Friday, February 20, 2009

Bangkok overview

Just spent Tuesday-Thursday in Bangkok, which wasn't long, but wasn't short either. I have lots of conflicting emotions towards the city and the people, which on reflection I guess is pretty standard for any big city, since I feel a similar way towards NYC and it's my favorite city in the world.

The city itself is definitely worth visiting, don't let anyone tell you otherwise (because they will try, as I found when I poked around for information before going).

It has astounding sites, delicious food, a very different socio-political situation than we're used to in the West, a bustling modern culture and a fun nighttime scene. It is also dirty, with visible cockroaches and ROUSes.

The people are equally double-sided. Some are amazingly helpful and friendly. About half our cab drivers did not speak English, but people on the street (restaurant hostesses, businessmen, food stand cooks, policemen) would always help us by translating, sometimes without us even asking. Our hotel staff was unbelievably helpful and attentive and we were only at a Courtyard by Marriott. When Denise went to get a suit tailored at a place suggested by the concierge they sent someone to walk there with her so she would not get lost - no tip expected. The local restaurant in the alley near our hotel did not speak English so let us get behind the stove and point out all the ingredients we wanted in our dishes - one by one, all 7 of us! Our hired bus driver the last day stopped on the side of the road to buy a specialty dessert for us out of his own pocket.

The other half of Bangkok shamelessly tried to cheat us left and right to the point where we were (ok, I was) raising voices, rolling eyes, and snapping back at the slightest provocation. At the airport upon arrival we signed up for a boat tour the next morning. We were still ignorant and vulnerable, so when they said this was a government-sponsored promotion we fell for it. The booth in the airport looked legit, though. The next morning we left for our 4-hour tour, which started out fine until we stopped at a "famous snake show" that we were stranded at for an hour. We were obviously expected to pay for this show and for entrance to the yucky little menagerie around it. Instead we waited outside while our tour guide got a free breakfast from the zoo (we hadn't eaten anything yet that day since the tour started so early). The boat ride came to an end only 2 hours after it started, although we were told it would be 4 hours. That's when we realized we were hostages. Once we got back into the bus headed back to our hotel the guide said she was going to take us to a "famous" gemstone store. When we said no, with all our sleep-deprived anger, she explained that the promotional price was because this gemstone place sponsors the tours and so she has to bring us there and register that we were there. So we reluctantly agreed to let her bring us there although we stressed that we were annoyed and
were only going to look. Once that trial was over and we were back in the bus she sprung another gemstone store on us. Then a tailor. All in all we made 4 stops.
This same thing happened to us when we tried to take a tuk tuk to the Marble Temple our first day, because these stores apparently pay the tuk tuk driver's daily gas expenses if they bring people to the stores. So we were, against our will, taken off our path and brought to these stores where we were treated rudely once they realized we weren't going to buy anything.
The whole construct was so frustrating. These stores think this is some kind of intelligent advertising ploy, but the tuk tuk drivers are in no way qualified or properly motivated
to determine which tourists are actually potential customers, so instead all tourists are hassled.
We finally stopped taking tuk tuks because we couldn't deal with being cheated any longer. It was nearly impossible to get a reasonable price from them without being brought to stores against our explicit instructions.
Taxi drivers were also a mixed bunch. Half of them were amazing, the other half refused to take us or refused to turn on the meter then quoted us a price more than twice the meter amount for any given destination.

However, we did see some amazing things, which I will include pictures of in the following posts.

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