Bangkok, Thailand: I'm Not From Here
September and October, 2005

Admittedly, I look like a tourist. All through my European travels, I was given away by my camera, backpack and American clothing. But never have I been more self-aware of my status as a foreigner as I am here in Bangkok. At least in Europe, I looked basically like everyone else. But in Thailand, it's impossible to disguise my 6'3" frame, white skin and blue eyes.

I don't consider myself particularly tall for an American, but several experiences have made me painfully aware of my anomalous stature. I constantly bump my head on doors and have to stoop as I navigate the sagging awnings of the street vendors. I can't even come close to standing straight while riding the water buses. At my hostel, it's a challenge to wash my hair in the narrow shower stall with the shower head at shoulder-level. And when I look in the mirror above the sink, only my neck stares back at me.

My status as a tall, white male makes me a walking target everywhere I go. Strolling down the street, I am incessantly accosted by vendors whose wares don't interest me in the slightest. "Sex DVD!" "Designer watch!" "Shirt -- your size!" "Thai massage!" Okay, so I wouldn't mind a Thai massage -- but based on the accompanying picture showing some serious girl-on-girl action, I doubt that's what they're actually selling.

Why so much attention? As a white man, I am automatically rich. And while I'd be the first to contest my status as wealthy, there's some truth to the statement. As someone who is able to afford a flight from the United States to Southeast Asia, I already fall into a relatively elite category in Thailand, where the dollar goes a long way. My housing runs about five bucks a night, and I can get a hearty dinner for a couple dollars. With prices as they are, I can afford to live extravagantly.

Needless to say, this doesn't escape the attention of the locals. For every block I walk, I can count at least three taxis that stop and offer a ride. They know that they can charge more than they would for a local, and I won't flinch at the price or even know the difference. As a general rule, it costs more to ride in an air-conditioned taxi than to hitch a ride on a tuk-tuk -- a narrow, three-wheeled, open-air cab that's named for the distinctive sound made by its two-stroke engine as it putts along through the polluted streets. Since the tuk-tuk has no meter, riders must negotiate a fare in advance. For a Thai passenger, this isn't a problem. But drivers instantly recognize me as a naive, wealthy westerner, making it nearly impossible to get a fair price.

As I learn the value of the local currency and pick up a few Thai phrases, I'll grow wise to the scams. But no matter how long I stay, I will always, in the eyes of the Thai, be a foreigner.

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.