Sun, 13 Feb 2000

Valuable lessons learnt on the roads of Bangkok

By Rahayu Ratnaningsih

JAKARTA (JP): How do people abroad react when you tell them that you are from Indonesia? Mostly, it's with a big grin that says it all.

"Oh, that pathetic, lawless and barbaric country, you poor thing," is what that grin implies to me.

And one very important thing to remember for those Indonesians who are planning to go abroad: never, ever hold rupiah in the hope of exchanging it for local currency.

We became rather sullen when in Amsterdam our rupiah was only valued at three fourths of what it would have been back in Jakarta. That was after we "successfully" hunted in the biting winter cold for the only bank in the whole country that was benevolent enough to want to take it off our hands. In Thailand, it was even worse: a mere half of its "real" value. In London, when we asked the rupiah to sterling rate, the teller of one bank said in a way that he must have thought to be funny, "Don't know, don't want to know and don't want it, either".

Of course, our relatives always said the reason they had not visited was because the political situation did not allow them to set foot in our once beautiful and friendly land. Who would blame them when the only news about Indonesia concerned orgies of looting and burning?

One day we watched CNN, only to find footage of thousands of people demonstrating in Monas Square, with a bloody dead rabbit stuck on a cross and with House Speaker Amien Rais in attendance, calling for a jihad. So, when they asked how life is now after the new government was elected, I merrily answered: "Oh, fine, quite stable and safe now. There are no serious problems, only a holy war."

In Bangkok, after a night out in the red-light district and open souvenir market of Patpong, we decided to be adventurous by taking a tuk tuk, a noisy three-wheeled taxi not unlike a turbo- charged bajaj. We got in one and soon became aware of what we had in store. It was a stressful, bumpy and bloodcurdling trip, which saw us praying for our lives when we were not too busy shouting frantically at the driver, a raving lunatic who did not have a clue where he was going and who must have won the Grand Prix at least once in his life. At one point we almost flew off the road and I shouted, "Slow down, you crazy bastard".

"Solly, solly," he said. Apparently Thais don't trill their tongue skillfully enough to produce an intelligible "r" sound.

"You are not sorry. Hey, look out! A car!" A sedan came out of its parking spot but he was just in time to avoid crashing his miserable tuk tuk into it.

"Don't you ever do that again. You bastard!"

"Solly, solly," he repeated. Well, at least he was a polite looney. In Jakarta, a nutty driver could easily be a rapist, too.

After exploring the best part of Bangkok we finally, rather bedraggled, got to our hotel. Despite our ragged and trembling appearance, the driver was, of course, not too shy to demand more money for his "relentless effort" to find the place. Such is life.

I once read how Thai people are friendly and readily willing to help their government promote tourism in order to alleviate the worst of the economic crisis. I did not believe it straight away, but one unique experience left quite a deep impression on us. When we were walking outside the Wat Po temple, a man approached us and in broken English quite persistently offered to show us places of interest around the city.

"Give me your map, let me show you places to go." We ignored him the first time, thinking he was just a driver offering transportation for tourists like we find in Indonesia. But he was following us around, so finally we reluctantly gave in. He made several circle marks on our map of Bangkok indicating interesting Buddhist temples and sightseeing in the city.

"You take tuk tuk, pay only 20 baht (about 50 U.S. cents)," he said, writing the amount on the map.

That's cheap, we thought, for last night we paid 60 baht for that near-death experience. So he talked to a tuk tuk driver who we thought was his friend and off we went to places he told the driver to go to. So the old man dutifully drove us from one place to another, patiently sitting in his vehicle until we had seen the sights. We should give him more, we had decided.

At one point, we came out from a Buddhist temple, the driver hastily gave us sign language about what must have been an urgent call of nature and asked us to wait in the vehicle. We sat there contemplating our navels when a dark man approached us and quite willfully revealed his curriculum vitae to these three amused strangers:

"Excuse me, what are you doing here and who told you about this place? I am a management consultant working in Bangkok. I'm waiting for my fiancee, she was in the temple for a blessing since we are getting married next month. And we are going to England for our honeymoon. How do you know this place? You know there are a lot of pretty Buddhist temples in Bangkok you can visit. Where have you been? England? Oh, I have been to England five times, I am not rich but I can go there five times by selling diamond rings. You see this ring? I bought this in Bangkok and when I went to England I sold them in Oxford Street for five or six times its original price. You must go to this jewelry shop, very cheap ..."

On and on. So we told him that someone, perhaps an "agent" and the driver's friend, showed us this place. When the driver returned, he talked in Thai to him and talked back to us, "He said the man was your friend. He doesn't know him."

We were dumbfounded, feeling something fishy was going on. We explained that we did not know the guy.

"Oh, don't worry," he said, "we Thais are friendly people, you know, it is common here for a Thai to approach and talk to tourists like I am doing now. We want to help you enjoy your stay and promote tourism in our country."

Off we went again. When we finished traipsing around the last temple, the tuk tuk driver was nowhere to be seen. We didn't even have a chance to pay him the 20 baht we promised. Of course we felt awful, this isn't right, we thought. And perhaps we never will understand what happened because the whole thing seemed to be very strange. Too bad we did not speak the language.

Another incident involving public service made another favorable impression. Our taxi experienced technical problems on the highway so the driver, using the available phone service for emergency calls (something Indonesia could learn to do), called the road patrol. After a while, a patrol car came and helped the taxi off the highway and loaded our luggage onto their pickup and gestured to the two of us to take the front seat while the other person climbed on the back for a windy trip.

Without a word they took us to the airport, helped us unload the luggage and started to get ready to leave. A pig would fly first before this kind of thing could happen in Jakarta. Of course, coming from a country that constantly makes you feel that you don't deserve excellent public service without paying through the nose for it, we were compelled to give them some money as a token of our appreciation.

Perhaps it is no propaganda when people say that Thailand has undergone a speedy recovery from the economic crisis that hit Asia in 1997. A few months after the crisis struck, without much fuss, the government was fired and a new government was installed. In a country where a (peaceful) coup is not a very uncommon practice and never really shakes the society, the answer for perceived incompetence is quite straightforward: just leave. It occurred to me that we can certainly learn something from Thailand and the Thai people's refreshing attitude.