Sunday, October 21, 2007

Fleeced in Bangkok

Bangkok has the seedy hipness of New York without the pretension or high prices. Add some Asian flavor, people that party all night, and you've got a recipe for a great city. Still, like the cowboy in the movie "Midnight Cowboy," I had a lot to learn my first two days.

Separating tourists from their money is a favorite past time in South East Asia. From what I can tell, rip-off artists sharpen their skills in smaller places like Hanoi and when they're ready to play in the big leagues, they come to Bangkok. In fact, the economists at Randystravel estimate that tourist rip offs account for 40 percent of the city's revenue.

And it's not like the authorities aren't aware of it. The tourist maps you pick in the airport warn you about cab and tuk-tuk drivers.
(a tuk-tuk is a 3-wheeled, gas-powered rickshaw.)

Transportation scams:
- you get into their vehicle and tell them you want to go to hotel x or see monument y. They tell you the monument or hotel is closed and they take you to either a hotel or a sleezy store. The idea is that you'll buy a room or some junk and the driver gets a kick back from the proprietor. (For bringing you to a store, a driver may get $1. If you buy something, he may get $5)
- they will charge you an outrageous fee to go around the corner.

Cash Confusion:
The first day or so, dealing with a new currency is tricky. If there are 34 baht to a dollar, is a 100 baht a good deal for a beer? So far on my trip, I've had to deal with 4 different currencies. As a result, you encounter the following.

- miscounted change: merchants just give you the wrong change.
- inflated pricing $5 for a beer sounds reasonable until you realize that in Bangkok only idiots pay $5 for a beer. A beer costs $2 or less. (60 baht or less)

Tourist buses:
- The hostel in which I stayed warned about buses. They stow your belongings under the bus and then rifle through them and steal your valuables.

First Night in Bangkok

I took a public express bus to the hostel, which was on a main boulevard called Sukimvit Road. Sukimvit has streets running off it called Sois (pronounced "soys.) I was on Soi 38, two blocks from the skyway, or above-ground subway. I was also about 3 stops from some of the key red-light districts.

I started talking to some folks in the hostel lobby and we agreed to meet later for dinner and drinks. Unfortunately, we were going to the other part of town beyond the subway and we'd need to deal with a cab driver. We split into two groups and were advised to flag down a driver and insist on having him charge us according to the cab's meter. The first group got a metered cab right away. I was in the second group and the problems started. The first driver we flagged down refused to go by the meter. The second refused as well. We got desperate. Somehow we got the idea that 300 baht was a fair price. (about $10, split 3 ways.) We told him we'd pay 300 baht. He said ok. Our first victory against Bangkok's bad men, we snickered to ourselves. Upon arriving, we asked the folks who took a separate cab what they paid. "100 baht." Damn.

Fleeced Again

The next morning, I went out in search of breakfast. There was a series of soup and noodle stalls near the hostel. I went to the first one. Asked the price: 30 baht. ($1) I said "too much." The middle-aged proprietress didn't respond. I walked away. I came to another stall that was actually in a little store. I asked the price. The elderly woman said 40 baht. Bitch! But I was hungry so I sat down. A guy in his twenties was also working there. I ate my soup and fumed because I knew I was being overcharged. When I was done with my meal, I asked him how much. He said 30 baht I paid and left before she could see what went on.

Later that day, I wanted to find a health club. I had the address of two. The first one wanted 1000 baht (about $30) to work out for the day. That was more than my hostel room. I went to the health club across the street. They wanted 800 baht for the day. I tried to negotiate. "How about 800 baht for 24 hours, which means I can come in tomorrow morning?" This turned into a full-fledge negotiation, almost like buying a car. The sales manager (an attractive Thai woman in her 20's) called me into the deal-closing area, where other sales people were working perspective clients. We bantered back and forth. We agreed to something, but I wasn't sure what. I insisted on something in writing. She gave me a little card that said I could work out 2 days for 800 baht (about $13 a day). I went and worked out. I talked to another member. He said he paid 630 baht per month. "800 baht seems kind of expensive," he said. Damn.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

For dinner, I went in search of a noodle stall. I found a place manned by another old lady who didn't speak much English. (or didn't let on that she did.) I asked how much. She said 30 baht for a curried chicken and rice dish. I ordered and also asked for a bottle of water. She whipped up the food. It was cold. I may be an easy mark, but when it comes to food poisoning, I'm willing to take a stand. I told her I'd pay for the water but not for the food. I told her it was cold. She didn't understand. I gestured. She gestured. I was bigger than she was, but I didn't want to tangle with her. There was another guy eating who seemed to know his way around the food stall. Hopefully, it was her son. I explained to him. I couldn't tell if he understood. We just stood there. Stand off in Bangkok. He took away the food. I paid him 10 baht (the going rate) for the water. We parted company.

My last day, I asked the hostel to call me a cab for the airport. The hostel owner has a sign on the wall that says the cab will cost 300 to 350 baht, depending on traffic. I get in the cab and ask how much it will be. The driver says he will take the highway and run the meter. He says I will have to pay the toll. I start to get angry and ask him to stop the cab so we can go discuss this with the hostel owner. I realize that my bags are in his trunk. If I get out of the cab, he could split with my bags. (I've also done a bad thing in Thai culture: getting mad. You're supposed to show restraint, even in the middle of a fleecing. Smiling, laughing, and being firm are fine. Anger is not good.) I agree to the terms. I read the fine print on the window of the cab that has the terms drivers are supposed to abide by. It says passengers are supposed to pay tolls. We get to the airport: tolls plus meter: $340 baht. I pay him and he owes me $260. He hands me what looks like 160 baht. I ask angrily for the other 100 baht. He says it's there. I open wad of bills. It's all there. Damn.

I'm in the airport restaurant. I order the green curry, extra spicey. The dish comes in a bowl that is only a quarter full. I call over the waitress and with a smile I point to the green mixture and say "nit noy, nit noy. Where's the food?" (Nit noy means "a little.") The waitress looks confounded. I call over the manager. With a big smile, I give him the same routine. He grabs my bowl and hands it to the cook. When I get the bowl back it is three quarters full. It looks great. I spoon some into my mouth. I start to cough and suppress it. This is the spiciest dish I've ever tasted. I plough through it hacking, wheezing, eyes and nose running, and finish every drop. I refuse to give the restaurant staff any satisfaction. I have nasty burning sensation in my colon for the next two days. Damn.