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November 27, 2004

Beyond Bangkok

After just a few days in Bangkok I grew tired of the odors, the constant mayhem, and the harassment by touts. I wished to see a Thailand that had not been built up into a concrete jungle. My throat was sore from the pollution. Unfortunately I had to wait until Monday to apply for my Laos Visa which meant that I could not leave the city until Wednesday morning. Although I spent most of these days taking it easy and reading up on Thailand and Laos, I also decided to visit some of old Bangkok.

Bargaining for a ride with a tuk tuk driver didn't produce good results; his offer to take me to the "best temples" along the way was a sure sign that he was up to something. I did not mind experiencing a small dose of Bangkok scamming, just to see what it's like, and the offer was reasonable so I agreed to it.

Our first stop on his "very special tour for me only" was a decrepit shrine with more stray dogs than humans. The host welcomed me with open arms and a quick little hand gesture towards the tuk tuk driver. Whatever was planned for me was organized by two people. I took my shoes off and stepped over a dog to enter the unkept interior. I wondered how nobody could be outraged at the Buddha's condition. The host brushed off my apology for wearing shorts, then told me it was a big Buddha anniversary. I didn't believe a word of it, but I figured this was his opening to ask for money. I preemptively dropped a few coins into the donations box. I can't be sure, but I guess it worked because he never mentioned this great glorious day again.

After chatting for a short while he commandeered my map and marked the location of a silk shop where the tuk tuk would take me. He explained that the driver gets ten liters of fuel when he drops off a potential customer there. (Ten liters for a tuk tuk? We could go to China!) I understood then the nature of the joint venture between the host and the driver: the host softens up the tourists for the ride to the silk shop in exchange for the driver bringing coin-dropping visitors to his "palace".

So far this had been a very educational experience for very little money, but I was not excited about going to a silk shop. The typical tale told by tourists who were dropped off at a store instead of their destination tells of not being allowed to go anywhere until something was purchased. Could I really afford a tailored silk shirt right now? But my driver surprised me with the instructions he barked over the rattle of the two-stroke engine: "You go in. You look. You buy nothing. Then we go. Buy nothing." There was definitely something non-standard about this scam so I wondered about my situation half excited, half worried.

I walked into the store and was immediately dragged into its depths by the hand I was shaking. I wrestled free and claimed I wanted to look around to get a feel for what was available. After failing to sell me a suit in two minutes, my captor changed strategies and reverted to small-talk. His eyes lit up when I told him I was an aerospace engineer. He was an airplane and space-things fanatic himself. I told him about what was going on in Mojave, such as what it was like to see the first ever commerical human spaceflight. He was very excited about the prospect of going to space. By the end of the long conversation he had my email and a list of cool websites to check out. Riding my good fortune out to the end, I became a salesman myself and proclaimed: "You can buy a ride to space right now! You should sell a lot of suits to tourists and come to America and go to space!" He nodded excitedly and accompanied me to the door. As the silk salesman waved goodbye I met with the tuk tuk driver who had clearly grown impatient . "Did they make you buy something? You were in there for a long time!" he asked. "Oh no, we were just chatting."

Although I was quite happy with the way things were turning out, I thought my driver might be eager to get rid of me. He sped through traffic to my destination and dropped me off. Perhaps I was a more relaxed tourist than his usual scamees, but I was still amazed when he made me pay less than our agreed price. Overall this had been a very interesting experience but I would not bet that I would get this lucky ever again!

On wednesday I took a 35 cent, 80 km train ride to Ayuthaya, one of the old capitals of Thailand. Four centuries ago this town was hailed as the most magnificent city in all of SE Asia by its western visitors. The Burmese destroyed most of the buildings, but what is left is enough to give a very good idea of grandeur of the city. I toured the ruins then decided to stay for the Loi Krathong festival.


More ruins.

Detail of tower.

More ruins. For scale, there is a person at the bottom left.

During Loi Krathong the Thais appease the Goddess of the River by floating candles and incense on heavily ornamented wood blocks. I joined a boat trip to perform the ritual with a bunch of westerners (though I had to make an offering to the organizer, of course).

Posted by piegu on November 27, 2004 03:24 AM
Category: Thailand
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