Like FOX News, I try to be “fair and balanced” in everything I do (haha). Since much of my time and writing has been gushing about how great it is in Thailand and how much I love it here, it’s only fair to objectively point out some of the not-so-great aspects of it. I’ve been back in Bangkok a week now, and while it’s been great and it feels like home to me, in that week I’ve been quickly reminded of the things that aggravate me here. They’re not enough by any means to turn me sour on this place, because the positives far, far outweigh the negatives. But in no particular order, here are some of the things that make life here a little more…umm, challenging.
Escalators?? How can escalators be aggravating, you might be asking? In most of the malls and large department stores here in Bangkok, they of course have escalators. In America, escalators are usually installed in one of two ways. The first way is where they are “stacked” so that all the down escalators are together, and all the up escalators are together. So if you’re going up or down multiple floors, you get off one escalator, turn left or right and immediately get on the next one. The other way is where the up and down escalators are side by side, so going multiple floors, you get off the escalator, go around to the opposite side and get on the next escalator. Those are both simple and seemingly intuitive ways of installing escalators.
In Thailand, it appears that the architects and building designers decided to throw those concepts to the wind and instead just put escalators wherever they felt like it. There literally is no rhyme or reason to the placement of escalators. It’s a little adventure when you get off on each floor to find the escalator that takes you to the next floor. The only hint you have is that it’s nowhere near where you’re at. Alternatively, in some buildings they’ll start with an American-style of escalator placement for the first couple of floors, so you get used to the pattern, and then by the 3rd or 4th floor they switch it up on you and reverse them, or start placing them in random areas of the building. It was funny to me the first couple of times I noticed it. Now, it’s just completely frustrating to me and it makes any trip to the mall/store take about three times longer than it needs to because you spend half your time trying to find the right escalators.
Garbage Cans… Or Lack Thereof
For a developing country with a city of 10 to 15 million people (no one really knows the exact population, but those are the numbers I most often see quoted), Bangkok is a remarkably clean city. But astonishingly, there are no garbage cans on the city streets. Nowhere. Not along the sidewalks, not outside convenience stores, nowhere. So if you have an empty plastic water bottle, or candy bar wrapper, or any other garbage with you, there’s no place to deposit it. You end up walking forever holding on to all your trash. Or most people just throw it on the sidewalk (I honestly never do that, though…I’m very anti-littering and will carry all my garbage with me until I get back to my place if I have to). In the shopping malls, they usually (not always) do have garbage cans, but they’re literally about one per floor. Oh, and you know where they’re generally located? Right next to the elusive escalators! I’m not kidding.
I’ve heard a variety of reasons as to why they don’t have garbage cans. The most likely reason is the same reason why many things here run incredibly inefficiently compared to what we Westerners are accustomed to. That is, they optimize for labor. There is no welfare system in Thailand, so everyone is expected to do some kind of work to earn an income (hmm…perhaps America could learn something here….). So there are tons of menial jobs that could be automated or done far more efficiently, but they need to find work for everyone, especially unskilled labor, so they create jobs at the expense of efficiency. So it is with garbage cans. They can put thousands of people to work with little wicker brooms and garbage bags to sweep the sidewalks and collect garbage, rather than placing garbage cans along the sidewalks. It takes some getting used to, but they frankly do a pretty good job of keeping it clean.
Incidentally, this garbage can thing isn’t just a Bangkok issue. Even down on the islands, there are no garbage cans at the beaches. Sadly, many of the tourists just assume that means they leave their cigarette butts, empty water bottles, ice cream sandwich wrappers, etc. in the sand. There are, of course, workers who comb the beaches every night and literally rake the sand to pick up all this stuff and haul it away in trash bags so the beaches are clean and fresh in the morning, but it sure seems to me that having garbage cans would be much better.
Bags and Bags and More Bags
I’m not sure if this is a Thailand-specific thing, as I think it may be true for Asia in general. But there is a practice of everything – everything!! – getting its own little bag. When I go to a little 7-11 or convenience store and get a bottle of water, the cashier always instinctively puts it in a plastic bag. If I get several items, they’ll put one or two things in one bag and then a couple more in another bag, even though they all could easily fit in one bag. There’s clearly no concept of reducing plastic waste! Anyone who is a strong environmentalist would likely go insane if they were here for more than a day or two. The funny part is when I tell a cashier that I don’t need a bag, or that I’ll just put the stuff in my backpack, they look at me startled like I had just asked them to solve the Pythagorean theorem or something. It’s like they’ve never heard anyone NOT wanting a bag before – completely foreign concept to them.
The same is true at shopping malls or department stores – every purchase, even if they’re separate purchases within the same store, gets its own bag. And in those cases, they typically put a piece of tape over the top of the bag to seal it so you can’t put anything else in that bag!
Like other Asian countries, many things in Thailand don’t have a fixed price and you are expected to “negotiate” with the seller until a mutually-agreed on price is reached. It’s kind of fun at first. But after a while it gets really frustrating. The seller starts out with a ridiculously high price, I come back with a ridiculously low price, and in reality the real price is usually about one third of whatever the first price that the seller asks for. But even if you know ahead of time what the “right” price is, you can’t just go straight to that; you have to haggle your way there or the seller will never sell it to you at that right price.
The absolute worst is trying to get a taxi home at night from any of the tourist areas. If I’ve taken taxis home from there before, I know how much it should cost when the taxi is using the meter. But after midnight, taxi’s in Bangkok no longer use their meters and you have to haggle with them up front on the price to a given destination. And even if I know what the “haggle” price should be, I can’t just get the driver to agree to that from the start. Even if I say that I’ve taken taxis many times from that area, and I know what I paid, he’ll come up with some excuse why it has to be a higher price that particular night. And if I can’t get that driver to come down to the price I know it should be, then I go to the next taxi driver in line and start the process all over again. Or at some point I’ll realize that I’m wasting my time haggling over the equivalent of something like 30 cents, and give in to the driver’s “best” offer (even though I know he’s ripping me off!). I’m finding that staying in an area of town where there are mostly expats living (versus a tourist area or regular hotel) reduces the haggling, as does being able to speak Thai. So I’m trying to learn the Thai language but it’s going very, very slowly.
I have a sick and probably unhealthy love affair with black pepper. I put pepper on just about every food item, and usually in fairly high quantities. As far as spices go, it’s tops in my book. Like escalators, you probably wouldn’t think a country could screw up pepper. Yet they have managed to screw it up horribly. The black pepper here is powdered pepper. It’s like they’ve taken pepper and ground it into a super-fine powder and in the process, extracted and thrown away any resemblance of pepper flavor. It’s basically a near-tasteless, lighter-than-air powder in a container that sits next to the salt shaker. When you try to shake it on your food, the breeze from the air conditioner or any other air movement just whisks the pepper particles away, across the table, onto your shirt, on the floor, and anywhere but your food. If you manage to actually get any on your food, it’s really only for decoration, because it has absolutely no flavor (yet, I still try to shake it on my food at every meal…). I haven’t yet resorted to buying my own can of regular ground black pepper and bringing it with me everywhere I go, but I’m pretty close to the breaking point of doing that. A man’s gotta have his pepper!