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Bangkok in a Bad Mood

(And how to avoid a common scam, own your journey, and keep your whining to yourself)

By Dave Fox
Bangkok, Thailand

Two different people have warned me of the scam: if anyone tells me the Royal Palace is closed, they’re lying.

Beware of sharks on the streets of Bangkok.

The government has a creative way of thwarting of the scammers. Half a block from the palace, I hear a woman’s voice bellowing in English through loudspeakers that the palace is open every day from 8 to 3:30, and anyone who says otherwise should be reported to the police.

What the government isn’t communicating is how to get inside the sprawling complex. There are no signs and I can’t find the entrance. I walk along a hefty white wall for a long street block. I turn the corner, keep walking. No gate. I stop a tourist and ask if she knows where the entrance is. She has no idea, but she’s all excited about the temple across the street. It’s got a huge reclining Buddha inside. “And you can get a great massage.”

“In the temple?”

“They have a massage school.”

I’ve read about this. The temple is another attraction just about every tourist in Bangkok flocks to.

You don't have to imitate everyone else.

I’m in my un-tourist mindset – mostly ignoring the list of “must-see” sights. Who came up with that expression, “must see?” What you “must see” is what you feel like seeing. If you feel like wandering aimlessly for several days in a place, as I often do – people-watching and enjoying your existence instead of racing through a guidebook writer’s check-list – do that. It’s your trip. Own it.

But the temple is just across the road. I decide to go inside.

The temple’s official name is Wat Phra Chettupuhon Wimon Mangkhlaram Ratchaworamachawiham.  That’s difficult for tourists with must-see checklists to pronounce , so to simplify things, the Thais have shortened it to Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

Find your own Nirvana.

The Reclining Buddha statue inside is 46 meters long. Buddha looks content as he drifts into Nirvana. I hang out with him a few minutes. He helps me get over the anxiety I’ve built up about palace scammers. Out in the temple gardens, whimsical statues of whimsical creatures put me in a whimsical mood. I find the massage school and pay for a 30-minute prodding. A massage school on sacred temple grounds is one of the few places in Bangkok where I’m confident they won’t try to upsell me into a “happy ending.”

I spend a couple of hours at the temple. Still determined to find the palace, I leave at 2:45.

Back at the big wall, if I keep walking in the direction I was going earlier, I’ll find the main entrance sooner or later. I turn another corner and find a gate, guarded by a soldier with a machine gun.

“Ticket?” I ask.

He gestures me to keep moving.

I reach another gate with two soldiers. A smiling man in an  Oxford shirt appears out of nowhere. It’s 2:57.

“The palace is closed. Three o’clock.”

“It closes at 3:30,” I say

“Special ceremony today. Closing early.”

I ask him to show me where the ticket office is.

“Closed.”

The announcement blares.

“See?” I say. “It says they’re open until 3:30.”

“Not today. Special Buddhist day.”

I look at the soldiers. Would this man be so brazen as to rip me off right in front of them when the government’s going to so much trouble to stop these con-games?

The soldiers are performing the most basic functions of their job, which are to stand there and hold their guns and look stone-faced. I begin to think maybe this guy is real, but I can’t let go of my skepticism. I resume walking.

I look back. The man’s gone. I return to the gate.

Another man appears – same style shirt, same decent English, same story. Palace closed. Religious ceremony. Come back tomorrow.

“But you are very lucky,” he says. “Today, there is a very special ceremony at the Temple of the….”

I don’t hear which temple it is. He’s quoting a guidebook warning, verbatim. Rare ceremony at a temple across town. He can take me there.

I walk.

I turn the final corner. It’s 3:10.

I reach a booth with a sign warning visitors to avoid “unscrupulous people.” A Thai man and woman are standing next to it.

“Temple closed,” the man says.

“It’s not 3:30 yet.”

“Close at three today.”

“Where is the ticket office?”

He points to the empty booth. I don’t believe it’s the ticket office. I start walking as he launches into his sales pitch.

After a couple of hundred feet, I look back. The woman who was with the man is running. She’s gaining on me. This is getting annoying.

But as she catches up, I glance long enough to see she’s not Thai. I hadn’t realized she was getting harangued back there too. She tells me she’s Mexican, living in Paris, married to a French guy. We waffle between English and French as we compare stories.

“I think the entrance is up here,” she points.

“Hurry,” a uniformed man says at the next gate. “The ticket office is closing soon!”

We make it inside in time for a 40-minute blitz – ample time for most of the palace grounds. Then we plod through the heat back to the backpacker ghetto and say our goodbyes.

I have another friend visiting Bangkok but I’m too tired to meet him for dinner. I go to bed early, wishing I’d booked my night train ticket out of here for tonight instead of tomorrow.

I leave Bangkok the next evening, not as enamored with the city as I wanted to be. I hesitate to elaborate on that though. It’s lame for a travel writer to parachute into a place in a tired mood and write about how the place sucks. I’ve seen other bloggers berate some of my favorite cities after a couple of unlucky experiences. It’s lazy writing.

So, Bangkok, I look forward to giving you another chance. I look forward to hearing nice things about you from people who love you. I hope you will someday join Rome, Florence, and Istanbul on my list of cities I initially disliked and eventually came to love.

But it was time to move on.

Next stop: Vientiane, Laos.

Published on Tuesday, June 19, 2012

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