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Don’t trust anyone on your birthday

By Hernan Corizzo

It was very warm and pleasant in the island of Koh Lanta on the Andaman coast of southern Thailand. At that time I was sharing a bungalow right on the beach with three other backpackers for 100 baht each, not a bad place, not a bad price and not a bad company. But it was mid November and I remember thinking to myself the dilemma of what to do in my 25th birthday, after all I have been travelling in Asia for over 6 months and I thought that I deserved something special for my exceptional occasion.

The day before my birthday, I decided to leave beautiful Koh Lanta and head to the big metropolis of Krung Thep (Bangkok in Thai). The rationale behind this decision was that I have been in islands long enough and that I did not have much of freedom surrounded by resorts with inflated prices adapted to the bourgeoisie type of tourists. Bangkok was a big city, that meant freedom, noise, polluted air, cheap rooms, cheap food, scams, it meant walking down pat pong, markets, prostitutes, rickshaw drivers, tuk tuks, touts, lady-boys, tourists from everywhere, and most important of all an adventure at every corner. I already made up my mind.

I left Koh Lanta 12 in the afternoon, to get to Krabi Town at 3 and then on to Surat Thani at 7 pm. Until that time everything was fine, probably just a bit tired form the trip, but I reckoned that in the air-con bus to Bangkok I was going to get enough sleep and arrive to my destination early in the morning fresh as a lettuce. In Surat Thani something smelled bad, and it was not someone that had not taken a shower, it was the situation. The air-con bus came late and the drivers looked a bit anxious. After travelling in Asia for a certain time you realise that Asian people do not tend to get apprehensive during work. Well, I thought, someone at least is taking their work seriously and may actually care that the bus is not leaving on time.

As I was about to sit in a two-people seat the driver pointed a single one near the exit. I put my bag with all my valuables down the seat making contact with my leg, reclined the seat, and started to make imaginary plans of what I will do in my birthday. We stopped 12.30 am to eat a bowl of noodles, and then as I sat back on the bus I was in dreamland.

My bag was my faithful girlfriend during the trip, I never let it out of sight for a second and I could not think of anyone laying one finger on it. I had everything in that bag, from my money belt, the traveller’s checks, the passport, camera, to my toothbrush. The money belt is something of a story, at the beginning of my trip I did not even take out while asleep, I counted the money each day, and made sure that everything was in place. Indeed I was very neurotic about my valuables, but as time passed by I trusted the Asian people, and after 2 months it was like I had no valuables. I put everything in my hand bag and never wore a money belt ever again; I never counted the money and never checked that things were on place. I was to pay a price for that.

I remember waking up in the night bus at something like 3 in the morning while the lights were off, and everyone was sleeping. I reached for my bag and it was not there, I went mad, and asked the driver to turn on the lights, which of course he was very reluctant to do. After about 10 minutes of knocking at his glass he turned on the lights. I went back to my seat and found the bag under knee; I thought to myself that I had a serious case of neurosis.

The next morning as we arrived, I left the bus and went to register in a nice hotel, after all it was my actual birthday and I was going to treat myself. I opted for a 250 baht room, a sum that was fortune for my budget. The receptionist asked for my passport. After doing all the hard work of reaching my money belt and opened it, it looked and felt really thin a light, something was not quite right, there was no money and no traveller’s checks. For about a second I panicked thinking that I was going to spend my birthday in the police station.

In the middle of my shock, the receptionist asked me for a down payment, I explained the situation as calmly as I could, but she was not eager to hear my travel adventures, and demanded the money. I left the place and went for the cheapest room in Khao San, try to beat 80 baht in high season!.

I spent my birthday in the police station and American Express, I was so pissed that I reserved a ticket to Aranyaprathet the next day. I felt silly for letting this happen, for not wearing my money belt, for trusting people, for falling asleep, for leaving beautiful Koh Lanta.

My actual birthday was chaotic, and I went from one place to the other. I did not eat, and my room did not help much, I could not help feeling like the king of retards from that day and for the next couple of weeks.

After two weeks I made peace and actually forgave myself. This is Asia and we are tourists, we have the sign that says “I carry a passport and 2000 bucks, and by the way I am vulnerable” if you are not careful it will eventually happen.

My birthday was special, not like any birthday I had before. That is the way that things tend to happen in Asia. It might have been frustrating, or annoying or depressing, but at least it was original, and most important of all I learned something: TO KEEP YOUR MONEY BELT ON YOU AT ALL TIMES!.

Oh, and by the way in Cambodia it was so hot and people looked so trustworthy, that I opted to put my thin and light money belt on my handbag, I guess that some people never learn!.

March 29, 2005

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