We avoided them in Mexico, outsmarted them in Central America and other than a bank card being cloned at an ATM in Panama, the first 18 months of our nomadic travels had been entirely scam free. Until we got to Bangkok, that is – on our first day no less.
Our egos are still bruised and it has taken us a few months to sit down and actually write about this because we still feel stupid about how it all went down. But the fact of the matter is – we got soft. We had just done our massive U.S. road-trip, landing safely in Chicago amongst friends and family afterward. Before that there were the three months in Europe and seven weeks in Canada. Surrounded by the safe and familiar, we had let our instincts do most of the planning during the past six months.
Not only did we get soft, we also got lazy. We’ve told a few friends about this scam ordeal long before we decided to write about it publicly, and everyone said the same sort of thing – that this could have happened to anyone. To a certain degree, they are right. Plenty of people fall for scams when arriving in Bangkok. Hell, there are even websites entirely dedicated to informing travelers about it – like www.bangkokscams.com and the chapter on scams on the Wikitravel Bangkok section.
Did either of us take the time to read those websites? No. What about the Dangers and Annoyances section of the Bangkok chapter in our Southeast Asia Lonely Planet? Nope.
So you want to know what happened? Fine, but be gentle with us…
Day one in Bangkok. With major jetlag and on edge about the floods set to hit the city in a few days, we set off for a full day of sightseeing. First stop: the Royal Palace. Not two blocks from the hotel, a friendly Thai man approaches us and asks us where we are from. From Germany, I tell him, and his eyes light up. ‘Ah, Germany! I have friend in Frankfurt. Wonderful country! Football! Deutschland!’ We are immediately at ease with this smiling stranger and he asks when we arrived.
Oh, just six hours ago, we say, almost not believing ourselves that we have landed in Asia for the first time. Mistake #1! Now we have given him the ammunition to scam us – we’re brand new here, and we have now stepped, unknowingly, into a dense, complicated web of Bangkok scams with a cast of characters longer than the annoying Valentine’s Day movie.
Wikitravel: Be highly skeptical when an English-speaking Thai at a popular tourist attraction approaches you out of the blue, telling that your intended destination is currently closed. Temples are open just about every day of the year. Anyone telling you otherwise is most likely out to scam you, especially if they suggest a tuk-tuk ride to some alternate sights to see until the sight re-opens.
Reacting to our sad faces, he assures us he knows some fantastic Buddhist temples that we should check out instead. Take a tuk-tuk to get around he said, and then, leans in and says – only tuk-tuks with blue license plates. These are government regulated, he explains, and only charge 20 Baht. 20 Baht, we think? That’s…60 U.S. cents. For both of us – all morning. Yay! We’re in South East Asia and travel is finally cheap again. Our new friend circles the temples on our Bangkok map and stops a tuk-tuk, explaining to him in Thai where to go. We can’t believe our luck. What a nice guy.
Wikitravel: Always beware of tuk-tuk drivers offering all-day tours for prices as low as 10 baht. You may indeed be taken on a full-day tour, but you will end up only visiting one gem and souvenir shop after another. Don’t buy any products offered by pushy salesmen — the “gems” are pretty much always worthless pieces of cut glass and the suits are of deplorable quality. The tuk-tuk driver gets a commission if you buy something — and fuel coupons even if you don’t.
Before we set off in the tuk tuk, our new friend mentions that we should only stop at the TAT travel agency – the Tourism Authority Thailand – to book onward travel from Bangkok. He made sure to relay this message to our driver, too.
Off we went, ready to visit our first Buddha temples and happy to have that travel buzz back that we haven’t really felt since Central America. At this point, it might not be clear why we would trust a complete stranger like that. The thing is that throughout our travels, over and over again, we have learned that most people are good, and almost everyone who has offered to help us in the past has gone out of their way to make sure we got where we were going, pleased we are visiting their country. Up until that point, we had no reason to think that Thailand wasn’t exactly the same.
After a few temples, the smiley driver stopped at the ‘TAT’ tourist agency (later we would learn that the TAT does not even have storefront tour agencies at all). We hadn’t even suggested we might want to book anything, but hell, while we were stopped, we might as well go in and see how much the travel is going to cost us. The lady in the office tried to sell us an entire package for our month in Thailand, including transportation and hotels for 540 Euros. As independent travelers, we prefer to arrange these things ourselves, we said, so we thanked her for her time and said No.
Away we sped, this time the driver explained that, in order to get a free government gasoline credit, he had to take us to a jewelry store and a tailor. We didn’t need a suit, but were still plenty giddy, and so we walked in and out of both stores, thinking we are doing this guy a favor. Then, it’s on to the next temple. Inside, a man is sweeping up and starts up a conversation. Looking back now, it is the exact same conversation template from this morning. Where are we from (oh, Germany, my cousin…study in Germany, football, Deutschland!), how long have we been in Bangkok, where are we going to next. Then he lets us in on a little secret. Don’t waste your time at these tour agencies for tourists. He knows an office where only local Thais go to buy tickets – cheap cheap.
Well, now he has pushed our hardcore traveler button. Only locals go there? Cheap cheap? Forget the hunger rumbling in our tummies and our jet lag. We’re on our way there! He tells the tuk tuk driver where it is and off we go.
The guy behind the desk is well-dressed, with a big smile, and 100% American. You’re probably thinking something like…Why would an American be working at a place where only Thais buy their cheap bus tickets? Yeah, that would be logical. Did we think that? No! Mistake #2.
Somewhere between the temple and the tour agency we had forgotten that this was supposed to be for locals. And cheap cheap. Just like the other woman, he maps out a journey, but we are not interested. But he starts to go on about the floods, and this is something that is really starting to concern us. Before we know it, not only are we booking (expensive, very very expensive) bus tickets from him down to the islands, but now we are booking an Air Asia flight from Phuket up north to Chiang Mai, too. He insisted on booking them immediately as it was a weekend and in high season. We had just looked online at exactly those airline tickets, and it seemed to be the right price range. His Thai assistant handed us two bottles of cold water and we handed over our credit card for him to go in the back of his office to book our plane tickets. What happened to that whole, we’re independent travelers ride we were on at the last place? Totally, completely forgotten.
Why did he not make that phone call to Air Asia and the bus company right at his desk? Why the back room? Congratulations! You have asked another logical question, one we forgot to ask.
Okay, all done, he says reassuringly. Come on by tomorrow and you can pick up both sets of tickets. Great, we say, and hop back in the tuk tuk. We have booked hundreds of flights online in our lives, so why didn’t we ask the next logical question – where were the flight reservation print-outs?
We spend about twenty minutes at the next temple, and when we get back to where our driver let us off, we discover that our tuk tuk is gone. Did he go for lunch? Gas? Now we are just hanging around, and another tuk tuk driver offers to take us wherever we need to go. But we are loyal to our driver – after all he waited all day for us at all our stops and we haven’t paid him yet. He’s gone, the other drivers kept telling us. But we haven’t paid, we keep saying to which they reply: It’s okay, free gas credit, he doesn’t need you to pay him.
In hindsight, this was a major warning sign – who doesn’t need money? Who doesn’t want to get paid for services rendered? Someone who is getting a kickback from a scam, that’s who. And right there, that is when we had now fallen for the Tuk Tuk Scam. Mistake #3. All that business about a gas coupon is, of course, a lie. If you, the tourist, make a purchase from the jewelry store, the tailor, or overpriced airline or bus tickets, the drivers get a commission on your purchase, a fact we later learned on Thai-blogs.com.
Our next driver also insisted to stop at these jewelry stores / tailor shops for the gas coupon, but by then we were fed up and Jess was shoveling buckets of attitude at the tailor when our tuk tuk driver practically shoved us inside. Once he realized we weren’t going to buy a suit the owner threw us out of the store. In the end, we were practically begging the driver to just take us home with no more stops, even offering to pay double. This was our last tuk tuk ride in Bangkok, although at the time, we were still blissfully ignorant and suspected nothing. Check out our Facebook status from that day:
The next day we made our way to the travel agency to pick up our tickets and our American scammer hands us two envelopes – one with two bus tickets, the other with print-out flight reservations – with our names spelled wrong. This is now Mistake #4. How could an American, a native English speaker, someone comfortable with the Roman alphabet, spell our names Jessiea and Ganiela? We pointed out the mistakes, and he finally agreed to call AirAsia to amend the booking. He went to the back room again of course, and not a minute later was back assuring us that everything was alright. Deep down, I knew he lied to us at the moment (having spend hours on hold with airlines throughout the years), but pushed it away, telling myself not to be so suspicious all the time.
During the next two days we were there we were approached by these ‘well-dressed English-speaking Thai guys’ more times that we could count, and we began to ignore them as they told us of closed attractions and tried to sell us tickets to boat trips and floating markets. Now that tuk tuks were not an option, we battled with taxi drivers who refused to use their meters, instead quoting us insanely high set prices which we emphatically refused each time.
We were back in the independent traveler groove, jet-lag free and heads on straight. We were really looking forward to getting down to the islands on the overnight bus that night.
But the bus never came.
The a-hole in the travel agency had given us a number to arrange pick-up to the bus station, which we had dutifully done. But when the bus didn’t show after 10 minutes we called again. ‘Oh, driver coming, wait please,’ said the voice on the other end. Thirty minutes later, we called again. She hung up on us and never picked up again.
Our overpriced bus tickets were not even real bus tickets.
Near tears, we loaded our bags on our backs and prepared to hunt down an affordable hotel for the night, knowing we had missed all buses and trains for the night. Hanging our heads in shame, we almost missed a big bus driving very slowly by. It was filled with tourists, so I took the chance to ask the driver if he was going to Krabi, our last stop before the islands.
The dark cloud had a silver lining! The bus was going to Krabi and had room for us.
Our tickets looked nothing like what others had, but were accepted… and as other passengers handed over their tickets, we learned that everyone else had only paid $10. Let’s just say that we paid much more than that for a bus that never came.
As we sat for hours on the night bus, Jess pulled out our plane tickets and took a closer look. We found no reservation number, no evidence of payment, two misspellings in our names… and we lost it. We cried, we moped, we argued with each other. How could we be so stupid?!
Finally having passed out, we were woken a few hours later to an uproar on the bus: someone’s bag had gone missing and someone had seen one of the Thai helpers try to steal another passenger’s bag.
Great. Just what we needed!
Had we just read about scams before we left we would have known the following:Top Ten Scams in Thailand on Bangkokscams.com 7. Long Distance Bus Scam – Many people have had things stolen from their bags on overnight bus trips. Some have even reported they were drugged and found their money missing when they woke up.
Wikitravel: Also beware of private bus companies offering direct trips from Bangkok to other cities with “VIP” buses. There are a lot of scams performed by these private bus companies. Instead, try to book public BKS buses from the main bus terminals. It’s worth the extra shoe-leather, as there have been reports of robberies on private buses as well.
Twelve hours later, we finally arrived in Krabi with all of our belongings – but with one more scam left to go.
The bus didn’t drop us off in town, as promised, but rather on the side of a highway where there was, conveniently, a travel agency with three minivans ready to take us in to town for an additional (high) price. Sure we argued back and forth, throwing dirty looks at the ladies behind the desk, but to be honest, we were worn out. We had been scammed left and right, cheated, lied to, and to top it all off, we would now spend the next five hours after a semi-sleepless night on the phone with the banks to cancel our credit card.
Now, months later, we are still fighting to get the money refunded from the fraud department of HSBC. We have been back to Bangkok since, and although every cell in our bodies wanted to go gangster on that weasly little American, we have decided to be gracious about it and not to get ourselves anymore involved in this underbelly of society than we already were.
Traveling to Bangkok?
Check out these sites beforehand to avoid getting scammed:
Stay alert while crossing borders as well. Scams are not just in Bangkok – they are all over Thailand. A particularly bad scam is the ‘fake’ (!) Cambodian embassy at the Thai-Cambodian border crossing between Aranya Prathet and Poipet. Check out what almost happened to the folks at Almost Fearless there last year. It is crazy how official this scam seems to be – luckily we didn’t fall for it since we had done our homework this time…
If you made it all the way to the end of our monster post…misery loves company. Have you ever been scammed while traveling? We want to hear all about it!