Friday, September 04, 2009

Tuk-Tuk Uncle: The Con man who couldn't

Dangers and Annoyances
Bangkok's most heavily touristed areas - Wat Phra Kaew, Jim Thompson's House are favourite hunting grounds for professional con artists. Smartly dressed and slick talking, their usual spiel is that the attraction you want to visit is closed for the day and they can arrange a bargain for you elsewhere. This is the bait for the infamous gem scam.... - Lonely Planet: South-East Asia.

The bible of travel Lonely Planet opens its chapter on Bangkok with this early caveat. The authors were kind to so accurately describe the modus operandi of con artists across the city. And we (Saurabh and I) were equally stupid to not look up Lonely Plant before our Bangkok trip. Consequently we fell for an identical scam. Of course, what happened to us was not exactly the same. But since you asked....

A few weekends ago, Saurabh and I found ourselves blessed with a whole weekend to explore Bangkok. On a bright Saturday morning, we were enjoying a pleasant ride on the Chao Phraya River cruise in a day long hop-on hop-off tour. Bangkok was being kind to us weather wise. The river banks host an extraordinary collection of temples and tourist attractions, the highlight being 'Wat Phra Kaew'. At 1.30pm, we hopped off at Maharaja Pier and were just around 100m away from the Grand Place/Wat Phra Kaew. 15 minutes later we found ourselves seated in a tuk-tuk being driven away from Wat Phra Kaew to a special temple. In between, we had bumped into (just like Lonely Planet described) a well dressed Thai citizen who happened to know a couple of things about Singapore. We struck up a polite conversation meant to enquire about the exact location of Grand Palace. He, seizing the opportunity, told us earnestly that 'the temple was closed' then and that it would open at 3.30pm. The tourist brochure said it closed at 3.30pm. But we chose to believe his version. Don't ask why! For the wasted 2 hours, he then proposed an itinerary that included 2 temple visits and a few prospective shopping trips. We willingly and delightfully accepted the deal at a killer price of 30 THB (For perspective, a coke-can costs 20 THB in Bangkok). He whistled for his tuk-tuk Uncle and we took off.

In retrospect, we must initially have appeared like rookie tourists to tuk-tuk uncle. We were merrily clicking pictures of the streets, the vehicles and every crossing that possessed gigantic statues. The clustered houses, the overbearing cables and fumes tugged our heart strings as they reminded us of India. ....

A chirpy street picture
Soon we were at Anonymous Buddha temple 1. After we got down, Uncle attempted to brief us about the itinerary. We nodded and ignored his small blurbs about the upcoming Jewelry Shop visit. Having no standards whatsoever for Bangkok tourism, we were thoroughly pleased with the first Buddhist monument. I must mention here that across Bangkok we were uniformly thrilled by all forms of Buddha - lying down, sitting, contemplative, smiling etc. For a man who spawned a new religion and gave birth to concepts of nirvana and well being, his statues themselves did not possess a wide spectrum of expressions.

Uncle patiently waited downstairs while we spent our time inside the first temple, clicking pictures, playing the giant dong, making full use of the facilities present for making fraud buddhist noises. Had we known we were a part of a grandiose con scheme, we would have wasted more time composing a couple of symphonies with the bells.
As promised, he took us to a jewelry shop after the temple. 'Lila Stones', if I remember correctly. We obliged and entered the showroom. Immaculately dressed ladies eyed us from behind the counter. We took some causal glances at the ear studs and pendants. Faking interest in the blue and green gem stones, we sauntered in the store possessing uber taste for jewelry. I guess the store owner didn't buy that. And we didn't buy anything either. With the most restrained Thai anger, the Aunty said "Khop Khun Khaaa... Now you can go."

We hopped back into the tuk-tuk and Uncle then took us to yet another Buddhist place. This time, Saurabh really took off with his photography - plants, statues, bells and women. We took our time, relishing elements of the temple. It was fun playing with the awesome long range lens...
Click. Zoom in. Really Zoom in.
After we came back from the temple, Uncle was patiently waiting for us at the gate. It seems he had been practicing his pitch for the next tourist attraction. In marketing one of the key lessons I've learnt is 'If they don't get your message, say it louder and be more monotonous'. And so we had a wonderful public discussion with tuk-tuk Uncle.

"Now we go to The Shop. You get 'The suits and The jackets and The silks'"
"No uncle we don't want to go there. Take us to Chinatown. We eat. We eat Indian food. Can?"
"No we go. You get 'The suits and the jackets and the silks. Very Good.'
"Uncle we don't want to buy clothes. We want to eat. Can we go to Chinatown?"
"You get 'The suits and the jackets and the silks.' Very Good. Very Good."


This conversation lasted for a while. Time stood still as each party attempted to say the same sentence slower with varying emphasis on verbs. Finally we relented and agreed to check out 'The suits and the jackets and the silks' before heading to Chinatown.

Uncle dropped us in front of 'James Tailors' and dragged his tuk-tuk into a line of parked tuk-tuks. Saurabh and I entered the shop and quickly realized we weren't going to buy anything from the outlet. The shop had a stench of packaged pretence with a stream of overdressed attendants peddling 'The suits and The jackets and The silks.' We had just crossed two feet when we were politely ushered to a table strewn with suit brochures. Peculiar men with cocksure countenances in identical looking suits stared at us from their matt finish world. It was also quite peculiar that James Tailors in Bangkok possessed all Indian attendants. But that also made our job slightly simpler.

Saurabh, being the courageous one, told the attendants upfornt - "Bhai, na hum aapka time waste karna chahte hain. aur na aap hamaara time waste kijiye. Kuch khareedne nahin waale hain hum," (We don't want to waste your time. And we wouldn't want you to waste our time either. We are not going to buy anything."). The manpower dedicated to us was instantly withdrawn. We strolled around the store as atonement for being so blunt. One man was placed in charge of trailing behind us, in case we professed any positive inclination during our stroll. We didn't.

Yet again we walked out empty handed and tuk-tuk Uncle noticed that too. He seemed visibly peeved now. He flicked ashes grudgingly from the cigarette and flicked his head directing us get in. It was a bright beautiful afternoon at 4pm. But Uncle would have none of that. He didn't reply when we asked if we were headed towards Chinatown. He kept mumbling something as we drove on the main street. Suddenly, with no explanation, he slowed to a stop and parked in the left lane.

What proceeded next can only be paraphrased. I didn't have a clue what he was saying.
"What! You don't buy. You waste my gasoline. You go in. You quickly come out. You go in. You quickly come out....."
"OK Uncle. Please take us to Chinatown."
"No. You get off. Don't pay. You get off."


With no regret and shame, we elegantly got off the tuk-tuk without paying a single THB. We took a taxi ride to the nearest river pier and resumed our tour of the riverside attractions. Unfortunately we discovered Wat Phra Kaew had indeed closed at 3.30pm, just like the brochure had described. This we managed to cover on the next day.

We'll never know whether tuk-tuk uncle thought we had thoroughly outsmarted him or were we just plain miserly. He did everything the Lonely Planet book had expected of him. He tried really hard to con us. But he just couldn't.
Tuk-Tuk Uncle


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Edit: In case it isn't clear, the scam would have involved us purchasing counterfeit stuff at the jewelry store and the clothing shop. Read about the actual scams in detail here.

2 comments:

  1. Please be a careful of these crazy tuktuk drivers that have a scam. It is well known in Thailand - but we can't tell everyone too soon.

    I am Buddhist - my name is Joy. I live in the south of Thailand but I was born in Sisaket int the northeast. Do you know this place?

    If you come to Thailand someday you can visit us in southern Thailand - we have a small Thai Buddhist jewelry shop where we sell Buddha and other Buddhist pendants, bracelets, yant cloths and things that Buddhists like. Maybe you can come to visit us here someday? :) Joy

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  2. sahi hai bhai...bada decent sa scam hai...cute sa! Ye bhi koi scam hua bhala. Hi hi, mujhe laga tha do maal bande hein, kahin le ja ke bech dega.

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