About a month ago, my nephew and I were in Chiang Mai Thailand, going on a self-guided food tour of the city, based on research I’d done. Little did we know, we were about to be taken for a ride.
We’d just finished having some epic khao soi (a burmese-style rich curry with egg noodles) at Khao Soi Kun Yai in Chiang Mai, and were navigating the streets along the canals surrounding the city center, looking for our next destination.
A tuk-tuk driver pulled up beside us and offered us a tour of the city for 100 baht, about three U.S. dollars. I shook my head and didn’t even look at him, and kept walking. It’s common for tuk-tuk and taxi drivers to try to engage the tourists, so sometimes it’s best just to keep walking. Unless you really want a ride, that is.
He continued pursuing us, trying to engage my nephew as I walked slightly ahead. He got held back in traffic momentarily and drove up beside us again, “100 baht for three hours,” he said.
We stopped walking. He pulled out a well-worn folding map of local sites, pointed to where he’d take us to temples and then we’d get to see a silk factory.
We explained that we were going on a food tour, and were on our way to SP Chicken. We asked if he would take us on our food tour, instead of to the temples and the factory.
He appeared confused and again pointed at the map and where he’d take us. I noticed the corners of the map were soft as linen; he’d shown this map to many others.
“Just 300?” I said, “That’s too cheap. How can you afford to live on that?”
He said, “It is the slow season, so I will give you a special rate.”
The truth is, I love tuk-tuk rides. Love ’em. I’ll take a tuk-tuk over any other mode of transportation, no matter the weather. It was a hot August morning, so the idea of speeding through town with the wind whipping around us was tempting. My nephew and I had even talked about hiring a tuk-tuk for an hour or so, just for the ride.
Needless to say, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to get me into a tuk-tuk, no matter where we’re going. So presented with this option, we looked at one another, our bellies still full of khao soi, and abandoned our food tour, for now.
“No temples,” I said, as we had toured several over the past few days. And off we went.
We sped through the streets and the breeze was heavenly. We drove past a market, and the driver offered to stop so we could take pictures, but having seen several over the past month, we declined. We sped to a bridge that we’d seen in photos–a bridge my nephew had actually wanted to find. The driver happily stopped for us so we could take photos.
Then he said, “I will show you where cars cannot go.”
We sped down a narrow alley. It was fun.
Then suddenly, we were speeding far beyond the edges I’d explored in my many visits to Chiang Mai in the past. We were in local neighborhoods, seeing the shops that few tourists see, exploring parts unknown.
Or so we thought.
Our driver pulled into a parking lot in front of a building, “This is the silk factory,” he said, pointing to the door. “You take the tour, it is free. Then meet me here.”
We stepped inside the factory and were immediately greeted by a well-dressed woman who put a flower pin on each of us. Then we toured the factory.
I found it kind of interesting, even knowing the rather ugly side of silk making (the worms are killed).
So I snapped photos, thinking, “This could make a good blog post.” Little did I know.
The employees seemed sparse, and frankly, not very happy. Most of the looms sat silent.
At this point, we were starting to see that something was definitely up.
“Exit through the gift shop,” I whispered to my nephew as we were guided through a very posh shop draped with silks. I bought a tie for BackpackMr., knowing he’d appreciate it. Staff were very helpful–to a point of making us uncomfortable. At last we worked our way through the shop and went out to the tuk-tuk.
“Okay, now we go!” Our driver said. We sped through the streets again, those cool breezes making everything wonderful, and within a few moments, pulled into another shop.
At this point, we’d grown suspicious.
I’d heard about such rackets from other travelers, and I’d certainly been on trips that had stopped along the way at a shop, or to visit the driver’s friend, who just happened to sell snacks. I also know it’s a living, for many people. And it occurred to me that it would make for an interesting blog post, just not the angle I’d originally thought.
So we became willing participants in this game, this charade, this way to make a dirty dime for so many people. Enter through the factory; exit through the gift shop.
Again, the shop keepers were well dressed and the shop had gleaming glass windows and long hallways. This was a gem factory. They showed us workers making rings and earrings and placing jewels in their settings–but no photos were allowed. We then were guided past some fascinating gems and stones and statues, and through a jewelry shop. Every step of the way, the sales lady would pull something out of the case and show it to us.
I tried to be nice, you know, Minnesota nice. My patience was running thin. The prices were good, but we weren’t in the market for jewelry. So after looking at thousands of dollars in jewelry and a few overpriced, possibly jade buddha statues, we tried to make our escape.
BUT WE COULDN’T FIND A WAY OUT.
A glass door opened up to a more–how shall I say it? Reasonably priced gift shop, with soaps and purses and such. I walked through the whole thing thinking it was the way out, but there was no exit door. We had to backtrack.
I turned to ask our sales lady where the exit was. Only then did she place her hand on the black wall and trigger some sort of secret “open sesame” button, and the black walls parted and we were free.
The Tour de Scam continued. Our driver took us to another store, this one a high-end rug shop. As we walked in, an eager salesman started laying out rugs and pashminas for me, “We ship! We ship!” he said. We tried to escape him, got to the back of the store and found there was no door. Again, we had to backtrack.
He pursued us, “Scarves? Hand bags?’
We left the store. The driver tried to get us to go to the factory for the tour.
“We do not want to see the factory.” I said. “We are done shopping. No more tours. No more shops.”
He looked crestfallen. He paused for a moment, then turned back to us from the driver’s seat as we sat in the tuk-tuk. “Will you please do me a favor. We will just go to a few more shops, you take the tour, and they give me a stamp,” he said.
“No. We are done shopping.” I said. Gone was the Minnesota nice. I was firm, but I also know that culturally, it is devastating to “lose face” in Thailand. With this in mind, and clutching my “Minnesota nice” roots like pearls, I remained polite.
“This is how I pay for the gas,” he explained, pleading with us.
I had sympathy for his situation, but no more patience for ours. So I struck a bargain with him. “You said the ride was 100 baht,” I said. “You take us to the restaurant, and I will give you $200 baht, and then we say goodbye.”
That would bring our grand total for the “tour” to $6. My nephew whispered, “But that’s more than he said it would cost.”
“It’s well worth $3 to get out of this situation.” I responded.
The driver agreed to this arrangement. On the way home, he stopped to fuel up, and when the service station employee came out holding up two fingers, our tuk-tuk driver held up only one. I could see the knowing look in the eyes of the gas station employee.
We sped back through town, past the canals and down a side road, and came to a stop outside a restaurant with chickens roasting at the entrance.
It was only after I’d paid him that I allowed myself to relax; I’d been worried the scam would continue in one form or another. But in just a few moments, we had amazing roasted chicken and rice in front of us, and we were back on track for our self-guided food tour of Chiang Mai.
And, guess what? There was a silver lining – aside from giving you an insider’s view of how a scam unfolds. That tour of the city had helped us work up an appetite.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.