An American budget traveler pays through the nose for his penny-pinching ways.

By Rolf Potts

Since it’s always nice to blame someone else for your own folly, I am tempted to recast Chad as a seedy caricature: a hustler or a pimp; a greasy loser with feathered hair and a pinky ring; a sniggering reject who was always making obnoxious noises with his armpits or asking me to smell his finger.

But in reality, Chad was an earnest, mostly harmless Canadian backpacker who was only trying to be helpful.

“Where are you headed?” he’d asked me when I first met him. Since we were taking the Chao Phraya river ferry through Bangkok, this seemed to me like a perfectly legitimate conversation-starter.

“The train station,” I’d told him. “I’m going up to Phitsanulok for the night. It’s a good midway point to Chiang Mai, and I hear they have a great youth hostel there.”

“Yeah, the hostel in Phitsanulok is as good as you’ll find anywhere. Free toast and coffee in the mornings. Just be careful with the tuk-tuk drivers at the train station.”

“Tuk-tuk drivers?”

“Yeah, they’re all a bunch of hard-asses. If you’re a Westerner, they won’t take you anywhere for under 100 baht. You’re better to just get off the train one stop early and walk to the youth hostel. Save you a lot of money.”

In retrospect, I suppose I could have kept things simple and brushed off Chad’s advice. After all, 100 baht amounts to less than $3. But for a budget traveler such as myself, an insider’s tip on how to save any amount of money is a forbidden fruit too tempting to leave hanging.

When I got to the Bangkok station, I discovered that the entire six-hour train trip to Phitsanulok cost only 109 baht, third-class. Reasoning that it would be foolish to pay another 100 baht for a mere five-minute tuk-tuk trip to the youth hostel, I resolved to take Chad’s advice when I arrived at my destination.

Despite a few petty discomforts, riding the third-class train is a wonderful way to experience Thailand. Unlike the pressure-sealed sterility of first-class, third-class allows you to roll down the windows — to stick your head out and squint into the wind, to smell the countryside, to barter for ice cream and fresh pineapple at the stations. The route to Phitsanulok transports the rider past the crumbling stupas of Ayutthaya, the monkey-infested shrines of Lopburi and the late-day glitter of the glass-mirrored temples outside of Nakhon Sawan. During the dry season, the plains of central Thailand are aglow with stubble-fires, and sudden plumes of smoke swirl through the train cars like ghosts.

I was not bored once during the six-hour trip. South of Ayutthaya, a trio of blue-uniformed high school girls handed me chunks of jackfruit as they practiced their English (“What is your hobby?” “Can you do dancing?” “Do you think you’re handsome?”). Past Lopburi, a gregarious country grandmother babbled in Thai as she nonchalantly rifled through the contents of my daypack; when she’d seen enough, she unceremoniously presented me with a Buddhist amulet. Later, when I moved up to the dining car to eat fried rice and look out at the stars, a middle-aged Thai man seized my phrasebook and engaged me in inexplicable English small talk for the entire duration of my meal. “Is this the post office?” he would bellow proudly, not bothering to wait for a reply. “Can you wash these clothes?”

By the time I was due for my strategic early exit from the third-class coach, I was downright euphoric. “First-class travel,” I sagely declared to myself, “is a state of mind.”

But sometimes it’s all too easy to assume that bread and circuses cancel out death and taxes — that rituals of the trivial have some sort of back-door pull on the workings of reality.

When the conductor informed me that Bang Krathum was the last stop before Phitsanulok, I was so confident of my good fortune that I didn’t even bother to double-check Chad’s fabled shortcut to the youth hostel. Had I taken a few moments to do so, I would have discovered that there’s a critical scheduling difference between local trains and incoming trains from Bangkok.

Oblivious to this distinction, I walked along the frontage road that ran out from Bang Krathum station. A group of teenagers coasted up behind me on bicycles.

“Where you go?” one boy asked as he pedaled by.

“Phitsanulok,” I said.

“Ha ha ha!” the group replied in unison.

Unfortunately, laughter is not an internationally standardized form of communication. At the time, I took it to mean, “This clever foreigner knows about the shortcut to the youth hostel!” Even when the youth hostel didn’t materialize after five, 15, 30 minutes — the merry mask of optimism kept me going.

It wasn’t until I stumbled into a mosquito-infested boondock called Mae Thiap one hour later that I reconsidered the laughter. Perhaps it had meant something more along the lines of “This foreigner has obviously been smoking crack!”

Fortunately for me, the one person awake in Mae Thiap at that time of night happened to speak a bit of English.

“Where you go?” asked a stocky, mustachioed man, who sat on the stoop of his house sipping a tall bottle of Singha.

“Phitsanulok,” I said.

Mr. Mustache raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Phitsanulok is very far.”

“No,” I said, somewhat desperately. As if to illustrate, I made two fists. “Bang Krathum station, Phitsanulok station.” I put my fists together to show how close, presumably, these two places were to each other.

Mr. Mustache shook his head, set down his beer bottle, and held up his fists. “Bang Krathum, Mae Thiap.”

“Yes!” I exclaimed. “Bang Krathum, Mae Thiap, Phitsanulok.” Optimistically, I made the proper hand gestures.

“Ha ha ha!” said Mr. Mustache. He made an exaggerated flurry of fist gestures, looking vaguely like a background dancer from that old Nancy Sinatra video. I began to wonder if he was drunk. “Bang Krathum, Mae Thiap,” he said. “Ban Mai, Bung Phra, Phitsanulok.”

I felt a hollow tickle in my stomach: I was still two stations away from my shortcut. At this rate, it would be dawn before I got to the youth hostel.

As if reading my mind, Mr. Mustache stood up. “Let’s go Phitsanulok,” he said. He walked around to the side of his house and wheeled out a battered off-road motorcycle. “Three hundred baht,” he said, suddenly businesslike.

At this point, I realized that Mr. Mustache had me in a pinch. Nobody else was awake in Mae Thiap, and I wasn’t about to trudge the hour back to Bang Krathum. Had he demanded that I pay for the ride with my spare kidney, I would have been forced to give it serious consideration. Still, since I was technically in the process of saving 100 baht, I decided to try to talk him down. “One hundred fifty baht,” I said.

Mr. Mustache grinned. “Three hundred baht.”

Resisting the urge to swat at the mosquitoes that were dive-bombing my ears, I looked him in the eye. “Two hundred baht.”

“Ha ha ha!” Mr. Mustache said. “Three hundred baht.”

After another couple minutes of this, we finally agreed on an arrangement that allowed me to maintain a thin shred of self-esteem: 300 baht, but I got to wear the helmet.

It took us 45 minutes to get to Phitsanulok, but I think Mr. Mustache got lost a couple times. By the time we pulled into the train station — the very place I had spent all this effort trying to avoid — it was after midnight. My eyes felt like they were crusted with dead insects.

“Where you go?” asked a station tuk-tuk driver. Avoiding his eyes, I hurried off down the street. I had no idea where the youth hostel was in relation to the main train station, but at that moment I really didn’t care. On principle, taking a tuk-tuk was out of the question.

One block from the train station, a chubby middle-aged woman pulled her moped over to me. “You wan’ go to hotel?” she asked. Despite her age and somewhat homely appearance, there was a certain verve to the way she talked. Thankful for the presumed gesture of kindness, I climbed onto the back of her moped. I absently noted she was wearing a short-skirted 1970s-soft-porn chambermaid’s uniform. I was too tired to think this strange at the time.

“I’m staying at the youth hostel,” I told her.

“You hotel?”

“Youth hostel.”

“You want lady?”

Not prepared for this sort of non sequitur, I said nothing. As if to emphasize her point, Moped Woman leaned back and nuzzled my cheek with hers. I held on to the moped seat in shock: Imagine Benjamin Braddock being seduced not by Mrs. Robinson, but by a matronly pipe-organist from the Methodist Women’s Missionary League.

“No lady!” I said, recovering. “I want sleep.”

“Lady! Lady!” Moped Woman exclaimed. Suddenly, she reached back and gave my crotch a squeeze. “Lady!”

“Sleep!” I yelled. “No lady!”

Something was wrong in the way she grabbed at me. Somehow, her hand was too powerful, her grip too knowing. I nearly fell off the moped trying to slap her arm away.

Sulkily, Moped Woman dropped me off at the parking lot of the Thani Hotel. One good look at her face confirmed my suspicion: Moped Woman was Moped Man.

I had heard of the katoey — the Thai trans “lady-boy” — before, but for some reason I thought katoeys were supposed to look like Diana Ross, Wonder Woman or Cher. Moped Lady looked more like Alice from “The Brady Bunch.”

“You give me 100 baht,” she demanded as I turned to leave.

By this point, the only way anyone could have convinced me to cough up 100 baht would be if it somehow included snapping Chad’s trachea with my bare hands. One hundred baht had become a watermark, a line in the sand, a mirror that reflected the painful emptiness of my own soul. I gave Moped Woman 50 baht and fled, above her angry protestations, into the Thani Hotel. When Moped Lady was still skulking around the parking lot after 20 minutes, I resigned myself to a night in the polished high-class confines of the Thani. The only room available cost 1,200 baht.

Minus the 80 baht it would have cost me to stay at the youth hostel, saving 100 baht on a tuk-tuk ride had ended up costing me a grand total of 1,470 baht.

The following morning’s complimentary breakfast buffet at the Thani was so zealously air-conditioned that my bacon and eggs were cold by the time I got them back to my table. Noting my presence, the hotel staff abruptly yanked the ambient Thai music from the sound system, replaced it with a Scorpions album and cranked the volume to full blast. By the time “Rock You Like a Hurricane” had hit its second chorus, I had abandoned my eggs, gathered my pack and hoofed it halfway across the parking lot.

Twenty-five meters later, I stumbled across the youth hostel. There, in the garden courtyard, an international group of backpackers blissfully sipped coffee, munched toast and listened to Vivaldi. I checked in without further hesitation.

My stay at the youth hostel, I am happy to report, was completely uneventful. The only detail of note was a friendly warning from an English backpacker as I checked out the next morning.

“Watch out for those tuk-tuk drivers,” she said, noting that I was preparing to head for the train station. “If you’re a Westerner, they won’t take you anywhere for less than 50 baht.”

If she had any advice on how to get around paying that 50 baht, I didn’t wait around to hear it.

This essay originally appeared in Salon on April 6, 1999.