Sometimes it’s hard to turn off the fear of something bad happening when you travel, especially for first time travelers. And quite often, one of those fears is being robbed, and something you are always warned about when you first start traveling.
Here’s an experience of my own in Thailand that stuck in my head for weeks, and an experience that should teach everyone a lesson.
The gears of the rusted motorbike clanked as he up-shifted and changed lanes, cruising down the canal loop that rings the outside of Chiang Mai’s old town. I was clinging on to the back, jolting every time the gear changed and the bike had a seizure. Besides the fact that my ass was close to slipping off the back of the bike, I had a pit in my stomach from offending the man earlier and mentally on edge as to where he was taking me now.
I did not know this Thai man; white discolored tank-top, torn and stained jean shorts, and faded tattoos etched into his leather colored skin. For some reason his appearance is another element that had made me hesitant. Which is a very rare thing. I pride myself in not judging people by the way they looked. And it is actually quite stupid I made that judgement because here I was, wearing a tank top and shorts, and covered in tattoos myself.
Hell, we even had the same hat on, though his had clearly seen rougher days than mine.
Yet, I still didn’t trust him as we pulled off the freeway and into back alleys of Chiang Mai that I was unfamiliar with. Though I was tempted to pull out my iPhone and check my whereabouts, instead I clipped the chest strap of my tech bag, securing it tightly and readied myself for escape if I needed to.
Fear is quite an odd emotion. Fear can electrify your body with adrenaline to accomplish feats that you never thought possible and make the reward for doing so feel astronomical. Fear can also prevent you from doing things you want to do or wish to do — turning your stomach into knots and squeezing the courage out of you. Fear can heighten your senses. Fear can also obscure your judgement.
Either way, I did not know where we were going and what the outcome would be, so I made ready for whatever would happen. The alleys became a labyrinth; left turn, right turn, left turn, past closed shops. Deeper and deeper away from main streets.
And then on a secluded side street we stopped.
Before I had gotten on that motorbike, I was strolling through my village north of the Chiang Mai airport headed toward the freeway to hunt down a Songthaew (truck taxi). The bag on my back was chock full of the standard stuff needed for a days work, which is pretty much my whole life. Macbook Pro, iPad, chargers, harddrives, cameras, lenses, and all of my other doohickeys that make the bag weigh more than my big pack full of clothes. Needless to say, if I lost this bag, I’d be destroyed, and always hold it close.
And I am very cautious when carrying it around any town.
As I walked down the long road leading to the freeway a man on a motorbike pulls over beside me.
“Where you go?” he said.
I hesitated immediately as a flood of thoughts went through my head. What does he want? Why is he stopping to give me a ride? How much will it cost me?
I’ve been to a few countries where a motorbike is the taxi and when somebody waves you down to offer a ride, it’s not a favor. Jakarta and Bangkok, for example, have the overpriced motor bikers who ask you every time if you want a ride for an atrocious price compared to other modes of transport. Though Chiang Mai is known more for the 20 baht truck taxis, I assumed this was a freelancer seeing an opportunity to take advantage of a foreigner.
“Um…I’m going to Kad Suan Kaew” I said, a local mall I go to for the gym.
“Okay, get on. I go into town.”
“How much?” I asked him, thinking he was a motor bike taxi of some sort.
And then I immediately felt stupid.
The look on his face when I asked for a price was pure offense. He gave me a look as to say, “what the fuck man” and suddenly I felt ashamed.
“I’m sorry, so sorry” I said to him, approaching him with a wai, a sign of respect with a slight bow. I reached out my hand and introduced myself, and though I felt terrible for making that assumption after he just wanted to do me a favor, he brushed it off immediately with a care-free smile.
“My name is Tawan. I go to town now. I take you”
“Kad Suan Kaew?” I asked. He nodded.
Tawan motioned for me to get on, so I did, and we sped off down the road. I still felt shame for asking him the price, but now I was wondering what would happen next. Many times in other countries I’ve been to, favors have turned out to be requests for money afterward, or agreed upon prices changed in a “lost in translation moment” even after verifying three times.
But I also know that we were suddenly passing by all of the streets that would lead to the mall I was trying to go to, and instead snaking through those unfamiliar back alleys.
The whole time we were driving through, I was attempting to remember the way we came. I tried to remember landmarks and ways to get out, and noting where people were walking around.
Until we stopped and there was nobody around in sight.
I hopped off of the motorbike quickly and glanced around to make sure I was safe.
I was completely safe.
“This is my tattoo shop” Tawan said with a smile. He lifted the metal rolling gate and turned around to me.
“This is your shop?”
“Yes, mine” Tawan said.
“How long have you been tattooing for?”
“Three years. But I am artist. Painter. My love” he said proudly.
“Thank you so much Tawan, I will come back for a tattoo sometime.”
“Yes, please, have a good day!” He said excitedly, and I turned and walked away.
I was still unfamiliar where I was, but it seems like there was nobody around because the street I was on ran on Chiang Mai time and simply didn’t open until noon.
I emerged from the alley and to my surprise I was on the Sunday walking street, a place I frequented often. The rest of the afternoon my encounter with Tawan was on my head, and I still felt ashamed for thinking that way about him.
Fear of some ulterior motive from a person who was trying to be nice caused me to make an immediate judgement of his character.
Should I have been ashamed? I’ve heard on occasion from other travelers stories where they, or someone they know, were taken to a place and robbed at knife point by a person who had a kind smile. Or had their bag snatched. Or others things. Not specifically in Thailand, but all around the world.
After going about it through my head I ended up at a couple of conclusions. I have always tried to assume the best intentions of people until they prove me right or wrong, and that day I didn’t even give Tawan a chance. Also, I know as a traveler it can be wise to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Being raised in Washington D.C. and spending most of my life there, I’ve always knocked the city for being a robotic and automated place where people are too busy to be nice. I left that city to search for a place where people acknowledged and interacted with others, people who smiled at another just to brighten their day, and a place where there wasn’t a “how much do you make? What do you drive?” standard.
In the land of smiles where I’ve come to know many local Thai people who are the sweetest people I’ve had the privilege to call friends, I gave Tawan no chance from the beginning. I distrusted him the moment he pulled over. I cannot explain why I did, it just happened on that day.
I am not ashamed to be cautious while traveling, we always need to be aware in an unfamiliar place. Or even aware in places you’ve grown comfortable in. There are some cities where you just don’t fuck around with being careless.
Bad people are anywhere in the world, but so are good people.
The one thing that bugged me most was that I allowed myself to fall back into that state of mind while in Washington DC; sunglasses on, headphones in, and “what do you want? Don’t talk to me” vibe. Don’t trust anyone.
I can be cautious, but I don’t need to be cold, and to be open to believing in random acts of kindness again.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain