Thailand: More Sinister Than I Had Imagined
Thailand is well known as a top global tourist destination. With fabulous beaches. plenty of sunshine, friendly people, wonderful food, and low prices how could it not be?
I had put off going to Thailand because of its popularity. I had become a travel snob, thinking it best to seek out only less traveled countries with more appeal to adventurous travelers. I like to imagine myself as someone willing to trade convenience for something more spirited.
Before flying into Bangkok I had believed that I would spend the lion’s share of my 10 week South East Asia vacation in neighbouring countries. Surely Thailand would be too commercial and tame to make me want to stay long. My preconceptions turned out to be only partially correct.
While Thailand is famous as a “Fun in the Sun” beach and sex-tourist honey pot, it offers more than hedonistic pleasures. There’s some first-rate historic sites to reward the sightseer as well.
Bangkok is a steaming, sweltering city even in January. It’s choked with cars and unlike many other Asian mega-cities, it lacks a good mass transit system. Visiting there you’ll have to rely on taxis to get around much of the time. The buildings there are almost all nondescript and there is no obvious downtown area. As a result it’s not an easy place to get your bearings.
I stayed in Chinatown which is a densely-populated and riotously congested part of town. It has an unmistakeably Asian ambiance with food carts and their accompanying aromas clogging the sidewalks. Every shop – and there a lot of them – stacks some of its wares onto the sidewalks as well. The only exception to this are the many shops selling gold jewellery. Off the main roads there is a warren of narrow alleyways with piles of assorted goods, fish and meat markets, and food stalls with sizzling woks frying up a huge array of delicious meals to tempt passersby.
Few tourists book hotel rooms in Chinatown. I loved the place from the get go and stayed there again on subsequent visits.
Ayutthaya, a city just north of Bangkok, is a sleepy place now but it was once the capitol of the country. In its heyday, from the 14th to 18th centuries, it was one of the largest and grandest cities in East Asia. Most of that grandeur is long gone but what remains of the ruined capitol is worth spending a couple of days to explore.
One of the most interesting things about Ayutthaya is the fact that at least some of the ruined temples are still used as places of worship by the Thai people. More than once or twice while I was taking photos, Buddhist devotees would approach the remains of the temple, place flowers at the foot of the Buddha image, and kneel down to pray before departing. Initially this made me feel like a bit of a voyeur peeping into the private lives of these people but since they took no offense to me being there I surmised that it was acceptable for me to be there with a camera in tow.
Sukothai is another former Thai capitol and like Ayutthaya is now in (restored) ruins. Overall I found the temples here to more impressive architecturally than those of Ayutthaya even though they’re older. The variety of different architectural styles on display is more diverse in Sukothai as well. Like Ayutthaya, devout Thai Buddhists still use the old temples as places of worship so you’re not just visiting outdoor museums, you’re getting an up-close glimpse of a bit of modern Thai culture in these places.
By this point I was really starting to like Thailand. The place just seemed so right. There was no hassle with the locals. Thai people, at least on the surface are peaceful and easy-going. I also really loved the food a lot, along with the local Chang beer. The place had a completely trouble-free vibe to it. I was getting really relaxed and feeling I didn’t have a trouble in the world. Then some guy tried to drug me on a bus.
I was busing further north to Chang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city and a young Thai guy wearing bright blue contact lenses sat next to me. He immediately offered me a couple of breathe mints. I don’t normally use these but I didn’t want to seem rude to this friendly person who was obviously just trying to be welcoming to a visitor to his country. As soon as I put the mints in my mouth I remembered a warning in my guidebook about not accepting food from strangers on Thai buses. There had been incidents of tourists being drugged this way and then robbed.
I didn’t think for a minute that there was anything amiss. All the Thai people I had dealt with to this point were so nice. What were the chances of becoming a victim of a crime in the “Land of Smiles”?
But, why take the chance? With my left hand I casually pretended to rub my face and I spit the mints out onto my fingers. Then I reached down and stuck them under my left leg. Friendly guy would not be the wiser and no one’s feelings would be bruised.
I then went back to reading my guidebook. I had to figure out a plan for Chang Mai. Where to stay. What part of town would be best to stay in, and so on.
Meanwhile, my hospitable seat mate was as quiet as a crypt. I thought nothing of that since most Thai people don’t speak English.
About 20 or 30 minutes after spitting out the mints I felt it. It was the sensation of drifting towards a drug-induced sleep of the kind you feel when being prepped for going into surgery. This was most definitely not the run of the mill lethargy brought on by a long day or even a sleepless night. This didn’t gradually creep up on me, it hit me like a wave.
Now I realized why this guy was wearing the bright blue contacts. He was disguising himself.
I had to consider my options. Should I get up and tell the bus driver what was going on? No. I knew that the chances of him knowing enough English to have any inkling of what I was telling him would be extremely unlikely. Even if he spoke English like a scholar what action could he take. Radio for the police? Maybe. But would we have any way to keep Old Blue Eyes on the bus after he had suspected his game was up?
I was groggy enough to have serious doubts about being able to make my way to the front of the bus in any case.
Confronting the culprit didn’t make sense to me either. Again this was due to the language barrier. I couldn’t see how making a scene in front of a bus full of uncomprehending strangers could help me.
I calculated that since the drugged mints were in my mouth for such a short period of time that I should be able to avoid succumbing to the effects of whatever tranquilizer I had been given. I concluded that the dosage I had ingested would be small enough to allow me to stay awake. So that was my plan…don’t fall asleep.
I put my book back in my day pack and just started looking out the window, paying as much attention to the what ever we were passing to keep my mind active. I judged that I didn’t feel dozy enough to not be able to fight the effect of the drug. It seemed a case of mind over matter. I was confident I could force myself to stay awake. And I did.
For a period of perhaps 30 or 40 minutes I struggled to not nod off. The potency of the drug began to wane and soon after it had fully dissipated, my druggist neighbour got off at one of our stops. I’m sure he had some unkind words for his supplier.
Needless to say, I had the relief of someone who’d just dodged a bullet. I didn’t feel great about letting that creep get away though.
Thankfully the rest of my time in Thailand was free of criminality. I really enjoyed Chang Mai. It’s at a higher elevation then Bangkok and the Central Plains of Thailand so it has less searing temperatures. It’s small enough to feel quaint but big enough to have any amenities you might need. Chang Mai also has an excellent night market that’s stocked with something for everyone. That’s a tired cliche but I vouch for it. I picked up a couple of very original, and untouristy oil paintings there for a song.
I spent the remainder of my Thailand excursion in Isaan, the northeastern quarter of the country that sees relatively few foreign visitors. This is the poorest part of the country but it has the good transportation infrastructure and facilities that are to be found elsewhere in Thailand. Even in Isaan every town has a 7-11.
It’s not as if Isaan is free of worthy attractions. Phanom Rung, in Buriram province, is the site of Khmer temple complex dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It’s an imposing site that’s been expertly restored and well worth a detour.
Despite my close call on the way to Chang Mai, my first visit to Thailand sold me on the place and I would go on to make a couple more visits there.