Did we know? Yes. And yet …
“Surat Thani”. For some of you it might sound like the name of a curry mix, for others it’s simply a city in southern Thailand. For us, it is the place that shows us again and again how not to do it. And why?
Scams. Definition: obtaining money by means of deception / a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation. They have been around as long as there have been victims – in our case, tourist victims – and everyone who travels knows and worries about them. To avoid a scam with an alerted spirit doesn’t just feel good, but it also makes a good travel story. To fall for a scam despite an alerted spirit… hmmm… no need to describe how that feels.
After seven and a half years on the road you might think, the Hudson family was scamproof, scamresistant and scamtested. There is hardly a scam, we have not yet encountered. Unbelievable how much creativity, determination and motivation people invest on scams. If they weren’t cheaters, they should be awarded a medal.
With a smile, we think back to the old men in Southern China, who lay shards of glass on the streets so that later they can innocently offer puncture repairs to frustrated tourist cyclists.
More than a dozen times we travelled through the small town of Surat Thani on the east coast. And every single one of them, we witnessed at least one tourist scam. Last autumn, before returning to Switzerland, once more journeying in Southeast Asia, we fell into the scam-trap ourselves. Does the mouse know, when gently nibbling on the piece of cheese that it might trigger the mechanism of the catch? Did we know? Yes. And yet …
Like so many times before, in Penang (Malaysia), we had booked four minibus tickets to Surat Thani. Normally, the crossing to Koh Pha Ngan by night ferry was included in the fare. This time, we were instructed, that the ticket was solely for the bus journey, as the ferry might not be running due to the bad weather.
Shortly before noon we began the familiar journey to the border, changed bus in Haad Yai and arrived late at night in Surat Thani. Although it had rained heavily during the afternoon, a storm was nowhere to be seen. All other passengers, obviously locals, had exited the minivan. “We would like to be dropped off by the night ferry pier,” we told the driver. No, it’s not going, he told us, but he would take us to his English speaking friend for more explanations. By this time, our internal scam warning bells should have rung thrice!
The friend turned out to be a travel agent located in a dark road somewhere in the midst of Surat Thani’s centre. A storm was expected; hence the boats would remain in the safe harbour. We could spend the night in a hotel and take the morning ferry. That sounded plausible.
He would have us picked up by 7 o’clock and a bus would take us to the harbour, which was about one hour away from town. And of course, we could buy an all inclusive ticket right there and then! Believe us, we are certainly no greenhorns and knew that the agency price contained a big commission. We also knew that the driver would bring us to the hotel of his choice and collect an additional tip. Nonetheless, the deal seemed fair.
It was dark, it was late and the boys had not once complained during the 9-hour journey. Added to that, we had no idea where in Surat Thani we were and carried quite a bit of luggage with us. We weighed up our options. A direct drive to a hotel, a pick up the next morning and an organized transportation to the ferry port seemed worth the extra cost in this case.
At the first hotel we stood our grounds and asked to leave, despite the late hour and the tired children. We had expected to pay an increased price due to the commission for the driver, but paying four times our budget was out of question. Badly tempered, the driver took us to one of the brothels by the waterfront. Most of Surat Thani’s cheaper hotels were dubious… we were well aware of this and didn’t mind for one night. We handed over too much money for two rooms, said goodbye and fell into bed. Before 7 o’clock a minivan would show up, take us to the agency, where a larger bus would be waiting to drive us to the ferry. Everything was to be in the paid ticket price.
At six o’clock, after a sleepless night in the noisy brothel, they banged on our doors. A mischievously smiling man stood in front of us. He was a messenger from the agent. No minivan would be going today; there weren’t enough guests! We needed to take a taxi to the agency and pay for it ourselves. We quickly packed our backpacks and stepped outside. A taxi was flagged down for us and we were told by the unfriendly man to pay 200 baht – about ten times the going rate! We strictly refused and inquired about the exact address of the agency. When following the Thai, he had snatched the tickets from our hands. Now he refused both: to give us the agency’s location and to explain how to get there by foot. If we did not pay the demanded amount, he would just walk off. The cunning man knew, of course, that it would cost us more to blow out the existing tickets and pay for the journey a second time. We looked around. Were friendly people around us that might help? No … in the Red Light District, it didn’t look too promising. Moreover, the time factor was not on our side either; we didn’t want to miss the ferry.
Teeth crunching, we entered the taxi. Although the driver tried to confuse us by taking us around the block, we realized that the agency had in fact been within walking distance. Even with luggage and children.
Angrily, we approached the agent and demanded our money back. Anyone who has ever tried to get a refund from a smiling Thai, knows how impossible the task is. Then came the next piece of bad news. Today, no buses were making the journey to the pier, only minivans and if we wanted a ride, we would have to pay a surcharge. No, no, no, no. That went too far. Even though every fibre of our bodies knew that the man was lying, we gave up the fight on the credit of doubt. What if the man was telling the truth? What if there was really no bus? Then, our behaviour would be seen as a fuss of a bunch of spoilt foreigners.
Once again, we paid 50 baht for Michael and I; the boys didn’t have to pay extra. We settled with the thought that should the agent be lying he would have to stand up for his own actions one day and would have to endure his own cheating self for the rest of his life.
At the ferry port, we saw many big buses,… took note of them silently and went for breakfast. A delicious Pad Thai, a friendly smile of a ferry employee and a strong coffee later, I looked deep into Michael’s eyes and we both burst out laughing. We had been so stupid and life was so grand!
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