don’t let tuk-tuk riders take you for a ride!
Tuk-Tuk rides can be fun, and yes, even an effective mode of transportation through the crowded streets of Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Nevertheless, they can also be a rip-off. (For those of you not sure exactly what a tuk-tuk is, in a nutshell, it is a motorcycle with an added bench seat on the back - kind of like a motorized tricycle built for three). Be sure to work out the price of your trip with the driver before you set out, and no matter what, do not, we repeat, DO NOT allow him to whisk you off to some backstreet jewelry or gem shop... no matter how cute his buggy may be!
Be sure to stand your ground and refuse the trip - even if the driver tells you that every single highlight of the city is closed “today only” for some “special religious holiday” Why? Well, it is a little known fact that a well-oiled scam in Bangkok revolves around unregulated taxi drivers who team up with jewelry merchants to bring them customers in return for kickbacks! The swindle has aggravated the world's tourists for years!
Now, perhaps some of you might actually want to buy jewelry - and at the same “cheap price” your renegade tuk-tuk driver is promising! But buyer beware, the gemstones for sale at these anxiety-inducing spots are all fake! If you suddenly find yourself in a similar predicament with a tuk-tuk driver, just tell them that you have no interest in buying any jewelry and that you can ultimately make the trek to your destination on foot! (If you are still looking for bracelets or necklaces later in the day, may we suggest the Amulet Market near the Grand Palace. See “goodies” for more information.)
Set of Drifters tip: While we’re on the topic of taxis and tuk-tuks, we would like to mention the ridiculously insane conglomeration of streets near the Sanam Luang Park. If you are staying in the Banglamphu and want to visit more popular sights in Ratanakosin on foot, head straight to the water! It will be much easier to navigate the journey to the Grand Palace while following the Chao Phraya rather than waiting for a break in traffic along Thaon Rajdamneon Nai. (Perhaps we should have taken that tuk-tuk after all!)
water taxis, long-tail boats and the littering of the Chao Phraya River
After our premiere lunch in town, we took a stroll alongside the mighty Chao Phraya River. Fishermen and their families live alongside the riverbanks in tin houses set up on stilts while barges trudge up and down the river. Their hoist? Presumably all of those wooden, copper and stone Buddha statues you see in the city's many markets. While it may not have been the most glamorous impression of daily Bangkok life - it was our first.
We eventually made it to the pier nearest our hotel and watched as locals clamored up and down the gantry. Bangkok’s water taxi service is used by thousands every day, people looking to avoid the incredibly congested streets clogged with tuk-tuks, buses, motorcycles - and pedestrians! It was a scene that reminded us the most expedient form of transportation is often via a city’s waterway system. Whether you are in London, New York, Sydney or yes, even Bangkok, riding a water taxi allows for a relaxing, picturesque alternative that ultimately confirms geographic bearings.
Sadly, the Chao Phraya, which defines Bangkok’s western border, is more than just a vessel to carry citizens from point A to point. Thanks to a virtual net of floating water hyacinth plants, the river also acts unwittingly as a repository for the city’s trash. Thousands of bottles, Styrofoam cups and other odds ‘n ends bob along the surface, trapped by the foliage that drifts downstream. (Plastic and gasoline in the water makes us mad.) We surmised that the local recycling industry has yet to take off, though If the local government could see how successful the enterprising troops that raid our bins back home are, perhaps they would be more inspired to step in!
The Chao Phraya Express Boat service runs Monday through Friday from 6:00 AM until 8:00 PM and on weekends until 7:00 PM. Fares vary depending on destination, though expect not to pay more than 30 baht for any standard trip (about $1). Boat tours and dinner cruises are also available via other operators and start as low as 1,500 baht per journey (about $50 USD). Depending on your wants, you can opt for a full-blown tour of the Siam’s old capital of “Thonburi” (located on the east side of the river), or take a shorter trip that simply passes by any number of famous temples, hotels and other dwellings that occupy the banks of this large, but shallow waterway. (For more on what makes the Chao Phraya drift see “sights.")
Set of Drifter tip: Eponymous “long-tail boats,” the river bound version of the noisy tuk-tuk, join smaller water taxis as a very economical method of getting around to see the sights. (We did not venture out on one of these noisy bad boys in Bangkok though we did get the chance later in Phuket.) Trips average about 20 baht per journey ($.70 USD) and they go pretty much everywhere, but be wary. Floating down the Chao Phraya River is a discombobulating experience and you just may get a little wet! Keep your camera and other valuables protected in a waterproof zip-lock bag if you have one handy.
The Chao Phraya Express Boat - found along any number of piers that dot the river, 011 (66) 2-623-6001
Whether you’re lying on the beach or sitting in a chair in the middle of a noisy Bangkok neighborhood, Thai massage allows for a pretty incredible experience. The Thai technique is generally more energizing and rigorous than a traditional massage, with some calling it the "lazy man's yoga." In other words, while the therapist manipulates your body into a series of somewhat complex, muscle-stretching poses, you simply chill-out and enjoy! The best part? The low cost of Thai massage allows you to treat yourself to the rejuvenating therapy every day of your trip, perhaps even multiple times in one day - if so inclined.
Our first massage while in Thailand was also probably the best! Situated across from an old Shell gas station near Khao San Road in Bangkok (see "sights" and "goodies" for more information), we indulged in hour-long foot and back/ neck massages that continued well into night! The out-in-the-open public experience was surprisingly a lot more relaxing than it may sound, and allowed for ample people watching opportunities that we never would have captured otherwise!
For the foot massage, the therapist brought out a weird short wooden pestle that was used to mold and push the nerves and muscles beneath the skin surface. The tool was a bit archaic, but its effect was entirely enjoyable. A replenishing ankle and leg scrub with warm towels soon followed! (Ahhhhh, take me back there now!) For the neck and back massage we were placed on colorfully draped cots that were lined in a couple rows under a tent. The setting’s first impression reminded us of a makeshift hospital in some war-torn nation, yet once the massage was underway, all cares were soon forgotten. Here, even the hum of the locals and tourists milling nearby adds to the evocative experience not soon forgotten. So how much does this all cost? Our Khao San Road massage experience was only $7 USD each, tip included!
Set of Drifters tip: Please use caution in super-touristy areas as the quality of your massage may vary greatly. Our last massage of the Southwest Asian trip was also our worst! The masseuse was simply too weak and agreeable. (If you are looking to experience Thai massage the right way, you want someone with some strength, and perhaps a dose of Sadism!) And make sure you know what you are asking for. Areas like Bangkok's Patpong District (see "sips") offer encrypted "special add-ons" for those who are looking for more than just massage.
Khao San Massage - best location is at the corner of Thanon Rambuttri and Thanon Chakrabongse, Banglamphu, Bangkok
the “corn blessing” scam
The Banglamphu neighborhood is one of the most congested and noisiest parts of the city filled with visitors from all over the world. And in Bangkok, that can only mean one thing: tourist scams! During our three-day stay we managed to avoid the most prevalent switcheroo in which tuk-tuk drivers whisk you away to their friend’s jewelry shop (to buy counterfeit gems?) since, “today the main city temples are closed for religious ceremonies.” Uh-huh. Don’t believe the hype. The Grand Palace complex is always accessible and the extraordinary Wat Phra Kaeo is open more often than it is not.
Of course, your “Set of Drifters” are not always immune to local shysters. While making our trek on-foot to the Grand Palace on our inaugural morning in town, we passed by a couple of scrappy women who offered "Buddhist good fortune" in the form of plastic bags of corn that could feed nearby pigeons. The shape-shifting ladies pretended that they did not understand English when we tried to tell them how much we absolutely despised pigeons (or what we like to call “flying rats”).
Nevertheless, the tenacious buskers tried to hand off the bags to us, and when we soon realized that they expected us to pay $3 for each “offering,” we made sure not to except them. In fact, looking back on it now, we cannot think of anything worse than being swarmed by a gaggle of the beasts - and paying for the experience!
Now who knows, perhaps we stepped on a few cultural toes when we dropped the bags onto the ground after the ladies’ second attempt at pushing them into our hands. And yet, when our new “friends” retaliated by ripping open the bags and emptying the kernels on the ground (albeit through laughter), all bets were off! Street side shopkeepers lining Sanam Luang Park watched in amusement as the pigeons soon arrived. Of course, now that the bags were exposed and “spent,” the scammers really wanted their money! Still, we remained steadfast and told the ladies that we never wanted this, and would never want to feed pigeons! Using a miraculously new found understanding of the English language, they turned our scorn around and advised us that we were being disrespectful to Buddha! This particular exchange is what ultimately put a bad taste in our mouths. If anyone was being disrespectful to the religion, it was these two hooligans who most likely spend all day and night proffering this scheme to innocent first-time visitors!
We eventually paid the hoodlums their measly $6 and moved on, completely disappointed by our first impression of the Thai people. Don’t worry, others along our nine-day journey more than made up for the inanity exposed by the hucksters just steps from the Mae Toranee Statue.