Friday, October 3, 2008

The Big Mango

Well, I'm back from Bangkok, lighter in the purse but richer in experience I guess.

The office manager at my school - Big, had set up an appointment for me with Mr. P from the Bangkok branch to help me get my visa extended & converted, and to apply for my work permit. I was supposed to meet him at immigration at 10am. There had been some debate in the office about what time I needed to leave. Big had suggested 5am, but one of the other teachers was insistent that I didn't have to leave until around 6:30am. When Pink took me to the bus station I split the difference and got a ticket for 5:55am* . Pink also arranged for a motorcycle taxi to pick me up at my apartment at 5:30am... so it was a pretty early day for me.

The bus took longer than the other teacher had said, and I was starting to get nervous about being late for my appointment, but there wasn't a lot I could do about it so I tried to stay calm. I had directions regarding how to get from the bus station to the immigration office, which turned out to be a bit easier than I thought. I basically got off the bus and looked around until I found the stairs up to the sky train, got a ticket, found the right train and off I went. I almost got off on the wrong stop, but sorted myself out. Then I had to change trains to a different line. Once off the sky train I just had to hire a taxi. There were a lot of 'taxi-meter' car taxis around, but looking at the traffic I decided to go with a motorbike taxi again. I have to say, that's got to be my favorite form of transportation thus far. Seeing Thailand from the back of a motorbike is pretty fun. Motorbikes don't really get stuck in traffic, they just zip around the other cars... and since I'm not driving I don't have to pay too much attention to traffic and can shut my eyes when it gets scary.

My initial impressions of Bangkok were pretty good. The sky train reminded me a LOT of San Francisco.** You know, on a certain level, all big cities feel the same. It's a mix of the shiny, new expensive shops & high-rise buildings, and then the dirty, grimy, smelly, street level stuff. Overall though, it seemed nicer than either Chiang Mai or Rayong. There were plenty of English signs (which made the whole transit thing pretty easy) and I saw a fair number of other farangs. It occurred to me that I do have a bit of a city girl in me and that I might not mind living in Bangkok at some point.

I managed to make it to the Immigration office by 5 'till, but didn't immediately see anyone that appeared to be looking for me. I called Mr. P and he said he'd be there in 5 minutes. I thought maybe he was stuck in traffic, but it turned out he was already there helping a couple other teachers. That's his whole job, running teachers through the bureaucracy. I made sure to be really nice to him & let him know how much I appreciated it!! I can't even tell you how grateful I was. Between Big & Mr. P all I had to do was stand there and look pretty. I mean, I'd had to bring my passport, my original degree, passport photos and 4,000 baht... but they did all the paperwork. He took me through one line, got us a number, went to the table, pasted my picture onto the correct form and said "sign here, sign here, sign here" etc. Then sat me down in the waiting room handed me my stuff and showed me where to see which number was up...then hung back. So I sat and waited until my number came up - went to the window and handed in my stuff. The woman wanted my phone number, which I don't have memorized, so I started digging in my purse for it. By the time I had it out of my bag - Mr. P was at my shoulder making sure there wasn't a problem. The immigration lady gave me another number and Mr. P showed me where to see when that number would come up.

There was a lot of waiting involved, and it was just so odd to be there in this big waiting room with all these other people from around the world. You know how when you go to the DMV and there's someone there who doesn't speak the language, and you hear the guy at the window trying to explain it over and over and you're irritated because your number won't be up until they sort that guy out. Well, it was like that - except I was one of the poor morons who didn't have a clue what was going on. Thank Buddha for Mr. P. My number came up again, pick up my papers, and off to another room to get another number and to wait some more.

My tourist visa was extended, but apparently they weren't able to convert it from a tourist visa to the Non-B immigrant visa right then. They'll be able to do it on the 15th. This was the part that made me nervous, both the woman behind the counter and Mr. P explained to me that I just couldn't leave the country for the next two weeks, which shouldn't be a problem. But then Mr. P said he needed to keep my visa with him so that he could get it stamped on the 15th. Otherwise I'd have to come back. He had a whole folder of passports from the other teachers, and since this is his job I said ok. I just made sure to get a copy of the new visa, to go with the copy of my passport that I keep in my purse.

This is just another example of one of those things I never would have been okay with back in the states. I'm operating so far outside my comfort zone on a daily basis's insane. I think that's why I spend every free moment online. It's the one constant I can hold onto from my old life, my touchstone.

So after going through immigration I decided that I should stick around and actually see something of Bangkok while I was there. I hadn't actually planned on visiting Bangkok so I didn't have anything particular in mind, but I'd grabbed my Lonely Planet guide and kinda flipped through it while waiting. The number one don't-miss sight they recommended was the Golden Palace. I figured out I could take the sky-train to the river and take a river boat up to the palace, then from there I'd figure out a way to come back. But by the time I got back to the Siam sky-train transfer station it had started raining. Hanging out in a boat in the rain didn't sound like too much fun. On the other hand, Siam Station was right next to a huge-ass mall. =)

I spent a good couple of hours wandering around the shops, there was an English language bookstore and a lot of super chi-chi shops I couldn't even afford to look into. But I spent some quality time in the food court. I actually settled on Burger-King... and I'm trying not to feel ashamed. Then I had passion fruit sorbet for dessert and it was gooooood! I looked through my book a bit more and figured out there was a way to take a bus to the Grand Palace, I just had to get back onto the sky-train and go to the other end of the line. One of the gals in the office had suggested I get an all-day pass for the sky train, and I did look for one but didn't see it. In retrospect I should have looked harder because I was on and off that thing all day and I'm sure I spent more than a full-day pass would have cost. I ended up spending a ton of money (and time!) on transportation today. Next time I'll have a better plan. A *much* better plan.

It was still raining when I got off the sky-train and I was getting a bit frustrated because there were all these little shops but no one was selling an umbrella. And of course there are huge puddles everywhere and my feet are getting all clammy and gross. Meanwhile, it's still HOT out, so I was just not loving life. Eventually I found a lady selling umbrellas (the second one I've bought in Thailand =/ ) and while I was there I asked her to point me towards the right bus for where I wanted to go (there was no transit map *anywhere*). She couldn't help me but she pointed to two gals standing nearby handing out flyers for KFC. The girls had these felt chicken hats on. It was a bit hilarious. But one had a mobile phone with something or other v-tech and called someone who spoke English, handed the phone to me - I told her where I wanted to go then handed the phone back to the chicken-girls. They all understood then, and got me pointed in the right direction.

But then, more waiting. Finally find the right bus, but have no idea how much it cost, so just stick out my hand full of change and let the fare checker take however much it is. I tried my best to follow along with the map in my guidebook, but it was really hard to see the street signs. I did my best though and when we got to a big temple I got off and tried to orient myself to the map in the guidebook. I figured I could walk where I wanted to go. The universe had something else in mind.

This guy walks up to me and starts talking to me in English. Where am I from, how long have I been in Thailand... the same questions I've been asked by every single Thai person I've met here. Then he starts looking at my map and telling me I should see x-y & z. I tell him I really just want to see the Grand Palace, but he tells me it's closed. He says I can go see this other famous Buddha statue that's on my map and there's this other "Lucky" Buddha that I should see too. And I ask him where it is and can I walk to it. And he's like - you can take a tuk-tuk, there's a special discount today because the government is handing out cards for free gas or something. As I've mentioned about 500 times, I never know what's going on here, so I didn't really think about it. I was going to just hang out at the temple and take a few pictures before hopping in a tuk-tuk, but he was like "There's a ceremony going on right now, so the temple is closed to tourists." And I do know there's the whole vegetarian thing going on. So I end up getting into a tuk tuk that's conveniently parked right there on the street.

The tuk-tuk driver gives me the same discounted price and confirms Mr. Friendly's story about the gas card thing. So I get in and we start going. As soon as we turn off the main road I start thinking "This is a scam. I've totally been scammed." but at the same time I'm thinking "Why am I so mistrusting? I've done about a million scary weird things in Thailand and it always turns out okay." I look up and the tuk-tuk has a proper license, and a picture of the guy with his name and everything on the wall. Everything looks legit. Eventually we do end up at the temple of the "lucky Buddha" and there's actually a monk there, and a guy with a badge, so I think "Ok - this is what he said it was." And the guy with the badge is chatting with me - he has a cousin in Portland. So as we're chatting I'm like "Is there really a discount on tuk-tuks today?" and he's like "Yeah, because of the discounted gas cards." and I'm like "Oh, good because I wasn't sure if he was being honest." "oh, yeah yeah" and he tells me the same story as the first guy. So I get back to the tuk tuk but as soon as I get in he's like "I need you to help me get my discounted gas card. I just need you to look at this shop...." at which point all the red flags start waving and I'm like "No...I can't help you. Nope, nope nope." and get out of the tuk tuk, and he's like "why not?" but I just paid the 'discounted' fare and started walking away.

The Unlucky Buddha

I totally got scammed. I got out of it before the real scam started. There would have been a store - gem store, antique store, whatever. And I wouldn't have gotten out of there without paying $. But it really upset me that I fell for it. I'd even read about the gem-store scam in my guidebook and still didn't pick up on it until I was in it. I felt really really really stupid....bad stupid.... like that could have been really dangerous stupid. And if you're paying attention you'll have noticed - I HAD MY UMBRELLA WITH ME!!! =(

So I just walked away, I didn't have a clue where I was. I mean... NO CLUE, the map in my guidebook was 'general' at best, and I couldn't follow where he'd driven me anyway. I just headed for a street where I saw a lot of traffic. Then I stood there like a retard for like 10 minutes trying to at least figure out what intersection I was at. I couldn't find the street name anywhere. It took me a while to figure out what to do, I didn't know where I was, but I also didn't know where to go. I'd been on a motorcycle taxi, two sky-train lines and an 40 minute bus ride between the Immigration building and the temple where I'd gotten scammed. I didn't know what I was closest too. Eventually I found a motorcycle taxi and told him to take me to the sky-train. He asked which stop. I couldn't even tell him. He mentioned Siam Station and I was like "sure" - that's where the mall was, and I knew I could get back to my bus to Rayong from there. It was 100B - way more than any other trip I'd taken today - but screw it, I just wanted to be back on familiar ground. And we were a LONG way from Siam Station.

Once we got to the mall, I felt a bit better. I mean, I felt like crap, totally stupid, and upset at getting scammed, and upset that my first excursion into Bangkok involved a full day of waiting around, eating at Burger King and spending several hundred baht just trying to get around. I didn't get to see anything cool, and nearly got screwed out of whatever money I'd had on me. A pretty shitty way to spend the day all in all.

And now I'm think - I wonder what's happened with my passport? I mean, how stupid was that? Even if it does get back to me, has my info been copied & sold off to who knows whom? I hate feeling like this. I want to be able to trust people here.... I *need* to be able to trust people here, because I really can't function all on my own. I don't want to have my guard up all the time. I don't want to live like that.

I'm putting today's TAG at Bananas.... but if I've just had my passport stolen, we're upgrading to Durian.

* The word for 'five' in Thai is 'ha' so instead of typing LOL in txt, they type 555

** The single smartest thing I before going to Thailand was to visit J in San Francisco. Not only did we have a good time, but she helped me sort out my luggage, gave me the backpack that I use every single day here, and she taught me how to ride the BART - which has the same set up as the Bangkok Sky Train (and a bunch of other systems I'm sure). It's a lot easier to deal with forgetting to take my card out of the slot & slamming into the turnstile when it's just a friend laughing, and not a bunch of strangers getting irritated that you're holding up the line.


Exuberant Color said...

I just want to hug you and tell you how happy I am that you are safe. I'm not very trusting either, but you don't have a lot of choice there.

IamSusie said...

From your story, I think your passport is okay, especially since you know those people from the school. Even if, let's say, your passport does get swiped, you can still get help at our embassy. It's not like you can never get home. ;-)

Don't feel so bad about almost getting scammed. You are wiser for the experience, and you did the right thing by walking away..

Bezzie said...

Yeah I think your passport is OK too. And like everyone said, don't feel bad about being scammed. It coulda been a lot worse and you know you're not the first person to fall for it. Now if it was a guy who came up to you claiming to be a Nigerian Prince and you gave him your bank account number, well then....;-)

Ginger_Curls said...

I think you did pretty good on the scam thing - you spotted it. A little later than you would have liked but before any serious harm was done and you'll be wiser next time.

I think your passport will be OK. It was the office manager at the school that set up the appointment so they must trust him. It sounds like he works for the immigration people so you have safeguards there as well. Check if any of the other teacgers have been asked to leave their passport with him just to reassure yourself.

Michael5000 said...

In terms of life experience per baht, your day was probably the best bargain of your life. You're a rock star.