We were standing on a sidewalk corner somewhere near Khao San Road, deciding what to do next by looking at a large map helpfully posted to let the nearby crowd of tuk-tuk drivers know who was ripe for the picking. There was a pack of them, practically drooling over each passing tourist, filling the air with their signature calls of ‘Tuk-tuk! Tuk-tuk!’ I knew going up to the map was a risk and would display our vulnerability to the pack, but decided to risk it anyway. Sure enough, we hadn’t been looking at the map for 15 seconds, when an unassuming little man sidled up next to us and asked us what we were looking for. We chatted a bit and once he found out where we were from, he enthusiastically shook our hands, crying “Obama!” with each handshake. By the time he started suggesting several nearby things to see in what was shaping out to be a very convenient tuk-tuk route, we knew we were in trouble. But let me back up a little bit. Asia and I had just made our virgin trip to Khao San Rd and its surrounding neighborhood, which is the tourist hotspot of Bangkok. It was one of the few times during our Bangkok stay that we were in the company of more foreigners than Thai people and it was a strange feeling. For our accommodations I had chosen a guesthouse that was practically on the opposite side of the city from Khao San Rd, nestled in a local neighborhood and right next to a BTS stop, Bangkok’s local metro system, the merits of which I cannot sing high enough praise. Our guesthouse was called U-Baan, and the owner, Joy, a feisty young Thai woman, lived up to her name entirely.
Walking through busy neighborhood streets every day, we passed local Thai going about business as usual, either not paying us any mind or giving us a quick smile or wave. My personal favourite was a group of young men that worked in a shop right across from our guesthouse who would smile and yell hello at us every time we would pass by, sometimes followed by a pause then, “I love you!” I also got it in my head that I needed a haircut and once I talked Asia into it as well, we visited a local hair salon the street where not a lick of English was spoken. It was the happiest haircut I ever received, with all of us just smiling at one another as a form of communication while the stylist did an phenomenal job with absolutely no direction besides finger widths held up to show how much we wanted cut.
It was this neighborhood and several others that gave me the impression that Bangkok was hands down, the friendliest city I have ever been to. People seemed genuinely happy to see us, or at least not annoyed that we tourists were mucking around their little streets. I had heard fairly negative things about Bangkok prior to my visit and this was such a pleasant surprise that I think I enjoyed the city even more than I would have otherwise.
Khao San Rd and many parts of the commercialized old city of Bangkok are a world apart. Locals here, jaded by hordes of tourists and backpackers, have no random smiles for you unless they are approaching you to sell something. Top 40 pop hits blare through Khao San Rd and every restaurant boasts the same menu and neon signs advertising ‘the best pizza in town’. Rows of vendors selling the same bland souvenirs are bored by your presence and judging by the crowd they were serving, I couldn’t really blame them. But the road isn’t all bad, allowing for fantastic people-watching and some small reprieve from the hot exhaust fumes that fill the rest of Bangkok.
I better understood why Thailand’s capital has a bit of a bad rap once I visited Khao San Rd. If that street and the other tourist bubbles are all you see of this huge, diverse, and eclectic city, you are seriously missing out on the kindness and welcoming attitude the rest of Bangkok has to offer. The further away you venture from the main attractions, the more people open up and become sincere. You can tell you are making the transition from tourist bubble to ‘real life’ neighborhood when people start asking you, ‘You lost? Wat Pho back that way!”
But at the moment, Asia and I were still by Khao San Rd, now haggling with this man about the price of a tuk-tuk ride. We had decided that we wanted to head back down to the Amulet Market, near Wat Pho, and were already debating about whether a tuk-tuk would be a good option before our new friend showed up. All charm and pizzazz, he pointed out several attractions on the map. “Giant Buddha here, you should definitely see, and here you can climb to top of temple and see sunset! Get good exercise! At Wat Pho, big Buddha, I can take you there in my tuk-tuk. An hour, two hours, we wait, doesn’t matter. 40 baht!” Though we did want a tuk-tuk, I knew through research beforehand that booking anything around Khao San was bound to be at least seriously inflated, if not an outright scam. But sometimes you just have to try something in person to learn. Also, I thought the experience could make for some good blog fodder and I would try the experience for my dear readers (okay, I decided that after the whole thing was over, but that’s a minor detail).
So we haggled….”Well, we’ve already seen What Pho…” down to 30 baht…”And what we really want is the Amulet Market, so you can just drop us off there, you don’t need to bring us back…” which dropped us down to 20 baht, less than $1 US . But he insisted that we see a couple other points of interest, including a TAT tourist information center (that we kept saying we didn’t need to visit, but he kept pushing, so we let slide), so the three of us came up with a nice little route.
Now he said that he would take us in his tuk-tuk, but as he brought us back to the row of waiting tuk-tuks, we discovered that he was not actually a driver, but what I like to call a tuk-tuk pimp (or the frontman tout, as they're referred to). As we approached, the tuk-tuk drivers started calling out to him, asking him to choose them. Much to the other drivers’ chagrin, he waved them off and settled on one further down the road to haul us, his fresh catch, around. He reviewed the map with our route drawn on it with the driver and then helped us in and shook our hands, while I confirmed the 20 baht price for both of us. And then we were off.
Being driven around in a tuk-tuk in Bangkok is exactly like riding Indiana Jones at Disneyland. All the same bumps, turns, and sudden stops, except with no seat belts and a giant bus barreling down on you from the side, spewing hot exhaust into your face. It was awesome.
Our driver, Sah, took us to our first agreed-upon stop, the Intaram Temple, where a giant golden Buddha stood grandiosely above a plaza in the middle of a small neighborhood. It was very peaceful and I realized that the temple was actually part crematorium, as its walls were lined with glass classes full of beautifully ornate urns and pictures of the people inside them.
Once we were done at the temple, Sah took a look at our route map and off we were again, to our obligatory tourist info stop. Asia and I figured this stop had something to do with the fact that 20 baht probably wasn’t going to cover costs for the driver, the tuk-tuk pimp, and the price of gasoline, but we were game because honestly, the ride alone was worth the 20 baht already.
We pulled up to the tourist info stop (read: actually a travel agency) and a man jumped up as we came in and warmly welcomed us to his desk surrounded by maps, brochures, and posters for various exotic locales. His name turned out to be Joe but surprisingly, he told us we didn’t have to talk with him, the tuk-tuk driver just needed to bring us here to earn a ‘coupon for gas.’ But since he was friendly enough, we sat down with him and asked him some questions about our route, which he answered enthusiastically and with good humour. It seemed he had about 10 sisters spread out through the southern islands, all who owned hotels and resorts and could “get him a good deal.” But nonchalant sales pitch aside, he was fun to talk to, made us laugh a lot, and didn’t put on any pressure, so we returned to our tuk-tuk without feeling hassled and in a good mood.
Once we left Joe, Asia and I pulled out the map to show Sah what our next stop was, but he said, first we must stop by a tourist information center. Wait a second…we just left a ‘tourist information center.’ Yes, Sah said, but this is another one, need coupon for gas. Ahhh, we said, why not. So off we went, again. When we pulled up to the next tourist info stop, Asia and were prepared and scurried inside quickly. We found a man who must have been at the end of his work shift because he seemed in a hurry. We sat down across from him as he asked us what we wanted to know. I asked him about some villas on Koh Tao that Joe had quoted to us just to see if it was a decent quote (for the record, we found our own place to stay). When the man heard Joe’s quote, he jumped up and exclaimed, “Oh! That is cheapest you will find, you don’t need me!” and motioned us out. We were happy to oblige and so not 5 minutes later, we found ourselves back with Sah and pointing out our next stop.
He excitedly ignored our map and exclaimed, “Now I take you to Thai Fashion Show!”
A Thai Fashion Show! You go in, pretend you want to buy something, but don’t actually have to, they give you free beer, just need coupon for gas! Ahh, well that makes it crystal clear.
We eventually got out of Sah that a “thai fashion show” is actually a tailor shop, on the tuk-tuk commission path. But Sah, we wanted to go to these places on the route! Sah looked at our map, at the wat we had scheduled to visit and sadly said, “Ohhh, no, that is closed now. Too late.” How about the Amulet Market, then? That’s where we actually wanted to go in the first place! “Ohhh…nooo….too late, closed now.” Asia pulled out her phone… “Sah, it’s 5:50. The market closes at 6. If we don’t go to Thai fashion show, we can barely just make it to the market!”
“No, no, we go to Thai fashion show.” He smiled sheepishly. And we were off.
As we pulled up to the ‘Thai Fashion Show,’ Asia and I noticed all the other farang (foreigner) suckers inside with their tuk-tuks waiting dutifully on the street. We were finding the whole thing hilarious and we were mostly just interested in seeing what would happen next in our tuk-tuk hostage situation. As we walked in, past huge bolts of fabric that covered the walls and men being measured for suits, a sharply-dressed Thai-Indian man came up to us.
“Hello. What are you doing here?” This took us aback for a second. Didn’t this man know he was part of an elaborate scam? What’s the polite way of saying, ‘I have no idea, my tuk-tuk driver brought me here against my will’?
I lamely responded, “Browsing?”
“Browsing?” He asked gruffly and a bit confused. “Do you wear suits?”
“Only when I’m feeling powerful.”
Clearly, we were a waste of his time. He motioned sharply to a case full of silk scarves. “No browsing, you just look here.”
Asia did a good job of fake-looking at scarves for a couple minutes while the man stood right over us and I managed to gracefully offend him by mentioning that I had gotten my own silk scarf at the Chatuchak Weekend Market for a quarter of the price. Once we proved that we were not going to buy anything and were pretty much just taking up valuable space and oxygen in his shop, the man let us be and we made our escape to the door. Some of the other tailors yelled after us that they were open to midnight, so we should definitely come back! Okay, we promised. We’ll come back at midnight and buy a suit. No one gave us a free beer.
We got back into our tuk-tuk and awaited our fate. Where would we be taken next? But apparently, the Thai Fashion Show was the last stop for ‘gas coupons’/milking tourists and so, Sah agreed to take us to the pier where we could catch a river ferry home. I tried to see if he could take us all the way down to a BTS station, so we could skip the ferry altogether and just take the Sky Train, but he only sheepishly laughed as that was way out of his zone of tuk-tuk jurisdiction. Honestly, between the limits of where the drivers can go, the tout pimps, the businesses they have commissions with, and whatever other factors may be involved, the entire tourist tuk-tuk scam network is a fascinating one that we only got a tiny glimpse into. At the end, we warmly bid Sah goodbye, as the whole thing was nothing to be upset about. We still only paid 20 baht, as agreed, and even though we only went to one place out of three that we were promised, and three places we didn’t want to go, it was a fun way to spend an hour and have a good laugh about with other travelers later.
Bangkok Scams 101: If you’re more stingy with your time and don’t like agreeing to scams for a lark, then a good rule of thumb is to always hunt down your own transportation and don’t accept rides from drivers who approach you. Flag down a moving taxi or find the most uninterested tuk-tuk driver available. As much as I like to trust in the kindness of strangers, if someone is being overly helpful, politely wave them away as they will probably try to sell you something or get you involved in some sort of commission process like the one above. When you’re in a touristy area, nothing is free. For a full run-down of current scams in Bangkok, you can visit this site.
That being said, this was the only time in Bangkok we were approached for a scam. If you want to be able to trust strangers, look a little lost without being hassled, or talk to a local without feeling like they’re putting on a show, spend time outside the big tourist attractions and in the little neighborhoods. We found happy, helpful, friendly Thai people and the real Bangkok.