Friday, November 27, 2009

Wrath of the Bangkok Gods

Today was the first time I feared for my life in Bangkok. I truly thought I was going to be bowled over and killed by a scooter taxi. While I normally tend to have a blatant disregard for oncoming traffic, a trait I inherited from my mother, this time, my complete oblivion was not the cause of a near fatal traffic accident. I normally walk the mile and a half to work every day, one of my many attempts to burn off the New Zealand poundage I packed on over the last few months, and the street I live on has no sidewalk. I’m normally pretty adept at dodging any traffic, as it is a one-way street and I can see what’s coming (basically I would have to be blind, deaf and dumb – in the literal sense, not as in mute- to be hit by an oncoming car). Scooters can prove pretty tricky, as they like to weave in and out of the three and four wheeled vehicles (lets not forget about tuk tuks now folks, they’re not just a tasty restaurant in London), and tend to encroach on my walking space. But again, seeing as I have eyes, it’s hard to miss them coming, so no problems there. Until this morning. Although traffic laws don’t really seem to exist, or at least be enforced, in Bangkok, drivers normally try to avoid running down pedestrians. So while it might not have been surprising to see a scooter driving down my street the wrong way, when I literally felt a rush of wind as it sped past me, I was a little ruffled. When this happened a half a dozen or so more times in the five minutes it takes to walk to the end of my street, my heart was starting to feel as though it was going to jump out my throat. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why these scooters couldn’t pass the cars on the other side, where there was perfectly enough room for them to be driving illegally down a one way street without endangering the life of poor little white girls just trying to make it to work alive and as sweat free as possible.

The rest of my walk to work has very obvious raised, paved sidewalks, so I thought I was in the clear. Silly me. Obviously I had pissed off the traffic gods somehow (perhaps they thought my recent decision to walk instead of taking some form of public transportation to work was insulting), because they definitely had it in for me. The last stretch of road I walk to work is a very big, busy street with nice big, empty sidewalks. By this point, I always have my iPod in and blasting, knowing I no longer need to keep my ears alert for potential death machines racing towards me at 60 miles an hour. So I didn’t hear the scooter coming as it sped along the sidewalk behind me until just moments before it reached me, causing my poor heart to jump right back into overdrive (to say nothing of my sweat glands… you all have active imaginations, I’m sure you can figure it out). The first scooter, at least, was understandable, as it was driving against the flow of traffic, and there is a major barrier dividing the two different sides of the road, so the taxi driver probably felt it was easier just to risk the lives of several innocent civilians rather than drive an extra 50 meters to turn around. Fine. But the second scooter, who I didn’t see coming till the last second, as I like to examine all the people running around in the park which borders the sidewalk, came flying at me like a bat out of hell, driving in the same direction as the traffic! I would have been more understanding if the road had been jammed up, because then obviously what are sidewalks for other than an extra lane for scooter traffic, but no- the street was literally empty! I swear to god I would have been safer walking there, as I would have had a much wider berth for dodging the one or two motor vehicles that came my way. By the time I reached the safety of my office, I was convinced that scooter drivers were out to get me; a conviction which, I’m sure, Bangkok traffic will do nothing but strengthen as time goes on. 

In all honesty, there is a good chance the scooter taxi drivers were simply coming to ask if I wanted a ride, and almost running me down seemed the best way to get my attention. Normally they are relentless- I have literally watched as drivers have turned around on a one-way street, attempting what would seem to me a life threatening maneuver of weaving through oncoming traffic, circling back to make sure I wasn’t actually trying to hail down a taxi scooter just as I’m waiving another hopeful driver away. Surprisingly, the scooter taxis are really the only people I even get remotely hassled by in Thailand. I was expecting constant harassment, with street venders and beggars shoving their wares and shaking their cups in my face, demanding my money, as small local children follow me around with wide eyes, open mouths and pointing fingers. In other words, I had expected it to be like Kenya. Being started at like an exotic animal and treated like a walking ATM machine defined my daily life during the summer I spent in Nairobi, and according to my boyfriend, who had visited Bangkok before, I was to encounter the same type of experience here. I probably should have factored in the fact that he came to Bangkok for three days, fresh out of New Zealand (i.e. the furthest he had traveled before was to the Gold Coast of Australia), ate McDonalds the whole time, and practically screamed, “ignorant tourist, please rip me off”.  Because contrary to all the warnings I received prior to my arrival, somehow, even in the most touristy of areas, I’ve completely avoided being robbed, scammed, or hassled (which is much more than I can say for my first month in London, where I managed to have my phone pick pocketed, my wallet robbed, and my book money scammed off of me all within a few days).

My first trip into one of Bangkok’s famous tourist areas was the night I got home from my work retreat. My uncle had a friend who’s birthday it was, so my family was headed to Soi Cowboy to meet up with his softball friends and celebrate. Soi Cowboy is probably the most notorious street in Bangkok – it’s a sea of neon lights, gogo bars, and groups of beautiful Thai girls dressed in matching costumes all trying to woo you into their clubs, and arms. As we turned onto the road, I felt like I had stepped into a mini Vegas (not that I’ve been to Vegas, but I’ve seen it from the airplane, so I can imagine). I was no better than the hundreds of leering western men as we walked down the street; I just couldn’t peel my eyes away from all the gorgeous and scantily clad club workers who lined the sidewalks. To top it all off were the dozens of men selling the biggest teddy bears I had ever seen in my life, although I couldn’t imagine who the hell would want to buy a six-foot bear and carry it around all night to a bunch of bars and clubs. When I shared this sentiment with my Uncle, he told me it can actually be quite a lucrative venture – the beautiful Thai girls get the drunken/horny/love-struck western men to buy them the adorable yet monstrous bears for a price equivalent to your first born child, carry it around for an hour or so, and then bring it right back to the vendor who can sell it again the next night. Although I garnered a hopeful look or two from the teddy bear sellers as we made our way down the street, it was my uncle they were really after, thinking they could possibly swindle him into buying two teddy bears, one each for his American and Thai girlfriends (i.e. niece and wife).

We finally reached the club-bar we were going to, and made our way in. It was packed with men, many of who were white and having some form of canoodling/lap dance going on. The tables surrounded a center stage, equipped with poles and dozens of sexy girls dancing away in blue mini skirts and white bikini tops, up just high enough to see the curve of every butt cheek. The only table that was even partially available already had one occupant, but as he was busy with some girl grinding on his crotch and milking him for every drink he was worth, he didn’t seem to mind sharing. So we sat down and ordered some drinks while we waited for the rest of my uncle’s friends to arrive. Turns out the next one to show was my boss, who I completely forgot was one of my uncle’s softball buddies (not sure how that slipped my mind… its pretty much the entire reason I am in Bangkok). Although I have no problem drinking with my boss, when there are half naked girls pole-dancing a few feet in front of you, it gets a little weird. Thankfully, we decided to go and leave the softball boys to their fun, and spent the rest of the night at a sports bar watching rugby (why can’t I seem to escape from this infernal sport?!).

The next day, I decided I wanted to check out a few more of the local tourist attractions. In order to peel Nicky away from his cartoons, my family decided to join me. So we headed to Chatuchak weekend markets, a market literally the size of a small city, selling anything you could possibly dream of. Naturally, I spent the whole time looking at clothes. I tried not to let the fact that everything is designed for sticks or the constant insistence from venders that “we no have big size” deter me from pursuing my shopping addiction, although I got so overwhelmed with the amount of clothes that I just end up looking at most of the stuff anyways. A few hours and hundreds of stalls later, everyone was exhausted. But as it was still the weekend, we decided to skip dinner at home and head to Khao San road, which gives Soi Cowboy a run for its money in the notoriety department.  Only a block or two long, Khao San road is jam packed with tourists, street venders, restaurants, bars, and hostels. It is where the majority of backpackers stay, and sometimes never leave. We sat down at one of the little street restaurants, taking turns pointing out people who looked like they arrived in 1967’s summer of love for a weekend in Thailand and got sucked into the world of parties, drugs, and girls for the next few decades. All along the street, sketchy looking men whispered about cheap tailor made suits and ping-pong shows – one of the staples of Bangkok’s sex tourism industry, where client’s don’t expect to be sexually aroused but rather witness a freak show of sexual exploits. A man, who had self-proclaimed himself as “Mr. Thailand” (made evident by the giant sign he carried around) and dressed up in a mixture of 70s gear and rave clothing drove tourists up and down the street in a half bike, half tuk tuk contraption, which blasted music and so many flashing lights it would surly have set any epileptic into a fit. In other words, the place was a snapshot of what tourists expect of Thailand, and often, the only aspect they ever see. While our food was disgusting, with ketchup mixed in to the pad thai (I think they were trying to appeal to Western tastes, and I was tempted to point out the fact that Thais are the ones who are addicted to shitty hotdogs), the views were entertaining, and it was a good finish to my very touristy weekend in Bangkok.

As I had managed to avoid the scams and high prices at all the touristy locations I visited over the weekend, I thought I was in the clear. The last place in the world I expected to be ripped off was at my gym. Realizing it is just too damn hot to work out on our porch (15 minutes on the elliptical outside and it looks like I jumped in the pool), I decided I wanted to join a gym. My only criteria was that it have bikram yoga, which is somewhat ironic as part of the reason I wanted a gym was to avoid working out in the heat, and bikram yoga is conducted in a studio at 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit). But still, with a gym I felt at least I could choose when I wanted to be raining sweat off my body. So I went to check out True Fitness after work on Monday. The facilities were unbelievable, the posh-est, most fully equipped gym I had ever seen complete with a full spa and yoga studio. To top it all off, my sales consultant, Tew, was a young Thai guy who wanted an American friend to speak English with, and he had tourettes! My sister has tourettes, which is a neuro disorder that manifests itself in tics, and I miss her dearly. Tew reminded me of her, so I though maybe the gods weren’t so mad at me as they were introducing me to a Thai guy who was so clearly meant to be my friend. Not only did Tew want to be friends, but he offered me an incredibly good deal on my gym membership, with me paying the equivalent of $66 a month. Score.

Or not. Turns out Tew’s whole “lets be friends” thing was just part of his superb sales ability. On Thursday, I came in to ask if he wanted to go out for a drink after work on Friday, and he looked at me as though I was crazy. I’d already told him in our earlier conversation that I had a boyfriend, so he couldn’t mistake my offer as a come on. As he shifted uncomfortably on his feet, his tics getting more and more pronounced, I began to feel really awkward. Oh god, what the hell was I thinking! I should have just accepted my friendless state and been happy with it. But no, now I had to go and alienate the one person whom I could at least wave hi to and pretend was my friend through actually trying to hang out with him. He gave me some feeble excuse, saying if he wasn’t already busy maybe we could do something, and I bolted up the stairs as quick as I could to hide among the elliptical machines, my hopes and dreams of having a cool Thai friend shattered. Oh well, I thought, at least I got a good deal on my gym membership. Also turns out, Tew ripped me off. Talking with one of my co-workers, who is also a member at True Fitness, she pays less in two years than I pay in one to be a part of the gym! Of all the places you are supposed to bargain and barter, I never expected the gym to be the prime location. Unlike gyms in the US, which have a set price which only varies with age or student status, the gyms in Bangkok sell you your membership based on how much they can squeeze out of their potential members. All the friendship talk was just a ploy to butter me up and get my money. I had no idea that had I presented a hard line, I would have been about to get my membership for a fraction of the cost. The only reassuring fact was that technically, I was still paying peanuts compared to US prices for a full gym and yoga studio. Still, on principle, I felt jipped that Tew played upon my weaknesses to secure a better commission for himself. While I can handle being hassled and almost run down by scooter taxi drivers, being ripped off by my gym was really a blow to my confidence. Maybe I should have taken my boyfriend’s warning more to heart, because it seems, at least for now, that the Bangkok gods have it out for me.


  1. never ever trust people with tourette' me.

  2. And they are miserable at taking pictures.