway, McDonalds IS fun for one thing; asking for stuff they don’t have. Try this; go to McDonalds, get in line. When you finally get to the counter, pretend to search the menu in desperation, then blurt out something like this: “do you have donuts?” When they say “no”, take your time searching the menu again “do you have fried chicken? How about Beaver Tails? Do you have spaghetti with garlic bread?” When they say “no” get angry, raise your voice (“THIS PLACE SUCKS!! I HATE MCDONALD’S!” usually works) and walk out.
We met up with Pim and had a nice supper while watching rather boring but very colourful traditional Thai dance. We told Pim how grateful we were for her company that day; it had been an incredible day and we had seen and done things that the average tourist would rarely ever experience. We exchanged email addresses and told her that we hoped to hear from her again. Bangkok was everything that the guide books say; dirty, polluted, noisy – I wouldn’t like to live here – but at the same time we experienced those ‘Quiet escapes‘ off the tourist trail that Lonely Planet mentioned. Catherine and I had an absolutely great time in Bangkok! Thais are so nice! And the Thai government certainly treats its tourists well.
Sequel to our Bangkok adventure: We had fallen for the famous Thai gem scam. I am an expert on it now. We received the gems by courier in Montreal as promised. The problem came when we tried to resell them. Jewellers look at us like we were a couple of idiots when we told them how much we had paid for them. I ended up having the jewellery appraised by a gemologist – they were valued at half the purchase price. I met another couple through the gemologist who had been fooled in exactly the same manner only a few days earlier by the same American guy and his friend! It was all very well planned and many tourists are suckered into the gem scam.
I attempted to get a refund but this is a very difficult process if you’ve already left the country. I put a lot of pressure on the Thai tourist police (totally useless), the Thai Gem & Jewellers association (never heard a word) and The Thai Consulate in Ottawa (never heard a word.) The best bet is the Thai department of Internal Affairs who can ‘negotiate’ with the jeweller for a refund. The Canadian Consulate in Bangkok was also quite helpful. These stores however operate under a given name for a very short time – 2 weeks after our return (6 weeks after our purchase) we found out that ‘Thai Mining Ltd’, otherwise known as ‘Export Center’ closed its doors. Needless to say we never heard from Pim.
The only thing we could do was accept the fact that we had been screwed with a smile on our faces, that we are safe and sound and that this was an expensive lesson. Lonely Planet (and every other guidebook) mentions the Thai Gem scam, anyone who had more than 3 days to prepare for Thailand would have probably seen the warning.
The Lucky Buddha temple was not lucky for us. Catherine’s fortune was eerie in hindsight and should have served as a warning!
Tags: Bangkok, scam, Thailand, Thailand