Thailand - Scams
As soon as Thailand became a major tourist destination the country started to develop a reputation for cheating and scams. Although this happens in every country, it does tend to be more common in Thailand.
Thailand is a very unfair, inequitable country and for those born into a low position in the social hierarchy life can be difficult. Even for a person who is intelligent and hardworking, if they come from the 'wrong' background they will get no decent opportunities in life.
The only way for many to make money is to use their guile to cheat and deceive people. Thai folktales tell of a character called Sri Thanonchai, who was artful at deceiving people, even rich and clever people. He is regarded as something of a hero.
There is also an element of Thai cultural behaviour known as 'luk gai' in Thai, which refers to sneaky behaviour. The literal meaning is to steal chickens, but the idiomatic meaning is to get ahead of others using sneaky means.
The bottom line is that sneaky deceptive behaviour isn't really frowned upon in Thailand and, with some people, the ability to be able to deceive people and get away with it is actually something to be proud of.
Here's a passage from 'Money Politics, Globalisation and Crisis - The Case of Thailand' by John Laird. It is taken from a quote by Prof. Kriengsak Charoenwongsak (a Thai) of the Institute of Future Studies for Development made in August 1996.
"Throughout history, the people of Thailand have never known the true meaning of an egalitarian society. Consequently, Thais do not attach importance to the concepts of freedom, individual rights, and equality. Instead, they submit to people with power and material wealth - and many grow up to believe that cheating without getting caught is an achievement of which they can be proud."
Say no to strangers
Thais do get scammed, but because they understand their own kind it is far more difficult for Thai scammers to scam other Thais.
Much easier to scam are foreign tourists, and if the Tourist Authority figures are to be believed, around 30 million foreign tourists visit Thailand every year.
Of course, Thai scammers want easy prey and they will go to places that are popular with tourists. Wherever there are lots of foreign tourists in Thailand you will find lots of Thai scammers.
However, don't worry because it's not that bad. Even if you get scammed it's probably not going to be for a great deal of money and the amount is unlikely to ruin your vacation. The information I will give you below should help you with identifying and avoiding scammers.
Finally, although it does occur, there is very little violent crime in Thailand. I would much rather be in a country where I risk being scammed compared to being in a country where I risked being murdered.
The following are some examples of scams in Thailand.
My Scam Experience
I was scammed on my first ever trip to Thailand in 1987. While sightseeing in Bangkok with a friend, two young lads approached us and got chatting. They said they would show us around the city if we would talk to them in English so that they could practice their language skills. This seemed like a reasonable deal and we agreed.
It started off very pleasantly and they took us to places we never would have found by ourselves. However, part of the tour involved taking a longtail boat around canals in Thonburi. We got off the boat, went to a temple, had lunch and then returned to the boat.
Longtail taxi on the Chaophraya river in Bangkok
When the boat returned to where we had boarded the driver stopped a few metres from the jetty and a heated conversation ensued between him and the two young lads. It then got quite physical with him attempting to strangle one of the boys before they offered him their watches in an effort to placate him.
They told us that he had demanded a lot of money - several thousand Baht. At first we refused to pay, but when he continued being aggressive with the boys we just paid up. After we had handed over the money the driver still didn't look happy and the conversation between him and the boys continued.
They then told us that the amount he had given was for each of us, not both. We protested again, but the same thing happened and we knew that we weren't going to get back on dry land until we had paid up. What we considered initially as expensive had just become doubly expensive. That day we were taken for the equivalent of almost a month's salary for many Thais.
Later on, after we had had a chance to think about what had happened we came to the conclusion that the boys and the driver had been in cahoots with each other and had engineered the whole situation.
They were pleasant young lads and they must have known that soft-hearted tourists would pay up when the boat driver started getting violent with them. Even back then I was aware that all fares should be negotiated before the start of a journey, but we just put ourselves in the hands of the boys and followed them around without negotiating anything ourselves.
Basically, we trusted them and let our guard down, which is something you should never do in Thailand. You can trust Thais, of course, but not strangers in Bangkok who approach you on the street with some kind of an offer. Anyway, we didn't lose enough money to spoil our vacation and we learnt a valuable lesson.
The Infamous Gem Shop Scam
Probably the most famous scam of all in Thailand involves gem shops. A tuk-tuk or taxi driver will tell tourists that a major venue is closed for the day because of a Buddhist ceremony or something. He will then offer to take the tourists some place else for a reasonable charge.
They will end up in a gem shop where they will be told they can buy gems very cheaply and sell them for a big profit when they return home. When they return home they discover that the 'gems' are worthless.
This scam has been around so long and it is so well known that I can't believe that people still get taken it, but apparently some do.
The infamous Thai gem shop scam
The Jet Ski Scam
Another scam involves jet-ski hire. Tourists' passports are held as deposits when jet-skis are hired. The jet ski operators patch up damage with paper and paint and insist on taking a photo of the tourist sitting on the jet ski before setting off.
The temporary patch falls off when the jet ski starts bouncing around in the surf and when the tourist returns there is visible damage. The operator also has photographic evidence that the damage wasn't there at the start and blames the tourist. The repair bill can be huge, but if the tourist refuses to pay he doesn't get his passport back.
There will probably also be some nuk-leng (thugs) involved who will be there to 'persuade' the tourist to pay up. This type of scam is big in places such as Phuket and Pattaya.
Jet Ski in Phuket
I would never hire a jet-ski in Thailand. If you really insist on hiring a jet ski, inspect it very closely for damage and check to see that the operator has suitable insurance in case there is any damage.
I would also be very wary about hiring cars from small operators for the same reason. If you hire a car, use one of the major international companies such as Hertz or Avis.
I once hired a small Suzuki jeep in Khaolak and drove up to Takua Pa. Fortunately, there weren't any problems. However, that evening I read the small print in the rental contract agreement.
Had I been involved in an accident I would have been responsible for repairs to the hire car and any other vehicles involved. My liability also extended to medical bills for anyone who was injured. For each day the hire car was off the road while I was paying for repairs, I would also have had to compensate the owner for loss of business.
I was stupid not to realise all this before I rented the car, but it was on a whim. I was fortunate, but I could have come unstuck very badly.
This isn't a scam, as such, but it's something to watch out for in certain parts of Thailand.
Under normal circumstances we don't have body contact with strangers and if someone tried to pick your pocket you would know about it. However, in some situations we can't avoid unintentional body contact and this gives pickpockets an opportunity.
Warning sign in Bangkok
In crowded places, especially some areas of Bangkok such as Jatujak market and Chinatown, there is a mass of humanity with everyone trying to get past everyone else in narrow lanes.
With so much physical contact it is easy for pickpockets to steal items from pockets and bags without you noticing. Be especially careful where there are crowds and always keep bags closed.
The pockets on most of my trousers can be fastened with zips, buttons or Velcro. This also offers some protection.
Beware your wallet
Be aware of anyone who tells you that you have ice cream or bird shit on your clothes and wants to help to wipe it off. A normal Thai person would never do this. If this happens to you it is simply a pickpocket trying to create a situation to allow body contact so that he can pick your pocket.
It's a fact that doesn't always please the locals, but Thailand is often referred to as the sex capital of the world. Every tourist visiting the country knows this, and even those who aren't interested in participating in the nightlife scene directly may at least want to observe a little. It's only natural.
On my first trip to Bangkok in 1987 I stayed at the Manohra Hotel (now called the MA Hotel) and spent a fair amount of time doing academic research in the Patpong area. I saw Thai girls performing acts with darts, ping-pong balls and musical instruments that I had never seen before. It was fascinating at first, but the novelty wore off very quickly. On my next trip to Bangkok I returned and found the whole thing extremely boring.
Donald Trump would like Patpong
Many first-time visitors to Bangkok will want to get a taste of Bangkok's infamous nightlife and it is all part of the Thailand experience. Local Thais are fully aware of this, of course, and some will do their best to fully maximise the income earning opportunity.
As tourists wander around places like Patpong they will be invited inside and shown 'menus' describing the acts that take place inside. Entrance is 'free', but - of course - nothing is ever free in Thailand.
After sitting down you will order a drink and observe the acts going on around you. After a while one of the girls will come over and ask you to buy her a drink. This seems reasonable and you will most likely agree. A drink purportedly containing alcohol will be ordered, but it probably won't contain any alcohol. It will be expensive.
She will ask for another drink or, more likely, will ask you to buy one for her friend. If you aren't careful, this will escalate very quickly. The last time I was in such an establishment I saw three middle-aged naive looking European guys surrounded by almost every member of staff in the club. They had girls on their laps, over their shoulders, and there were lady drinks arriving by the tray load.
After you fun has ended and you decide to call it quits you will be presented with the bill. The amount will be enough to feed an average Thai family for several months. If you have any thoughts about refusing to pay, some intimidating-looking Thai men will suddenly appear. It can all get nasty very quickly.
Rather than telling you not to bother with Thailand's nightlife, which would be very boring, I can give you one piece of general advice that normally works.
The clubs and bars in these nightlife areas are on several floors. The bars at street level are normally fine. You just go in, grab a drink, and ogle the girls. If you pay one girl a lot of attention, she - or more likely the bar's Mamasan - will ask you to buy her a drink. It won't cost that much and you can leave when you like.
When you are accosted by the guys on the street outside showing you the list of acts that go on inside and agree to go inside you will probably be taken to a club upstairs. This is what I would advise not doing.
Anything on the ground floor at street level should be fine, but once you go upstairs to a place and the door is closed as you enter, you should expect to be presented with a very large bill a little later.
After a trip to Thailand you can't possibly return home and tell your friends that you didn't see any of Thailand's naughty nightlife. By all means go to see it, just don't go upstairs.
Department stores in Thailand are the same as retail shops in the Western world. Goods are marked up with a price (with the discount shown if there is one) and the price you see is the price you pay. It's easy. You pay the same as everyone else and you know that you aren't getting ripped off.
On the other hand, there are markets and street vendors everywhere in Thailand and the buying process is completely different. Goods are rarely displayed with a price, and if there is a price it will be vastly inflated. Rather than working on the basis of how much something is worth to establish a selling price, Thai vendors will try to work out how much someone can pay.
Of course, we farangs - without any exceptions - are infinitely rich and money is never an object, therefore we can afford to pay three or four times the Thai price. If you buy something from a street vendor or traditional market stall you should figure on the price you are quoted as being three or four times more than it should be.
There is nothing I hate more than haggling the price down only for the vendor to immediately snap up my offer. This simply means that my offer wasn't low enough. Don't be embarrassed by putting in a very low offer. If it is genuinely too low the vendor won't make the sale. It is better to bid too low, rather than to bid too high.
Even if they refuse your offer, you will often find that as you turn to leave the shop the price will go down miraculously. If you continue walking towards the door it will drop even further.
Quite an unusual sign in Thailand
My young son likes wearing replica football strips and there are a lot of these sold in Thailand. I buy from shops that aren't generally used by tourists and I am charged the same as local Thais. The vendors want Bt160, but I can get the strips for Bt140 or Bt150 and they are still making a profit.
Hat Yai Plaza sells a lot of 'cheap' clothes, but it is visited by a lot of Malaysian and Singaporean tourists and therefore the vendors adjust their prices for tourists, not locals. I asked about a football strip at the Plaza and was quoted Bt500. I laughed and walked off. As I did, the price fell to Bt200, but this was still higher than the shops outside.
Buying from these places and getting a good price isn't easy. Many Thai vendors and taxi drivers are very stubborn and they expect foreigners to pay inflated prices. Some prefer not do business with foreigners, rather than give foreigners the Thai price.
I have lived in Thailand since 2003 and I have had my fingers burned on several occasions. Several items I have bought at markets have been very low quality and don't last. Shirts start to fall apart after a few washes and zips break on holdalls.
I often find that I can buy goods on sale in department stores for the same price as the local markets. I know that the quality will be good, I know that I can return the goods if there is a problem, I know that there is a valid warranty, and I know that the price I pay is fair. For this reason I don't buy very much at local markets.
If I do buy from markets or street vendors or small shops I use the ones that don't deal with many tourists. There are bargains to be had at the markets in Thailand, but you need to be very careful.
Counterfeit Bank Notes
This scam is more common with larger denomination, especially Bt1,000, bank notes. Upon presenting a Bt1,000 note to pay for something, the shopkeeper will look at it suspiciously and tell you that it needs to be checked. He or she will then disappear to the back of the shop out of sight, where your perfectly good bank note will be exchanged for a counterfeit note.
Thai bank notes
The shopkeeper will then return, explain to you that it is counterfeit and tell you that it can't be accepted. You will lose your genuine note and end up with a worthless counterfeit one.
If this happens to you, don't allow the original note to go out of your sight. Apologise, ask for the note to be returned, and leave the shop.
Credit Card Fraud
On two occasions after visiting Thailand as a tourist my bank contacted me after I returned home to tell me that there had been some suspicious activity on my credit card.
The bank was very good about it. They discovered and fixed the problems before I even knew that there had been a problem. However, there may be occasions where credit card users aren't so lucky.
Even to this day, I'm not sure when the fraud occurred, but sometimes if you want to pay by credit card Thai shopkeepers will want to take the card to the back of the shop to process it.
It's a lot better these days and I haven't had any problems since I moved to Thailand in 2003. These days, credit card customers need to enter a PIN code to authorise transactions and other methods have been implemented to reduce credit card fraud.
Another reason why I don't have credit card problems these days is because I try not to use my credit card, which was issued by a UK bank, in Thailand. The credit card company exchange rates are terrible, they charge a commission, and they also make a charge if the transaction is in any currency other than sterling. It is a very expensive way to pay for things.
This was a big problem in Thailand a few years ago, but it has got a lot better for reasons I will explain. Interestingly, this scam wasn't usually carried out by Thais, but by foreign criminal gangs working in Thailand.
The gangs would install their own equipment in ATM machines and wait for unsuspecting ATM users. A card reading machine would read the magnetic stripe on the card and a camera would capture the PIN code as the customer entered it. They were then able to make a copy of the card and together with the PIN code it was easy to draw out money.
ATMs in Thailand
My Thai bank started issuing ATM cards with an embedded microchip and I think all Thai banks have done this. Even if criminals skim the magnetic stripe and make a copy, the copied card won't work because it doesn't have a microchip.
Despite this, I still think it is worthwhile taking precautions when using ATM machines in Thailand. I always try to use ATM machines inside banks and shopping malls because the location makes it difficult for criminals to tamper with them.
Also, take a look at the machine and if you see anything suspicious, such as a camera pointing at the keypad, walk away and find another machine.
I wrote this page for the benefit of tourists visiting Thailand and in financial terms the scams are relatively small. If you visit Thailand for a few weeks and get scammed, you're unlikely to lose too much money.
However, if you decide to get more involved with Thailand and the Thais you can lose everything, including the shirt off your back. There is no compassion among scammers and if they leave a foreigner with nothing, they don't care.
Many tourists become smitten with Thailand and dream of living in the Land of Smiles. I have seen many estate agents in places like Phuket advertising houses and villas for sale; their target customers being foreigners. Some agents are fine and will explain everything, including the very high level of risk. Other, less scrupulous agents, won't.
Thai law does not allow foreigners to buy land in Thailand and to purchase a house or a villa you need to purchase land (this isn't so with a condo). Also, it isn't unknown for Thais to sell property built on land that doesn't belong to them. If you buy such a property and the true owner reclaims the land later there is nothing you can do.
Be aware also that corrupt lawyers may also be in on the act. A Thai lawyer may reassure you that everything is above board, but if he is colluding with the crooks you will still lose out.
There are ways that foreigners can own land in Thailand, but there isn't a risk-free way of doing so. Be very careful about undertaking large financial commitments in Thailand because most Thais won't have your interests at heart. They will only be thinking about how much money they can make from the deal.
Be especially careful if you become romantically involved with a Thai and plan to buy property through your Thai partner (male or female). Foreign men have been known to lose everything this way. I have heard first hand accounts from straight men who have been scammed by Thai women and from one gay man who was scammed by a Thai man.
Detecting & Avoiding Scams
In Thailand you will see signs warning foreigners about scams, but apart from that very little is done. I find it very strange that no action is taken against people who earn a living by scamming foreigners. It could be that when they approach foreigners initially they haven't committed any crimes so the police can't take any action. It could also be because of greng jai, an aspect of Thai cultural behaviour in which Thais don't like to interfere.
Outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok there are always tuk-tuk drivers lying to tourists and trying to scam them, but no action is taken against them even though the authorities know what they are doing. In Thailand you always need to protect yourself and the best way to protect against being scammed is to have knowledge of the scams and to know how Thais behave normally.
Scam warning in Bangkok
By nature Thais are very shy, and many are actually quite afraid of talking to foreigners. If you approach them and ask for help they will try to help, however, very, very rarely will a genuine Thai person approach you first and start a conversation.
Many scams played on tourists start with a confident looking Thai person approaching them in the street. Quite a few wear ID badges around their necks to give the impression of having some authority. As soon as this happens it should immediately start loud warning bells ringing in your head. This simply is not normal behaviour for Thais.
You don't need to be rude, but be on your guard and be very suspicious. If you are told that somewhere is closed for the day, find out if it is true first from other sources.
There is no such thing as a free lunch and that is especially the case in Thailand. Thais have borrowed the English word 'free' because there doesn't seem to be a suitable word in the Thai language. That's because there is no real concept of 'free' in Thailand. Everything costs something and nothing is ever given away for free.
If you are offered a tour of Bangkok for Bt10, think about why it is so cheap. On the other hand, if you are feeling brave you could take the Bt10 tour and make sure that you don't hand over your cash or credit card to a gem shop later.
Be very wary in general about any kind of money-making or get-rich scheme that you are offered. If there was genuine way to make money easily, Thais wouldn't be offering it to strangers on the street.
Be very wary about hiring cars and jet-skis from small operators. Check the condition of the vehicle very carefully and check the insurance details. Use reputable companies and make sure you have an adequate level of insurance.
Taxi and tuk-tuk in Bangkok
Always agree a price before you use any form of taxi. If you forget you aren't going to be scammed out of a fortune, but it can be annoying. I once used a tuk-tuk in Bangkok and forgot to agree a price. The fare should have been around Bt50, but I was charged Bt300. At the end of the journey, once the ride is complete, you don't have any bargaining power.
Many Bangkok taxi drivers will refuse to use their meters and will ask for a fixed fare. Sometimes the fixed fare can be around the same as the metered fare, but more often than not it is a lot higher. Just refuse and hail another taxi. You can report drivers who refuse to use their meters, but I don't know if it will do any good.
This is annoying and wastes time, but you can't do much about it. At times in Bangkok I have wasted half an hour trying to find a taxi driver who will use his meter. Many are completely heartless. While trying to get my daughter to and from hospital in Bangkok with both her legs in full plaster casts, there were still a lot of drivers who refused to use their meters.
Not every stranger is trying to scam you in Thailand. Owners of guesthouses and small hotels will go to the local bus station to tell travellers about their accommodation as they get off the bus. If you arrive somewhere strange with no pre-booked accommodation this can be a useful service.
I have seen backpackers, armed with their copies of Lonely Planet's Thailand guide, brush these people aside as if they are scammers. They're not, they are just trying to help.
Some Bangkok tuk-tuk drivers are very pleasant people, but some aren't
I know it sounds contradictory because I wrote above that you should never believe Thais who approach you first, but there are always some exceptions to the rules.
I can tell the difference, but I have lived in Thailand for a long time, I can speak and read Thai, and I know Thai behaviour quite well. I realise, however, that it is different for tourists. They feel like fish out of water just as I would feel like a fish out of water in a country other than Thailand.
Follow your gut instincts, look at people's eyes, and assess the situation you are in. If you are near the Grand Temple and someone tells you it is closed, it is a scam - 100%.
If you get off a bus in provincial Thailand and you are met by someone holding up photos of their guesthouse they just want to help you.
Firstly, feel reassured that as a tourist in Thailand you are very unlikely to be the victim of violent crime. It does happen, but it is fairly rare. However, if you stay at one of the major resorts you will encounter plenty of people who are determined to even up the wealth gap between you and them.
As a long term expat in Thailand I find that a few words of Thai is all that is needed to get rid of scammers. They are only interested in tourists who know nothing about Thailand.
If you are just in Thailand for a short vacation no one expects you to learn to speak Thai just so that you can ward off scammers, but what you can do is make yourself aware of the type of scams that take place. If a scammer approaches you on the street you should hopefully recognise the pattern and you will know not to get involved.
Scammers are in a minority in Thailand and the majority of Thais are decent people. If you're not sure about something ask a Thai who you can trust to help you. Hotel staff in Thailand are generally friendly and they take care of their guests. If you are having problems with taxi drivers, ask the hotel receptionist to hail a taxi and negotiate the fare.
There are no guaranteed because if the driver knows that the passenger is a farang he still won't want to use his meter, but sometimes it works.
Don't be defensive all the time and do remember that the bad people are in a minority. I find it really embarrassing to see backpackers clutching their Lonely Planet guides and acting as if every Thai in the country is out to get their money.
Thailand for Tourists
Living In Thailand
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. I always use Agoda to book hotels in Thailand. The company was established in Thailand and has great local knowledge, as well as a huge inventory of hotels.
If you click on one of the destinations opposite you will get a list of hotel deals from Agoda. It's generally a good idea to book on-line because you will get a good room rate and you won't suffer the disappointment of arriving at a hotel to find that it is full.
I book hotels regularly in Thailand and I have always found Agoda to be the best on-line travel agent. At times I have spent a lot of time researching hotel prices and although other deals sometimes look better at first I always end up returning to Agoda.
If you don't wish to pay for your hotel at the time of booking, Booking.com normally allows you to pay when you check in at the hotel. Some people prefer this method, but I have always found Booking.com to be more expensive than Agoda.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined. However, you will normally find that Agoda is the cheapest and therefore you can save yourself time and money by just booking through Agoda in the first place.
Images of Thailand