It was a steam-bath, that February day in Thailand. My friend Claire and I had rendezvoused the previous evening at the Bangkok airport, she arriving from New York and I from Guangzhou. Both of us were world travelers, counting Japan, China, Hong Kong, Georgia, and a half dozen other countries between our shared experiences.
Which is why it's so embarrassing to admit that we were scammed right outside the Imperial Palace.
Maybe it was the heat soft-boiling our brains, or maybe it was because we had no idea to expect in Thailand. We were told that the Palace was closed for afternoon prayers—I'm still smacking myself for being so gullible!—and were persuaded that a good way to spend the hour or so before it reopened was to take a cruise up the twisting network of canals that traced through Bangkok like a spiderweb. This cruise being on our to-do list anyway, we spent the 1000 baht (maybe $30) getting seasick in choppy waters, spotting giant monitor lizards, and marveling at how the stilt-legged wooden shacks managed to stay upright in the silty, surging current.
The cruise was fun, but by the time we returned to the Palace and realized the scam, I was out of humor and in no mood to trust anyone's word on anything.
But turning down the woman who proposed she serve as our guide through the Palace grounds would have been a huge mistake. Sharp-spoken, rotund, short Pam—who, when we asked, crisply told us we couldn't have pronounced her real name anyway—wore loose khaki pants, a green button-down shirt, and carried a PowerPuff Girls umbrella.
My friend took one look and said we had to hire her. I would have pushed back, but there was something about that umbrella. Perhaps Pam had no idea who the bug-eyed girls on it really were, but it didn't matter. I had to trust her.
We spent the 800 baht per person to secure Pam's services, which also included the 500 baht entry fee.
The first five minutes of the tour were sensible. Before we even went through the grand gate, Pam motioned us towards the restrooms, which I indeed made use of. When I came out, she wrinkled her nose and said:
"Oh," I wasn't about to insult a public bathroom in a hugely-trafficked area. It was better than I had any right to expect, and better than many I'd seen. "It wasn't bad."
Pam shook her head, "It's the Chinese. They don't know how to use a toilet. I've seen them standing on the rim and pissing down. And they don't use toilet paper."
Claire and I exchanged a look, eyes wide and smiles stricken; having lived in China for six months by that point, I wasn't certain whether I should speak up to defend the country that paid my bills. But having been in a fairly difficult living situation ever since arriving in the country, including bathrooms at our school that were never stocked with toilet paper, I was curious to see how this would play out.
There was a little bit of comforting schadenfreude in hearing a country I didn't care for badmouthed by someone else. Ranting-by-proxy, or something like that.
As it happened, we didn't need to say anything. Pam needed no sympathy. She went on, leading us towards the gate.
"They're so disrespectful too. You watch. When we go inside; they don't look at the signs, they don't follow the paths. Look, over there!"
She charged off, umbrella held like a halberd. Claire and I exchanged another look as she bore down on a startled Chinese man, who had hitched his sarong (you have to cover your knees on Palace grounds) up and through his belt loops. I startled when a stream of very emphatic orders in monotone, studied Chinese poured from her mouth. One or two minutes this harangue went on, after which the man quickly hid his knees and scuttled away, shocked girlfriend in tow.
Pam returned to us, opened her umbrella, and started lecturing on the history of the Thai Royal Family without any further comments.
I don't remember what Pam taught us about Thai politics, monarchy, architecture, or mythology. But it was hard to focus on stories of naga or anecdotes about architectural style when every ten or fifteen minutes, a passing Chinese tourist would do something to rouse her ire.
And man, was her ire memorable.
A boy—ten or so—ducked under a chain and started picking at the solid gold-leaf coating of a stupa. Off Pam went, umbrella folded again into a trusty lance in her private, endless crusade against the Chinese. That battle ended with the mother pulling her son away from the damage and Pam muttering what I hope were some very colorful curses under her breath.
A young couple paused at the door to the hall of the Jade Buddha, blocking traffic for all the other tourists and violating the 'no flash photography' sign clearly displayed at the door. Pam stopped just shy of hauling them bodily away from the gate, but I saw the urge to beat them with their own selfie-stick flashing in her eyes.
This doesn't even touch on her many, many asides about the people who walked in front of us when she was trying to take our photo, those cretins who touched when every sign told them not to, the idiots who leaned too far over the rails, the crowds that blocked every thoroughfare...
It was a constant torrent of bitterness.
At some point—actually, fairly close to the beginning—it started to be hilarious. Every time Pam went off, Claire and I had to bite our tongues to keep from laughing. Both of us had worked in tourism; both of us had had to swallow our irritation when a tourist had done something thoughtless and irritating.
Watching someone who didn't give a single solitary damn about losing her job or being written up for insulting a guest work out her frustration was amazing.
The Imperial Palace is a marvel of architecture, a beautiful conglomeration of buildings both fantastic and lavish in style and ornamentation. The scale is immense, the décor glorious. It's truly unique for anyone whose eyes are too steeped in Western aesthetics.
But to me, the day we spent at the Imperial Palace will always be about Pam, her PowerPuff Girls umbrella, and her smoldering hatred of Chinese tourists.