Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mai Thai Paradise: Scam Artistry 101

Midwestern people are known for the kindness and honesty. Growing up in this environment has helped to shape me and who I am today. However, for one afternoon in Bangkok, these morals failed myself and my friends.

Scam Attempt #1: Tuk Tuk drivers (small, open air taxis that line the streets of Bangkok) are known for their attempts at scamming and screwing over foreigners. Meg, Travis, Mitch, Steve, and I wanted to go to the Grand Palace to see the Emerald Buddha and hailed a Tuk Tuk to take us there. Mitch and I shared one, while the other three piled into the tuk tuk in front of us. Before we left, their driver started showing them pamphlets and saying that he had to make a 5-minute pit stop before we could go to the Palace for gas. Not so much.

We ended up at a shop that sells suits. The driver ushered us all inside (though I was very reluctant and had no desire whatsoever to go in) and we left immediately, demanding that they take us to the Palace and no more detours. We got back into our tuk tuks and ended up at a restaurant that was also selling jewelry. This was the last straw. We piled out of the tuk tuk and went to go and find a different way to get to the Palace. Scam avoided - for now.

Tuk Tuk's waiting for customers

Scam Attempt #2: Following the disaster of our first attempt to get to the palace, we decided that we wanted to take a regular taxi there. Thankfully, this taxi used his meter (the only taxi driver that did this the entire trip) and got us to the palace in a decent amount of time. Once we embarked from the cab, we were approached by a guy dressed in a really nice suit that spoke amazing English, telling us that the palace was closed for 2 hours in respect of a Buddhist ceremony. Naive Moment #1: There were loads of people entering and leaving the palace as we were being told this, signaling that the palace was obviously open.

In order to pass the time, the man suggested that we go and visit some other sites around Bangkok, in which he would get us a tuk tuk that would stay with us the entire time and then bring us back to the Palace. We would each pay 20 baht (about 75 cents) for this. Seems like a good deal, right? So, being the trusting Midwesterners that we all are, we said sure. We got into a tuk tuk, who took us to a monument of a massive Buddha, which actually turned out to be pretty cool. We purchased some birds to set free that were supposed to bring good luck, and then headed back to find our tuk tuk driver.

As we returned to the parking lot, we discovered that our tuk tuk driver was no where to be found. It turned out that he was actually playing "hide and seek" with us. Once we finally found him, he would run towards another tuk tuk driver and hide behind them, acting like he didn't see us. When we finally cornered him, he led us to what we thought was going to be our tuk tuk. Turned out that it was little stone statues of the signs of the zodiac. While we were looking at these, our driver disappeared again. Naive Moment #2 - instead of thinking this through and trying to find another tuk tuk driver, we hunted him down once again.

Finally finding him for a third time, he led us to the tuk tuk, then stated that he needed to go to the bathroom before we took off. Almost immediately, another guy came over and started talking to us in near perfect English. He asked where we were going and found out that we were heading to Phuket. He inquired about our accommodations and when we told him that we didn't have any at the moment, he freaked out! He told us this sob story that he had just returned from Phuket and had to sleep in his car for two days because everything was booked. Naive Moment #3 - Before realizing that Phuket was an island, I was under the impression that it was just the name of the city we were going to. Chalk one up to lack of research and preparedness.

Upon seeing the distressed looks on our faces, he told us a travel agency that would help us find accommodations for very little. They didn't work for the government, meaning that they weren't trying to make a commission. We were all intrigued and thought about telling our tuk tuk driver to take us there. While we were contemplating this, our driver returned and started up the tuk tuk. Before we pulled out of the parking lot, the guy that we were talking mumbled something to the driver in Thai. Naive Moment #4 - Obviously they were working together and the guy was telling our driver "we got them" or something along those lines.

We left the big Buddha statue and headed back out into the streets of Bangkok. After driving for what seemed like an eternity (and making a U-turn into oncoming traffic), we ended up at the travel agency! Miracle! We head inside and are met by a "travel agent" that helps us find some accommodations in Phuket, Kho Phangan, and Kho Tao, the next three places that were were set to visit. He was a super friendly guy and totally played on the fact that we were all young, college aged students by saying that he was a bit hung over from drinking the night before. Bait and catch! Native Moment #5 - The guy just chose the places for us. He never asked where we wanted to stay or any options that we could chose from.

With our spirits "lifted," we got back into our tuk tuk and headed back to the Grand Palace. We all felt amazing that we now had places to stay and didn't have to sleep on the beach. We arrived back at the Palace and went inside. Mitch and I actually went through the palace area, while Meg, Travis, and Steve waited outside. We saw the Emerald Buddha, which was pretty spectacular and took in all the sights that the palace had to offer. It was magnificent and definitely put Korean and Japanese temples to shame.

Inside the Palace complex

The Emerald Buddha - we weren't allowed to take photos inside the building, so this is the best i could do

The building that the Buddha was housed in
It wasn't until about two days later, when we were on the train down to Phuket, that I put two and two together. The more that I thought about it, the more that I realized how convenient it was that the guy came to talk to us at the Buddha statue as soon as our driver left for the restroom. It was also pretty convenient that he knew to take us to the travel agent without us actually saying anything to him. I delivered this analysis to the others and we all agreed: we had been taken for a ride and fell for it.

What finally confirmed it for us was the fact that in the Thailand book that Travis had purchased, there was a blurb about scam artists at the Grand Palace, dressed in really nice, expensive looking suits, telling visitors that the Palace was closed for 2 hours (sound familiar??). It warned against falling for this scam and avoiding them at all costs. Fail.

However, it wasn't all bad. The places that we booked actually did exist, which was a blessing. We didn't have to spend multiple hours wondering the streets trying to find a place to stay when we arrived. The only real harm that happened was that we definitely overpaid for our accommodations. We're pretty sure that the places we stayed were not in on the scam, but the other four people (guy at Palace, tuk tuk driver, guy at Buddha statue, and travel agent) all were. That's also another reason why our tuk tuk ride was so cheap. The driver was going to be getting a nice cut of the profits in the end.

I've always considered myself to be a very conscious and alert traveler, always doing my best to avoid getting scammed or put into awkward situations. On this day, we avoided one scam while falling right into another. Needless to say, lesson learned. And as we put it the rest of the trip, "It is what it is - Learn and move on!"