And A Very Merry Christmas To You Too, Bangkok

I remember now why I scheduled us only for the absolute minimum amount of time in Bangkok. Whenever I'm here I have a disappointing, frustrating, or downright infuriating experience, usually involving being separated from my money in some stupid, gratuitous way by con artists of one kind or another.

We had to get up early to be picked up at 8 for our "canal tour," and the night before this experience we couldn't sleep for hours because of all the Christmas Eve revelry. I woke up with a sore throat. I managed to snag a quick cup of coffee from the bad breakfast buffet at our hotel, which the guidebook claims is "straddling the mid-range to top-end divide." I think the guidebook writer may have seen the rooms, but they definitely didn't try the breakfast.

So, at some time after 8 the minibus driver arrived. This is where the con begins. But it's a bit hard to identify exactly who committed the fraud. If we'd known what we were getting into, it wouldn't necessarily have been anything but a crappy, tourist-trappy experience that, perhaps, some tourists actually enjoy. We'd asked the travel agent at our hotel for a canal tour. "Just Bangkok canals," I said. I'd been on two before, one with Mike and one by myself. When I went by myself, we stopped at temples and explored some of the smaller canals. When I went with Mike, we didn't stop at all (or only for a bathroom break, he reminds me). We might have bought a coke from a woman in a small boat who pulled up next to ours. So I thought I had an idea of what the tour would be like. Canals = spending most of the time in the boat, right?

Actually, no. First, the minibus driver took us to the pier, where he introduced us to a man he referred to as "Thai Mafia," pointing to his belly -- which was really only a medium-sized belly. "Only kidding," he said. He said Mr. Thai Mafia would tell us what boat to take and it would do the tour and come back and he would come pick us up and take us back to the hotel. Mr. Mafia told us to wait five minutes, which translated into twenty, but that still didn't seem so bad. It's Thai Time, which Thais themselves will tell you, and you learn to get used to it. Mafia finally told us to get on a boat and we got on and it started going.

A guide spoke over an audio system that, we sequentially learned, blasted the eardrums of those sitting in back while barely coming to the notice of those in front. Anyway, the guide's English pronunciation and grammar were so bad that we could understand about one out of five words he said.

First, we stopped at a souvenir shop by the side of the canal, and here they expected my grandmother to clamber up over the side of the boat. I asked if we could just stay in the boat, and they said "no, you take break," or something like that. We didn't want any of the low-quality, high-priced souvenirs, so we stood waiting for the boat and guide to come back. Then it emerged that the break was to last a full half hour. It was hot outside the shop, and there was no place to sit -- the better to force us to shop. This, however, was not a good arrangement for my grandmother, so I swiped a stool from one of the vendors for her to sit on. (I wish I'd thought of this earlier; by the time she sat down it was almost time to go.)

I wondered at this point why there were so many people around with guide's badges hanging from their necks. This would only be explained later, when, after a short ride from the souvenir shop, we got to the crocodile farm, where we were told that we would spend 40 minutes and 100 baht to look at the crocodiles.

(I think the boat tour we went on back in Cambodia -- which seems such a long time ago now -- is aspiring to be THIS boat tour. I wish it wouldn't. There, we were taken to an overpriced souvenir shop-cum-zoo, with crocodiles -- but it was just one stop we didn't have to pay to see the crocodiles.)

We didn't want to spend 40 minutes and 100 baht, so we asked if we could get a water taxi back to the pier where we'd embarked. No, we were told we had to wait. But first we were asked who our guide was. We didn't have a guide. But, we now discovered, all the other tourists were in small groups led by a Thai guide.

When we'd gotten off the boat this second time, we noticed teenagers snapping photos of us. Ugh, I thought, they're going to try to get us to buy these pictures. As we sat waiting outside the Crocodile Farm (fortunately, seating was provided) the teenagers began bringing plates out. Ugh, I thought, they're going to expect us to order food if we want to sit here. But no -- in fact, they were putting the plates on a rack near the water facing where the tourists would come out of the Crocodile Farm. The plates were apparently for sale. And yes, you guessed it (or did you?) the plates were tacky souvenir plates, produced on the spot from the photographs, each one with one of the tourists' faces on it. Yes, we were expected to buy these plates in order to take them home and put them in our display cases of tacky souvenirs. Either that, or eat off them. Would you want to eat off a plate with your face on it?

We got back to the pier in Bangkok (am I missing anything? was there anything else bad about this trip?) and when we got off, Mafia said we had to take a taxi back to our hotel. I argued and argued with him about this, since the minibus driver had said he'd pick us up. Finally Mafia agreed to pay for the taxi himself. Of course, since the taxi driver was paid in advance a fixed sum, he would not take us all the way down Khaosan Rd. to our hotel, but made us get out and walk. But that's pretty much par for the course.

Back at the hotel, the travel agency was being staffed by a different young woman, so I couldn't (as I'd intended) ask for our money back.

This has been a really wonderful trip in all kinds of ways, and I'm sorry to (once again) leave with a bad taste in my mouth about the capital of Thailand, Asia's "City of Angels." Next time, maybe we should exit through China instead.


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