In 1994 I was in Bangkok as a backpacker, almost tricked by one of Bangkok’s Tourist scams. At the time, I was on my way home to Sweden after a few months of studies in New Zealand and figured I could enjoy some weeks in Thailand on since British Airways allowed the stopover.
Bangkok, an explosion of tropical colours, more vibrant than anywhere I had ever been, and I was so fascinated by the humidity and the simultaneous chirping of a million cicadas blending in with the honking of horns and roars of motorbikes.
Krungthep, the City of Angels, overwhelmed me. Already at the Don Juan airport, I felt relieved to join some other western travellers to share a taxi. One American businessman was a regular, and he suggested a guesthouse located somewhere close to the National Library.
So on my first visit to Thailand, I didn’t head straight to Khao San Road, but I would frequently walk to the legendary street to suck in the stories from travellers doing Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.
The notorious Bangkok Tourist scam
I remember seeing signs here and there about jewellery scams, and I had read about jewellery scams in the guidebook. At the time determined that I would not follow anyone to any jewellery shop on the promise of buying cheap sapphires and rubies, which I then could sell for a higher price at home. Taught that backpackers were easy prey, targeted because the scammers knew there is always a credit card somewhere behind that facade of cheap travelling. The swindlers also catered to the idea that backpackers need money to travel more, so buying jewellery and selling it could increase your travel money.
Approached by the friendly local
Regardless it turned out easier said than done to avoid it. After visiting Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace with some Thai friends that I got to know in New Zealand, I was gazing at the towers of gold and mosaic from the impressive Royal cremation park of Sanam Luang. A visit to this royal haven was a completely marvellous experience for a newcomer to Asia.
This was the summer when the football World Cup took place in the USA, and Sweden had a fantastic run ending up winning the bronze medal. When I was sitting there in the hot afternoon sun, a man approached me and asked where I was from. Of course, we talked about Brolin, Kenneth Andersson and Marin Dahlin. This guy had an approach that made me lower my guard, and he took his time to do it.
The so-called local handicraft market
After a while, he talked about a market with handicrafts and a festival today. Not something that most foreigners would know anything about. He said that he wasn’t personally going there, but if I was interested, he could walk me in that direction. I was sceptical at first but figured that this would be a great way to continue the day, so we started walking. And then he stopped and pointed out the direction.
I started walking, following the coordinates that I was given. And after a few minutes, another man showed up, and of course, as a coincidence, he was also heading to the market. But since it was a hot day and a bit far to walk, he suggested that we take a taxi.
So, he called in a taxi, and the Toyota bobbed us out in the suburbs like a pink elephant to what turned out not to be a market but a jewellery store.
A difference in atmosphere
I politely stated that I wasn’t interested in entering. But an overwhelming persuasion took place surrounding that I was by elegantly dressed Thai women, smiling and saying that I could come in and learn a bit more about the famous gems of Thailand and that there was no need to buy at all. Eyed from every direction and the smiles of everyone made me very uncomfortable at the time. After a pretty lengthy introduction to Thai gems stones, it was clear that their sales argument was that I could buy some gemstones and sell them with a massive profit in my country. The jewellery was probably fake, but I remember how beautiful I thought the Blue Star Sapphire was.
Anyway, at this stage, I had more than enough and kept saying that I had no interest while the atmosphere gradually became more and more unpleasant. The manager was not smiling anymore but started questioning,” Why, you don’t want to buy?!
So, I walked out, making my way threw the bizarrely banana-shaped from ear to ear, smiling staff and headed straight into a taxi speeding through the suburbs and to the Dusit area of the capital.
On the way back to the guest house, I realised that the exact thing that wasn’t supposed to happen did occur anyway. I felt stupid and naive. But, a lesson learned and meeting other travellers, I understood that I had a story to tell. Sipping on my papaya shakes that I adored at the time, I had some experience to share. I felt different about Bangkok already. Conned once but already strengthened, I could, with new confidence, navigate myself through the traps of the capital. It took some time to get used to a place, though, where half of the world is on the move.
Recall what mama said
I don’t know how common the jewellery scams are these days, but in Bangkok, Phuket Town and central Chiang Mai, you are constantly approached by friendly locals suggesting you go elsewhere. Bangkok, in particular, is rich in variations of tourist scams. It is amazing how they say they work in a bank or some office but still have time to walk tourists around every day. So remember the simple advice that your mom once gave you. – Don’t go with strangers.
Some years ago, a relative of mine was in Bangkok. He and his friend, 18 years old at the time, were constantly approached by people. The offers they got were everything from ladies, suits, crocodile farms, dugs. It happened while they were walking just a few meters in front or behind my wife and me. At that time, they had already been taken on a ride by a tuk-tuk. An experience that they pretty much just laughed away.
Looking like you work in town
During my days on Phetchaburi soi 12, I would be left alone every time if I was wearing a nice shirt and long trousers. I was heading to the office. But if I slipped out of my apartment in shorts and a simple t-shirt tuk-tuk just for a 7/11 visit or so, drivers would harass me all the time. Looking like a tourist, the approach directly changed. What I never quite understood was that these drivers should have learned to recognise me after a while. Maybe they did, but even so, they approached me according to the dress code.
Like John Gimlet writes in the Elephant Complex about Colombo – also known for its variation of tourist scams, “Every city should be judged by the courage of its thieves”.