I love Bangkok. I’ve visited 3 times in the last six months, and I’ll be back there in January to catch up with a friend before I head to Koh Rong, Cambodia. I love the chaotic vibe of it, and I can’t deny that I still have a soft spot for Khao San Road, despite being a long way from the fresh-faced backpacker that I was when I first visited.
Bangkok tends to be most people’s first stop when they go backpacking in Asia, partly because it’s super cheap to fly into, and partly because everything is so easy to get to from the centre. Of course, the fact that it’s home to the legendary Khao San Road only adds to its appeal, as backpackers from all around the world flock to experience a night on the world’s most notorious traveller’s strip.
Perhaps because it is home to so many naive young travellers, or perhaps because it is the capital city of an already corrupt country, no trip to Bangkok is complete without being scammed left, right and centre.
However, most of these scams are extremely easy to spot (and avoid) when you know what you’re looking for, so I’ve compiled a short list of the ones that got me during my first trip to the city.
I hope it helps!
1. Tuk Tuk drivers like to make detours
I’m not sure if this is a scam exactly, or maybe just an annoying quirk of the city, but all of the tuk tuk drivers are on a mission to constantly make some extra cash. One of the ways that they do this is by making deals with local businesses, promising to bring the business extra custom in exchange for gasoline. This reveals itself when a tuk tuk driver agrees to take you to your chosen destination, but makes a detour and instead takes you to a random shop, insisting that you go in and look around before he will take you to your destination. It’s harmless enough, and you’re not actually obligated to buy anything, but it sure is annoying!
Scam Rating: 2/5
Like I said, this is not a scam per se, just a way of the driver making a bit extra at your inconvenience. Once you’re familiar with the drill, it’s easy enough to quickly scoot around the shop and be back on your way, but it’s bewildering at first, when you’re dumped unceremoniously outside a random travel agent’s shop while the driver stands there, mutely gesturing for you to go inside without explaining what’s going on! It’s also very annoying if you’re in a rush to get anywhere.
2. More commission for the tuk tuks!
In addition to their little gasoline scam, all of the tuk tuk (and taxi) drivers around Khao San Road are paid by local businesses (think ping pong shows, ladyboy shows, Muay Thai boxing matches etc.) to bring them custom. Therefore, if you have somewhere specific you’d like to see one of these things, you can forget it because the tuk tuk driver will take you to whoever is paying his commission.
This happened to my friends and I when we wanted to go and see a ping pong show at Super Pussy in Patpong (I know, I know). We specified that we wanted to be taken to the Patpong district to see a ping pong show, but the driver just took us to some seedy backstreet and insisted that this was the place to see ping pong. Only after a heated argument where we agreed to pay him whatever commission he was getting from the backstreet club would he take us to where we wanted to go.
Scam Rating: 2.5/5
This is a particularly annoying scam, because in addition to making you late to wherever you want to be, you also end up either missing the show entirely, or having to pay through the nose for the driver to do their job and actually take you to where you want to be. It’s made even more annoying by the fact that there is no obvious way around this one: even if you know the score, it’s still difficult to avoid it happening to you.
3. Hidden costs
So as mentioned, my friends and I went to see a ping pong show at Super Pussy. Ignoring how morally questionable this was of us (if I’d known more about the shows prior, I never would have attended), I expected all of the acts to be included in the ticket price.
After paying around 300 baht to enter, we figured that all we would have to pay for inside was our drinks. However, after each girl had performed her 5 minute trick, she would come around asking for tips, expecting a further 100 baht from each of us. Of course, this quickly mounts up when you’re expected to part with it every 5 minutes, and suddenly the 300 baht entry fee didn’t seem like such a good deal after all.
Scam Rating: 3/5
Although we were never explicitly lied to (we were never told that the women wouldn’t ask for tips), this whole ordeal was made very awkward for us. We’d already paid the bar, and weren’t to know that these women were probably working solely for tips. Thus, when we saw their dead-behind-the-eyes expressions and defeated postures, we couldn’t help but feel bad and part with more money.
I don’t blame the performers for this. I blame the club owners, who clearly don’t provide their workers with a reasonable wage, and who make a lot of money off the backs of these girls without giving much back in return.
4. Friendly strangers on the street
On our first day in the city, we’d overslept and missed our pre-arranged transport to the floating markets. We decided to go and see some temples instead, and hadn’t got far from our hotel when a friendly local said hello to us, and began making conversation with us, asking where we were from, how long we had been in Thailand etc. Being new to travelling, we didn’t see anything wrong with this, and answered all of his questions, giving him all he needed to know that we were hapless tourists who didn’t have a clue.
On learning that we had missed our trip to the floating markets, the man told us that they were too touristy anyway, and pulled out a map to show us an alternative floating market. He explained that we could take a boat there, and that the boat would visit each temple and allow us to take photographs, before taking us around Bangkok and culminating at a floating market. Thinking he was just being helpful, we allowed ourselves to be bundled into a tuk tuk and taken to this wonderful boat.
On arriving at the harbour, we were told that the trip was 800 baht (an extortionate price for anything in Thailand), but paid it without thinking. We were then sent on a 60 minute boat trip through what I can only describe as the slums of Bangkok. We saw the temples from behind, at a distance, the market consisted of a lone woman selling soft drinks, and the ‘sights of Bangkok’ turned out to be ramshackle houses on the riverside.
Scam Rating: 4/5
These friendly strangers are con artists who make vast amounts of commission driving tourists to these shoddy boat trips. They don’t outright lie, but they wildly distort what’s on offer, and ensure that you get well and truly ripped off. The only reason that this doesn’t score a 5 is because there was actually a boat trip on offer – it just happened to suck.
5. The Grand Palace is closed!
On our way to see the famous Grand Palace, we ran into another friendly local who told us that unfortunately, the palace was closed for the time being, because it was a Thai holiday. He said that the palace would reopen in about 90 minutes, and recommended an ‘unmissable’ temple to see in the meantime.
Before we’d even replied to him, he’d circled something on a map (the same maps possessed by the last friendly local!) and flagged down a tuk tuk driver. Finally aware that the tuk tuk drivers are also in on this commission gained from street scammers, we hastily made our excuses and walked away in the opposite direction. It took only a few minutes before we saw posters outside the tourist police office warning travellers about locals who claim the Grand Palace is closed!
Sure enough, when we turned around and walked back to the palace, we found that it was open for business as usual.
Scam Rating: 5/5
This scam scores full marks on my scale because unlike the others, which rely on distorting the truth and exaggerating things, this scam involves an outright lie. I don’t know where the tuk tuk driver would have taken us, or how much money it would have costed us, but I highly doubt that anything positive would have come from the situation!
Fortunately these were the only scams that my friends and I encountered in Bangkok. Strangely, I’ve not been targeted on my two subsequent visits – perhaps I give off more of a ‘don’t mess with me’ vibe now!
Although scams like these can be annoying, we must understand that it’s human nature to try and make the best for ourselves, and if these people are being offered extremely high rates of commission in exchange for ripping a few rich westerners off (or at least, westerners who they perceive as rich), then who are we to judge?
These scams certainly didn’t spoil my time in Bangkok – they just made me a hell of a lot more streetwise, and really, is that so much of a bad thing?
Have you encountered any street scams on your travels? What happened? Please share with me in the comments section!