Thursday, October 21, 2010

Return to the Kingdom of Thailand

Somehow I always knew I'd come back.

A year and a half ago my flight leapt off the Bangkok runway bound for Hanoi, Vietnam... one stop away from the Philippines, and my departure from mainland Asia imminent, I was filled with a sense of relief. Circumstances had not been kind to me; I'd spent the last several weeks stranded in the northern mountainous region Thailand (read about my survival story here.) Though I loved Thailand and its people, an eventual return was the last thing on my mind.

Then later that summer I ended up in Nicaragua, met the love of my life (an avid traveler and adventurer herself) and - fast forward to five days ago - got married. The honeymoon destination was Thailand.

After a restless trans-Pacific flight and a brief layover in Japan, we touched down in Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. From the moment we stepped off the airplane, I was amazed at the extent to which I felt perfectly normal. Unlike last year's torrent of culture-shock, nothing felt foreign to me. Not the cryptic Thai script covering signs and storefronts, the dense traffic, the never-ending hawking of pirated DVDs, fake Gucci goods, wristwatches and sex... not the mixed aroma of rice and noodles and tuk-tuk exhaust and fried pork and leaky sewer lines and gasoline and incense and fresh fish and foul canals, not the gilded pagodas and gaudy monuments on display at every turn. I could just as easily have been enjoying a lackadaisical weekend in Greensboro; walking the crowded streets of Bangkok felt just as routine.

The biggest difference to me has been the Thai language. Interestingly, signs are more frustrating to me now that I have a grasp of the script; I'm able to read the writing out loud, with some time, but I generally remain clueless as to what it actually means. Regardless, my study of the Thai language over the past several months has proved invaluable. Much the same as a handful of Spanish words was invaluable trekking across Mexico and Guatemala, a few key words here do wonders. On our second day in the city they got us out of two different common tourist scams.

The first happened on our way to Bangkok's Grand Palace. Jordan and I were walking towards it from our hotel on Khaosan Road when we came across an elevated statue adorned with flowers, shrines, and incense sticks. I stopped to snap a few pictures and was thusly distracted when a woman, probably in her mid-forties, approached. She began casually talking to us, mentioning offhandedly that the statue wasn't religious, but rather a symbol of good luck.

"Chohk dee," I said right away, and her eyes widened. I had just said "good luck" in Thai, a phrase few farang know. Her surprise was clear. Looking strangely wary, she then launched into a speech about how recent heavy rains had covered the train tracks leading out of the city, and that places like Surat Thani and Chiang Mai were inaccessible. "You're stuck in Bangkok for two weeks," she declared, and at the same time another person approached, a similarly-aged man this time. "You want to see Bangkok?" he piped in, opportunistically.

At this point the scam was obvious: they'd offer us a great tour of Bangkok with hotel arrangements, all for a hefty fee, since we couldn't get out of Bangkok. I'd been subjected to similar ones in the past; Jordan and I simply walked away. The woman made no attempt to stop us or call after us - it was pretty clear by this point that we had previous experience in the country. Crisis averted.

I can't say I fared so well on the second scam (there were three in one day, a somewhat dubious personal record.) On a tree-shaded sidewalk I noticed a flock of pigeons feeding from an elderly woman's hand. Cluelessly I forged ahead for the photo-op, envisioning a great shot of the birds bursting into flight. I was surprised when the woman subsequently shoved a bag of corn into my hand, ripped it open, and motioned for me to throw it in the air. She loosened the tie off a second bag and threw the corn up into the air, smacking my hand to get me to do the same. Then, just as quickly (this had all taken only moments to transpire) she jabbed me in the chest with a gnarled finger and demanded 150 Baht as payment for the corn. She was loud and demanding; nonplussed, I handed her 140 and hurried off. I felt foolish. She had done a masterful job of parting me from my money. I couldn't help but admire her tenacity and resourcefulness, if not the state of her moral character.

About an hour later, after touring one of large wats (temples) we headed towards Hua Lampong railway station with the intention of purchasing our tickets to Koh Samui. The sun was beating down pretty hard and we'd yet to ride on one of the three-wheeled motorized taxis that plied the city streets, so we figured it was a good time to start. We argued our driver down from 150 Baht to 100 and climbed on board.

Very quickly it was apparent we weren't headed in the right direction. I'd spent days wandering the streets of Bangkok the previous year and was familar with the location of most major landmarks. When the Democracy Monument popped into view through a sidestreet to our left, I knew we were headed in the opposite direction. Something was fishy. Sure enough, our driver pulled over next to a small shop. He turned off the tuk-tuk and motioned us to go inside. "Ten minute," he grinned.

"Mai," I said firmly. No.

"Ten minute," he repeated. "Shop." He tugged at his shirt for emphasis.

I'd heard of these scams before. The driver would be paid a gas stipend for getting unwitting tourists to shop at his friends' stores. It clearly was not legit. "Mai, mai!" I repeated, shaking my head. "Hua Lampong. Kun gam-lang pai Hua Lampong!"

His eyes widened in the manner of the Bangkok Tour Lady. His shock was replaced by a sheepish grin, and then annoyance when he dropped us off. (My careful "korp kun krahp" was ignored, wai and all.)

Happily we escaped Bangkok with all our money (except for that one hundred and forty baht the pigeon lady scheisted from me, of course) and after a long bus ride we crossed over the Gulf of Thailand onto the island of Koh Samui. We're still here, resting in bungalows overlooking a placid beach. The contrast is deafening: we've gone from the urban roar of the city to absolute serenity in half a day.

We'll probably be here a while.

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