Avoiding The Shakedown Shack!
I just read a couple of interesting bits in your last column and wanted to share my thoughts. The first has to do with the clean-cut Brit that was detained by the police for not having his passport on him and the second is about the litter or smoking police shakedowns.
After each new read of Stickman I tend to tell my friends anything interesting. I have two close friends that have lived in Bangkok over ten years and this is what they make of it.
Both of my friends have been pulled over by police numerous times, mostly during road trips or at a toll booth. They are extremely polite and smile and offer little to no attitude. They both feel that anyone that makes it all the way to the police station perked some sort of suspicion, or in most cases, display ego. Often times it takes no more than asking to be able to pay the fine on the spot and then it just turns in to a negotiation.
My friends offer low-ball bids and often the police officer will bite on the first one.
Both friends speak Thai reasonably well but they always feign ignorance and smile like they have no idea what the officer is talking about. The best phrase you can know is, "Can I pay fine now?" And always show maximum respect. Even if you feel that you are in the right and have done absolutely nothing wrong, if you sense you will be detained, keep your wallet open to suggestion. One friend actually drove around without a driver's license for 7 years before he finally decided to get a real license. Over the course of those years he said he paid less in bribes than he would if he had actually got a legitimate license. And he most certainly doesn't ever carry his passport around. <The problem with no drivers licence is that you then don't have insurance, and that could be costly if you have an accident – Stick>
My other friend has never been asked to see his passport, although he does have a license to drive a motorcycle, so I'm assuming the police assume he has a passport. However, it all seems to boil down to the attitude and not whether you are clean-cut, look rich or speak Thai. My motorcycle driving friend has often just blown right past police stops, and says that the Thai police don't take things personal and they don't want to risk chasing you down. They feel that someone else will be by shortly to hassle anyways and they don't need to work up a sweat. Now in my city, they would be calling in helicopters if I ran a red light, so it's hard to wrap my head around just pretending you didn't see the police man standing there waving me over…
Now I'm not suggesting you ignore police checks, but if you do, you better not try to out run them if they do happen to give chase… I'm just telling you what my friends have told me.
They don't know the whole story and it is 4th or 5th hand knowledge at best, but they feel the Brit must of shown a swagger, was wearing something inappropriate with language or symbols that the police took offence to. Most police don't want to have to go back to the police station because if it gets that far they have paperwork to do, and it cuts into their shakedown time on the street where they can stop people constantly for next to nothing.
The police are profiling and cold reading everyone they see and they are looking for money. That's what motivates many to work at a rather low paying profession in the first place.
Of course the Brit's side of the story is that he looked like a choir boy but most people are unaware how their appearance comes across. I see young guys all the time wearing a pot leaf on their T-shirts and they are dumbstruck when they get pulled over. It's mostly common sense and just flying under the radar. It's not about displaying your flair and being in the right to do it. It's about getting along and appeasing the individuals that can make you life a living hell. And if you are smiling and looking dumber than the police and not showing off with lawyer speak or how important you are and who you know in Farangland, you should do fine 9 out of 10 times.
I used to carry my passport with me until I had a scare and lost it in Laos for an hour before it was returned. That was about the scariest hour I've spent in Asia. After that I would only carry a photocopy and in the last few years I trimmed it down to a little laminated card about 3/4 the size of a business card and stick that in my wallet. I've shown it a couple of times to police and they seem to think it's cute and just wave me off like I'm a child.
Now, about the litter or smoking police. I wrote last year about being stopped with my girlfriend and another friend at the stairs to the BTS at Emporium shopping mall but some readers might not have caught the story so let me repeat the main bits.
As I was approaching the skytrain with my friends I was already aware of the shakedown there which is similar to what they have around MBK. It's a prime location for this scam and they have no trashcans anywhere in sight and they know that smokers will have to decide what to do with the filth before walking up the stairs.
The officer (whatever his function) was wearing an official looking uniform and I was watching him watch me. As I was going up the stairs his view was obscured by the metal railing and he couldn't see if I dropped it or put it out in my fingers and placed it in my pants pocket, but as I was about half way up I dropped it. Yeah, I'm a litterbug and a terrible person, I know! I then placed my hand on the railing, so he could see I must have dropped it.
The officer then went to the bottom of the stairs and said something in Thai. I knew exactly what was happening and maybe on some level I was even pushing the incident to find out how it would play out. At first I ignored his shouts but then my girlfriend said we had to go back to the bottom of the stars to talk to the policeman about something. My first thoughts were to explain to her that it was a shakedown and that we didn't have to stop for him, but soon realized that my girl wouldn't understand and it would be better to do as he wanted.
The first thing the officer wanted to know is what country I was from. He didn't ask to see any identification so I decided to call his bluff and instead of telling him where I was from I asked him if he was a real police officer. He didn't want to answer this. At that moment I realized that he didn't have any power to stop me and that I wouldn't be paying anything to this guy.
A real police officer wouldn't let me talk over him and start asking questions about his authority. They would turn up the heat in a heartbeat.
At that moment I told my girlfriend he was not a police officer, even though he was dressed like it and looked menacing. He was basically a scammer in a convincing costume.
He wanted me to go back to his shakedown shack which was about 100 meters away and was a makeshift guardhouse with some signs saying how much fines would be to pay. They wanted 2,000 baht.
I said," I want to know if you are a real police officer", and at this point he stopped talking to me and focused on trying to scare my girlfriend in to convincing me to pay the fine.
I glanced over at my friend and her and said, "These guys are not real police", and started walking away towards the direction I had just come from. I shouted back to my girlfriend to "Just come with me" and her and my friend followed soon after.
The officer, I learned later was in the process of offering a low-ball deal of 1000 baht fine to my girlfriend
Now the officer was persistent, I'll give him that. He followed us all the way back to the skytrain but demanded nothing. I assumed he was in shock as 99% of farangs probably pay the fine on the spot and I can only speculate what he was doing. Maybe if he followed us I would buckle and have second thoughts.
But at this point I knew for certain I was safe. If anything was going to happen it would have already at the shakedown shack with his partner or some display of authority when I called their bluff. I hope this helps out others. But to be safe, don't smoke near the main skytrain stations I have mentioned and be sure nobody is within shouting distance that looks official. And in general, don't smoke or you might have a tense little time waster on your hands which is inconvenient at best to address at anytime or anywhere in Bangkok.
I think the only issue I have with these officers is that some purport to being police – some around Sukhumvit soi 15 wear a black cap that has police embossed on it – so what are foreigners to think, given that the uniform looks similar to policemen too! At the same time, I think those who drop rubbish are asking for it, notwithstanding that trashcans can be awfully hard to find on the streets of Bangkok.