In 2007, the average monthly income in Bangkok, Thailand was about 145 Euros. The average income in my home country of Germany was 2800 Euros, after taxes. The thing with the average income is that a lot of people earn less than that and only a very few lucky ones earn a lot more. I had way less than the average German income, because I was a student. Still, I wouldn’t work for less than 5 Euros per hour in Germany, let alone for 5 Euros a day like the average Thai person. And I am single, just imagine having to finance a family with that kind of money!
You might say that this is true, “but still things in Thailand are way cheaper than in the western world.” Which is of course true, but probably not as cheap as you think.
But I don’t want to discuss income or politics. People are very poor in Thailand, period! And no matter how underprivileged you are in the western world, you are rich in Thailand. Everybody “knows” that.
We all have heard the stories of the white-trash, unemployed old no-teeth guys having fun with underaged Thai girls, but that’s not my point either. I just want to fill you in on the circumstances of my story.
I was a “rich” single girl traveling Thailand by myself. I wanted to keep away from the sex tourism and away the drunk students on vacation. The ones who treat the natives like shit and behave like they own the world because they are rich there. And who look down on the locals because every Thai wants to be just like them/me – white and rich.
I wanted to learn about the culture. To meet new people – not just backpackers and tourists, but natives. I wanted to know about their lives, their problems, their daily routines – everything. It was impossible, though…because I am the “rich” girl there.
The locals are nice, yes, for sure, but they always want something from you. I started to get paranoid. Even if a girl was smiling at me I was uncomfortable, because I thought that she might think I am some kind of creepy lesbian, visiting for their famous industry. Not just that, I didn’t even feel like a human being anymore. I felt like a dollar sign that was walking around town.
They all want to talk to you or “help” you, drive you or whatever…not because they like you or they are being friendly, but because of the money they think you have.
No criticism, I get that. I would probably be the same if I were in their shoes, but still, it sucked.
I started to get lonely…still keeping my mission in my head “to learn about the culture,” but I stopped looking at people and ignoring the “Miss, miss can I help you?” They don’t want to help they want to sell.
You know, once you have your opinion about something you start realizing it even more…and I got angry. I felt uncomfortable and I started to become really unfriendly to people. But who cares, I´m just a walking dollar sign, nothing more to them anyway.
I decided to drive to one of the famous temples to get inner peace and to, again, be able to see the country with kid’s eyes, being young and open-minded with great experiences for me to come. It didn’t work out how I planned.
I payed a women with a kind of boat, although the expression “boat” isn’t really the right one for a dingy like that. Anyway, she agreed to drive me to the temple for a small fee. Instead of driving me directly to the temple, though, we had several stops. I didn’t know at the time, but they always do it like this. You stop and you are told that you should buy stuff from some old women, you stop and should donate to poor animals, you stop and should buy stuff for you own luck, otherwise Buddha will hate you…and so on.
I am not a mean person, and in that context made me a little scared of Buddha. So I kept buying and donating until I had no more money. They don’t believe you when you say you don’t have any money left, because you are “rich.” But you finally get to your destination very quickly once they realized that your magical wallet has some strange problems printing money.
So there I was, broke, in front of some old temple. Of course I only needed to go to an ATM to ease the financial burden, right? I went to the ATM and guess what? That thing refused my card. It refused all of my cards. It refused all of my cards from all the different banks.
I panicked, but told myself to stay calm…there is always a solution. I started walking around looking for another ATM, ignoring the “Hello Misses,” focusing only on my goal: to get money.
While I was hurrying around the streets, somewhere outside of Bangkok, searching for an ATM machine, my shoes broke. That string between the toes of my flip-flops snapped. Angrily, I threw them in the rubbish (trash if you’re an American). Now, I was barefoot walking around, sweating, and looking for an ATM.
The Thais got pretty upset. Apparently, feet are somehow unclean in a spiritual way. Plus, they didn’t quite understand why a “rich” white lady is walking around with no shoes on her feet. They were running after me, trying to sell me shoes, all while I was close to having a nervous breakdown.
I realized that I needed help. So I explained what happened. They stared at me in disbelief. They didn’t get it. I explained it about hundred times, especially after other ATM machines refused my cards. It was useless. Even the police couldn’t help me, or at least didn’t want to, because I am the “rich” white girl.
I just started to walk. I was just going to head in the direction of Bangkok, knowing that I will never find the hotel, though, ‘cause Bangkok is just so crazy. No matter how good you know the city you will get lost and I didn’t know anything.
I stopped explaining what happened and just asked for directions to Bangkok. I kept walking, ignoring the questions about my shoes and why I am walking. But there was this one man that I couldn’t ignore. He walked behind me and kept asking about everything. “I have no really nooooo money” I said. “Then take a cab” He said. “I have no money!!” I repeated. “Why don’t you take the tuktuk then” was his response. (A tuktuk is little motorized cart that takes people around.)
I had no more power to discuss and explain. I handed him my wallet, my bag, everything I had, and sat down on the street. What I would have done for cigarettes right then. But I forgot to buy some when I was still the “rich” girl and had money.
I realized that it was absolutely useless walking to Bangkok. I will never find the way and I hardy know the name of the hotel. To make things worse, there was nobody I could call. Even If I had a cellphone and called someone in Germany, what would they do. Plus, it was the middle of the night in Germany. I would only freak everybody out and make them worry about me.
All of a sudden, “I make you deal,” he said, while he was still holding my empty wallet in his hands “I get you a tuktuk.” I replied as always, pointing out that I don’t have any money. He said that I won’t have to pay and he waved down a driver. They talked in Thai, staring at me in an awkward way. The driver smiled at me and gestured for me to sit down in the tuktuk.
The driver was an old man with dirty clothes and damaged shoes. Though he seemed like he had little, he still smiled at me.
I let go a bit of my pressure. We drove off and came to some tourist shop and he gestured for me to go in. “Just look- no buy.” he didn’t really say that, but I figured this by his gestures, although I had no money anyway. They still didn’t quite get the money thing, I thought. In the shop, they swooped down at me trying to sell stuff, all the while wondering why I didn’t wear any shoes. “I want to respect the culture” I said, knowing that the no money thing wouldn’t be appropriate now. They were confused, but smiled at me. Luckily I am a tiny little girl…that brings some sympathy. I ran off and refused a silk dress being pushed on me, saying that I will come back later after an important appointment.
The driver waited for me outside with a smile. He shows me a note and we drive off to buy a bottle of oil for the tuktuk.
Ok I got it. He drives me to rip off shops, where he gets money for bringing stupid tourists there and drives me home from that money. The guy who arranged it said something about three shops. Easy! Three shops and I’m back at the hotel.
The driver stops at a market, and gestures for me to wait. To my surprise, he comes back with shoes. I try to refuse the present, but he doesn’t understand me anyway.
Then, he does something amazing. He takes his water bottle and washes my bare feet with his hands. This feels so strange. It is not the rich girl gets her feet washed by a poor guy thing. It’s a stranger showing love for another stranger thing. He does this with such a pride that I feel ashamed.
I was so unfair to everybody, all day. Thinking that nobody sees me as human being and now, I get a gesture full of respect, which I don’t deserve.
I clasp my hands and bow down to thank him. He smiles and I feel like Cinderella when he puts the shoes on my feet.
We drive off again to the next shop. He hands me a cigarette and I smoke it like it is my last cigarette. Then I begin to get anxious again. Maybe he wants money in the hotel. Money for the shoes and the drive. He could call the police… I panic again.
He gestures me asking if I am hungry. I shake my head heavily and say “Shop.” I just want to go back to the hotel. I think to myself that maybe they will put me in prison if I don’t pay my dues.
He stops and buys me food anyway. I refuse it at first, but then eat it, because I haven’t eaten anything the whole day. It goes on like this the rest of the day. We drive to shops, he buys me food, drinks, sweets, and of course, cigarettes.
We kind of understand each other without talking. Well, I kind of understand him now. He understood me from the beginning, one look and he saw how desperate I was, he saw that I was in need of a cigarette and that I was starving. He didn’t see the “rich” white girl.
It was dark when we arrive at the hotel. He bows, gives me a kiss on the hand after he handed me a few notes to call the bank and says “goodbye.” And that was it. No discussion, no fights, no police.
I don’t even know the name of the man who saved my life. I had asked him to write down his name, but he couldn’t write…or read. He had no education, but was so much smarter than me. He had nothing and gave everything to me. There is a German saying “You only see well with your heart”. He saw me with his heart when I only saw what I wanted to see and that was the most wonderful thing that he taught me that day, “see with your heart.”<