I had been warned off China Town. I had been…
In every tourist destination around the world you will invariably find people willing to do whatever it takes to separate you from your money or your possessions. Some ploys are elaborate. Some are sneaky. Some are just annoying. Some are so clever you will actually leave feeling warm and fuzzy as you think you have helped i.e. baby formula scam in Vietnam. I spent a week on Khao San Rd in Bangkok and encountered a few of the scam artists myself. They’re pretty easy to avoid as long as you know about them.
The Tuk-Tuk Scam
You can’t walk down Khao San Rd without being asked where you are going or the standard call of “Taxi? Taxi?”. The tuk-tuk drivers are a little more insidious though. They will make conversation with you first and act like they are genuinely interested in talking to you. Just as you think you’ve achieved the elusive connection with a local that every traveller is looking for they will whip out their map and try to talk you into a “tour” of the nearby sites for about 20baht. 20baht is the warning bell guys. That works out to about 65cents and no one is going to drive you around all day for so little money! These are the guys that get commission from store owners when they bring you in and you buy stuff. You’ll spend your ‘tour’ in these shops rather than actually seeing the sites and if you refuse to buy anything don’t be surprised if you get kicked off the tuk-tuk. If you genuinely want to do a tuk-tuk tour then barter for a price between 100 and 200 baht and specify that you are only interested in visiting the attractions. Be polite but firm.
The Fortune Teller Scam
I actually experienced this one first hand. I was on my way back from collecting my laundry one morning when a man stopped me. He told me I was lucky and wanted to see my hand. He told me he could tell me the name of my mother as proof of his ability. I asked him how much and he refused to tell me saying “you pay what you feel”. He led me to a stool in an alley and started his routine. I had actually read up on how these “fortune tellers” make their predictions and how they fool their clients a couple of days before so I was onto his game from the start. It was pretty difficult not to laugh at him when he told me I had my first love in 2003. Yeah, I was 12, boys were still icky to me then. I’m often mistaken for a few years older but it just goes to show that he was not a mystic and he was using his observations about me to make his predictions. He showed me pictures of him in an orphanage in India and told me he sent the money back to the orphanage to help the poor kids. He was trying to play on my emotions and empathy. It was this point that he asked for a donation from me. Luckily I had made the decision that morning that I didn’t need to top up my wallet before I went to breakfast. I only had 300baht on me which is about 10 dollars. Since I was amused and he had taken ten minutes out of his day I ‘donated’ the ten bucks. It was then that he made his real attempt at convincing me. I’ll admit that I was impressed in the moment but after thinking about it later I figured out what he did. He asked me to pick a number between 1 and 9. I picked 4. He then asked me to pick a second number. I picked 7. He wrote them on a piece of paper. He then wrote something on another piece of paper without showing me. He scrunched it up and then put it in my hand and told me to close my fist around it. He then instructed me to blow on it three times and tell my bad luck to go away. He then asked me to choose one of the numbers I had picked earlier. I chose 4. He then made a show of the number I’d picked being good luck. He had me open the paper in my hand while talking about leaving bad luck behind. The paper had 7 written on it. As I opened it he asked “and which number have you left behind?”. Obviously the bad luck. In truth it didn’t matter which number I picked. He would have spun it around. I actually suspect that I was meant to pick the 7 instead of the 4. In that case the 4 would be bad luck and the 7 would be good luck I’m “bringing towards myself”.
After that demonstration he brought out the big guns. He would tell me my mother’s name, my true love’s name and when we would meet. But first we had to settle how much I would be “donating to the kids”. He told me that poor people donated 5000baht, middle people donated 8000baht and rich people donated 12000baht. I almost laughed as his audacity. He was asking me for between 180 and 450 AUD! I told him I didn’t have anything on me which was the truth at that point. He told me I could go to the ATM and tried to convince me he could tell me my mother’s name and if he couldn’t I didn’t have to pay. Needless to say I made my exit at that point and went back to my hotel. I almost called his bluff though because I knew he would not be able to tell me my mother’s name. My mother has an uncommon name and I knew he’d never get it without my help. Still I wasn’t prepared to risk that much money so I bowed out. I am now thoroughly convinced that all fortune tellers are frauds. Though I did get some amusement out of it so it was almost worth the $10 I gave him.
This one doesn’t just go for Khao San Rd. You know from the get-go that you won’t be getting the local price when you try to buy something. Tourists always pay more. That being said there are some vendors that take this way too far. My advice is pay attention when you see marked prices. They give you something to aim for. I went looking for a dry bag so that I could take my camera to waterfalls and beaches without worrying about getting it wet. I had spotted a sign at one store on Koh Tao marking the one I wanted at 400baht fixed price a couple of weeks before. I didn’t decided on buying one until I arrived in Bangkok though. I had one stall holder quote me 900baht for one in her stall. I didn’t even bother bartering with her since I knew she was trying to rip me off big time. I did end up buying one for 380 in the end from a very nice, honest, lady in MBK. You’ll see the same items over and over again in different stalls so ask a few different vendors how much they want for it. You’ll get a feel for how much the item should cost before you engage in bartering to actually buy it. And you’ll learn which vendors are dishonest because they’ll quote a lot higher than everyone else. Aim for between 50 and 75% of the original quoted price once you find someone that isn’t trying to rip you off too much.
Somehow the meter is always broken. But that’s generally a lie. Get out and find a different cab. I only took a cab once in Bangkok. I had gone to see Mockingjay at the Paragon cinema and by the time it let out it was dark and the canal boats, which I had used to get there, had finished running for the night. I wasn’t sure how much it should cost to get back to Khao San Rd and my only option was some form of taxi. I lined up at the taxi rank and told the announcer where I wanted to go. He put “Khao San Rd” over the microphone and a cab driver indicated he would take me. When I got to the window he told me the meter was broken and quoted me 200baht. I said no and walked back to the line and waited. I wasn’t sure how much the trip should cost but I knew it wouldn’t be that much. When I got back to the front of the line I told the announcer I wanted a meter cab which he then put over the microphone. An honest driver put up his hand and as it turns out the meter fare was around 80baht. If you’re going to be taking a lot of cabs then it is definitely worth the hassle of finding an honest driver with a working meter. It has the potential to save you a decent amount.
Pickpockets, Thieves and Bag Snatchers
While I haven’t encountered this myself -knock on wood- it is something to be aware of. Khao San Road and a lot of market areas are notorious for this. There are signs along the street reminding you to pay attention. Especially since Khao San Road is a nightlife spot. Alcohol makes easy targets, as does the crowds. Always be aware of your belongings. If you have to push through a crowd keep your hands locked on your valuables. I usually keep my thumb tucked into the jeans pocket with my phone in it. That also usually pushes my satchel bag in front of me making it a harder target. So far I haven’t had any problems with pick pockets even in areas that are meant to be really bad for them.