Tuesday, 17 November 2009

One night in Bangkok.

A few years after I had left university May, a fellow graduate, invited me to spend Christmas with her family in Malaysia.  As students, I had invited her to spend an Easter break at my family home rather than remain behind in the Hall of Residence. Now, I eagerly accepted her invitation in return as I had never been to South-East Asia before. Unfortunately, it was too late to get a cheap return flight to Malaysia. The route was popular with foreign students travelling home for the holidays and they had snapped up all the remaining tickets. Consequently, I was obliged to make a detour first to Thailand and decided I might as well spend some additional time there whilst I had the chance.

Whenever I travel solo I always gem up on safety tips in advance, especially those relating to women travellers.
“Don’t get into unlicensed cabs at Bangkok airport. If you can, take one of the official minibuses to your hotel,” the travel guides warned. I planned on staying at a small Aussie owned hotel near the luxurious Mandarin Oriental. If I took the minibus to the latter, I reasoned, it should not prove too difficult to walk the rest of the way to the budget priced hotel.
I discovered later that tourist numbers were significantly down that year, a factor, which proved significant in terms of what happened next. I found a waiting minibus and told the driver I wanted to be dropped off at the Mandarin Oriental and paid my fare. We then waited until another passenger, a middle-aged man who had just flown in from Pakistan, also got on to the minibus. As we were driving, along I made the fundamental mistake of telling the driver that I was not actually going to be staying at the Mandarin Oriental, but at a smaller hotel nearby. The driver promptly made the absurd claim that he did not know where the Mandarin Oriental was. He insisted he would need to take me to another hotel instead. It was late at night and I was suffering from severe jet-lag. What made it worse was that I could not even read the street signs to determine where we might be going, as they were written in characters from the Thai alphabet, a script I could not begin to decipher. I had visions of ending up in some brothel. Eventually, the minibus drew up outside a nondescript but seemingly respectable looking hotel. I was too tired to complain about my treatment and decided I would stay the night but search for my original hotel again in the morning. The minibus driver left me at reception and drove off again with his remaining passenger.

Later, as I was unpacking there was a knock on the door. To my surprise I opened it to find the man from Pakistan standing on the threshold.
“My hotel was full but I managed to get a room next to yours,” he said, smiling.  
“That’s nice for you” I replied, firmly closing the door shut.
I went back to my unpacking only for the phone to ring.
“If there’s anything you want doing, I will come over and do it for you right now,” my new neighbour volunteered.
“No thank-you,” I said briskly and slammed down the phone.
He was waiting for me as I stepped into the lift.
“What are your plans for the rest of the evening?” he inquired suggestively.
“I am expecting a long distance call from my boyfriend,” I said sternly.
That finally shut him up and he never bothered me again.

Before retiring for the night, I decided to take a quick stroll around the local streets.   I didn’t know if it was the unfamiliar noises and aromas from the street stalls, but after a while I became disorientated. I seemed to be walking around in circles as I always arrived back at the same Buddhist temple, despite setting off in different directions. I finally realised that there were in fact two separate Buddhist temples on my route and I had mistaken them both for a single building in the dark. Relieved I was not going mad, I returned to my hotel and went to bed. I found sleep difficult. With the air conditioning off I sweltered. With the air conditioning on I shivered and there were no spare blankets to help me combat the cold. The next day I found the hotel I had originally been looking for and checked in for the short time remaining before my onwards flight to Malaysia.

Only after I had returned to England did it strike me how reprehensible the behaviour of the reception staff and the minibus driver had been. The driver was paid to take me to an authorised location. He had not been paid to drive me to an unknown hotel, where he no doubt received a bribe for dumping unsuspecting visitors there. The reception team was even more culpable. I had not told either the driver or the other passenger what my name was. Nor had it been written down on my luggage. Nevertheless, the man from Pakistan was able to waltz into the hotel shortly after my arrival and had been given my room and telephone number by the acquiescent staff, in complete disregard for my own safety and privacy as a lone female traveller. I never felt physically intimidated by the man from Pakistan. I was far taller than him for a start. It was more the principle: lone women travellers ought not to have strange men foisted on them by unscrupulous hotel staff.  

Thankfully, that was my worst experience in Bangkok. I returned there a number of weeks later after my sojourn in Singapore and Malaysia. After what had happened en-route to Malacca from Kuala Lumpur, I was in no mood to brook any further nonsense from minibus or taxi drivers and insisted they take me straight to my destination without question.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”.  Friedrich Nietzsche could have been speaking about my near fatal car crash in Malaysia when he wrote those words.