Best of 2019: Susanne Aspley

No Problem

Thailand, 1990

After the all night train ride, I arrive in Bangkok at oh-dark-thirty.

I rub my eyes, yawn, and immediately light a cigarette, along with most of the train car of travelers.

A few minutes later, a train attendant comes with a tray of half filled, half warm, murky glasses of thick coffee. “You, ten baht,” he says, smiling too brightly at this hour.
“No, five baht,” I answer.
“No, no, ten baht. You.”
I give him ten baht, too tired to argue, while the rest of the

Thais around me pay him the five baht. At least the man across from me, who was incredibly smashed last night, looks more tired than I. He stares at some uncertain spot, his head bobbing like a cheap doll.

The air is tolerably cool and lightly damp before the city of Bangkok fully wakes. Eerie and hopeful. We chug slowly across an iron bridge just as the sun shows its first peachy glow. Lining the tracks live a world of squalid and chattering slum people.

Too much in too little space, rammed together, tight as a brick wall. Laundry swings out every window, hairless dogs, grimy kids, noodle stands, boiling woks, garbage, garbage, garbage.

The dwellers squat and stare as the train rumbles through their front yard.

I sit quietly and stare back at them, wondering what they are thinking as they watch the train pass by.

We slowly wind between the dawning city and end up at the central station. The train lurches into the depot like a drunk stumbling home, fourteen hours after departing Nakorn Sri Thammarat, my southern home in Thailand during my Peace Corps years.

Once the train lurches to a shaky standstill, it dry heaves, gasps for breath, then pukes out the passengers stuffed inside.

When I step off the train, a stub of a man with no legs frog hops up to me, his knuckles looking like calloused elephant paws. He is level to my knees, with a greasy New York Yankees baseball cap, no shirt, and shorts tied with rubber bands at the bottom to hold in his stumps. He sits in front of me and holds his hands in a pathetic wai.

If I can spend ten baht on nasty coffee, I can surely give him ten baht also. So I give him twenty. He pockets the money, wai’s and scoots away.

I’m then harassed by taxi car drivers.

“Get away from me,” I grouch, and head for a tuk tuk parked nearby.

Tuk tuks are Bangkok’s notorious three-wheeled motorized rickshaws. “Tuk tuk” translates as simply the sound it makes. The proper name for these are sam laws (three wheels).

They are demon chariots. Acid trip carnival rides, racing through the mad circus traffic of Bangkok. They are Fun. Dangerous. Efficient.

I always smell like exhaust afterwards and my hair is a mess, but they are quicker than a city bus and cheaper than a taxi car.

After bargaining with the driver over price, we agree on something reasonable — still overpriced, but not outrageous.

Feeling adventurous, I decide to stay in a part of the city I’ve never explored before, only passed through. It’s an upscale shopping haven, drawing the wealthiest of tourists and foreigners. I am not meeting Beth and Clare until tomorrow on the other side of town, so have the day and night to myself.

I arrive at Sukhumvit Road, and wander around looking for a place to stay. I decide on a little boutique hotel. I check in and plan to enjoy every inch of the heavenly carpet, sacred air conditioning and blessed real bed.

My dad always told me, “Sue, you are my favorite daughter.” (I’m his only daughter.) I would always answer, “Dad, you are my favorite dad.” So my favorite dad had sent me, his favorite daughter, twenty dollars a week for a very long time which I saved, and this room is where much of that money is going.

After a long, cool tub bath, the first bathtub bath I’ve had in almost a year, I lounge around my glorious hotel room, feeling like a queen.

The next indulgence is breakfast down the street at a fancy five star hotel a real bakery. I spend exactly twenty times the amount that I would normally spend in Nakorn for a meal. I order fresh bread rolls with real butter, caramel cheesecake, a toasted, buttered bagel with cream cheese and a kid’s grilled cheese sandwich.

On the way back to my room, stuffed, I realize I left the bulk of my money in my fanny pack on the bed in the hotel.

How the hell could I forget that? How? I never take that thing off unless I shower. I don’t have it, it’s back at the room. I panic.

Oh, no.

Oh, no, no…

A feeling crawls over me like ten thousand slow leeches. Once in my room, I have a meltdown. The money belt is here, but the money’s gone. I wail like a bereaved Muslim mother and run down to the reception desk. The maids and the desk clerk look at me cautiously, slyly, but not surprised or concerned. I blubber in broken Thai sobs that someone stole my money from my room. Then I run back to my room, search again desperately, and return to the desk.

It’s gone. I’m berserk.

The clerk responds coldly and becomes defensive. She tells me specifically that I lost the money outside and no one stole it. She denies that anyone at the hotel stole it, that something must be wrong with me. I never accused her or the maids of anything. I only said the money was stolen, could have been another guest.

Her vibes are negative and black. The anger inside me wads into a tightly packed knot. I tell her I need to check out because I have no money and want my room charge and deposit back. She shakes her head, no, and I start crying. She remains hard as a rock. I plead. I beg. I wait. She starts to curse at me. I resort to calling her nasty names in English. She calls me nasty names in Thai. I think briefly about calling the police, but know what little help that would do.

I have no proof. When it’s a Thai against a foreigner in a situation such as this, nothing is done. Thais win. Foreigners are told to go home. I have no proof.

Within about one minute, I grab my backpack and am out on the street hailing a real taxi cab. I’m bawling, and even though I had already paid for the room, plus a deposit, there is no way I want to stay. I just want to leave.

I jump into the first taxi without bargaining as I scrounge up enough words to get me to the other side of this massive city. Hopefully, the Peace Corps office is open and I can get my per diem money right away.

The old driver never takes his eyes off me in the rear-view mirror except to quickly glance at the road.

“Why are you sad?” he asks.

“Because I hate Thailand. Fuck Thailand. I am so stupid,” I mutter back.

“What happened?”

“They stole my money. I know they went into my room and took my money. I am so stupid. They knew I would be stupid.”

I continue to stare at the broken door handle for the hour ride through traffic, wishing my dad was here to help me.

The driver starts speaking gently in Thai. I don’t understand half the words he is saying. I am too upset to process much of anything.

At the landmark where I told him I wanted to go, he pulls over. I get out, dig through my purse and find my last fifty baht to pay the fare. Definitely not enough to cover what it should really cost, but all I have left.

I hand it to him.

He nods, smiles and pulls off, disappearing into the jam of cars and smog.

I am left still holding my fifty baht bill. Humbled.

BIO: Susanne Aspley retired as a Sergeant First Class after serving 20 years in the US Army Reserve as a photojournalist with tours in Bosnia, Cuba, Kuwait and Panama. Aspley also worked in North Yorkshire, England as well as Ra’anana, Israel, and is now living in Minnesota.

Essay from the Best of Wanderlust 2019

Photo from Wikipedia

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