S.O.S – Smiles Or Scams?
Many folks believe that "LOS" stands for Land of Smiles but, somehow, I've learnt over my six visits to the Kingdom that old-timers assign to it a different meaning: Land of Scams.
But is this notorious "title" justified? Is Thailand worse than other nations? Should we so easily drop the "Smile", that endearing mark of the Thai people?
In an attempt to be "fair" with the natives of a country I enjoy visiting regularly I did indeed ask myself over and over again whether Thais are worse in that regard than any the citizens of any other country I had visited and, frankly, I'm not really sure. I must smile even now when I recall a story told to me by a friend who man years ago went to study in Austria. "I took a boat to Trieste, Italy with the intention to continue from there by train to Vienna. At the port flagged a cab. I gave him the address of my hotel and the driver began a rapid drive through the bust city streets, flying, turning, shouting – just as any good Italian drives would. The trip took half an hour and the cost was enough to shock me but what could I do? I paid and signed in the hotel. I then walked tired to my room, opened the window for some fresh air and found myself gazing at a boat anchored two hundred yards away – indeed, the vessel which half an hour earlier had brought me to this country".
Another tale was recounted by a different guy: "Before leaving Rome I wanted to buy myself a short-wave radio. I heard those were quite cheap in a certain market. There were many vendors scattered in the marketplace and I chose one with the best price. I handed him the radio and he took it for packing. I returned home two days later and was so eager to play my new radio. I opened the box and discovered it contained a plain piece of wood".
One more, this time of my own experience. Only days after landing in Montreal at the age of 21 I bought an AM/FM radio in a small store on Saint Catherine Street. When I brought it home I noticed a crack running along part of the plastic cover. I returned to the store and asked for a replacement: "You did it…if you don't go away I shall call the police". Now, Canadians are the finest folks on this planet – I truly mean it – yet this story proves that crooks exist anywhere.
I still recall when back in 1976 I wanted to buy real estate in California. The real-estate agent showed me a house in Reseda – a plain residential area in the Valley near Los Angeles:" This is Encino Woods" she explained. "But Encino [a more expensive location] is not here" I insisted "It's several miles away". "Yes, but it's called Encino Woods". I asked her to hand me the sale-info sheet and rapidly screened the data. Sure enough, the box titled "City" contained one word: "Reseda". You see, folks, verbally the agent was ready to misrepresent information and fool you to believe you're buying a house in Encino but when it came to a document which may be used as evidence in court the agent was careful enough to enter the correct information (hoping the potential buyer won't notice it before signing the contract". Now, mind you, this is the USA – another country of fine folks. You won't find anywhere people who cherish the word "fairness" as Americans do (well, as Canadians do too).
In Israel the president of a construction company disappeared several weeks ago with millions from his company's funds, leaving 4,000 buyers (who had already paid a major sum of the condo) stranded with a mere piece of paper to show for the money lost. The crook has just been apprehended in Italy but the fact remains unaltered: a scam committed under the watchful eyes of managers and auditors.
Is Thailand really worse?
When I reflect back at my numerous encounters with Thais, be it hotel personnel, store vendors, bartenders, taxi drivers, waitresses and others I can point to several instances where the treatment was dishonest indeed yet still feel unable to brand an entire population of 65 million on their account. The worst fraud (I prefer this term since a scam is a much more sophisticated affair) occurred several years ago at a Bangkok optometrist. I ordered a pair of glasses and when I picked it up I noticed that my vision was blurred in one eye. I pointed it out to the lady and she took the glasses for a re-examination following which she even called her superior and exchanged several sentences in Thai. Then she turned to me: "You have to get used to them".
So, since I still had the original pair from back home I decided that I was not going to make any attempts in getting used to the new pair, leaving this pleasure for the return home. Indeed, two weeks later while already back home I tried them on again – but the problem re-occurred. I took the pair to a local optometrist who examined them carefully and then approached me with a surprised look: "Who sold you these glasses?" To make a long story short: one lens was completely out of focus or as the optometrist put it: "They prescribed a number completely wrong". Replacing one lens would cost $17.
As I paid for the pair with my American Express card I wrote to them and asked to reduce my charge by $17 due to the reasons outlined above. American Express replied that the entire charge would be put in a suspense account until the matter is investigated. Now, lo and behold: a month later I receive notification from American Express that the company selling these glasses had credited me with the entire cost of the pair – $100.
Another time I bought a bottle of Vitamin E (400IU). The vendor placed the bottle in a bag but as I was just about to leave I decided to have a look inside. Sure enough, the bottle was not the one I ordered; instead, they placed a bottle of 1,000IU – a strength hardly sold and enough to ruin your liver.
You have to admit, folks, that these two stories do not fare that badly with the previous tales depicted above so where are the scams to evidently starring in the tales of the old-timer local farangs? After all, as they say, where there's smoke there is fire.
I suppose the answer lies in the distinction between the "ordinary" tourist rip-offs and the more "sophisticated" activities that warrant the word "scam". Let's face it: trying to persuade you to be taken by a tuktuk driver or a tour organizer to a factory selling jewels cannot and should not under any standard be classified as a scam. After all, has anyone forced you into the factory? And assuming you've entered – has anybody forced you at gunpoint to buy anything? Definitely not (I know, I was there several times without buying a pair of earrings yet invited to cold refreshing orange juice by charmingly dressed and smiling hostesses). If a vendor sells you a leather handbag for 1,000 baht and you subsequently see that same product selling for 600 baht – is this a scam? Of course not, next time learn to be a tougher negotiator. If you learn upon returning home that your friend paid for that same hotel 200 baht less per night by using a different agency, is this a scam? Not at all. It's quite common in many countries, not only Thailand, that different agencies sell hotel rooms at different profit margins and hence the difference in price.
So, have I given up? Have I decided to drop the word "Scam" from LOS?
Not so fast, friends. Things are not as simple as they may look from here. Where, then, is the catch? What is the source of that notorious title?
Thailand is, in many ways, different than most Western societies. I'm not referring here to their different religion or various norms and mores. Not two countries are alike and still it does not trigger name-calling, right? Still, in one aspect Thailand is different indeed and here is where we find the prospects of misleading and conniving: I'm strictly referring here to a certain product so widely available and indeed sold in the Kingdom: sex.
The huge supply of girls flowing south mostly from Isaan and offering the starved farang tourist something unavailable back home: a sex companion younger by two generations. Where on earth can a 50-year-old man "associate" with an attractive 20-year-old girl? This distortion ultimately leads to disequilibrium of all sorts, so vividly described on Stickman pages. The stages are remarkably identical: bar, beer, sex, emotional involvement – a window to numerous scams aimed at one and only one thing: empty the poor guy's pocket for the benefit of the lady's entire extended family.
Then come all the related tales: he loves her and will one day marry her but, for now, to ensure their future together, he will buy a house (well, the Thai law prohibits farang ownership of a house so let's register it in her name. It really does not matter, it's only a technicality since he has no reason to suspect that this marriage will not last 50 years (at least); he still has to complete a few projects at work so – for now – he will provide her with a monthly transfer of, say, $500 until he's free to settle in the Kingdom permanently (she will, of course, stay with Mama and Papa in the village and abstain from any "extracurricular" activities, no doubt); oh, quite forgot: she has a 12-year-old boy and he needs to attend a (costly) private school. The future step father is now expected to dish out an additional $400 per month; "and what about my brother, honey? He lost his job last week. How about if you buy him a 7/11 store? It's only 1,000,000 baht – really peanuts for you".
The related scam stories abound: a Brit returning to the village to find a strange family living in "his" house with no sign of his future bride to be found; an American (who had also bought his wife a house) returning from a trip to the US with his new bride and soon after passport control is asked by his lady to wait while she goes to an important place. The poor guy is still waiting, so I hear. "His" house, as you've guessed by now, had already been sold by the lady who disappeared with no traces. Or that poor Brit who decided one day to visit his branch and was met by a stunned manager: "Your widow was here last week and emptied the account".
The Westerner's emotional vulnerability seems to be the key to all those scam stories. Many of these tales clearly disappoint me as I find that it's not the girl who is so smart as the farang is so stupid. Would any of these guys buy houses in the name of a girl they had met a month earlier? Is there any logic behind any fellow's conviction that a 25-year-old girl would remain faithful while he's away thousands of miles away? Is it probable that a young girl 30 years his younger will so happily fall in love with him (unless he had promised to open his wallet wide open for an unlimited period of time)?
It simply does not make any sense and the sooner the guys/lads learn to accept that reality and play the game according to a set of rules set by them and not the locals, the sooner they will grasp that Thailand is, after all, a pleasant and enjoyable destination (quite cheaper than most places) where one can have all the fun in the world without being taken for a ride.
Indeed, the Kingdom can easily become the Land of Smiles.
I've always thought the best way to prepare for the scams is to be as educated as possible about them, and know what to expect. Be forewarned and you can laugh – you don't get an ugly surprise.