Wednesday, May 6, 2009
The Land of Swindlers
If the best part of Thailand is the people I met, than the worst part is the people I encountered.
Thailand is a country of con-artists and swindlers. Before I arrived, I read up on the street scams aimed at travelers. In short, a conman, posed as a friendly face, guides foreigners to a jewelery store or tailor where they are forced (sometimes even threatened) into buying over-priced or worthless merchandise. Constantly, I was forced to turn people down, tell them no, refuse their requests. It came to a point where I trusted no one. If they looked like they had something to sell, or wanted to drive me "wherever I want" (yeah, right), I avoided them like the plague.
Even to a fault. They tended to point the opposite direction from where you're going and say "Oh, such and such is over there" just so that you'd pause and rethink your steps - this allowed them an opportunity to approach you and chat you up "Hey man, where you going? Where you from, my friend?" I learned their methods early on, and began waving them off and plodding along in my path. Well, more than once, they were actually pointing me in the right direction. After choosing not to listen to them, I ended up walking through the "Thai-only" entrance of a temple. Whoops. So much for respecting culture.
Along a Bangkok walkway, minding my own business, a bird lady shoved three baggies of what looked like trail mix between my back and my bag.
"You have, it's good! Thailand" and other broken-English phrases were spat in my direction. I thanked her for the munchies without breaking my pace.
"No! Look!" She grabbed a bag, opened it, and poured it into my hands. Corn kernels? Instantly, my feet were flogged by every Bangkok pigeon in a mile radius.
"Oh, I get it now." Before I could process that single thought, three more bags were poured into my hands. Braver Birds were on my arms and wrists. I tried to walk away. Another bird-lady dumped her corn nut baggy into my open, flat, spread-finger palms. I turned my hands over. I was done.
"one fifty! one fifty!" the first spat harshly. She counted her empty bags, and demanded near $20US. At this point, I was tired of this city's swindlers. I was angry. I matched her harsh tone, and pleaded American ignorance. Begrudgingly, I reached in my pocket and pulled out a few bucks ("fool me once, shame on me...") and dropped them into her hand - pocketing the rest while she grasped for more. I was done. Walking away, I could hear the bird ladies holler and squabble like the pigeons at their feet. That's okay, I wasn't about to turn back.
But that wasn't all. I bartered taxis and knick-knacks. I saw the price for food and drinks change faster than I could turn around. Two times at 7-11, I was over-charged for a Big Gulp because it had Thai Tea in it rather than soda. When I called them out on the price change, the cashier shook their head and insisted on their price.
I don't enjoy bartering. I don't enjoy feeling like I have to swindle a few bucks out of people, or that I can't trust a conversation with anyone.
It's funny how the best thing and the worst thing can be the same thing. It's funny how even though the people I met were the highlight of my trip, it was people who made me reconsider my decision to come to Thailand at all.
In the end, though, I feel like I learned some - about myself, and about culture around me. I've never been great at having to say no to people, but I think I learned how this weekend. The fact is, we can't get away from people in this life - be it con-artists or honest fellow travelers. The ability to tell apart the swindlers from the fellow drifters is a skill worth cultivating when navigating through life.