A Very Unpleasant 12 Hours in Bangkok
I have a story of misery and angst I'd like to share as a take it or leave it warning.
I've been coming to Thailand since I was a backpacking youngster in 1990. Now I consider myself a senior backpacker, made the move from Khao San to lower Sukhumvit years ago. In all that time I've had minimal contact with the Thai police, an occasional patting down at most. That's going from bushy haired traveler to bald 50-year old white American. That changed this morning, Friday, September 16.
I'm on a short visit to the city only, just catching up with the changes. Flew in from NYC and didn't bother trying to adjust for the time difference since you can easily go out any time of day in Bangkok. So this morning at around 0300 I went to this late-night place that attracts mostly Africans on Sukhumvit soi 3. The place never closes. I was sitting there in the usual cloud of shisha smoke drinking my Chang when the police came in. I've been to this spot, don't even know the name, might not even have one, a bunch of times. The police always come in, look around, collect, and leave. No problem. This morning was different.
Around 0400 in comes the army with M4s, body armor, helmets, the whole tactical nine yards, face masks even. This was another kind of visit. First the males and females were separated and all told to sit on the floor while they frantically searched the place for whatever it was they were looking for. You didn't dare move your hands lest you be spotlighted, surrounded, poked, and yelled at. I sat in this now very unfestive crowd for probably an hour while the cops and army sorted themselves out. Then I was told to get in line for the drug test. I get tested several times a year at work. I never worry about it. Waste of time. I peed in the cup. The polite lady cop poured in over three test kits. One of them turned red and they stamped my arm with the word Positive. Whaaat?!!! No way! I protested. Nice cop lady says go ahead and try again. I didn't argue. I peed again and this time the test came out negative. They said the first one tested positive for amphetamines. Too much coffee is all I can figure. I don't do amphetamines as the second testing indicated. They didn't insist on 2 out of 3 and neither did I. Nice lady smeared out the red Positive on my arm with her thumb and stamped me Negative. Holy fxxxing shit!! I was one shoddy test kit away from my life turning suddenly to shit. I suppose I'll never feel so confident about taking a drug test again.
Then it was back to the floor for some more sitting. During that time a white guy who I hadn't noticed in the club earlier squatted down next to me and asked where I was from? He was American. He started in with more of an interrogation tone. I asked who the hell he was and in a commendable Hollywood cliché tone he said he was the best friend I had right then. Ok, I could do with a helpful friend. Obviously he was something along the lines of DEA. He had a white American female masked partner along as well. He didn't turn out to be a very helpful friend. I guess there wasn't much he could do for me.
After sitting on that filthy floor for what seemed like several hours they herded us down the stairs, out the back, and onto the sidewalk in the bright sunshine with people going to work on Sukhumvit. I mean everyone, people with passports on them, people with copies of passports on them, and dummies like me with no passports on them. Eighteen of us boarded a truck with a cage on the back and there we sat for about another hour. Next to me were two Ethiopian Airlines pilots and a couple flight crew including one very, very beautiful Ethiopian flight attendant. That was the highlight of sitting there on the side of Soi 3.
We got underway and crawled painfully through morning traffic to Wittayu, past my embassy, and ended up a long time later at the Lumpini police station. I had never noticed it before. Again we sat for ages. The flight attendants had to fly in two hours. The Chang and shisha were really making my head throb at this point. By the way, my crime was purely not having my passport with me.
Eventually we dismounted and were led inside the station to a cell. The women were separated again, unfortunately. That flight attendant was stunning and almost making up for the misery. I was about 20 years old the last time I was in a jail cell, not that I haven't done plenty of dumb stuff to deserve being detained, just lucky I guess. The cell had a clean, polished wooden floor, 3 walls, some high windows, and a stinky squat toilet with a privacy wall around it. Not so bad. I stayed in worse places back in my junior backpacker days.
More waiting ensued. Every time a cop walked by everyone in the cell, all Africans except for a trio of young Burmese and my own dumb self, tried getting his attention to see what was going on, to get some kind of information. Not much info was coming, especially for me. It became a circle of let me see your passport, oh you don't have your passport, where is it? Your hotel safe? You need to get it. No, we can't let you go get it. That ridiculous conversation occurred about once an hour. I guess I was a bit of a curiosity being the only gringo so finally I was woken up from a not uncomfortable floor slumber and told to follow. In the office in another room they called my hotel to verify I was staying there. My phone battery was fading fast. They didn't seem to know what to do with me and I sure as hell didn't have a clue so I called the embassy down the road. They told me good luck, and God bless America!
Several hours later with the help of a friendly Guinean cellmate with better Thai skills than my own we got the attention of one of the cops and started a negotiation. 5,000 baht was agreed on. Now we just had to wait for one of the cops who was off somewhere to show up with a ride so they could take me to my hotel and retrieve said passport. About once an hour I was told he was on his way.
The hours ticked by. I talked to a lawyer who was there who told me they could hold me for 48 hours but then they had to send me to court. Only problem was next day was Saturday and no court on that day. I had a flight out of the country the next night that I was starting to worry I was going to miss. With my phone battery down to 11% I called my hotel to see if they could go in my room safe and send someone to the jail with my passport. They had told the cop on the previous phone conversation they couldn't do it without my permission, but I just understood they didn't want to go in the safe. So I got the woman at the desk of my hotel on the phone and she was willing and waiting for me to call. Right about then, maybe 10 hours into the ordeal, the cop with the ride showed up, I was let out and away we went through horrific afternoon traffic in a police pickup from Wittayu to Sukhumvit Soi 8, most of the way at a dead stop. The hotel staff was very supportive. I stay at a tiny place, maybe 10 rooms. The cop came up and waited while I gulped the first water of the day and threw whatever I could grab from the refrigerator down the hatch and got my elusive document.
On the crawl back to the station the two cops in the truck wanted to discuss many topics in my bad Thai and their worse English including various ticket prices, my family, and do I like to engage in oral sex with women?
The rest went quick back at the station. I had paid the cop during the ride and no more money was asked for. I signed some document all in Thai except for my name. I get by speaking Thai but have not yet tackled learning to read. I told the cops I was an ex-marine and former fighter. They liked that. In fact all the cops throughout the long miserable day were pretty reasonable and some just wanted to bullshit with me. Could've been a lot worse but it was bad enough. Actually the whole thing really sucked, being stuck behind bars for hours for no prospect for release and feeling totally helpless and at the mercy of whoever would listen to me. All this over a passport, a new passport at that with only one Thai stamp in it. A totally wasted, hung over 12 hours in jail with a bunch of African guys was not what I had planned for my second to last day of this quick trip. Will I carry my passport with me everywhere from now on? Probably not. Will I find some other place less full of Nigerian drug dealers for my late night carousing? Probably. That place is closed for a week anyway. At least I got a date tonight with one of the pretty honey-skinned staff out of the whole thing. Pay for play indeed.