Thailand is often referred to as the ‘Land of Smiles’ which, according to most in the know, comes from the Thais being such friendly people and always smiling. It should also be known as ‘Land of Scams’. There is certainly no shortage of people who would be happy to empty your bank account on an empty promise, especially in the tourist areas like Phuket. But more on that later.
After four wonderful weeks in Choeng Mon it was time to visit Phuket. Phuket is by far Thailand’s most popular tourist destination with Patong, Karon and Kata being the three most popular beaches. We really wanted no part of Patong which has a terrible reputation, is heavily commercialised and horribly overbuilt – not that the other two are far behind. The terrible reputation comes from the sleaze, corruption and crime that the town is well known for. The plan was to spend one week in Karon and two weeks in Phan Nga, about 150km north of Karon.
Flying from Koh Samui airport was like taking a trip back in time when going to an airport wasn’t comparable to a visit to the dentist. Security is clearly not a problem at the airport and, apart from the x-raying of hand luggage, was non-existent. There are no barriers between the waiting areas and the runways which are only separated by lovely gardens. If only all airports could be like this!
Now to the scams. Any visitor to Thailand would be well advised to research all the scams in Thailand as there are many. The most common scams are ‘The Grand Palace is Closed today’ scam; the Jet Ski scam; the Tailor scam; the Gem scam; the Bar scam; the Sombondee Seafood Market scam; the Putpong Sex Show scam (don’t ask, you really don’t want to know); the Tuk Tuk scam; the Timeshare scam and the Minibus taxi scam. There are websites dedicated to exposing these scams so they are pretty easy to become familiar with. We had done our homework and were aware that we would be exposed to most of these scams while in Phuket.
We had been exposed to a small scam in Koh Samui although calling it a scam may be a little harsh, it would probably be more like supply and demand economics. The concept is very similar to Uber’s Surge Pricing but I somehow think the taxi drivers in Thailand discovered the concept long before some clever computer fundi thought about it and wrote an algorithm. Because of the delay in flying from Bangkok to Koh Samui due to the Swiss gentleman on the plane throwing his toys we only arrived late at night. When we arrived we were the last flight in and they had waited for us. There was a mad scramble to find taxis and those with only hand luggage, or lucky enough to get their checked luggage first, got in first. We happened to be at the back of the queue and by the time we got to the taxi counter there were only a few taxis left. We were quoted a price of THB500 for the very short ride from the airport to the hotel. We were aware that the standard rate was THB300 but it was either accept the price of THB500 or be left stranded at the airport once all the taxis had left. With little choice, we reluctantly accepted the price of THB500.
It was once we arrived at Phuket International Airport that we were exposed to our first real scam. The taxi industry in Phuket has a reputation for corruption and collusion that equals that of Bangkok’s for sleaze. Taxi rates for the trip from the airport to our hotel were THB1 000 to THB1 200 which quite frankly is a rip-off. There are alternatives but they come with their own challenges. A shared minibus from the airport to our hotel was THB200 per person. We elected to take a minibus.
The first challenge is waiting for enough passengers to fill the minibus. Six of us were unfortunate enough to arrive at an empty minibus and had to wait for another 5 passengers which in effect meant waiting for the next flight to arrive. It only took an hour and we were on our way, first stop the hotels in Patong, then those in Karon and finally those in Kata – or so we were told. After 10 minutes or so came the compulsory stop at a travel agent and this is where the scam happens. The taxi driver is paid a commission to stop at the travel agent.
As we stopped the owner of the travel agency, an elderly Thai lady (ETL), came out, opened the minibus door and informed us that they (the travel agency) were part of the same group as the taxi driver and that we were required to come into the office to show them our hotel papers. They are well aware that we all have hotel reservations but they really want to sell us the island tours. They sell the really lousy cheap tours that have terrible reviews at approximately double the price, the mark-up being their commission. The benefit is twofold, the ‘cheap and nasty’ tour operator gets people for his tours (if the passenger did some research and read the reviews they wouldn’t touch the tour) and the agency operator gets a hefty commission.
Being aware of the scam, I politely informed ETL that I was aware of the scam and Margaret and I would not be coming into the store. We would wait in the minibus until the others returned. This clearly was the wrong thing to say. ETL became very aggressive and threatened to have those who did not come into the store dropped in the centre of the town they were going to and they could make their own way to their hotels. After a little more arguing and more threats it was clear this was a fight we could not win. This exchange had now also alerted the others in the van to the scam and this caused ETL to become even more loud and aggressive.
We all dutifully filed into the store and showed them our hotel reservations and nine of us then returned to the minibus. By now everyone, except the two passengers in the store, had googled the scam and were well aware of it. It soon became clear that the two passengers still in the store – who turned out to be Americans – had not paid attention during the argument (or didn’t believe us) and were now buying tour tickets. One of the Russian passengers took pity on them and went into the store to show them the article dealing with the scam. Sadly for the Americans it was too late, the credit card payment had already been processed and no amount of quarreling would get ETL to give them their money back. It always helps to pay attention when the ‘s’ word is mentioned. It was a very unhappy American couple furiously researching what they had been scammed out of for the duration of the trip to their hotel!
And so, having done our duty to show them our hotel papers, we were dropped off at our hotel.
We had come across a few Russian tourists during our stay in Koh Samui but it soon became very evident that Thailand, and in particular Phuket, is a favourite holiday destination for Russian tourists. The hotel, in fact the entire area, was full of Russian tourists, many who, unfortunately, were not doing anything to enhance mother Russia’s reputation.
After a good night’s sleep it was time for breakfast and a look at our surroundings. No sooner had we left the hotel and crossed the street than we were confronted with our second scam – the timeshare scam. There are many tourists (mainly young men) who would love to stay in Thailand for longer than they initially planned, but do not have the money to do so. The timeshare industry has provided these men with a convenient way to make money and stay longer. Simply drive around the island and convince new tourists – who are fairly easy to spot – to come along to a timeshare presentation. That’s it – get them to the presentation and they will take over and do the hard sell. These touts drive along the main road on scooters looking for new targets. We were fairly easy to spot, I wear a large hat with ‘New Zealand’ printed boldly across the front. It’s like having a target painted on your forehead.
It literally took no more than 5 minutes for one of these touts to stop next to us. “Do you speak English” is the first question. It is a natural one and they have learnt the hard way, there is no point in making your sales pitch if you cannot be understood. And being aware of the scam I certainly do not speak English! My response is to greet them in Afrikaans or Zulu and that gets them moving along fairly quickly. They are fairly easy to spot and just as easy to fob off as long as you can convince them you don’t speak English. By the end of day two we had been approached by about 10 of these touts. I’m afraid to say some of them didn’t just get a polite greeting in Afrikaans or Zulu. There must be literally hundreds of these touts in Phuket and it is often impossible simply to cross the road from the hotel to the beach without being approached by them.
The internet is full of horror stories of people buying timeshare in Phuket only to find out that the property is worthless and a bottomless pit.
Tourists being scammed is certainly not unique to Thailand nor are they the worst offenders. There are many western countries, especially some European countries, that are far better at it and the amounts scammed are far greater.