“Tuk Tuk?” he queries as he points at the garish motorized tricycle adorned with chrome railings and advertisements for local restaurants and beer. “What?” I think, “I look like a first time visitor and he wants to identify that contraption for me?” But no, his call accompanied with a sweeping hand gesture is the Thai street vendor version of advertising.
“Take A Look Mistah,” she says, “T-Shirt for you” As if I could fail to see the mass of T-shirts displayed on her walled cart that serves as a showroom for street vendors in Bangkok. And as if her’s was the first T-Shirt stall I’d seen instead of the hundredth on this block.
In Patpong, where the prices are high and competition among vendors fierce, the sweeping hand gesture ends in grabbing your arm to pull you to a dead stop. Guess Madison Avenue was at least successful here with the advertising slogan ‘Reach Out And Touch Someone’.
“Pajamas for your wife,” “Watch for you,” “Take a look Mistah,” the litany changes little and seems to accomplish nothing more than to provide a diversion to the monotony of street side vending. The frequent call is “VCD. DVD,” normally spoken in an almost reverent whisper, though it’s hard to tell if that is in respect for the booming business these guys are doing or because their wares are pirated movies that are illegal to sell (unless you’ve paid off the proper authorities).
“Hello my friend!” With hand extended this is the come-on of a tuk tuk driver on a mission. Actually two missions. First is getting you to agree to a half day tour of Bangkok for only 50 baht. Sound to good to be true? It is. He’s a tout for over priced, poor quality gems and tailor shops and gets food and tips for hauling your ass to them. Your half day tour of the city will not include wats, museums, or local color, but will include several tailors from India or Pakistan (Afghanistan too, but these days they will claim some other origin) as well as their relatives’ gem stores. Of course it is not only poor quality gems or badly tailored suits your tuk tuk driver is pushing. Women of equal quality are also on the menu. At least until they figure out you prefer boys; without a blink of the eye that too is up for grabs.
“You want massage?” accompanied with a furtively palmed X rated photo spread of the women you are not going to meet if you take him up on his offer, is a standard from the tuk tuk guys.
“You want woman?” “You want boy?” These guys are not flesh peddlers, they make their money by taking you to the flesh peddlers. But there are numerous well known dens of inequity with honest pricing and clean girls, or boys, and you don’t need a tuk tuk tout to find them (count on the ones he will take you to not being honest or clean . . . and that girl might be a boy). But if you want a seedy clip joint where your life or money will be in jeopardy, you’ve found your entry into that world, just a tuk tuk ride away.
An advertising technique that used to be only found in Chiang Mai and points north has found its way to the streets of Bangkok. Hill Tribe vendors, dressed in their native garb with merchandise laden trays strapped around their necks like the old cigarette sellers in speakeasies from the 1940s use the silent approach. No, “Hey Mistah” from the Hmong ladies, they merely step into your path on the already narrow and crowded sidewalk and stoically hold a piece of their merchandise up for your perusal.
I though the blockage routine accidental the first time I encountered one of these women, coincidental the second time, but noticed the third time that the vendor moved off her course to step directly into mine. The ‘buy or don’t get by’ routine might work on some, but I was born and raised on American salesmanship and advertising and it’ll take a lot more than a four foot woman dressed in weird clothing blocking my way to make me turn over my hard earned dough!
“Today is your lucky day!” you’ll be told as you try and pass by the Indian tailors on Sukhumvit. Got a spare minute, ask him why and he’ll treat you to a magical trick of math. Tempt fate, enter his shop and you’ll discover it is your lucky day. Only the luck won’t be the good kind. Why is it that the guys fronting the scam tailor shops never wear clothes that fit? Their pants are always a few inches too short, their shirts a size too small. You’d think with the money they scalp off of unsuspecting touri they’d be able to afford a tailor.
“Ping Pong Show!” is always a show stopper as you try and make your way through the Patpong Night Market. Even more aggressive than the tuk tuk drivers, the girly bar barkers will immediately get in your face if you hesitate for even a second. And it’s not just the Thai national fascination with ping pong balls on offer, palmed card surreptitiously displayed describe all the things one could do with a pussy you’d never considered before. Walking away your shaking head you have to wonder if there is a PETA chapter in Thailand.
“Show Now!” comes the cry as hands reach out to grab you when you enter Soi Twilight. The loudest calls and clapping for attention come from the far end of the row of bars, their barkers not willing to settle for the dregs of visitors to the soi. Time it right and there will be a show now, but in most cases the show is you walking into the bar where the fresh meat on display is not on stage but where you are led to sit.
“Special for you!” she screeches, letting you know whatever it is that she is selling you can have for a song. You lucky devil. But the cacophony of vendor cries is part of what makes the streets of Bangkok so alive, enjoyable, and surreal. Keep a sense of humor, use your sense of humor, and you’ll survive unscathed and with your wallet still intact.
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