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'Buyer Beware' Includes Me, Too

By ROBERT N. JENKINS

© St. Petersburg Times


As the credit card bills continue to follow me home from Thailand, my wife has reasserted that my trips for the Times are costing us money. It's not that money -- whether it be Thai baht, Italian lira or Portuguese escudos -- burns a hole in my pocket. Rather, it's a case of being both tourist and impulse shopper.

(At home, of course, I hate to shop. But I really do enjoy looking at items abroad and love the bargaining prevalent in many other countries.)

All of which is an introduction to the mishaps that I stumbled into while in Bangkok -- just as any other careless consumer might. The travel editor's new clothes

The full-page ad in Thai Airways' in-flight magazine offered, for "Gents": "1 summer suit, 1 winter suit (cashmere wool), 1 blazer/jacket, 3 trousers, 4 shirts, 2 ties, 1 kimono, All From ONLY (here the figure of $119 was X'ed over) 79 US $. Real GENUIN DEAL". "Clothes ready in 14 hours," another line stated.

I had read that Thai tailors were nearly as famous as their counterparts in Hong Kong, but these prices were staggering. Nonetheless, no clothes for me, I thought during the 16 hours or so flying between Los Angeles and Bangkok.

I stuck to that decision for nearly three days. Then, out of curiosity, a colleague from Nashville and I hitched a ride with a friend from Raleigh, who was going to see "his" tailor.

We arrived at River City, a modern, four-story shopping center purposely located along the Chao Praya River, which passes a number of large, Western-style hotels. The hotels operate free shuttles every half hour to and from the shopping center.

I had occasion to dawdle in River City -- as you'll soon read -- and counted 33 tailor shops, about a dozen jewelry stores, perhaps a half-dozen souvenir/gewgaw shops and two floors of shops offering handsome antiques and knockoffs of the same.

The cognoscenti among the 30 or so American travel writers and publicists in my convention group had settled on Bauman Tailors, in River City. I never found out why. But I did admire the samples being shown to my colleagues by Mr. Chai (silent a, hard i), who acted as salesman and thus middleman between customers and tailors. Come back when?

I ordered three shirts, $18 each. Measurements were taken by Mr. Chai, who dictated them to a younger assistant. Did I want monograms? "For you, Mr. Robert, just like these initials -- no extra charge," Mr. Chai said. White collar on a colored shirt? "No extra charge."

And trousers? We settled on a pair of Italian wool slacks, Mr. Chai starting with material that cost $95 and coming down to a third choice at $45.

Ordinarily, this would have been my clothes-shopping for a year. I should have stuck with habit.

When I returned for the shirts and slacks in two days, I brought another traveling companion with me. As I tried on my clothes -- lovely fit -- the fellow from Nashville ordered a fourth shirt, and our buddy ordered a couple.

As word spread among our much-larger group of visiting North Americans, I was asked for recommendations at least twice a day. Occasionally I went back with colleagues, watching as they were measured or tried on new clothes. One of those times, Mr. Chai said he was giving me another shirt, for all the business I had directed his way and the way of his 22 tailors across the Chao Praya.

Finally, on a Saturday afternoon, I gave in and ordered a suit. Wool pin-stripe on charcoal gray, $240. Another salesman plucked the double-breasted jacket from a window mannequin and put it on me, taking measurements and occasionally using a pin to gather loose material.

"Come back in an hour for a fitting," Mr. Chai said.

An hour? "I can't come back then; I have business meetings down-river," I answered.

Then come back Monday for your suit, was the response.

And so I did. But at 9:30 Monday morning, my suit was not at Bauman. Come back this afternoon, Mr. Chai directed.

And so I did. But at 5:30 only the pants were ready. "They are working on the collar of your jacket," said Mr. Chai. It will be ready Tuesday morning.

It was, and it wasn't. On this visit, friends from Miami joined me to pick up their orders. The only part of her skirt that was correct was the waist size; a pocket and pleats were missing. His shirts ballooned enough for both of them to wear at once.

The sleeves of my suit jacket fit, but there were rolls of spare material bunched below the shoulders.

After all our complaints were noted, we left. I was told to return about 6 that night to get my repaired jacket. At the appointed hour, it was all I could do to dial Mr. Chai from my hotel room and gasp that I was suffering through food poisoning.

"I will deliver your jacket at 8 tonight; would you like me to bring you some medicine?" asked my new friend.

The next morning I retrieved my jacket from the concierge and tried it on before the expansive bathroom mirror. The extra fabric was still noticeable; I got back on the hotel shuttle to River City and Bauman Tailor.

As I knew, there was no actual tailor in this shop, so Mr. Chai told me to -- that's right -- come back in an hour for another fitting.

I left and returned an hour and a half later, to find no tailor on the premises. How could this be? I asked, my voice rising.

"I have offended you," a somber Mr. Chai said.

I recalled hearing that Thais seek to be agreeable and so may promise something they cannot achieve as stated. To help Mr. Chai save face, or not be embarrassed, I said it was inconvenience, not anger, that I felt.

Mr. Chai made a phone call and announced that the tailor was on his way from a hotel-room call -- why was this not offered to me? -- and would be there within an hour.

I moped about River City, taking an impromptu inventory of the retail outlets, and Mr. Chai found me 40 minutes later.

This tailor seemed to know his stuff; there were lots of marks with chalk, some pinning, much use of the measuring tape. "I will deliver this to your hotel at 8 tonight," Mr. Chai vowed.

"I must have it by 6, to wear to our final banquet," I told him.

"I will deliver it by 6."

But he didn't. At 6:15 I called, and Mr. Chai assured me it would be there by 8. Too late, I almost shouted. "I must leave my room by 7."

"I will bring it there by taxi," answered my salesman/friend.

At 7:20 I put on my American-made slacks and blazer and went to the banquet.

Late that night I checked with the concierge, and sure enough, my jacket had arrived -- about 9 p.m.

I tried it on in front of the bathroom mirror again, and it looked . . . better.

Now I need to find a good tailor. I'd better do some shopping. The unwary consumer's bad episode

In Thailand, the massage is a way of life, but it has also become a way of the nightlife. Though Buddhist monks still instruct apprentices in massage techniques at one of Bangkok's large temple complexes, many foreign visitors continue to indulge in massage as a sexual event.

Having never had a massage, I wanted to try one in a land whose residents often undergo acupressure-style treatments several times a week. Because reaching the famed massage-teaching temple would have meant a time-consuming trip, I made an appointment at the health club in my acclaimed Western-style hotel.

A woman in a nylon warm-up suit showed me into a room just large enough for a padded table on which clients lie. I was given a towel and told to take off my clothes. Not long after I lay on the table, the masseuse took away the towel.

I remember hearing some of my American colleagues say they had been given terrycloth shorts or loose-fitting pajamas to wear, but I thought each spa or temple probably had a different procedure.

And I tried to pretend that being naked in a room with a woman I didn't know didn't matter.

My masseuse spoke little English, so this wasn't going to be just a drastically different version of discussing football and politics with my hairstylist. About all I could understand from my masseuse was that it had taken her three months to learn her trade and that she had been working at it five years.

While I was on my stomach, there was pressure with palms and hands all over my back. At one point, she had me bend my legs at the knees, so my feet were pointing up, and then she sat on my feet while "walking" her feet along my thighs and calves.

While I was on my back, she kneaded and pulled on my toes and fingers. She had me bend each leg outward, then put her foot on the inside of my thighs while pulling on my lower legs.

Also while I was on my back, she lightly touched my genitals, mumbling gently risque comments.

The first two times this happened, I told myself that she was just trying to put me at ease because of the delicate nature of our situation. The third time was more like a grope, and I realized that making me more comfortable was not her intent.

I quickly said, "No, please," and her hand moved back to massage techniques.

However, later in my 50-minute massage, she again touched my genitals. This time, I was more forceful in telling her to stop. She did, and said nothing.

The massage cost a little more than $20 -- on a scale as outrageously high as a typical room service meal or minibar drink. At the temple, it would have cost less than one-fourth that and would have been conducted in a public area, while the customer is clothed.

I left the massage room upset with the whole experience, a feeling that stayed with me into the next day. Because of the woman's overtures, I had no feeling of the stress relief that the massage is designed to induce.

Speaking later with colleagues on this trip, I heard of two other instances in which mixed couples had gone to recommended spas, in Bangkok and the city of Chiang Mai. The men in the group were propositioned by masseuses, although the women were in the same rooms, shielded only by curtains.

The events highlight Thailand's reputation as a destination for "sex tourism," involving nudie bars, prostitution -- and even the venerated massage.

And they serve to emphasize that even the wary consumer can have a rotten experience.

Originally published December 14, 1997



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