It was a nice surprise for me when my boss called me up one Thursday afternoon and told me to clear my schedule for the following week. “I want you to go to Bangkok,” he said. Previously I had only been sent outstation to local cities – Penang, Malacca, and Penang again. Going to Thailand was something out of the ordinary for me. And I loved Bangkok! I had only been there once but I loved the friendly people and the beautiful sights.
I was working for a reseller company that deals with engineering software, and one of the software that we were reselling was a civil engineering software from Norway. The principals were Norwegian, but they had a main office in Bangkok which served as their South East Asian headquarters. I was being sent for technical training at the Bangkok office. It wasn’t a special workshop or seminar; I was going to have “private tutoring”, and this was on invitation by the Norwegian principals. It was a special arrangement especially for the company, because we were the sole distributor in Malaysia for this software, and I was the sole technical expert in Malaysia.
I suppose you could call me spoilt, but the arrangements were not to my liking. Although I was a single girl arriving at a foreign country, I was told to get to the hotel myself, via cab. I told them I heard from the locals that taxis weren’t safe in Bangkok, and even a guy should not take it alone; however I was assured by the Norwegians that if I follow the instructions given I will be safe. I had no choice but to comply. I suppose I could not really blame them; Thailand was not their home country, and they didn’t have their own cars to do the chauffeuring. I was used to the idea of Malaysian hospitality where we Malaysians would meet our guests at the airport, and send them to their hotel, or make the necessary arrangements for them.
So the following week, which was the third week of January, I flew to Bangkok by myself, and arrived in Bangkok International Airport. I followed the instructions I was given to the letter; I didn’t take any of the cabbies looking for travellers. I went straight to a taxi booth outside the airport, and instructed the driver to take the expressway into the city. I gave him the address of the hotel which the Norwegians had booked for me, where they were staying too. He didn’t really know where it was, but he knew the street. After less than half an hour we arrived on the street, and we drove slowly along looking for the hotel. I spotted it halfway; it was a dingy looking service apartment.
I was supposed to pay what was according to the meter, plus a bit more for the taxi booth service, and the expressway toll; but I noticed that the taxi driver left the meter running as he seemingly helpfully ran to make sure that the apartment we arrived at was the correct one. Then as he took my bag out, he said, “300 baht”, which was a good 50 baht more than the actual total I was supposed to pay. Prior to that I was already planning on giving him a tip, but when he demanded so much more than the actual amount there was really no point, was there? However I was tired and didn’t want to make a fuss so I just gave him the money.
At the hotel, I checked in, and I wanted to pay by credit card, but was told that they didn’t accept cards – only cash! What a bummer! I was pretty broke that month and I wasn’t given money in advance – I was to claim later. I had exchanged JUST enough to last the trip, and I had hoped to pay the room fees by card so that the money I set aside for that could be used for shopping. 🙁 I did have just enough though, fortunately. I was shown to this room which was rather sparse. The air-conditioner was not one of those modern boxes hung on the wall, or even stuffed in the wall; it was a huge metal block that rested on the floor in a corner of the room. The lady who showed me to my room pointed out the utilities provided, and said there are two bottles of water in the fridge. “Oh, two for each day I am here?” I asked. “No,” she said. “Two only.”
So I guess if I stayed there for an entire month, I”ll still be getting only two bottles!
Well, water is cheap anyway, and there was a kettle provided, so I can boil my own water if I really wanted to save money.
I suppose the apartment was good enough, but for someone who’s used to Malaysian hotels which was of higher standard than this even at three stars, this was pretty tacky. Call me a spoilt brat, but hey, I’m on company expense! I could change hotels but I didn’t want to incur unnecessary expenditure for my company (though I found out later my boss wouldn’t have minded. Darn it!).
The night was spent going for dinner with the Norwegians at a nearby Thai restaurant. The next day I followed the Norwegian regional sales manager to their office. We went by sky train, and the office was one stop away; I suppose he wasn’t much for walking! He bought me a prepaid card for me to use for the rest of my stay. The technical training consisted of the Norwegian engineer showing me some useful tricks and tips in using the software.
I was on my own that night, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I had earlier written to my friend who was studying in Bangkok, but she was not free to meet me as she was busy with assignments and examinations. She did however advise me to visit Wat Arun which was a must-see. “If you leave by 6.30, you can get there by sunset,” she wrote.
I was feeling pretty adventurous that night, and decided to get moving. It was already 6pm, so I quickly got ready, and stuffed the printed copy of her email in my pocket. I debated on whether or not to take a map which I had taken from the Bangkok airport; and decided there was no need to. I felt fairly confident that there should be no problem if I followed my friend’s instructions to the letter. I took the sky train to the interchange, and got off at the last stop, which was Tha Sathon.
“The pier is just a few steps in front of the station.” I walked the few steps, and found two piers. I walked between the two, trying to find signs to indicate which was the right one, but I found none helpful. Finally I asked a man behind a counter who was selling boat tour tickets, who indicated the pier we were at was the right one.
I hopped on the next boat that came, and paid the amount of 10 baht, which was exactly as my friend had said. I was pretty excited. I didn’t immediately grab a seat like the rest of the passengers did; I flitted from side to side admiring the views (and snapping shots which later could not be developed because they were too dark) and enjoying the river breeze.
I kept my eye on each stop we made, as I didn’t want to miss my stop, and I had no idea how many stops away it was. But after a while I began to get wary; I was surprised that my stop had not come. If it took that long, I was sure my friend would have said so in her email. The boat was already almost empty, and I finally took a seat, worrying about the time. It was 7.30pm Thailand time. An hour had already passed. I would still have to take another boat across the river to see the wat. I didn’t know how long that would take. And then I still have to make my way back to the room. I didn’t want to stay out that late in this foreign country.
We passed a few bridges, and I was getting the feeling that we were out of Bangkok. The unsettling feeling I had in my stomach increased when we pulled up at a pier and everyone was told to get off. I watched uneasily as the boat sped off. Something was not right.
I walked around the pier, trying to find the name of the town we were in. There were none that I could read – all were in Thai! Then I found a signboard stuffed in one unlit corner of the pier. Hoping none of the youths hanging around would attack me (some I could see making out in the darkness, so I suppose I was safe from them), I could barely make the words out on the white sign which listed every stop on the boat’s route, as if it were a bus. And it was on the signboard that I saw that Wat Arun was a mere six stops from the pier I was originally on! But I had observed every stop we made, and I did not see Wat Arun!!!
Either I had not seen the sign correctly (or it was not in English), or for some reason the boat skipped the stop tonight. Either way, I was not going to see the beautiful Wat Arun. There was nothing else for me to do but to go home. I had wasted about 1 1/2 hours of my time, but I only spent 10 baht (which still left me enough money for the airport tax to go home), and I guess the boat ride was an interesting experience, though not quite one I’d like to repeat.
I watched the boats that came to the pier and watched people clamber into them. I had no idea which boat will be able take me back. So when one stopped for a while, I went on and asked the driver if he went back to Tha Sathon. He muttered something that I didn’t quite catch at first; and asked him to repeat what he said. “By road,” he said. “You go back by road. No boat go there.”
And that was when panic first hit me.
There I was, in a foreign country I could not speak the language of, without even a map to guide me!
I walked hesitatingly out of the pier, and again made a vain attempt in trying to locate a signboard which would indicate the town I was in, in symbols I could recognise. None.
The pier was at the end of a cul-de-sac, and the road made a sort of a U-turn in front of the pier. Both sides of the streets were lined with shops. I stood there in front of the pier, watching the buses and cabs making the U-turns. What was I to do? I had already been advised not to take a taxi by myself, and certainly not at night. Even if I did, that would severely reduce the amount of cash I had in hand, and I wouldn’t know if I would have enough left over to allow me out of the country (everyone had to pay an airport tax of 500 baht when flying out). The only other currency I had was Ringgit, which was useless in this country (curse that peg!!! The Malaysian ringgit was currently pegged at RM3.80 to US$1, and was not usable anywhere outside Malaysia). I have no idea how much a taxi ride back to Bangkok was going to cost. This was obviously way outside Bangkok. Bangkok was peppered with proper signage that had English translations. This place had handmade signs written in Thai.
Calm down, I told myself. Maybe I could take a bus. But I couldn’t make out the tiny signs each bus carried which indicated where they were going. Even if I could, how would I know which to take? Sure, I knew the name of the street my apartment was in, but that was not enough. I knew how to get around using the sky train, but obviously the sky train did not reach the outskirts as far as this place.
Suddenly a boy just under twenty came up to me, and spoke in English. “The bus stop is there,” he said, pointing down the road, where a lot of people were standing. He walked off, and looking behind him, as if expecting me to follow. I didn’t move. What for? I didn’t know which bus to take.
I decided to take action. I quickly walked to the nearest 7-Eleven, and asked the boy behind the counter if he spoke English. He looked blankly at me, and then helplessly at his co-worker. No one obviously knew English.
“Sukhumwit Road,” I said. “Do you know which bus goes to Sukhumwit Road?” Even if they don’t know English, surely they would recognise the name of the street.
They did, but they didn’t know which bus I should take. As a lady came to the counter to pay for her purchases, they asked her, and she thought for a while, and finally wrote a number on the back of an old receipt the attendants had given her to write on. She handed it to me, and I understood from her that was the bus number to take.
I was touched by their helpfulness. “Thank you. Kopkoonka,” I said, and put my hands together in the way I noticed the Thais do when thanking people.
More confident now, I went to the bus stop. But after 15-20 minutes, my confidence waned. Many buses passed, but I saw none which bore the number I held in my hand. What if the lady made a mistake? What if I kept waiting here throughout the whole night, with no end in sight? Even if I had not enough money, I decided that if the bus didn”t show up by the next 10 minutes I would take a cab home, even if it meant —
“Where are you going?”
I turned to see the boy who spoke to me earlier on my left. I thought quickly. I didn’t have much choice, I needed all the help I can get. “Sukhumwit Road,” I said. That should be safe enough to prevent him from finding out where I stayed; there were many hotels on that road.
He nodded in acknowledgement, and told me two bus numbers. Then as a bus passed in the opposite direction – to the cul-de-sac – he said, “That bus goes there too.” I started getting nervous. What if he was lying?
As the bus went through the U-turn and approached us, he flagged it down. I went up with a few others, and to my surprise – and dismay – so did he. I quickly grabbed a single-seater near the door. He went to the back of the bus; I didn’t turn around to look for him.
The conductor came to me, and when I fumbled to get my wallet, she went off to collect from the other passengers first. I had asked the boy how much the fare was, and he said 3 1/2 baht. I took 10 baht out and waited for the conductor. To my surprise she walked by me without collecting. I felt a sense of dread.
As more passengers piled on, she went on to collect the fares; and this time as she passed I attempted to pay her. She waved me aside, indicating someone had already paid.
I was really beginning to panic. Why? Why was he doing this? Why did he pay for me? What did he want from me? I was terrified of the “thanks” he might want tonight. I still didn’t look around for him. I didn’t put my money back; I was too scared to do anything. I clutched the coin tightly in my hand, staring out of the window. All sorts of thoughts began to run through my head. Why was I so foolish? Why did I think I could do it? Why didn’t I bring a map? Why does this have to happen to me? Why do I have to be such a pretty girl? Why did I have to be a girl?
I prayed that night in the bus like I never prayed before. God, if you were listening, please lead me back safely tonight. Please, God, please keep me safe tonight.
We passed a sign that said “Welcome to Bangkok”, and I decided to confirm where this bus was going. The conductor was sitting in front of me, and I leant over to ask if the bus goes to Sukhumwit Road. She nodded.
We had made several stops, but the boy didn’t get off any of them. As we started going into the middle of Bangkok, I noticed several rail lines that ran above the streets. The sky train! I decided that the moment I saw any nearby sky train station, I would jump off and take it home; thank goodness I had a valid card!
As we made another stop, suddenly, the boy appeared behind me. “We get off here,” he said.
I don’t know why I followed him, but I did. He pushed his way through the crowds on the street, leading the way. Initially I tried to lag behind, but he often looked back to make sure I followed. I don’t know why I still followed him. Rational was telling me not to, but my feet went against it.
We didn’t walk straight along the road; at an intersection we turned left. We walked for another 5-10 minutes when I saw a sky train station. If he didn’t lead me up there, I decided I would dump him and run straight up to the station. However he did; he walked up the steps into the station.
As we approached the ticket counter, he turned to me and asked, “Which station do you want to go?” I quickly told him, “That”s okay, I know where to go now.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, yes,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Make sure you stay on the rail. Don’t get off at the interchange.” I nodded.
And to my surprise, he made a move to go. “Wait,” I said. He looked at me. The question bubbled out. “Why are you doing this? Why are you helping me?”
He looked at me somewhat blankly, as if he didn’t really understand the question. I didn’t know what else to say. I finally said, “You are very kind.” He again looked as if he didn’t understand. “Good-hearted,” I said. “You are good-hearted.”
He just nodded, and strode off. I was left at the station, staring at him. I realised I didn’t even get his name. And as I went through the ticket barrier, I realised I didn’t even pay him back for the bus fare!
I was all alone on the station, waiting for the train. All I could think of was my experience. I nearly burst into tears then and there. I felt as if I had a guardian angel who was watching over me.
Did the boy really mean to help me sincerely? Or did praying work? I wouldn’t know. Maybe, as my friend Roy said, when I told him the experience, that we shouldn’t be so cynical about people after all. But how could the boy have known that I was lost? And how did he know I was not local? I was told that I could just about pass off as one. But he had spoken to me in English the moment he approached me.
All I know is something happened that night to protect me.