Beware of Wily Strangers

Trip Start May 28, 2008
Trip End Aug 26, 2008

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Friday, June 13, 2008

How to describe Bangkok? Schizophrenics sounds about right.

Spent some time sitting and reflecting in Wat Pra Kaew, the temple of the Emerald Buddha, central in the royal temple and palace complex. The Emerald Buddha is a very beautiful small Buddha fought over for a couple centuries by Siam (Thailand) and Laos. Have read two stories of the origin, one Thai and one Lao, so can't really say who has rightful ownership. Thais clearly had the last word on the matter, razing the temple that housed it in Laos and bringing it to Bangkok for a grand and gilded display in the royal compound.

The traffic here is crazy. Some say the worst in Asia, but that remains to be seen. Did sit at one light for about 15 minutes... no, seriously, after two songs on the cab radio you sort of start counting. Spoke with a U.S. expat working here, who told us that the police here override the lights at key intersections with some grand plan in mind. Sort of like let's let 10,000 cars leave this area and then we'll let 10,000 more in. Great if you are headed that direction, murder if you're not.

The best way to get around Bangkok is above or below ground on the subway (MRT) and skytrain (BTS). These are rapid and make it easy to fly over or under the BKK gridlock. Unfortunately, they don't extend to the oldest areas of the city, and nowhere near the sprawling suburbs.

Although MRT and BTS cover just the city center, we kept many of our activities in this area for quick and hassle-free transportation. Older sections of Bangkok required using taxis and tuk-tuks (the modified motorbike taxis that come in unlimited shapes and sizes all over Asia). A tuk-tuk ride can be a blast, and may be a slow crawl or a white-knuckle ride depending on driver and surplus horsepower. Road paint appears to be of little interest to Thai people and any lane always has room for at least one more car, bus, tuk-tuk, pedestrian, food cart, motorbike, or animal.

I took pride in our conquest of Bangkok transport -- we twice made it across the city during rush hour for evening events. We took in the extravagent show Siam Niamrit, with vegas-style special effects and 150 performers giving paying tribute to every region of Thai culture, history, dance, and mythology. It was a bit over the top, but completely entertaining for us and the kids. In order to make it to the performance from where we were, we had 1 Tuk-Tuk, 3 Sky train rides on two routes, 1 subway connection, and a lost Taxi driver that cost us the first 5 minutes of the show. Still, not bad to go from Western old bangkok to Eastern Bangkok to Northern Bangkok in the early evening!

Just about anything you want to do can be found in Bangkok, but the cost to you ranges from reasonable to a tenfold increase at first-offer price for tourists. Final price depends on your negotiating skills. Some of this is institutionalized, like foreigner admission fees to major temples (Thai people free), and some of this is questionable like the 5 baht fee to use some restrooms (sometimes legit but also a foreigner scam, depending on the establishment).

We are foreigners (farangs, pronounced "falongs") and as such marked for life as non-Thai and fair game for exploitation and scams. I expect it due to the well-understood economic disparity between us and locals, and I don't really mind the lengthy negations for the best deal on most everything. Laura has reached saturation point at the moment, and doesn't want to be approached anymore. She's used to people accepting "no" for an answer, while here "no" is just an opening position in negotiations.

Laura particularly appreciated a warning sign posted at the royal temple:

No, the temple is not closed, thank you. I know you'll be happy to take us to one that is open for a few baht, but the one we want is just over there and it will do fine.

No, we didn't forget some Buddhist holiday. We are quite sure the place we are headed is open, and will be happy for us to visit.

No, I don't want to pay 400 baht to get there, thank you. I'll just take a taxi on meter for around 80 baht.

Sorry, no, I don't want to take the highway for 60 baht toll. If I may point out on this map, we are here, we need to go there, and the highway is in the opposite direction. No need to run up the meter, we'll go direct please.

Just 20 baht for a Tuk-Tuk ride to our destination? That's great. What's that? Just one stop?? You mean the one at the jewelry, suit, or widget factory where we can get wholesale price deal? No thanks. I'll pay 60 baht, NO STOPS please.

This is just a sample of what we've experienced and observed. Bangkok is a really fun and interesting place, legendary for great shopping trips, full of cool Wats (temples), and a city our children are already fond of. You just have to remember to keep your wits about you.

Travel Tip #1
There is no such holiday as "Happy Buddha Day" (when temples are closed or admissions are double).
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