We were told to be careful in Bangkok—watch out for scammers and keep your belongings close. Only ride in cabs with meters.
Bangkok was set to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in 2015 before the bombing in August. Obviously the scammers alone didn’t ruin the city’s reputation, and the customs line at BKK on Halloween night was full of people speaking all sorts of different languages, holding passports in various shades of red, green, and blue.
I struggle to point the finger at people trying to make some money off of those who have far superior spending power. Where do you draw the line between scamming and simple negotiation? It isn’t always clear. In Vietnam, I’m frequently “scammed” in the sense of having to pay more for something than a Vietnamese person would. There’s no getting around this, and I’ve come to accept it. In Bangkok, things were a bit more stark.
Following the directions provided by our hostel, we used the subway system in the airport to get closer to our destination, with the goal of picking up a cheap cab to carry us the rest of the way. The hostel’s website told us how much we should expect to pay. We got off the subway and walked down the street, encumbered by our bags. We were easy targets—countless cabbies shouted in our direction. Two in a row pulled up to us, then pulled away when we asked if they had a meter. One guy said yes, he had a meter, then when I showed him the address of our hostel on my phone, he drove away, almost taking my arm with him. We walked down the street a bit and found a man who seemed nice enough, with good English. We should have noticed that his meter started at 30 baht (a bit less than a dollar). The drive wasn’t far, and the meter racked up a bill of 250 baht. The hostel website said we should expect to pay 70-120 baht, based on traffic. Too late now. Phil took out the change he had received from buying the subway tickets at the station and passed over a 500 baht bill. The taxi driver called him out—it was a 50 baht bill. He had been given incorrect change at the official-seeming subway ticketing booth, in the airport.
We had a sour taste in our mouths.
But, our acting Thai grandmother replaced that taste with delicious, complex, spicy-sweet-salty flavors when she spoon-fed us, one after the other, on the streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown that night. We had ordered from the stand next to hers.
We were only in Bangkok for two nights, with one whole day sandwiched in between. We kept our to-do list short, and, as always happens, it was shortened by necessity as we went on.
Traveling from place-to-place takes some time in Bangkok. It’s a large city. (This was clear from the 49th floor of the Marriot, where we sipped $14 beverages. It was worth it.) So we spent a fair amount of time on the subway. That’s where I noticed how much makeup the young women were wearing, and how many seemed to be constantly applying more, then taking photos of themselves. It’s not such a big surprise that the Siam Paragon was the most Instagrammed place of 2013. An Australian man who was staying in our hostel and planning to move to Bangkok with his family in the months ahead told us the mall was worth a visit. He was right. We got lost in the basement food court, and there were Ferraris parked in display rooms on the second level—or was it the third? That place was gigantic. Commercialism was flaunted in Bangkok.
Phil remarked on the many groups of homosexual men and transgender Thai people we had passed—something we don’t see much of in Da Nang.
In Chiang Mai, it was explained to us that some of these are self-identified “ladyboys” or “katoeys”. We also noticed women who drew on traditionally male aesthetics—later research led me to the phrase “Thai tom” (as well as “dee”). Whereas gender identity seems to be quite clearly defined in my corner of Vietnam, gender fluidity seems to be a part of Thai culture and identity, or at least that of young, urban, progressive Thai people.
Chiang Mai itself is a hippy backpacker mecca, full of loose pants with wild prints, dreadlocks, murals down every soi, and 2pm garden beers. We found it to be a lovely place to visit, particularly for someone coming from a place with less Western influence—bookstores, English everywhere, Mexican food—but figured it would be difficult to live there with such a transitory population. And traffic was a mess. We may have sat through the longest traffic light of our lives at Nimmanhaemin Road. (Note: public transport is a contentious topic among expats.)
My favorite part of Chiang Mai was wondering through the sois (small streets, almost alleys) stumbling upon cute cafes, tiny shops, guest houses galore, acoustic music sets, and temples (called “wats”). Monks in orange and yellow robes dotted the streets, passing behind us while we withdrew money at an ATM. At one of the larger wats in the Old City, Wat Phra Singh, we peeked into a temple building to see a monk sitting crossed legged on a cushion and staring at his smartphone—was he scrolling through Facebook, or looking up the translation of an important religious text? We’ll never know.
My second favorite part was renting a motorbike and riding behind Phil as he drove up Doi Suthep, a national park, to the Wat near the mountain’s top. Motorbike travel is the way to go. We’re used to it in Vietnam, and it was great to have that freedom. We passed by people sitting on benches in covered truck-style red-painted taxis with the backs open, like those that carry migrant workers but a bit smaller and intended to be fancier, and felt smug with the cool air on our faces. It cost us about $7 to rent one for 24 hours.
The food was incredible—I have a newfound respect for the many colors and flavors of curry. Because food was such a pivotal piece of our trip, I can’t single it out as a favorite or least favorite part. Though Phil would tell you it was his favorite. And I don’t want to start writing about it because I’m no expert and it would open a floodgate. Overall, if you’re in Chiang Mai, you really should try khao soi (note: spelling varies) as all of the travel guides recommend, and you ought to make it to the food cart gatherings at the North and South Gates for some street food.
Lastly, while spending time with elephants was the part of the trip I was most looking forward to, and though I’m still glad we did it, I left feeling a bit disappointed. The Elephant Nature Park felt too businesslike for my taste. We were picked up in a branded van. On our way to the park, we watched a short informational video starring an Australian actor on a huge screen that came down automatically from the van’s ceiling, followed by a clip from a television show featuring the park. Most of the elephants that lived at the park were being rehabilitated, having stepped on land mines or been used for hard labor, and I appreciated that they had a safe place to live out their days. But we seemed to spend most our time waiting because, as our tour guide said, “Too many tourists, not enough elephants.” Our guesthouse owner, who was born in a village outside of Chiang Mai, said that the group isn’t bad, but it is a business, and that they have to send their ill and injured elephants to another hospital in the area. That is apparently the place to visit.
Like the dishes the country is known for, our trip to Thailand was a gift of contradictions in complex harmony—scammers and grandmothers, commerce and dreadlocks, ladyboys and monks, curry and coconut milk.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.