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Always Count Your Money, Part 2: The Scam Artists

IMG_1381I was waiting at the bus stop and a foreigner walks past me and says something I didn’t catch, followed by, Oh, you are waiting for the bus? I thought you lived around here.

No, I told him.

Do you know if there’s another German embassy near here? he asked.

That seemed kind of silly to me, but I said, No, there’s probably only one in Bangkok. Why?

Well, he says, all my luggage got stolen and I missed my flight and I’m trying to get another flight back home, but I don’t have my cards so I can’t buy a ticket.

Go to the embassy, I said. They’ll be able to help you out.

All they can do is give me a new passport.

Oh, that sucks, I said. But you have your passport?

Yes, he said.

IMG_1380So I told him to go to my hostel and talk to the owner, a nice French guy, who has lived here a long time and would be able to help him out.

I went there this morning, he said, but the guy told me to leave.

I didn’t see you, I replied, and I was sitting there all morning. I can take you there if you want.

But I just want to go home, he told me. I have to go home today. Can you just buy my ticket and I’ll wire you the money? It will show up immediately.

There was a sound in the back of my brain now, but I acted dumb and continued with, But I don’t know my bank information.

As long as you have a Visa card it will work, he replied.

I’m not giving you my Visa card number, I told him.

IMG_1379Come on, the guy retorted. What am I going to do with your Visa number? It’s just a card number. I can’t use that.

When I asked for his passport he skipped past that and told me he needed 500 Euros, and I just said I didn’t have that much money, and he said, How about a thousand baht? Just so I can stay here for a few more days.

Of course, I kept pushing back by offering to take him to my hostel and introduce him to the owner, but he just said, No, no, they’ll say it’s a scam, I’ve already been through all that.

Deep down we both knew he was full of it, but his nice little excuses let him save face, as did my continual offers to help him without handing over any money. We both parted company on decent terms, even though I just wanted to take his passport straight to the cops.

 

IMG_1361A previous con from another foreigner may or may not have been a con, but he smelled like a rat. I get the feeling some of the seedy types you meet out here con most people like most people breathe.

As I was standing downtown taking a picture of a building, I suddenly noticed someone standing inside my personal bubble.

He was a plump bald Brit who started asking questions about me and my camera and what I was doing. He seemed very, very friendly and very interested in me. He said he was staying in this hotel over there and had booked a few days already and it was kind of lousy for 950 baht a night.

Then, after a few moments of warming me up, he said he needed a hundred baht to buy phone credit because all his stuff was stolen and he got injured — he showed me a swollen knee — and could I just help out with a hundred baht so he could call his bank and have them wire him money?

IMG_1350If all you need to do is make a phone call, why don’t you ask the clerk at your hotel? I said.

He said there wasn’t a clerk there, which just sounded ridiculous to me. Never have I ever seen a hotel in Thailand without a clerk.

I told him they could probably return him money from a night so he could buy his phone credit.

The guy got offended and angry and started saying mean stuff to me, and as we parted ways and he limped off into the crowds of Bangkok, he said, I hope you die.

 

IMG_1341Tourists are regularly accosted by tuk tuk drivers, scam artists, Indians selling suits, and, depending on what part of town you’re in, ladyboys and prostitutes. You will get ripped off constantly. One day, I ran some errands down by my future CELTA school, and ate lunch at a street vendor’s. I asked the waitress how much it cost, and the lady turned to the manager guy and told him in Thai, Fifty baht.

With a big fat grin, he turned to me and said in English, Sixty baht.

I frowned, gave him the money, and said, in Thai, Thank you.

The guy and the waitress turned awkwardly away, because he lost face, which is a big no no in the Asian Cultures of Shame, or so I’ve heard, but I didn’t care. I stomped away and sat at a coffee shop where at least they had prices written down on a menu.

While reading an author who would later destroy all my hope in literature, a motorbike taxi driver came up to me and said that he could get me a cheap ride anywhere in the city, a cheap happy ending massage, a cheap flight, a cheap boat tour, or whatever else I wanted, what was I looking for? I just had to give the word. Pretty much anything a tourist would ever need, he could do.

At least he was willing to provide some sort of service, unlike some of these shady foreigners who speak your language and don’t bat an eye at lifting your money straight out of your wallet.

 

IMG_1335And some time even later, from my hostel room, I heard a high-pitched squeal. I poked my head outside my door, and down the steps from my room was a rat, quivering in the jaws of a local stray. I grabbed my camera, followed the cat upstairs, and took pictures as it tossed the rat around on the roof.

I hope the rat is in shock, I thought while watching the brutal murder.

For some reason, I wast distinctly reminded of the scam artists I’d recently been meeting.

Thailand: Toilets, Taxis, and Shopping

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Some of the best toilets Thailand has to offer. Notice the flowers by the sink.

I read an article on one expat blog that talked about how to use a Japanese toilet. It is common for expat blogs to write how-to articles and cultural tips. Not only do these types of articles provide useful information for surfers, they provide SEO-friendly keywords that help the blog build search engine visibility. While I like to think that my travel tales are interesting, informative, and insightful, my travel stories certainly won’t show up when someone types in “how to use a Japanese toilet” or “good Korean food Seoul.” I don’t want to be left out of the pack, so here is some useful how-to information about Thailand’s toilets, taxis, and shopping.

 

Toilets in Thailand range from a hole in the ground to Western style toilets. As a budget traveler, you can manage to find cheap hostels in Thailand that run as little as three US dollars a night, which is what my hostel charges for a dorm bed. However, I have seen several girls walk right out the front door after seeing the dormitory’s toilet. There is no toilet seat, and you have to flush the toilet by filling up a bucket with water and dumping it into the toilet bowl. There is no sink, per se, but there is a canal with a faucet, and a shower head on the end of a hose. Also, make sure not to poop too loudly because there’s about a foot of space between the top of the wall and the ceiling. But pooping quietly may be a challenge if you’re eating Thai food every day. You may be able to disguise the sound if you turn on the shower, the “sink” faucet, and the bucket faucet simultaneously. And cough at the same time.

The Emporium

The Emporium

If you can manage, hold it until you get to one of Thailand’s mega-shopping centers. Toilets in Bangkok’s major shopping malls are full on Western style toilets with motion-detecting sinks and actual paper towels, which are a rarity in the Land of Smiles. Half the time you will be greeted by a friendly cleaning maid who takes no notice of you as you desecrate her sparkling urinal.

If you’re wandering around the city somewhere and nature starts yelling at you about that tom yum you just ate, rush inside the nearest building and pray they have a toilet for use. When you find the bathroom, you will likely be greeted by a sleepy bathroom door attendant and you’ll probably have to pay a cover charge to use the bathroom. On Khao San I’ve seen security guards stationed by bathrooms that are locked behind floor-to-ceiling metal bars and a full body coin-operated turnstile. And it makes sense, since the last time I was there some aggressive drunk kid was yelling that the guard wouldn’t let him in, while trying to shove through the turnstile to another drunk friend who’d collapsed on the floor somewhere, not realizing that the turnstile was a mechanical device that could only be opened with three baht, which the guard was waiting for a hotel attendant to retrieve. But most of the time you’ll just give your money to the door person, who will give you your change, then say something to you in Thai and let you inside. You’ll have to pay a few baht more for some tissue, since the toilet won’t be stocked with toilet paper. Don’t worry, though, there is a hose for spraying yourself down there or back there or wherever you end up spraying; the tissue is just for the drying phase so you don’t look like you had an accident when you walk out. But don’t put it in the toilet, the signs will tell you, that’s what the small waste basket is for.

Assuming, though, you’ve managed to hold out for a luxurious shopping mall bathroom, you will now be relieved enough to explore the vast decadent elegance that is Thailand’s shopping excellence. When I walk through these malls, I feel like I’m exploring acres and acres of the wings of some massive, opulant Thai palace. Strange objets d’art hang from the ceilings, and the floors and walls gleam with gold and crystal. Tacky gaudiness is a perfected art form in these places, perhaps only outdone by Thailand’s glittering Buddhist temples.

Terminal 21

Terminal 21

For a wannabe rustic rugged traveler like myself, half-dressed in REI gear and half-dressed in Khao San hippie clothes, there are a couple chains that offer imported outdoor gear. The Tank Store can be found at the Emporium and Siam Paragon, and I think I saw one in Central World as well. This store brings in some gear from US companies like Sea to Summit, Outdoor Research, Camelback, and some others. You can find major brands like The North Face, Nike, Adidas, and Columbia at other outlets, but in general, these malls cater to the tacky fashion that worships sparkle and gaudy.

Up the street from Central World is Platinum, a massive shopping mall slash district that is devoted to more of the same fashion that makes no sense to Yours Truly, who, admittedly, may not be the best fashion advisor in the world. After all, for a long time I wore my Vibrams everywhere, and now I wear a hat that looks like it’s straight from Crocodile Dundee.

There’s plenty more shopping in Bangkok besides what I’ve mentioned. MBK, for instance, is another multi-story shopping center with electronics and clothing stores, and Kinokuniya, the worldwide Japanese bookstore, offers the largest selection of English books in Thailand. It has a few branches around town, located inside the major shopping malls.

But for the best shopping experience, visit some of Thailand’s many markets. The street markets that are everywhere Thailand offer a much cheaper selection of anything you could want, from clothing to tools to electronics. Remember how I talked up the market on Khao San? Well, that place is fine, but it’s a relatively expensive drop in the bucket compared to the rest of Thailand’s many street markets. But you can never be sure of the quality of certain purchases. I once bought a reading light and a travel clock for cheap that were both DOA, and a backpack I got for a few bucks fell apart one time when I put too much weight in it. No gradual warning tears or splitting seams; the straps just ripped right out of the pack. All my clothes have held out fine though, and I still have a bunch of T-shirts I bought here two years ago.

Traffic by Central World

Traffic by Central World

Once you’re done with your shopping extravaganza, you can find street food for less than a buck or you can climb to the top of a mall and pay American prices for any worldwide cuisine you crave.

Now that you’re stuffed and lugging around a couple tons of crap you could have bought back home minus the import surcharges, you need to figure out how to get back to your hotel. You can take an air-conditioned taxi back, which usually costs three bucks or less. You can take the motorcycle taxis, which involves you hopping on the back of a motorbike without a helmet while the driver weaves through traffic to get you back home. You can take motorized tricycle taxis, called tuk tuks, which I am starting to really hate because they always pull up beside me while I’m walking and they call out My Friend and ask where I’m going and don’t I want to pay them like nine bucks to go somewhere anywhere as long as I give them money and it happens like ten or twenty times a day. You can also take a bus, which is usually the cheapest, costing between nothing and fifty cents. The skytrain costs around a buck if you’re not going too far, and you can even take a boat, which costs forty cents to a buck fifty, depending on whether you buy the tourist ticket or not.

Lastly, you can walk home, if you know where you’re going, if you don’t mind getting caught in the occasional rainstorm, and if you’re sure that you won’t have to use the toilet before you get back.

Bangkok’s Got Him Now

Bangkok at the bottom of an aquarium

Bangkok underneath an ocean of water

A customer I’d met at S’s bar sat next to me on the plane ride from Phnom Penh and confirmed my suspicion that S and her coworkers were all prostitutes. When we arrived at the airport, they drove me into the city. The vast storm clouds stood out against the dusk and gave the impression that Bangkok sat at the bottom of the ocean. We got lost in the maze of streets and it took an extra two hours to get back. When we finally parted on the circus that is Khao San, I bid them adieu and made for a three dollar dormitory room.

In the morning, a Thai girl at the hostel latched on to me and began stroking my arm. She spoke in an infantile voice and during conversations would suddenly start massaging me and tickling me lightly, and later she tricked me into paying for her thirty cent breakfast. She hit on a Vietnamese girl who came the next day, a Japanese girl, a French guy, and so forth, but would still come back to me when I was alone.

The Vietnamese girl, a Japanese fellow, and Yours Truly went downtown to Soi 11 later, a street off the massive road Sukhumvit. Soi 11 was lined with upscale joints and VW buses that converted into streetside bars.

It was here that we met B, the English teacher from San Francisco, who was sweating profusely and had wide eyes when he talked, which was constantly. It seemed to take him a minute to process my questions about his expat life here, and when he talked he was really loud and animated. I was pretty sure he was on an upper. Later this history major would admit to being a drug addict and tell me how he had taught a class of his Thai kids on yaabaa, which is basically meth.

He told me everything in Thailand was based on money, including relationships with Thai girls. A South African and my Vietnamese companion said the same thing. B went on to echo a similar sentiment about Thailand as the diver had about Cambodia, saying the locals are vain, only care about themselves, are lazy, and promote the seedy culture here that revolves around partying, drugs, and prostitution.

See all these people around here? B said, and gestured at the Africans sitting around us. Why do you think they’re here? Half the people here are drug dealers.

When we asked about Vietnam, he had only good things to say.

 

Rice things in Phnom Penh

Rice things in Phnom Penh

Oh, and let’s not forget about H, the English teacher who occasionally stops by my hostel. He is from Sweden and has lived in Bangkok for eight years. He speaks fluent Thai, plus English, Swedish, and two other Scandinavian languages. He is always drunk.

Last time we talked, his eyes swam towards me through a foot of alcohol. His speech was slurred, but he still managed to teach me some Thai with the articulate explanations of a professional teacher. He told me a few good English schools to go to. He’d been here eight years without a teaching certificate, he said. At the end of the conversation he asked me for 25 baht to buy a beer.

Walking Around In Vibrams In Bangkok In The Rain

IMG_0868_CR2Clouds boil up over the horizon like dragons and lightning flashes around the edge of the sky while people go about their daily business. When the storms roll over you it happens suddenly, and the next thing you know you’re stuck under an awning somewhere with a handful of random people while torrents flood down and soak your lower half. If you’re like me then you have a poncho and rain cover for your pack, but most people don’t, so when it did rain, I ended up walking through the downpour in the middle of an empty street while everybody gawked.

 

Walking through Bangkok is not recommended in Vibrams, but they get the job done. Actually, walking through Bangkok is not recommended without a mask since you’ll be eating car fumes. When I rode my moped on Koh Samui I was eating fumes too, but fortunately my Buff Headwear ™ conveniently turns into a mask.

The hour and a half walk from Kao San to MBK is a good way to see a little more of the city than you would if you’re just ferried from place to place by taxi and tuk tuk. Kao San is its own little world, an isolated bubble that is as different from Thailand as Thailand is from the Western world. Along the way you’ll see shops that sell enormous Buddhas, office furniture, antiques, incense, and Thai food vendors. Side streets lead off into pocket universes, and I am reminded of San Francisco.

Like in San Francisco, you can wander into an alley here and see stores, restaurants, holes in the wall, hostels, cats, bums, lizards, dogs, bars, or doors to other dimensions. The labyrinthine passages to all these little pockets of life always fascinates me about massive cities like this.

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And the only right way to travel is to get lost. That’s the only way to experience anything new. Spontaneity and new experiences are things that the tourism industry removes from travel, for financial reasons that are understandable, yet experiencing something new is exactly the purpose of travel. It’s exploration. When everything comes prepackaged out of a mold, you’re not really getting a true travel experience.

Traveling should be a roll of the dice, as well as seeing the famous sights a place has to offer. Clearly if I go to Kuala Lumpur I want to see its giant towers, but I also want to accidentally wander down a side street and see if I find a hidden food joint, a stand selling weird Asian fruit, or a dumpster with a bum and his alley cats.

You’ll never get that snapping photos from a tour bus.

Day 1 & 2: Bangkok to Hua Hin

IMG_0573After about a day the plane landed in Bangkok. It was 2:30 in the morning and the air dripped with sweat.

When I walked through immigration, an airport employee laughed at my vibrams, said sorry for laughing, then kept laughing.

The immigration official didn’t care about my ongoing ticket or bank balance, she just stamped me through.

At the taxi stand, two bored girls ignored me and handed me off to one of the taxi drivers. One of them was playing some kind of tetrisy game with balloons on a state of the art tablet. I would see this bubble game several times in the next two days.

The taxi driver drove through the highways like a crackhead on speed, and the next think you knew, I was back in Kao San. The center for partying tourists in Bangkok, Kao San was still going at four in the morning.

I couldn’t sleep, so I wandered around to the 7-11s and food carts, then ate breakfast at a cheap good place I liked.

For a few hours I worked at the content mills and realized I was ready to hit the road again. Bangkok was a very busy place, with hundreds or thousands of tourists coming through on a daily basis, and I just wanted to chill.

The bus ride to Hua Hin left at 12, a mere ten hours after my arrival. I arrived a few minutes early and sat out in front of the travel agency, where a shop owner complimented me on my vibrams.

The bus ride ended up cramming luggage and people into a dozen-seated minivan. Every hour the bus would randomly pull over to the side of the road, pick some Thai person up, sit them in the only seat that wasn’t full of luggage or people, drop him or her off, drop off a package somewhere, and so on, until the next thing I knew, I had dozed off, and they were waking me up loudly and telling me it was my stop.

I stumbled out like a drunk and told a motorbike taxi to take me somewhere cheap, and then I ended up paying eighteen dollars for the night. I was too exhausted to care.

One of the girls that worked there laughed at my vibrams.

I couldn’t pass out right away, so I wandered around, and immediately found a six-dollar-per-night hostel with free wifi. What a surprise.

While doing my laundry in the sink I upset a family of cockroaches that skittered all over the bathroom.

Then it was time to pass out.

At three in the morning, I woke up and wrote this.

The day was spent wandering the town and sitting at a bar drinking diet cokes and writing for the content mills. An evening stroll through some side streets revealed a little mini-red light district, so I guess even the yuppiest tourist areas in Thailand have their seedy sides.

Now it’s 9 pm, and I’m back where I was at three this morning, looking at military boats dressed up like Christmas trees, waiting for a bus to take me to Ko Samui.

Some More Bangkok 2011 Photos

You may notice I don’t have many pictures of people.

Mostly it’s just because the subject matter I prefer to shoot is nature and architecture.

These are the last photos of my time in Bangkok before heading to Cambodia. My trip was wrapping up at this point.

 

 

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The Beginning of my Love Affair with Rain

This would be the first time I used my Canon to take photographs of rain. And shooting rain is definitely my favorite. It took a few more opportunities and a couple more years before I really figured out a good approach.

The trick that I use for shooting rain, for those of you who don’t want to wait, is to max out the ISO. On the Canon 60D, anyway, it’s the only way I can think of to get the shutter speed fast enough to actually capture the rain drops in mid-splash.

The highest shutter speed I used in these photographs was 1000, because the popular advice is to keep the ISO as low as possible. Some other photographers have told me to keep it at 100 as much as possible, but I have since learned to disregard such one-size-fits-all advice.

In my experience, ISO is made to be used.

If you need it, use it. If not, don’t.

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Bangkok and Beyond, 2011

As you can see, I was quite excited about my new camera, and was taking pictures everywhere I went.

On occasion, I would get pictures that had something “wrong” with them, as a pro might say. Lots of noise or overexposure would ruin an otherwise good shot, such as the one below with the moving train. What I’ve learned is that if you have an image with something cool in it that you want to salvage, use the defects creatively.

If your shot has lots of noise, add grain, make it sepia or black and white, and give it some style. The same thing goes if your shot is overexposed: add creative effects to make your photo work with the defects.

Another note about these pictures. You’ll start to notice some extremely colorful editing with some of these shots. This was all done about a year or so after they were shot. One week I decided to see what would happen when I really pushed Camera RAW settings to their extremes, including everything from saturation to contrast, clarity, blacks, whites, etc. etc., as well as the hues sliders, individual color saturations, and so forth.

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Welcome to Thailand

In Thailand I honed my Camera RAW techniques and learned how to shoot lightning.

Some of my photos have a “Nathan T Warne Photography” watermark in the upper left corner. I made this on my own a year or two after shooting the originals by improvising with Photoshop actions. There are definitely better techniques for creating watermarks, since some of mine ended up getting cut off in the process.

On the upside, I managed to use Camera RAW’s batch process function to both add the watermark and resize all the images, making them more palatable for websites.

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