A river trip to hell, for locals and tourists

A river trip to hell, for locals and tourists

For many Bangkokians who live far from the river, the chance to enjoy a boat ride on the majestic Chao Phraya River or visit its webs of canals is a joy only tourists get to experience. Most locals tend to be stuck in the concrete jungle from dawn till dusk.

During the New Year weekend, my friends and I decided to do something different and act like tourists by cruising the Chao Phraya for an hour. We expected it to be a brief, joyful escape from our daily city routine. However, what we experienced was what many tourists routinely face — harassment, lies and scams.

Our unexpected "adventure" started when we finished our lunch at a small, cosy hotel by the Chao Phraya. It was our private escapade sway from our daily family obligations as wives, mothers and daughters, and we thought the boat ride would complete our afternoon get-away. 

We decided to enquire about the boat taxi in front of the hotel. A woman in her 50s stood next to the sign advertising the boat route. I asked her about the fare and she gave me a cold, almost hostile look. "1,000 baht an hour," she said, and then turned away.

"From where to where?" I insisted.

She answered coldly again: "To Bangkok Noi Canal and return via Mon Canal." 

"Bad vibes," I told my friends. "Let's not do it."

Their pleading eyes told me they really wanted to experience the cold wind sweeping through their hair and have their faces cooled by the sprinkles of the waves — the precious moments that would bring back our carefree days.

Then two young French tourists approached us and asked if we wanted to join them on the same boat ride so we could split the boat fee of 1,500 baht between five people. They said the boatman — presumably the husband of the woman who seemed to hate us without any reason — had agreed to the price.

My friends beamed. But as soon as the boat started cutting through the waves, the boatman — a stout man in his late 50s — began to shower us with his anger. "Are they coming with you?" he bellowed. "These people, they want to cheat you all the time. When we told them the price, they disappeared and brought back more people. They are cheats!"

"What's the problem?" I asked back in my sternest voice.

"No problem," he said, still angry. "You don't know them. They cheat us all the time."

As other boats overtook us, the young French man asked the boatman if it was possible for our boat to go faster. The answer was another series of angry tirades in Thai. "Faster to die or what? These people they demand this and that. I am so tired of these people who don't know anything."

Then a young French woman asked if it was possible to go to smaller canals.

"No, no. This is a canal. This is Bangkok Noi Canal. Smaller canals take more time. Cost more money. Want to pay?" he said. 

I was not surprised by his answer. But I was surprised at his anger which was verging on hatred. 

After making two brief stops for us to feed the fish and buy some sweets from a boat vendor, he slowed the boat until it stopped in the middle of the canal. Then he walked up to the two French tourists. "Pay now!" he barked. 

They refused, insisting on paying at the end of the trip. He shouted more loudly, his eyes fierce, his body language threatening. Feeling like hostages in the middle of the river, we all dutifully paid.

"If I wait, people will run away. I've been cheated so many times," he said. 

Then he announced the boat ride was over. "What about Klong Mon where you said you would take us," I asked. "Closed," he said. End of conversation. The boatman was still angry when I disembarked. Was it a ploy to intimidate us? I turned around. "If you talk to people like this, no one will want to take your boat."

He barked back, even angrier. "Who cares? Other people will still want to go with us."

When we were safely ashore, a hotel staff member said that it was a "mafia boat". The young French duo also told us that being ripped off and harassed was nothing new to them in Thailand. "Nearly every person who runs a tour we have met acts like that," they said.

When my anger subsided, I tried to understand the boat couple's psyche. They certainly have to bribe some officials to operate. Were they venting their anger on us? Are their own efforts to rip off tourists forcing tourists to bargain, often far too much, to their anger?

One thing is for sure, I will never go back there. I wouldn't be surprised if many tourists choose never to return to Thailand either.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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