This summer I spent five weeks in Thailand, and learned how to be the sort of person I’ve always admired—kind, grateful, laid-back, and a girl who doesn’t take anybody’s BS. Unfortunately, these lessons derived from a lot of mistakes.
Prepare Yourself for Bangkok
Bangkok was bonkers. After a 17-hour flight, my boyfriend, Jake, and I landed in Bangkok. We stayed in a hotel near Khao San road, A.K.A. the place to be if you’re traveling, due to its busy nightlife and tasty street food. Khao San is a bustling street that stretches for kilometers, with stands that sell fake Ray-Ban sunglasses and Michael Kors knockoffs. It’s also full of scammers who target first-time tourists, and sadly, we fell for their tricks.
Never Trust the Smiling Tuk-Tuk Driver
While exploring the streets our first morning, a man approached us and introduced himself as Mr. John. He owned a tuk-tuk–a scooter with a cage on the back for passenger seating–and offered to take us on a temple tour for 30 Baht (about one Canadian dollar). He was a sweet, older man—friendly, and hilarious. We spent the afternoon with him visiting gorgeous temples and sipping fresh coconut water, laughing at his jokes and taking selfies from the back. Each temple was elaborately decorated with jewels; I was awestruck. I love Bangkok, I thought.
After hours of temple hopping, we stopped outside a custom suit shop. Jake wanted to buy a suit in Thailand because they’re so cheap, but we were confused because we hadn’t asked Mr. John to take us there. Inside, seamstresses began measuring Jake and the salesman was asking for Jake’s credit card information before he agreed to purchase anything. Mr. John didn’t seem too impressed when we came out empty handed, so he drove us to another suit shop. We felt more comfortable here; Jake was sized and picked his suit style, fabric, and colour. We agreed to pick it up at the end of our trip when we came back to Bangkok to fly home–all we had to do was come back tomorrow to try on the draft. We shook hands and went outside to find Mr. John. By now, we were exhausted, sweaty, starving, and way too jetlagged to be awake. We asked Mr. John, who was now in a better mood, to take us back to the hotel, but he insisted on making one more stop. We reluctantly agreed and ended up at a travel agency. Jake and I exchanged a puzzled look and got off the tuk-tuk.
“Why are we here?” we asked.
“You buy something, I get a free gas coupon,” he said.
“We don’t want to buy anything here,” we argued.
He ushered us inside, where a woman asked us where we wanted to go next and started to add up prices. We quickly aborted the situation, but outside, Mr. John was upset we didn’t purchase anything, and wanted to take us to another tourism shop. We argued on the street until he finally agreed to take us back to our hotel. We paid him 30 Baht and half-sprinted back to our room, avoiding anybody else who had anything to sell.
We had to go back to the suit shop the next day so Jake could try it on. Mr. John was parked in the same spot where we met him, and we asked him to take us straight to the shop and back to the hotel, no other stops—emphasized. He agreed, Jake tried on his suit, and everything was going according to plan until we were ready to go home.
“We’re done, can we go back to the hotel now?” we asked him.
“One stop. I need a gas coupon,” Mr. John said.
We were astonished. “You told us you would take us straight here and back,” we said.
“One stop, you get me a gas coupon,” he said.
Frustrated, we debated on the street until he agreed to take us back to the hotel without stopping anywhere else.
“Six-hundred Baht,” he said.
“No way. You drove us around yesterday for six hours for 30 Baht. We came straight here today. We aren’t giving you that much.”
We knew that haggling was a custom in Thailand, and we eventually got him down to one-hundred Baht.
In capital letters, number one read: DO NOT TRUST THE TUK-TUK DRIVERS.
We decided to do a boat tour along the river on our last day to see Bangkok’s landmarks. I wanted to see the famous flower market. We got off the boat and followed a map Mr. John had given us the day we met. Clearly, we looked lost, and a man approached us and asked us where we were going. He said the flower market was closed for Buddha’s Day, and gave us a map—the same one we already had—and tried to persuade us into a temple tour, pointing to all the same temples we already saw. Disappointed, we turned around and headed back to the dock. Our next stop was Chinatown; we cruised down the river and got off as the map instructed. We walked a couple blocks, but couldn’t find the right street to turn on. Our map from Mr. John was blatantly wrong, and we didn’t have Wi-Fi to use the GPS on our phones. Another man approached us and told us Chinatown was also closed for the Buddha’s Day. He too pulled the same map from his back pocket and asked us if we wanted to do a temple tour instead. We ran straight back to the boat, stayed on the river until our stop at Khao San Road, and didn’t bother with anymore excursions in Bangkok. We got back to the hotel and Googled Buddha’s Day, which was the month prior to our trip. We got scammed. I hated Bangkok.
While sitting in the airport waiting for our flight to Phuket, I read a travel blog explaining the top ten mistakes to avoid in Bangkok. (Why didn’t I read this before?) In capital letters, number one read: DO NOT TRUST THE TUK-TUK DRIVERS. They receive free gas coupons when they get tourists to buy suits and travel packages. From our experience with Mr. John and the rest of the tuk-tuk gang, I learned to be more assertive and stand up for myself—and getting around Bangkok wasn’t so bad the second time around, when we went back to pick up the suit. In fact, it truly is an incredible place if you experience it right. I learned to love it again.
Eating the Street Food is a Dangerous Game
We booked a day trip to James Bond Island located off the coast of Phuket. The days before our excursion consisted of quality beach time and eating delicious street food. However, eating the street food is like playing Russian Roulette…it’s all fun and games until you get a bad batch. Jake got food poisoning from his eleventh Pad Thai in seven days–he was up all night hugging the toilet. I tried to cancel our tour, but he insisted he would be okay. We got some sleep, then woke up and waited on the street for our ride to pick us up. We were sunburned, trying to squeeze ourselves into the little shade the street had to offer, and Jake was barely recovering. We waited and waited. Our expedition was supposed to start at noon, and it was already half past. The clerk at the hotel called the tour company for us; they said they were coming. We waited another hour, but they never showed up. Disappointed, we emailed the company and rescheduled for the next day. A driver showed up on time, we were able to see the beauty of James Bond Island, and had a super fun day, too. We learned if you give companies your money in Thailand, you’ll always get to where you’re supposed to go, although the timing might be a little off. The customer service is much different than in Canada, and I learned to have more patience and trust the process. Jake fully recovered from food poisoning and was able to enjoy our day, so it all worked out for the best. He learned he can’t eat Pad Thai anymore (it brings back too many bad memories).
If They Tell You to Do Something, Do It
The monthly Full Moon Party is held on the island of Koh Phangan, only accessible by ferry. We bought our ferry tickets online and got a confirmation email, instructing us to print out the confirmation page. Everyone here is traveling, why would they make us print out our tickets? We ignored it. Lesson learned: Follow the rules. When we showed up at the ferry, the lady working the line wouldn’t accept our E-tickets. The ferry line was getting longer and we only had 20 minutes before departure.
“There’s a printer down there,” the woman working the ferry line said. I asked where, and she pointed at the busy street. “NEXT!” she called. She wasn’t taking any BS, either.
We scanned the street, and asked a younger woman working at a tourism shop if we could print our tickets at her store. She offered to go and print them down the street if we paid her. Without thinking, I gave her my iPhone 7 and four-hundred Baht. She jumped on a scooter and took off. We stared down the street waiting for her to come back; the ferry was set to leave in five minutes. “She’s coming, she’s coming,” her co-worker assured. We watched as the ferry pulled up and the passengers unloaded. What did I just do? The sound of honking snapped me out of my negative thoughts and we watched as she ripped through the busy street on her scooter, yelling at pedestrians to get out of her way. She pulled up, jumped off, handed us our tickets and my phone, all while screaming “GO, GO, GO!” I couldn’t believe it–I thought she was never coming back, or selling my phone for thousands of Baht. I learned at that moment strangers can surprise you, and amongst all the hatred in the world, there is still so much kindness. We hugged as I thanked her over and over, then took off running for the ferry, making it just in time.
Get Your Shots and Beware of Spiders
As our trip was coming to an end, Jake had been bit by something—we figured it was a spider. Instantaneously, a giant red patch took over his arm. Over the course of three days, the swelling seemed to go down, but as the redness went away, a volcanic bump protruded from his skin. We decided to save ourselves the trouble of making an insurance claim in another country, and agreed to go to the doctor as soon as we got home. Each day the bump got bigger, and started oozing green pus—it was totally gross. Jake was staying calm about it, but I was worried enough for the both of us. We wrapped it in bandages, not wanting to gross anyone out in the airport, and after 24 hours of travelling, we finally got home. At the clinic, the doctor explained that whatever caused the bump had become infected and turned into a staph infection, which could have been dangerous if left untreated a few more days. The doctor drained the infection, and after the pus-filled volcano erupted, Jake was left with a gaping hole in his arm. I think I blacked out a little because all I remember is propping myself up against the wall, trying not to throw up. The doctor put gauze inside Jake’s arm to fill the hole, prescribed him antibiotics, and told him to come back every other day for a check-up. It healed up nicely, other than the dark purple scar he now rocks. I guess it makes for a cool story…but he could have potentially lost his arm or been seriously sick. We learned we should ask for help even when it’s inconvenient because we don’t know all the answers. We learned health is a priority, not a preference, and to take our well-being seriously. Also, I’m too queasy to become a doctor.
The most important thing Thailand taught me is to always expect the unexpected. It’s true when they say travelling is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer. Each setback I encountered along the way acted as a test as to how I handled myself. I became more patient, appreciative, free-spirited, and stronger. I could have been a little stronger for Jake in the doctor’s office, but hey, I’m only human. I also grew from all the good experiences too, like visiting animal welfare shelters, eating scorpions, making friends from faraway countries, hiking to waterfalls in the pouring rain, and swimming with rescue elephants. Traveling sets you on the right path to finding the person you’re meant to be, and I can’t wait to go explore again.
To see more from our trip, check out Jake’s video: