It’s week 19 as I touch down in Bangkok, my first stop in Thailand!
I meet up with Rach, and it’s really nice to have some time to catch up and we take a wander around the area we’re staying – central Bangkok next to the infamous Kaoh San Road.
Before setting off on this trip, people had warned me about being hit with a culture shock when arriving into Bangkok. Turned out that I was, but just not in the way I was expecting at all! Rach had just flew in the morning before, having spent more time in Perth and Darwin before that, whereas I had just spent the past month and a half travelling in the Philipines and Taiwan, where English (and sometimes electricity) could be in very short supply depending on where you were!
It was funny, as we wandered, got our bearings (and drinking 1 or 2 coffees to get over our flights!) Rach was a bit freaked out by how Eastern everything seemed….where I was freaking out by how Western everything was! There were American and European backpackers everywhere, all the menus were in English, and everyone seemed to be completely fluent in English too.
“What are you looking at?”, Rach asks me over her coffee mug as I’m transfixed, watching people as they milled along the roadside, buying and haggling from the street vendors.
“Europeans!……..There are Europeans and Americans everywhere!….I haven’t seen so many in weeks, it’s freaking me out!”
After our respective culture shocks had died down, we spent a few days wandering around some of the stunning temples (called a ‘Wat’), including Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) which is regarded as the most sacred temple in the whole of Thailand. The building as ground was absolutely beautiful, but you had to bear the throngs of tourists, umbrellas (for the sun), and cameras.
“If the zombie apocalypse happens right now, we’re screwed!”
After exploring the grounds, we took a wander outside to catch our breath and eventually stumbled upon some lesser known temples which were empty, apart from one where there were a few kids playing football outside……a far more calm and zen-like experience!
Before arriving in Thailand, I’d read about some of the more popular scams which target travellers and tourists. One of the main ones that we encountered a lot was the ‘Closed Today’ scam. You can be wandering around and a ‘friendly local’ will approach you. The conversation will start with something like the following:
“Hi! Where are you from?”
“Hi, I’m from the U.K. Manchester, you know it?”
“Ahh, my friend studies in the U.K. Do you like Thailand? How long are you staying?…..”
and this eventually leads to …… “Where are you going today?” followed by “Ahh, it’s closed today sorry – Buddhist holiday you see? I know of a place I can show you…..its free today …….”
The aim is to get you in their tuk-tuk or taxi so that can take you to a store (mainly a fake gem store) operated by them or a friend in the middle of nowhere to pressure you to buy massively overpriced items.
No-one was aggressive or pushy about it……but it can end up taking a fair portion of time in your day to go through this same conversation again and again. In the end we found the quickest way of moving on without being too rude was to not tell anyone where you are going….“Just walking, thanks” and move on…..polite and hard to counter :-)
Another thing you get used to is haggling. Food and accommodation is generally fixed, but taxis, tuk-tuks and street market items are up for a bit of negotiation. Around 4 or 5 years ago I did a bit of reading up on haggling (before a trip to Marrakech). From what I remember there are 2 main schools of thought:
1) You should try to haggle a price for an item or service which is equivalent to what a local would pay. It promotes fairness and there should not be an inflated value for foreigners who do not know the proper market price.
2) You do not need to haggle to their rock bottom price. If you (and your currency) has greater buying power then they do, and as long as you reach a value which is acceptable to both of you from your different perspectives….then this is a good deal.
I’ve always found the latter school of though to be more in line with my thinking. Although no-one likes to be a sucker, as long as the price is reasonable to me, I don’t mind if they have felt they have ripped me off a bit :-)
Saying that, I that found I liked the bit of banter in the haggle, especially with the taxi drivers. More often than not, you don’t have to chase them down….they wll be shouting to you in the hope you are going somewhere.
“How much?” you ask, and there is a moment…..just a split second where they look you up and down trying to work out what is the largest price they can say with the chance that you may pay it!
I had my technique down by the end of the week:
- Tell the driver where you’re going and ask how much.
- Wait for the driver to evaluate how much he thinks he can overcharge the tourist.
- ‘Pang Mak’ (very expensive)
- Tell the driver that you got a tax/tuk-tuk from there the day before, so you know what the price should be.
- The drivers normally either laugh or look embarrased at this point as they think they have been caught out and ask you what you paid.
- Give a value slightly lower than what you want to pay (a bit of haggling space)…..this was normally between 30%-50% of their original asking price.
- They’ll counter with a price in your ball-park range that goes with an explanation as to why today’s travel is different than yesterday’s.
- A bit off back and forth and you settle on your number.
It’s fun after a while. Just keep it light-hearted don’t take anything personally. The price we agreed in the end was still probably more than what a local would pay, but you don’t get the feeling you’ve been conned either :-)
Sometimes the tuk-tuk drivers want to haggle even if you’re genuinely not interested. I was waiting for the bus one day when a driver came over.
“Tuk-tuk to the city? 200 Baht”
“No thanks, I’ll get the bus”
“Honestly, I’m fine thanks. The bus is here in 5 minutes”
“The bus is very slow! Tuk-tuk, fast! 140!”
“The bus is 20 Baht! I’ll take the tuk-tuk if you can get me there for 20”
“No, I’m not playing hard to get honestly!”
At this point he goes back to the tuk-tuk and gets a piece of paper. He draws a line down the middle and writes, in a column on one side of the line, 200, 150, 140, 130. And then gives me the pencil and paper. It’s a sheet to track the ‘negotiation’ – he still wants me to get involved! I didn’t know what else to do to tell him I wasn’t interested……so I drew a picture of a bus on my side of the paper……he laughed and then walked away :-)
Apart from the temples, another sight you get used to is monks walking around the city.
We made a heroic effort and woke up at 5:30am one morning in order to see the monks receiving alms, whereby the monks would walk a route around the city from their temple early in the morning with their collecting bowls and people would donate money and food to them.
It was a really interesting interaction; With some people it seemed like a very quick transaction – like it was a part of their daily ritual where they would give and move on with only a few words spoken. With others it seemed like a far more in-depth affair; Having a prolonged conversation, asking for blessing or advice. We saw one man in a guard uniform who was on his knees asking for a blessing, followed by pouring some water on a nearby tree as directed by the monk.
Some other photos to round off the first week. Thanks Bangkok for being a stunning, delicious, interesting, and (surprisingly) far more chilled out landing spot for my first time in the country :-)