Getting Scammed In Thailand, or Why I Should Have Listened to Marlon Brando

“So, Barzini will move against you first. He’ll set up a meeting with someone that you absolutely trust, guaranteeing your safety. And at that meeting, you’ll be assassinated. […] Listen, whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting, he’s the traitor. Don’t forget that.” – spoken by Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) as a warning to his son Michael (Al Pacino) in The Godfather

I bet Marlon Brando never had a trip to Thailand like mine…

I first visited Thailand in 2006 and had such an amazing experience that I knew I’d be back.

<insert ping-pong show joke>

<insert Bang-COCK joke>

<insert Ladyboy joke>

But really, I do love Thailand and it has nothing to do with the oh-so-original jokes and negative cultural stereotypes that people bring up EVERY TIME I mention it.

…ok, it has VERY LITTLE to do with the the oh-so-original jokes and negative cultural stereotypes that people bring up every time I mention it!

From the natural forests of Chang Mai, to the pristine beaches of Krabi, to the bustling metropolis of Bangkok where centuries-old temples are but a few minutes walk from some of the world’s most modern skyscrapers, Thailand offers a plethora of experiences for the young, backpacking tourist.

In many ways Thailand is a very traditional and conservative culture – they still have lese-majesty laws, and they think feet are so offensive the government blocked YouTube from the whole country over a video juxtaposing bare feet and the King!  But in other ways it’s more advanced and progressive than the United States – they have hoses attached to the toilets so you can spray your butt clean (want one!), and some schools now offer transgender restrooms so those students don’t get made fun of as much… although I’m not sure redesigning the stick-figure was necessarily helpful.

A simple unisex sign would have sufficed

The thing I most remember from that first trip is that everywhere I went, the people were so nice!  They didn’t make fun of my (I’m sure terrible) attempts at speaking Thai, they helped when I asked for directions or simply looked lost, and it seemed like everyone I met from children to grandmothers were quick with a smile.  I even met someone there who was gracious enough to be my tour guide, and with whom I’ve remained good friends ever since.

My second trip to Thailand was in 2009 when I went there with my boyfriend.  My boyfriend was Filipino (well, I suppose he still is), so locals kept assuming he was Thai and would try speaking to him.  While I had taken some Thai lessons prior to the trip, I think the only phrase my boyfriend learned was Pom pud Thai mai dai – “I’m not Thai.”  But since Thai is a tonal language and we considered ourselves lucky if we simply remembered the right vowel sounds, who knows what they thought he was saying, but the message was clear nonetheless: he at least didn’t speak Thai, and that was usually good enough to get someone to break into English.

Our first morning in Bangkok, we headed out to see the Grand Palace and a few temples.  We accidentally got off a stop early from the water taxi and decided instead of getting back on, we’d walk through a local flower market and make our way to the palace on foot.  While walking, we ran into a man who tried speaking Thai to my boyfriend and when that didn’t work he asked if we were tourists.  We explained that we were on our way to see the Grand Palace.

Well, it was a good thing we ran into him because unbeknownst to us, it was some sort of Buddhist holy day and the Grand Palace and adjoining temple were going to be closed to the public until later that afternoon.  With a couple hours to kill, he took a look at the map we had been reading and pointed out a few closer temples that would be open to us.

He also asked if we were doing any shopping because there was a designer suit sale happening just that weekend (on my previous trip I got two custom-made suits for super cheap and was looking forward to getting a couple more).  He said we should take a tuk-tuk (which a common mode of transportation in Bangkok) and that it shouldn’t cost more than 20 baht to go to all the destinations he circled on the map and then to the Grand Palace.

Named after the sound they make: “tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk”

20 baht!?  That’s like fifty cents.  I knew tuk-tuk drivers drove up the prices for tourists, but I’d never in my life taken a ride for 20 baht.  It was usually at least 100 just to cross the street!  He explained that some tuk-tuks can charge whatever they want, but the ones with a yellow sticker in the front are the King’s company and they have pre-negotiated rates.  He flagged down one of these cheaper tuk-tuks and confirmed with the driver that he could take us to all those places for only 20 baht.  We thanked him profusely as we tuk-tuked away.

The first temple we went to was much smaller than the one by the Grand Palace, but still had some nice art and was at least interesting.  We ran into a Thai man there who seemed surprised to see tourists.  We explained how we had been headed to the Grand Palace, but would have to go back later because of the holiday.  He confirmed that and said it was pretty cool that our tuk-tuk driver offered to take us there in the meantime.

The next temple we visited had a vendor selling ice cream outside.  My boyfriend and I each got a taro ice cream popsicle (so good, and another reason I love Thailand), and I also bought one for our driver because it was a hot day and I was starting to feel like we were taking advantage of him by making him drive us to all over for such a measly fee.

The next place we went was the suit shop where my boyfriend and I took quite a long time getting measured and determining what fabric to make our suits out of.  The suit shop was not run by Thai people, so I was immediately skeptical and kept haggling with them so I wouldn’t get taken advantage of.  Finally we got some price that seemed fair but the suit shop needed half the payment as a deposit and would only accept cash, so we had to go to a bank across the street which slowed things down even more.  Again, I felt even worse about making our driver wait for us while these annoying shop owners were putting us through all this, but he was totally patient and seemed completely fine.

By this time it was well past noon and the driver said he could take us to the Grand Palace.  As we bid farewell to him, I felt like he had taken such good care of us, I gave him 100 baht to cover the 20 baht fare.

Yes, I realize that amounts to about two dollars which is what I would tip at a bar here… for one drink… when it’s a beer… in a bottle.  Looking back, I realize that I valued this guy’s 3 hours of driving us all over Thailand to the half a second it takes a bartender to open a bottle of Heineken and somehow felt generous about it…

Anyhow, the rest of the day was great!  We saw the palace, got a Thai massage, and were ready to relax that evening over dinner and drinks with my Thai friend I had met back in 2006.  As the three of us strolled through an outdoor market looking for places to eat, my boyfriend and I eagerly recounted to him how lucky we’d been that morning:

We were about to go to the Grand Palace this morning – now don’t laugh, we hadn’t realized that it was a Buddhist holiday – but fortunately we ran into this guy who told us not to go until later and got us in this special low price tuk-tuk that drove us to a one day only designer sale where we bought custom-made suits that we paid for in cash…

As I heard the words coming out of my mouth, I already began to feel it… and my friend’s face only confirmed what I had been oblivious to the whole day.

There was no Buddhist holiday.  There was no special tuk-tuk.  There was no one-day sale.

There was a man who spotted two suckers wandering through the wrong flower market, made up a lie to get us on his friend’s tuk-tuk, and made an arrangement with a suit shop to pay them a cut of their overpriced wares for bringing in fresh tourists.  We had been scammed.

I’ve played the events of that back in my head… everything was so well orchestrated.  From the seemingly time-saving advice, to the explanation of why we should get in that one specific tuk-tuk, to the guy at the first temple who confirmed the whole story, to why the driver happily worked for 20 baht.  My friend asked how much we spent on the suits… it turned out to be a couple hundred dollars over the going rate.

Suddenly I wanted that exorbitant 400% tip back… and taro ice cream popsicle!

The next day we went back to the suit shop for the fitting, but our driver wasn’t there (lucky for him).  As if it wasn’t embarrassing enough to have been ripped off, we now had to return, knowing that the people in the shop knew that we probably knew that we had been ripped off, but still had to face them if we wanted to salvage anything from this horrible experience.

For days, even weeks, the whole incident was really bothersome: Why did this happen to me!?

But it didn’t really happen to me, it kind of happened because of me.

It’s not like I went out for a night on the town and woke up in an ice bath with a note taped to my forehead that my kidney had been removed – Now that would be something happening to me.  What I experienced was much more in my control… like David Carradine’s last trip to Bangkok… but without the rope around my balls.

If it hadn’t been autoerotic asphyxiation, it would have been Uma Thurman that got him

Nothing I lost in this scam was against my will, and nothing was done to me that I wasn’t in control of.  So the better question was: How could I let this happen?

The answer: Asians.

I have a weak spot for Asians.  Just like I imagine the cute Asian guy I haven’t met at the bar is smart, funny, and charming, I also imagine that the middle-aged Asian stranger who offers some advice to a tourist is well intentioned, helpful, and kind.

In fact, the only people I was skeptical of in this whole scenario were the non-Asian suit shop guys whose only crime was earning a profit.  They never lied to me about anything.  It was the Asians who lied to me, and I bought it: hook, line, and ping pong.

It’s like what Marlon Brando explained to Al Pacino in The Godfather: the ones who can take advantage of you the most are the ones you trust the most.

It’s a lesson so obvious it shouldn’t need repeating, but we’re humans and we have emotions that make us naturally inclined to trust people.  In many cases, that’s a good thing, but it’s still important to remember that it makes you vulnerable.

What happened to me with the suit situation could have been a lot worse.  We did end up getting the suits and they were everything we wanted them to be (except for inexpensive).

Sometimes people have one bad experience with another race and they will start stereotyping all of them negatively.  I’ve had good experiences with another race and started stereotyping all of them positively.

Despite what I went through, if I’m going to err one of those two ways, I’d still choose the latter… but the next time I’m in Thailand and someone offers a special tuk-tuk ride on an alleged Buddhist holiday, I’ll remember that it’s an offer I can refuse.

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7 Responses to Getting Scammed In Thailand, or Why I Should Have Listened to Marlon Brando

  1. Liam says:

    Every time you write a post I get both happy for being able to read it and sad because I know I’ll have to wait a while before another post 🙁

  2. Canh says:

    When I visited Bangkok, this happened to my classmates, but not me. (Plus a con where they were taken to a ‘ping pong’ room). It’s the Asian in me, I know better. Ahahah.

  3. Hey there!
    Can’t wait for your next post 🙂
    I also wanted to let you know that I added you to my blogroll.
    My blog is pretty new but I have a decent amount of readers so far. I hope some people will find my way over from my blog to yous 🙂

  4. robert says:

    The same thing happened to me this May 2012 but unlike you I refused to buy anything and that tuktuk driver took me to four different rip off shops!! I realized half way what had happened. I paid the 60 bht fair to tuk tuk which was arrangement.

    • Hats off to you for figuring it out in time! But isn’t it funny how after all that he tried to pull, you still feel a fiduciary responsibility to pay the guy? I’m the same way with tipping at a terrible restaurant. I’m just no good at being a jerk even when I should be!

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