Scams are an ever-present part of life as a tourist in Asia. Naive tourists and foreigners, usually carrying ready-cash, flock to cities like Bangkok every day. If they aren’t carrying around obvious backpacks, they’re almost certainly flaunting their relative wealth with iPhones and GoPros; we’re sitting ducks.
Our time in Bangkok was no different. In just the first two days, we counted 20 possible times in which we could’ve fallen victim to an infamous gem shop scam. This is the story of a particularly sophisticated attempt at parting us from our hard-earned travel funds.
ENTER THE PROFESSOR.
Our second day in Bangkok led us to visit the Grand Palace; a very beautiful 18th century set of temple buildings. We hadn’t bargained on the price of admission being quite so high so we had to turn back to fetch more money. As we’d not been in Thailand long, we were looking pretty sheepish and lost, which didn’t help our case, but we needed to find a tuk-tuk to get back to the hostel.
Crossing the street, a jolly face in a red t-shirt greeted us. “Hello! Where you from?” he says. We were on our guards because of what we’d heard about the city before, but this guy seemed quite friendly. We told him we were British and from England, where of course he’d been ‘many times’. He introduced himself as a professor of politics at the University near the Grand Palace, and told us that Thailand’s political system is designed like Britain’s. Upon hearing this, we thought ‘oh well a Politics professor isn’t going to scam us so let’s just have a chat’.
He asked about how long we’d been in Thailand, where we’d been and where we were going, listing off typical tourist attractions in each place; nothing new, elephants in Chiang Mai for example. Koh Tao was his character’s home and he has backpacked around the other islands many times with his wife and children. I was obviously looking sceptical at this point because he repeatedly reassured us he wasn’t after any money.
Alarm bells started to ring when he asked us where we needed to get to. Our relative naivety (compared to now) led us to follow him to a map and point out where we were headed. He said, ‘oh! Have you been in Tuk-tuk 1155? He very cheap, only 20Baht.” Alarm bells ringing louder at the ridiculously cheap price, we tentatively followed the professor to said tuk-tuk 1155 where he murmured something in Thai to the driver. Still clinging on to the last threads of hope that the professor was real, and we’d miraculously found a cheap ride, we moved to get in 1155.
As Katherine clamboured aboard to the agreeable professor’s 20Baht reassurance, he quickly pulled a map out and pointedly attempted to suggest a quick visit first to somewhere else.
We didn’t give him the chance to elaborate.
The alarm bells were tolling louder than ever and it was time to make a swift exit from the whole situation before we were bundled unwillingly into a gem shop.
He was no professor. He was just another conman preying on vulnerable western tourists. His charm and apparent honesty, facades honed perfectly over many months of successful gem sales and tourist extortion.
We were quite sceptical about these kind of situations anyway, but a lapse in concentration and forcefulness almost led to us falling victim to a scamming ring. The professor was not working alone, many of the tuk-tuk drivers lurking around the immediate area of the Grand Palace offered similar spiels. This was highlighted by the fact that when we got out of the tuk-tuk, he did not try to convince us of his honesty he simply walked back to the position we originally met, ready to catch other tourists.
This experience was quite sobering, and is perhaps the single most important event that made us feel wiser, and more confident about travel in Thailand. We consider ourselves to be quite travel-smart, we’re by no means novices. When you’re caught up in a really good scam though, you start to doubt your instincts. You don’t notice the signs until it’s too late.
The thing to remember though, is that if you act quickly enough, you can always get out of a situation. In hindsight, we should have said ‘no thank you’ to the professor when he started to ask about us so openly. So far in our experience, it is not common for a Thai stranger to approach so boldly and confidently, with no hidden agenda.
Perhaps we could’ve moved on when he started talking about being a professor; an occupation that instils trust is comforting, but usually false. We really should’ve walked away when he mentioned cheap tuk-tuk 1155; our instincts told us to move away but we did not. If your instincts have served you well in the past, follow them in these situations.
It is not our intention to make you cynical towards all Thai people. On the whole, Thai people are very polite and friendly, and often stop to offer honest help to struggling tourists. On one occasion, we were struggling to find where we needed to go on a Thai-language map on the longboat system, and three Thai people came over to help us expecting nothing in return. However, if you are in a tourist hotspot, as we were in the story above, then it is likely that anyone coming up to you in this manner is going to either want money for helping you, or will want to scam you outright.
- Ridiculously cheap tuk-tuks; no honest driver will take you anywhere for 20Baht.
- Overly friendly Thais appearing out of nowhere in crowd tourist spots; walk down the road a bit and flag a taxi-meter or a tuk-tuk down. They have less room to bargain or time to scam you.
- People usually don’t ask you where you’re from, or where you’re looking for if you don’t ask them directly.
Getting lost and finding your way out is one of the most important and rewarding parts of travelling. Make sure you keep your cool, particularly in Thailand where the mood is rarely confrontational, and you will always find a way out.
Have you had any odd experiences with potential scammers?
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