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8 things travelers should watch out for in Bangkok
Coming to Thailand in the new year? Look beyond the welcoming grin and keep these insider tips in mind
On the surface, we Thais seem relaxed and carefree. After all, ours is the country known as the “Land of Smiles.”
But after two decades of firsthand Bangkok experience, I've learned not to be fooled by everyone who comes at me bearing a wide, toothy grin.
In addition to watching out for unscrupulous locals, there are the obvious pieces of advice to keep in mind, such as making sure street food is properly cooked (unless you want a case of tong sia) and avoiding dark alleys at night.
Here are a few other Bangkok pitfalls you should watch out for.
1. The Ciggy Police
Generally, Bangkok’s finest are helpful if you’re asking for directions or need assistance after falling prey to a petty crime. However, the Bangkok Metropolitan Police, which you can spot by their green arm patches, have allegedly been up to less than tourist-friendly practices in recent months.
Police are supposed to fine people for littering on city streets, but rarely do -- that is, unless one has walked into one of the well-documented sting operations set up to net hapless tourists and get them to hand over cash on the spot.
I recently witnessed a Russian couple get fined for dropping cigarettes down a drain.
By law, they were indeed in the wrong. But though Bangkok's streets are full of litter, you'll rarely see a local being ticketed.
Targeting tourist ignorance is just an easy way to get a few extra bucks from visitors. To make matters worse, there are few ashtrays on the streets.
"The Bangkok Post" recently did an investigation of the so-called "cigarette police." Click here to read more.
2. Mafia-controlled beggars
Most of the beggars in Bangkok are controlled by mafia, or parents using their children as tools to generate sympathy and cash. As difficult as it is to ignore this sad sight, try to avoid giving, as this will only keep the vicious cycle going.
3.Tuk tuk drivers who take you for a ride
Three-wheeled tuk tuks are Bangkok's quintessential mode of transport.
Most are safe, but you should avoid the tuk tuk drivers who approach you with ridiculously cheap rates: “Forty baht, all day, I take you anywhere!”
Get in and you'll be taken to a temple or two, then a nice restaurant for lunch, where the driver will receive a commission for bringing you. No big deal.
But then you'll be taken to a "gem store" or a tailor, even if you insist you’re not the least bit interested in shopping. Drivers will score gas coupons or commissions at these places while you end up wasting time checking out worthless crap. Or worse. (See below.)
To enjoy a pleasant tuk tuk ride without having to worry about such scams, approach or flag one down rather than accepting an offer from one who approaches you.
After telling the driver where you'd like to go, negotiate a fixed price before getting in the tuk tuk.
4. Two-tiered pricing
Market stalls selling clothes and accessories always set higher prices for tourists. Little can be done about this, so just bargain the price down as much as you can and get a feel for prices at different stalls before committing. You can always walk away -- most vendors will cave if your top price isn't too unreasonable.
5. Taxi meters
Some taxi drivers, many parked outside Bangkok's five-star hotels, target tourists in order to avoid turning on meters. Without meters, they can charge an inflated rate for rides.
Always make sure drivers turn on their meters -- this is standard practice throughout Bangkok. If a driver refuses to use his meter, get out and find another taxi. This is also standard practice.
6. Gem scams
Gem outlets scattered around Bangkok target tourists scammed by the aforementioned tuk tuk drivers, who receive a monetary reward from the gem companies for bringing in potential customers.
A good friend of mine fell into this trap. When he went inside such a gem shop he was offered a drink, a common practice in jewelry stores.
Whatever was in the drink loosened up his judgement to the point that he paid a large sum of money for a "precious stone."
A few hours later, after staggering into his hotel room and sobering up, he began to recall what happened. He took the stone to a reputable shop and found out it wasn't so precious after all.
7. Red light extortions
If you wish to watch one of the infamous sex shows or take part in any of the other services available in Bangkok's notorious red light district of Patpong, beware that you’re going to pay heavily for the pleasure.
Entry might be free, but be prepared to pay 3,000 baht for that 90-baht bottle of beer.
And don’t put up a fuss about paying. There are countless stories about guys who have tried to get away without paying. Most wind up in the hospital.
8. Color-coded dress
In spite of recent political turmoil and sensitivity surrounding Thais wearing yellow or red, tourists can get away with wearing any color combination they like.
However, black is a color that Thais are very superstitious about. If you're invited to a wedding, birthday or anything remotely celebratory, don't wear black, not even black and white together, as the color is associated with death.
A traveler who has fallen victim to any scams or crimes should contact the Thai Tourist Police on the nationwide toll free number: 1155.