Bangkok: Tuk-tuk tut-tut

By Rebecca Barry Hill

A tired Rebecca Barry gets taken for a ride in Bangkok.

Walking is deemed 'no good' in Bangkok, but beware some tuk-tuk tourist tours. Photo / Martin Sykes
Walking is deemed 'no good' in Bangkok, but beware some tuk-tuk tourist tours. Photo / Martin Sykes

Only fools get scammed. But we were new to Thailand. And it was April Fool's Day.

"You won tuk-tuk?"

"No. Walking."

"Walking no good. 20 baht, I take you anywhere."

Anyone who has been to Bangkok will know that on foot is not how most get around. So it didn't take long before we'd signed up for a tuk-tuk tour that would conveniently take us to several Bangkok tourist destinations.

We'd been sensible until then, having been warned not to accept anything from anyone who approached us. It had so far proved sound advice, particularly after a woman had tried to charge us 900 baht for a cab from the airport which, using the official stand, turned out to cost 500.

Scammers operate in every big city, targeting tourists whose common sense has been sapped by inexperience or fatigue. Bangkok is no exception. The Tuk-Tuk Scam is an oldie designed to trick tourists into thinking they are being taken on a worthy tourist route when actually they're driven to gem markets and tailors and pressured into making expensive purchases.

Not as dire, perhaps, as being ordered at gunpoint to pay thousands of dollars for a damaged jetski - a less popular scam in Thailand, but a con all the same.

We'd almost reached the Grand Palace temples after a day's exploring, as eager to get there for the air-conditioning as the cultural experience.

"You're not wearing pants."

The voice came out of nowhere.

"No long pants. You can't go to palace." The helpful young man explained the palace was about to shut anyway, and that there were plenty of temples we could visit instead. He pulled out a map and circled his must-sees, including a fashion "expo" which, in our delirious state, sounded like a great idea. Only take the yellow and blue tuk-tuks because the others will rip you off, he continued, smiling.

This was his way of ensuring we would only take his friend's tuk-tuk but in case we needed further reassurance of his trustworthiness as a guide, he then told us he was training to be a monk. The guy was wearing a black T-shirt with a gothic slogan on it and black jeans, yet we still fell for it.

"You pay at the end and if you want them to wait for you, say, 'ro noi'. You speak Thai?"

No.

"Okay, I'll help you." He dutifully pulled over a yellow and blue tuk-tuk that just happened to drive by at that moment. Ding ding ding. Those were the alarm bells obscured by the sound of our stupidity, which I'd like to put down to heat exhaustion.

The driver, who had likely just been told by the "monk" that he'd pay him a hefty 200 baht commission by taking us for a ride, played dumb and took us to the first stop: a huge, gold temple with a giant reclining Buddha inside. This must be legitimate after all. He took us to another temple, then asked us to wait while he went to the bathroom.

Enter Mr Nice Guy number three: a middle-aged Thai man in a pink polo shirt, who leaned over the back of the tuk-tuk for a chat.

"And where are you going next?" he asked, peering at our map.

The fashion expo, and whaddya know, he'd just been there. This guy was the snake-charmer, sent in to advertise the goods before we'd see them. His mother had just been and had picked up six Armani suits, and today was the last day of the government's promotion.

The alarm bells rang clearly at that, and after much wry discussion as to how inexpensive Armani suits are in Thailand, he whipped out his "VIP card". Then he said goodbye, just as the driver came back from his "toilet stop".

Off we went to the glamorous, one-day-only, government-sponsored fashion expo, a dilapidated, nondescript tailor's shop with a faded sign and pasty mannequins wearing gowns that might look at home on Ivana Trump.

Armani would be so impressed that his luxurious legacy has spread to the industrial wilds of Bangkok. The Thai capital is full of tailors, many of whom claim to be part of the Armani empire. We'd seen too little of the city at that stage to have known.

Upstairs was a drab office, presided over by a team of solemn-faced salesmen, nervously poised for dropped pennies. But there's only so long you can humour someone before it starts to feel pointless, and as strangers in a stranger's room, even more stupid.

Arriving back at the tuk-tuk empty-handed, our driver shifted in his seat.

"No suit? I take you for free information."

We told him to take us straight home - and to skip the last temple too.

Desperate, he pulled over 10 metres down the road.

"You help me! Two minute!"

After a verbal struggle, when he told us he would miss out on petrol coupons if we didn't comply, he relented to our demands and drove us home, visibly crushed. Feeling a little sorry for him we paid him an extra $5, a pittance for a rip-off that had robbed us of time more than anything.

It was a good lesson to learn on the first day of a four-month stint in Southeast Asia. And the last scam we fell for.

- NZ Herald

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