Cockroaches, Whiskey Buckets, & Getting Broke: Thailand (Pt. 1)
Ok ok, I realize we’re now more than halfway through January. Don’t get your underwear in a knot – this will (probably) be the last Christmas-related post I put up here. At least until next holiday season.
I also realize that my Thailand adventure concluded more than two weeks ago. I would have written about it sooner, but what with the backlog of other stuff I wanted to get to, and with work always getting in the way, we’re just now getting around to it. I hope that’s ok with you, dear readers.
Anyway, as most of you know, I set out for Thailand on Dec. 22nd. I was to spend a couple days in Bangkok, getting a teensie flavor of this town that has quite the worldwide reputation for beauty and sleaze wrapped into one. Of course, I lived and worked for seven years in the belly of a town with a similar reputation. But I’ll just say it now – New Orleans is like the JV to Bangkok’s varsity squad. Bangkok’s so much bigger, so much stranger and seedier, and I was only there two nights. I won’t go into graphic details, but I will say this – the muffalettas and oysters are replaced with cockroaches and scorpions, and you don’t have the option in New Orleans of seeing a ping-pong show or other coital acts on stage (I didn’t partake in those in Bangkok, btw – there would just be something strange and a little creepy about going to one of those shows by myself ).
This post could be super long, or not, so we’ll just see how it goes… knowing me, I’ll talk too much and it will turn into a two-parter. I hope that’s ok.
After Bangkok, I took a very long bus ride down to a town in the south of Thailand called Krabi, where I met up with my buddy Joe. We spent the next few days on beautiful beaches in this area enjoying every single minute of sunny, relaxing goodness. But we’ll get to all that later. For now, let’s focus on my two days in Bangkok, and how exactly I found myself completely broke not once, but twice, in the span of those days.
My flight out of Taipei was delayed – only three hours, so nothing ridiculous, but instead of landing in Bangkok at 10 pm local time, we arrived around 1 am. Needless to say, I was a bit more tired than I had planned on being once I finally passed through customs and got into my cab to take me into the city. Joe had actually stayed in Bangkok the two nights before I got there, and had already made his way down to Krabi. But he’d been nice enough to book a room for me at the place where he’d stayed; this proved quite wonderful, as I was in no mood to try to find a room in this strange, unknown city at 3 in the morning.
I drowsily watched the outskirts of Bangkok zip by, and after about 45 minutes, the cabbie dropped me off at a busy corner bustling with drunk people. “Khao San Road,” he said. I thanked him, paid, got out, and slung my pack over my shoulders. Khao San Road is the main road where backpackers stay and party in Bangkok. There are bars, clubs, ladyboys, prostitutes, and shops all up and down Khao San. It reminded me a lot of Bourbon St., actually. It’s like the Thai, backpacker version of Bourbon. I felt right at home.
My hotel was around the corner from Khao San, and I found it quickly. After some difficulty with the front desk guy, I managed to finally convince him that I was the person who had requested room 406, so it was, in fact, not occupied, because I was its occupant. I went upstairs, dropped my pack in my room, grabbed a couple hundred baht, and set out to get a few beers and enjoy the atmosphere.
Now, here’s where we get to an important detail. I didn’t bring a lot of money with me on the plane. I could have, but I figured I didn’t want to travel with a whole bunch of cash on me. I have an ATM card from my Taiwanese bank account that (in theory) works overseas, so I figured the easiest thing to do would be to just withdraw money in Thailand as I needed. Oops.
So when I dropped my pack and headed downstairs, about 800 baht (roughly $25 US) was all the cash I had. I enjoyed a couple beers that night, had a bit of breakfast in the morning, and then headed to a nearby road called Rambuttree to start my day, refreshed and excited. Decidedly low on cash, I went to the ATM. And that’s where the fun started.
There are two pin numbers that my ATM card has – a 4-digit pin for ATMs in Taiwan, and a 6-digit pin for ATMs in other countries. That morning, I did realize that I was not in Taiwan, and I entered my 6-digit pin and the amount of money I wanted to withdraw. The ATM promptly spit my card out and told me “Incomplete data.” I had no idea what that meant, but I was sure that whatever data this machine needed was indeed complete. So I put my card back in and went through the process again. Again, my card was fired back out at me, and I was told that the “data” was “incomplete.” Now I was starting to worry. I walked along Rambuttree and found another ATM. Again, “Incomplete data.”
It was at this point that I was punched in the stomach by a combination of panic and dumbfoundedness. Was there something wrong with my card? Was there something wrong with me? With the ATM? I started to question myself and wonder if perhaps I had the number wrong. I went to another ATM and punched in a different number, and I got the same message. And then once more. Now I was in severe panic mode. And severe pissed mode. I had no way of getting any money. My bank back home in America had accidentally canceled my check card, and my credit card company had mistakenly revoked my abilities to use my credit card outside the US. (I have excellent luck.) I did not get these things fixed before I left for Thailand. Looking back on it, that was a bit of an oversight. Now what was I to do?
I found an Internet cafe. It was 20 baht per hour, and I had 60 baht left. I got online, posted a desperate Facebook status message, and then got on Skype. Miraculously, my beloved sister was online back home, and we chatted for awhile. I relayed to her my plight. She said maybe she and my sainted mother could wire me some money. I told her to look into it, but that I was going to try to get ahold of my bank.
Of course, no one at my bank speaks English. So I called Cynthia, the head of the Chinese staff at my school, and told her the situation. She called the bank. I called her back 20 minutes later, and she said that they had locked my card, because someone had been trying to use it in Thailand. Great. She then told me that the situation couldn’t be remedied until I talked to my bank, in person, face-to-face.
My chest cavity nearly imploded right then and there. Visions of human slavery, of drug trafficking, of prostitution raced through my head. Perhaps I’d be forced into all three if the cards fell just so. Would I have to wear a dress? Would I have a choice? No, no dresses. I would refuse. But what if it was the only way to survive? Ok, fine, one dress, but it would have to be to my liking and not too tight, something that might bring out my eyes…
I was a mess. But at that moment, my sister came back and said that she and my mom had just wired some money to me via Western Union. I about collapsed with relief and joy. I know that’s what family is for, but I will forever be grateful to my wonderful sister and mother. I love you both. If not for you, I might have been wearing a dress. And it might not have even fit right. And nobody wants that.
And so, I bid my sister farewell with a thousand thank yous, found the Western Union, picked up my cash, and was as right as rain. At this point it was 5 pm – I still had roughly 24 hours to enjoy myself before I boarded the bus for Krabi. I found a cheap little room at a guest house on Rambutree (a much quieter, prettier street than Khao San, but still with a ton of activity) to stay for the night, dropped my stuff, and fell onto my bed, letting my brain relax for the first time all day. After a day of stressing about not having any money, it’s nice to come out of that on vacation, in Thailand. There are worse fates.
I changed clothes and went downstairs for dinner. As I mentioned, Rambuttree is a beautiful street, lined with food stands, guest houses, massage parlors (the legit type), and shops of every kind. Right across from my guest house was a food stand cooking up everything. The smells on that street were heavenly. I sat down and got myself some pork fried rice, and I was happy. A French girl sat down across from me. We got to talking – she lives in Laos and was passing through Bangkok on her own, too. We finished dinner and decided to take on Khao San together. Khao San was fun – again, we didn’t go to any sex shows or do anything too crazy. But we did chill at a bar with a skinny Thai Santa and several of his closest, most trusted Santettes, and ordered a bucket of whiskey and coke for 199 Baht ($6 US). Life was quite good.
After the bucket of heaven, we walked up and down Khao San and saw many things that would make a grandmother – mine and yours – turn away with disappointed embarrassment – drunks, ladyboys, seedy pitch men smacking their lips together as a way of promoting the ping-pong shows, etc. But maybe the most disturbing thing we saw was a Westerner (like you or me!), at a food cart that was decidedly insect-intensive, ordering a few cockroaches, scorpions, and everything else available:
And with that, I bid farewell to my French friend – Bene – and went to bed, ready to dominate my one final day in Bangkok. I had a wonderful second day, except when I became broke again. Details coming soon…