Why am I in Thailand, or more specifically, Bangkok? I asked myself this question at least on an hourly basis. But we'll get to that in a moment. Let's start at the beginning. I did my research on Thailand, mostly on BootsnAll. I read all the articles, how not to get screwed, what to expect, etc. To tell you the truth, most of it is accurate; there are a couple of major discrepancies, but I'll get to that.
After traveling for about 30 hours (a friend and I started in Boston), we ended up in Bangkok. Travel Note: Don't change money in any airport, or any place for that matter, until you get to the terminal at the Bangkok Airport. The exchange rate is much better and it is right after customs. You can't miss it. Anyway, you step out from the airport and immediately a horde of people attack you with offers of taxi service.
Here is a typical conversation (questions are more like shouted statements).
“What your name! Taxi! Where you go!”
“We are going to Soi 22.”
“500 baht, I take you there.”
“Meter?” I asked. Knowing, from reading BootsnAll, that any trip without a meter will be very expensive. He answered me in Thai. Although I don't speak it, I am pretty sure he told me to go have sex with myself; he waived his hand dismissively in my face and walked to the person behind me.
The next driver, after the obligatory shouting: “What your name! Taxi! Where you go!” suggested 450 baht. I was tempted, but I again asked for the meter. I got the same dismissive waive and an invitation to have intercourse with myself. Instead, we walked about 20 feet down the sidewalk and almost hit a taxi stand with a government official. They gave us a ticket and directed us to a taxi driver who loaded our luggage and turned on the meter. The drive ended up costing us 180 baht, including tip and airport surcharge tax.
Travel Note: Taxi drivers know where nothing is. They don't speak a word of English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Swedish or any other language that is not Thai. The godsend expats we ran into told us that taxi drivers are paid a meager wage, so they are staffed primarily by dirt poor northern peasants who come to the city for work. I am not kidding. They don't know where anything is, including the biggest sites, temples and streets. Bring a map; easier said than done. Thais don't make maps; they don't see the point in them. Get a street level map. We found little maps made by good hotels that gave us a general idea.
Further Travel Note: The taxi meters run primarily by mileage, not time, like in the rest of the civilized world. So a two-mile trip will take an hour, due to the traffic, but the meter is still only 40 or 50 baht. Bangkok has the very worst traffic in the known world. So you ask: What does this have to do with me? Plenty. It's a two-part answer. Part one: There is no money in carting your sweaty body around short distances. Most taxis won't take you anywhere. I have found this out many times. You are walking around in 95-degree heat, soaked. You dive into an air conditioned cab, then you get the bad news: the cab driver won't take you anywhere and asks you to get out. He doesn't do it in a kindly manner; he waives his hand and stares out the front window. The other part of the answer has to do with supplementing the driver's income. The cab driver often will only take you to a go-go club, where he gets a commission. Or, he'll drive you to a tailor who pays him to drop people off in front of the shop. This can lead to rather heated conversations between driver and passenger,
“Clean girls Thai massage love?”
“lkalksdlkasoidalkjlkafoi.” Translation: Get out of my cab. This is accompanied by waiving arms to emphasize displeasure
This happens about 20% of the time. The driver will relent, take you anyway, but has to be reminded to turn on the meter. Gets irritating when played out multiple times a day.
The city is filthy and smelly. First impression is dirt and odor. You immediately choke on the smog. The oppressive heat coupled with the car exhaust fumes from the two stroke Tuk-Tuks and dirt bikes is overwhelming. All the local bike and motorcycle drivers wear full-on winter balaclavas, or some sort of winter face mask. When it is 95 degrees with crushing humidity and the drivers are wearing ski masks, you know the smog is bad. You think raw sewage is running in the streets the way it smells; you're partly right. You see, sewers are vented about every 10 feet by holes cut into the sidewalks, which explains the stench. As a side note, our neighborhood was considered touristy, i.e., nice, by the locals' standards. Imagine what the working class neighborhoods are like!
We stayed at a guesthouse; Soi 22 to be exact. It had about 15 rooms. We paid 800 baht a night for a room with a private western style bathroom. The amenities included free internet access and air conditioning. The expats said that was a little expensive, but about right. Other than that, it was nice, clean and simple.
Each neighborhood has at least two massage parlors on either side of the street, on every block. They are not "really" massage parlors; more like massage-first-then-sex-later parlors. Everyone of them is open to, or implicitly solicits some kind of sexual contact. There are also tailor shops, restaurants, coffee shops, go-go bars and karaoke bars (if Japanese are known to be in the area).
Don't eat in them unless they are foreign owned, or are expensive. Since there isn't really a health inspector sleuthing around for violations, the sanitary conditions are circumspect. Eat wherever you see a group of Thais eating; that means food stands. At least you can watch the proprietor cooking your food. And it's cheap: 20-30 baht for a bowl of soup/pad thai/ rice. The food is also good, fresh and spicy. Usually the food stand has some plastic seats, tables and silverware, like a restaurant, except outside in the smog. The owner won't speak your language; best of luck as to what you are actually eating. Travelers note: If you see a bottle of dark, unlabeled, unidentified liquid on or near your outside food stand, it's fish sauce. You have been warned.
Don't. Traffic rarely moves. When it does, cars, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, bicycles, carts and people lunge forward like suicidal maniacs with total disregard for life or limb. I have never endured such incredibly dangerous traffic in my life. The expats do not drive; that says a lot.
Totally corrupt. Part of the dangers of driving, beside risking your life, is that the police will “randomly” stop you for a “violation”, a shake down. Since violations must be paid at the police station, it is very inconvenient. Don't bother contesting them. The cops really want you to hand over your license (passport, whatever) with 200-500 baht. Shortly thereafter, you will be on your way with no violation to worry about.
Very useful way of getting around. Drawbacks: No one speaks English, the maps are in Thai and the subway designers didn't exactly go out of their way to make the stops conspicuous for tourists.
Bangkok is huge and unevenly spread out. Good luck if you are trying to walk across the city. It's hot. If you are a woman, especially blond and tall, Thais, both men and women, will stare at you. Occasionally the men will say something or catcall, kind of like everywhere else in the world. Women are noticed. A man with a woman will be left alone.
If you are a single man, or a man with a group of men, be prepared to be assaulted everywhere you go, 24 hours a day by men, women, taxi drivers, tuk-tuk operators, tailor shop salesmen, and the dreaded massage ladies. Every local Thai will do the whole – What your name!, Taxi!, Where you go! – You can also switch out “Taxi!” for “Massage!”, or more likely, “Maaasssssssaaaaaaaage!” Men are never left alone. In some sections, the “working women” will grab your junk, your sweaty ass, or snake their little paws right up your shorts. You may be wondering if I am incredibly good looking, famous or rich. I am not, unfortunately.
The massage ladies are the worst: each parlor has five or six ladies sitting outside, or just inside glass doors. When you walk by, they all start clawing each other to get a chance to grab you and shout, “maaaasssssaaaaaaage!” in your face. Admittedly, I was shaken the first couple of times when I had six women shove each other out of the way to scream “massage” at me. However, that was nothing compared to the older massage ladies, even worse, the massage boys. The older women and the massage boys are more desperate, because the fervency in which they attack each other and the passion in which they scream "massage" are truly impressive and frightening. If I had the bad luck to encounter the massage boys when I first left my inn, I would have developed some sort of complex and not left my room for the rest of the trip.
There aren't any, only two types of bars in Thailand: go-go bars and expat bars. There are two divisions of go-go bars: one is a bar where the girls irritate you and you can sleep with them. The other is a bar where the girls are naked and you can sleep with them. At the expat bars, the girls don't irritate you and you can sleep with them. Anyone see a pattern here? We will get to moral relativity in the next section. It is as if all the bar owners in all of Bangkok got together to think about what a bar-goer would like. Their answer: a place where six or seven “bargirls” beg you to buy them a drink, sit on your lap, jabber at you in broken English and rub your wiener like its a piece of kindling and they are trying to start a fire.
During their bar-goer council, the members must have decided you were going to get this treatment whether you liked it or emphatically ddidn't like it. Personal preference, it seems, didn't quite make the agenda. Travelers note: Don't buy the girls a drink, it's like giving a Tijuanan kid a dollar or a pound of raw meat to a starving pack of wolves. The girls are professionals; they will turn on you for every dollar you have. You will hear about the dying aunt, the sick father, the dyspeptic parakeet.
If you are feeling altruistic, give the girl 50 baht, in cash. When you buy them a drink, the bar gives her five baht or so, but not the drink. The average salary in Bangkok is around 3,000 baht a month, with three days off. As a point of reference, the average apartment is about 3,000 baht a month; every working person is living hand to mouth, so 50 baht can buy her and her family food for days.
The expat bars are cleaner, quieter, no annoying bar girls and full of middle-aged expats having a beer after work. Expats are like the rest of us; they get sick of the girls always around, not giving them a moment's peace. They buy a bar so they can relax. Travelers Note: The expats are a treasure of information, talk to as many as you can. Most of them are pumped to speak with fellow westerners. Buy them a beer. The best place to find an expat is somewhere too expensive for the local Thai population: coffee shops and bookstores. Further Travelers Note: For whatever reason, books are scarce and quite expensive. After a lot of searching, we found one that only sold used books, for prices that equaled buying a new book in a western country. Moral of the story: bring your own books.
I'm sick of writing for now. I'll continue later when I can track down a couple of beers.