Part 1: Abandoned and Scammed in Krabi, Vigilantes in Bangkok: Tales from the Road

Tour offices are ubiquitous in Southeast Asia.  Walk along any tourist road, peer into the lobby of any hotel, and you’ll see giant signs saying “Go Phuket!  Ride elephant!  Bus to Bangkok!”.

Especially in Thailand, you can get anywhere from anywhere, for a price.  Usually a bit more than it would cost you on your own to coordinate ferry to bus to local trekking company, but it’s worth it, right?  To save yourself the headache of figuring it out all on your own?  We’ve had good experiences and bad experiences dealing with these booking agents, but this time …

Part 1 – Abandoned

The trouble begins at our hotel in Koh Lanta.  We had a comfortable stay at a family-run spot called Baan Nok, on Long Beach; the owner was a 50-something charmer with a chatty mynah bird, and we hung out quite a bit with both of them over the course of our stay.  We were happy to give our business to his daughter, who ran the tour desk.

The mynah bird’s favorite words:  “hullooooo”, “as-salamu alaykum”, and “noi noi noi noi!”
Minah had never taken a sleeper train in Asia before, and I was excited to share the experience with her.  Even though it was a bit of a longer trip, we wanted to book a bus to Surat Thani and then a train up to Bangkok.  Baan Nok said they could book us to Surat Thani – which involved a minivan picking us up at the hotel (very convenient), and an estimate that we’d arrive at Surat Thani maybe around 6:30.  Past that, the tour desk girl’s English was limited and we weren’t sure what the trip might entail.  But mystery and intrigue and night trains, that’s what travel is all about!At about quarter to twelve the next morning, we board a mini-van with maybe 4 or 5 Germans, 2 Italian women, and a couple of Swedish guys.  As the driver loads our bags precariously onto a pile in the back, we ask tell him, “Surat Thani, okay?”  And he replies “yes, Surat Thani”.  Remember this exchange, it’s important.  We pick up two more Germans at a resort down the road, then we head for the ferry.

There’s a reason Koh Lanta is a largely undiscovered gem in Thailand – its connection to the mainland involves two car ferries and some very low queues.  Once we reach the mainland it is more than an hour to Krabi Airport, our first stop.  By this point the first passengers in the minivan have been riding for 3 hours.  The German man next to me tells the driver that he is going to run to the bathroom in the departure terminal, and Minah and I say we will too.  Minah even look the driver in the eyes and says “don’t leave us”.  Who knows if this message was actually communicated.  We are in the airport for less than five minutes, but when we come back out to the drop-off point, the minivan is gone.  With our bags in the back.

Our minivan and bus journey (in pink) from Long Beach on Koh Lanta to Surat Thani.  The goofy “Straightforward airport with some shops” is what Google will editorialize on the map when you search “Krabi airport”.

There’s a certain kind of screaming internal panic that grips me when something like this happens, when I know acting quickly is critical.  It’s not a moment of panic, it’s a sustained adrenaline buzz.  My hands physically shake.  We figure we have to contact the driver, somehow, but we never got his info.  I dig into my money pouch for anything linking us to this trip, and I get the receipt our hotel gave us at the tour desk.  With the hotel’s cell phone number at the top.

My SIM card is out of calling credits, and Minah’s phone is broken.  I go up to one of the terminal’s coffeeshop counters and half-speak, half-mime my desperate need to make a phone call, and could I please borrow a cell phone.  The girls behind the counter politely stifle giggles at my frantic bathroom-dance type urgency.  They know I am singularly stressed, but even in that state I know I am probably hilarious looking.  Instead of a cell phone to borrow they change one of my bills for coins, and point me to a bank of payphones against the terminal wall.

A couple of tries with the zeroes and country code prefixes and I have a tinny connection to the hotel owner’s daughter.  Her English is basic, and especially for an audio-only connection about this abstract and random situation we’re in, I have to dip deep into my well of “how to simplify your English” abilities to communicate my point.

“Hello,” I say.  “We checked out this morning.  We are going to Surat Thani.  Minivan to Surat Thani.”  I hear the recognition – “oh, yes” she replies.  “We have a big problem,” I say.  Gotta get that out first.  “We are in Krabi airport.  The minivan is gone.”  This part is tricky, she is confused and it takes a while to get the point across.  “The minivan stopped.  We went to the toilet.  Now the minivan is gone.  Minivan not here.  We are still at Krabi Airport.  We need to go to Surat Thani.  Our bags are in the minivan.”  And the clincher – “Can you call the minivan driver?  And tell him to come  back to Krabi airport?”

I think she’s understood, and she says she will call the tour company.  She hangs up, before we even say goodbye, and there we are, waiting.

Suddenly, I see the Italian women.  Are they waiting for the minivan too?  Someone to share our panic with!  Nope, they are waiting for a flight.  Same with the Swedes who pass a few minutes later, relaxed and pushing a luggage cart.  After about ten minutes I call back to the hotel desk.  She’s in communication with a driver, but with her English it’s not clear whether it’s our minivan or if they’re sending a different car for us (but then what about our bags?).

Thus begins a back-and-forth as time ticks by.  At first I’m the one calling, and a few times dashing back to the giggling coffeeshop girls for more change.  But then as I’m waiting just outside with Minah who is guarding the bags and keeping watch in case the minivan comes by, I hear a ringing that sounds like it could be from the phone bank.  I run in, actually run, which feels incredibly silly in the airport, and because I can’t tell which phone is ringing, I start picking them all up, “Hello?  Hello?”, feeling like a low-budget Matrix rip-off.  It happens a second time, and an older British couple, grinning that sly but guilty grin you get when you’re got front-row seats to a bit of juicy schadenfreude, they point me toward the ringing payphone, and this time I pick it up in time.

Lizard interlude: a beautiful “Oriental Garden Lizard” who lived outside our bungalow in Koh Lanta

I am juggling payphone receivers, running back and forth to Minah to check if the minivan has arrived and to find out where exactly we’re standing, my hiking boots are skidding around on the waxed floor in front of the bank of payphones as I go back and forth, sometimes saying “just a moment please, don’t hang up” and leaving the receiver unhooked and coming back to find that she’s hung up.  We slowly negotiate that yes, our minivan with our bags is coming back to pick us up, yes we should stay where we are, what? you should see the minivan, they’ve arrived, you don’t see them?, terminal one departures, is that correct?  Still no minivan.

The older British couple has staked out two seats between Minah and the bank of payphones, and in the lulls between my sprinting attempts at communication, I fill them in on what’s going on.  They are sweet, talking me down from “that driver, he knew we were going to Surat Thani, and then we told him we’d be right back from the bathroom, such incompetence!”, to which they laughed warmly and tried to remind me that hey, you’re traveling, this is all an adventure.

Maybe 25 minutes after our initial bathroom break, the van finally rolls up.  The driver waves from the front seat, it’s our guy, we open the door and infuriatingly, he’s just laughing, no apology.  Minah and I grit our teeth and try to channel that “all an adventure” advice.  Looking out the window, we see the British couple, now standing on the curb outside the terminal, with huge thumbs up and smiling, cheering us on for working out this particular hurdle, which could have been a full-blown debacle if our bags had indeed ended up across the country, without us.

We buckle up and drive off into the simmering southern Thailand midday heat for what we hope will be an uneventful remainder of the trip back to Bangkok (nope).

Stay tuned for “Part 2 – Scammed” where we find out that if a tour company takes the wrong part of your receipt, you’ve earned a trip to the police station.


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