Well hey there, dear reader. Thanks for stopping by. Why don’t you sit down and stay a while. Because today I will chronicle our account of…our first scam in Thailand! Dun, dun, duuuuuun! Well, our first proper scam ever. But don’t worry. This story doesn’t end in tears and anger. In fact, I’d say we rather enjoyed ourselves. It’s not as though we were gipped out of any (…or much ) money or services, but rather that our dollars were carefully funneled into certain pockets. Were there clues that we were being had, you ask? Ha! Oh, yes. There were many clues. So, many in fact that I will go a head and denote each clue by placing a number next to each one in the following section. So, should you wish to avoid such a scam during your first visit to Bangkok, simply read the following (…or open any Lonely Planet published in the last 10 years on Thailand) and marvel at our child-like naivety.
There we are, freshly-minted Bangkok tourists, semi-aimlessly wandering around a main road (1) in an effort to find the nearest bus stop. Our end-goal: to find the bus that will take us to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. Yes, I know it’s touristy, but its the number one attraction on Tripadvisor… Our intention is to meet with a travel doctor so we can replace our recently thieved, malaria medication. And, just minutes earlier, we had been searching for a mail carrier that we could convince to release and receive our package of another medication that is being held in Thai customs. Apparently, one cannot send any form of prescription medication to Thailand without a proper permit. A small detail we did not discover until after Anna’s mother kindly shipped said medication from the US to Thailand. So, needless to say, we aren’t exactly immersing ourselves in the typical Bangkok culture and tourist activities. The main road we are advertising ourselves upon is about two blocks from the very touristy and very busy Kosan Road (2). We get about half-way down the main drag when we notice a Thai man, casually looking at his phone as he walks in the opposite direction. As we approach each other, he looks up from his phone and our eyes meet. “Hello! Can I help you find something?” The man is quite friendly and speaks very good English (3). We compliment him on his English which he quickly attributes this trait to the fact that he teaches English to children (4) at a nearby school. I mean really, how bad can a guy be who works with children? We explain that we are looking for the bus that will take on the route that passes by the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. He points us to an area that looks like it could pass for a bus stop, but continues to show interest in us and asks a few more questions (5). These questions include “Where are you from?” (i.e. how much money do you have / how stupid are you? – clue 6), “How long have your been in Bangkok?” (i.e. how easy will it be to scam you? – clue 7), and “Where are are going after Bangkok?” (i.e. how many shitty travel agents can I send you to without you arguing much? – clue 8). We politely answer the questions of the man who seems to be so genuinely interested in us before we mention that we should get moving. Just before we part ways, our new friend provides an alternate suggestion:
“Have you heard about today’s holiday?!” (9) he exclaims.
“No, Mister Strange Scammer Man! Tell us more!” we reply with enthusiam.
“It would be my pleasure, you fools! Well, today is a special buddhist holiday (10), during which the government provides tuk tuk rides to tourists at a low-cost to encourage city-wide tourism! Only 20 baht! AND! All of the temple entrance fees are waived for tourists on this special holiday! But its only TODAY!” (11-ding ding ding!!) says the child-loving English teacher.
“Holy hell! How lucky are we!” we ask ourselves.
“Do you have a map?” the man asks. We pull out our map. He proceeds to draw all over the map and mentioning all the places we should go with our tuk tuk driver, including the Lucky Buddha Temple, a tourist travel agent to inquiry about our route into Cambodia (12), a suit “factory” (13), the Standing Buddha Temple, and the Golden Mountain Temple. He makes special mention of the suit factory (14). He claims that if you are in the market for a suit, this would be a great place to get them as they are very high quality and will last 10-15 years. He himself bought one here and loves it. Although we’re skeptical, this seems like a pretty decent mix of tourists attractions and a great way to see the city for under a dollar!
“Ready to go?!” he asks excitedly as he guides us over to one of the “special” government funded tuk tuks.
Despite our intrigue, we still have quite a few chores to complete, so we thank our friend for the information and politely decline. We decide to put off our visit to the hospital for a bit and hit up the pharmacy first to acquire some antibiotics. The whole process goes like this. Step 1: walk into the pharmacy. Step 2: ask the pharmacist for the antibiotic names and tell her the quantity of each. Step 3: pay. Step 4: walk out. A slightly less complicated procedure than that required in the US and A. Meanwhile, we’re (mostly me) getting antsy to go see the city. If there really is a holiday today, 20 baht for an all day tuk tuk tour is super tempting offer. Plus, I’m ready for some spontaneity. After the visit to the pharmacy and another call to our less than helpful Thai customs agent, we decide to put off the hospital visit until tomorrow and go sightsee. Hooray!
We head back to the same area where we met our new Thai friend (15) in hopes of catching one of these fancy government tuk tuks. And what do you know, the same child-loving, English-speaking, Thaiman is walking down the street again looking at his phone (16)! We were hoping to snag one of these tuk tuks on our own this time, but our friend sees us and offers his help. How lucky are we!? He’s here again! He explains he just came from lunch at a restaurant he points out. He begins scanning the streets for tuk tuks with a special green license sticker; these, he explains, are the government run tuk tuks that will accept the low fair. Many tuk tuks pass that would seem to meet this description, but each one that we point out to him doesn’t quite seem to meet the criteria (17). Finally, he spots one. In English, he tells the driver all the places we’d like to go and the confirms the 20 baht price tag. No questions asked (18). And we’re off!
Nanners and I continue to discuss the possibility of this being a scam, but unless he drives us into a dark alley and robs us, I can’t see how we are losing out. Plus, our tuk tuk driver is awesome! Always smiling and laughing. Asking about America and confessing his obsession with cowboys. So, we put our worries behind us and hop out at the first stop. The Lucky Buddha Temple. The temple is fairly small and not busy at all. In fact, I believe we are the only two tourists there (19). We are greeted by a man who appears to work at the temple and he shows us to the stairs that lead inside the temple. He is yet another friendly Thaiman who speaks good English (20). As we wander around the small temple he too asks a few of the standard questions. When we tell him we are from the U.S. he becomes excited and explains he has a son who is studying and New York City and recently returned from a visit there. He shows us some pictures on his phone of his trip and then we finish up our visit. Before we leave he asks where we are heading to next on our tour (21). We mention the suit factory and the various temples. He too takes special interest in the suit factory (22). He explains that he bought one there years ago and are great to have since you need only to buy once and you can use at all sorts of special occasions. He also reminds us today that there is a special discount on account of the holiday previously mentioned. Interesting. Another testimonial from a random person at a temple for the suit factory (23). We thank him for the information and head on our way back to the tuk tuk.
As one might expect, we aren’t super interested in the suit factory since we’d rather see more temples, but we haven’t completely written it off because I had intended to buy a suit in SE Asia as I have known quite a few people who have done so in the past. Despite this, we tell our tuk tuk driver that we’d rather see more temples first and if we have time we’d go see the suit factory. He politely suggests we just go “take a look” (24) which seems to finalize the discussion without us pressing the issue. We reluctantly agree and acknowledge that we now have fairly concrete evidence of the scammy nature of our tuk tuk ride. In any case, even if our driver was getting paid to take us a few places, we aren’t complaining since we are still getting a super cheap tour out of the deal.
We arrive at said “suit factory” which is much less a factory than it is dirtier version of a Men’s Warehouse (25). We are quickly greeted by the store owners and asked to sit down to look through some catalogs of men’s and women’s suit styles. We quickly look through as they explain the three levels of quality they offer, ranging from 150 to 300 USD (shipping included). This range seems to check out with the prices I got while chatting with an employee of another suit shop, so it doesn’t seem too absurd. He continues to explain that the higher end suits are equivalent to a $1000 Armani suit (26) and that all suits are custom made which ensures a great fit and that they can be altered later in life when you are old and fat. This is all well and good, but we just don’t care quite enough to pull the trigger. But then, the kicker, for us spontaneous bargain shoppers: tourists get a discount (around 15% or something) for TODAY only (on account of the holiday of course) AND you can only return to shop at this particular suit shop unless you have a membership (27). Oh snap. That’s a horse of a different color, we grumble. Under pressure and in the moment, we cave: within five minutes I’ve just been measured for a “1000 dollar” suit for 700 dollars less.
Back in the tuk tuk after no more than 15 minutes in the suit factory, we giggle at the ridiculousness of our situation and continue on our sight seeing journey. But first! We take a little ride over to the tourist travel agent to get some info on busses and trains entering Cambodia (our next stop). As expected, we are pitched a variety of package deals that will take us all through SE Asia with transportation and accommodation included. We get enough information and politely decline their services and head off to see some buddhas, forreal this time. First up: the standing buddha. Before we run into the temples we stop for a bite to eat just outside of the gated area. Despite our attempts to have our tuk tuk driver take us somewhere he likes to eat, this was either lost in translation or he enjoys eating mediocre food. Afterwords, we wander on over the temple area which boasts a massive, golden, standing Buddha. We wander around for a bit, snap some photos, get some coconut ice cream, and generally fulfill our tourist duties before moving on to the Golden Mountain Temple. Now if it wasn’t already made obvious enough that we weren’t in complete control of our Bangkok-sight-seeing adventure, our tuk tuk driver makes it pretty clear before our last stop: he asks if we mind if we stop at one more travel agency so he can get another gas coupon (and 28) before we move on to the temple. Ah ha! The truth! As we already suspected this and appreciated his honesty, we didn’t mind helping out our tuk tuk driving friend. So, we drop in and out of a tourist agency within 2 minutes and head to the Golden Mountain Temple to gaze out upon the Bangkok skyline and digest our whirlwind tour of the city. Our driver drops us off a few blocks away, as the recent protests in the area blocked off the most direct path to the temple. We pay him the 20 baht, as discussed, say goodbye.
Well…that was a dang day of it. Feeling a bit scandalized, but fully entertained, we trod our way over to our last destination through the quiet protest grounds. We arrive at the temple gate and are instructed to pay 20 or so baht. Surprise! The temples aren’t free after all! Even with the special Buddhist holiday! We swallow our pride and pay the damn temple man his money and head to the top. The sun is setting as we ascend the final set of stairs which lead to a large golden stupa. We bask in its glowing radiance as we gaze over the haze of the crazy city that is Bangkok.
Back in our hostel room (which looks almost identical to the one in Mr. Leo Cap stays in during ‘The Beach’), we need only to turn to the first page covering Bangkok in our lonely plant book to find an entire write up on the scam we just enjoyed. Hmm. That may have been useful to read on the bus ride over. The next day, wind our way back to the suit factory through a massive maze of Sunday markets for my suit fitting. Amazingly, the suit does in fact exist, and even fits quite nicely (although the sleeves haven’t been attached yet). The somewhat sleazy shop owner ensures us the fit is perfect and that it will arrive within two months of being shipped. Although surprised at the speed and quality of their work, we still have a silent hatred for the men who blatantly lie to us poor tourist folk. As we leave the office, we are ensured to tip our tailor to reward his good work. HA! What balls!? Needless to say, we did not tip our tailor. I’d suggest he find a more honest establishment to work for if he wishes to acquire tips.
As one last parting gift from our new friends, we exit the suit factory doors and hold the door open for a Thai gentleman walking in. By the beard of Zeus!! It’s the man from the Lucky Buddha Temple! Ah! It’s all come full circle. The ‘English teacher’ walking down the street gets paid by the suit guys, the lucky Buddha man who works for the suit joint is planted at the first temple stop to encourage the purchase, the tuk tuk driver is in cahoots with the English teacher and can justify the cheap fair based on the gas coupons he receives from the travel agencies who hope the silly tourists like us will by their package travel deals! Good gravy! In retrospect, yes, it’s all very obvious. But for two green international travelers, untrained in the art of scamming people, this is a wildly elaborate scheme developed just to get a few people in the door who may or may not buy a suit. But alas: it does seems to pay off for them from time to time…
In the end, I think we got a lot more out of the day than we expected: a cheap tour around the city, an escape from our logistical chore list, coconut ice cream, a nice suit, a good story, and a great (and benign) first lesson and last lesson in how far people will go to scam your ass.