Tuk Tuk “Tooken” For a Ride

Before you read this post…

Thailand is a wonderful place to visit and live and the type of issue I am about to describe can crop up anywhere in the world.  This is not a Bangkok problem, this is a crook that found his scam.  If you are the kind of person that would decide not to visit a place because of someone else’s experience please leave this site and never come back.  Bangkok is one of my favorite places and my wife and I will be back many times.  I just won’t fall for this again.

On our first trip to Thailand my wife and I were experienced travelers but naive for Asia certainly.  We settled on Bangkok as Carly’s cousin was working in the Embassy at the time and we could not otherwise agree on a destination.  For years I wanted to see Hong Kong because of the unique governmental distinction (two systems, one China) to view first hand how a thriving capitalist economy would survive inside the hands of a communist party thousands of miles away.  Carly wanted to go to Tokyo because she likes Sushi.  We both wanted to go to Thailand so we compromised because that is what a marriage is about.

Carly’s cousin, JP and his wife Lela could not have been better hosts.  For the history buff in me (I’m not watching the history channel at night or anything but I like to know why a temple is sitting in the middle of the city) JP was great.  He had been in Ukraine during the Orange revolution, his son was born in Amsterdam and his wife was Polish – now we had entered Thailand in the middle of the Red/Yellow conflicts, this one was 2010 where the yellow shirts were the good guys.

We were a little more concerned than normal because there were areas of town shut down and I was paying closer attention to what JP was saying.  He gave us some great things to do during the day while he was at work and we wanted to explore.  On the list of things to do that day was the Royal Palace, the Reclining Buddha, and the Floating Markets.  JP had been clear that at some places we would pay more than the locals and to not be offended by this.  We were, after all, “farang” foreigners in their country with superior financial resources and prices seemed much more fair than they would have been in the rest of the world.  Instead of paying $.50 like the Thai people to enter a park where there was an important lost city (Ayutthaya) we would pay $1.50.  That was still fair enough to me and we were happy to pay the small differences.

A taxi dropped us in front of the Royal Palace at the side entrance, a common area for being dropped off in a taxi, though not the front entrance.  We looked around for a moment for the entrance.  To our left was a man wearing a Thailand Tourism shirt at the side entrance.  I don’t remember if he saw us looking for the way in or we approached him, it didn’t really matter.  He let us know that the temple would be closed until 2PM (an hour and a half from then) to allow only Thai people to access until then.  From separate pricing to folks cutting in line elsewhere, it wasn’t that the Thais weren’t friendly, they certainly were, but there was a condition in our minds that registered that this is possible.  Looking back on it now, it’s still a reasonable expectation that the palace may have been closed to outsiders for a period in the day.

The Tourism Official calls over a Tuk Tuk driver.  For those unfamiliar with a Tuk Tuk, it is a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw with a top speed of about 30 mph.  While there is a covered bench seat in the back and aluminum guard rails to the sides it is very much an open air experience.  It’s not luxury travel but it’s a fun experience and for locals it’s a lot faster than a taxi as Tuk Tuks can fit in between cars to cut through traffic.  The Tourism Official pulls out a printed map of a tour we can take in the mean time.  It costs only 50 baht (£1 or $1.60) for this lengthy tour and it seemed like a great price.  The price seemed to cheap to be possible, but this is also a city of backpackers with hippies and wayward souls from all over the world descending for an affordable beach vacation and cheap pad thai.  While at first it would seem improbable, looking around Thailand it was reasonable to consider that this might have been a student rate and we looked like students at the time.

We climbed in, the guide instructed the driver pointing to many places on the route “Big Buddha… Gem Museum…” etc. while the driver nodded and acknowledged that we were to be back by 2PM and again establishing the rate.

We sat back in the Tuk Tuk as the Tourism Official walked back to his post at the side gate to the Palace and looked at each other.  Instantly, we both knew we had just been scammed, but only Carly had the courage to say it.  I asked her if she wanted to get out and we decided against bailing for a few reasons.  First, we did want to see the reclining Buddha and that was near the Palace and would be our first stop.  We might as well see that first.

We pulled up to a temple entrance.  Our Tuk Tuk driver indicated he would wait for us outside, and I was nervous he wouldn’t be there when we were through as of course we did not know where we were at that point in time.  But this wasn’t the Amazing Race and there would be nothing in it for him if we left, sooner than later we would discover it would be hard to shake the driver, it was silly to think we would unwittingly lost him and been disappointed now.

We walk inside the temple, sure to be quiet and respectful, this is an actual temple and a place of worship for locals.  There is a Buddha blessing people as we arrive and duck in under a temple awning for some protection from the rain.  We turn around to find a very Big Buddha.  However, this Buddha has had his coffee because unlike in the movies when we have the Reclining Buddha, this knockoff is standing alert 30 feet in the air and is only partially completed.  I roll my eyes to Carly as we take obligatory pictures and head on our way.  We are asked to make donations and we drop something small in a bucket before finding our driver waiting for us.

We were annoyed that it wasn’t the Buddha we were hoping for but moved on to the mall.  Usually a mall isn’t something that you would look forward to visiting save the Mall of America, or maybe Galleria Lafayette in Paris, but the malls in Bangkok (and the rest of Asia) are amazing.  MBK is a famous one in the Thai capital for cheap wears and trinkets (ripped off US hit TV show DVDs for $5-10, T-shirts $3) spanning eight floors and selling everything you could possibly want.  Other malls are more of the mid-level budget with Gap, H&M and other international brands, and then of course the Siam Paragon is host to Maserati, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and other ultra premium brands.  Some people go to Bangkok just for the malls and it was on our list due to it’s sprawling nature.

We pulled up to the “mall”.

It was a glass front standard retail shop loaded with tourists, Tuk Tuks in front and Indian tailors inside.  We pull up and we are less amused by the prospect of this, but the driver starts to explain that 50 Baht is too cheap and that these shops will give him gas for delivering us.  We don’t have to buy anything, he just needs to the gas to ferry paying customers around, “Thailand is very poor”.  Stepping inside we are greeted by a well dressed Indian man who wants to discuss what kind of fabrics I like.  He slid my objections away like unwanted wrappers on the table and the next thing we know I have a measuring tape down my inseam and I am picking out fabrics.

“Are you going to buy a suit right now?” Carly asked me, annoyed and growing weary of the process.

“No.”

“Then let’s leave.” She said.  Good call, what was I still doing there?  The tailor wouldn’t leave me alone of course and he wouldn’t quote me a price so I low balled him on what I would pay (way too low) and that was the end of that.  We hopped back on the Tuk Tuk and this time we had a little conversation with the driver.

“We aren’t going to buy anything, why don’t you just take us back to the palace?” He was not interested and stated it was still closed.  The dumbest man on earth looked at his watch (me) and determined he was right.  We were headed to a gem museum and we were both kind of losing it but didn’t want to be rude, didn’t know where we were, and had nothing better to do.

It was not a gem museum.  It was a gem factory.  No it wasn’t.  It was a facade with real live adult models and a ride less enjoyable than Disney but no more real.

We go into the Gem museum tour (because we are idiots) and along with 10-12 other idiots we are steered on a spoken English tour through the museum that has no windows to the outside.  Our guide explains as we enter the first room that the old men before us have years of experience with gems and take them from a rough stone to a beautiful precious piece of jewelry.  They are using rudimentary tools with a foot pedal powering a round stone the sands the rough edges out and must take hours if not days to complete.

Then we head through another area and it is becoming very clear that this condo tour is going to last a long, long time.  It was close to 30 minutes before we ended up in… “the gift shop” which was a large jewelry store with precious rings stored inside the cases and salespeople ready with calculators in hand (the first sign you won’t be paying retail).  After we indicated that we were not prepared to spend more than the equivalent of $10, we were shown the exit quickly.

“I’m done with this.” Carly said.  I gently reminded her that now we were a considerable distance away from the Palace and had no idea where we were or how to get back. We had also made a deal with the guy and should honor that, even if his purposes were not as clear as what we had understood them to be. She was fuming and with good reason.

“We want to go back to the palace.” I told the driver, and then he made a fatal mistake.

“Just five more stops.” FIVE MORE STOPS!?!?  Who is saying ok to that?  I guess maybe the same idiots that hop in your Tuk Tuk in the first place.

“No.  We will pay you 150 baht to take us back now.” This was three times his price and if he was so hard up for cash that he was doing this for gas it should have been plenty for him.

“Three more” He countered.  This was not about gas.

“No.”

“One more.”  He pleaded.  I looked at Carly who didn’t want to be negotiating with this guy in the first place.  I relented and she looked like I spit on her grandmother’s grave.

“No more.  We go back to the Palace.”  He declined to return to the Palace and we wouldn’t have trusted him to take us there anyway.  We paid him 100 baht the whole time he was yelling that we ripped him off as we parted ways.

We walked out of the parking lots from this Gem Sham and on to a street that was moderately busy in the middle of the workday and just started walking in a direction.  We had no idea where we were, if it was a good area or not, how much a cab would be back to where we needed to go, it was a walk into the complete unknown but we were so fed up that it was just left, right, left right for us.

We flagged a cab after a block or so and then proceeded to sit in traffic with said cab for about 45 minutes going a distance of approximately two miles.  Had we known the way it would have been better for us to walk.  The cab dropped us back off at the side entrance, how convenient, and guess who we found there… the same Tuk Tuk driver and Tourism Official as when we left.  We lock eyes while he is talking to another idiot tourist like me and the Tuk Tuk driver is looking at us too.

Am I going to be cool?  Am I just going to walk by?

Hell no.

“IT”S NOT CLOSED, IT NEVER CLOSES DURING THE DAY, HE’S LYING TO YOU AND THAT GUY IS IN ON IT”  Carly was tugging my shirt so hard away from them to continue down the pathway that I thought it was going to rip.

In the end though, it was my fault all along.  Why?  The telltale signs were all there. Carly’s cousin, JP, knew we were going to the Palace and said nothing about it ever closing for Thai people only.  That should have been the first sign.  The second sign was that he had a pre-printed map of the tour we could take in his pocket, why would a tourism official hang out at a door of the Palace to tell us it’s closed (instead of us just finding out at the front door)?  In a city of 14 million (ish) people and countless Tuk Tuk drivers, how would he have known this random one by name?  Further, the low price should have kept us off the back of that ride.  The price was so low there was no negotiation and other than foreign brands in Thailand (hotels, clothing stores with printed tags) this might have been the first time we didn’t haggle on a price.

It gets worse.  Our friend Simon had told me about this scam.  It happened to him and his partner while they were in Thailand and he warned me about it.  I had simply forgotten until we sat down and both of us knew we were being tuk-tuk-tooken for a ride.

UPDATE:

On recent visit to Bangkok I found myself in the general area of the Palace and was overwhelmed by the loud and obnoxious warnings in English announcing the times the palace opened and closed, that it was open to all people, and that you should not believe anyone who approaches you during these hours to tell you otherwise.  This was a pretty aggressive move by whoever made that call in Thailand and I certainly appreciate it.

-Kyle

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Kyle is an accomplished Travel Editor for UPGRD.com, PenAndPassport.com and writes TheTripSherpa.com blog. He has visited more than 50 countries on every continent except Antarctica. He has contributed to articles for Time, USA Today, Reuters, CNBC, MSN, Yahoo!, Huffington Post, Mainstreet.com, Mademan and other media outlets. He flies several hundred thousand miles every year and has lived abroad in the UK, Thailand and Perú. He now calls Pittsburgh home with his wife and daughter who join him on his trips around the world.
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