PHOTO: Thai Travel News
By Tim Newton, a six-year expat and victim of many of these scams…
Firstly, I should say that just about any hot tourist spot around the world is going to attract people, sometimes greedy locals, who will be specialists at extracting dollars from your pockets. In Thailand the main difference is that they will usually do it with a smile. There are scams awaiting tourists who come to Phuket and you are best served by spending a few minutes reading articles like this and saving yourself a lot of financial pain, inconvenience or even a trip to hospital. Or jail.
This is by no means a definitive list but these are, at least, a list of ten popular scams that you will have to negotiate if you move about the island. They’re real, they happen every day and you’ll have a much better time during your trip if you know about them first.
In all cases, a bit of homework beforehand will save you being tricked during your holiday.
The jewellery scam
If you want to buy jewellery or luxury goods in Thailand, don’t ask you taxi or tuk tuk driver or take advice from the nice man who offered to take you a store who stopped you in the street. Jewellery stores in Phuket seem to exist for one purpose… taking money from tourists as part of one of the oldest scams in the Land of Smiles. Yes, there are reputable jewellery and gem stores in the country but you can usually source them and their prices online before you arrive.
There are plenty of jewellery stores that have been specifically constructed to cater for Chinese bus tour groups. You will see the buses lined up, any day of the week, with hordes of hapless Chinese tourists being guided through these grand shops, many several stories high and designed to part the tourists from their money. Many of these buildings are much grander than any other buildings around them – they weren’t built like that to provide you with a really good deal.
(Many Chinese tours include visits to these stores as compulsory items in their itinerary and the tour groups and bus drivers can get up to 50% commissions. The whole system is a well-oiled machine. We would to think that the word is getting back to future Chinese travellers to Phuket so they can avoid these expensive scams.)
If your driver taxi or tuk tuk offers to take you to a jewellery store just be firm, but polite, and refuse their generous offer. If you actually do want to buy jewellery, don’t go to the stores they recommend.
The concept of the jewellery scam could be used with the local ‘export centre’, ‘factory outlet store’ or ‘I have a friend who has a shop’. Caveat emptor!
Tuk Tuks (and taxis)
Tuk Tuks are the ubiquitous (usually red), three cylinder Daihatsu open mini-vans that are completely the wrong design for having to drive over Phuket’s many steep hills. Somehow they stutter and creep their way up the hills. Most of the time you’ll just use them for a quick hop from your restaurant of choice back to your hotel or from your hotel to a local tourist attraction.
If you ever thought things in Thailand were cheap, using a tuk tuk or local taxi will quickly change your mind. Even a short journey from one end of Patong to the other is going to cost you 200 baht+, usually more. They don’t have meters. The taxis do have meters but they never seem to work (if your taxi does have an operational meter please take a photo and send it to the ‘Believe it or Not Museum’).
The ones that do have meters are frequently ‘turbo-charged’ so they tick over much faster than they’re meant to, especially the taxis from the airport. Doing town to town journeys will cost you 500 baht+. Going to the airport from Patong is going to cost you 600 baht+.
Taxis from the airport are really expensive when compared to taxi prices almost anywhere in the world This doesn’t apply to Bangkok, just to Phuket. There will no shortage of shouts of ‘taxi’ as you emerge from the arrivals area at Phuket Airport. If you do want a taxi, head to the Taxi counter. Even better, get your hotel to organise a pick-up for you – someone will be waiting for you with your name on a sign. If it’s a really flash hotel they’ll usually have your name on an iPad or tablet these days. Many hotels include the cost of the pick-up in their reservation fees.
The taxi and tuk tuk services in Phuket are not technically a scam – more of a minor case of extortion. Most of the time the drivers know where they’re going and are polite and friendly enough. But they’re a law unto themselves and have been fighting successive government attempts to regulate them. Locally they’re described as the ‘taxi mafia’ for good reason.
Feel free to barter your price before you get in for your journey. But make sure you DO agree on a price before you get underway.
If they offer to take you to a jewellery store, attraction or market on the way to wherever you’re going, politely decline.
The ‘attraction’s closed’ scam
More likely to happen in Bangkok than Phuket. But it goes something like this….
You roll up to any well-known attraction and, before you can get to the gate, a friendly, affable local will kindly inform you that the attraction is closed. This may be despite there being long queues waiting to get in or the fact that your hotel and taxi driver already informed you that the attraction is open. If you know, for a fact, that the venue is open politely thank them for their advice and that you’re just going to check for yourself. Smile and say goodbye.
If you do end up in a conversation with them you’ll be advised about an alternative attraction that is older, bigger, more spectacular and ‘very close by’ (which usually means 30 minutes away). On the way to this completely unheard of attraction you’ll be taken to jewellery stores and markets and offered any number of ‘real’ bargains – a guarantee that you’re paying well over the market price, plus commission. If you do ever get to the ‘alternative’ attraction you’ll be paying them the entrance fee, magically about twice the entrance fee you see on the gate.
These are just straight out scams designed to part you from your money and to sell you things you had no intention to buy.
Plan your day’s trips ahead, check Google, TripAdvisor and ask your hotel for advice.
The jet ski rental scam
So you’ve never been on a jet ski before and here you are on a tropical island with warm, inviting waters. And a row of jet skis along the shore with helpful, suntanned guys in their bright coloured shorts eager to rent you a jetski. You’ve never ridden on a jetski? No problem. You don’t need a license or any of that nonsense. Just pay the guys and GO.
The jet skis are easy enough to ride and, most of the time, you’ll have plenty of fun. But the smile will be taken off your face when you get back and a cursory inspection from the previously-helpful staff turns into accusations of damage to their jet ski. It could be a simple scratch to a huge gouge and it’s going to cost you 10,000, 20,000…. more, to get it fixed. You didn’t check for damage before you got on the jet ski? Bad luck. You didn’t take a photo of the jet ski before you blasted you way into the tranquil blue waters? Bad luck? No contract, no insurance. It’s a scam. Most of the time the situation can get very heated and a group of intimidating fellow jet ski owners will gather around and harass you, sometimes with threats of violence if you don’t pay up. Phuket, Pattaya, Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Hua Hin are the most likely places you’ll confront the jet ski scam.
A few guidelines if you insist on renting a jetski.
1) Inspect the jet ski with the owner and take photos before you pay over your money. If there are marks take photos and point them out to the owner.
2) Ask them if there is insurance cover or a contract. If not, walk away. By law they’re required to cover you with basic insurance (which may or may not be a valid contract anyway).
3) If you do get into a situation where they are demanding money from you beyond what you agreed for rental get a tourist police officer on the spot ASAP, not the local boys-in-brown, a tourist police officer who will usually be dressed in a white shirt with black pants.
4) Don’t rent a jet ski.
Here’s their website. Their phone number is 1155.
If there are no tourist police around demand that you are able to contact your local consulate. DON’T leave the beach and go to the local police station.
DO NOT hand over your passport for any reason at any time! Never.
Motorbike rental scams (and a few other problems)
Not so much a scam but a list of potential problems you may confront with the rental of a local motorbike.
Renting motorbikes in Phuket can provide you with a convenient and cheap means of transport ‘just like the locals’ or can get you in all sorts of trouble. You can end up in an accident, you can end up with your hotel room robbed, you can end up having to pay for damage to the bike you didn’t cause.
Here’s the basics. Most motorbike rental is a fairly routine and well-organised affair. There are many reputable bike-hire places around the island and many hotels will have they own bikes to rent or have an arrangement, usually (hopefully) with a local reputable company who will deliver the bike to your hotel and even show you the basics of how to drive it. If you’ve never ridden a motorbike before, please, just don’t bother renting one. There are plenty of other modes of transport to get you anywhere you need to go. And just DON’T rent that shiny red Ducati or 500cc ‘whatever’ brand motorbike. Bigger bikes, bigger problem, bigger cost if you fall off and damage the bike.
Here’s the problem. Most people, in fact the vast majority of motorbike renters in Phuket, have NEVER ridden a motorbike in their life in they home country. In many cases they wouldn’t even consider renting a motorbike back home. But the visa stamp in their passport gives them permission to do really reckless things whilst in Phuket.
There are a few situations to watch out for.
1) You should sign up for some insurance when you sign the contract. It may or may not be worth the paper it’s written on but at least it’s an ‘understanding’ that you have entered into a contract, in good faith, with the company. No contract? Walk away.
2) Problem with the bike? Flat tyre? Something’s fallen off? Engine won’t start? There are bike repair places ALL over Thailand. With so many motorbikes on the road it’s a thriving business keeping them all running. If you call the company you rented the bike from they will have their own, preferred, bike repair shop. One of the scams is that it’s a co-operation between the bike repair staff and the bike rental company. The bike contract will have your hotel details listed. They will come and steal the bike during the evening and you front up to the bike shop the next morning saying your motorbike’s been stolen. Of course you’ll be required to reimburse them for the cost of a new bike. So buy a cheap bike lock of your own and use that instead of the one provided by the rental company.
3) Wear a helmet. Apart from being the law in Thailand it’s also a very easy way for the local constabulary to stop you at the many checkpoints around the island, usually just before lunchtime, and hit you for an on-the-spot 500 baht fine. It’s also a great way to save smashing your head on the road if you do end up falling off or in an accident! WEAR YOUR BIKE HELMET.
4) If you do have an accident (remember Thailand is the third most dangerous place in the world for driving on the roads) you need to have all your ducks in a row. Do you have travel insurance covering treatment and a stay in hospital? Do you have an international drivers license covering the riding of motorbikes in a foreign country? Does you insurance cover an accident on a motorbike in Thailand? Motorbikes do happen, sadly quite frequently, and the consequences can be dire if you’re 1) in the wrong at the accident scene 2) your insurance doesn’t cover you.
Here’s what you need to do so you have the minimum inconvenience in the eventuality of a motorbike accident (the same goes for car accidents but you’re more likely to get badly hurt if you have a crash on a motorbike).
• No matter how you fall off a motorbike its probably going to hurt. Keep your wits about you. People will come to your aid but LEAVE the motorbike where it is – and insist the other bikes and cars in the accident do the same. Contact, if you can, the motorbike rental shop, the tourist police and your consulate. The local police will usually turn up in this sort of situation and, despite the occasional horror stories, won’t automatically side with the locals. Keep calm, accept help from the local paramedics – they know their job and attend many, many bike accidents every day. (There are a lot of private emergency services that get a fee from a hospital when they deliver a paying patient – hey, at least you know they’re keen to get to your accident scene quickly and ‘win’ your business)
• If you don’t have insurance ask to be taken to a local public hospital – Patong, Vachira or Mission Hospitals. The Thai medical system is quite efficient and provides free medical care for all Thai citizens and expats working for a company – again, the hospitals will know how to treat motorbike accident injuries; they see them every single day. If you DO have travel insurance ask to be taken to one of the private hospitals – Bangkok Hospital Phuket is the largest on the island. There’s also one on the way to Chalong called Dibuk Hospital and there’s the Phuket International Hospital on the ByPass Road near Samkong.
• Whilst your immediate medical situation may require you to get to hospital urgently it’s best, if you can, to wait for the police and make sure you have provided your side of the story. It will be REALLY helpful if you have a representative from the Tourist Police there to assist with translation and knows the system.
• Don’t lose your cool, start shouting or blaming anyone. That simply won’t help at all. And don’t accept liability either. That’s for the police to determine.
• Always carry your passport or a copy of your passport and copies of all your insurance papers when you move around the island.
• Never, ever, hand over your passport. If the renters want a copy (and they’re well entitled for a copy of your passport), keep your passport in sight whilst they’re copying it. DON’T leave your passport with the rental company as a bond. Even better, have a photocopy of your passport with you at all times and a digital copy (take a photo of your passport front page) on your phone.
The fake consulate scam
This scam targets tourists and expats crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia in a taxi or tuk tuk. It can also involve just about any other border crossing from the Kingdom if you are being driven in a taxi or tuk tuk. You will pass signs reading “Cambodian Consulate” or “Insert-border-name-here Consulate” and you’ll be dropped out the front of an imposing and important looking building with very friendly and helpful people offering you simple and convenient visas… for a large fee, of course. The danger in this situation is when you merrily head back to wherever you were staying and then end up in all sorts of trouble when you depart the country through a proper immigration channel and find you’ve over-stayed your visa.
Do your homework before you head to a border for a visa run and know where the consulates are so you don’t fall for this scam.
The time share scam is more annoying than something that will part you with your money although there are plenty who do end up buying time shares in properties and boat ownership around the island. The ’theory’ is that you’ll become a member of a larger group of people owning a share of a ‘title’ in a property or yacht. Usually foreign back-packers end up as the ones in the street politely stopping you and asking you to pick a card with the promise of a prize. Amazingly YOU always pick the card with the prize which is a free visit to a nearby, or sometimes not-nearby, resort or showroom – no obligation of course – where you will be courted with the ‘financial opportunities’ and ‘convenience’ of time share. 99% of the time it’s just heavy-handed sales and you could have spent the three hours on the beach instead. Just ask straight up if it’s a time-share offer and then walk on by.
If a lovely young lady in a pair of hot pants and high heels approaches you in the street and invites you to her bar, keep walking. Of course if you’re a single guy and an attractive lady approaches you you’re going to stop and listen, right? But a few things are going to happen. 1) The drinks are going to be really expensive 2) the young girl is going to get you into your first few drinks and then she’ll be gone to find the next victim with you left having to sort out the over-priced drinks bill with the older, fatter and less attractive male owner. 3) They’re not actually girls.
Is this a scam or just good marketing? Whichever way you look at it you’re going to end up with expensive urine and perhaps a few other adventures along the way.
If you do see a lovely lady with breasts that appear to be larger than you would normally find on the frame of a 5’2” girl, and in hot pants, and you do want to have a drink with her, suggest you both go to a bar of your choice and you’ll soon see how keen she really is.
Also, if you’re 65, overweight, haven’t had a shave for three days and are wearing a 20 year old floral short-sleeved shirt, NO young girl is ever going to want to have a drink with you.
The tailor scam
Can you purchase well made shirts and suits in Thailand? Yes. Can you end up paying more for them than you’d pay back home? Absolutely yes.
If your taxi or tuk tuk driver has to stop off for a quick visit to the toilet and a friendly man approaches you and asks ‘where are you from?’, you know you’re about to be sold a suit.
The ‘where are you from?’ is an age-old, tried and tested way or eliciting a response from you. To ignore it you seem rude, to answer it you already talking to them.
The bottomline is that you’ll be told a story about an amazing tailor they know who makes suits better than Armani, etc, etc. You should already know that you’re talking to the middle man, or the friend of the middle man, so you’re in high-commission territory before you even get your inside leg measurement taken.
There are many good tailors in Phuket and the rest of Thailand, most of Indian or Nepalese origin. There is a thriving community of expats from these countries who do, indeed, have excellent skills as tailors. If you find one, tell us about it and we’ll pass it on. The rest, however, are just ways for them to take your money, the clothes are made off-site at virtual sweat-shops and the workmanship often sub-standard.
If you do want a suit or clothes made (you will NEVER need a suit in Phuket!), then ask around and get recommendations for a reputable tailor.
Next time you get asked ‘where are you from’ just say you’re from ‘Phuket’. Whilst they’re thinking of a quick come-back you’re already gone.
Now, officially, they don’t exist anywhere in Thailand. In reality, they do. And those ping pong shows your friends have told you about? Yes, they’re real. (For the younger people reading here, the ping pong shows are excellent displays of table tennis skills).
So you’re walking down Bangla Road in Phuket or Patpong in Bangkok. You will be approached but ten, twenty… more, people with cards and the big sales pitch “Sexy Girl”. That’s sure to get you in.
You’ll be taken to a seedy, dark, usually upstairs venue. Downstairs the drinks are at set-prices. In these dodgy upstairs venues the prices are ‘variable’ (read: VERY EXPENSIVE). You will indeed see a show, probably a lot briefer and less explicit than you imagined, and also asked to buy the girls a few drinks. Then you’ll be ‘invited’ to pay large tips to the performers (‘invited’ means coerced/forced by a few large gentleman with poor hygiene).
You see more and it will cost you a lot less if you go online and… well, I’ll leave that to you.
We welcome you to Phuket and hope this quick read may have given you a heads-up on some of the more popular scams you’re likely to confront. And if you do get invited to a ping-pong show you won’t need to take your own table tennis paddle.
- Tim Newton