We had arrived late in Bangkok the night before on a rather cramped Spring airlines flight and had battled through the unruly airport queues to get a taxi into the city. First impressions were that there were A LOT of images of the King projected on every building. His memory was still being mourned by the Thai people after the end of his 70 year reign. Also common were intimidating giant billboards warning foreign tourists not to tattoo Buddha on their bodies – ‘don’t worry I won’t’ – I thought to myself. Thailand is a colourful country that thrusts itself upon you from the word go, as we would soon find out. A delicious (but pricey) meal on the river terrace of the Sheraton orchid hotel was washed down with some deliciously punchy cocktails and after a deep sleep and a blood donation to some local mosquitoes, it was time to gather some first impressions of Bangkok.
First up, trip to the Grand Palace. Or so we thought….We started by taking the small river ferry, which was a cheap, fast and exciting way to get there. We arrived at a quay near the palace and after a brief wander around some trendy market stalls in the scorching heat followed signs towards the palace. I lazily hung back a little, letting Her lead the way and we were ushered by a man across the road to the ‘Palace’, or at least a kind of dead end alley near the palace, called ‘Gate 3’. It had occurred to me that the other tourist crowds had not followed this direction, but I had also thought that perhaps there was more than one entrance to the huge complex. A friendly man approached us and struck up a conversation with Her, asking where she was from and what her plans where. He worked there apparently and told us we couldn’t visit until 2pm (it was just before 12) as the monks were praying. Seeing our disappointment, he proposed an alternative itinerary: go by Tuk Tuk to the nearby Standing Buddha, Wat Lucky Buddha and have a short trip to the ‘Thai Factory’ before 2pm. We said we weren’t too bothered about the factory but agreed his alternative suggestion might be an option. He advised we could get a Tuk Tuk to take us to all these places for only 100 baht and asked if we would like help to get one. I was about to decline this offer, but before we had a chance to discuss it he had flagged down a tuk tuk, delivered the directions to the driver and off we went.
The tuk tuk ride was good fun initially, but sensing that the ride had taken longer than anticipated, I checked Google maps and realised we were now miles from where we started, near the palace. We arrived at a small Buddha temple, which we were told was only open one day per month. It was averagely pretty but certainly not a worthy tourist attraction. On the way out, whilst we waited for our driver to spring a leak, another friendly man approached us whose car had apparently been blocked in by the tuk tuk. He had come here to ask for blessings for his pregnant wife and told us that we were lucky to have been taken to this Buddha as few tourists know about it. He had also heard of the Thai Factory – it was the last day of their sale today and we should definitely go. Next stop the standing Buddha – a more credible tourist attraction – a sizable Buddha statue worthy of a few photos. Finally… the Thai Factory. Which turned out to be a small suit shop called ‘Thai Factory’. We were greeted by a pushy Indian businessman who wanted to offer us drinks and insisted we should order a tailormade suit. I had no interest in this – especially given the abundance of tried and tested tailors back in China, so we repeatedly declined. My eyes were briefly caught by some excellent looking leather jackets, but my request for a price was dodged so we decided to make an exit. The Indian shopkeeper was clearly annoyed by our departure and made this as uncomfortable as possible for us.
Still feeling relatively positive about the experience but not really knowing what the hell was going on or where we were, we were driven to a second shop. A line of other tuk tuks was outside, all with Western tourists being dutifully disembarked by ‘guides’. A similar thing inside, more fabrics and suits and pushy staff. I still didn’t want a bloody suit so we left quickly this time. Our driver, who to be fair had seemed charming and had only quoted us a bargain 100 baht for the adventure, asked if we would go to one more clothes shop as a favour to him so that he could get a ‘stamp’. Begrudgingly we agreed to have a ‘good look’ at the catalogue, to help him out. Mistake. The third shop was a real trap. We were ushered upstairs where, through lack of any products to look at, we were pressurised to sit down and look through some tatty, dog-eared catalogues accosted from more reputable companies. We were pressurised to order tailormade suits again. We explained that this was no good to us as we were only in Bangkok for 2 days – but this was no issue, he said. He had a factory (sweat shop?) working 24/7 and could get us a suit made by later this evening. I told him I didn’t need a suit. ‘Buy a shirt then!’ ‘No thanks’ I replied. ‘Why not?’ he said aggressively. ‘You can at least get one shirt!’ ‘I don’t need any shirts and can get them made cheaply in China’ I truthfully replied. ‘Yes, but these are better shirts.’ ‘I’ll think about it – I’m back in Bangkok next week, maybe then’, I said. ‘Why not now?’ He demanded, adding, ‘next week is too busy’. ‘Well I might just have to live with that’ I replied with a nervous chuckle, but surprising wit considering my increasing fear at us being trapped in a dodgy man’s attic. This verbal battle went on for some time, and I ended up leaving with a dreadful tie for 300 baht, as a way of partially appeasing the angry and threatening man. Finally our tuk tuk driver agreed to take us back to the palace, and in no doubts as to whether this was now a scam or not, gave him an undeserved small tip along with his fee. I became increasingly angry about this incident later on, having found out it was a common scam, but actually the entire thing cost us only 600 bahts, which is almost impressive. We weren’t scammed out of much other than our pride.
Next stop, the Palace. We finally arrived and found a much more substantial entrance, with an armed security check point and throngs of crowds snaking around the outer wall of the complex, most of whom were Thai mourners dressed in black and carrying photos of the King. Lining the circumference of the outer wall were stands generously handing out free drinks and delicious hot food to commemorate the King to Thai mourners and tourists alike. I had not anticipated the atmosphere of celebration we would find here based on misleading TV footage. After only a short wait for a ticket, we joined the swarms of non native tourists inside and managed to take some stunning photos of exotic golden buildings and Buddhist statues, dodging relentless selfies as we went along.
Exhausted, went back to our hotel for a power nap and shower and then got ready for our Evening Food and Tuk Tuk Adventure by Expique. The tour was run by a pleasant, if not overly warm or charismatic, guide who took us around five different street food stations. We were joined by two other couples – an Italian and Vietnamese couple from Seattle and an American couple from New York City. First stop a local market where we sampled chicken satay and various more exotic local snacks.
Next, a small restaurant by the flower market where we tried roast chicken and fish. Third, a backstreet restaurant where we had various curry dishes and were finally allowed to share a couple of beers. Fourth station was a run down noodle bar where we tried a rather plain intestine soup and an enjoyable fruit shake. And final stop, was Chinatown where we were asked what we would like to eat for dessert. This is not really the idea of a food tour as we could have just bought our own dessert and saved a lot of money, but we all agreed on mango sticky rice, which though not novel, was delicious.
We thoroughly enjoyed the company of the other couples and this made the night, but enthusiasm dwindled a little. We had all anticipated alcohol would be included in the hefty price, and especially on Christmas Eve, were in the mood for a party. It would have cost little more to provide some drinks and the street food and tuk tuk hire would realistically have amounted to a small fraction of the entry fee. Little of the food would be considered enlightening to a well seasoned traveler or western city dweller who has been to a Thai restaurant before and the food knowledge of the guide seemed pretty elementary (‘have you guys ever tried a fruit called Durian before?’ – which we all of course had). Despite a slight feeling of stinginess though, it was a fun evening and would be great for people who’ve not eaten much Thai food before.
We finished the day at the Banyan tree rooftop bar overlooking Bangkok. No match for the Shanghai rooftop bars, but a great place to bring in Christmas Day in the tropical heat before a slightly emotional Skype call home to the UK.
Have you been in a scam in Asia before or spent Christmas Eve in Thailand?