Lost in transportation
Taking a taxi in Thailand isn’t easy if you’re a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language. This morning, I wanted to take a taxi to Vimanmek Mansion for some sightseeing.
The place was recommended in Thai Airways’ in-flight magazine as one of the lesser-known, yet worth-while sights in Bangkok. “Famous as the world’s largest teakwood building, Vimanmek Mansion is set in spacious green gardens…” it said in the magazine. Reason enough for me to go there.
Off the beaten track…
The first taxi I got into didn’t know what the hell I was talking about when I told him I wanted to go to Vimanmek Mansion. I showed him the page from the Thai Airways magazine, which I’d cleverly torn our and saved, but that didn’t help either.
My taxi driver couldn’t read the name Vimanmek because the Thais have a different alphabet. And the picture in the text didn’t look like anything he recognized.
So after some shrugging, smiling and friendly explanations (I presume) in Thai, he pulled over and let me out of his car.
In the next taxi, things got off to a familiar start. This time, however, the driver called someone on his cell phone and then handed it to me.
I guess the person on the other end was supposed to be able to understand me and then explain to the driver where I wanted to go.
So in the friendliest and most arti-cu-la-ted way I could, I told the person on the other end: “I would like to go to Vimanmek Mansion.”
I heard a click and the line went dead.
But my taxi driver had his heart set on getting me to my destination, so he made another call. Again, he gave me the phone and once again, I tried to explain what I wanted to the stranger on the other end “Vimanmek Mansion. I want to go to Vimanmek Mansion.”
But I just got passed on to someone else. “Vimanmek Mansion. I would like to go to Vimanmek,” I told him, but his response in Thai was beyond me. “Vimanmek. I want to go to Vimanmek,” I said one more time. He hung up.
Frustration turns to puzzlement
I was almost ready to get out of the taxi in the hope that another driver might know this place, but my driver had already pulled up to a hotel and gotten the attention of the livered employee standing in front of it.
I can only guess that what he then said must have been something like: “Oh, you want to go to Vimanmek! Why didn’t you just say so? Vimanmek Mansion, ha ha, Vimanmek Mansion!”
But wasn’t that what I’d said all along?
I still haven’t figured out why episodes like this one happen so often when Westerners try to pronounce Asian words.
It’s always the same story: The Asians we address just look at us as though we’re speaking gibberish. We try to say the word again and again, until finally someone understands what we’re trying to say.
And then they repeat what we’ve said just the way we’ve said it (at least it always seems that way to me). But to our Asian counterparts, the way we said it must have been absolutely incomprehensible.
Maybe it’s the tonal thing – that we Westerners just can’t get the tonality of the words right. All we hear is the pronunciation, not the pitch or melody of the word.
By the way: if you’re ever in Bangkok and thinking about visiting Vimanmek Mansion, go! It’s worth it.
But you may want to ask a Thai to write it down for you in Thai script before you get on a taxi.