Hijacked: One Night In Bangkok
After reading several stories in the thread of the CYNIC, I thought I’d throw in my 2 cents. My story is probably stereotypical, but was my first revelation of some of the shadier side of Thai culture. It also illustrates classic Thai attitudes
and “Thai thinking” (or lack thereof).
It all happens on my first real night in Bangkok. It’s my first trip to Thailand and except for a quick sleepover in an airport hotel on my arrival for rejuvenation, I’ve now been in LOS for close to 3 weeks without benefit of a proper Bangkok initiation. Having visited some of the major tourist traps in the South – Phuket, Phi Phi, Krabi – I’ve already been exposed to the differential treatment of tourists and the “Thai way” of things. I feel somewhat prepared for what I imagine to be the more extreme elements of the big city.
At this point, I’m proud of the fact that I have not yet been ripped off in any substantial way. Sure, there was the time the boat company refused to change or refund my tickets, and I had to eat a couple of 600 baht boat fares, but hey, that was my choice. Then there was the time I hired a taxi from Karon beach to Krabi and got an amiable 16 year old (?) driver who arrived in a beat up old can that when driven over a certain speed felt like the front axle was going to fall off. This was so bad that the poor kid had to back off of the gas every time he reached 60 km/hr. Otherwise, the car would be thrown into a wild convulsive fit that was so extreme, I’m sure it was visible from the outside. After this had happened only a few times, I told him to slow down. Fearing an accident if this kept up for the 3 ½ hour trip, I had him stop at the Phuket airport, only 30 minutes into the trip to change taxis. Of course, the fare regulated airport taxi, while 30 minutes closer to my destination, was almost double the fare I had negotiated with the original taxi company. On top of that, I was obliged to pay at least part of the original fare and tip the driver. After all, it wasn’t his fault they gave him the jewel of the junkyard. Mai pen rai, right? The real question is, could these and a few other experiences possibly have set me up for what was about to unfold? Like so many others writers on this site, it probably left me just shy of a certain threshold of anger, which I had expressed only very mildly to this point, given so many admonitions to the contrary.
I should mention that for much of my trip I have been escorted by a very nice lady friend (I’ll call her “Toy”) whom I met on the internet prior to coming to Thailand. No, she’s not a bargirl – far from it. She is a respectable woman, about my own age, has a university degree and a government job at a university. Side note: It’s interesting what the government is willing to pay a “respectable” woman – only 10,000 baht / month. It’s no wonder that so many younger women opt for the bargirl lifestyle. She makes 200 baht / night on the side singing a couple of times a week in a hotel restaurant. Toy speaks conversational “Thai” English, meaning that we can have basic conversations on just about anything, including politics, philosophy, comparative lifestyles, etc. Toy herself, is very progressive in her thinking, not buying into a lot of the values and rules of Thai culture. She breaks them whenever it suits her, which is one of the things I like most about her. She’s a free thinker – to a degree. Unfortunately, she freely thinks she understands the language simply because she can read and speak the words fairly well. But that sets us up for a lot of miscommunication. Her primary experience with English is from the internet, where she apparently spends quite a bit of her spare time. However, after spending much time with Toy over a 3 week period, I feel her comprehension is around 80%. At least we can communicate, albeit incongruously at times. I feel lucky to have someone who can make some level of intelligent conversation.
Yes, I used the word “intelligent” referring to a Thai – although I have long thought that “intelligence” is not an all or nothing facility. A fragmented or “naturally selective” intelligence can be a dangerous thing. Even in my native USA, I regularly see otherwise intelligent people doing and thinking many very stupid things. So why should Thais be any different? To westerners, Thai thinking may appear to be stupid and illogical at times. Ok, so maybe what Toy has is more “wisdom” than raw intelligence. This may become more apparent as I finally get to my story of Bangkok…
So Toy and I arrive at the Indra Regent Hotel sometime in mid afternoon. We settle in and prepare for a fun first night out on the town. Toy is a wonderful host, yet her knowledge of Bkk is limited to the shopping and historical districts. So I consult with the hotel concierge, Toy acting as translator, and we determine a few places we’d like to visit during the evening, starting with a nice Italian restaurant. I’ve been eating a lot of really excellent Thai food, thanks to Toy knowing the best local spots in her hometown, and I think it only gracious to expand her horizons with more international cuisine. Besides, even though I love Thai food, my palette is starting to demand a change of pace. Shouldn’t be a problem. I think everything is clear enough after our conversation with the concierge. We are to take a taxi to a restaurant district where we will be within walking distance to several of Bkk’s finest Italian eateries.
So we have the doorman hail a taxi and we get in. As usual, I let Toy do all the talking to our driver. She speaks to him back and forth for some minutes, too long it seems to me, and then we are on our way. I say: “You told him to take us to that place the concierge recommended, right?” She says: “Yes, he will take us to special place.” I said “but it’s the place we were told to go, yes?” “Don’t worry, I have discussed with him.” Knowing she is intelligent but thinks Thai, I say, “Ok, I don’t want him to take us anywhere out of the way. We go directly there, Ok?” “Yes, he is taking us now.” After what seems a very short ride both by Bangkok standards and what we were told by the concierge, we arrive at a rather bland looking establishment in the middle of what appears to be a deserted part of town. It’s a place with no character at all and certainly cannot be the area described by the concierge. I say, “This isn’t it. Tell the driver to go to that place we were told.” Some brief exchanges in Thai follow. “He says this is the place, the place the hotel manager has spoken of.” “It is not. No way. There are no other restaurants around and further, there are no people! Look. Do you see anybody walking the streets? Do you see even any customers in this restaurant? No, this can not be the place. Tell him to move on.”
Here’s where it starts to get weird. Toy is now seeming to take the side of the taxi driver and they are both arguing with me, saying I am wrong. This must be the place, etc. Now, I have been to some really good restaurants in different areas of the world. And I have seen a few which are “out of the way”. However, I’ve never been to an establishment of any quality that did not have a substantial clientele at 7:30 on a Friday evening. There are NO customers here, except for a couple of EU backpackers AND it is not even an Italian restaurant. It’s a locally owned Thai restaurant, probably belonging to the hack’s brother. The whole ambience is substandard, only a step above what in the States might be called a “tin can diner” atmosphere. Now Toy says, “Why don’t we see inside, then you decide”. I say “Ok” just to appease her (she is a woman) and we both get out of the taxi. That’s my first mistake. As we are entering the door the driver yells something in Thai – and LEAVES! “What did he say?” I ask. “He says he back in 1 hour.” But he doesn’t even collect his fare, he just leaves, as though he fully expects we will be there and are willing to pay him again when he gets back.
So now it’s obvious, right? He’s a shill to get us to his family’s restaurant. He’ll probably get paid more by them for bringing us there, than whatever 40 or 50 baht we might have paid for the short ride – AND he’ll be back. Smart guy, huh? Yes, I’d love to see him again, and give him an appropriate expression of my gratitude. So now we’re in this god-forsaken part of town, stuck in a cheap joint with no walk-in traffic and very little patronage. Toy is on the verge of tears at this point. Maybe it’s my arguing with her, or her feeling foolish; I’m not sure which. Just to calm her down a bit, I suggest that we get a table and order something. Maybe an appetizer would be all right. Meanwhile, we can call for another cab and be on our way. We order something small from the menu, some Tom Yam or something and some “fresh” seafood appetizer. It comes in record time of course, we being the only patrons. (The backpackers have left by this time.) Let me tell you, the seafood smells so foul, I cannot put it in my mouth. The soup is also severely lacking and Toy is not used to eating much better Thai food. Even she says “Food mai arroi”. I agree, so we call a second cab. Of course I pay for the food, just to avoid further complications, and we wait for the taxi.
After a full half-hour of torture, sitting in this dive with nothing to do and our moods quickly going south, the taxi finally arrives. I look at the driver and get a bad feeling; he looks like a crook. But it’s starting to rain now. Quickly assessing the situation, I decide to go with it and we cautiously plop ourselves into the back seat. That’s my second mistake. Toy is not speaking at this point, so I tell her to get him to take us to the originally intended venue. She does so and we’re on our way. Relieved to be out of that dump and heading to our appointment with a much happier evening, I remain silent for some time, reflecting on what a strange scenario has played out so far. Toy has started to converse amicably with the cabbie periodically. Nothing unusual, she has even started to joke with him and laugh, so I just sit there. At some point she turns to me to explain that the driver is offering to take us to Soi Cowboy for a girlie show. I say “No, he must take us to the restaurants.” She explains to me that she has been going back and forth with him now for some time telling him to take us to the restaurant. But he is insisting in his “friendly” way to take us to Soi Cowboy. I say “Hey, it’s been a half hour now, are you saying he is not taking us to the restaurant?” “That is what we are arguing about” she says. Arguing??? You could not have convinced me there was any disagreement going on based on the tone of the conversation and the way they were bantering. So I say firmly “Let me be very clear: Is he taking us to the restaurant?” My teeth are starting to grind together. “No, he will not” she translates. Now, I’m starting to fume. “You tell him to take us to the restaurant NOW, or else stop the taxi and let us out”. Gibberish ensues. “He says that he will take us to the girly show only, I cannot convince him.” Now, I’ve been taken the long way before. I’ve paid inflated prices before. I’ve had to deal with some pretty thick (or pretty shrewd) cabbies before, but this takes the cake! What the fuck is going on? We’ve been hijacked by a hack! My anger is completely stoked now. “You tell him that if he does not take us where I say, I will not pay him anything!” More gibberish…. Toy says, “He will not listen to me, he keeps insisting.” Now, I think to myself, why am I the only one getting mad here? Toy continues to be polite, when clearly this is not a situation which calls for any degree of geniality. Now my anger turns toward Toy. “Why aren’t you yelling at him? Why aren’t you demanding him to do as I ask? You act as though everything is ok and he is refusing to do what we want. What is wrong with you?” Third mistake. And I know it even as I am doing it (so that counts as two). Except that at least I realize in the moment that I’m venting on the wrong person. It is at this very moment that a strange and sudden sense of déjà vu dawns on me. I’m totally new to the city, but suddenly the landmarks suddenly seem familiar. Hey, isn’t that the Indra Regent Hotel coming up on the left side – the same side as when we left the hotel? Now it’s clear: the hijacker has taken us in a very large loop around the city, right back to our original starting point! Now my attention turns to the hack. I say firmly: “Stop the car now.” No response. Louder now: “Hey you, yes I know you know some English, stop now.” Shakes his head, still driving. Now I lean forward and scream “Stop Here, NOW!”
Finally and magically being able to understand English, he brings the vehicle to a sudden stop. I’m not about to stop, though. I make sure he knows that I know what his scam is and so I start lashing into him verbally: “You lie to us. You try to cheat us. I will not pay for this! You waste my time and take me nowhere! Fuck you!” I’m not sure if he understands English swear words, but he sure understands my tone. So I open the door, and get out. Toy is pausing for a minute, so I look in and she is still talking to the hack. I say, “Hey, don’t give that cheat a single baht. He should pay us money for wasting our time.” But it’s too late she’s already handing him some cash. Again, my anger goes to Toy: “What the hell are you doing paying that cheat. All he has done is stolen our time.” And I pull her out of the taxi and SLAM the door as hard as I can. Now the jerk is offended. He’s suddenly transformed into Mr. Tough Guy and gets out of the car.
Now I’m just an average American male and not a big fighter, but I was really pissed. It’s like this guy represents all the bad elements and money-grubbing opportunists I’ve met so far in Thailand. And he’s just an average skinny Thai male. I’m sure I can take him – in fact, I’m so fired up I could probably take out someone half again his size. “What, you steal my money AND my time, and now your little ego is bruised cause I slam your door? You wanna get back at the falang? I dare you fucker!” Now Toy is looking at me very seriously, and says, “No, you should not do. Very bad.” “Well why did you pay this asshole, anyway?” No answer. I’m poised for a fight. The tension is at its peak during a long icy silence as I stare the hack in the eye over the top of the cab. Finally, he retreats, muttering something nasty no doubt and gets back into the cab and drives away.
So we start walking the couple of blocks back to the hotel in the rain and I’m still in disbelief at several things:
a) that I fell prey to the same con twice in one evening
b) that I almost got into a serious fight with a Thai local
c) that my Thai lady actually paid this guy (using my money) after I explicitly said not to.
It takes several requests to get her to talk about it, but finally she starts in. “Very dangerous, that man could have killed you. Many taxi drivers carry knife in Bangkok.”
On why she paid the thief, her answer was cryptic: “He is beggar. It is better luck for us to give the beggar some money.” I refuse that definition. “No, he is not even a beggar, he is only a thief – a kamoi – and I do not see that good luck will come by giving a reward to a thief. It only makes him think he can get away with it again.” But she maintains a somewhat philosophical attitude: “By paying him, we gain good karma and good luck. Today is end of Chinese New Year and we should end it with kindness.” Well, I can’t agree with her, but I also can’t argue with her. It’s the Thai thinking again and the last thing I need is to get into a philosophical debate. That is her wisdom, I have my own. By now I have come to realize that no matter how much the language barrier is bridged, there will always be a disparity between the east and the west in terms of our thought processes and conditioning. In the end I must remain content with my Western logical mind, and that at least is not susceptible to hijack.
So this was my first night in Bangkok. We ended up opting for TV and room service. I wonder how many other farangs have fallen victim to a hijack in this city. Agreeing on a price first does not help, because the kickbacks are higher than what the hijackers stand to earn on the fare. Any suggestions?
You were seriously let down by Toy. I would suggest that either she suggested another restaurant or the cab driver suggested it and she gave in to him and let him take the cab there. Perhaps it was his buddy’s restaurant or [perhaps it belonged to his family, but the fact remains
If you specifically tell a cab driver where to go, they will not obstinately take you to somewhere else. Toy deserves HARSH words over this, though that will not likely solve anything as she obviously has issues dealing with criticism.
While I can understand your feelings in the heat of the moment – and I’d have been rooting for you if you really did roll your sleeves up – taking on ANY Thai is a bad idea. You’re not fighting that guy only, you’re up against 65 million of them. Really!