On my way from Vietnam to India, I spent a layover in Bangkok. This particular layover presented the opportunity to explore Bangkok for a single night. My flight would land at 17:35 and the connecting flight to Delhi would take off at 8:55 the following morning so I worked out enough of a plan of how to get into the city center and then figured I would spend the night exploring the city and hopefully not waking up in a jail cell.
I share this story as an example of “things will go wrong”. However, even when things do go wrong, they’re not a disaster. Expect the worse and when things do go eventually wrong, don’t freak out.
Before I took off in Hanoi, I checked my bag through to Delhi so I wouldn’t have to carry anything with me in Bangkok. In my pockets and money belt I brought: my phone, debit card, credit card, passport, and journal; five things which can get you a pretty long way. When my flight landed in Thailand, I hit the ground running. I rushed through the Suvarnabhumi airport on my to immigration, helpful signs indicating how far the walk was in minutes; I covered a 15 minute route in 9. Immigration was a faster than expected as well (at least with a US passport): “What is you purpose in Thailand?”, “Tourism”, *stamp, fold, pass*. With no line on either end, I was through the gate on on the train on my way to the city center within 20 minutes of exiting the plane. I had paid for the train with a small amount of Thai bhat that I had exchanged in the Hanoi airport but I needed some more cash to get me around the city for the evening.
I realized once on the train was that I had no idea which stop I planned to get off at. Destination-less travel is a mix of knowing when to observe and follow and when to blaze your own trail. With only 15 hours left to explore, I opted to let the crowds direct me. The majority of the trendy looking locals exited at the final stop (Playa Thai) and I jumped out with the mass. There was a corner of ATMs inside the metro stop so I withdrew several hundred baht to fund my activities for the evening. With the chaos surrounding me in the metro, I stuffed the bills into my pocket and bounded down the steps to explore. First stop: a street stall selling a noodle and pork dish. I grabbed a small portion purely to break up the bigger bill and then went off in search of a coffee shop with WiFi.
I found Quest Cafe nearby, chatted to the barista about which neighborhoods I could explore late (with the caveat that I’m not looking for drugs or the paid company of any Thai girls), and did some research on walking distances with my phone. I decided on Saxophone as my next destination as there was supposed to be some jazz there and it was close to a whole host of other places. On my walk, I passed my first 7-Eleven. With what I had heard about their prevalence in the city, I was surprised that it had taken me this long to see my first. Still, it looked amusingly out of place to my American eyes. Big neon signs announced “Ready to Eat”. I passed four more on the remainder my walk.
The bands at Saxophone were unexpectedly awesome. I felt transported back to my weekend trips with friends to West Village in New York to see jazz shows. In the midst of music and beers I got a few more tips about neighborhoods and clubs that stayed open late. It was only 10 PM at this point (11 more hours before I need to be back for my flight) but the rest of my time in Bangkok was slowly falling into a roughly organized tour around the city. I would be able to have some fun, not spend too much, and stay safe of any law-breaking even in the wee hours of the Bangkok morning. Things were looking good.
After a more hours of walking around the neighborhood, drinks, and more street food, I realized how much of a cash economy Thailand is; my credit card wouldn’t be of much use anywhere. I walked back to the last 7-Eleven that I saw to withdraw some more baht. Once inside, I unzipped my money belt to find my credit card, passport, and phone. Hmmm, I must have stuck my debit card into my pocket. Right pocket, nope. Left pocket, nope. Side zipper pocket? Back pocket? Shirt pocket? Right pocket again? Money belt again? On the ground around me? Oh. My memory scanned back to ATM in the metro station. A few possible scenarios: when rushing to take my cash and card, I remember stuffing them into my pants pocket. I could have either missed my pocket with my debit card or been pick-pocketed in the crowd. Alternatively, as a new friend pointed out a few weeks later in India, Thai ATMs hold onto your card for several seconds after your transaction is over. If I had to bet (and at this point I did not have much money to bet with), I would guess that I had grown so accustomed to the angry beeps of Vietnamese ATMs that make you retrieve your card before the transaction that I grabbed my cash and left before the Thai machine ejected my card.
So now I look like a dummy, right? Who leaves their card in an ATM in a foreign country? Someone with no experience traveling, likely. But this is my point. Everyone experiences moment of mindlessness, everywhere, all the time. The ‘what do you do next’ part is the only bit that really matters, especially on travel. So rather than breaking down and telling myself I was an idiot all night (I only did that for 2 minutes) I took stock of what my next moves were.
First, I knew I wasn’t completely screwed. I brought 2 separate debit cards on this trip for a scenario like this. However, I left the other in my checked bag and would still need to make it to Delhi before I could use it. Next, I tried my credit card. I have a cash limit for withdrawal on my credit card so hopefully I cold get some more cash from this. No luck. Either Chase or Siam Commercial Bank did not like this option. So now without much cash or many options to use my credit card, I decided I would have to go back to the airport. I looked at the cash in my pockets. 315 baht. I looked at my watch. 00:45 (~8 hours until flight). The metro has stopped operating, so I’d need to take a taxi or rickshaw to the airport. I walked up the street until I found someone who would take me to the airport. “How much?” I asked. “Meter” he said, pointing. “OK but how much? I only have this” I said, showing him the cash in my pockets “so I can’t pay any more”. “Yes, yes, meter” he says. I hop in, regardless of the situational misunderstanding. Either the ride will be under 315, I’ll figure out a way to pay by card, or we’ll cross that next bridge when we get to it.
About 9 minutes from the airport the meter hits 315.
At the airport the meter reads 430.
My driver smiles at me and I smile back. “Do you speak English?” I ask. He smiles and shakes his head no. “Credit card?” I ask, holding out my card. He shakes his head no again with a slightly smaller smile. “This is all the cash I have” I say, holding out 315 baht and then turning out my pockets. “Oh c’mon, man. You’ve got to be kidding me” he says. Or at least I think he says. It was actually something in Thai with roughly the same body language. “I know, I know” I say. He makes a ‘stay here’ motion and hops out of the car to get someone. He returns with a police officer who sticks his head through the window. “He says you won’t pay”. “Yes, yes I know. This is my fault, I just need help to understand what I should do next. I’ve lost my debit card and needed to get back to the airport for my flight. I showed him I only had 315 before the ride but I don’t think that was understood. Is there any way to pay by card somewhere?”. The officer says something to my driver in Thai and then turns to me and says. “It’s OK just come inside”.
As I follow inside, my driver pats me on the back and smiles again. I think he understands and sees me as an honest person in a difficult situation. There is a small police station in the airport basement that we enter together. The first officer explains the situation to the others who then take out the remaining 115 baht to pay my driver. He smiles, give me a little bow, a thumbs up and then skirts off back to his car. “OK thank you so much for your help” I say to all of the officers. “It’s OK” they say, “but what are you going to do now? You can’t leave the station now until you’ve paid us 115 baht”. “Of course, can you take a credit card?” “No” “Oh.” My smile flattens out to match their faces.
There’s an awkward beat where I debate if they brought me in out of generosity or took me in to force me to pay more. Yikes. I wondered about the possibility of a fine I’d have to pay. But I didn’t have any cash to pay? Maybe I could trade with something? My watch? Shoes? I wondered what Thai prison would be like. Maybe I should have stayed out. I could have turned my 315 into at least 1,000 by turning a couple of tricks on the street. I would have looked halfway decent in drag and I still would have had enough time to make my flight in the morning.
“You can just buy something in the airport for one of us” another officer says. “Oh, right, what do you need?” I answer, my mind down-shifting back from wardrobe selection. “Hmmm, I need a new data package for my SIM card” she says.
Soon after returning from the mobile store, I’m bowing to everyone in the station and expressing my gratitude for their help. My flight still won’t leave for another 7 hours but with exactly 0 baht in my pocket, I don’t intend to stray too far from my gate.
For context, this was all for matters under $5 USD and I was never in any serious danger. Nevertheless, follow the rules in whatever country you’re traveling in. Prepare for the worst case in whatever way you can. And when things do go wrong (when not if because believe me, they will go wrong) don’t freak out. There’s always a next step.