28 November 2011

One Night in Bangkok [Bangkok, Thailand]

And you learn really quickly that the devil probably is walking next to you; you cannot trust anyone. Especially the tuk-tuk drivers, who will lie, cheat and steal just to make a buck. But if you can get past that, this is a freakin' amazing city. With temples around every corner, crazy night markets, neon signs which fill the streets and more pubs and bars than downtown Dublin.

We arrived to the Bangkok northern bus station at about 7am, passed by the hundreds of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers yelling for our business, and jumped on a local bus into the city. 30 minutes later we were getting off the bus in Banglamphu district, the historic area (and backpacker hangout). The plan was to wander around and find some cheapish accommodation down Khao San Road or one of the streets surrounding, but after only being in the area for five minutes we were swindled by a sly tuk-tuk driver.

So his story went something like this; the accommodation in the area is all VERY expensive (apparently upward of B1,000 / $30 per night.). But if we go to the official government tourism office, we can book accommodation there for 40% off! Why? The Thai government is currently trying to encourage tourism due to the flooding. And while there we can book train and bus tickets, also 40% off. Because he is a 'government' tuk-tuk, he will take us there and back for just 10B! (about $0.40). It sounded too good to be true!

...And it was. The real story: there is no 40% incentive to encourage tourists in Thailand. If there is an official government tourism office, it is not where he took us. They are a normal travel agent made out to look 'official', with hugely inflated prices for accommodation and transport. For one night accommodation in Bangkok, a bus to Surat Thani, a ferry to Ko Phangan and two nights accommodation on the island, he wanted to charge us THB 5,400 (about $180). We did the same for around THB 1,800. So why was the tuk-tuk driver so keen to drive us around for only B10? He gets a kick-back (in the form of a fuel voucher) for bringing in potential customers.

We ended up back where we started about an hour later, still with nowhere to stay. But exploring the area ourselves for 20 minutes we found a decent place for B200/night, only about 10 minutes walk from Khao San Road. Well, when I say decent I mean basic. The most basic room we have ever stayed in. It didn't actually have four complete walls, let alone a toilet or even a power socket (they charge you B20 to charge things at the reception). But it was cheap and had a bed, so it ticked all the boxes.

That afternoon we went out to explore. After a while we were approached by another tuk-tuk driver who was going to take us around to a couple of sights for only B10! But this guy was up-front, and told he was going to take us to a fashion store where we had to look around for 10 minutes so he could get free gas. Didn't sound too hard. And he assured us that the sites we wanted to go to did not have entry fees, despite what it said in the Lonely Planet.

So we set out. First stop was a big, golden standing Buddha, which was quite cool. I must admit, though, temples and Buddha statues are really starting to loose their appeal. I will check them out if there is something really special, but if they want me to pay it is a deal-breaker.

Anyway, back on track. Next stop: a tailors. We just had to go in, look around for 10 minutes, then leave. The problem was that as soon as we walked in the door one of the sales guys was on us, hard. Asking a lot of questions, what we are wanting etc. He would not leave us alone and was never more than three feet away. So we just sat and looked through a few catalogues... After about five minutes I had had enough, and got up to leave. To be polite I asked if he had card which I could take with me. To which he replied:
Yes, visa, mastercard, no problem!
No, do you have a card?
Yes, yes, yes, visa, mastercard no problem!
No, a business card! I'm not really sure exactly what I want at the moment.
[very rudely] Oh I know, you are just looking around!
Then stormed off. What a douche! Moral of the story; if you don't want tyre-kickers in your store, don't pay tuk-tuk drivers to bring in potential customers. They will bring in anyone they can, regardless of how interested the customer is in purchasing a suit.

A short ride and we had reached the second temple. Just as we got out the back of the tuk-tuk the driver took off! We thought we would go in, take a look around and maybe by the time we were done he would be back. But at the entry gate they wanted to charge us B150 to get in. So that's why he took off - he didn't want to get caught in a lie. We actually saw him the following day on the street and he had the cheek to ask us for the B10! I couldn't believe it (and told him as much). So we decided to flag the temple and wandered around trying to orientate ourselves. This is where we were approached by ANOTHER tuk-tuk driver. You would think we would just turn and walk away, but this guy actually seemed quite nice, and I judged him to be upfront and honest. He ended up giving us a free ride to the Grand Palace, all we had to do was (again) go into the crazily overpriced, fake, scamming travel agent and chat to them for about 10 minutes.

The Grand palace wanted 400B to get in! Which is insane. So we enjoyed the view from outside the walls. From there we wandered around the river-front, heading toward a couple of temples that were not far away. Approached this time by an older guy who (of course) had only our best interests at heart, we were told that the reclining Buddha was closed today. He was surprised to learn that we did not know about the huge annual celebration that was happening (the reason for the closure). The celebrations were best viewed from the river, and he could tell us exactly where to get the cheapest cruise boat and even take us there. He was really laying it on thick, but we declined his kind offer, and finally after 10 minutes he let us be. Another 10 minutes later and we were viewing the relining Buddha (albeit through a window as they wanted to charge us to get in), at a temple which was completely open, and surprising full for all the celebrations that were meant to be happening.

That evening we spent wandering around Khao San Road. It really is a crazy place, where you can buy almost anything. There are actually guys walking around selling any fake ID you could want. You can also purchase illegally downloaded music, movies and TV series which they transfer straight to your MP3 player or hard drive. Finding drugs, both prescription and illegal, is no trouble at all. The streets are lined with stalls selling fake printed t-shirts and other clothing, souvenirs, and you can pick up a mean pad-thai right from the street corner. Tailors are also out in force, five or six of them all trying to get your attention, saying they can make you the best suit for rock-bottom prices. Oh, and you'll probably be offered all kinds of sex shows and maybe some private attention if you are really lucky.

Our second day in Bangkok was fairly similar, except we avoided all tuk-tuks like the plague. We checked out a few interesting places, many of them we just kind of stumbled upon. The Golden Mount (a big golden stupa on the top of a hill), Loha Prasat (some cool buildings, check the photos), the Democracy Monument, and a few other sites.

Later we met up with a couple of friends of Julias for fruit shakes, before jumping on our overnight bus down to Surat Thani, then on to the beautiful Ko Phangan!

A few final notes:
- While we did not see any flooding in Bangkok, and apparently the water had not made it that far south, but everyone was certainly prepared. Sandbags and block-aides in front of every single shop. Not surprising though, as the river was freakin' high
- There were a few times where I thought I was in the middle of an episode of 'Pimp My Tuk-tuk'. Some guys go all out, with chromed bars, big rims and nice exhaust systems. I want one!
- We found a few stores down some back alleys where you could buy MASSIVE fireworks. I was so tempted!

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