Refreshed from our previous sleepless night in Bangkok, we were ready to pace the streets and admire the many significant sights of Bangkok. “We must be careful, though.” I cautioned Mark. I then continued by relaying the infamous tuktuk swindles that often result in an unsuspecting tourist being carted off to a backstreet tailor. No suits for us, thank-you. “They’ll tell us the palace is closed, and then whisk us off somewhere,” I explained. Fortunately, there could be no convincing that the palace was closed today. Though the gates had not yet been open an hour, the place was teeming with people already.
Brightly coloured mosaic tiles, a jade Buddha, the enticing smell of burning incense and golden pagodas that positively blind in the sun. Via the “The Foreigners” entrance we had entered the vast and impressive Grand Palace in Bangkok. The entire complex is a labyrinth of decorative features, each one more ornate than the last. From the carved stone ornaments decorated with garlands of orange flowers, to the never-ending rows of golden Buddha’s, your eyes are kept occupied for the entire visit. For the finale, like penguins, we shuffled through the armoury museum. A conveyor belt of people, we entered through one door and hurriedly made the circuit to the exit. Air! Exhausted from the sensory assault of the palace, we headed towards the Bangkok National Museum, with hopes of less people congestion.
From one extreme to another, we approached a rather lifeless compound. As we did so, a man with a kind face sitting on a nearby stool rose to his feet and headed towards us. He shook our hands and informed us that the museum was closed. He proceeded by asking us where we were from and enquiring sincerely about our travels. With little activity around and doors that were firmly shut, the museum did indeed look closed. Nothing suspect there.
His warm smile made speaking with him an effortless task, and his kind demeanour so persuasive it was positively uplifting. His English was also impeccable. What a thoroughly lovely man, I thought to myself. After asking to see the map, which was casually but evidently in my right hand, he highlighted a few of the things we should make the time to see. “You must see The Lucky Buddha”, he implored. Well, if this gentleman insisted then I was convinced that to do so would be in our best cultural interests. When the encounter had drawn to a close, we shook hands once again and said our goodbyes. With a newly annotated map, and a spring in our step we headed out to explore the rest of Bangkok.
We saw the graceful Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, and marvelled at how huge and startlingly gold it was. We climbed the many steps of The Golden Mount, admiring the sweeping views of Bangkok as we made the ascent. We even paid the somewhat brazen fare to climb the final few steps. Late in the afternoon, as we were wandering aimlessly, a man walking in front of us turned around and began to engage in conversation. People really are friendly in Bangkok. It’s little wonder that people call Thailand “the land of smiles”.
He, like the man earlier that day, asked us many questions about our travels. I half thought that perhaps people are just keen to practice their English. (Which was indeed very good.) He too asked us if we’d seen The Lucky Buddha. It was late on in the day, and we had concluded that we’d save some sights for another time. Excitedly, he then told us that today was a government funded holiday meaning that tuktuk rides were only 20 Baht. That’s curious. He then hailed us a tuktuk out of the many that was passing. Feeling a certain sense of kind obligation, we hopped in for his troubles. He told us we only had half an hour to get to The Lucky Buddha before it closed, instructed the tuktuk driver and off we went. He laughed heartily and waved us off. What luck to bump into that man!
So, off we went until we eventually arrived at a Wat that looked closed. We returned to the tuktuk, to which the driver was surprised. “It’s not open,” we indicated. Then, a gentle looking man came to the tuktuk and informed us we were just in time. Excellent. This genteel character told us that he used to be a monk, and now he was a teacher of English. A holy man and a teacher! How fortunate to have an exchange with a man of such wisdom. He even told us that he lived in England at one time, in Oxford. That’s close to where we live, we told him. What a coincidence!
After speaking a while, he took us up a locked bell tower. He opened the gate with the keys in his pocket and gestured for us to make the ascent to the giant bell at the top. This was starting to get a little odd. Surely, this isn’t the general practice for visiting tourists? Not that we could see any. When we had arrived at the top, he informed us that we were to make a wish, and to touch the bell with our eyes closed at the same time. So there we stood, all three of us, politely and comically with our hands touching this giant bell. I sneaked a peak at Mark, wanting to burst into laughter but managed to hold it back. I didn’t want to be considered disrespectful, of course.
Once that shenanigan was all over and done with, we made our way back to the tuktuk. Before we said our goodbyes, the man who had taken us up the bell tower asked us if we were aware that it was Government Day today? We delighted in telling him that we knew of it. He told us that it applied for any means of travel, discounted fares for train, buses…anything. Mark and I glanced at each other, to which he prompted that it was to encourage tourism within Thailand. He then added that there was a booking office around the corner if we were interested. We took that prompt as our cue to leave. We hopped back into our tuktuk, and with a huge sense of relief we went on our way.
A few minutes had passed until we had stopped in front of a shop. A tour booking office, no less! The tuktuk driver pointed for us to go in. “No, thank-you,” we retorted politely. He pointed again. We shook our heads. It went like this for a minute or so, until reluctantly he grumbled and started the engine. A few minutes later we had stopped again. What now? Where had we found ourselves but in front of a bloody tailor. Then the penny had dropped. Bugger. We had fallen for it.
Without saying anything to each other, we both decided that it was best to swiftly vacate the tuktuk. We gave the driver the agreed fare, said our thanks and made an attempted escape. Screaming and shouting ensued from this man, who prior to that moment hadn’t said a single word. He demanded considerably more money, gradually getting more aggressive. The day had concluded on a rather sour note.
On the long and reflective walk back to our hostel, we passed a notice “A Warning to Tourists”. Well, it could almost have been the itinerary of our day. “There is NO such thing as The Lucky Buddha”. Yes, we could confirm that. “There is NO such thing as a Government Day”. Yes, that too. We continued down the bullet pointed list, each caveat an embarrassing blow that by the end of it we were well and truly KO’d. Confused as to why we were chosen prey, we scratched our heads as to what made us the likely targets. The map! What better indicator for a newly arrived naive tourist than a creaseless map in their oblivious clutches. Not to mention the wide-eyed enchantment with Bangkok that was no doubt plastered on our faces.
Hand ups. We fell for it. The ball and chain is around my foot and I am ready for my mug shot now. We thought we were wisened to this. I had read the guidebooks and online messages of caution and I thought I would smell a surreptitious scam from a mile off. I however, was led into the battlefield disarmed from the charm and apparent sincerity of all those who seemed to be involved.
The following day not one person approached us. Not one! There must be an indicator of the second day visitor. Perhaps it’s the fading red blush of humiliation, or the air of indignity that lingers after being hoodwinked. Either way, the next few days continued without a single approach. Luckily, it didn’t take long for us to laugh about it, and we spent the rest of our time in Bangkok exploring it independently and without an ounce of hassle.
It’s a (very small) comfort to know that we’re not the first to be fooled by charisma and smiles, and regrettably we certainly won’t be the last.