Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Bangkok tuk-tuk trick

Bangkok is a city quite famous for its touts and scam artists. However some are now so famous that you’d have to lead a pretty sheltered life to fall for them.

One such scam is run by some of the city’s tuk-tuk drivers. They will loiter outside famous attractions (especially popular is the Grand Palace) and try to tell you that it’s closed for a public holiday. Despite the fact that you can clearly see it is open and people streaming in and out! Nonetheless, people still fall for it and one day I decided it might be fun to “fall for it” myself and find out just where they take you.

Grand Palace

Now, firstly let me fill you in on just what the scam is. They will tell you that they’re taking you on a tour of some of Bangkok’s great temples, usually featuring a combination of the “Lucky Buddha”, “Golden Buddha”, “Great Buddha” and other imaginary names! And indeed they do take you to a temple or two along the way and wait outside for you to finish. And these are temples that you might not otherwise have seen during your stay.

Tuk Tuk

The catch comes at the end when they drop you off at their brother’s/uncle’s/friend’s tailors or gem shop. This is where you become subject of some high pressure selling tactics, which for some people may be uncomfortable. Having lived in Thailand and having Thai inlaws I felt ok with this, had a quick look round and politely declined and left. Certainly don’t be pressured into buying something you don’t want.

And what does the tuk-tuk driver get out of this? Well here I’m a little hazy. They say they get some tokens which they can exchange for gas at their local filling station. However I think they get paid some sort of commission for bringing tourists to the various shops.

As for my own journey, I decided to play the tourist. Dressed in Beer Chang t-shirt and three-quarter length trousers with rucksack I looked the part! Sure enough as I approached the entrance to the Grand Palace grounds I was approached by a friendly driver by the name of James (a common Thai nickname). He informed me that the Grand Palace was closed for maintenance (a variation I hadn’t heard before, other stories may include public holiday, Buddhist ceremony, King in residence). James kindly offered to take me to some beautiful temples instead for a flat fee of 20 baht. I hopped in and off we went. First stop Wat Indrawihan (photos on my website linked below). The temple itself is fairly standard, the main attraction is a very imposing standing Buddha. Next stop, just down the road was Wat Benjamabophit, this temple is certainly worth a visit, laden with Italian marble it shimmers in the sun.

Standing Buddha at Wat Indrawihan

James then informed me that we’d be making one more stop on our grand tour, a fantastic government tailors that had a special promotion for today only. What luck! Sure enough, 5 minutes later, we pulled up outside the tailors. “This way Sir…” he opened the door and waited outside. The owner and his assistant came rushing over, “Suit for you Sir? I make you nice shirt, special promotion” etc etc etc. I humoured him for a few minutes, had a quick browse then made my excuses (that I would return later) and left.

I asked James if he would take me back home, he replied “Sure, but first I take you to Gem shop, special promotion, you buy cheap” and so forth. At that point I opted out and walked to the nearest main road and caught a taxi home.

These drivers get paid for each drop off they make, so they will try and take you to as many shops as possible. One thing to remember in Thailand is not to get angry, it will not gain you anything. If you realise you’ve been scammed, or if you’ve just had enough then politely make your apologies and walk away. Shouting and getting angry can very quickly escalate into an ugly confrontation that you won’t win.

Now, I never felt threatened or intimidated during this excursion, but that maybe because of my previous experience in the country. I’ve never heard of anyone getting into difficulties as a result of this scam, the only thing is you may feel pressured into buying something you don’t want and I have heard of people getting into arguments when trying to get back to where they wanted to be. And as mentioned above, keep calm and if your driver is being stubborn, just walk away and pick up the next taxi. It’s not worth getting into a fight over a few Baht!

Now for me, having spent a lot of time in Thailand this was no problem, as I was curious to see it for myself. However for somebody with limited time in Bangkok, this scam is a nuisance that could leave you with a sour taste.

As on any holiday, keep your wits about you and don’t believe everything you’re told!

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