Saturday, November 05, 2005

Tuk-Tuk Hijacking

On our last day in Bangkok, Boss and I decided to don our tourist caps and hit the streets to see the sites. We hired a car to take us to the Grand Palace and then return for us to bring us back to our hotel. The Grand Palace was amazing - it is a collection of Wats (temples), statutes, throne rooms, and palacial buildings all covered in beautiful tiles or mirror or colorful paint or gold leaf. One of the most famous things in the Grand Palace is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is a jade statute of a Buddha about the size of a six month old baby that was found in the 1400's. It was covered in plaster - it was originally just thought to be like any other Buddha but the plaster on the nose began to chip and a sparkling green appeared from underneath. It was originally thought to be made of emerald and the name stuck. The Buddha is displayed in golden clothes that are changed three times a year for the different seasons. The temple that the Emerald Buddha is in, is a large room with high ceilings and muraled walls. There is an golden incredible throne for the Buddha and everyone comes into the Temple without their shoes and kneels down before it. Feet must be pointed away from the Buddha at all times. It was a really amazing spectacle.

After we walked around in the splendor and took enough photos to fulfill our tourist obligations, we had some time left before our driver returned for us so we decided to walk down the street the the Wat Pho, which is another famous temple. On our way out of the Grand Palace a man stopped us and asked where we were going. We said that we were fine and didn't need anything and began to walk again but he interrupted us and said that no you misunderstand me, I am not trying to sell you anything. I am a university professor and I am just interested in what you are seeing in my country. We talked to him for a few minutes and told him where we were from and how long we were in Bangkok. We told him that we were going to walk down to the Wat Pho and he told us that it would not open for a couple of hours but took my map and circled a couple of places his said were worth going to see. When we told him we only had a little time left he told us to go to the Golden Mountain. After showing it to us on the map he grabbed a tuk-tuk for us and ushered us into it. He told us it would be 20 baht (about 50 cents USD) to get there and back - this should have been our clue, Bangkok is pretty cheap to get around in but it is not that cheap - but we said ok and then just as we were getting in the tuk-tuk our new friend casually mentioned something about shopping. We said no, no, we didn't have time and with that we were off.

Riding in a tuk-tuk is an experience that every visitor to Thailand should have once and preferably only once. They are fast and open and basically death traps. The Thai government is intending to ban them soon, I was told. But for now they are all over Bangkok and we sat in the back of one sucking in diesel fumes, hoping our estates were in order, as we weaved through traffic to the Golden Mountain.

When we got there our driver told us that he would wait for us and then he would take us to see the city and then to shopping and then back to the Grand Palace. No, we said just here and then back to the Grand Palace. He told that we had hired a tour and that he would take us all over for two hours. We said no that's ok will pay you the full amount but just here and then back. At this point he pulled out a petrol card and we started to understand. The tourist shops have an agreement with the tuk-tuk drivers where if they get people into their stores, the shops will pay for the driver's petrol and that is why the fare was so low. A little nervous now because we had to catch a flight in a few hours we tried to explain to him again that this was not what we had agreed to but he seemed to get pretty upset. We decided to climb up the Golden Mountain and see it and then go back and see if we could work something out with him after he calmed down a little.

The Golden Mountain was pretty cool - it is a set of winding stairs wrapped around a circular building with little monuments and statutes along the way. At the top there is a temple and a spectacular view of Bangkok. Glad we had made the climb, we worked our way back down and found our driver. Again he showed us the petrol card and we said no, no, Grand Palace. He then motioned for us to go out through this side exit and that he would meet us out there with the tuk-tuk. We headed out there only to find that it was another temple area and not an exit to the road. We looked for a way out in case we had gotten the direction wrong but couldn't find one. We went back to where we had left our driver and he was still there, now eating lunch. We were supposed to meet our car at the Grand Palace in less than 5 minutes. We tried to just give him money and find another way back - again he complained and got upset - we left him with 40 baht and walked until we found another tuk-tuk who we hired for substantially more to get us back to the Palace and to our waiting car.

-A Monkey