Thai Reality Part 6
My ten trips to Thailand in the past five years have provided me with more joy and happiness than any guy my age could possibly dream of. I have memories that will satisfy the rest of my "golden" years. In my previous five reports I have endeavored to share some of these wonderful and not so wonderful experiences.
However, these great times did not start out auspiciously and I want to share how it all began and you can all have a good laugh.
Never Trust A Farang
My nephew is a 42- year old teacher who has traveled the world from Europe to China as he has taken some of his students on foreign tours and I had also traveled in Asia so we were quite the savvy travelers – we thought. I had traveled quite a bit over the years – we thought.
We rarely see each other as he lives in another town. On a lark, I emailed him about some really cheap tickets to Bangkok I had found on the web. I was surprised when he said he wanted to go and we could go in four weeks. That was it. No forethought, no planning, we just went.
After a flight on Malaysian Airlines and landing in Bangkok we found ourselves peering out the windows of the Royal River Hotel and looking at the Song Hee Bridge. Later we found ourselves walking over the bridge and down the soi taking in the sights and smells of the food stalls and markets. After an hour or so we stopped to have a soda and review the map we had brought with us. I learned later this scene would mark us as a target for every tout in the area. Very soon a nice looking Thai approached us asking if he could be of help. He proceeded to suggest places we might want to see and added he could help us with transportation.
It seems he would arrange for a tuktuk driver to take us anywhere we wanted to go and it would be free. The only catch was we would be obligated to stop at a tailor shop to view the fine suits available at very cheap prices. We would not be obligated to buy anything, just look. We agreed to this. Then he added the fateful words that would be our downfall. "Of course you want to get your free trip to Thailand." Of course we didn't know what he meant so he went on to explain how we could get our free trip to Thailand. It seems it was our lucky day as the Thai government allowed jewelry shops a couple a days a year to sell items without paying the heavy taxes normally paid with the sale of jewelry. As a result we might buy these items from one of the shops at a big discount and sell them back home for a big profit. The tuktuk driver would be glad to take us to one of these places but today was the last day of this tax free period. As neither of us had any real interest in jewelry we politely declined the offer for the jewelry but did accept the offer of free rides in the tuktuk.
The seeds had been planted. A free trip sounded good but we quickly forgot about it and we found ourselves taken to the first of three temples that day. The first one was of the huge standing Buddha and it was most impressive. Here we were not approached by any touts and there was no mention of our "free trip to Thailand".
The second temple we were taken to was a tiny thing and totally out of the way, on a side street. However, at this one, there was a young man dressed as a monk and sitting on the flour greeting us with a big smile. He spoke very good English and informed us of his various charitable deeds over the years and in general conveyed an image of the stereotypical monk.
After a very pleasant hour or so we were about to leave when he hit us with the phrase again. You guys are sure to take advantage of this opportunity to get a free trip to Thailand. We were then given the spiel about buying the jewelry today and making a big profit when we sell it back home. But, we better act fast as this was the last day for this bargain. Why was a "monk" advising us about how to make money? We were still so naive. In the course of our conversation we mentioned we wanted to go to Chiang Mai during our stay in Thailand and he agreed it would be a nice trip.
It was then on to yet another temple. This one was fairly large and required ascending three flights of steps. While my much younger nephew had no hesitation, I decided to sit this one out and took a seat at the entrance to the place. I was soon approached by a guy dressed in a black uniform who said he was a security guard for the temple. He engaged me in a friendly conversation and stated he understood why a guy like myself didn't believe in all this Buddhist stuff as we in the Western world were much too wise for such things. It's clear It was just a little flattery to disarm me for how a smart guy like me couldn't possibly pass up an opportunity to get my free trip to Thailand. He proceeded to give me the line about the last day of this fabulous jewelry deal. Again I explained I had no interest in such things and had only wanted to go to Chiang Mai.
Returning to the tuktuk I found two guys who appeared to be in their early thirties. One was Thai and the other a farang. They were both very neatly dressed and the Thai guy was wearing a tie. The Thai guy engaged me with a friendly "hello" and began the usual banter about where I was from and why I was in Thailand. When I said I was I was form the US the farang asked what city I was from as he too was an American and he lived in California, in Silicon Valley. When I told him I lived in Saint Louis he got all excited about our Rams football team, hoping I suppose, to befriend me and make me feel at ease. After I made it clear I was not a football fan the Thai guy then asked were I would be going next and I told him Chiang Mai. What a surprise! He was from there and offered tips on what to do and see. The American then mentioned how has been getting a free trip to Thailand the past couple of years because he took advantage of the fantastic deal one could get at a certain time of year when the government permitted the sale of jewelry without paying the taxes on them. The dealers in turn were offering big discounts on these items at the same time. They would ship your purchase back to your home in the US and it would avoid the Customs fee.
He said he had done this four times now and tripled his money every time as he sold the jewelry back home and thus he was getting his free trip to Thailand. I told him it all sounded great but I was not interested in jewelry and I would just have to pay my own way to Thailand. Our conversation was very cheery and friendly but was about to end when my nephew approached us. He is a fanatical Rams fan. The American immediately introduced himself and began talking football with my nephew. He hit a nerve, and after several minutes they were like old friends. The guy was truly engaging and presented himself as what we would call the 'all American boy" – trustworthy and honest. They were soon involved in animated discussions about football and the good old USA. The topic was then changed to the fantastic jewelry deal this guy has been taking advantage of for the past four years and how we should get in on it and get our free trip to Thailand as he had been doing.
He outlined how you buy the stones here in Thailand and have them shipped back to the US avoiding all those nasty taxes and duties. His excitement was palpable and then from his pocket he produced a bill of sale for jewelry he said he had just purchased for $6,000. He said he was going to get his fourth free trip to Thailand. He then approached my nephew and standing just inches from his face said, "If you don't do this you are a fool."
I didn't realize it at the time, but I believe at this point my nephew was really wavering and had been convinced he would look into this deal.
We left these guys to fulfill our obligation to go to the tailor shop so the tuktuk guy could get his free gas for the day. At the tailor shop my nephew had a couple of suits made as he really did need them for his job and he did get a good deal on them. Upon leaving the shop the sales man mentioned the free trip to Thailand thing and much to my surprise my nephew said we would have the tuktuk guy take us by the jewelry shop just to take a look but not buy anything.
A short time later we found ourselves walking into a jewelry shop located at 27-29 Soi Chalemet 2. It was a small shop, but did appear to be an authentic store with counters displaying various kinds of jewelry. Behind the counter was a very nicely dressed, rather tall Thai guy who looked to be around 50 years old and very distinguished. He had an air of sophistication, not the overly friendly Thai demeanor we had experienced up to that time. He gave his name as U-Thong.
He proceeded to show us some beautiful pieces of jewelry which included a matching set of blue sapphires. It was clear that my nephew was really taken by theses gleaming beauties. U-Thong then proceeded to explain in a very smooth, comforting and reassuring tone how we could purchase these and have them safely packaged and sealed before our very eyes and have them sent directly to our home address for resale.
It was after this that all rationality was suspended, and in a fit of total stupidity, greed and jet-lag I saw my nephew pull out his credit card. The price would be $1,200 and yes, they take credit cards. I then compounded the travesty by following suit and saying I too would take a set of the sapphires.
U- Thong went on to explain that although he would gladly accept our credit cards we could get a 20% discount by paying cash <That is the biggest red flag of all – Stick>. That sounded good but we didn't have that kind of cash on us. No problem, he said, we could get the cash by using the cards at a bank and making a withdrawal on our accounts. The problem was it was after closing time and the banks would be unavailable. However, we could be taken to a mall where they have a branch where we could get the money.
At this point, we were introduced to a very attractive young lady named Malee who would serve as our guide to negotiate our way through the process of withdrawing our cash.
As we left the shop, the tuktuk guy was still waiting but Malee gave him some cash and told him to leave. From now on, she said we would be the guest of U-Thong and he pays for everything, starting with the cab fare to the mall.
Malee had excellent English skills and was very friendly. We reached the mall and approached the bank branch. We explained to the two young woman serving the counter what we wanted to do. We would each withdraw one thousand dollars from our own cards.
They didn't seem too anxious to do this. Looking back on this, I believe they had an idea of what was going down and didn't like it. Nonetheless, they began the process. After a brief wait they brought back my nephew's card saying they could not use his as his signature was smeared and not legible enough. Again, I really believe they were trying to tell us something. No problem, I would use my card to get cash for both of us. They proceed to process my card, but as I had never used my card to withdraw money before, much less in a country 9,000 miles from home, there was a problem. I don't know why or how it happened, but I was handed the phone and found myself talking to a guy in New York who was a representative of my credit card bank wanting to know what the hell was going on. After confirming my identity, and that the request was legitimate, the transaction was allowed.
Shortly thereafter we exited the mall, our pockets bulging with wads of Thai baht. They gave us the money in small bills for some reason.
Back at the store, U -Thong was waiting to demonstrate the care which with these jewels were to be packaged and marked for insurance purposes. The transaction was completed and we gave U-Thong the eighty thousand baht. We were sitting on chairs and U-thong remained standing behind the counter appearing smooth and a bit aloof. As we began to rise and leave he motioned with a gesture of his hand for us to be seated. He then went on to explain how as we were the last customers of the day, and indeed the last ones for the year, as the store would be closing tomorrow. For this honor he wanted to show his appreciation to us. Therefore, we would be his guest for the remaining time we had in Bangkok He suggested that after our long day we should get a good Thai massage and afterwards a fine Thai meal at his expense. We were gratified by such a fine gesture and promptly agreed. We were then introduced to another young lady who would be our guide for the rest of the trip as Malee would be unavailable. He apologized that the new lady did not speak English as well as Malee but she could see to it that we got everything we wanted at his expense and would stay with us until we left Bangkok.
Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves climbing the gold colored steps to a massage parlor where we had our first encounter with the fish bowel experience. The girls were arranged behind the huge glass plated room and seated on steps covered in red velvet. We were allowed to select the girl who would be performing the massage and afterwards we were given the full two hour treatment. As this was our first time in Thailand this surreal experience already had our minds off what had transpired just an hour before. As we were leaving the massage parlor we stepped out the door to find an elephant in the street. Of course we could not resist petting and playing with it.
Then it was off to get a fine meal at a large outdoor restaurant which was built around a lake like setting. We chatted with our new found friend throughout the meal and she plied us with as much food and drink as we wanted. She said she would take us to the crocodile farm in the morning and help us arrange for a trip to Chiang Mai by train when we wanted to go.
She had a request. The girl who had given me my massage was a friend of hers and was it OK for her to accompany us while we went around seeing the sights? That would not be a problem and after a few more beers we agreed to meet the following morning at our hotel.
She loaded us into a taxi and away we went leaving her behind with the expectation that we would meet up in the morning…
Upon returning to our room, and after the fog began to lift, I flipped through some brochures that mentioned some common scams one might encounter in Bangkok. There it was!!! It was apparent we had probably been scammed. But, at this point how could you proof anything. The evidence was allegedly shipped out of the country. We knew we were screwed but determined not to dwell on it and to go on and make the best of the trip.
The question was, if it was a scam would the girls show up the next day to be our guides.
After breakfast, and somewhat to our surprise, the two gals showed up wearing big Thai smiles and being as gracious as Thais can be. The friend from the massage parlor, named Nok, could not speak one word of English and our guide spoke very little. They were both attractive and they did provide us with a fun filled day doing the touristy things They also arranged for our train trip to Chiang Mai which included a trek up the hills to stay with the Karon tribe -all very enjoyable.
Would they be in Bangkok to meet us when we returned we wondered. Yes they were!
We spent a couple of more days together doing fun things but in no way was there any carnal involvement. My nephew and I concluded these young ladies were merely pawns in the jewelry deal (if indeed it was a scam) and still deserved to be treated with decency and respect. Of course, being normal men, thousands of miles from home, spending all this time with two lovely young ladies the question of their intimate availability was always in the air. Every evening, they went home, or in the case of Nok, went to work.
It so happened, on the last day before our departure, our guide and I found just the two of us in our hotel room as my nephew was out picking up his suits. It was a bit awkward. I mean here were the two of us together, me and a woman in a hotel room. In Bangkok. How could one not think SEX? Impossible!! I asked her point blank "Where you expecting to have sex with me for money?"
“No”, she said and went on to explain she has two little children and a family and she did not do these things. She then took out her cellphone and began dialing saying that Nok would be happy to oblige me with this. I stopped her and went on to explain that I simply didn't know her intentions and I surely did not want to disappoint her if indeed that is what she wanted.
"Is that why we just happened to be alone now" she asked, and I explained it was purely by chance that it we found ourselves in this situation.
Immediately the tension left the room, and as we left to meet my nephew in the lobby she took me by the hand and squeezed it, not letting go until we got downstairs. This was the first physical contact we had during the entire ten day visit.
She accompanied us to the airport and on the way she fell asleep with her head on my shoulder. This was the first warmth I had felt from a woman in a long time. At the airport, we both became rather excited with each other and decided to exchange email addresses. There were no kisses or other displays but it was clear that we liked each other very much. There were several emails over the following months and my previous five submissions outlined how this rather bizarre encounter with a scam artist resulted in a wonderful relationship with this young lady (I renamed Gail) and her entire family over a five year period. During that time, I had a fantastic time getting to know much of Thailand and her working class folks. Consequently, I have no regrets about the circumstances under which we met.
What my nephew and I fell prey to was a very well run scam organized by a network of folks at various levels of Thai society headed by a very sophisticated head guy and his cronies. Later, during my several visits to Thailand I got to know some of the lower ranking folks who earned a living doing these types of things. I went into detail about how they are organized and how each level is rewarded for their efforts. (Thai Reality Part 4, April 2006) I suspend judgment regarding their "work" as I realize they live on the edge everyday. They do not enjoy any of the safety nets we enjoy in the West. They have no unemployment insurance, welfare benefits, food stamps, social security, nothing but their wits and a faith in Buddha.
By the way, we did indeed each receive our packages from U-Thong. They were very pretty pieces of junk vaguely resembling the stuff we were shown. I gave them to my daughter-in law. We both laugh when she wears them.
The lesson from all this: Be very wary of the overly friendly farang. There is not doubt in my mind that had we not encountered that f***** farang this scam would not have happened. Of course the flip side of all this is none of the great things would have occurred either.
Be grateful I always say.
Five years after these events, and after spending much time in Bangkok, one would think one would be much wiser with regard to farangs and their scams.
Sometime I'll have to tell you about a lady named Amanda.
Fool me once-shame on you,
Fool me twice-shame on me.
A nicely told story and a good reminder of this scam. It is deplorable that these scams have been allowed not just to continue but to propagate. And that a farang is involved is even worse. Truth be told, it is I believe the first time I have heard of a farang involved in this type of scam.