We Got Scammed in Thailand

tuk-tuk scam in Bangkok Thailand

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. That was what my parents drilled into my head as a kid. I listened and rolled my eyes back then. Today, considering myself a traveler—my husband I and just moved from New York City to Paris, and we’ve been traveling all over Japan and southeast Asia for two months—I thought I would know a scam when I saw one. Yet still, we got conned by something too good to be true. Forgetting my father’s advice (and not reading enough of our guidebook before leaving) bit my husband and me in Bangkok, Thailand. Hard.

Step 1: The “Castle Is Closed” Scam

For our one-day stay in Bangkok, we visited the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho temple and had then planned to drop by the Royal Castle. But on our way there, a middle-aged Thai papi in a blue collared shirt and army green shorts stopped us.

“You’re going to the castle?” he asked, with a big, warm smile. Normally I’m skeptical of strangers approaching me for any reason. But he just seemed so average. Friendly. We nodded. “The castle is closed. It closes at 3:30,” he informed us.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” we said, ready to walk away.

“Do you have a map?” he asked. We stopped and pulled out our phones. He squinted, then pulled a paper printout from his shirt pocket. This alone should have set off warning bells somewhere in the back of my animal brain, but it didn’t.

“Have you heard of the tourist police?” he asked. We shook our heads no. “That’s me,” he said, pointing to himself and grinning again but not flashing any official identification. Another warning we missed.

He then drew on his map. “Castle is open 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Come back tomorrow. Today, start here. Good view of the city. Then here to the standing Buddha,” he said, circling our location and the two others on the map. “On the way to standing Buddha, stop by Thai Factory. Best silk. Thailand has the best silk, you know? Good deals too.”

Has the alarm bell sounded in your head yet? A tourist cop, recommending two little French-American tourists drop by a clothing shop. But I guess we were so enamored with his easygoing charm it didn’t occur to us that what he was recommending was off.

Step 2: The Tuk-Tuk Scam

“You can take a tuk-tuk,” he told us, referring to the three-wheeled Thai go-kart carrying tourists around the city’s must-see spots. “Do you know how much it should cost to go to all of these places? They will try to charge you 300 baht, but you should only pay 70.” That’s about the equivalent of $2 USD. Sounded about right, from the metered taxis we’d taken so far. What a nice man, helping us avoid a tuk-tuk scam! We thanked him. Then, on cue, a tuk tuk arrives curbside. Lucky us! He even “negotiated” with the tuk-tuk for us, showing the map to the driver and agreeing on 70 baht for our trip.

At this point I am naively thrilled with the kindness of Thai people. “What an angel!” I exclaimed, elated, to Olivier, pleased with how kind this man was to help us find other spots to see AND save us money. “We would have been wandering around aimlessly without his help.” HA.

Step 3: The “Friendly Local” Scam

This is where the scam gets serious. The driver earned our trust. Took us to a couple of temples—neither especially spectacular, but not a total waste of time either. He waited at the exit of each site with his tuk-tuk, walked around with us, pointed out a couple of things to see.

Then, as we finished up the second site and were deciding whether to go to the silk factory or go home (Olivier said no, I said maybe we should check it out—I’m always up for a deal), the driver informed us he had to go to the bathroom, and that we should wait for him at the tuk-tuk. We just settled into the backseat when a man, perched conveniently in a plastic chair directly next to us and outside of his SUV, spoke to us.

“Where are you from?” he asked. New York, we told him. “Oh I’m from New York!” he exclaimed. “I’m a lawyer, I work at McKinsey. I live near the Time Warner Center, on Central Park.”

This comment actually did finally awaken the skeptic in me. Time Warner Center, Central Park. That’s an expensive residence. What was he doing here? But of course he had an answer. “My brother is a monk. I took my mother here, she’s visiting him. She had to go to the bathroom too.” Of course, his story suddenly made sense! How racist of me to judge him.

He then asked where we were going and for our map. Seeing “Thai Factory” circled and written in bold on the map, he asked, “How did you hear about this place?” We explained. He nodded. “Wow, have you watched the news?” he asked, knowing that we were traveling and probably were out of the loop. We admitted that we hadn’t. He repeated his question a couple more times, stumbling over his words. But I still didn’t find this sketchy. Then he said: “It’s the factory for Armani suits, since Thailand has such good silk. They sell $1500 suits, buy two for $700 get one for free! They usually only sell wholesale to tourists. But this week they’ve opened to the public, and this is the last day of their sale. You’ll get a card and then you can continue to buy at that price for as long as you want.”

How stupid are these people? How could they fall for this? you might be thinking right about now. I know, I am too. But sometimes there is no reason when the SALE FREE STUFF CHEAP BUY lights up in your head. All of a sudden Olivier couldn’t get to the factory fast enough, and I was glad he was convinced.

Step 4: The Hard Sell/Denial.

The tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the factory, and it had a different name than initially advertised—Ram Fashion. But the store owner told us we were in the right place, Thai Factory. For now, just put aside all ration and go with it.

Olivier excitedly sorted through the catalogues—worn thin cardboard paper photos of Armani, Gucci, Prada suits. The salesman, Thai, slim, in his mid-40s, wearing a baseball hat and a five o’clock shadow, energetically told us he was the owner, then offered us a water or beer (pushing the beer until we each accepted…he half-joked it was “better for business”) and commenced his hard sell. I was not impressed by the dress catalogue—mostly bad bridesmaids gowns circa 1990. But the suits were OK (ah…to be a man…fashion is so relatively simple and consistent through time). Soon Olivier had already chosen his suit’s material and was getting sized. The salesman tried to sell us three suits for $700, but Olivier insisted on two for $500—just until we were sure we liked the quality of the suits. The guy told us he had to “talk to his taylor.”

As I got sized for my suit, I—not yet fully suspicious but more simply curious about the history of the store—asked the story behind the store. Our salesman became weirdly defensive and brusque. “This. We’re a high-end suit shop. What do you expect?” Though irritated by this reaction, I figured maybe it was the way I worded my question. I moved on.

The guy agreed to the $500 deal, plus $100 to ship. His tailors would come to our apartment the next morning to size the suits, he promised. We signed the papers, complete with our credit card and addresses, then left by our original tuk-tuk for the ferry…elated with the kindness of Thais and our “deal.”

Step 5: Refusing to cancel the order.

On the cab ride home, Olivier commented that it seemed almost too good to be true, this succession of nice people who helped us. I agreed.

Then I thought about it more–and all the cracks in each part of the story became apparent. The cop who, for some reason, suggested we go to a tailor…Really? A COP? Why? The “New York” guy who just happened to show up right as we were deciding whether to go to the tailor and who emphasized what a good deal we were about to get. I madly Googled with what little internet I could get the two names of the tailor shop, and eight out of 10 results on every page came up with some version of “scam.” Each page proceeded to describe EXACTLY the scenarios that got us to the tailor shop, complete with “closed castle” and “friendly local.” Later that night, I reviewed our guidebook and found all of the same schemes. The definition of “by the book.”

So, about an hour after leaving the shop, Olivier called the salesman (they exchanged cellphones) to cancel our order. To no one’s surprise, the guy said he was “in the car” and couldn’t contact his tailor but would and get back to us. A couple of hours later, dude called back and said it was impossible to cancel. I argued; he asked why I changed my mind. I told him because I Googled his shop and nothing but “scam” came up. Suddenly he became VERY nasty, telling me “you’re a big girl” and “what did you think you were doing?” and “I will get my money” and “my tailor told me to send the cops to your apartment now, but I told him we should wait.” Ick. I spent the rest of the night worrying that gangsters are going to show up at our door with a gun.

They don’t. But to my surprise, the next morning a tailor did show up, (almost) on time, with some cloth sort of in the shape of a suit. Cheap, as expected. No lining, bad material we hadn’t noticed the previous night. We told him we tried to cancel the previous night and asked whether the owner requested to cancel with him; he says the shop owner never did. He promised the second suit—my suit—was on its way with another tailor. Surprise: It never arrived. Olivier argued heatedly via email with the shop owner, who refused to negotiate, promised he’d still going charge us full price for both suits (he did…we’re contesting with our bank). I felt icky and violated about the entire ordeal and swore we’d NEVER go back to Thailand.

A week later, I now have the distance to believe it’s unfair to generalize and assume all Thais are scheming scumbags. Of course they’re not. For this one terrible interaction, we had dozens of excellent experiences with Thai people.

Still. No reason will ever be good enough to get me back to Bangkok.

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