We left Manila early Sunday morning, landing at Bankgkok's glitzy airport a little before noon. Our night train to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, would be leaving at 8 p.m. from downtown Bangkok. What to do in the 6 hours in between?
Happily, I had earlier found a solution. I had emailed Sukanya, the manager of the guesthouse where we'd booked two nights at the very end of our trip (its memorable name: the Loobchoob Homestay). She replied that for about $30, we could reserve the use of their day room. We could nap in it, shower, lock up our suitcases and explore the neighborhood. I jumped on this and even managed to have our train tickets (which I bought online) delivered to the hotel for pickup when we arrived.
It all worked beautifully. We caught a metered taxi from the airport that for about $12 transported us to the Loogchoob. We collected the train tickets; approved of the clean, pleasant day room. Following the helpful map Sukanya gave us, we set out to the nearby market to eat duck and visit a couple of the local temples.
The duck and noodles and Thai beer (less than $8 for the two of us) were delicious. In high spirits, we followed our map in the direction of the first temple. We were chattering and taking in the sights when a clean-cut young man asked if we were heading to the temple. When we assented, he warned us that a large crowd of demonstrators was gathering in that area; it wasn't advisable to join them, he said. Seizing our map, he pointed out a couple of alternate temples not far from us. He added something about a special deal that could allow us to see both for just 30 baht (a bit less than a dollar)).
Now…. Steve and I have had a fair share of experience being approached by young men in foreign cities who want to take us under their wings and guide us, so our hackles lifted a bit. But this guy never suggested joining us. He just wished us well and sent us on our way. Changing course, we congratulated outselves on getting this friendly advice. Angry demonstrations have a way of becoming vortexes for violence that we'd just as soon avoid.
After a bit more walking, we found our way to one of the two temples recommended by our Samaritan. The grounds were huge, and we wandered past a Buddhist university; past monks with shaved heads wearing the iconic saffron robes. Eventually, we found the central compound, home to four giant golden Buddhas — sitting lotus, reclining, otherwise arranged. Not just the dazzling statuary but the structures sheltering them astounded me. I've seen a lot of churches and cathedrals and mosques and Japanese temples, but these flamboyant Bangkok creations rank with the most eye-catching anywhere. “See! Didn't I tell you?” Steve demanded. He had. (He and his folks visited Bangkok too on their round-the-world trip when he was 8, and his memory of those Thai religious centers has never faded.)
The famous black Buddha was only open one day per year — this very day! If we hurried, we could still see it before it closed for the afternoon, he urged. Due to a special government promotion, the yellow tuk-tuks were taking people to five temples for only 20 baht! (about 60 cents).
Once again, this seemed suspicious. But just then a yellow tuk-tuk (one of the open, 3-wheeled taxis) approached. Samaritan #2 hailed it, asked the driver if he would indeed take us to at least 4 temples for 20 baht, and marked on our map the order in which we should see them. (The reason the tuk-tuk drivers would accept this ridiculously low price was because the government and petroleum dealers were subsidizing this special celebration day, he explained.)
Once again, Sam2 wasn't suggesting he should accompany us. I think that's why my skepticism melted away. A once in a year, heck, once in a lifetime chance (for when would we ever be back again on the very same lucky day?) to see the black Buddha (whoever HE was)??? Steve and I looked at each other, nodded assent, then jumped in the tuk-tuk and we zoomed off, careening through the city streets at top speed.
We seemed to be driving for a long, long time. But just before we might have begun to worry about being kidnapped, we arrived at the temple, parked, and our driver said he'd wait for us. The black Buddha was nowhere near as impressive as the golden ones, but he was indeed black. And a Thai guy who was praying in front of him, turned to us and declared that he worked at the Thai consulate in NYC and would be flying back in just a few hours but had felt compelled to fit in this visit. “This is only open once a year!” he exclaimed. “You're lucky!)
Short on time, we got back in the tuk-tuk and sped to the second destination — The Golden Mount. Yet another stunning complex, the central feature of this place seemed to be a huge building high on a hill. But we were worrying about the time, so we merely visited a ground floor Buddha, then returned to the street… where our tuk-tuk was nowhere to be found.
Two other drivers were at the curb. They spoke no English, but seemed to be clearly telling us our guy had abandoned us. We couldn't understand their explanation for what had happened; for why he'd gone off without even being paid his measly 60 cents. Consulting our map, we were relieved to discover that we were within walking distance of the Loobchoob. As the skies opened with the showers that had been threatening for a while, we opened our umbrellas and raced back through the downpour.
Sukanya greeted us; asked how we'd done. “Well,” we said laughing, “we had quite an adventure!' We launched into the details of what had happened, and as we did, she grimaced. “It was a scam.”
She pulled out the folder she gives all guests when they check in; opened to a page headlined, “The Top Ten Scams in Bangkok.” There was no Buddha Day, she gently disillusioned us. Though she wasn't familiar with the black Buddha, she didn't think it was open only today. And there had not been any major street protests since the military coup that took place in May. She continued that the scammers' usual ploy was to ensnare tourists with such tales and then direct them into shopping centers where they could be cajoled into buying overpriced goods. Even if you didn't get ripped off on the merch, the whole experience wasted your time.
But… but… we sputtered. We hadn't been asked to buy anything! We'd been driven to at least the two temples, had paid nothing to visit them, and hadn't even compensated the driver for the ride! What kind of scam was that?
Sukanya looked baffled. She couldn't even venture a guess at the explanation.
We wonder if the driver got shooed away by police, or called to a sudden emergency at home. But… were they all in cahoots? Sams 1 and 2? The tuk-tuk driver? Was that “consular employee” a plant? It seemed unimaginable.
The “consular employee” did tell us one thing I suspect was true. He said we were lucky that day. Maybe we were.