A Day in Bangkok
“Only 10 bhat tip? Give me more. You give me more!”
Thus began our day outside of the Wat Po temple complex in Bangkok, Thailand. We had already massively overpaid for the short tuk tuk ride, but most drivers refuse to carry tourists for anything less than some multiple of the local price. It’s possible to negotiate down their massively inflated initial offers to a more reasonable form of extortion, but the stubborn few who insist on local prices will likely wait all day to save the equivalent of a few dollars.
It’s a delicate topic – nobody likes to be discriminated against based on nationality, but the value of time is far higher to tourists than that of money. Drivers are entirely privy to this. Their noxious fume filled work must be unimaginably difficult after all, and so it is that paying 150 Thai bhat for what should be about a 70 bhat ride becomes justifiably standard for non-locals.
Fares are normally negotiated before a trip commences and tips are never expected, which is why our driver’s complaint caught me so off guard. Has Thailand changed that much since I was last here 2 years ago? I was completely taken aback that after having tipped him on top the already high tourist price, he still demanded more. Thais usually settle things with smiles on their faces; this endearing quality makes even the most resolute disagreements seem at least somewhat pleasant. But there were no smiles here in the midst of our driver’s heated demanding. I steadfastly refused to hand over even more money, and he angrily went on his way.
It wasn’t long before another local approached us. Great! The Wat Po temple complex was walled off with no obvious entry point; perhaps he could point us in the right direction. Before we said anything at all, he immediately offered to ‘help’. This put the skeptical tourist in me into full defensive mode. We engaged him anyway.
“Yes, Wat Po is this way, but it doesn’t open for several more hours.”
Yeah, right, I thought.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, it’s closed until noon. It’s free Buddha day at another temple, shall I take you there?”
“No, thanks. We’ll wait for Wat Po.”
“Let me get you a tuk tuk!”
“No, thank you.”
He waived down a tuk tuk. I normally try to be nice and pleasant to everyone, but enough is enough. I completely ignored his further advances, much to the chagrin of both him and the driver. When “no” doesn’t work, becoming despondent is often the only way forward. I could hear his continued offers fade into the distance as we walked away in the direction he had pointed. I should have known better because it was the wrong direction.
For each low point in travel, there’s sure to be a high to follow. You never really know when the low points are going to occur, but when they do it’s how you react that defines your overall experience. You have to take the good with the bad and be content with the knowledge that if you keep trying, you’ll eventually get there. I resolved not to let either of these experiences ruin the day ahead of us even as we slowly realized we were headed the wrong way.
Besides, downtown Bangkok is chock full of interestingness. Walking the city’s streets is an experience unto itself, and while temples and guidebook highlights are always enjoyable, my favorite travel experiences are generally exclusive to more organic discoveries. And so I didn’t mind walking in the wrong direction one bit. We leisurely wandered around the markets lining the perimeter of Wat Po until finally stumbling upon the entrance.
Enter Wat Po and Grand Palace
Wat Po is open from 8am to 5pm; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. As far as I know, there are never any “free Buddha days” or some such nonsense. Stay focused and ignore the many touts (it’s a prime tourist area after all!) Eventually you’ll find the entrance. Grand Palace is right next door, and most tourists visit these back to back. Each are well worth seeing.
You could easily spend an entire day wandering around the palace areas. But with the crowds, heat, and dauntingly enormous temple grounds, you’ll work up an appetite in a short hurry.
It’s Time for Street Food
One of my favorite things about Thailand is the food. I love eating Thai food here at home in the USA, but believe me when I say that being in Thailand makes all the difference. Well, that and the fact that real Thai food tends to be insanely fresh, typically cooked on the street right before your eyes. They’ll water it down for you when they realize you’re a tourist, but ask ’em to make it spicy and you’ll get the good stuff. You’re never far away from an excellent meal in Bangkok.
Bangkok does have plenty of restaurants beyond quick street snacks. We settled on a touristy spot right by the river with excellent views of Wat Arun, my favorite temple in Bangkok. I usually avoid overly touristy places, but the view of the river was just too good to pass up.
Here’s our view of the river and Wat Arun from the restaurant. Wat Arun is my favorite temple for one reason: the stairs. It has the steepest staircase I’ve ever climbed, and the views from the top are entirely worth it. You can take an inexpensive ferry across the river to get to the temple. I’ve done this a few times on previous visits, but on this particular Bangkok trip we were a bit templed out, and decided to do something slightly less touristy.
The Bangkok Boat Tour
I’m not sure how well known this is. You can organize a boat tour of the river through the tourist companies at the pier and squeeze into a crowded boat, or you can do as we did and walk down a littler farther south towards the residential area to find your own driver. This requires a bit of exploration, but a few polite questions will eventually get you to someone who can help. Expect to pay about 900 Bhat for this experience (just shy of $30 usd). This is a lot of money by Bangkok prices, but it’s worth it for the hour long boat ride.
The boat ride is interesting because it offers a glimpse of the city’s back waterways that relatively few tourists bother to see. If you look closely you’ll see fish breaching the surface to feed, and if you happen to have eagle eye vision you may even spot a Komodo Dragon or two. And with plenty of temples and green spaces lining the river, the whole ride is a visual feast. It’s not all beauty, though. Some of the houses sit precariously on stilts while a select few have tragically succumbed to gravity in years past, their unoccupied ruins sadly on display.
On a lighter note, you’ll likely be approached by a floating market of sorts, a person on a boat with souvenirs and beer for sale. There are few things that go so well together as cold beer in your hand and warm Thai wind in your face. The boat ride should not be missed.
Having done the temple complex followed by a late lunch and the boat ride, we were now ready to check out Bangkok’s famous markets. Bangkok has world class shopping malls too, but I never understood the attraction to staying inside giant air conditioned buildings and paying western prices when you’re such a fascinating place as Thailand. The street markets are where it’s at. There are several scattered across the city, but perhaps none is more famous or popular than the market that lines the lower sois of Sukhumvit Road (soi means side street).
Sukhumvit has a few street sellers selling goods throughout the day, but come at night for the full experience. The vast majority of vendors set up as the sun begins to set, and by nightfall the sidewalks on both sides of the street are transformed into a massive outdoor shopping area. You can buy just about anything, from DVDs and electronics to kitchenware and clothes and more. Keep in mind that much of it is counterfeit, and you’ll need to put those bargaining skills to work if you hope to pay anything close to reasonable prices. I use “reasonable” hesitantly because everything is pretty inexpensive in Thailand.
The Quickest Guide to Thai Bargaining Ever
You should have the exchange rate down if you want any hope of coming out of a Thai market negotiation alive. For conversion to US dollars, I’ll lop off a zero and divide by three in my head. This has worked pretty well over the last 5 years while the exchanged rate has hovered around 30:1.
Vendors do a great job sizing up their clientele, and they’ll usually start at some multiple of whatever price they’re actually willing to sell for. Have a price in mind before you inquire, never show commitment to any one item, and always be willing to walk away. Often times, it’s only when you DO walk away that the vendor will agree to sell at the price you’d hoped for. Other times you’ll inadvertently overpay only to realize later, and sometimes you won’t be able to agree on a price at all. Do as the Thais do and keep smiling. Treat it as a fun game… because it is.
As far as language, many vendors speak English and all of them have calculators. You can use these in concert with the vendor to ensure the negotiation is crystal clear as you go back and forth.
There’s no shortage of nightlife in the city. Apparently I’m getting old though, because on this day I was perfectly content to call it a night after walking through the markets.
Bangkok is usually seen as a place to pass through on the way to or from somewhere better. I urge you to slow down and spend a few days in the Thai capitol city. Give it a chance; let it marinate a bit and don’t get soured on first impressions. You’ll probably walk away wearing a big Thai smile.