Just when you think you are adapting to the Thai lifestyle, avoiding the tourist priced eateries, learning useful phrases, knowing the roads, etc. YOU GET SCAMMED! I write this laughing because nearly all experienced backpackers think they are smarter than the rest. The only reason backpackers say it won’t happen to them is because it already has happened to them or a good scammer hasn’t approached them. Generally speaking while traveling in a foreign country you have about 5-10 seconds of conversation to decide if that person is genuinely hospitable or a scammer. It’s a tough judge of character because if you travel every day with this guard up, shoeing away anyone offering a service, then you will miss out on many of wonderful people, amazing experiences, and culture that can only be discovered with the help of locals. Slow down, respect, and enjoy!
Bangkok for the most part is a safe and friendly city especially considering the dense population and low income. In a country that depends on tourism for a source of income, there is no doubt some people will find ways to take advantage of naive tourists. Tourists visiting developing nations call this a scam; however, entrepreneurs in industrialized nations call it capitalism.
Our weekend started out Friday down in Siam Square. I ventured down to the mansion of Jim Thompson, the man who is responsible for introducing silk to the world. The history of Jim’s life is fascinating and his disappearance mysterious. Rather than bore you with his life details, I will merely suggest you google his name if you feel inclined. Allison and I agreed to meet up at the “Earth from Above” exhibit nearby, as this will be her 3rd try to view the exhibit barring rain or other time constraints. The website is fascinating. http://www.yannarthusbertrand2.org/index.html I had a little time to kill so I wondered around looking for an accessory for my camera. There was no luck with the camera but I did stumble across a model shoot for an international magazine. It was open to the public and teams of hostesses and waiters walked around with all sorts of exotic Thai munchies/desserts on platters. Meanwhile hoards of photographers where taking pictures of gorgeous Thai girls laying on, standing next to, bent over a Ferrari and Audi R8. (I have many pictures but Allison said they couldn’t be posted here ☺) I managed to peel myself away just in time to go meet Allison at the exhibit.
We made it through the whole exhibit and decided to walk down to “Little Arabia” for dinner. Thai food is amazing but variety is good! She picked out a Lebaneese restaurant after telling me about all the delicious foods her dad and grandpa make. Dinner was good, however Allison said the kibby doesn’t match up to the kind her family makes. Little Arabia was a nice change from the Bangkok we have been accustomed to.
Plans for Saturday where rearranged a bit. Originally we planned to take a train to Ayutthaya, see some temples, and meet up with her friends for an evening birthday celebration. Our train left before we ever looked at a clock so a quick change of plans landed us at Chatuchak market. We roamed around, making a few selective purchases, for about 8-9 hours. For the first time since dating Allison, I felt old! My feet hurt from walking, back ached from standing, it was hot, etc etc…and sweet little Allison isn’t phased at all. I am convinced she could walk/run for days on end and never need a sip of water. That girl is bionic!
By this time, neither of us were up for a night of drinking so we settled on dinner and watched a movie on her computer. I don’t think Allison made it past the opening scene before her eyes got heavy. Allison insists this trait is inherited from her mom and NOT due to walking all day!
Feeling refreshed Sunday morning, our plan was to hang around town and see some of Bangkok’s main attractions. Dressed a bit more formal than our typical backpacker attire out of respect to the religion of nearly 23% of the world’s population, we visited Wat Po, a Buddhist temple home to the largest “reclining Buddha”.
Wat Po was quite inspiring. The intricacy put into every detail is just amazing. The temple is definitely beautiful, adorned with spires, Buddha statues, and tall gargoyle (ish) figures standing guard at every entrance. After feeling the heat of the afternoon, we wondered to a nearby 7-11 for some water and candy. While enjoying our refreshments outside, a gentlemen walking by stopped to ask where we are from. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy talking about his government job, giving us tips on the city, places to go, etc etc. Allison and I continued a conversation with him about used-book stores in Bangkok, which eventually led into other “great deals” around Bangkok. He was kind enough to tell us of a place to get really nice custom tailored clothing for a cheap price. This tailor is right across from his work and they make garments using only the finest cashmere and silk. Dress shirts, slacks, suits are their specialty. This is starting to sound appealing. Even though I wear a suit only a couple times a year, I’m thinking that it would be cool to have a custom made suit to take back home. This gentleman also offered us great advice on getting around Bangkok for cheap. He explained the tuk tuks with a yellow license plate are owned by the government and given stipends for fuel. On weekends they are encouraged to take tourists around town, wait for them at every stop, all for only about 30-40 baht. Apparently this is a way for the government to promote its town to tourists. This sounds realistic.
Just about that time, one of the many hundreds of tuk tuk drivers pulled up close to where we are standing and our new found friend pulled the “unsuspecting” driver over to have him confirm this deal on transportation. Before we knew what was happening, we were convinced to get in the tuk tuk to check out this tailor shop. It was a hot afternoon and we were tired of walking, so we decided why not. The only thing we really wanted to do was to be back at Wat Po in the evening to take some pictures in the better light. Off we went buzzing through the streets in the tuk tuk. The driver was really friendly, showing us what some of the buildings are as we passed. He is the first tuk tuk driver I have ever heard speak decent English. We pull up to our destination at the tailor shop. There were quite a few tuk tuk drivers lounging around out front, which is a pretty common site for Thailand. Once inside, some sharply dressed people offered some refreshments, and shown to leather chairs to relax. It was royal treatment. Allison and I both felt uncomfortably out of place. There was obvious pressure to buy now, buy a lot, and buy quickly. Once we conveyed that we only wanted to look around and that this “guy” who mentioned the place we should come check the store out….we were no longer given the royal treatment. He still tried to push a small order of 3 dress shirts and 2 pants for a “bargain”. He got the hint that we were backpacking around Thailand and not well-to-do tourists. Quickly, he pawned us off to the gift shop as a last effort for income. We strolled out and our smiling tuk tuk driver was ready and waiting!
By now we realize these people are all in cahoots with each other and the whole thing was a setup. As we drive down the street listening to our drivers near perfect English, it was obvious. We notice every single tuk tuk and taxi has a yellow license plate. There is no special government issued tuk tuk. No harm done but we got scammed. We told the driver to go back to Wat Po. He insisted he needed to get gas first. I didn’t understand but Allison did. Apparently he gets free gas from the government, by taking us to a couple of shops. He promised if we went in another store for 10 minutes so he could get gas, we could go back to Wat Po. Reluctantly, we agreed and as I climbed out of the tuk tuk I saw the sign for gems and jewelry. I burst out laughing. There were many other tourists looking around confused. The whole routine started over, got the royal treatment, explained we didn’t want to buy anything, got shown the over-priced gift shop, and slid out the side door to avoid the sales lady. There he was, our glorious tuk tuk driver, smiling and ready to be of service. He took us back to Wat Po without any further conversation. We paid him 40 Baht as agreed for the tuk tuk ride and off he went. No big deal, just a few hours of lost time.
Further research online, indicates that this is a really common scam. The same stores we visited were mentioned. The same stories are told, all with the same outcome. As it turns out, the drivers get paid cash to bring tourists to their shops. The highest paying being the tailor, gem shops, rug stores, and silk factories. Most tourists will pay the prices not knowing any better. It’s all a set up and you can read about it online. The web indicates that the government frowns on this but there is no real way to prevent it other than awareness. We fell for the scam. Fortunately, neither of us are spontaneous shoppers with expensive taste.
The colors at Wat Po were brilliant just before the sun went down. Allison and I walked to the pier and took a boat back to our little suburb far away from any tourist sites. I prefer to be around locals that don’t speak English. I prefer to be stared at walking down the street. I don’t mind if they giggle and smile at as I fumble my thai phrases trying to order a meal. I don’t mind being served fried rice because I unknowingly pointed to dried squid on a menu that has nothing but symbols. This is the Thailand I want to learn about! This is the Thailand I want to explore. In a country that caters to tourists, you have to get off the tourist trail in order to see what Thai culture is really about. Lesson learned!
Tags: backpacker, bangkok, Chatuchak, exhibit, gem, gift shop, Jim Thompson, Little Arabia, model, scam, Siam, tailor, thailand, tourism, transportation, Travel, tuk tuk, Wat Po