It was our final day in Bangkok, a warm, sunny Saturday morning. My cousin and I were busy sampling some of the local cuisine. We were at some roadside stalls near Bangkok’s World Trade Centre, eyeing the food on offer by the local denizens. The ever present traffic streamed past on the road, accompanied by the stifling pollution emitted by improperly tuned cars. Gerald passed a 20 baht note onto a stall owner in exchange for food of varying description skewered on four sticks. The transaction had just completed when we were approached by an amiable Thai man dressed simply in a white business shirt who claimed to be the chief of security of the World Trade Centre. The usual questions were exchanged, “Where are you from?” and so forth. Soon after his eyes lit up and he inquired, “Have you gone to see the lucky buddha today?” We shook our heads and he continued, “Ohhh you must go to see lucky buddha, open one day in the year, today only!”
It was about 11am at that point, and we were due to meet back with everyone else in the hotel at 12.15pm for check-out. “We’re running short on time, perhaps after we check out of the hotel, we can return with the rest of our group?”
“Oh, but lucky buddha close in 40 minute, and open only one day in the year, today. It only 7, 10 minute by took-took away. You must go and check!”
He then asked for a pen and scrawled out the directions to “lucky buddha” on a hastily concocted map. He paused, then added, “While you there, you should also visit this place…” He muttered a few more sentences that we didn’t quite catch. We nodded in apparent comprehension nonetheless. He handed back the paper, on which was written “Wat Sapan” (the name of the temple in Thai) and something else we didn’t pay attention to at the time.
“So, you want to go? Took-took, only 30 baht!”
I looked at Gerald, “Yeah, why not? If it’s only open one day in the year?”
The next thing we knew, our hospitable Thai security chief had beckoned over a took-took that was conveniently waiting by the roadside. He negotiated a 30 baht fare to Wat Sapan, and we were on our way.
A took-took is one of the various forms of transport around Thailand. It’s a small three-wheeled, open-air vehicle powered by a whining two-stroke engine. Being somewhere between the size of a motorbike and car, took-took drivers weave in between the Bangkok traffic as deftly as a ship may navigate a rocky shoreline in treacherous waters. To some, riding a took-took is to place your life in jeopardy. To others, like us, it’s the only way to travel the streets. Sure, you cop lungfuls of torrid grey fumes from cars in front and trucks overtake within centimeters of your face, but it’s all good fun.
Five minutes later, we were deposited at a rather modest looking, non-descript buddhist temple. The took-took driver turned off the engine and in halting English, told us he’d wait for us until we finished. He led us over to a stall selling bunches of orchids, jor sticks and other buddhist worship implements. Without time to object that I wasn’t Buddhist, I was given an assortment of the knick knacks shoved and I found myself inside a shrine before a 3 meter gilt statue of smiling Buddha. Two Japanese lay prostrate before it. With no real idea what to do, nor any desire to find out, I lit the candles and jor sticks, stuck them into their holders, shoved the flowers into some large urns and hastily departed the room. Gerald proxy-worshiped for his mum, who’s buddhist.
We made our way over to a second, smaller shrine, which was empty save for a man seated on the steps at the entrance. It wasn’t hard to play “spot-the-non-buddhist-tourist” with me there, and the man called out to me: “Do you speak English?”
“Ah, are you Buddhist?”
“Ah… well, come, sit down here. Must not stand in presense of buddha, is rude.” He patted the step beside him. “Sit down here for five minutes, will bring you good luck,” he said, pointing at a line of Thai inscribed over the shrine’s entrance. So I did, and we started chatting. The man, turned out to be another amiable Thai. He introduced himself as (what sounded like) Pee.
“Where are you from?”
“Ohh! Australia, yeah I know Australia. Sydney?”
“Sydney, yes… Sydney, Kinfordsmit, you know Kinfordsmit?”
I looked back blankly, “Sorry?”
“Kinfordsmit! Kinfordsmit! Airport!”
“Oh, Kingsford-Smith airport! Yes, of course I know.”
It turns out that Pee was an assistant pilot for Thai airlines who used to fly the Sydney-Bangkok route, but was recently relegated to the Sydney-Singapore route. He seemed quite excited when we mentioned we would be heading to Singapore later that day.
“You know Sim Lim Square in Singapore? Yes? Good camera there!”
Sim Lim is better known for its 7-levels of computer hardware on sale there, but nonetheless he had got our attention. We moved on to the topic of discussing the price differences between Thailand and the rest of the world. Electronics in Thailand are relatively expensive, and Pee explained to us, that a common habit of airline staff was to buy cheap cameras in Singapore and resell them to Thai stores at a 25% markup price. On the other hand, Thai goods, such as gems (typically sapphires and rubies) and clothing were attractive to foreigners due to their relative price. When these goods are exported from Thailand, however, they are hit with high government taxes. For gems, this boosts prices for jewellery importers in Singapore and Sydney by as much as 95%.
“You know Tiffany?”
“Tiffany show in Pattaya? Yes, we went!”
He scrunched up his face. “No! Tiffany store, AMP Tower in Sydney…”
I have no idea where Tiffany’s is in Sydney, but I knew what he was referring to, so I just gently nodded.
“Many tourists, come to Thailand, buy goods cheap and go back home. Sell to stores and make profit. You see, your passport,” he lectured, jabbing at his shirt pocket, “gives you right to take gems out, no charge. One setting… one bracelet, earrings, necklace. One setting, no charge. No rectory [factory], import, export tax.”
It’s true, tourists are exempt from taxes on goods bought from overseas (within certain guidelines). If you could sell gems, for instance, back in Australia for a 50% markup, it would still be less than the 95% worth of taxes levied by governments. That equalled a tidy profit. “I have made $2500 US dollars this way once,” Pee boasted. That would be enough to repay the cost of a holiday to Bangkok! Gerald’s and my eyes glistened and we listened on intently. It was all logical.
“Do you know where best place buy gems?”
“Yeah, gems of the world? Big gem stores?” Gerald replied questioningly.
Pee scrunched up his face again and shook his head vigourously. “No! Those places are tourist place! Must buy from exporter stores! Tiffany buy from exporter, you buy from exporter. Not tourist place!” He laughed. “If you have chance, you go to exporter and take gems. Go back home, sell for big money! This trick very well known among tourists. I surprised you not know!”
He took out his wallet and pulled from it a scrap of paper. The wallet bulged conspicuously with a thick wad of cash. He closed it, paused, then opened it again, and pulled out another scrap of paper. The second scrap was a receipt for a necklace set with a small ruby. “Look, I buy this just yesterday.” The receipt was made out to the tune of US$2500. “I sell when I in Singapore next.” The receipt vanished within the folds of the wallet again and he scribbled some words on the first scrap. “I show you where to buy gems…”
“We have no time, maybe next–” Gerald began, but Pee cut him off.
“Only take 5 minutes! I strongly suggest you go, check, see. Very quick, go back sell, make money.”
He passed the scrap of paper to us. Scrawled on it was: “Tiffany (Phatunay) Thai Government Export Centre Name Yindee Lapidary”
We thanked him and chatted for a couple more minutes during which we learnt that Akubra hats from Australia seemed to be another hot item that could be marked up in Thailand.
Surprisingly, our took-took driver was still there, waiting patiently. “We must tip a bit for waiting and returning us to the hotel.” I noted to Gerald. The driver revved the engine and we zoomed off. We began discussing the knowledge that Pee had imparted on to us. It was all believable. “Y’know, this whole thing could be one big scam?” Gerald said. The whole thing smelt of a scam, but we just couldn’t see how at that point in time.
Five minutes later, we pulled into a small alley and the took-took ground to a halt. “Ah, good shop here, you go in, look, 5 minutes.” Our gazes turned to the shop he pointed at. We had been startled by the unscheduled stop, but we were all the more startled at the sign on the shop: “Yindee Lapidary Gems”
The penny dropped and everything clicked into place. Stories of tourists paying huge amounts for gems, only to return home to find that they were nearly worthless, returned to my head. Of course! We began filling in the rest of the blanks, much like you do after a movie that has a twist at the end.
“No no, got to get back to hotel. Must meet tour group in 10 minutes.” Gerald said firmly, his language dropping in level to match the took-took driver’s proficiency in English. The driver kept insisting that we take a 5 minute look, but we kept insisting back, just as firmly that it was “very important” we get back to the hotel and get back immediately.
The driver was visibly pissed off, but he complied. We never actually got dropped off at the hotel, but about a kilometer away from it. In no mood to complain, we quickly jumped off and chucked a 20 baht note at him, which he pocketed sullenly. We scooted off, realising we had been hit by the famous Thai gems scam.
I have only heard about tourists being sold devalued gems, but never the surrounding tale of how so many tourists succumb to such gullibility. Having experienced it, the scam (although I’m sure it has a few variations) is fairly elaborate. In hindsight, though, it falls apart with examination:
1. The “chief of security” probably wasn’t.
2. The took-took driver was all too conveniently waiting by the roadside to take us to “lucky buddha”.
3. The took-took driver all too conveniently, and all too cheaply, waited on us at the temple.
4. “Wat Sapan” open for one day only? Yeah, right.
5. Although Pee claimed that the sign about the second shrine said that if you sit for five minutes, you will be lucky, no one else who had come to the shrine sat for five minutes.
6. Although Pee possessed enough knowledge to convince us he knew a bit about Singapore and Sydney, he never showed any airline pilot credentials. He claimed his business card was left “at home with his wife”.
7. And of course the dead giveaway: How the heck would the took-took driver know about a gems exporter? And coincidentally the same one that Pee told us about?
8. The other phrase written on the Wat Sapan map given to us by the security chief was naturally “Yindee Lapidary”
Back at the hotel, we discovered that we were not the only ones to have been targeted that morning – two other groups had undergone the same routine, but no one was stung. One group even had a took-took driver who explained to them that if they stayed in the gems store for 10 minutes, he would get 5 litres of petrol. I think we came out with the better deal – 20 baht for an extended took-took ride, a temple visit, and a good chat – there is a measure of truth in what Pee said, although Thai gems is probably not what you should be looking at.
Anyhow, I’m currently in Singapore. Will get around to doing a full write-up when I get back. Have an awesome New Year’s…