How we were scammed within 24 hours of visiting Bangkok.
(to our parents: we were totally fine)
So most people have heard of the famous transportation method throughout Thailand, the ubiquitous tuk-tuk.
To us and many Westerners they look so intriguing. No way you could drive people around in a smoky 3 wheeler bobbing and weaving through traffic in the states. The tuk tuk or auto rickshaw is unique to developing countries–for good reason. But let’s face it, everyone wants to ride in one. For this reason, many visitors are led into a scam daily. This is the story of how we were also scammed by the elaborate Bangkok tuk tuk con.
Being a homeschooling family, we figured before we saw the sites in Bangkok we’d check out the National Museum. We imagined that we would learn a bit about Thailand to put everything in context. Well, that didn’t really happen, because the museum is simply a collection of artifacts with little context. So we figured out there were a lot of Buddhas and also Hindu Gods mixed in as well.
It was pleasant enough, but we decided to move on to Wat Pho, with the huge reclining, golden Buddha. Navigating has been a bit challenging as people don’t speak English well at all, contrary to what we read. Thai people have been friendly, but communication is an issue. As we left the Museum, I am sure that we looked slightly confused. This is where it gets interesting.
As we stood on the corner, a friendly, older Thai man approached us with the classic beaming Thai smile. (Thailand’s nickname is Land of Smiles.) Ideally, we have wanted this trip to include chance encounters with locals, where we learned about their culture, and now it was happening. He kindly engaged us in small talk. He told us how he was a teacher. He taught us a few Thai words and then asked us to practice them. He asked what we did for a living. He told us he had children about the same age as ours. He was planning to retire with his brother and move to Australia starting a Thai restaurant. Of course he was!
“Where are you going?”, he said.
“Wat Pho,” we replied.
He let us know that it would best if we went to the Wat after 1:00. He then kindly said to have a seat in the shade, and he ran to get a map. He shared with us some other amazing sites that we should see nearby. There was a 40 meter Buddha–the standing Buddha. There was the lucky Buddha. Both of these Wats normally cost 100 Baht ($3) to get in, but lucky us today, they were free. Then, there was the amazing textile factory. There we could see the people hand making textiles and fabrics. The Thai people are world famous for their amazing tailored suits, and we were going to witness them being created. He demonstrated the authentic weaving process with his hands. Disclaimer: I’ve never heard of Thai textiles.
The trip around Bangkok would then culminate in a walk up the top of the Golden Mountain–a tower which is, well, golden, and it overlooks the old city. What a trip!
Then he asked me “How will you do all of this?” Well by walking of course.
“No, no, no. How much do you think you should pay for all of this?”
“I don’t know? Maybe 80 baht?”, I said.
“Well maybe even 100? Phaeng Pai, too expensive. Tell them 60 baht. No more.”
Then he wrote down in Thai how to say too expensive. He had us repeat it until the pronunciation was perfect. This man was going to help us. Then he explained, you have to take government tuk tuks. These you can tell by the yellow license plates. Then we got up, and what just happened to be driving by but a yellow plated tuk tuk. He showed the driver the map and each destination. He told him to wait for us after we saw each site. Then the driver said it would be 100 baht. He coaxed us to say, Phaeng Pai, Too expensive! 60 baht! He gave us a look that said you guys are good! You drive a hard bargain. Ok, I’ll do it. Then he recapped the trip, for us, emphasizing that the tuk-tuk driver would wait on us after each stop, what a deal!
Our new friend shook our hands and guided us into the tuk tuk. As we sped off into traffic, we thought now we are in Thailand! Except for Ella. She said, “What are we doing? Do we even know where this guy is taking us?”
Relax, this is normal. 60 Baht is less than $2. There is nothing wrong. I agreed with Ella a little, but I have been trying to keep a poker face when I am concerned, as my family can read me like a book and I didn’t want to worry them. Clearly everyone was tired of walking in the stifling streets surrounded by strong, new smells. I was not prepared to forcefully keep our first plan to go to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, because maybe this was a good idea. I mean, surely not every kind, helpful Thai person we come in contact with that speaks English well is out to con us?
We winded through interesting back streets. Walden was loving it, because we weren’t walking and the pleasant breeze was peaceful. Our first stop was a giant standing Buddha. We spent a few minutes at this site. When we came back, there was our smiling driver waiting for us and off we go to the next site.
Next stop, the Lucky Buddha. Here we had another encounter with another super friendly Thai elderly man. He spoke excellent English. He was an engineer coming to visit his young granddaughter at the nearby school for Children’s Day. He gave me all kinds of information. He explained about the Chinese Buddha before us. He was praying and bowing to the Buddha. Then he asked where we were going. I showed him my map, so politely provided by the first guy. He made a point to explain how amazing the textiles were. We could see them being made and also get a perfectly tailored suit. My wife would also love the fabrics he said. He told us how he had just visited Chiang Mai for holiday when he heard we were going there too. He laughed as he explained he didn’t like Bangkok, too loud and hot, but he did work here, but for some reason not today.
I decided then that I would just ask the driver to skip the fabrics stop, because I realized that is where the pressure would be applied. The driver simply replied there is no cost to look. I knew we were in for some sort of awkward confrontation.
He dropped us off at the factory, which was a nondescript storefront. When we entered, there was only a bunch of well dressed people. They looked like mafia. They started showing us suits and coats. We almost immediately left. There was no confrontation. Heading back outside there was no driver. I started to plan our escape. We gave it a few minutes, and then he showed up. Off we went.
I had seen the sign for our last stop nearby, but we were heading in a different direction. Now he stopped at a travel agency. We explained we had no interest, but he then insisted just go inside for a minute. This place was packed with westerners who were talking in all the stations. We didn’t even sit down, just turned around and left. At this point, we were just trying to make it to the end of the route.
Finally, we rode off to our last stop. He dropped us off at the entrance to the Golden Mountain and he said 60 baht, no more. I gave him 67 baht happy that we were done with him and still safe.
I’m not sure if Alison and Walden believed we were being scammed until we got to the Golden Mountain. We thought were going to walk to the top for amazing views. We looked and looked and couldn’t find a way to the top. Then Alison asked a caretaker and he said “this isn’t the Golden Mountain.” Scammed.
In the end, we really didn’t lose much at all. They took us on a fun tuk-tuk adventure, we saw some Wats, and now we have a story. We lost some time and were a bit nervous from the experience, but we were never in any danger. We learned not to trust anyone who offers unsolicited advice. But, in many ways, it was still very disheartening. I mean, you don’t want to distrust everyone who tries to talk or be kind to you.
In retrospect, this con was obvious, but honestly you have to hand it to them for it being so elaborate and so well orchestrated. I mean the plant at the second stop was expert level con. I blame jet lag, our desire to meet new people, our ignorance, up for anything attitude, and a slight lack of preparation for the scam. It’s a bit embarrassing, but they clearly just wanted to funnel tourists to their businesses. It appeared to be working, as we saw lots of people particularly in the tourist agency.
We were never in any danger, I just felt manipulated. However, we will live on to continue our travels a bit more battle ready. We made it to Wat Pho after all. It was awesome!
Tips on How to Deal with this Scam
- It is not culturally common for Thais to approach people on the street. If they do this, they are likely up to something.
- If they tell you today is a special deal or a site is closed today, don’t believe it. It may or may not be true.
- If they speak extremely good English, be suspicious. We haven’t found many regular people who do.
- There are only yellow plates on tuk tuks.
- Never tell anyone this is your first time to Thailand.
- Don’t buy anything if you are in this scam, as this will only encourage them.
- Be calm. They are just funneling you into the shops for kickbacks. Some of us might do the same if it helped me make a living for my family.
- Always have a map or gps on your phone so you know where you are. After we were dropped off at the wrong place, this helped us get back on track and see Khao San Rd along the way.