12/20/09: Bangkok, Thailand
Today happened so fast that here’s what I would like to believe occurred:
After visiting Wat Pho and the world’s longest indoor reclining Buddha, we luckily bumped into a nice Thai man while we were lost in the city. Not only did he help us find our way, but he also flagged down a cheap tuk-tuk to take us to a travel agency (we needed to book bus tickets) for only ten baht. Ten baht – that’s about 30 cents! We hopped in the tuk-tuk and visited a lovely temple and a suit store (the friendly man found out we were bankers and would need nice, cheap clothing after returning home from vacation) before heading to the agency. There we booked our next three long bus rides and two nights’ hotel accommodation for a good price. Then the tuk-tuk driver gave us his inside advice on a great seafood market to grab dinner. He dropped us off there, we paid our ten baht fare and then sadly said our goodbyes. Unfortunately though, we found out we were a little short on cash and couldn’t afford the reasonably priced seafood, so we caught the nearby monorail and stopped by a food court on the way back to the hostel. It was a great evening.
Here’s what actually happened:
We were scammed!!!
For the first time as inexperienced world travelers, our kindness and generosity was used against us. We trusted the nice Thai man like Elin trusted Tiger (who happens to be part Thai). But in the end he played us like a snake charmer’s flute. The real story:
We had a lovely time at Wat Pho, and we were in even better spirits after buying a cheap street painting to hang in our apartment next year. We planned on seeing a few more temples and then eating at a highly-recommended seafood restaurant before heading home. We were approaching the last of these temples when the man approached us. He was dressed well and his English was surprisingly good, although just bad enough that Zhou and I couldn’t understand the important parts of what he was saying. He claimed to be a history teacher at a nearby school, and after a short chat he asked us if we had heard of the holiday festivities going on in town. We hadn’t, and he realized it was probably because we didn’t read Thai. Today was an important Buddhist holiday though, so to celebrate the government was offering cheap tuk-tuk rides and there was a free kickboxing tournament going on. If we hurried, we could catch it!
I think both Zhou and I were pretty keen on this idea, so when he started scribbling down a few things for us to do on our map, we didn’t even catch on to what his route was.
- Temple Blue Buddha (“Free kickboxing championships, today only.”)
- Top Ten Collection – suit (“Half price suits, best in Thailand.”)
- T.A.T. (“Buy bus tickets to Chiang Mai.”)
- Seafood (“You like seafood? Good seafood dinner.”)
- Sukhumvit Road (“Tuk-tuk take you back home.”)
Why we are gullible tourists, reasons #1, 2 and 3: They have kickboxing championships at a temple? How impossibly good can these suits be that a random English teacher spots two backpackers and has to tell them about the deals? What kind of history teacher walks up, chats for a minute, then takes your map and draws out your evening plans for you?
Why we are stupid tourists, reasons #4 and 5: The cheap government tuk-tuks are only the yellow and blue ones (notice, Michigan colors) – wait, look there’s one coming around the corner now! Hurry, get in, get in! The man negotiated the ten baht fare for us, and like that, we were off. At this point, I was thinking, I’m really glad we finally met a nice local – this is going to be a great evening!
The tuk-tuk soon came to a stop at the temple and the driver offered to wait outside while we looked around. We walked in the main entrance and there was nothing but a temple under heavy construction and two local kids playing a game in the nearby street. Zhou and I were about to talk to each other about this, when another friendly Thai man approached, saying the temple just closed a few minutes ago. Then somehow, someway, he began talking about Top Ten Collection and how great the suits are there. Hey! We just ran into a guy who told us about this place! It must be really good – we’re lucky because we’re going there next! I was clearly amazed – two random strangers who clearly did not know each other both brought up out of the blue Top Ten Collection and its big one-day suit sale.
We thanked him for his advice, but I was actually a bit disappointed in the lack of kickboxing, so I asked him about it. He mentioned two places where matches were being held that night, but neither started until 6:30pm. Oh, that makes sense – we’ll get the driver to take us to the kickboxing match after our delicious seafood dinner. We headed back to our tuk-tuk.
Why we are idiotic tourists, reason #6: While on our way to the suit store, our driver explained that Top Ten Collection would subsidize him the gas money for bringing in customers, and that’s why we needed to stop there. Sure, sure originally the cheap fare was because of the “Lucky Buddha Day” government holiday, but it makes sense that Top Ten Collection would throw some money around as well.
Why we are easily preyed-upon tourists, reasons #7 and 8: We didn’t buy a suit, but more importantly we didn’t even realize that this store was not having a sale at all today. Our next stop was at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), an organization that has actually been quite successful at promoting tourism through the country. However, as we found out later, the TAT does not act as a travel agent, and agencies with the TAT sign in the window are generally linked to scams. At the time though, we were simply relieved to have a chance to get tickets on a bus we felt might sell out before the next morning.
When we left the TAT, we not only had bus tickets to Chiang Mai in our hands, but also bus tickets back to Bangkok, bus tickets to Siem Reap and two nights accommodation at a Chiang Mai hostel of the agency’s choosing. Our wallet was approximately $220 lighter as a result (a ridiculous sum here in Thailand).
Why we are naive tourists, reasons #9 and 10: After leaving the tourism agency, we asked our driver if he could take us to our originally planned upon restaurant for dinner and we showed him the address. “Restaurant closed today. Holiday. You eat at seafood market – much cheaper and better.” That was the end of that. No wait, it wasn’t. “Before we go, I take you to tailor store – best in town, highest quality material and big sale. They give me gasoline voucher also.”
By this time, I’d like to say we knew what was going on, but a part of me still wanted to believe that he was telling the truth. We agreed to go, knowing that we wouldn’t buy anything and figuring it would only waste another ten minutes. We ended up barely escaping the pressure-packed pitch of the salespeople who, unlike at Top Ten Collection, wouldn’t let their customers go away empty-handed without a fight.
We hopped back in the tuk-tuk, at which point the driver explained to us that he could not take us to our hostel at the end of the night and would drop us off at the seafood market as his last stop. At this point though, we could care less – we walked in the seafood market just long enough for him to leave (and for us to notice the outrageous prices) and then turned around and hopped on the monorail to our own dinner.
Looking back at the night, it seems quite obvious just how dumb we were to go along with the scam. Fortunately, we didn’t buy any suits or eat at the seafood market. Unfortunately, we did drop two Benjamins and a whoever’s-on-the-twenty-dollar-bill at the travel agency. More importantly than the fact that we overpaid, we now have to live knowing we contributed to the income of the three guys who scammed us and we have to wonder if the buses we paid for will actually get us to our destinations, if the buses exist at all. Are we going to become two more statistics in the world of Bangkok scams? Tune in tomorrow to find out.
[To be continued tomorrow.]
Thought of the Day: My new-found adoration of books has led to a new-found admiration of movies. I will never comprehend the genius it takes to turn novels into films.
Picture of the Day: They’ve somehow turned Zhou’s little brother into a pastry here in Thailand.