Can I trust a stranger? – story of the Tuk Tuk driver

Unwanted male attention is something you just have to get used to if you travel alone. From people taking photos of you without a permission to asking for your phone number, “something fun”, you name it. I’ve found myself accustomed to telling stories about my “husband” James the lawyer, Michael the doctor etc who’s waiting at the hotel, just to get rid of the not-so-pleasant new acquaintances – never say you are going out with a plummer by the way, the guys will try convince you why they’d be better.

Men probably take me as a fool, a naive young woman unable to stand up for herself. I do like talking to locals, and I tend to smile most of the time because I’m happy or being polite not because I am flirting – I wouldn’t simply trust a stranger and go off with them just like that. And I’m not looking for holiday romance anyway… I have met a few guys who really gave me the creeps and all I could think of was the movie Taken – in those situations I’ve turned into a convincing liar and found a good excuse to leave asap. But in quite a few occasions in February 2014 I found myself in a situation that is straight from what not to do when you travel alone -guide – committing an act fighting against every recommendation and a voice inside me yelling that something bad is just waiting to happen.

Bangkok, the third day.

After getting a ride home on a scooter the night before, I figured I’d play it safe this time. A Tuk Tuk – those recklessly driving just-waiting-to-crash little vehicles colonizing the streets of Bangkok – was what I though, a fairly safe and cost-effective way to get around. Walking around the protest area during the day was actually quite nice, more of a happy festival atmosphere than a “let’s get our guns out” political protest. I wanted to check out some sights and as I was standing there looking at my map, minding my own business, a lady walked up. She said she’s an English teacher and likes helping out tourists, and guided me to a friendly looking 40 something-year-old Tuk Tuk driver. She gave him a note, explained that he’d take me around and it’d all cost me only 50% of the normal fare.

Sounds suspicious. But it was hot and I was tired so I thought why not, it’s just the main sights and that’s it. First of all, the guy took me to see some temple, a lovely place actually. Then he bought me a beer from the nearby cafe and wanted to make a deal with me. If I was happy to visit six tourist information stalls / tour guide shops, he’d take me around Bangkok for free. Apparently he gets a food voucher for every tourist he takes to those places, and as he was sitting there and telling me about his life I kind of felt sorry for him and said yeah why not, I’m not in a rush.

Three hours and a coconut drink & two beers later we had visited a giant statue of Buddha, two temples and the six tourist infos. I had said no to countless offers on tours, tattoos, musicals etc and I was getting tired and wanted to go back to the hostel and get food. The driver, let’s call him Mike because I can’t remember his name, insisted that I would join him for dinner. He had been really nice and not at all weird towards me the whole day, and with the abundance of stories he’d told and pictures of other female travellers he’d hang out with, I figured he would be harmless.

Bangkok, 2014

Bangkok, 2014

Well I though we had agreed on dinner in Khao San Road, the main tourist area right in the heart of Bangkok. Apparently he had other plans, and wanted to take me visit his sister in the suburbs instead. All alarm bells going off in my head, Laura now get the hell out of here, don’t be stupid. Get out. What did I say?

“Well, umm, I guess it’s ok”

Damn. So there I was, the night was falling and the heat radiated from the roads making the air muggy, there was dust everywhere and the speed of the Tuk Tuk was reaching the likes of 70kmh – which I didn’t even think was possible. The city lights were being left behind as we drove through dilapidated suburbs, dark alleys, past the locals enjoying their dinner in the roadside cafes. The amount of heads we turned, oh I was feeling so out of place, what did I get myself into.

The guy stopped outside a food court and I was left alone in the Tuk Tuk. I was sure he’d never come back again, I had no idea where I was, how to get home. The three minutes he was away felt like an hour, I was actually scared. He saw me being quite freaked out and kept chatting casually, saying he’d take me back to the center straight away if I wanted. For some reason I suddenly felt calm, like I cannot explain it but I felt safe with him, one of those “I might as well see what happens but I know it’s all going to end up well” -moments. Crazy huh.

We arrived at his house. Three giant white apartment blocks stood side by side, with hundreds of 10-15m2 apartments in each. We bough a beer from the shop downstairs and walked into his apartment on the third floor. His sister wasn’t at home yet. I sat in the “living room”, a 5m2 area filled with stuff, barely enough space to sit on the floor. Mike started cooking dinner, chicken curry. He was chatting away, sitting on the floor with his tiny portable gas stove, looking happy. I was given a book about tattoos, he seemed really excited about it and kept telling me how he had his back tattooed in the traditional way using a bamboo stick.

I did a quick tour of the apartment. 15m2 for two people, three tiny rooms. The wallpaper was just about to fall off, there were some sort of religious pictures everywhere, countless books stacked against the wall. The mattresses were rolled up to save some space, a controlled chaos he said. I admired the way my host talked about his life, the way he was perfectly happy with what he had but still optimistically looked into the future, waiting for something better. The way religion mixed into his speech, thoughts seamlessly floating from one concept to another, the perfect peace and harmony he was at with himself. Inspiring.

We ate dinner together and talked, he called a taxi and paid for my trip back to the hostel. He wouldn’t accept any money for the food, just wanted me to get to experience the Thai hospitality, to encourage other travellers to visit his beloved city. Even to this day I am amazed at the way he treated me. One of those people you meet for a day, but remember for years to come.

By the way, you should’ve seen the face of the taxi driver when he picked me up from the residential area, with his broken English trying to lecture me how that area is not safe for a young female like me. I smiled and nodded. The only time anything more than a friendship was mentioned or hinted was when I was freaking out in the alley way and he sat down, “no sex, don’t worry, just friends” with the soothing voice of his – a comment so straightforward and out of the blue that had it been anyone else, I would’ve freaked out even more..

So if you are still with me, reading all the way here, please try to be safe when you travel. Maybe going off with a stranger isn’t the best idea, anything may happen, but for me this particular evening started a chain of events that made my backpacking trip in Asia one to remember. I guess first impressions have a tremendous effect on our behaviour, and sometimes you just go against the rules for something inside you is saying everything is going to be ok – it’ll be an adventure.

The famous gut feeling – trust it, but within reason.