An Epic Adventure in Transit/Paranoia in Thailand


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August 9th 2009
Published: August 9th 2009
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So when I last blogged about our wonderful stay on Phu Quoc Island, I was writing from an coffee shop in Saigon on Friday afternoon. I wasn't aware at the time, but we had begun what would basically be 51 hours in transit as we blundered our way to an island somewhere in Thailand. Over those 51 hours we spent 5 sleeping in beds, 19 in stations/airports, 7 wandering Saigon, and 20 on some sort of transportation. And before I give the details, yes, it was every bit as pleasant as it sounds.

So we left our place on Phu Quoc at 7am, off to the airport to fly to Saigon. Once we had got to Saigon and stored our bags we headed into the city for what I think is the longest marathon internet research session I have ever participated in. As it turns out, it takes a little bit of work to figure out how exactly you're going to go spur-of-the-moment from an island in Vietnam to an island in Thailand. Things were further complicated by it being peak season on the islands we were looking at, so everything was full, and many things didn't allow booking on such short notice. Frustrating.

5.5 hours later, we walked around Saigon one last time before we had to leave. We caught a taxi back to the airport, which was apparently the place to be in Saigon on a Friday night. Random cultural observation of the Vietnamese: I think the accepted practice in Vietnam when seeing a loved one off at the airport is to stand around outside while you wait for their flight to take off. You don't do anything, only your presence is needed. It was a little bizarre.

I had no idea how much I was soon going to be missing those people.

But not yet. We flew to Bangkok and arrived to find a very nice, modern airport with excellent facilities. It was also freezing cold, which made sleeping nearly impossible. This difficulty sleeping was further compounded by the terribly uncomfortable metal seats we had to attempt to sleep on. The plan had been to save money by sleeping in the airport overnight (we arrived around 11) before heading to the train station the next morning in hopes of buying a rail ticket. While we did save money, we definitely lost sleep.

Anyway, around 5am we figured we would try and make our way to the train station, and I think now will be a good time to explain where the paranoia comes from. I had read in guidebooks and on the internet about how you really need to look out for scams and the like in Thailand... but I really had no idea. I'll elaborate.

As you walk around the Bangkok airport, you are constantly hassled. The hassle wasn't new to me, it happened pretty frequently in Vietnam, and can really be expected in any touristed area. It's not really too bad, and to the well-prepared traveler it can even be a little charming. How can you ever get tired of hearing that most endearing of phrases, "Hey you, where you going?" What makes Bangkok special is the degree to which this hassle occurs. Taxi drivers sneaking into the airport trying to lure you into their ultra-ripoff-mobiles, hotel agents trying to suck you in, even the front men for fast food places in the food court will rattle off 13 reasons why should come inside as you walk past.

But there's more. We're savvy travelers, and we know to avoid the touts and search out the public taxi stand, where you get metered taxis and receipts of who the driver is in order to prevent corruption. We sign up for a taxi, and as the driver is showing us to his cab we have an exchange that went something like this (paraphrasing):
Him: Where you go?
Me: Hualumphong train station
Him: O, o, station. Ya I take you, 500 Baht (that's Thai currency)
Me: Don't you have a meter for that?
Him: No, no meter.
Me: (holding up my receipt with his name on it) Meter.
Him: Ok ok ok meter. Airport rip you off.
Me: (thinking to myself as I choose not to respond and just get in - yes, the airport will rip me off)

As we ride along into the city, he looks back and rubs his fingers together - "Money. For toll. 30 Baht."
I make a sound of acknowledgement, aware ahead of time I had to pay this.
He cuts in again - "O no, sorry 70 Baht, 70 Baht."
I still choose not to answer, and decide to wait until right as we pull up to the toll booth to pay him. He gets anxious, and I finally give him 40 Baht. He says "Ok right", pays the toll, and gives me 15 Baht change.

This experience is essential Thailand. At the train station we somehow managed to find people who were definitely getting a little bit of a cut (in Thailand, everyone gets a cut) but miraculously were kind-hearted as they did it and gave us all the correct information, plus it was the information we actually needed. We ended up booking the rest of our journey through them, and I'm pretty sure we were only ripped off in the smallest degree. All in all I'd say it was easily worth it for having everything taken care of ahead of time: trains, boats, place to stay, and information saving us from making a mistake.

Now I don't really want to hate on a country just because its people try and scam tourists all the time... but seriously, it gets tiring. You see it reflected on the travelers here. Everyone walks around in a complete state of ignoring anyone who talks to them. It's strange, but necessary. If you were to take the time to talk to everyone who came up to you, not only would you never accomplish anything, but you would probably end up stuck in some random jungle in the middle of Burma with no money no passport and if you're lucky maybe your underwear. You have to be a little paranoid... and it just wears on you.

What makes it even worse are that plenty of people, maybe even most people, genuinely want to be nice to you. But you can't take that chance.

Here's an example for that. After our loooooooong train station wait and loooooooooooong train ride (8 hours delayed into 10... no AC... Thai trains are not like Germany's), we arrived to Chumphon, the port town. We crashed in a hotel for the 5 hours of sleep I mentioned then went back to the station for our pickup to catch a ferry to our island. We arrived at 5:30am for our 6:00am pickup. As we stood there we realized we had no idea exactly what to wait for. Taxi? Bus? Motorbike? A man came up to me and asked me what I was doing. I told him, and he told me where to wait and what to expect. I listened, for lack of a better alternative. But the whole time, especially when our bus was 25 minutes late and still hadn't shown, I was paranoid that he was scamming me somehow. I could tell everyone around me felt the same. It's just what happens.

And that's why I miss Vietnam.

Thankfully, the bus was simply late, and we did catch our boat out to our island. The man was just a friendly native. Now we're on Ko Tao, and everything is OK again. 51 hours of transit... with an island vacation at the end. Worth it.

But seriously, for a place so dependent on tourism, it can suck to be a tourist here.

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