Nothing wakes you up so much as an insane tuk-tuk ride first thing in the morning. I had just come from Silom to the Khao San area as my time there was up and I had another day before my train left for Chiang Mai.
Walking out onto the street after dropping my bag off at a new guesthouse, I was approached by a new tuk-tuk driver showing me a map and offering to take me to 3 temples for only 50 baht. I declined him, as my first priority was finding some food. He ended up giving me the map anyway, hoping I would come back.
Passing an impressive riverside fort and randomly entering a local neighborhood by way of a single-lane canal bridge, I happened upon Café Lampu, a hidden gem run by a charmingly entertaining woman that goes by Mama. I spent the morning talking with Roger and Link, a couple Brits who were staying there and had been drinking since 8 am. At one point Link passed out on the bench in the main room and woke up about a half hour later.
Café Lampu also introduced me to khao tom, which quickly became my simple go-to dish in Thailand. It’s a boiled rice with some meat (usually chicken or pork) mixed in with some chives, carrots, and occasionally an egg in a light broth. Traditionally it’s a Thai breakfast dish, though I find it good any time of day.
After leaving Café Lampu, I went to the fort’s park along the river and was called out to by a man in a tourist information stand. He too began to convince me to visit these temples as it was “Buddha Day” and all of them were free today. Aside from the temple inside of the Grand Palace or Doi Suthep, I still have yet to find a temple that charges for entrance, though they do appreciate donations (and have several cash boxes making you aware of this fact).
The tourism booth man offered to get me a tuk-tuk to take me around, though I declined, preferring to walk on a day like that. Turning toward the north and heading away from Khao San road, I began the walk to Wat Indrawihan, the temple of the standing Buddha.
Problem was, the map was not entirely accurate. It was an exaggerated grid map, rather than showing the scaled curves and distances that actually existed. About a half hour in, I was not quite certain where I was, only that I was still nearing Wat Indrawihan.
I finally broke down and flagged a tuk-tuk, and here is where the classic tale of the notorious Bangkok scams begins. He offered me a similar deal to the first one; he would take me to Wat Indrawihan, the Marble Temple, and then Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) for 30 baht ($1) and wait at each as I checked them out.
Within 5 minutes, I was at Wat Indrawihan and approaching a 4-storey golden Buddha. Getting closer, I noticed that its feet were enormous and its big toe was almost my size. There were a few Thais praying at the Buddha’s feet. Unfortunately, the stairway to his head was closed off on both sides. The statue itself was very impressive and the grounds of the temple proved vaguely interesting as well.
Once back in the tuk-tuk, I was asked if I wanted to go to suit factory store. I told him, no thanks, I didn’t wear suits. He then started a dignified form of begging, throwing out any reason that might play to my sympathies. They were cheap and very nice. I didn’t have to buy anything, only look. The factory was on the way. He would get a voucher from them for gas. It would only take 5 minutes.
Finally, I was getting the picture that I wouldn’t be getting to the next temple until I went to this suit shop, so I relented. The shop ended up being nowhere near our path, at least as far as I could tell.
He pulled up to the shop and leant against the tuk-tuk as I entered. Inside, I was greeted by a sharply dressed (to be expected in a suit-shop, I suppose) salesman who motioned me to books on a coffee table and offered me a bottle of water or a beer. I declined both.
As I made a passive effort to look interested in the book, he brought over a couple fabric samples. I indulged the whole scenario for another couple minutes and then was out the door, and the driver was happy with his voucher.
Our next scheduled stop was the Marble Temple. Unfortunately, the driver told me, the Marble Temple was closed this time of day for a ceremony. He instead offered to take me to 2 different temples for the same price. As there was little I could argue on the situation, I agreed.
The first one he brought me to was a very small wat stuffed in between taller buildings. It had a nice shrine but overall was mostly unremarkable.
The next one we went to was the ‘Black Buddha’ or the ‘Lucky Buddha’ temple. This one, however, actually was closed up for a ceremony of some sort. I tried, but couldn’t get in. Sitting in the courtyard outside the main building was a Thai man. He was also waiting to get in the temple.
He and I got to talking. He said he was a Thai-Australian resident who returned to Thailand every couple years. As many young Thai citizens do, he had joined the monkhood in his youth and this was his temple. On every trip back, he returned here.
He then explained the whole ‘Buddha Day’ thing to me. It was not actually any kind of religious or national holiday, but rather a day that the government was trying to promote tourism, as well as two other major Thai industries: fabrics and jewels.
The reason that the tuk-tuk drivers were offering the whole day at such a cheap price was because the government was incentivizing them. For every textile or gem shop they brought people to, they received a fairly worthwhile gasoline voucher provided by the government.
It made sense on some level, but I was just glad to have someone attempt to tell it to me straight. Though, I was not entirely sure I believed his story or that he was not just a part of the whole act.
After a while, I got tired of waiting for the Black Buddha shrine to open and returned to the tuk-tuk. On the way to Wat Saket, the driver tried the same thing with a gem store that he had with the suit store earlier.
Where I would have argued earlier, now that I actually had some clue of what was going on, I didn’t mind actually going along with it. I had read a great number of “gem scam” accounts and warnings before coming to Thailand and I was curious what this actually entailed. This driver hadn’t ditched me or led me too far astray yet, so I figured this was as good a time as any to check it out.
For some reason, I had been expecting a store that sold just precious stones and gems, a fancy rock shop essentially. I was a little surprised when the driver brought me to a full-on jewelry store with rings, earrings, necklaces, etc. I went in, as I had said I would, looped around the store a couple times and looked over one in particular for a moment, and then walked out.
Afterward, the tuk-tuk driver took me the Wat Saket, also called the Golden Mount, very near where I had started from in the morning. He offered to wait for me as I went to the temple, but given all that was going on around the Wat, I would be a while. I told him no thanks and offered to pay him.
When I took out my wallet and was looking through my bills, I began pulling out a hundred baht bill. He noticed that I also had some small amounts of American currency and gladly accepted a $1 bill instead.
The Golden Mount was alive with crowds. A ring of games, food stands, and shops encircled its base. Walked around a couple time, I picked up a couple snacks, including wok-fried squid eggs served over rice. Surprisingly I kind of liked them.
After the loops around the festival had grown boring, I found one of the ramps to go up the Golden Mount. It looped around a nicely landscaped slope until it came to the temple proper. I am almost certain there might be something actually inside the base, though what it is, I have no idea, as there is no way I found to get in.
At the top is a large, golden-colored chedi with a red banner around it that many people were writing on. More of interest to me, though, was the 360˚ panorama of the city that Wat Saket provided. You could see for many kilometers on any given direction, and it gets you wondering as to what some of the structures you’re seeing actually are.
Leaving the Golden Mount, I was close enough to Khao San to walk back to my room. The next day was my train to Chiang Mai, but not until late afternoon, meaning I had the prospect of a late night ahead of me.
It was all a scam. They say the same thing to tourists every day… telling them temples are closed when they are not… just in hopes of getting people to buy bad quality suits or cheap stones. It’s not a government day… the shops give the tuk tuks the gas vouchers. They may get only one in ten tourists to pay for some over priced stuff, but it can net them thousands of dollars.
Yeah, I was pretty well aware of that most of the way. You hear the slightest warning of a scam and it gives you a good sense when it’s happening. Still, this is one of the more harmless ones to go along with. I got some interesting sights out of it and it just cost me some gladly given time and US$1.