“Hello, hello! Where you from?”
He wore dark blue pants and a light blue button up shirt; sandals, jet black hair. He strode toward me unassumingly, his hands clung together behind his back.
I told him where I was from.
“Ohh, how long you stay in Thailand?”
“I got here today,” I said.
“Ohh, welcome to Thailand! You see big Buddha yet?”
“No, where is that one?” I pointed to the map in front of us that I had stopped to look at. It was like a mall directory at the edge of the sidewalk, just outside a temple.
It was my first morning in Thailand. I had some hours to kill before I could check into the hostel. I had landed at two in the morning and took the sky train from the airport around 7.
The skytrain was cheap and air conditioned and packed like the New York subway at rush hour. There were mostly students in their uniforms, scrolling through their phones, with wires in their ears.
I dropped my bags at the hostel and started on the walking tour I didn’t bother with the last time I was here.
It started with a ride on a ferry boat through a canal to another part of the city.
The boat approached the platform, it’s motor tripping, and a man with a bandana around his mouth who had been balancing on the edge of it, hopped onto the platform and pulled a rope around an anchor to close the gap between the platform and the boat. Passengers climbed in and out.
“Do I need a ticket?” I asked a guy who had been standing on the platform for a while, looking at his phone.
“No, they give on the boat,” he said.
“I just get on?”
I got on to the next one, careful not to drop my water bottle between the gap.
We sped through the canal, and I watched as we passed all the shacks serving as houses or little shops. An old woman scrubbing her clothes, the soapy water running into the canal; men at tables, smoking cigarettes, or eating or drinking or playing some Thai board game.
When the water splashed into the boat, there was another rope for passengers to pull to let up a tarp that extended across either side of the boat.
It was all worked out very cleverly.
I got off at my stop, according to the hostel’s directions and started walking. That’s when I stopped at the directory on the street.
“I have better map over here,” the man said.
We stepped over to the temple and he pulled a tourist map out of his pocket.
That was when my skepticism began, but I was still trying gage whether he was genuinely friendly or wanted something. He told me he worked at the school back there, he pointed vaguely behind him, and that he was waiting for his wife. I don’t know if any of it was true.
He circled all of the things I should see on the map. This temple, that temple, another temple, the big Buddha, and the tourism authority of Thailand.
“Ride in tuk tuk all day for just 10 baht,” he said. “He take you here, here, here, here, all the place, just ten baht today. Holiday today.”
“It’s a holiday?” I asked. It didn’t seem like a holiday.
The guy at the hostel probably would have mentioned if it were a holiday…
“Yes, monk holiday today. The government subsidize the oil for the tuk tuk. Just ten baht all day.”
“Hmm. I think I’ll walk,” I said.
“Oh, but its very far to walk.”
I pointed to the map I was now holding. “It doesn’t look far.”
“No, because the map very small. Much farther to walk. Take tuk tuk, 10 baht. But only if it has yellow sticker. White sticker is private tuk tuk, no subsidize. Yellow sticker, government tuk tuk, 10 baht today.”
He saw my hesitation.
“Come, I show you. It’s your lucky day.”
We walked back to the street and he pointed to a tuk tuk. There was a yellow sticker in the front window. He pointed to that too. He took the map from me and showed it to the tuk tuk driver. “She want to go here, here, here, here. 10 baht ok?”
“Ok, 10 baht today,” the driver said.
“Ten baht?” I asked the driver again.
He said yes. I couldn’t remember if these drivers were allowed to lie to me, or if, if he said 10 baht, he would actually have to charge me that amount. I didn’t even mind walking, but if all I had to pay was 30 cents to get driven around to all these places, being directionally challenged as I am, it was a good deal.
I gave in and got in to the tuk tuk.
The driver asked me the same question. How long had I been in Thailand? I told him.
“Ohh, welcome to Thailand,” he said. His face was round, his eyes red, half of his front teeth were smaller than the other half, but his face lit up when he smiled.
We stopped at the first temple.
“Go look,” the driver said. “I wait here, take your time.”
I went into the temple. Shoes off on the red carpet. There was a giant golden Buddha. I sat on my knees in front of it and tried to feel something. There was nothing. I wanted to be awed by all these temples, but I wasn’t. There was no energy in any I had ever been to. Just golden statues and red carpet. I took a photo and went back out.
A man stopped me before I had my shoes back on.
“Hello, did you already wish good luck to your family?”
Uhh…I guess I hadn’t done that.
“No…” I said. I was really trying to be open minded today. We went back inside together and I sat on my knees again and thought of good health for my family. I still felt nothing. I got up and the man asked me the same question. How long had I been in Thailand? I told him.
“Ohh, welcome to Thailand,” he said. He asked me about my plans and suggested I go visit a tourism office.
“Is it a holiday today?” I asked.
“Yes, you lucky today. Monk holiday. Tuk tuk only 10 baht today.”
Something didn’t smell right.
What was with the tourism offices? And why was everyone saying the same thing? “Welcome to Thailand, today is your lucky day.” I just couldn’t figure it out still.
I went back out and the driver was waiting for me.
We drove a ways and stopped in front of a little office. An office of tourism, naturally.
“Ok, I wait here,” he said.
I had no reason to go to a tourism office. I went in anyway. A woman ushered me into an leather seat in front of a desk with a map of Thailand under a pane of glass. A man sat across from me and asked me what my plans were. I told him I didn’t know exactly. He told me to come back when I had a better idea. Fine. Tourism office done.
We got back into the tuk tuk and drove off. After a minute, the driver pulled over and said.
“Ten baht today. I drive you, I wait for you. Ten baht.”
“Yes…” I said. He had a point he wasn’t making.
“Ten baht, government subsidize oil.”
“Oil,” he repeated, as if I hadn’t understood, “for tuk tuk.”
“Yes,” I said again. This had all been explained to me already.
“If you stay, two minute, three minute, I don’t get oil,” he said.
“In the office. You don’t have to buy. Just look at the book. ‘How much, how much’ ten, fifteen minute, I get oil. Four, five minute, no oil.”
So that was the catch. I had to spend 15 minutes in an office of tourism for the driver to get his fuel subsidized and for my ride to be ten baht. It still didn’t make sense though. Who was benefitting from me going into this office if I didn’t buy anything? It was too sketchy. I wanted out.
“We go to one more. You stay 10, 15 minutes. You don’t buy. Just look, ‘how much, how much.'”
“Ok, I don’t want to,” I said. “How much do I owe?”
“It’s ok, ten baht. We just go to one more office. Ten minutes, ok? Please.”
I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But I did it anyway, because he said please as if I’d be doing him a big favor.
“Fine. Ten minutes,” I said.
“Thank you so much.”
We went to the next office, and I did my best. I asked how much, how much, and told the woman my plans and asked how to do all of these things. When it felt like ten minutes and the conversation between us had died, I left.
We got back into the tuk tuk.
“Did you get it?” I asked.
His eyes were mean. He shook his head. “I said ten minute, 15 minute, you stay five minute,” he said. He was angry.
I had figured out as much as I needed to. He wasn’t nice. He had been acting nice. The ride was over.
“How much do you want?” I asked.
“Three hundred baht,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “I have two hundred.” It was still way too much, but he was mean. I didn’t want to find out how mean.
“You walk?” he asked.
He took the money and I got out of the tuk tuk, feeling as if I’d just been robbed. My chest was heavy. I felt like an idiot.
I could only hope that he felt guilty about it.
I didn’t know where I was. It took me an hour to find the ferry stop I had gotten off at to get there. I was tired and hungry and it was 95 degrees and humid.
I had tried so hard to like Bangkok this time. But I just hated it even more.