I’d already considered myself a fairly savvy traveller by the time I arrived in Thailand. After all, I’d lived in Asia for over a year and had just spent three weeks making my way around poverty-stricken Cambodia. It’s amazing how your naivety and vulnerabilities seem to stand out like a beacon when you’ve surrounded yourself with this kind of cockiness.
Falling victim to scams, being ripped off, and simply realizing misguided intentions after the moment has passed seem to be rites of passage for travellers. You don’t want these situations to occur, you read tips and prepare yourself and say that you will just be “smart.” The problem is, it happens. Hopefully, the consequences aren’t too serious and all you are left with is an icky feeling and the knowledge to avoid it in the future. Here’s one of those situations.
This wasn’t actually my arrival in Bangkok. I’d been there two weeks before, in fact. After travelling by train to Chiang Mai in the north, this would be a second stopover on the way to some of the islands in the Gulf of Thailand. So, I’d already visited some temples, experienced the hedonism of Khao San Road, and generally gotten my fill of the city. Because of this, I really had no plans for these few days in the city.
Our hostel was in an area not too distant from the train station, as we had been looking to avoid a long commute after 14 hours in a third-class train carriage. Not a neighbourhood that was particularly significant, but it had its charms. Tim and I wandered down a busy street, looking for a decent place to grab a quick breakfast, when we were stopped by a smiling man who seemed adamant about chatting with us.
The man explained that we just happened to be wandering the streets on a special day in the city. Though I don’t recall what the specific occasion was, we were informed that for today only we could have a tuk tuk drive us around the city to all the major sights for only 200 bhat. He showed us a radio device that looked like a walkie-talkie, explained that he was a police officer, and promptly decided to procure a tuk tuk for us.
We argued that we hadn’t eaten in quite some time and that we’d grab a tuk tuk on our own after we’d had some breakfast. No, no, the driver would bring us somewhere and wait while we ate. He raised his hand and a tuk tuk driver appeared immediately, as if he’d been waiting for the signal (here’s a hint—he was).
Here’s the situation: when you visit certain places in Southeast Asia, you’re told that you should always specify no stops to the tuk tuk drivers. These drivers often have agreements with particular shops, hotels, etc, that if they bring in customers, they will be paid or have some other variation of a reward.
Of course, I’d heard this before. But, the setup had thrown me off a little. After visiting a gorgeous temple, one supposedly for weddings which was only opened to foreigners just once per year, our driver brought us to a clothing factory. Or, a clothing shop where they also manufactured materials. He said that if we listened to a spiel, he would get a free gas voucher. We didn’t have to buy anything. But, this was very important since, you know, he was driving us around all day for just 200 bhat. So, we went in, were bombarded with sales pitches for ten minutes, and left.
At this point, we were feeling a little like this wasn’t worth it. On we went to another temple, but were informed that we would make a little stop on the way at a tailors. Again, we didn’t have to buy anything, but just go in for five minutes.
The thing about these businesses is that when you enter, they treat you like you’ve already agreed to buy.
“What colour do you like?”
“We can deliver this to your hostel tomorrow morning before you leave!”
“Let’s take your measurements!”
The situation was pretty overwhelming, until we saw one tourist—likely in a very similar situation to our own—enter and storm out a minute later, exclaiming sternly: “No, I’m not buying anything.”
We figured it would be OK for us to leave.
Finally, our driver brought us to our second temple site. We lingered for some time, taking photos, grabbing some food from the stalls nearby, and generally doing the tourist thing. Our driver appeared, and we hopped back on, ready to visit another temple.
It’s important to note that we’d never agreed to the stops in between destinations. We knew nothing until we’d stopped in front of a shop, and been told that we had to go in “for just five minutes.” So, when he tried it again, we were irritated.
This time, we found ourselves at some sort of booking agent, and apparently this time we were supposed to actually book something. We refused to get out, stating that we’d already booked the rest of our stay in Thailand—it was partly true. He questioned us on where we were going, what we were doing, and became visibly irritated when we wouldn’t budge. It felt like when credit card affiliates try to force insurance or fraud report coverage on you. You know what I mean, when they just won’t let you say “no.”
Arriving at the next temple, we dismissed our driver. It was early in the day, but no amount of cheap rides was worth the extra hour we’d already spent just trying to get through all the hustling.
As the days went on, I felt more and more like I’d fallen victim to a play that probably took place daily around here. It can make you feel foolish, naive, and like your confidence as a traveller has taken a hit. Luckily, time gives perspective, as with all things. Here are a few things to keep in mind when a similar situation happens to you.
Bad things happen everywhere
Not that this was particularly bad, but it can make you feel a bit dirty. I did, however, feel safer throughout my travels in Asia than I felt walking though downtown Edmonton after dark.
Desperation changes the rules
As it is, if you are a traveller, you are more well-off than most in this world. Many of the countries we visit may be poverty stricken. You see it on the streets, behind the smiles. People are desperate to find a way to live and support their families.
Be smart, but when in doubt, it’s better for your health to see people as good
Maybe there are those people with more malicious intents—but, you can’t know this from looking at someone. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you try to analyze everyone and every move they make.
Don’t be rude, just walk away
There’s no reason to be rude to someone who’s trying to get your attention. However, you’re not expected to stop and be hustled by every person you pass.
When you do fall for it, just admit it
It’s tempting to hide these kinds of situations, since they can make for slightly embarrassing tales that expose you as somewhat of an amateur. But, honestly, it can be a little therapeutic to just come out with it. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from exploring the world, and these ones have their place, too.
Have you fallen for any scams or set-ups as a traveller?
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