After spending a few days in Bangkok, I finally got a feel for the city. I knew how to get around from Point A to Point B: I could flag a taxi, tuk-tuk or even ride a boat down the Chao Phraya. I knew approximately how much my ride should cost, and whether or not the driver was trying to gouge me because I'm a "farang" (farang = foreigner). I knew what food I liked and where I could get it. Unfortunately, I also began to see through the shiny facade that exists here in the "Land of Smiles."
Full Bangkok Photo Album - click here
There is an interesting relationship that exists between tourists and locals. Usually when I visit a foreign land, a lot of local people are eager to meet me and hear my story. This is especially true in Asia where I stand out like a sore thumb as a 6 foot tall white guy. I enjoy meeting local people and travelers alike, but here it seems far less likely that I would get to meet and talk with many locals. Getting back to the relationship I was referring to - here, the relationship is more business-like than anything. I believe most Thai people have grown weary of the endless supply of tourists that come here every year, but they must tolerate us because of the business opportunities we bring. And as a tourist, I have grown weary of the false attempts at friendship that end with someone trying to get my money. It saddens me to say it, but I've developed a tough exterior already...and as a Chicagoan, I thought I already had one.
Jim Thompson House
This was something I really wanted to see after reading my guide book. It's such an interesting story, I debated whether or not I should devote an entire blog entry to it. Jim Thompson was an American who lived in Thailand in the 1950's and 60's, and he was credited with single handedly reviving the Thai silk industry. If you have the time, the Wikipedia page makes for an interesting read. He made a lot of money with his silk company and built an extremely ornate traditional Thai style house in Bangkok. The house is so interesting, and filled with so many priceless artifacts that he collected, that it is now a museum open to the public.
This place was fascinating, and Jim Thompson's story was equally interesting. Our guide walked us through and seemed to know every last detail about him and the house. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside. There were six separate houses on the complex, all on wooden stilts to protect from flooding. The houses were made of teak wood, which is both durable and termite-proof. He had marble tiles imported from Italy covering the ground floor. It was filled with ancient Buddha sculptures from around the world, some of them over 1,000 years old. He was able to collect so many because they were all flawed or broken. In Thai culture it's considered bad luck to have a broken Buddha statue, so nobody else wanted them. Now they are probably priceless.
Jim Thompson disappeared in 1967 and nobody was ever able to find him. He went on an evening walk in the jungle while on vacation in Malaysia and was never seen again, despite a massive search. Supposedly it was the largest hunt ever organized in Malaysian history. Interestingly, it just so happens that he had his will written a few weeks before his disappearance. He was also expertly trained to survive in jungles, which makes it less likely that he simply got lost and died on his own.
Massive Shopping Malls
Bangkok is also known to have some of the biggest and fanciest malls in Asia. I wasn't really in the market to buy a Rolex or anything, but figured I should have a look. I'm glad I did, because these malls truly are a sight to be seen. The Siam Paragon is a massive high-end mall with every designer label you've ever heard of.
I also enjoyed walking through the MBK Center, which is the largest mall I've ever been inside of. This mall is 8 stories high and contains over 2,000 shops and restaurants. That figure probably doesn't include the maze of small vendors on the end, which must have numbered in the 100's on every floor. You can come here and load up on brand name apparel for very cheap. It might be fake, but who cares? Now I understand why Mario said he didn't bring many clothes with him - he was planning to buy a bunch of clothes in Bangkok.
While in this mall, I grabbed dinner at a shabu-shabu restaurant. Shabu-shabu is a Japanese dish where you throw meat, vegetables and noodles into boiling water and cook your food. At the end you get to drink the broth, which is delicious. This restaurant had a conveyor belt going all around with small plates to throw into your broth...grab whatever you want and chuck it in!
While exiting this mall, I couldn't help but notice the men cleaning the floors by the entrance. Their clothes were dirty and their faces were tired. These guys probably earned meager wages, which I'm sure is the case for most Bangkok residents. Their job was to wipe floors and make a fancy shopping mall look slightly more appealing, so a rich tourist may be slightly more enticed to make expensive purchases on ridiculous items he/she does not need. These shopping malls stand in stark contrast to the rest of the city, and serve as a monument to Bangkok's desire for catering to rich foreigners. Meanwhile, the majority of the population lives in poverty.
An Elaborate Con
A few of you already messaged me asking for details on the "con" that I mentioned at the end of my previous post. As promised, I will explain what happened in full detail. But I want you to try putting yourself in my shoes. Pretend that you don't know how this ends to get a more entertaining read.
On my last day in Bangkok, I decided to find Wat Pho and its famous Reclining Buddha. This temple complex was similar to Wat Phra Kaew, the difference being that it featured a different main attraction. When I got there, it was pretty cool and I'm glad I saw it. Here is me in front of the huge Reclining Buddha:
My next stop for the day was going to be Chinatown...both Mario and my guide book said it was a really interesting place and worth a visit. I walked outside of the complex and started flipping through my book to look at a map. While reading, a Thai man approached me and started talking to me. "Hey, where are you going next?" he asked. I immediately started to walk away from him saying "Sorry not interested" which is my usual routine. He stopped me and said "No don't worry I'm not a taxi driver, I'm not selling anything. I was just trying to help. Are you from America?" Hmm, alright then, he's just a nice guy. He pulled out a map and started asking me if I had been to certain places around town. "Have you been to the Golden Mount? You really should see it. I'd recommend waiting a couple hours before going to Chinatown since there is much more to see in the late afternoon." Nice, some solid advice. Thanks for the help, guy. "Also, if you have the time, the Thai fashion outlet has a sale going on right now. It's a government promotion right now, which allows foreigners to purchase suits made in Thailand. Normally it's only for Thai citizens." Interesting insider tip, thanks again.
He continued to help me. "You know, you can hire tuk-tuk drivers for very cheap to take you to multiple locations around town. Only 60 Baht should cover this trip for a whole day." Wow, that's a really good price. Only about 2 bucks. He called over a tuk-tuk driver and haggled with the guy for me, and explained my whole trip (in Thai) while showing the driver the map. "Keep the map," he said. I walked away with a smile on my face. My faith in Thai locals has been restored.
The driver was a really cool and friendly young guy...he reminded me of "Short Round" from Indiana Jones. He took me to Golden Mount first and said he will wait 30 minutes for me to explore it. I had to climb a million stairs to get to the top of this place, but it was worth the hike. Check out this panoramic shot I got:
My trusty tuk-tuk driver waited for me in the parking lot. I hadn't paid him anything yet, so he had no incentive to leave me there. We started walking to his tuk-tuk and he asked if I needed to use the toilet. How considerate! "Nah, I think I'm good," I replied. "You can use it if you need to." He walked over the toilet and I waited in the tuk-tuk. While he was gone, another guy walked towards me in the parking lot and unlocked his SUV, which was blocked in by the parked tuk-tuk. "Hey I'm really sorry, the driver is coming right back," I said to the man. He assured me it was no problem. "No don't worry, I'm not in a hurry...my mother is inside the temple right now."
The guy started chatting me up while we waited. He told me he was a lawyer in Canada who was visiting family, and I talked to him about Chicago. He spoke with a British accent. He asked where I was going next, so I showed him the map and started explaining my trip. "Where did you hear about the Thai fashion outlet? From another local?" I confirmed that a local Thai guy helped me set up this trip. "That is pretty lucky for you...usually only Thais know about this place. There is a promotion going on right now for foreigners." Wow...I really need to check this out. "Guess where most designer suits are made? Right here in Thailand, before they get shipped to Italy and labeled. I get all my suits here in Thailand because I have a Thai member card. You can get suits for 1/5 of the price, and they can even ship them to you overseas. But you have to get sized by a tailor locally to get a member card. Right now they are allowing foreigners to buy so you could actually get a member card today before leaving Bangkok." We continued chatting about work and other things for a few more minutes.
I wasn't really in the market for a suit, but this guy got me pretty amped up to visit the Thai fashion house. My driver came back and I instructed him to take me there next. When we got there it was a lot smaller than I expected...I was expecting some massive warehouse. There were rolls of fabric everywhere and loads of suits lining the walls. I started talking to a salesman who looked to be of Persian descent. "Welcome sir, I assume you are here for the promotion available for foreigners?" he asked. Why yes I am! He showed me around and explained that I could get a tailored suit in pretty much any fabric design. But he kept trying to up-sell me on a package deal. He wanted me to buy 2 tailored suits and a tailored cashmere coat which came out to around $1,000. I continued to explain that I was only interested in one suit, MAYBE. Every time he offered me a deal, it was more than I expected...at least $500 for a suit. I can get off-the-rack suits back home for around that much. But these were designer quality and tailored. Should I spring for this purchase? It would be really nice to have a member card so I can buy cheap tailored suits any time I want in the future.
What happened next is difficult to explain. I was standing there in the store and had a strange moment, where in my mind I began to question what I was doing. How the hell did I end up in a suit store? I didn't come to Thailand to spend $500 on a suit.
"Keep in mind that if you want a member card, you have to purchase a suit before leaving Bangkok. How long are you staying here? If you're leaving soon, we can ship it to your address abroad. We have many customers abroad." He pulled out an order book with addresses from around the world.
Why is this guy pressuring me so hard to buy a suit? I continued to ponder whether or not I should get one. Suddenly it hit me out of nowhere - I realized that something was off about this place...it just didn't seem legit. But what about the local Thais that recommended it? I heard about this place from two separate guys, and even the driver said this place was great. Unless...no way. No freakin way. What if there is no such thing as a "Thai fashion house?" Was it NOT a coincidence that the nice guy helped me outside Wat Pho? And the Canadian guy in the parking lot at Golden Mount...was his entire story a lie? Were they all in on this? Were they all actually working together? Was this entire afternoon carefully orchestrated by all of these people, all with the end goal for me to purchase a suit from a shady retailer? Holy crap...I need to get the hell out of here right now.
I walked outside and told my driver I wanted to leave. The look on his face was severe disappointment. "Did you buy a suit?" my driver asked. The salesman came running out of the store. "Ok, four hundred dollars!" Get me out of here. My driver grudgingly drove me away as the salesman stared at us. Then, shockingly, he drove me to another suit store instead of Chinatown. He begged me to walk in there and browse the clothes. I paid the driver 100 baht and said "no thanks" and started to walk home. As I left, I saw a woman pulling up to the store in a tuk-tuk. "Don't do it, it's a scam!" I yelled to her. She looked at me and mouthed the words "I know" silently.
Geez, where the hell am I? I was stranded in the middle of nowhere. The hotel was a 3 mile sweaty walk, but I made it back. Faith in Thai locals un-restored.
Here's a picture of my "trusty" driver...I snagged it just before walking away: