We’re on the train to Bangkok
Aboard the Thailand Express
We only stop for the best…
–From A Passage to Bangkok by Rush
One last hectic Cambodia-style tuk tuk ride left us at Siem Reap’s International Airport. Soon we were on a plane destined for Bangkok. Though the plane was not a train and was certainly not Neil Peart’s Thailand Express I couldn’t keep the lyrics imprinted in my high school daze out of my head. I had to consciously avoid humming Rush’s cannabis-tinged song as we headed through Thai customs. It was a rare moment of discretion.
After reaching our hotel we slowly settled into our comfortable room overlooking the heavy boat traffic on the Chao Phraya River. There was no hurry to get out; we would be spending 8 nights in Bangkok before heading home. After a rest, just after sunset, it was time to head out for dinner. After consulting the guidebooks we figured Bangkok’s Chinatown would be a good place to find interesting food.
Stepping out onto the streets for the first time in a new and chaotic city is always a sensory explosion. At night, in the narrow alleyways and under the dim streetlights, the streets of Bangkok are a maze of confusion. To get to Chinatown it seemed simplest to start with a ferry ride down the river. On an express boat it is hard to get lost. Even for us.
Though it was near our hotel it was tricky to find the minimally signed ferry dock. After searching about we followed the direction of the highest density of foot traffic into an unremarkable wooden building. It was our best guess. If the express boat dock weren’t here we’d move to Plan B, whatever that was. We climbed from street level into the heart of the open building onto a walkway made of foot-wide wood planks not knowing where it would lead.
We guessed right. The path through the building led to the ferry dock. Later we learned that the temporary looking plank board walkway was set above the Chao Phraya River’s high tide level. When the tide is in this building and all the nearby low areas flood. Ferry users avoid getting wet by walking on the planks. The raised wood walkway meant that the thousands of daily ferry users over 4’ 6” tall needed to stoop low under the building’s support beam.
“Watch your head!” came a chorus of shouts from the shops that line the sides of the plank pathway as I headed to the dock.
The shop owners reserve their warnings for anyone over six feet tall. Apparently those between four feet six inches and six feet tall don’t require an alert. Or maybe the owners have just tired of shouting warnings constantly.
Past the beam we followed the determined crowd as it weaved through the structure to the rocking dock. The riverboats were loading at the end.
The various ferryboat lines fly different colored flags. Soon the orange flagged boat that we wanted reached the dock. The boat came in fast and hit the pier with a thud that shook the dock and staggered the waiting passengers. The ferry users, waiting on shore and on the boat, collectively caught their feet and scrambled on and off the boat. Last to load, I took a split second glance at the shore scene before I stepped on board. When I turned I had to leap onto the rapidly departing boat. It was a lesson. In Bangkok ferryboat stops are like a splash-and-go Formula One pit stop. Hesitate for a moment on the dock and you’ll be left wondering where your boat went.
How do they keep the ferry stops so short? Arriving fast into the dock the ferryboat attendant loops the boats mooring line around a bollard. A whistle from a crewmember signals the captain who then throttles the boat hard stretching the thick rope and levering the boat to the dock. Passengers leap on and off. Seconds later, after the captain reduces the thrust, the line is gathered back onto the boat and another shrill whistle signals “all clear”. With the high-pitched whine of the boat’s turbo charged diesel engine, a puff of exhaust fumes, and a blast of water blown out by the propeller the express ferry explodes away from the pier in less time than a typical inner city bus stop.
Inside the ferry we stayed alert for our exit pier. We knew now that we could not hesitate when it came time to disembark. A roving attendant somehow tracks those who have just boarded. She collected our fare. For the Chao Phraya Express Boat Orange Flag Line a ride costs just 9 Baht, less than 30 US cents per person.
When we reached our departure pier we darted off the boat. There was no chance that we’d linger. Back on land we were soon in the confusion of Bangkok’s street plan. It was time to check the map and figure out which road we were on. The rare street signs were dingy and confusing at best.
“Can I help you?” volunteered a middle-aged man in a business suit.
Usually we are wary of being approached like this when traveling to new places. But over time our guard has relaxed. Most often we find that the person offering to help wants to practice their English. Usually they are just trying to be helpful to the out-of-town visitors. So we relaxed and let man explain where we were. Out came his pen and he started marking up our tourist map.
“Are you looking for a place to eat?” he asked.
Though we were indeed looking for a place to eat we were non-committal. The middle-aged business suit clad gentleman was unfazed.
“You must go to Soboondee Seafood.”
The suggestion was met by our blank stare.
“Do you know about tuk tuks?” he continued.
We again muttered something incomprehensible.
The businessman went to the street corner and showed us a tuk tuk. He searched around and found a decal in the window.
Pointing he said, “This sticker means it is a ‘government’ tuk tuk. They have special rates.”
For an instant a curious confused look came from the tuk tuk’s driver but he didn’t say anything.
The businessman continued on agreeing to a fare of 40 Baht or about $1.30 US with the driver. It was a good fare, perhaps too good. We climbed in and headed off to Soboondee Seafood restaurant somewhere in an unknown district of Bangkok’s Chinatown.
At Soboondee Seafood we walked by the restaurant’s fresh fish offerings sitting on ice. The prices were marked in Baht per 100 g. Thirty Thai Baht exchanges for about one US dollar. I did a little too quick mental math and figured the prices were OK. But I wasn’t certain. There are a lot of zeros between the weight and currency conversions. Nonetheless we ordered and were shown to a table.
Once seated our food came out quickly. I was still reworking the math in my head as I realized that I might just have slipped a decimal place. The food might be much more expensive than I expected. But now it was too late. We had seen the clearly displayed prices and ordered the food. There was nothing to do but eat our meal.
The food was nothing special. It wasn’t bad but it was not unusually good either. Before the check came our sleazy looking waiter reminded us to add a tip. The waiter’s request was awkward and uncomfortable.
The check came. At 130 US dollars the meal was indeed overpriced, at least 50% more than we would have paid for a similar meal near our home in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area. In Bangkok where food is cheap, the bill was outrageous. And a tip was already included! Our waiter was just trying to squeeze out a little more juice for himself.
We had fallen into what turns out to be a well-known rip-off, the Soboondee Seafood Scam. Usually tuk tuk drivers, in exchange for a free meal, divert restaurant goers heading to the nearby popular Somboon Seafood to the overpriced Soboondee Seafood. We are not alone in falling into this trap. Checking the reviews on TripAdvisor later, 40 out of the 42 reviewers described similar experiences.
Nevertheless we had no choice but to grumble, pay the bill, and leave. After all, the prices were unmistakably posted. The cost of the meal was perfectly clear for those who aren’t bad at math.
Needless to say the “deal” on the tuk tuk ride was not available on the way back to our room. Indeed “Government” tuk tuks do not exist. Eventually we negotiated a tuk tuk for 300 Baht after walking away from earlier higher offers. Though our guidebooks told us that we could expect to pay less for tuk tuk rides in Bangkok we were never able to bargain to a much lower price.
In retrospect, it is not a surprise that we got scammed. What is a surprise is how long we’ve traveled before getting ripped off.
The upside of our first nights experience is that we were now on guard in Bangkok. Back at the room we searched the Internet for other schemes that we might encounter. We knew now that most scams involve a tuk tuk and we learned that when a helpful person pulls out a pen to mark up your tourist map it is pretty much always a lead in to a scam. And though our map was marked up several more times in Bangkok by want-to-be rip off artists, we avoided further traps. The other schemers that approached us gave up quickly. Perhaps they could sense from our body language they weren’t going to get anywhere. Or maybe they were warned off by the other marks on our map.
The downside of our first night’s experience is that it made us suspicious. It put us on edge. Bangkok’s innocence, if this of all cities could ever have any, was gone. But we learned to adapt. We even started to find amusement in each subsequent attempt at a scam. And though central to the schemes, tuk tuk rides were unavoidable. Tuk tuks remained our primary means of transportation. Besides the open-air thrill rides in the three-wheeled go carts are just flat addictive. A nightly jolt of full throttle open-air adrenaline was more than worth the risk of having to dodge a few more scams.