Wednesday, 18 September 2013

How to Survive Bangkok

So you've just touched down at Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok. You're bleary-eyed from 14+ hours travelling and starving because although you got a great deal on your flights with this unheard of airline, their kitchen leaves a lot to be desired. Suddenly you step out of the modern, air conditioned airport and in to the sweltering heat whereupon you will need to get a taxi in to the centre of Bangkok. For most backpackers Bangkok is where their journey will begin as it is relatively easy to access and is one of the most westernised capitals in Southeast Asia with its mega-malls and familiar fast-food chains. It would seem the perfect place to break you in to the Asian way of life before you hit less developed countries such as Laos or Cambodia. However, as grotesquely condescending as this may sound, Bangkok is not London or New York and though it gives off an air of first-world sophistication, it is still a long way away from being a city that satisfactorily meets our ludicrously high Western expectations. This means that you have to be a bit more prepared and a bit more savvy than you were when you spent that weekend in Paris/ Madrid/ Berlin etc. People will try to rip you off, you will be ambushed by sex workers (girls you're not exempt from this: ping pong shows are for everyone) and you will be hit hard by the omnipresent poverty in such a seemingly booming metropolis. With this in mind, I have put together a few tips which I wish someone had told me before I went in order to try and help future travellers get the most out of what is one of the most incredible cities in the world.

Everyone will tell you before you leave how cheap Southeast Asia is and you will read it all over the internet. Believe it. Although Bangkok is more expensive than the north of the country it is still phenomenally cheap. All registered taxi in Bangkok have a meter (they even say "taxi-meter" on the roof of the taxis) but 9 times out of 10 if you are foreign and you ask a driver to take you somewhere he will give you a fixed price. For example you may ask a driver to take you to the airport and he might say ok 400 baht whereupon you will do some quick mental maths and work out that this is barely a tenner for an hour long drive. Your eyes light up as you think you've hit the jackpot because in England a taxi to Heathrow could cost over £100, you hop in the taxi and away you go happy as larry. Do not accept this offer. If a taxi driver gives you a fixed price for a ride it will invariably be more than what the price would be on the meter, sometimes even more than double the potential meter reading. So when your eyes light up because you think you've got a great deal, your driver's eyes will also light up because he has just ripped off yet another stupid tourist. As a foreigner being ripped off will be one of your biggest problems. This does not mean that all Thai people are evil; it is because they see Westerners as walking ATMs. After all you could afford an airfare to Thailand. They don't know that you saved up for a year to afford it and you have a finite amount of money in your bank. You are a rich Westerner and therefore you can afford to be ripped off.

In a sentence: Insist that the driver use the meter

Taxis aren't too hard to find...

Despite Bangkok's apparent hedonistic attitude insofar as nightlife and partying is concerned, drugs are a BIG no-no. If you are caught carrying above a certain amount of drugs (say you bought some for your friends as well or you bought enough to last you a few weeks) you will fall under the category of "possession with intent of disposal" in other words, you are a drug dealer and under Thai laws you can be punished by life imprisonment or death. It is unlikely you are going to get involved with any drug smuggling or trafficking on your gap year backpacking trip but you may be tempted by the cut-price street drugs after a few drinks along Patpong, I certainly was. There don't seem to be many police around and if you take it quickly no-one will catch you. Wrong. It is highly likely that the drug dealer offering you a cocktail of narcotics is actually a cop or at least in cahoots with the cops and is going to bust you the second you hand over your money. If they are working for the police they will go straight to an officer of the law, point you out and watch while you are threatened with either prison or a fine (always pay the fine, a Thai jail is no joke) and then rub their hands with glee when their drugs are returned to them along with a cut of the fine you just paid. Gangs of West Africans are most prominent on the Thai drug scene so if any Nigerian/ Ghanaian/ Malian men come towards you rubbing their nose and asking you "what's up?" (code for "would you like to buy some illegal drugs") you know to do a 180 and walk away.

In a sentence: Avoid recreational drugs like the plague.

Soi Cowboy, one of sex strips where drugs are rife

It is very rare to encounter any scams anywhere in Southeast Asia that actually harm their victims. Scammers are not criminals but opportunists who do not act out of cold blood but are just a bit too audacious and all they want is to get a few extra baht out of you. Unfortunately, sometimes that few extra baht can turn into a sum of money that our budget simply cannot extend to. That's when it pays to be in the know about the most common scams. The first golden rule to avoid scams altogether are these universal words of wisdom: if it seems too good to be true then it almost definitely is. Thailand is still a relatively poor, developing country and therefore discounts and free stuff do not exist. If something seems preposterously cheap, there is a very high chance that there will be lots more costs as soon as you've handed over the initial few baht. One of the most popular scams goes as follows:

- You are standing in the street looking lost, possibly holding a map, and are approached by an impossibly friendly elderly man/woman
- They ask you where you're from and then tell you they have relatives over there and you remind them of their sister/brother/daughter/son etc and so they want to help you
- You explain where you are going and they convince you that that place is either closed or not worth seeing and what you should really do is go to the tourist information centre and buy a tour there/ go for a tour in a tuk-tuk
- Just like magic a tuk-tuk will appear and your friend will speak in Thai pretending to haggle for you and then tell you that this tuk-tuk will take you where you should be going for only 20 baht!
- You are then driven all over Bangkok being coerced into buying things that you are told are super cheap but are in fact far more expensive than the going rate.

Like I said, this causes you no physical harm but it can potentially destroy your carefully planned budget. It sounds awful but if someone is really friendly and keen to help you then they are probably after money. Of course there are plenty of Thai people that will help you and be perfectly friendly but they usually will wait for you to approach them with questions.

In a sentence: Be wary of overly-friendly locals.

You have probably eaten Thai food back home enough times to feel like you are prepared for the culinary delights of Bangkok. You might even love Thai food so much that you chose to go there solely for that reason *ahem* and most restaurants you go to in the city will serve you exactly what you've been eating at your local Thai restaurant at home for the past 10 years. Fantastic. However, if you have taken the time and effort to go to Bangkok and you're not a sex tourist or businessman (or both) then you are probably there to immerse yourself in the culture. This means living like a local and that means not eating in restaurants. If you want proof go into any nice restaurant in Bangkok and count how many locals there are. Now count how many white people are there. Exactly. So where do you eat then? Southeast Asia is home to the phenomena of street food. This consists of wagons full of fresh vegetables, rice, various meats, a wok and a portable stove. On the front of the cart there will be a very limited menu - usually 3 or 4 different dishes which are all a variation on the same thing - which will hopefully have an English translation, if not, point, guess and pray. You then take a seat on a tiny plastic chair and are served a huge portion of food that is mind-bogglingly cheap and mouth-wateringly good. Is it hygienic? Probably not but if the locals have been eating like that their whole lives then you can survive off it for a few months. Having said this, don't go over the top. Thai people have been eating this food, in this manner for their whole lives and so they are used to it but going from a Western diet to nothing but rice and noodles can be a bit of a shock to the system hence the copious amounts of sickly new backpackers. Ease yourself in to an Eastern diet and if your body is really craving a McDonalds or some pasta then let it have it. You don't have to feel guilty for wanting a bit of home comfort!

In a sentence: Everything in moderation.

A typical street food stall
I hope this has been of some use to any future travellers! Finally, this doesn't merit its own paragraph but it will definitely help you a lot: learn a few words in Thai as the locals really appreciate the effort you've made and the smile you will be rewarded with is well worth the few minutes you spent learning words.

Have fun, be safe and give money to beggars, it gives you good karma.

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