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A Gold Class day on the streets of Bangkok

Today turned out to be a bonus day in Bangkok . . . that I didn’t want.  Yesterday I had plans to go on an excursion to Kanchanaburi, which were unfortunately foiled by miscommunication with the travel agent.  But even an unfortunately frustrating mishap doesn’t end the journey; it just alters where you’re going.  I had been trying for days to meet up with my German friend Hinda, and soon after the door to Kanchanaburi closed that day, Hinda and I got in touch and made plans to beeline to a beach tomorrow morning. 

My first task of the day was to find us the cheapest hotel room possible for the evening.  My accommodation history began at the luxurious and unnecessarily expensive Viengtai hotel, and after staying with Brian for a couple nights in another decent yet overpriced room, I slowly worked my way down in price and comforts.  Late nights and early mornings in Bangkok meant a definite need for naps in air-conditioning.  I thus formed a habit in paying for air conditioning that I was trying to break.  Hinda’s tighter budget was the perfect excuse.  The Sawsadee Hotel, where I stayed last night, has a great ambience and reasonably priced twin fan rooms.  But I thought I’d search the outskirt hotels off Kohsan road – the main backpackers street of Bangkok – to attempt a better deal.  Of the handful of hotels I found offering cheaper prices, I was turned off by an array of variables, ranging from loosely hanging sealing fans that feigned homicide to walls seemingly built out of laminated toilet paper.  In the name of a fifty-cent price difference I decided to stick with Sawsadee. 

Task two was to actually choose a beach and book it.  I chose the island of Koh Chang based on recommendation.  The booking took 10 minutes.  The ensuing conversation took about an hour.  My lovely travel agent, who I respect more than any other I met throughout my six weeks in Asia, had built up so much frustration with her job she was ready to burst.  And she did…verbally.  She is too nice, and is tired of being taken advantage of and treated unfairly and dishonestly.  Her stories supported her claims.  I reassured her kindness and solid ethics, and stressed not to lose that because others act in contrast.  It didn’t take long to learn she didn’t need the lesson in personal character I’m always too quick to offer, but just an opportunity to vent.

I realized upon leaving the travel agent that in order to maintain sanity, and capitalize on my excess time in Bangkok, I needed to see a new, and preferably much cleaner part of the city.  I chose the posh shopping hub Siam Center.  As I now assumed the role of expert barterer in transit prices, I found a tuk tuk (a wall-less taxi of sorts) to take me the distance for 50 Baht.  Some insane traffic and a bit of capturing it on film later, I arrived at my destination.  The shopping centers were impressively modern and immaculate, and although it showed in the prices, they were a crucial comfort at this stage in my journey. 

After a leisurely stroll of getting lost and scouting electronics, I found myself on the top floor of a building by the movie theatres.  Having over four hours until I had to meet Hinda at the hotel, coupled with aching feet and many recent conversations about ‘Batman Begins’ led me to believe that it was playing in ten minutes for a reason.  That 3:00pm show was in the Gold Class cinema, which was 100 Baht more than the 3:30 showing.  Something about the sound of “Gold Class” struck me as intriguing.  The red velvet ropes leading to the glass sliding entrance didn’t hurt.  I purchased my 500 Baht ticket.  I justified the price recognizing that I would be paying about $12.50 for a movie in Australia or the U.S., and that a day of splurging would be nice before I tightened the leash on my runaway budget.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  My first hint was the immaculate full bar and lobby in which I was seated before being offered my complimentary soda and snacks by the tuxedo clad wait staff.  I didn’t have long to eat my strawberry shortcake and brownies, because I was soon led into the theatre.  There are only about 32 seats in the entire theatre.  Each seat is an individual plush red couch that absorbs your body like a waterbed without the continuous waves.  Heaven – my name for the couch – was equipped with an electronic reclining remote control.  For an extra 100 baht you are awarded an additional remote that controls the massagers in the upgraded seat.  There is also an individual table at your side and waitress service before the previews begin.  On each seat there sits what I’m sure translates in English to “super happy fun bag.”  In it, there is a blanket to balance the climate controlled air conditioning, a pillow, and socks.  The state of the art screen and sound system is basically a given at this point.  The experience would not have been complete without my neighboring moviegoers.  I first came across them entering the lobby – a fat, old, white man speaking abrasive English to anyone who would listen, ordering his diet coke, a tub of popcorn for each of his companions and “whatever else they want to drink.”  His escorts were two young, beautiful Thai girls.  The man’s outfit is what can only be described as an attempt to blend into Miscellaneous-Ville, Asia, circa 1840.  His loud, “yea, Batman!” call at the start of the previews was what adamant people-watchers consider priceless.  As for myself, I politely turned down the popcorn this man’s hired accompaniment offered as they looked at me, smiled, waved and giggled for the first two minutes of the previews. 

It wasn’t too much of a struggle to relax in my couch as I settled into a bed-like recline.  At the conclusion of the previews, a brief musical and video tribute to the king began to play.  I Suddenly heard the sound of unanimous standing.  I feverishly pounded the remote as the chair leisurely pursued its vertical stance, and stumbled upright with the chair in half recline.

The movie was amazing.  That being said, I could have been watching ‘Dumb and Dumber Three: Harry’s Funeral’ starring Carrot Top and loved it.

I left the movie with one hour and 45 minutes until I had to meet Hinda – seemingly plenty of time.  Unfortunately, I drastically overestimated my previously stated ‘expert’ negotiation skills with transport.  Although I had just gone to an ATM, the smallest bill I took out was 500 Baht, and the next smallest bills I had equaled 55 Baht.  To my dismay, the cheapest any tuk tuk or motorbike driver would even offer was 90 Baht for a ride – they would sooner increase their price to 500 baht then offer change. Any offer I made even close to 55 Baht resulted in additional exhaust in my face.  Not only did I have a time constraint during rush hour in a city containing the worst traffic I have ever seen, I was stuck under seemingly unending overhead highways, with bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Earlier today I craved a cleaner part of this city because the pollution was becoming overwhelming.  Now I stand in a solid room with buildings as the walls and highways as the ceilings, with no door or window in sight.  I could feel the thickness of the air with every breath; not good thick like a big steak, bad thick like a 6 foot dirt cigar past its prime. 

Before I continue with the following encounter, I must establish what I feel is an important personal characteristic of mine.  I never litter.  Ever.  I have put someone else’s cigarette butt in my pocket rather than let it be thrown on the ground – in reasonably appropriate circumstances – and for anyone who has ever enjoyed such a pocket treasure, you understand the horrid odor it leaves.  As I dug my way through the viscous air failing repeatedly to get a ride, I carried a used match from lighting someone’s cigarette – unconsciously adding to the atmosphere that induced feeling somewhere between being stoned with suffocation.  After fifteen minutes of carrying this match I was too frustrated to even consider hanging on to it, and in a city where I saw two people blatantly litter in my first twenty minutes on the streets – one wearing a uniform – I made my decision.  I found a small pile of garbage in a recess on the ground and went out of my way to bend down and place the match on top of the pile.  Five minutes later, as I fail miserably at yet another ride, a man in a miscellaneous uniform asks where I’m going.  We have a brief conversation about where I’m from, how long I have been in Bangkok, and my failed attempt at getting back to Khaosan road.  He waves his arm implying an invitation to follow him.  He proceeds to stand around for about a minute before walking anywhere.  Once we finally mobilize, a man in matching uniform and slightly better English asks the exact same questions everyone learns in English class, and after I answer he starts sputtering out sentence fragments about Singapore.  I smile and nod, concealing my lack of giving a shit.  As we approach a little booth on the side of the road, the first uniformed man goes inside, fishes out a binder and removes a laminated piece of paper.  For the first time I think to myself that this can’t be good.  He hands the piece of paper to me.  It’s in English.  This definitely can’t be good.  To paraphrase, it states that there is an effort to clean up this cesspool of a city without actually installing garbage cans in any public setting.  Maximum fine for littering: 10,000 Baht ($250).  They make sure I read that part.  This is about when I turn on the wide-eyed, confused and terrified tourist routine. 

“No no no, not 10,000.”  They begin to reassure.

I reread the fact that the minimum fine stated is 2,000 Baht as I note the contemplation in their voices.  They ask for 1,000 baht.  Now that they have clarified the lack of any governmental legitimacy in this transaction, I’m prepared to turn it on full force.  I continue playing completely ignorant: whether they were speaking in Thai or English, I could not possibly understand.  When they ask for money, I panic and look around for my support group.  Finally, they asked how much money I had.  If the false minimum fine didn’t give them away, imposing a fine based on how much money is in the victims’ pocket certainly did. 

I told them I had 55 Baht. 

“Ohhhh Nooo!”  They droned.  Their heads dropped in failure.  “Okay okay, warning.” 

They were clearly disappointed.  I was clearly enthralled.  I thanked them repeatedly, shaking their hands and then walking the hell away as fast as I could.

I managed to meet a Welshman who has been living in Bangkok on and off for 15 years, and we shared a taxi.  He insisted on grabbing a beer despite my time constraints.  He was a very nice guy, and I should never have told him I was a film major.  For those who did not study the most popular of entertainment mediums, allow me to enlighten you.  Everyone loves movies.  More specifically, everyone loves the movies they like.  When strangers find out I was a film student, they like to begin teaching “My favorite movies 101,” often followed by, “Movies you should make because I have this awesome idea 102.”

I love discussing movies.  I love to hear about movies people like, and why.  On most occasions I even enjoy hearing John Q. I-should-have-studied-film’s greatest idea for a film ever.  But when Johnny Q owns the speaking half of the conversation for 45 minutes when I had to be somewhere 15 minutes ago, it can be a little much. 

Hinda was over an hour late, negating any chance to meet up with Johnny Q for another drink.  I wasn’t too broken up about it.  We got dinner and drinks and had the standard backpackers conversations:  lost loves, separating culture from the tourism industry, politics, and what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives. We eventually returned to our room to rest up for tomorrow’s undetermined amount of traveling to get to the island of Koh Chang.  My first evening in a non-air conditioned room was a necessary experience.  It was the first of many nights of solid sleep coupled with waking up sporadically due to heat and screams from the streets.  The screams were celebratory, and they served as the soundtrack to recalling my personal victory in Siam Center.  It certainly was not the last time there had been an attempt on my Western wallet, but recognizing what it was and getting away successfully was a personal celebration I felt I definitely earned.

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