Posted by: kim | August 14, 2007

Service with a smile?

I went to Thailand a few times as a teenager in the early 90s. (To put that timescale into perspective, I remember buying a pirated cassette by the old Swedish band Roxette circa 1992 – how embarrassing to admit!) I remember liking everywhere but Bangkok, and I remember going to various jewellery and handicraft places with my parents who were importing goods from Thailand at the time. I remember the wild ride up the mountains to Chiang Rai and then to Mae Sai, the northernmost part of Thailand, and going across the border into Burma for a couple of hours where I insisted upon having a stamp put into my passport. I’ve yet to visit Thailand’s beaches or islands.

Now, Thailand is a hotbed of tourism: eleven million visitors a year. Compare that with Cambodia (900,000 annual visitors) and Vietnam (three million). It’s hard to really escape the tourist trail, and if you randomly look up a lesser-known city in our Rough Guide book it invariably says there’s “nothing of interest here, but it’s an important transport hub”.

That’s certainly what you could say about Surin — there really wasn’t much to detain us, but there were certainly a lot of Westerners there. Mostly comfortably balding, pot-bellied men in their 50s with their equally comfortable Thai partners (the majority of couples in our hotel). One of them was a friendly and talkative American we met at a cafe, who told us he’d been living in Thailand for eight years. He’d just bought a large ceramic trough in which to keep goldfish. “I like goldfish,” he said. “They keep the mosquitoes away.” His partner (“not my wife”) gave us a bunch of longan fruit to try. He’d never been north to Chiang Mai and had never heard of Ayutthaya. There were also Americans in our hotel lobby having a boring religious argument with an equally boring old English guy.

Thailand’s slogan is the ‘land of smiles’, but we’ve had a few sour faces since arriving here from the hotel staff. In Ayutthaya, we arrived quite late at the Krungsri River Hotel at 10.30pm. They insisted the hotel rate was 1766 baht although we’d seen it listed at 1200 baht a night. They refused to even acknowledge this, although when we checked out we saw someone else’s receipt on the counter for — guess what — 1200 baht.

But that was only a minor gripe — when you check out of a hotel in Asia, they’ll usually check your mini bar; probably because they don’t trust you.

And this hotel alleged that we’d drunk two bottles of water from the fridge when we clearly hadn’t, and the receptionist and assistant manager wanted to charge us 80 baht for them ($2.50!). The bottles simply weren’t in the fridge to begin with. We’d even gone to the 7-11 to buy our own that night.

“Wait a minute,” they said, coming back with a sample plastic bottle. “Did you drink this?”

“No,” we replied. “We only drank the complimentary water that came in the glass bottle.”

An uneasiness between the two staff members. “But there is not water in the fridge.”

“It wasn’t there when we checked in. We arrived late at night and bought our own water. Look.” We held up the large bottle we’d bought.

Another uneasy giggle.

Rob asked: “Did you find any empty bottles in our room?”

“No…” After a minute, the assistant manager reluctantly took out a piece of paper with the words ‘Rebate form’ on it. “You have to write down that you didn’t drink the water.”

And there was Rob, writing what amounted to an affadavit or legal testimony. “WE DID NOT TAKE ANYTHING FROM THE MINIBAR ON 12/8 EG MINERAL WATER.”

So much for trust in the customer!

The tuk-tuk drivers also attempt to charge you over the odds for a short ride, and grumble if you won’t want to pay that much. “The gasoline! The gasoline!” they bemoan. “It outside town. It cost MORE.” One woman’s frown was permanently etched on her forehead; she zoomed off in a huff once she dropped us off. Thankfully though, these people have been in the minority, but a little more smiling wouldn’t go astray.

In Vietnam and Cambodia people have had it hard for so long that they are very grateful to see you in their country. Here they seem to take us a bit more for granted…

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