I am not ashamed to admit that there have been times throughout my travels when I have been a victim of con.
Once, I was visiting the small village of Sirince, in Turkey, when an elderly lady called to me. I could barely see her from the other side of a tall stone wall, though I could make out her time-etched face and the sprigs of a plush private garden.
My Turkish at the time was patchy at best, but I was able to ascertain that she was inviting me in for traditional cai and to show me the pregnant fruits of her apple tree. I assumed, naturally, that she had been overwhelmed by the aura of intrigue and cultural openness which I emanated as I wandered aimlessly through the streets with my camera, and wanted desperately to embrace me into her authentic Turkish bosom.
I pictured us sitting on her floor, drinking sweetened tea, and coming together as women despite our cultural, generational, and linguistic divide. For a moment, I even wondered if this is how my true call to cultural journalism would begin- on the carpeted ground of this villager’s home. Turns out, she saw me as just one more in a line of gormless tourists, and wanted to sell me her apples.
To her credit, they were pretty tasty.
I like to think of this of this experience, and the striking number of others which are similar in nature, as opportunities for cultural learning. It helps.
So…here I was a few months ago trawling the streets of Bangkok with my husband. We had taken the rickety and certainly-not-health-and-safety proof water taxi from where we were staying nearer to the city centre (if there is such a thing in Bangkok- that place is huge). In my mind the splashes of the river, which carried with them fresh and fragrant insight into Bangkok’s city waste systems, had indoctrinated me into authentic Thai culture, and I felt pretty much like a born national.
I was quite certain that after our river christening, despite my blond hair and my husband’s bald and burnt head, we did not look like tourists.
I was of course grossly mistaken, and within seconds of remaining stationary on the street corner (turning our map around in front of a popular tourist destination), a local gentleman came up to us. We chatted for a while about what we seen and where we wanted to visit, and he solemnly broke to us the news that our destination of choice closed early on a Monday.
But then – with a big smile and the childlike exclamation of a man who was surely innocent – he informed us that we were in luck after all! It was Buddha-Day and in celebration, all tuk-tuks were offering a deal whereby for 10 Baht (20 pence), we could hire a tuk-tuk for as long as we wanted, to take us wherever we wanted. Hooray!
In what seemed at the time a happy coincidence, a tuk-tuk happened to pull up just beside us on the street, adorned with fresh yellow and orange flowers and a small statue of Santa Claus. Apparently in Thailand, Buddha-Day falls around Christmas.
So, my husband and I jumped in, and set off to explore Bangkok in our celebratory chariot.
After visiting a few small temples and (at my request) a fresh coconut stand, our tuk-tuk driver asked if we’d mind stopping in at a back street tailor shop. Apparently he would get fuel coupons if we did. I needed the loo somewhat desperately by this point, so was happy to concede.
Five minutes, a few fabric samples, and a relieved bladder later, we were back in the tuk-tuk. Our driver took us to some more small temples that we expressed interested in, took us to watch some Muay Thai boxers train around a grand palace, and drove us (twice!) around the ornate government buildings which were set just outside the city.
While we drove, the three of us chatted. We learned a about his young family, to my husband’s dismay he shared with us his love of Man City, and he proudly showed us the many ornaments and gadgets he had been given by his customers over the years. We also got to enjoy (for free) his flashing Christmas lights which lit up every time he slammed on the breaks, and to capture on film the wiles of Bangkok commuting as business men, families, and flower vendors went about their daily lives.
About an hour later, he asked if we would mind visiting two more tourist shops, so that he could get free fuel coupons. We didn’t mind. We both got two free glasses of water and some freshly squeezed passion-fruit juice, and I got again to use a clean, flushing loo. Each visit took us no more than 5 minutes, and as soon as the vendors realised we had no money to spend, they ushered us out almost as quickly as they ushered us in.
Three hours and a handful of temples, palaces, and local stories later, he asked us if there was anywhere else we wanted to go. Dusk was setting, and we had just shared with him the excitement that his friend had won 2000 Baht gambling, which meant that his beer that night would be plentiful and free. We didn’t want to hold him up any longer, so we asked him to drop us off somewhere near the river.
He happily took us to a very rotund but surprisingly tiny woman who was sitting on a stool in a back lane somewhere near a river. She tried half-heartedly to convince us to hire her to take us on a private river tour, and I realised that this random point of departure (like many of our visits that day) had been carefully planned. This woman, her broken wooden stool, and her promises of a romantic evening cruise were evidently the reason for our departure point.
However, when we told her we were just tired and hungry and wanted to have some food and wander towards the flower market, she just smiled and pointed us towards a hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurant. I am almost certain she looked relieved.
The time had come to pay the tuk-tuk driver. My husband and I had cottoned on that perhaps we had been misled by the 10-Baht promise, and had decided in hushed tones that we would pay more, but would draw the line at 300 Baht (£5).
Imagine our surprise when he asked us for precisely 10 Baht.
I checked and doubled checked. I even pulled out my coins and asked him to show me which one he wanted.
He really did only want 10 Baht.
We gave him 20- and with a wide smile and a face which exhuded genuine gratitude- he waved us away.
Of course, there was no Buddha-Day. The temple we had wanted to visit was not closed early on a Monday, and we had obviously been pawns in a complex city-wide scheme to bring naive tourists into local shops by promising them cheap transport fares.
But I don’t get it. Why set up a scam that gives senseless tourists free water, hassle-free shopping, clean toilets, cheap transport, a private tour guide, and cultural insight?
We got to spend a lovely afternoon with a genuinely funny and interesting private tour guide. We got to go exactly where we wanted to go without having to struggle with maps or transport or even other tourists, I got some amazing photos of the back streets of Bangkok, and at the end of a thoroughly enjoyable day, I was pointed by a tiny woman on a stool towards the most succulent and aromatic prawn soup I have ever had the honour of eating.
Without doubt I had learned infinitely more about the flawless and enchanting chaos of Bangkok than I would otherwise could have, no matter how much I was willing to pay.
So if you’re ever in Bangkok, I’d highly recommend ensuring you are there on ‘Buddha-Day’, so you can enjoy the same con I did. It’s pretty easy. Just show up, look like a Tourist, stand somewhere Touristy, and the rest will quite literally fall in your lap. All you need is 20 pence. Well, 40, including tip.