13 January, 2013

Thailand: What's a "Tourist Trap" anyway? (Sunday Afternoon)

We left Wat Pho, and had planned to visit the Grand Palace next. This is probably one of the single biggest tourist attractions in Bangkok. It was just after noon, the hottest part of the day. We think maybe we can walk to the palace, but aren’t sure how far it is. So we’re standing on the corner outside Wat Pho, discussing. This, it turns out, is the worst possible thing to do. The reason, which is now plain as day, is that standing in such a location is pretty much advertising yourself to be available for the confidence game known better as the “Tourist Trap.” I have always known the expression, and always thought that I knew what one was. But, for the most part, in the US, we don’t really have anything that would constitute the truest form of a tourist trap. About as close as we get in the US is the concept of timeshare vacation rentals, as part of a package whereby you get a discounted price on some actual tourist activity. And the big difference there is that, for the most part, in the US, we knowingly and willingly walk into these traps to save money, often not aware at how irritatingly “not worth it” the experience will be. In this far more sophisticated form of the tourist trap, when well-played, you don’t realize that it’s even happening until you’re in it (or perhaps not at all), and you don’t get any sense of the impressive scope of it until you look back on the series of events and start connecting the dots.

So, let me spare you the suspense and tell you how it went down. Our one and only lapse in judgment (we hope).

Standing outside Wat Pho, and trying to decide which way to go. A man in a uniform, about 50 years old, walks up to us, with very little English, he greets us and begins extremely friendly conversation. He compliments her beauty, and tells me I am a lucky guy. Asks if we are married, or getting married. We ask him how far to the Grand Palace. He says it is too far to walk, because it’s so hot. Also, the temple is closed from 12-2pm every day, so it will be a little while before we can visit. But there are some other sights around town that are worth checking out. He suggests that we visit the Smiling Buddha, because it will bring us good luck. And that we should visit another temple called Golden Mount. And that also, since we are going to be over there anyway, we should check out the Bangkok Expo Center. It is a market the sells fine tailored clothing and jewelry, and that they only have a sale for the first two weeks of the year to general public. He will help get us a Tuk Tuk (taxi that’s more like a motorcycle with a carriage on it) for only 30 BHT (which sounds awfully cheap) who will drive us around to all these sites for 1 hour and wait for us at each site and then drop us at the Grand Palace. That sounds ridiculous and, in truth, it was. Why would a driver sit around for us for an hour for $1 US. Since this was our first day, we assumed that maybe we don’t understand the economy and that $1 is a fair amount of money for these drivers. There were no red flags. We figured “Sure, we’ll check out these sites while we are waiting for the Grand Palace to be open again… and we’ll just say that we’re not interested in this Expo Center that he mentioned.” So we get in the Tuk Tuk, and he took (took) us to the Smiling Buddha. It’s a small temple, in some random neighborhood, down some random street. Not a big tourist attraction, but it’s quaint enough. He says he’ll wait for us while we look around. So we go inside, and look at the smallish Buddha. As we’re sitting there, an Asian man (not sure if he’s Thai or not) comes into the temple, wearing tourists clothes. He’s very friendly, and mentions to us that it’s good luck to bow to the Smiling Buddha. We bow. We end up chit-chatting with him a bit, and he’s very nice. He’s visiting from Surit Thani which is a city to the south. He drives here every year, once a year, to make a wish to the Smiling Buddha, for good luck. Very quaint. After chatting briefly about his visit, and about our visit, he then mentions that after the Smiling Buddha, he is going to visit the Bangkok Expo Center, because they have a special of selling fine clothing and gems to the public for only the first few weeks of each year. He goes on to tell us about how he is in the business of selling rubber from a rubber tree farm in his village, and that he used to go to the auctions to sell his rubber, dressed in his normal clothes, and none of the Western auction buyers would bid on his goods. Then, he had a very nice suit made for him at the Expo Center, and that he was able to get best price at the auction for his rubber. So, because his son is about to get married, he has come here to purchase 2 suits for his son.

Very quaint story. And, in hindsight, very freaking obvious red flag that we were in “Stage 2” of the tourist trap setup that we’d walked into. None of this registered on our radar at all at the time. In fact, whereas we started off thinking that we were going to just skip out on this “Expo Center,” we were now motivated to go to it, because if two different kind strangers are recommending it, then maybe it would be kind of cool to check out. Ugh. So we tell our Tuk Tuk driver we’d like to go to the Expo Center, and down more winding roads we go, eventually arriving at what looks like a smallish shop, not exactly what I’d call an “Expo” but who knows what that would look like. We are told that first floor is jewelry, second floor is tailored clothing. We aren’t really interested in clothing, but figure, what the heck, we’ll look at the jewelry. So we go in, and there are many rings, necklaces, earrings, etc. Emeralds, sapphires, rubies, diamonds. You name it. Gold jewelry, silver jewelry. They didn’t point out any platinum, so I guess they didn’t have that? The man behind the counter keeps telling us, over and over and over again that sapphires are for happiness. The word happiness is repeated over and over, and we are asked if we are on our honeymoon, etc. Of course, I start thinking, “I have no idea if this shit is real, but if it is real, the prices are pretty good, and I would hate for my girlfriend to think I wouldn’t get her something nice if she wanted it.” So I’m trying to read her, and figure out if there’s something she really likes. After standing around for longer than necessary, Melissa concludes that there’s nothing she really likes. Even if there had been, I am not sure how we would have confidently navigated the process of figuring out if we trust it or not, but the point is, they’d already trapped us into considering the possibility of making a purchase. He’d mentioned that everything comes with certification, but I wasn’t truly considering trusting any certification they showed me. The issue here at play, which caused pause (by design), is not wanting to have your partner think you wouldn’t get them something nice if they wanted it. So it’s a bit of a dilemma. Fortunately, the fact that Melissa has particular tastes which weren’t satisfied managed to get us out of there in one piece.

We ask the Tuk Tuk driver to take us to the last of the sites on this whirlwhind 30 BHT tour, the Golden Mount. He says that he will, but he wants us to stop at one more tailor, and look, just for 5 minutes. We don’t want to do this, and we tell him so. He pleads with us a little, and when we still say no, he pulls out his wallet and shows us a voucher that seems to suggest that he’ll get “free gas” from Shell if he brings passengers to at least look at this place’s goods. So, in the spirit of kindness, we acquiesce. We wind down more alleys and streets through neighborhoods that I couldn’t possibly identify if you were to promise me a billion dollars for retracing the route. We end up at a tailor shop and we enter, figuring we’ll spend only 5 minutes there, and that’s the end of it. When we enter, we’re greeted by a man who speaks much more fluent English than anyone else we’ve met all day. He immediately picks us out as Americans. We ask why, and he says it’s because of the shoes Melissa is wearing (flip flops). We laugh. He asks us if we are interested in getting fitted for a suit, and I say I’m not. Then Melissa looks at the fabrics for dresses, some of which do look very nice. After saying “no way” to suits, he lowers his bar to shirts. Asks if I would like to have some nice custom tailored shirts. For some reason, this is a hot-button phrase for her, who immediately perks up “Honey, you would look great in a custom-tailored shirt!” Two important things here: (1) I guess she’s telling me that my shirts don’t look great on me already, and (2) We’re sunk. There’s no way we’re leaving here without custom-tailored shirts. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which are that I want to look like a guy who cares about how I dress, and I don’t want to disappoint her and, truthfully, the idea of custom-tailored shirts is kind of interesting. Hook. Line. Sinker. And we didn’t even put up a fight. It’s like shooting shellfish in a barrel. He says some business about how it’s 2000 BHT for 1 shirt, or 4500 BHT for 3 shirts. I have no difficulty with math, and am immediately thinking, “We’re in Thailand, where everything is supposed to be cheap, and he’s essentially telling me US $50 per shirt?!” I mention this to her, who points out that I would never be able to get a custom-tailored shirt in the US for even $100, never mind $50, and that this is not a bad deal. Of course, a key qualifying assumption here is that these will, in fact, be quality custom-tailored shirts. This should have been the time to negotiate, if we were to go forward at all. Offer him 2500 BHT for 3 shirts – that would at least be under $30 a shirt, starting to feel like a deal, though still only if there is a certainty of quality.

Instead of negotiating at this point, he’s already got us picking colors. Blue, black, maroon. Done. On to the next step. Measurements. I am still not even sure what I am doing, or why I am doing it, but there we are getting measurements. He probably senses that I am still on the fence, so he begins flipping through his “Sale Book” of recent transactions, and talking about how many shirts people have bought, and how satisfied these customers have been. In the meantime, Melissa is still looking at fabrics for dresses that she may or may not want or need. They’re not cheap, either. A dress in the “nice” fabric would cost her 9000 BHT ($300), or one in the more plain fabric around 6000 BHT. I am still carrying, of course, the guilt of having not found her the perfect jewelry in the last store. It’s clear, in hindsight, that we had our perspective shifted into a realm where neither of us was thinking rationally. Melissa keeps saying she doesn’t need a dress, as they keep holding the fabric up to her in front of a mirror. Because I am getting (I guess?!) these shirts, I feel like I must offer to get her the dress. Here, and only here, do I make my first attempt at negotiating, and it’s really a pretty pathetic one. The cost of shirts plus dress, without negotiation, would be 13,500 BHT (that’s $450, on our first day in Thailand, for goods of unknown quality, from people who were recommended by a random stranger on the street). I say to him that if he’d be willing to do 11,000 BHT for the dress plus shirts, we’d do both. Interestingly, he gives us a flat-out “No.” with a rather dismissive tone that suggests that this is not the kind of place that prices are negotiable. One could do all sorts of analysis about why he might be willing to risk losing the sale, but I think the fact is that he was more aware of the risks than we were. He knew we would pay the 4500 BHT for the shirts, and he also must have had a sense that we would not pay for the dress. So his tactic succeeded in focusing on the sale he knew he could get, and also strengthened the impression that he was not willing to negotiate. We end up buying the shirts, with the merchant telling us they’ll be delivered to our hotel before the end of our stay.

When we left, the Tuk Tuk driver asked us if we got anything. We told him. He asked us how much we paid, and when we told him, he gave a look that I still don’t know how to interpret. I thought his look suggested that we paid too much. But, looking back, there’s little reason to think we know what his look meant. He then drove us to the Golden Mount, and finally to the Grand Palace, where we decided that it was actually too late to see the palace that day, because it was only an hour before closing time, and we felt tired and rushed. What’s worse, since we had used the driver longer than an hour, we agreed to give him 100 BHT instead of the original agreed upon 30 BHT to take us to the Grand Palace (otherwise he would have left us in the middle of nowhere). It was okay that we were skipping the Grand Palace for the day, since they also charge a non-trivial fee for renting long pants if you’re wearing inappropriate clothing for the temples, which one or both of us (definitely me) were. There was an associated wait for the pants which would have cut even further into our time to look around the Grand Palace (which is a whopping 1000 BHT entrance fee - $30) so it didn’t make sense to do it until we had better clothes, and more time.

Within a few hours, we realized that we’d been completely set up from the very first person in uniform who offered to “help” us. It took us another day to realize that the man from SuritThane who happened upon us at the Smiling Buddha was also part of the con. He was there to plant the extra seed in our minds about what a great deal we’d be getting. And the Tuk Tuk driver, of course, asked us how much we’d paid because he wanted to know how much of a cut he should be demanding from the tailor. From what we subsequently read, and heard from others, this is exactly the way the scam works. Textbook execution. And, in fairness to us, had we not gone along and purchased something, we would likely have encountered hostility or coercion, and may indeed have been dumped off somewhere we didn’t want to be.

It became even more obvious how much we’d been tricked the next day, when someone again attempted to scam us, unsuccessfully. I wanted to be mad at someone, and almost got mad at her (had to fight myself to resist it) for having encouraged me to get some nice shirts, but I was mostly mad at myself, because I got suckered. If I’d just said “no” then we’d have walked out (and faced who knows what next). But every time my mood dipped over the following few days, much like food stuck between two teeth, I would return to this memory, and get frustrated or upset again. Fortunately, it was not the prevailing thought, but it did keep nagging at me from time to time, particularly any time we walked past a pushy tailor shop, trying to lure us in (and they’re literally on every street, and they will truly accost you every time you pass, regardless of how many times you say no). The story doesn’t end up with us so clearly screwed as it sounds, but I’ll leave you in a little suspense for now.

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