How we were taken in by one of the Bangkok scams

Sadly, there are several types of Bangkok scams being carried out every day. And even being forewarned didn’t stop us getting caught by one. Read on to discover how we were tricked by one elaborate scam set-up.

Avoiding scams in Bangkok

Read any travel forum or guide book, talk to anyone who has travelled to Bangkok and/or do a search on the internet and you will quickly discover the warnings about various types of scams that occur in Bangkok. Even though I had read lots of this information before we got there, we were still diverted in our travels by one of these scam situations.

It’s actually a bit embarrassing to even admit that seasoned travelers such as ourselves were taken in by this scam. I blame a bit of jetlag, the heat and general disorientation with it being our first day in Bangkok. But I also was taken aback by how elaborate this scam was, and how many players were involved.

We worked out pretty quickly exactly what was going on and walked away from the situation, with no actual damage caused by being involved (other than it taking us away from where we wanted to be) so afterwards, as we analysed it we were able to laugh at all the points at which we had let our guard down and become scam participants.

So, to show just how elaborate these scams can be, the following is a step-by-step outline of how the situation played out.

To start

It was our first morning in Thailand and we were planning to visit The Grand Palace, so had taken the Chao Phraya express ferry from Saphan Taksin. But we somehow managed to miss the stop we should have got off at (Tha Chang) and got off at Tha Maharaj which is one stop further on. As we left the ferry, there was a laneway lined with some shops, and we stopped at a place selling gelato on sticks.  These gelato were very pretty, so we were messing around taking photos of them, and of ourselves with the gelato.

Avoiding scams in Bangkok (2)
These gelato were great…and in no way involved in any part of the scam, other than being where we were targeted.

The first approach

A well-dressed Thai man behind us in the queue for gelato leaned forward as we were taking our photos and asked, “Where are you from?” Then he pointed to our handbags, and said, “Watch out for your bags out on the streets. Hold them tight against you.”  Then he asked how long we were in Bangkok etc and told us to have a good time. I think we mentioned it was our first day there.

This all seemed friendly, helpful conversation. We left the shop and he went on to order his own gelato.

Red flag no.1: friendly, helpful conversation is often a warm-up to a scam.

The second approach

While we were eating our gelato we stopped outside the shop, and I had a look at our map to see which way we should go to the Grand Palace. I was having trouble working it out, as we weren’t at the ferry stop I thought we were. Looking back at the photos we took at that time we have realised that the helpful man was hanging around behind us while we did that.

We started to walk towards the main road. He then walked past us as if he had somewhere to go, then as we stopped again to consult the map, he doubled back to see if he could help us.

When we told him we were going to the Grand Palace, he said, “Oh! That’s where I work. You know that parts of it are closed this morning for a ceremony? You can still get in, but some of the best parts are not open. Everything will be open after 2pm.”

Red flag no.2: Scams often start with “the Grand Palace is closed today”.

The diversionary tactic

He then said, “Do you have a map? I can show you some other things you could do first, then you could come back to The Grand Palace after 2pm.” We gave him our map and he asked for a pen, and he circled and numbered a couple of places on our map telling us that it was the Lucky Buddha Temple, some other sight which I have forgotten the name of, then almost as an after-thought he said, “Oh, do you like clothing? There’s an export sale at this place, ” which he also circled and wrote “Export Sale”. “It’s the last day of the sale, it’s been going for a week.”

I have to admit, we were tired from our flight and hadn’t prepared well for our visit to The Grand Palace, so when we heard that parts of it were closed (which seemed believable, as opposed to the whole place being closed), we didn’t have a back-up plan to fill in the time. The fact he was telling us an alternate option to fill in the time until 2pm was quite appealing.

Red flag no. 3: Scams often involve “the last day” of sale, or “only open one day a week” temples.

Introducing the next player

He asked us how we would get there, to which we said we’d walk. He looked shocked. “No, it’s too far,” he said. “You should get a tuk-tuk.” Then he took our map back off us and wrote 200-300 baht and circled that. “Don’t pay any more than that to go to all of these,” he pointed at the three circles, “and back to here”. Then just before he left to walk off he said, “And only use tuk-tuks with green lettered license plates. They’re government-regulated.”  Then he started to walk away. He was waiting to cross the road several metres down the road, when a tuk-tuk drove past him…and he shouted to us, “There’s one! Green plates!” So we waved it down. And our helpful chap walked back to us, and told the driver where to go with the aid of our map, and negotiated the fee of 200 baht. Very helpful…or so we thought.

Red flag no 4: a tuk-tuk appearing at just right the moment is no accident. (And I think ALL Bangkok tuk-tuks have green lettering on a yellow background?)

The ‘amazing’ Lucky Buddha

So off we went on a somewhat hair-raising, but not unusual tuk-tuk ride through the streets of Bangkok to our first stop at “the Lucky Buddha Temple”, which turned out to be an attractive enough small temple with several buddhas. But we’ve seen enough temples to suspect that this was nothing extraordinary. As we were walking around it, I used the Google Maps on my phone to work out exactly where we were, and looked it up in my Lonely Planet pocket guide. Sure enough, it wasn’t even marked on the map. Nothing special. Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice enough small neighbourhood temple, but I don’t think it was worthy of a diversion from some of the better known sights.

Red flag no.5: if the sight you’re taken to isn’t mentioned in your guidebook, it’s probably not all that “special” and may well be being used as part of a scam route.

Enter the third player

So, while we were walking around this small temple, our driver had moved his tuk-tuk to the car park area at the rear of the temple. We came back to it and climbed on board, then the driver clutched his belly and said, “Excuse me one minute, I need to go to the toilet.” And off he went. While we sat waiting another man appeared and went to his parked car which was being blocked in by the tuk-tuk.

“Where’s your driver?” he asked. “I need to get my car out.” We told him the driver had gone to the toilet. So while he stood there waiting he made conversation with us. He said he’d come to this lucky temple with his pregnant wife who wanted to pray for a son. Then he asked us where we were from and when we told him Melbourne, he said he had a friend who lives in Collingwood.

Chat, chat, still no sign of tuk-tuk driver. At this point I was thinking, “Eeew, I hope the driver doesn’t have anything contagious given we’ve been sitting in close proximity”.

Anyway, after about ten minutes of general chat, the bystander asked us what our plans for the day were. We showed him our map, he looked surprised, and said, “How do you know about the Export Sale? Did you see it on TV?”  Then he launched into a long discussion about how his wife and he had just been there before the temple, and how it’s a government-mandated sale that happens once a year in return for the company having export rights for big brand-name clothing manufacture in Thailand. But today was the last day, and this was to be the last year it happens etc etc. He’d just bought two suits, because he is a lawyer and wears them for work, and a couple of suits for his father-in-law who works for Thai Airways in New York because they are so much cheaper than if he bought them in New York. It’s all top quality designer stuff, he said. Brand names such as Armani and Hugo Boss were mentioned.

He told us to make sure we signed up for their mailing list, because even though the sale wouldn’t be happening any more, we’d be able to order on-line if we were on the mailing list.

Red flag no. 6: Any sale which sounds too good to be true…is too good to be true.

The Export Sale

So after about 20 minutes, our tuk-tuk driver reappears, patting his tummy and apologizing. Our chatty bystander waved us goodbye and off we went. Another few minutes driving through the streets and we pulled up outside a shop, and the driver ushered us through the doors. On the way in, I took note of the signage over the shopfront. Inside was definitely not the “Export Sale” we’d been expecting. It looked like any other tailor shop we’ve ever seen. As we came through the doors, some other tourists seated in the shop looked at us with faces which I now realise were saying, “run, while you still can…

Overly eager salesmen seated the girls and me in one area and whisked The Poolboy off to another. We were given folders of ‘designs’ (copies of photos from magazines and catalogues) to peruse. It was less-than-whelming. I took out my phone and Googled the name of the shop and quickly discovered some reviews on Tripadvisor that mentioned being taken there unwittingly by tuk-tuks, and that the quality of their tailoring was bad. (To be fair, there were also reviews saying they offered top quality goods and service – mostly posted by reviewers who have written just one review each though… 🙂 ). I went to find The Poolboy, and said, “Let’s get out of here.” He was being shown suit fabrics which were really cheap quality, and even when he asked to see their best fabrics, the ones they showed him were not good.

So we told them we were leaving, which they got really shirty about, and we walked out the door. We found our tuk-tuk driver, gave him his promised fee for the trip and walked off down the street.

Red flag no.7: we should have paid heed to the faces of those other travellers, they were definitely telling us to get out of there! 

Escape from Tuk-tuk-traz

Now, the only issue with walking away from this type of situation, is that you may not know exactly where you are, or how to get back to where you want to be. Luckily, I had data access on my phone, so I was able to quickly use GPS to find out where we were, and what our best exit strategy was.  We worked out that Jim Thompson’s House was a short walk away, and we headed off in that direction and ended up having a look around there, and lunch in the restaurant. So the day wasn’t a total write off.

Avoiding scams in Bangkok (2)
We walked along this lovely canal as we wound our way to Jim Thompson’s House

Tips to avoid Bangkok scams

After we’d safely escaped and had a chance to reflect on and analyse what had happened, we couldn’t believe how elaborate this whole set up was. Obviously, the motivation to all the ‘players’ was a kick-back from the tailors once we had ordered clothing to be made.

The original helpful man, the tuk-tuk driver, and the bystander at the temple were all working in cahoots. It was almost like an interactive theatre experience. We had wised up to it before any damage was done (other than lost time), but I’m sure many people are not so lucky.

There’s lots of variations of scams operating in Bangkok, particularly around popular tourist sights.  Even with the best of intentions, it is possible to be sucked in by their skilled delivery.

The main things to keep in mind are:

  1. Ignore all advice that a sight is “closed” (or even partially closed, as we were told) unless its coming straight from the mouth of the staff at the official ticket booth (watch out for scam ticket booths, too).
  2. Be wary of any strangers being overly helpful. (Sad, but necessary.)
  3. Don’t tell strangers that you have just arrived in Bangkok.
  4. Don’t listen to any stories about clothing, jewellery, gem, travel packages, or {insert any other item here} sales, especially ones where it’s “once a year” or “the last day of the sale”.
  5. Don’t buy anything without doing extensive prior research on both quality and price.
  6. Use metered taxis or public transport to travel anything further than a few minutes.
  7. Don’t be persuaded by “Government- sponsored” or “Government-mandated”.
  8. Ignore any unsolicited offers to take you to see “the Lucky Buddha Temple”. As far as I know, there is no such place. And even if there is, do you really want to risk it?
  9. Don’t use a tuk-tuk which offers you all-day transportation for an incredibly low baht amount. (In our case, the baht amount was sufficiently high that it didn’t arouse our suspicion, but I’ve read cases of 10-40 baht all-day amounts being quoted.)
  10. Do a bit of prior research – Google “Bangkok scams” and you’ll find no end of descriptions of the variety of ways people have been caught out. Travelscams.org has a great summary.

Have you ever been caught out by a scam?

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Avoiding scams in Bangkok 1

 

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