Friday, July 27, 2012

Bangkok: The Grand Palace Incident of 2012. Or, Why You Shouldn't Trust a Tuk Tuk.

What are those bright orange balls suspended in equally vibrant liquid you may ask?
 I may never know.

The first thing I see when I ride into Bangkok are the slums, enclosing Bangkok like a moat - thatched walls, wavy tin roofs, and peeling paint stacked, slapped, criss-crossed, and splayed over, under, and within each other like an Escherian labyrinth of compressed walkways and living spaces. Within poles reach of the train tracks a man in a hammock watches sports from a t.v. propped on an egg crate, the light flickering onto the teal tin wall - the only solid wall separating him from his neighbors.
A motorcycle zooms behind him and disappears into the narrow pathways. The fact that I was able to take in all of this detail from my wooden bench on the train speaks to the swiftness of the Thai railway during midday.

Bangkok was an assault on the senses. It really was as hot and wild and fragrant as I had been led to believe. For someone who prefers a lush forest over a concrete jungle, I expected not to like Bangkok - But I did. Something about its wild freedom appeals to me. Around every corner you seem to find something new and unexpected, like a man singing karaoke in the middle of the street or a little girl with a  squirrel on her shoulder. The rebellious side of me appreciates that I was able to buy a year's supply of contacts for the cost of simple renewing my prescription in the states. It's the the simple things, folks.

Naturally, being in the capitol of Thailand, we decided to go to Chinatown. While the Chinatown in Los Angeles maintains remarkably tame, with every other store selling coin sized turtles and bonzai in tidy window displays, turning the corner onto Bangkok's Chinatown was like stepping into another country all together. Bundles of power lines weave around the buildings, powering the plentiful stacks of signs in Chinese and Thai. No alleyway is wasted, being filled to the brim with stalls selling bags of pork rinds and dried fish. Vendors grind up pomegranates and Durian next to stalls selling vibrators on the street outside of wholesale coffin shops that sell pork bao buns to their perusing customers. I saw a tuk tuk driver cruising through traffic while shaving his beard. Seriously, Ryan can vouch for that fact.

Durian. The source of most foul smells, I hope.

While I am not usually one to succumb to tourist attractions, I occasionally desire to engage in traditional tourist activities. I wanted to see the Grand Palace with the giant Jade Buddha. One five minute taxi cab out of Chinatown and we were there, stepping out of the taxi in front of the giant palace walls surrounding pointy temple tops of gold.A modern day Olympus. Thus began the Grand Palace incident of 2012.

As soon as we stepped out of the taxi a smiling man with an official name badge walked up to us and welcomed us to the palace. With a twinkle in his eye, he asked us where we were from and got excited to talk about American baseball with us (little did he know we are not exactly sports talking people, but we smiled and nodded). As an "official" Grand Palace guy, he showed us a chart explaining that we would need to rent long pants before entering the Grand Palace grounds. No worry... they are free to rent and can be rented from right inside the palace gates. Ah, but see the shutters on the temple wall? They are shut right now, that is because the monks are in midday prayer so visitors must wait one hour until they are finished. Seems legit. He explains that the palace can provide a short 1 hour tour of the nearby temples before the palace reopens. He shows us on a map where exactly we will go, 5 beautiful temples and back within an hour. A tuk tuk will do this for 20 baht total. That is the equivalent of 60 cents. Why Yes! Please! Take us around the city and show us things! Why not?

Meet our Tuk tuk driver - seems nice enough, right? He led us across town to the "Big Buddha", an adorable temple where we released birds into the sky. Rainbows and Unicorns! Ladeeda! He even has an official looking Thailand tuk tuk driver sticker. 

While the temple seemed nice enough, I'm pretty sure it wasn't the one he showed us we were going to on the map (I did some obsessive research on the sights of Bangkok before the trip). Oh well, I was going to go with the flow and enjoy myself. I'm not sure exactly why this didn't raise any red flags for me. Honestly, the man seemed so nice and I had just let my guard down to the kindness of Thais. In Chiang Mai we would be approached by random strangers who wanted to talk and tell us about their city. My jaded american mind would remain suspicious... anticipating the moment they would ask for money. But it never happened in Chiang Mai. People were sincerely interested in being kind and telling us about their beautiful city. Ah, but this is not Chiang Mai, this is Bangkok.

We crawl back into our tuk tuk and tear through the streets at the mercy of our driver, defying the theories of modern physics as we squeeze between buses and motorcycles at dizzying speeds and turn radiuses. He takes us far into the nethers of Bangkok and into a neighborhood that seems suspiciously far from any "tourist" area. He parks on the side of the street and says "I get gas, you go look around, 5 minutes and I go get gas". Aha, our tuk tuk driver must be running low on gas and he needs to get some, then surely we will be on our way. Ok. I get it. We hop out and start walking down the street, taking the opportunity to explore the neighborhood for a bit. An adventure! "No", he says firmly, "You go in here, 5 minutes." He points us to the tuxedo shop. I figure maybe there is some sort of loss in translation here. Maybe he wants to make sure we stay inside somewhere safe while he gets gas. Skeptical, but ok. We go inside to wait for him. 

As soon as we step in a man attacks us with a smile and a handshake at the door and ushers us to a couch where he proceeds to fill our hands with brochures and samples. Trying to be polite, we assure him we don't need any suits, that we are just waiting for our driver. He doesn't seem to hear us, I leaf through the brochure for a minute before I look back out the window. Our tuk tuk driver is leaning on his tuk tuk, utterly relaxed, not at all concerning himself with filling up on gas. This feels wrong. We get up to leave. After brushing off the hard sell from the suit man, who urges us to try out the fabrics, we get back to our driver.

Me: "Where are you taking us next?"

Tuk Tuk Man: "I now take you to Jubilee."

Me: "Oh, what is that? A temple? A festival?"

Tuk Tuk Man: " Oh, no no. A Gem shop. You look at Jewelry."

Me: "Oh, no, sorry. We agreed to seeing temples, we don't have time to go shopping. We don't need any jewelry. We aren't in Bangkok for very long. No time, sorry."

Tuk Tuk Man: "No, You go to Jubilee, couple more suit shops, I get gas. They give me free gas. You do me favor."

Me: "Sorry, this isn't what we were told we were doing. Can you just take us back to the temple?"

Tuk Tuk Scam Man: "No, you shop, I get gas. Do me favor. I can't take you back now, Palace closed until 1!"

Me: "I really just want to go back to the temple and wait there. We will pay you the money either way, can you please take us back?"

That's about as far as me congeniality and patience will go. After a few more minutes of back and forth, with the man getting more aggressive and forceful in his desire for us to shop for diamonds and suits, I have had it. This man refuses to take us back, he refuses to take money to take us back, he guilts the bajeezus out of us and ultimately leaves us stranded in some far end of Bangkok while maintaining to the very end that the palace is closed until 1pm - Which is utter bull honkey, as we now know. I can be relatively shy around strangers, but if I feel like I am being ripped off and taken advantage of, well, watch out. I ripped this man a new one. I know in Thailand we are supposed to "save face", but screw this. As we now know, these scam artists get commissions and free gas for bringing dumb tourists to their shops. Yes, I am a dumb tourist. We hail a legitimate tuk tuk to take us back to the palace.

As soon as we get out at the palace, we hear loud speakers blaring warnings to not trust anyone outside the palace gates. Do not talk to them, do not trust them, they are scamming you. This speaker repeats itself every few minutes. We have such poor timing.

We walk into the palace gates, which is NOT closed, and rent the free pants and long skirt. Still being a bit perturbed at the whole tuk tuk ordeal, Ryan and I made a half hearted stroll for the temple with the Jade Buddha. I see a sign that says it is 15 dollars for tourists to enter the temple and immediately turn around. Nope. Not today. Almost all temples are free and I was not about to spend money on this tourist trap from hell. Ok, I may be exaggerating... but in all honesty I was over seeing the main tourist attractions at this point. It was 20 degrees beyond hot. I was as sweaty as a sausage in a sauna and equally as bloated and red. Let me just wander the streets. At the end of it all, I never got to see the Grand Palace, and I am more than ok with that.
Looking back on it, it is hilarious. Youtube heals all wounds!
Trying to get a legitimate taxi or tuk tuk away from the Grand Palace is no easy feat. Prices are doubled, sometimes even quadrupled. When I try to haggle a decent price(a price our hotel assures us it would really cost if we weren't tourists), more than a couple of taxi drivers pause before saying "you give me 1 stop?" I know what that means. NOPE. 

Somehow we managed to get to the subway station, a form of transportation I trust dearly, where we head to the Chatachuk weekend market. A place that delightfully fills in the lack of tourists and tuk tuk drivers with an abundance of grilled meats and carved woods.

No Durian or Balloons. Never has a fruit sustained such prejudice.

The market was enormous, pulsing, delicious, smelly, sounded like 90's hip hop, and ultimately so engrossing that after staying there for several hours we went back again for a second day. In this market you could find traditional tribal headgear, baby squirrels and bunnies,  meme rage face shirts, freshly shaved coconut ice cream, thai tea popsicles, and waffles injected with banana or sausage. Ryan, being enticed by a large crowd surrounding a grilled pork establishment, decided he needed to get in on the grilled meat action. Being limited in his ability to write down an order in thai on the order sheet, a young gal helped him out by filling out his order form. Somewhere on the sheet she wrote a note in parenthesis before handing it to the order taker man. Whatever it was she wrote on that slip singled out Ryan as the owner of the order, because when his order came up the vendor's eyes zoomed right in on him, a white boy in a sea of thais. I would like to think she wrote "hungry, confused, white boy" in the parenthesis.

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