Having conquered the majority of Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia, I suppose you could say we were becoming robust backpackers. No set of circumstances we experienced in the previous ten months could have prepared us for the ordeal we endured in Bangkok. We’d been incredibly careful with our cashflow, super security conscious and fully prepared for dealing with any ailments. My girlfriend and I were having a blast, cursing the day we had to return home.
Things changed in Bangkok. First impressions of the Thai capital’s urban metropolis weren’t good. From the train window we could see unbroken rows of corrugated shacks, awful sanitation conditions and a mass of children playing alongside open-air drainage canals. The once distant smog cloud was now directly above us as we pulled in to Hualamphong Station, Central Bangkok. Stepping off the train we were mesmerised by the sheer volume of people. There must have been thousands of people in my immediate eyeshot. The intense humidity meant every task requiring effort was a major challenge. Irritability increased further as opportunist sales folk bombarded us with offers of Thai souvenirs, sightseeing trips and tuk-tuk rides.
We splashed out the equivalent of £3 per night on an air-conditioned hotel. April in Thailand is hot season and the temperature never drops below 40°c. An exhausting, sweat ridden three days later, we’d visited most of the sights listed in our trusty guidebook. Both physically and gastronomically we were beginning to suffer. My heat-affected partner was struggling to eat plain rice and I just couldn’t drink enough water.
Whilst walking to Wat Po, the last temple we planned to visit (frankly there are too many), we were stopped by a local informing us that Wat Po was closed for prayers until 6:00 p.m. He suggested some places to visit in the meantime. I asked if he was a tuk-tuk driver (noisy three seated mopeds driven by farangs, foreigner-friendly deceitful villains) to which he responded “No I work in Wat Po”.
Out of shock at his proficient level of spoken English, we foolishly succumbed to his persuasions. He arranged a tuk-tuk to take us to the Lucky Buddha temple and then to a Gem Exhibition. After half an hour inside the Lucky Buddha temple, a seemingly genuine Thai struck up a conversation with us about the forthcoming Songkhran celebrations (Thai New Year). Casually he pulled out a receipt for some gems he’d just bought at the Gem Exhibition, insisting we get authentication certificates if we bought any gems. With hideous amounts of hindsight what happened next is gut wrenching. Still, I’ll quell my anger because others should be warned.
The tuk-tuk man dropped us at the Gem Exhibition housed in a smartly furnished Government crested building. An obese Thai woman greeted us, caked in make-up, and told us very convincingly how we could earn a 150% profit re-selling gems in the U.K. She offered us a set, consisting of a ring, earrings and pendant at a total cost of a cool £1,000.
We discussed authenticity at great length. These guys were flawless – very professional and unbelievably genuine. They convinced us. We signed and sealed the envelope ourselves. Inside was the official certificate, signed receipt, written buyback guarantee and the evil stones. The package was being sent by courier to our home address, and we were to wait for the insurance docket from the couriers at our hotel the following day. That evening we were chauffeur driven around Bangkok and treated to an all expense paid Thai dancing cabaret performance.
By noon the following day the insurance docket hadn’t arrived, so I repeatedly called the Mon Pere Gems Company discovering our contact had conveniently gone on holiday. A scam was in the cards and I knew it. I could sense my girlfriend’s anxiety and my nerves were beginning to tremble too. Alone, I ventured out into the overwhelming chaos and postponed our trip to Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north for another two days. I decided to check my email account to find news that added to the cloud of malaise already hanging over my head. If we had been ripped off, I was in trouble, a miscalculation somewhere meant I only had £40 remaining until I dropped off Mt Overdraft. For the first time in 10 months I was beginning to feel homesick. Daily living expenses in Thailand are an ex-student’s dream, but we had four weeks left before flying home, an amount even Scrooge himself would have struggled with.
The more I scrutinised their sales pitch in my mind, the more I realised we’d been scammed. We contacted the British Embassy for advice. They confirmed our suspicions on hearing the company name, Mon Pere. My girlfriend burst into tears and I felt incredibly nauseous. We were given the name and address of the Ministry of Internal Trade and set out to find Mr. Soiploy and his team.
Mr. Soiploy informed us the Mon Pere Gems Company had shifted two million baht (£30,000) in one week through gem scams. We found out others had invested even more than us. One solo traveller handed over £5,600. Another young girl on her first stop on a round-the-world ticket, who was hoping to fund the rest of her trip on the re-sale of the gems in the U.K., lost £2100. She was due to fly to Perth, Australia the following day.
I sat there boiling (mentally and physically) cursing myself for being so stupid, in awe of their deceptive professionalism, and I became increasingly frustrated at Mr. Soiploys’s nonchalant attitude. Soiploy needed the gems in his hands before he could help, so our bewildered parents sent them back from good old England. Soiploy assured us we could continue our trip to Chiang Mai after warning us the Mon Pere Gems company could close down over the Thai New Year.
The whole of Bangkok seemed to be against us so it was a huge relief to escape the stressful chaos by spending the next four days in the slightly cooler Chiang Mai. On our return to Bangkok, an email from my parents confirmed the couriers guaranteed the gems were now at the British Embassy. After taking an hour to proceed at a snail’s pace for three miles through the Bangkok’s traffic mayhem, we arrived at the British Embassy. The persona of the Gerkah soldier at the gate re-affirmed the legality, decency and integrity one associates with the British establishment.
Clutching the gems we traversed Bangkok again and presented Soiploy with them. We were told that if Mon Pere didn’t close before Songkhran, we could get 75% refund. There were too many uncertainties and far too much use of the word “maybe”. I was losing faith in anything Thai. This was confirmed by Soiploy’s lazy attempts to rectify our predicament. Hope was diminishing quickly and I was finding it hard to stay positive. Soiploy assured us he would try his best.
We had communicated on email with a guy who can’t speak English. We felt useless, fifth in a queue for a refund from a professional conning outfit, which, with too much governmental pressure, could cease trading overnight. I inquired what would happen if the shop did close. Soiploy replied through his overworked translator there would be a wait of two weeks before the case went to the Thai courts. Not a chance. At this point I would have gladly paid £500 to never have to return to Bangkok again.
Our trip continued south to the picturesque islands of Ko Lanta and Ko Phi Phi. We were resigned to the fact we’d lost £1000. A month later Soiploy kindly emailed us with an apology that Mon Pere had shut down and no refund was possible. He asked if we wanted the gems sent home. I wanted to destroy the damn things but thought they might be worth a fraction of the sale value. On our return to the U.K., we took the stones to several jewellers who told us the sale price of our set would fetch £300.
I advise anybody travelling to Bangkok not to consider buying gems at all. Be very wary of tuk tuk drivers and eat only what looks piping hot and familiar. This opposes the joys of travelling in a different culture, as using local transport and enjoying local cuisine constitute a large part of people’s perceptions of a new place, however, after my experiences, I recommend you keep your wits and trust absolutely no one in Bangkok.
Our experiences are not uncommon. It is puzzling why there are not stricter precautionary measures in place. There is supposedly a Tourist Police network throughout Thailand, but I found they were only useful when asking for directions. For a developing country that relies so heavily on tourism, the “genuine” authorities, hotels, guesthouses and U.K. based travel agents need to make it clear that rogue organisations targeting gullible foreigners do exist. The more often these incidents happen, the harder it will be for Thailand to shake off a reputation that reveals the dark side of an otherwise beautiful country.