“Hey Noelle, yee’alright?”
Ruben starts all conversations this way – he says it’s the Isle of Man’s equivalent of “What’s up?” (He also says that he’s Manx, not British and not Irish) but it still startles me each time I hear it. Particularly this time, given that I’m calling because I’m not all right.
“No, actually… I got robbed last night. I need a favor… can you give me a ride to the Embassy and the police station? I’ve only got 80 baht left and that’s not enough for a tuk tuk driver and it’s probably close enough to walk but I’m afraid I’d get lost and – the got my passport, my camera, my credit card – yes, everything – no, no, I’m fine they didn’t hurt me – this motorbike – my tuk tuk driver – “
I have to explain it a few more times, slower, before it makes any sense. He promises to come straight over; I try to suck down some of the free (free!) instant (disgusting) coffee that comes with my room at the guesthouse and find some remotely clean clothing. He’s there before I’m even ready. None of the four numbers that I have for the US Embassy in my phone – the first thing I’d done in Chiang Mai was look up emergency numbers – work. I want to go straight to the Embassy to apply for a new passport; Ruben points out that I’ll need a police report first.
We pull out our respective Lonely Planet’s and plunk them down on a table, I dig through my bag for a couple of the city maps I’ve been collecting – and immediately notice an interesting phenomenon. The Tourist Police Office is in a different place on each one. There’s an entire division of the police force just for tourists – tourism is, after all, Thailand’s biggest import (or would that be export?) – but finding it is an ordeal in and of itself. We stare at the maps. We get some bottles of water. We try calling. We stare at the maps. At least all of the possible locations are in roughly the same area – along the river – and there doesn’t seem anything to do but head in that direction.
An hour later, we’re still looking. We’ve asked for directions in both English and Thai and everyone that we’ve asked has a different opinion as to which way to go.
“Just there – just – around the corner,” says a man at a bicycle shop.
“Over bridge, other side of liver,” says another. (He meant ‘river’.)
“Farther on,” says a waitress at the Riverside Cafe.
“No, no, you’ve passed it! ” say an Irish couple having lunch.
Even ascertaining where we are at any given time is a challenge. “Row you tee nai?” I say holding out a map, thankful I’d asked for the phrase the night before. Thai people stare at the map like they’ve never seen one. Eventually I begin to understand that the free tourist maps that I have are hopelessly flawed. One man laughs and begins to draw his own map in the air with his hands. We walk around. We drive on the Ruben’s motorbike. We stop again.
We’re standing on a corner with a map in our hands and an open Lonely Planet. It’s midday by now and it’s hot. A man stops. His English is excellent and – finally! – a voice of reason. “You look in the right place but it has moved. Again. It has moved,” he explains, “four times this year.”
I’m not surprised.
He gestures to the map, gives directions. We set off again – and don’t see it. “It’ll have a sign in English, right?” I ask Ruben. “I mean, it is the tourist police…”
“Not that they seem to want the tourists to be able to find it.”
Ruben’s already pulling over (we’ve gone at least twice as far as the man had indicated) when I see a van with, in large black block letters, “TOURIST POLICE” printed on the rear window. Assuming that whoever belonged to the van would have to know the current location of the office, I head in the direction – only to realize that it is the office itself. It’s in the back of a parking lot, tucked under an overhanging ledge next to a much large building that’s either a hotel, bank, or business offices. The Tourist Police office is behind the van and, had the van not been there, would have been impossible to see.
“Good eyes,” Ruben says.
“You stopped,” I said.
Two policemen in what looks like a military uniform are outside. We greet each other and I step into a room full of wooden benches. A television in one corner is playing Thai music videos and there are desks along three of the walls. A middle-aged man in a uniform sits at the center of the largest desk, along the largest wall, next to a young man in a black t-shirt, flanked by women on either side. A few others come and go behind a screen that presumably leads to a back room.
I am the only tourist.
I approach, sit down, and explain my story. Twice. They make sure that I am not hurt, clarify the location, and ask me two write a written report. They give me a pad of paper, official headers printed on top, and a blue ball point pen. I try to keep it simple. I list everything that I can remember having been in my bag.
“Do you know the license number of motorbike?”
“Do you know the license number of tuk tuk?”
“One man or two on motorbike?”
“Can you identify?”
No. All I’d seen was a dark jacket and a black beanie.
I try to explain that I’m not expecting any sort of prosecution, that I don’t expect them to find my things. I just need a report for my insurance and to get a new passport.
I’m competing for attention with a pop song featuring a young Thai boy playing an electric guitar in the back of a pick-up truck surrounded by women, but they’re polite and reasonably attentive. The man in the black t-shirt has a name badge around his neck and a surprisingly high pitched voice. Once my report is written, he picks it up and frowns. He’s obviously reading it. Halfway through he begins to laugh. The laugh changes to a giggle and it doesn’t stop. His hand comes up to cover his mouth and, trying not to scream at the absurdity of the situation, I focus on his hand; it’s nearly as small as mine and I notice his fingernails are long, pointed, and well cared for.
Ruben’s sitting on a bench behind me. “This would be when I’d begin to get paranoid,” he says.
“I’m well past beginning to get paranoid,” I respond. I meant it sardonically and he might have smiled; it comes out through clenched teeth and white knuckles on my bag.
The superior officer gets the message – he smacks the younger man on the shoulder and takes my report from him. One of the girls gives a reproachful look. “We are sorry for your bad experience in Thailand,” she tells me speaking slowly and enunciating with care.
The officer translates my report into Thai himself – another sheet from the pad, the same blue ball point pen. Carbon papers are put beneath the sheet he’s writing on and I realize that two copies have already been made of my report. The Thai version is considerably longer than mine. He takes his time and presumably his care, stopping occasionally to clarify details with the effeminate young man who I’ve decided must be a translator. Ruben wanders out to find some food. I count slowly in my head and peer around the office. Once the report is finished they hand me the original. The carbon copy is passed to a girl who disappears with it into the back room. I start to get up, but the officer stares me down. It’s apparently time for a lecture.
I should have called the police that night when it happened. And I should have woken up the guesthouse owners and told them. Then something could have been done. Then perhaps they could have retrieved my belongings. I listen meekly. None of that had occurred to me – after the motorcyclist had taken my bag, I’d crawled forward towards a piece of fluttering black fabric on the ground (realizing only then that my shirt had been torn), picked myself up off the ground, tip-toed into my guesthouse around the corner, locked the door and sat on the bed for ten minutes. Then I’d called home and told my parents, made sure that my bank cards got canceled, set an alarm, lied down on the bed and – failing to sleep – cried. Calling the police that night at 2am hadn’t occurred to me.
“We work together,” the officer told me somberly, linking his fingers together. He was still talking about the regular Chiang Mai police.
“Should I go to them now?” I ask.
“It depends. If you want to be vindictive…”
Even if I did want to be vindictive – and all I want at this point is some form of ID and some more money – I know that I don’t have enough information for anyone to act on. Ruben decides that I should go back to Thae Pae Gate and attempt to identify the tuk tuk driver – I don’t think it’s worth it and I’ve had so many tuk tuk drivers by this point that I doubt I could.
“Korp kun ka, pee ka,” I thank them all several times. It takes me a few tries to find the door. They point, smiling slightly. “Take care,” they tell me. They actually look worried.
I manage not to bump into the expensive black car pulling up or into the man getting out – an older farang man in uniform, interestingly enough – and find Ruben across the street. It’s a traditional style cafe – food cart and some plastic tables. A handful of chairs. A smiling old woman. Some sort of spicey noodle soup. I’m not hungry in the slightest but, realizing that it’s late in the day, I haven’t eaten yet, and I don’t know how many more meals I’ll be able to have before I get more cash, I gratefully let Ruben buy me something to eat.
The tourist police had given me the correct number for the US Embassy and double-checked the location on Ruben’s Lonely Planet (the US Embassy wasn’t in mine at all), so we set off again. Finding it is, for Thailand, easy enough – the large white wall with parapets and the flying flags were a bit of a give-away – but finding the entrance is a new puzzle. We ask the guards, we drive around it. One even opens a gate and let’s us partially in – at which point we discover that there are a series of walls that spiral inward, and we end up back out on the street again.
Finally, a window in the wall, next to a door.
And a sign.
“CLOSED FOR MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY”