I was tired when I stumbled off the plane from Bangkok to Hong Kong and by the time my passport had been stamped by an Immigration officer, I felt bedraggled and ready to end my day.
I had come here to spend a month in Chungking Mansions. People had told me it was a notorious spot for all sorts of risky business but my curiosity had prevailed over caution. Now I was too drained to feel anything more than exhaustion and I decided to pamper myself with a taxi instead of using less extravagant transit options.
I’d gone by myself to Southeast Asian and Chinese cities often, so it was with no trepidation that I joined a crowd of travelers heading down an exit hallway I was certain would lead me to a taxi stand. When a shabbily dressed man approached and asked me if I wanted a taxi, I was more than happy to hand over my suitcase and follow in his wake.
He led me across a parking lot to a large, white van. I climbed in, the man tossed my suitcase on the floor beside me, and then he slid the door shut. I was the only passenger.
“How much?” That this was a question I should have asked several minutes earlier was a fact that struck me with full force. There was no reply, and the driver pulled onto the open road without picking up any other fares.
I began to feel incredibly stupid. How many times had I read about naïve tourists being taken for a ride in New York City, one that ended in a demand that approximated a small fortune? But I was in Asia, I consoled myself, not Manhattan. The most I’d ever been overcharged in Bangkok was twenty dollars—Hong Kong, of course, would be more expensive, but not up to New York standards.
I made myself relax, the driver broke into polite, pleasant taxi conversation and I responded with a sense of relief.
He proudly identified the neon extravaganza that was Nathan Road and waved at a building that we passed, “That’s Chungking Mansions,” he told me. “Stop here, please,” I said. He kept going.
We pulled into a dimly lit, empty street and parked near an ATM. The driver pulled out a laminated card with rates printed on it; so much for a passenger, so much for a bag, another sum for a charge for using a highway tunnel, and the final amount being the fare to Kowloon. It was substantial and I tried a feeble attempt at bargaining. He laughed.
“That is the rate. If you don’t have enough, we can use the ATM.”
He was no longer smiling and neither was I. The phone I had played with at the beginning of our journey, hoping he thought I was texting a local contact, was useless. I hadn’t yet bought a SIM card for Hong Kong. I opened my bag and pulled out my dollars.
The fare he demanded hovered around $200 US. I knew better than to ask for a receipt but I asked, “May I have one of your business cards?”
“Why? You want to use me again?” He smiled as he handed me a card that I was fairly certain would be useless. “You can walk from here,” he told me, and he unlocked the passenger door.
When the Nepalese tout at Chungking Mansions, horrified at the amount of money I had lost, tried to call the printed phone number, it was no longer in service. “What did he look like?” When I gave a description, he said, “He’s done that before; people paid him more money than you did because they didn’t know. Here, give me your phone.”
He took me to a counter where I could buy a Hong Kong SIM card and then put his number into my contact list. “Call me if anybody gives you any more trouble,” he said firmly. When I finally reached a clean bed in a quiet room, suddenly Chungking Mansions became a place where I felt I could be comfortable and safe—so long as I took public transportation to get there.
Janet Brown (tonedeafinthailand.blogspot.com) is the author of Tone Deaf in Bangkok and Almost Home (ThingsAsian Press). Her next book, Light and Silence, will appear in 2014.