It was my first day in Bangkok, and I had no idea what area of town I woke up in.
My hostel was somewhere between Chinatown and Little India and an old shopping mall with a McDonald’s. Bangkok is massive and I’ll have to admit that I didn’t do the best job at picking a hotel. After so many months on the road, sometimes you just get tired of scouring through hotel reviews.
Nevertheless, I found out that I was less than a mile away from one of the main temples in the city, so Guil and I decided to walk there. It was 9 a.m. yet somehow the sun was directly above our heads, and I swear the thermometer had already hit above 90 degrees.
“How is it so hot this early in the morning?” I asked Guil.
“I have no idea,” he replied, wiping sweat off his forehead.
That’s when the Thai man walking near us turned around and grinned.
“It’s very hot today, isn’t it?” he said in near-perfect English.
Wow, I thought, how friendly is this stranger who strikes up conversation with two random tourists! Excited to be interacting with a local, we let him engage us further.
He probably said something like, “In your country, it’s very cold! Here in Thailand, we only have two seasons: hot and hotter!”
He soon asked us where we were headed. (At this point the scam had already begun, but we were oblivious.) We named the temples we planned to see that day, and the man began shaking his head.
He told us everything on “that side of town” was closed until late afternoon due to a local holiday.
At that moment I thought, “Damn it, how did I not know about this? Why are we the most unprepared travelers on the planet?!”
The kind gentleman continued to give us information about the Thai holiday we were unaware of. He then listed a few temples that were supposedly nearby and open for tourists that morning, such as the “Lucky Buddha” and “Standing Buddha.” He even pointed to their supposed location on our Google Maps app. (We would later find out that these were made-up temple names.)
Up until this point, Guil and I thought the man was genuinely trying to to help. However, we had never heard of the temples he mentioned.
When he noticed a bit of hesitation on our part, he started getting more personal. He told he was a local professor and assured us he wasn’t interested in our money; he was simply trying to save our day, he insisted.
There was something about the way he made that statement that left Guil and I skeptical.
The man went on to tell me I looked like his 26-year-old daughter, and I was confused as to why he would say this, considering him and I looked nothing alike. At this point we had been talking to him for over 5 minutes, and I could tell he was trying to build some sort of friendly connection between us. I just didn’t understand why.
Finally I told Guil in Portuguese that I wanted to see for myself if the temples were closed. If anything we’d hang out by the Chao Phraya River instead.
We thanked the man and began walking away, still headed in the direction of the supposedly closed temples. That’s when the friendly stranger became quite aggressive. He insisted there was nothing to see on that side of town and that we should visit one of the temples he suggested. He became visibly upset when we declined his offer.
Fortunately we ignored him and continued to walk away — but not everyone has the same luck.
Guil and I soon found out that all temples were open and everything the man said was a lie. We were shocked. Why would he lie about such a silly thing? What was he planning to do to us if we believed him? Where was he going to take us?
A quick Google search answered my questions. Guil and I were targeted for a scam: Read on to learn how to avoid the Bangkok gem scam.
The Bangkok Gem Scam
It’s one of the most common scams in Bangkok and goes something like this:
A stranger will befriend you and give you helpful advice about where you’re headed. He/she may inform you the temple you’re planning to visit is closed and point out a “spectacular nearby temple” as an alternative. The goal is to convince you to visit the made-up temple.
After building a sense of trust over a few minutes of friendly conversation, the stranger will offer to help you further.
He/she will call over a friend, a tuk-tuk driver, and negotiate a discounted rate to the temple on your behalf. The stranger will explain that cab drivers often rip tourists off, but that this driver will give you a fair rate because they are friends.
And there you are thinking Bangkok is the friendliest city in Asia! (The driver is in on the scam as well.)
Let’s say you get into this tuk-tuk. The driver will either take you to 1) an unknown, secluded temple far from the city center or 2) a jewelry store, where you’ll be introduced to a special deal on precious gems and essentially forced to purchase some. The second situation is more like a kidnapping.
If instead you’re taken to a sketchy temple, once inside, you’ll run into a nicely dressed Thai or Westerner who speaks decent English. He/she will tell you about a local deal on gems in which you can buy precious stones for a fraction of the price and resell them in your home country for loads more. Or something along those lines.
The tuk-tuk driver will at some point tell you this same story. He may even take you to another temple, which will be equally as disappointing. But there you’ll meet another stranger also talking about this special gem deal.
The point is to build a false sense of confidence around this gem story, because for you, the oblivious tourist, it’s as if two or three complete strangers are confirming this relatively easy way to make money.
Eventually you too will end up at the gem store.
If you purchase gems, you’ll have to pay in cash, or perhaps purchase gold down the street to use as payment. This way there is no paper trail.
When you return home you’ll realize the stones are worthless. That’s the Bangkok gem scam.
Once we learned about the scam, we started noticing that several men would approach us near the main temples and repeatedly try to tell us they were closed. It was really confusing to run into locals giving us false information, but we just had to ignore them.
Unfortunately our experience led us to keep our guard up during our time in the city, meaning we basically trusted no one who approached us. This somewhat hindered our experience in Bangkok, as one of the best feelings while traveling is making that local connection.
My advice to other Bangkok visitors it this: Just stay away from anyone trying to convince you that a certain site is closed. Always do your own research and ask other travelers around you. I’d also suggest reading up on the other tourist scams that run rampant in the city. It’s incredibly interesting to learn about them, and it’ll help you become aware of potential tourist traps.
That being said, Bangkok is one of the wildest and brightest cities I’ve ever visited — and it is 100 percent worth your time.
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