A Trip Around Bangkok in a Tuk-Tuk

A Thai tuk-tuk driver is probably the first encounter with a local for most tourists in Bangkok . An unconventional city guide, the more business-minded will hassle endlessly for you to pay an inflated price to just turn around the corner. Not having had breakfast and unforgiving of the summer heat, we said 'no' to the first drivers and ignored the following ones. So when a balding tuk-tuk driver looked at us with droopy eyes to offer a tour around the city for only 20 baht, we jumped at the chance.

Unlike other drivers he had not been pushy, remained seated on his bike and looked at us with slight indifference. It made us feel like any other respectable Thai urbanites and we liked it. We were glad to get a chance to see the city without having to cross traffic, push through crowds and walk over spilled noodles and soup. And at that price, a 'special government promotion' for tourists, it was a great deal. Or so we thought. It wasn't until almost two hours later we realized it could have been the beginning of a very long debt.

Our first stop was the 'Democracy temple', where we met a friendly middle-aged man who offered help. Sunglasses in hand, he appeared wealthy and spoke excellent English. We showed him our tour route and he pointed out better sights. As he did so, we couldn't help noticing a blue gem ring on his finger. He explained he was a lawyer and had made a lot of money selling deep blue sapphire gems in Australia . His charm was overwhelming and he convinced us to buy some too to pay for the rest of our 3 month travel around South East Asia . Many Thais do this to fund their holidays, apparently. In fact, the Thai government runs a special promotion for tourists he said. We thanked him and returned to the driver, requesting to visit this special tourist shop.

As we entered the shop, a sense of excitement took over us. Classic year out gapers, the prospect of making quick and easy money by investing a few dollars and re-selling the blue sapphire in European markets awed us. For one hour, the petite sales girl explained to us how other tourists had bought gems (showing us purchase receipts) and how many had gone on to sell at. Christies. My friend had enough money to buy two set pieces but he needed to check he could use the card in Thailand . Alarm bells should have already started to ring, but it felt like many people along our journey that day had spoken to us convincingly of this promotion.

I chit-chatted with the second sales assistant while my friend was in the other room with the first girl. Seeing that he was taking long, I was asked if we had visited Thailand before, were we from Europe or America , what did we think of the food here, did we know anyone. The conversation dragged on until I mentioned I did indeed have a Thai friend in Bangkok working for an important foreign company. She seemed surprised and uncomfortable to hear this. I was going to cheerfully continue talking when my friend came back to say the call hadn't gotten through to the card company. Suddenly the room filled with three other persons that spoke in hushed Thai, and one of the sales girl shuffled some papers and put away all the sapphire that lay on the table.

'Too bad you can't get permission for card', said a bossy man standing behind us. 'Now you have to go. Maybe next time you buy'. He smiled politely and showed us out. We followed, slightly uncertain why we were being driven away.

Next, the driver took us to another shop when we returned empty handed. As we arrived at the premises, an article we had read in our guide book dawned on us. This was a classic gem scam! A string of accomplices would await for tourists touted by tuk-tuk drivers and explain to them of a special government promotion or secret scoop involving buying sapphires. Thai authorities were aware of the scam but every time they closed down a place, a new one would pop up and they now turned a blind eye. We spoke to the driver and accused him of trying to steal from us. He remained passive and dropped us off where our journey had started, obviously disappointed he had not made money out of the whole deal. We still think of the issue fondly as our first lesson in life..

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