Feb 27 11
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The Travel Diet

by Emily Benjamin

I’m not a healthy eater at the best of times. You say food – I say “double cheese burger!” I wake up and often my first thought is what I’m going to eat for dinner that night, and my imagination takes hold… roast chicken with potatoes and gravy, a big serve of lasagne, a two piece feed with a no legs or wings, upsized, with a gravy instead of potato gravy. Not only do I get food cravings, I get very specific food cravings, like right now – I’m craving about one and a half tasty chicken kievs with a side of potato bake and a cold can of coke. Om nom.

Only recently did I develop a taste for vegetables, and I can pinpoint the factors that lead to my increased appetite for the good stuff. Firstly it was travelling through Europe in 2009 with my Dad, where we were eating heavy pastas and pizzas most of the time, bangers and mash in pubs, and goulash soups with rice and bread in food halls. As my stomach swelled with all this tastiness, 5 weeks was too many to eat only the bad stuff and I began to crave a decent bowl of vegetables, which was near impossible to find in most restaurants. Secondly, I can blame the ‘caveman diet’ introduced at my gym, where we were encouraged to eat only meat and veg, day in, day out, to get us all as lean as possible. I managed this for a few days before giving in to the golden arches, but was at least appreciating that with vegetables, I could eat as much as I like without feeling guilty. And finally, I can credit the convenience of my Dad’s bamboo steamer, for showing me how easy it can be to serve up a bowl of healthy, tasty vegetables in just minutes, without fussing in several areas of the kitchen. Just chop them up, chuck them in, and you’ve got steamed vegetables with no need for washing up and wiping anything down.

I know myself (and my stomach) well enough to know that if I don’t get food when I’m hungry, there will be trouble. And I make sure those closest to me are aware of this, because no one wants to see me go mental on a food-finding rampage, when my sugar levels get too low. Jamie was warned of this not just by me, but by my family as well – they’ve seen me devour 8 roast potatoes in minutes and I’ll do it again, if you don’t stop me! So when we embarked on this adventure together, he was under strict instruction to make sure there was always food near-by and if we were hopping on a train/bus/plane/donkey to go anywhere, emergency snacks should be packed. Which, in the last few days, has been truly tested.

Our trip from Thailand into Laos was over 4 days. One of those days I was sick, and stayed in bed to get better. The other three days had us on buses, minivans, taxis and boats, with a total travelling time of 23 hours. That’s almost 8 hours a day, on each of Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. When we hopped off one bus, we were shuffled onto another. And from the boats edge, we were whisked away by a taxi. Saturday was maybe even the worst, where we spent 6 hours in a minivan with 10 other people, up the very back, with only a small fan which was switched off for 80% of the trip, and no windows open. The people we’ve encountered on our travels so far don’t seem to like fresh air on transport, which is a little annoying.

In anticipation of each of these trips, I thought immediately of food and looked around for the nearest vendor. And I can officially say that 100% of the time, your only options will be Oreos and Lays potato chips. So this is what I stocked up on, which was fortunate, because I only did so to get me through until our lunch stop, and once we were there we realised the best option available at the markets was a skewer of barbecued chicken necks. No thank you. By the time we arrived at our final destination for the day, I had a splitting headache, was completely dehydrated (no planned toilet stops either, and when we did stop, it was on the side of the road) and all I wanted was to smell freshly cooked food again. And never eat Oreos again in my life.

The other 2 days of travels were the same, except I now have an emergency jar of peanut butter in my backpack, panadols close by in case of another splitting headache, and a small packet of chicken flavoured crackers in case starvation strikes. All of this would suggest that I’ve regressed and have forgotten fruit and vegetables again in favour of unhealthy snack foods. But when you’ve got exactly one minute to drag yourself and all your luggage from a boat into a bus, you’ll grab whatever you can get. Especially if your head is ruled by your stomach, like mine is.

There is a silver lining to this story though. Actually, there are three! Firstly, Jamie’s appetite, which was always so small when we were in Brisbane, has returned. At last, he gets hungry when I do, if not sooner, so we’re usually both on the same quest for food. Secondly, at the end of each of those days we found real food, and I was relieved to fill my stomach back up with stir fried veges, freshly cooked meat with herbs and spices, and rehydrate with lots of water. Headache, be gone! And finally, the immense amount of road travel we’ve done in the past few days has even convinced Jamie that perhaps all these boats and buses and back seats aren’t the best use of our time, if we want to see more of the cities and communities we encounter. So we’ve decided that we’ll be forking out the extra cash to fly from Luang Prabang to Hanoi on Sunday, taking just 1 hour by plane compared to 16 hours by bus.

And even I can survive one hour without snacking on Oreos and Lays potato chips, and wait for some fresh vegetables instead.

Hmm… now how about that chicken kiev….

– Em :)

 

Filed Under → Words
Feb 27 11

Germans, Germans Everywhere – and not an Australian in sight!

by Emily Benjamin

There was a risk that in travelling to Thailand first, we would just end up meeting a bunch of Poms or Aussies at every corner we turned. Thailand beaches and cities are renowned for enticing travellers from those two countries because it’s inexpensive, close enough to Australia that Australians can visit for short amounts of time easily, and Poms can stop by on their way to or away from Australia, where they’ve been supporting Englands cricket team in the Ashes. Which I don’t wish to talk about, by the way.

But I’ve been surprised in the past 2 weeks to not have met a single Australian. Not a single one. The very closest I’ve come was meeting a German girl that lived in Australia until she was 10, and still speaks perfect english, but only has a German Passport so doesn’t count. I was close again the other day, meeting a Kiwi girl that has lived in Byron for the past few years. But unlike what we Aussies have done with Russell Crowe and Crowded House, I won’t be claiming her as Australian.

Without a single Bonds singlet wearing, southern-cross-tattooed body in sight, you might wonder if we’ve met anyone at all. And we have – mostly Germans. It would seem that if you’re in Germany, and looking for a 2-3 week holiday, then south east asia is your place. On our cooking class there were three Germans, on our bus yesterday there were four, on our day visiting the elephants there were countless. It would almost make more sense to greet fellow travellers with ‘Guten Tag’ instead of ‘Hello’ because there are so many German folk here.

If they’re not German, they might be Canadian. We’ve met a few Canadians already, all of them from Vancouver, and all have been very friendly and keen to tell us more about the city we hope to be living in by the end of this year. We’ve also met travellers from Norway, Denmark, Spain, France, Belgium, Borneo, USA, and only a couple from the UK – not nearly as many English as I expected.

It’s been a nice change to meet people from all over the world. When I say I’m from Brisbane, 90% will mention the floods, so it’s nice(?) that little ol’ BrisVegas has finally made it onto the map – even if CNN can’t properly place Queensland when they reported on the status of Cyclone Yasi a few weeks ago.

We’ll see how much longer this trend lasts for. As we make our way south, into Luang Prabang, before heading east into Vietnam, who knows – I’ll surely come across an Aussie at some point, and might even be pleased to see the southern cross tattooed across his/her chest. Not likely, though!

– Em :)

 

Filed Under → Words
Feb 25 11

How many people can you fit in a bus?

by Emily Benjamin

What-a-day.

Despite my flu symptoms, we’d made the decision to kick on to Laos today (Friday) and head for the hills – Luang Namtha, specifically. This meant uprooting ourselves from our brief home (or makeshift hospital bed, seeing as I spent the entire time there in my pyjamas trying to get better) in Chiang Rai and heading north-west to Chiang Khong, on the border of Thailand and Laos. We’d read suggestions online to take a more scenic route to Luang Prabang in Laos, rather than the slow or fast boat on the Mekong option, so we embraced the different idea and set forth at 8am from Chiang Rai’s bus terminal.

By 10.20am we were in Chiang Khong, and swapping bus seats for a tuk-tuk to travel the last few kilometres to the border crossing on the river. We exchanged some US dollars to Laos Kip (and are now 780,000 Kip richer! But don’t get excited because that’s only $100 worth…) had our passports stamped to exit Thailand and 10 minutes later, we were in Laos. Being an Australian, I found it quite surreal to be standing in one country and looking at another. Very odd.

We walked up to the Laos Visa booth and handed over our forms and passports, thinking that we’d had all the luck and missed the early morning queues. But after standing around for 20 minutes, then seeing a bunch of Norwegian hippies hand theirs over for immediate processing, we began to worry that we’d done something wrong. Not know exactly how to express our concern to Laos immigration officers that spoke no english, we resorted to glaring worriedly into their booth in the hope that they’d get around to reviewing our applications before we missed out 1pm bus to our next destination. Fortunately, the man in charge of the Visa stickers finally got around to hand writing our approvals, someone official came in to sign them off, and after paying US$30 (US$35 for Jamie, ha!) we were officially in Laos.

A sign detailed the bus timetable to our next stop, Luang Namtha. The owner of the accommodation we’d booked let us know that the bus will take about 3 hours and leaves Bokeo district at 1pm, which gave us 1 hour 15 minutes to find food… cos I was starving! But when we were offered tickets, we were told the bus was departing in 15 minutes, from the bus station 10 minutes away. Figuring this was just a gimmick to get us to buy our tickets quickly without questioning the price, we said yes anyway, and it was the wisest decision we made that day. Speeding down the ‘main street’ (read: ONLY street) in Huay Xai to the bus terminal, we were rushed out of our taxi and on to a waiting mini bus – a standard, 13 seater – where 13 people were already seated and ready to go. But there were no seats… hmm, this is interesting. Not as interesting as the fact that there were another 4 people behind us, waiting to hop on the mini bus as well. Those already seated looked on comfortably, while the rest of us anxiously looked around for a solution, before the makeshift aisle seats were pointed out and we were invited to sit down. So they stacked us in, counted heads, added one more person (a fragile looking old Laos man, who was offered the miniature seat currently used for luggage near the back) and we were away! A quick count revealed that they’d stacked 21 one of us into this mini bus – my back rest was the pile of luggage behind my seat, while Jamie’s ‘aisle’ seat was the size of a pre-schoolers chair. At least there were plenty of bodies to cushion the fall if we crash!

(Standing in Thailand, with Laos in the background over the river)   (The packed bus to Luang Namtha… I’m in the back row with 3 others, and all of the luggage!)

The long and dusty road to Luang Namtha took just over 4 hours, with a ‘toilet stop’ half way. No actual toilet, mind you – the driver just ducked into nearby bushes on the busy dirt road and encouraged the rest of us to do the same. Seeing no good hiding spot to go myself, I resolved to hold off on drinking any unnecessary liquids until our final destination, and snacked on my pre-purchased emergency foods – Oreos and potato chips, with tiny sips of water – to keep off my hunger and thirst. Hunger and thirst quenched for the time being, but the headache developed immediately. Dehydration and salty/sugary foods do a headache make!

We arrived in Luang Namtha around 4:30pm, exhausted from the dusty, slow, overpacked ride from the border. No accidents though, and it could have been much worse, so we were relieved to make it there and into our accommodation by 5pm for a bath and a rest… and about 2 litres of water for me, asap.

Out again an hour or so later to check out the town, and we’d seen everything there was to see just 10 minutes later. There is not much to Luang Namtha, but we did get to drink our first BeerLao tallies at $1.20 each, and eat some yummy beef larb, morning glory and sticky rice for dinner. Just one night here for us, despite my persistent headache (curiously improved while drinking BeerLao and eating dinner, but immediately returning worse than before once we were finished) and tomorrow we take two buses totalling 7 hours to Nong Khiaw, a small village north of Luang Prabang. Here, we’ll rest and recover in riverside bungalows amongst limestone cliffs that are apparently spectacular. Hopefully the headache is gone by then.

Cheers,

– Em :)

Filed Under → Words
Feb 24 11

Elephants in Chiang Mai

by Emily Benjamin

This is the second day we spent with the elephants just outside of Chiang Mai, but fortunately today I packed my camera! And we were lucky to meet this beautiful mother and her new daughter, only 19 days old! She was gentle, approachable and adorable – the absolute highlight of my day.IMG 8194OutputOutputOutputIMG 8222

Filed Under → Travel
Feb 24 11

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

by Emily Benjamin

We had a couple of options for how to get to Luang Prabang in Laos from Chiang Mai, as offered to us by our friends at Sawasdee Guest House. We could take the fast boat, which is notorious for sinking or crashing and considered by most guide books as ‘dangerous’, or we could take the slow boat, which does the same trip but over two days and while it is considered safer, guide books also recommend massages before and after the 14 hour boat ride. We could also fly, but where’s the fun in that!?!

After a bit more research (mainly with TravelFish) we decided on another option. Rather than following the usual tourist route, we decided to avoid the usual Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai tourist trap before making our way to Luang Prabang. We took a 3 hour bus north from Chiang Mai to Thaton, and then a 4 hour boat down to Chiang Rai. From Chiang Rai, you are able to take a short bus ride to the Laos border, and thus it is a popular stop for travellers hoping to make this crossing. But in choosing the more scenic route to get there, we were piled into a long boat with 10 other people, giving me the very first minor panic attack of the trip so far. But let’s get to the good, first.

The boat trip was beautiful. The river winds its way through northern Thailand, snaking through mountains and small villages, around bends and over rapids. We saw locals fishing, dredging and eating by the river beds, kids jumping from rocks into the water and buffalo swimming and drinking together downstream. It was surreal to be navigating rapids in an almost-submerged long boat, then turning a corner to see a herd of buffalo just 10 metres away. While the trip was long, we were blessed with perfect weather and a capable captain, who got us to Chiang Rai safely just after 4pm.

But for the first half of the journey, I was scared shitless. I don’t like to use that language publicly, but there is no other way to describe how I was feeling for the first 2 hours on that boat. When I say almost-submerged, I mean it. If I had leaned back much further, I would have tipped the boat and sunk it. About 10 minutes into the journey, the boat stopped and the captain asked people to switch seats because we were uneven. Every few minutes we’d scratch the ground, or be heading straight for a pile of trees/branches/rocks, and I would look back at the captain and see the look of anxiety on his face. Jamie will think I’m making that part up, but through my fearful eyes, that’s how I saw it. You could watch the concentration and concern on the captains face as he negotiated his way down the winding river, which literally had us zigzagging left and right to find sections deep enough to take our heavy boatload. Oh, and did I mention that our journey started with 12 people and we still collected another two on the way? My thought at the time – ‘you can NOT be SERIOUS!’

Despite all this anxiety, those who know me well will find humour in this – after my initial thought of ‘oh-my-god-we’re-going-to-die’ my second thought was ‘I’d better finish my chocolate bar, chips and can of drink to save them going to waste.’ Yes, it’s true – food is ALWAYS on my mind.

Now, twenty hours later, I can look at all of this rationally and realise that if we HAD capsized, it would have been because the river was too shallow and we’d run a ground. Which would be fine, because we’d just stand up in the shallow water and walk to the river bank. Or if we tipped in a section that was a little deeper, no problems – I’m a confident swimmer, and I could probably still swim to shore with my valuables above my head, kept dry. If not, insurance would replace them. So I can see that there was never a real threat to my life yesterday, on our semi-submerged long boat. But there was no convincing me of that at the time!

So that’s the good, the bad… now the ugly. I’m sick. This time I can see that it’s not life threatening, but it is keeping me bed bound and grumpy on an otherwise pleasant Chiang Rai day. It had been slowly building for the past 2 or 3 days, so I can now assume that this cold/flu contributed to my feelings of nausea yesterday on the boat. But now, it’s gripped me good and proper and I’ve had to dig into the emergency medical supplies for cold and flu tablets and panadol. At least the $500+ pack of pharma goodies isn’t being wasted, and I’ve got a proper excuse for staying in bed, being looked after (Jamie’s out getting me snacks and drinks, yay!) and watching movies. Tomorrow, sick or healthy, I’ll be up and moving again as we head to Laos.

Till next time,

– Em :)

Filed Under → Words
Feb 20 11

Welcome to Chiang Mai!

by Emily Benjamin

It feels like it has been ages since I last posted, when in fact it has only been about 3 days. That’s how relaxing Chiang Mai is.

This city is beautiful. Absolutely stunning. So warm, friendly, and welcoming to newcomers, I fell in love with Chiang Mai the moment we stepped out of the airport. Our cab driver told us stories of his house in the mountains, and invited us to visit to meet his family and see his baby elephants. We were shown a photo album of his home and surrounding areas and tribes, and at first I thought he was just on commission to get us to join tour groups. But he was just genuinely friendly, and keen to show off his home.

We arrived at 4pm Wednesday and met Sam, the owner of our guest house, to check in. Feeling relaxed but energetic, and with the temperature mild and the sky clear, we set off on bikes to do a quick tour of the city, and see if we could find the night markets. On the map, it seemed the Night Bazaar was only 3kms away, so we expected it would be a short ride. However 3 hours and 13kms later, we made it home, without having seen the markets at all. Well, that’s not entirely true – we saw some markets… just not the ones we were looking for! Tired and disoriented (we’d been off by 90 degrees more than once while riding, thinking north was east and south was west. Whoops) we head back to Sawasdee Guest House and crashed for the first of many wonderful nights at the hostel (very highly recommended, by the way, if you’re ever in Chiang Mai. We love it so much, we’ve extended our stay twice already!)

On Thursday we were up early for a cooking class at an organic farm, south of Chiang Mai. We were greeted by a driver at 8am who welcomed us with “Today, you are locals!” We collected the other participants (eight of us in total) and caught a train out towards Lamphun. There, our ‘head chef’ for the day, Oi, took us on a bicycle tour of the farm, showing us the different herbs and vegetables being grown there for the thai markets. More types of basil than I knew existed! After picking a few fresh ingredients, it was back to the outdoor kitchen to start cooking the dishes we’d each selected to cook for the day. Choosing 6 each, Jamie and I split our choices and I am proud to say that between us, we can now cook 12 thai dishes – including pad thai, panaeng and green curries, spring rolls and sticky rice with mango. You’d think 6 meals in a day was too much but no, we were able to eat all of it, and then drink beer all night long with the cooking group at a reggae bar back in Chiang Mai. But the details of that are a little sketchy ;)

Friday and we were up early again, collected by a young thai boy named Mac for a trip to Elephant Nature Park, about an hour outside of the city. There are 35 elephants here – 31 girls and 4 boys. As Mac tells us, the boys like these odds! They’ve split themselves into about 5 packs, but most of the elephants are friendly with each other, with the exception of one boy that has stabbed one of the girl elephants when she refused to have sex with him. True story, and now they have to be kept away from each other. Kind of like an Apprehend Violence Order she has on him now, I think! We walked around and met the gentle giants, fed them buckets of watermelon, pumpkins and cucumbers, and after lunch we took them down to the river and washed them. Some were more willing to be washed than others but all of them got wet somehow, either by buckets or by swimming in the mud pit instead.

In the afternoon we fed them again, after watching a quick documentary about the treatment of elephants in Asia. It was horrifying to see how many of these animals have been treated from such a young age, beaten into submission and forced to work, then abandoned when the work dries up. Thankfully there are organisations like Elephant Nature Park that take these beautiful animals back to the park where they are cared for day in, day out.

That brings us to Saturday, and I can’t believe it has been a week since I left Brisbane. We’ve been ripped off by tuk tuk drivers, eaten dinners and had drinks for under $1.50 each, seen spectacular temples, beautiful elephants and been lost by bike. Today we relaxed with a sleep in, massages, $4 lunch and a quick trip up to Doi Suthep to see the temple overlooking Chiang Mai. Tomorrow we’ll spend some time in the Sunday Markets lining the city streets, Monday we’re going for a jungle trek through to waterfalls and white water rafting, and Tuesday we visit Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand at 2500m. After that, we’ll probably head north/north east and cross into Laos for a few days in the mountains, off the grid.

I’ve had a bit of trouble uploading some of the photos onto the blog. There are a few more photos back on the main page, and I’ll upload the rest to Flickr and Facebook.

– Em :)

Filed Under → Words
Feb 20 11

Chiang Mai

by Emily Benjamin

Beautiful Chiang Mai. It’s hard not to feel relaxed in this city, with the mountains, fresh air and kind locals. The food is fresh and cheap, the transport simple (just walk, or borrow a bike) and on the outskirts of the city you have everything from cooking classes, to tiger and elephant farms, to meditation courses. I had high expectations of Chiang Mai, based on the advice of my friends, and I have not been disappointed. This city is a must for anyone visiting Thailand.Chiang MaiFishermanFuzzy BananasIMG 7940

The BellsIMG 8082

Filed Under → Travel
Feb 16 11

Bangkok

by Emily Benjamin

Bangkok is a city of mysteries. It was described to me last night as a city that expects you to know enough to understand it, but that is afraid you will know too much. The language is difficult, but the people are kind. The food, incredible. The city itself is hectic, at every hour of the day. You can speed from the airport at midnight and halve your journey time, or in congestion you can pull out and drive down the wrong side of the road. They say 200Baht, you say 50 – but inevitably, you’ll end up being taken to buy suits somewhere, whether you like it or not.IMG 7575OutputIMG 7498

Filed Under → Travel
Feb 15 11

Welcome to Bangkok!

by Emily Benjamin

We made it! Our first night in Bangkok was pleasant and we both got a good sleep, waking refreshed at Udee Hostel. The room and service was brilliant, and well worth the 1200Baht we paid. Private room and bathroom, air-conditioning and breakfast included, all for $35 a night? What a deal!

After a lazy breakfast and a slow start to the day, we met my friend Rachel, who had kindly offered us a place to stay with her friend Nick. We caught a taxi there cheaply and were shown to our house for the next 3 days, in Soi Kolit near Phaya Thai Train Station. A quick catch up with Rach and we decided to head to Chatachuk Markets, as they are only open on weekends and we may not get another chance while in Thailand. It was a very pleasant afternoon strolling through the markets, where everything from food to textiles, shoes and homewares are sold. Rach tells us that anything we could think of could be bought here, and we weren’t disappointed. We had a yummy lunch – my first thai meal since arrival and I was as happy as a pig in mud with a spicy green curry. The total bill was only 300Baht – about $9 – and I realised I was going to like this place. Not 10 minutes later I was tempted by a frozen banana covered in chocolate sauce and sprinkles. To be honest, I was full from lunch, but being such a fan of the TV show Arrested Development, I couldn’t resist my first opportunity to visit a real frozen banana stand. “There’s always money in the banana stand, Michael!”

Rach and Nick had planned a relaxing BBQ with friends that afternoon and invited us to join them. After Chatachuk, we headed back to Rach’s house to meet her friends, all living in a friendly apartment block resembling the one from Melrose Place. There were Australians, French, Turkish and Spaniards all living there, for different reasons and different amounts of time, all hanging out together regularly for drinks, dinners and BBQ’s. Everyone was really friendly, even more so once the beers and rums were introduced. For the record, thai rum – SamSong Rum – is not too bad really, but best served with Coke!

We headed home early to get a good nights sleep, and made it back there by ourselves almost trouble free. We got dropped by a tuk-tuk in the wrong place, but managed to catch the train to the right stop soon after. Clearly, we are naturals at this!

The next day we headed out on our own, with a visit to the Grand Palace. It felt like a big theme park, everything covered in gold and mirrors, making the glare almost unbearable. It always surprises me how decadent religious buildings are, and I felt the same way here. I remembered looking at small, thai inspired jewellery boxes back at home, and wondering who had the time to put all those sequins and mirrors onto tiny wooden boxes. But this, on such a grand scale, was amazing. We visited the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, who is in fact made of green jade, by the way, and discovered that someone clambers up his mosaic’ed throne 3 times a year to change his outfit. Now that’s commitment!

Later in the afternoon, after lunch with Rach and Nick, we checked out Khao San Road by day before visiting it again at night. It didn’t actually feel as touristy as I expected although I suppose it reminded me of a quiet night at the Ekka, with food stalls offering everything from meat to kebabs to corn, and enough fluoro lighting to give me a headache. Or maybe the headache came from the three cocktails I had…. Hmmm…

Here are a few photos from our adventures so far… There’ll be more on facebook or on the main page, coming soon.

Cheers,

– Em :)

IMG 7461OutputOutputIMG 7516Output

Filed Under → Words
Feb 14 11

“Two Shops, Then Free”

by Emily Benjamin

 

We should have asked for his name, so we could officially credit him with the most expensive cab drive in our lives. But we didn’t, so for the purpose of this entry, his name will be Bill.

Bill was approached by us today on Khao San Road, the main tourist strip in Bangkok. We’d spend the morning seeing some sights of Bangkok – namely the Grand Palace – and having lunch with my friend Rachel. After lunch she put us in a Tuk Tuk and sent us to Khao San for a beer in the afternoon sun. A tallie each and we were pretty sleepy, but tipsy enough to convince ourselves it was time to give bartering a try. So we began approaching drivers in the hope of a cheap lift home.

We were offered a lift for 150Baht, which yesterday we would have accepted and been dropped in the wrong place… true story, that. But we got tough this time, and with a shrug of the shoulders, Jamie suggested 50Baht instead. A few of the drivers shook their heads and walked away, but two were left, discussing which one of them would do it. Finally, Bill accepted our offer, under the condition that he had to stop for fuel on the way. That was the first sign that something was up.

The journey began easily enough – Bill was very chatty, keen to know where we were from, how long we were staying, and what our favourite sights had been so far. Then he started asking about whether or not we’d found any nice suits yet. Very nice suits in Bangkok, he says. Very nice. Yes, we know, but on day two of a seven month around the world trip, we won’t be buying any suits today thank you Bill. Ahhh but you’ll look while I look, yes. This store? You been here? No? Ok we stop here. Two stops, then free!

What? Have we just been picked up by a tuk-tuk driving personal shopper? We ask him to point out where we are on the map and while we wanted to go east, we’ve gone north. But there are a number of tuk-tuks parked outside this shop so we hop out, on the guarantee that this is stop one, and we go inside to humour him. Looking around, and flipping through a few magazines for suits, we kill about 3 minutes, all the while sales people offering us cheap suits. But we’re not having a bar of this. Outside again we go and Bill looks disappointed to say the least. Almost angrily, he says there is one more shop and at the next one, we must stay longer. Give it a chance, he says. At around this point, Jamie reminds me that we’d been warned of these tuk-tuk scams. Drivers are on a commission to get foreigners into the shops that are further from the main drag. They take you out shopping and then if you don’t buy, the won’t drive you anywhere. Harmless maybe, because you can always find another driver, but time consuming. I must have lost that information somewhere in my mid-term memory though, because I can’t recall being warned of being forced to shop by aggressive thai men, but hey, what can you do. After 4 hours of sight seeing with no food in my stomach, I had finally been fed and watered and I was happy to go along for the ride.

To the second shop we went, and this one was bigger, with the whole front entrance dedicated to sitting space for the tailors/salespeople waiting to serve new customers. We were met at the door by Daniel, who seemed harmless enough. I figured I may as well use this place for their bathroom in case Bill left us roadside, so I left Jamie with the magazines and excused myself for a few minutes. Perhaps I should never have left him alone though, because I returned and Jamie had his ‘………….the suits are really nice here, Em, and they’re really good value……’ face on. Uh oh. He began to look at fabrics while I rolled my eyes, not believing that he’d been dragged into this scam so easily, but also remembering that my boyfriend only has two suits and both are navy, neither of which go nicely next to one of my black cocktail dresses. He found a very nice dark grey wool, and looked ready to buy. Only 9000Baht, Daniel says. He takes our phone and downloads an iPhone app for currency conversion to show us that it was approximately $260. Jamie face changes to say ‘…hmm how can I make myself feel better about this indulgence…’ before generously suggesting that I get myself something too, like a dress. Ha! Now I’m involved in the scam too. Still on a high from a belly full of fried rice and beer, I say ok. I pick out a pattern and get taken to the thai silk area, and choose a rather beautiful navy silk for a strapless dress. Daniel offers a discount for two items and my ‘bargain brain’ is buzzing. Time to haggle.

First offer is 13000Baht for suit and dress. I suggested 10000B but it appears this may be a little extreme, as he shows us the receipts of earlier transactions, to prove that we’re already getting a deal. I go for 11000B next, and Daniel starts to waver. He walks away for a moment and Jamie whispers to me ‘You play good cop, I’ll play bad cop.’ Good idea in theory, but Jamie was obviously too keen for a new suit and wasn’t nearly ‘bad cop’ enough! Daniel comes back and says $400 AUD, whatever the conversion is. It comes down to 12000B which is $390 (thank you, Google!) and Jamie goes to put the deposit on his credit card. We get measured up for our respective purchases, and are invited back tomorrow evening for a fitting before we fly to Chiang Mai. We can also come back in April for another fitting, before the items are posted to the UK for us. We walk out, expecting Bill to have legged it, but alas! There he is, waiting for proof of purchase, and he gleefully drives us to our original destination while we sit in the back, shaking our heads in scammed shame.

Finally, we reached our destination. Bill turned out to be quite the tour guide, and after asking a few questions about how much we spent, he was really pleasant as we hopped out. Obviously he’d done the mental calculations and had worked out he’d made quite the commission from us today. As we’d laughed about it on the ride home, we decided he deserved the original fare and handed over the 50Baht, thanking him for the experience. Surprised, he accepted it happily and shook our hands, wishing us well.

A quick stop at the 7-Eleven for ice creams and water and we were home, almost 2 hours later, and $400 poorer than we intended. But hey, hopefully in May we’ll have a suit and a dress to show for it! A lesson to us both – maybe next time, don’t barter too cheap, unless you’re willing to buy a suit on the way home.

Thanks, Bill!

– Em :)

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