Generally, I’m an upstanding citizen. My moral compass may have a slightly different north than yours, but – within reason – I’m honest, loyal, trustworthy, and all that other good stuff the Boy Scouts wanted me to be. As long as you overlook the gay thing. In business, I have a rep for being both honest and fair. And while many have trouble working their little minds around it, I say what I mean, shoot straight from the hip, and my word is sacrosanct. That doesn’t mean I won’t take advantage of a situation when it is to my advantage to do so, but even then it depends more on the person I’m dealing with than it does on the profits I may make. I take great pleasure in scoring a win against blowhards and know it alls. Fleecing the exceptionally stupid too appeals to me. Everyone else is safe. Okay, so maybe my moral compass’ north is where south is on yours. But my friend Noom tells me I’m a good man, so that’s what I’m going with.
I’ve written before – more than once – about the scams that await the unsuspecting touri in Bangkok. Each time I’ve done so I’ve pointed out that the best way to avoid being scammed is to reign in your greed. Greed plays an integral part in any scam. The chance to get something for free or at an unbelievably low price is what makes you overlook all of the warning signs that would otherwise tell you to flee. So when I say ‘exceptionally stupid’ I really mean ‘greedy little bastard who should know better’. And to a lesser degree, since all of the traditional scams in Bangkok are so well known, anyone who doesn’t do just a tiny bit of pre-trip research and then for failing to do so falls victim to a scam has it coming. Walking blindly into a scam that everyone knows about is stupid.
Now you may consider the locals who run these scams to be dishonest. I don’t. There may be a good deal of subterfuge involved, but when it comes down to it – when your money becomes their money – seldom are you getting anything less than what you agreed to. Take the Grand Palace Is Closed Scam for example. Yes, the Grand Palace isn’t closed, but the 50 baht tuk tuk tour of several wats is a real bargain; you get more than what you pay for with that part of the scam. Yes, the professional gentleman you happen to meet while touring one of those wats who clues you into the money you can make by buying gems and jewelry in Bangkok and then reselling them back home is a lying sack of shit. But then if you take business advice from strangers you meet on the street . . . well, I guess it’s your call whether you are greedy or just plain stupid. And then when you are delivered to the huge jewelry store where you are offered incredible savings on expensive pieces of bling of which you have no knowledge as to its value . . . seriously? Minus greed at work, would you make a purchase like that back home?
The part of that scam where money exchanges hands is the purchase of jewelry. Where the unsuspecting feel they’ve been scammed is in that they bought a piece they were led to believe was worth a few thousand dollars that they were getting for a few hundred when its retail value is much lower. I’d agree it was a scam if you were sold a piece of glass instead of a gem, or the metal was plated instead of real gold or silver. But that’s not what happens. What happens is your greed allows you to grossly overpay for a cheap piece of bling. And whose fault is that?
Ditto for the suits for 99 baht tailor shops where your custom tailored clothing doesn’t include even a single fitting. You paid a cheap price for a tailor-made outfit and you got a cheap outfit worth every penny you paid. That’s not a scam, that’s greed and stupidity at work. And an Indian tailor. It is no different than paying $100 for a $10 fake Rolex. The vendor cleaned up, but you agreed to the price. And I don’t consider that dishonesty on the part of the vendor.
So it’s not surprising that I found myself one day while visiting the Weekend market helping a vendor who I’d done business with before to scam a touri who was just asking for it. When in Rome, do as the Romans do they say. It just so happens I was in Bangkok instead so I decided to go native. And fleece a touri.
The vendor is a little old Thai lady who speaks no English. Her small shop is filled with dazzling displays of cut gems and a little bit of finished jewelry. She also sells rough (un-faceted / un-polished) gems. The first time I bought from her the initial price per gram she quoted by using her calculator was laughable. So I did. And then promptly pecked out a figure as ridiculous as hers has been. Which gave her a good laugh too. Game on.
I enjoy bartering with Thais. They have a good time with it and seldom get angry as long as you are working toward a common goal. No claim to buttress your price is too outrageous. In fact, you’ll gain points – and a lower price – for originality. Using the sick or dying relative card before they get the chance to is greatly appreciated too. In this case, once she realized it wasn’t just for the sake of haggling but that I knew the value of what she was selling, we came to a price with which we were both happy. And we were both happy with each other. I’ve visited her tiny store on every trip I’ve made to Bangkok since then, and as soon as she spots me she pulls out trays of treasures she knows I’ll be interested in. Which means, I’m sure, regardless of the great deal I assume I managed to barter for on that initial visit, in her mind I payed far more than I should have.
On one visit, a middle-aged touri from Brazil was busy inspecting a tray of cut green stones while the old lady and I were busy cracking each other up with far-flung prices and tales of woe. I never understand her stories, I doubt if she understands mine. But the general gist is obvious from the vocal tones we use and the faces we make while taking turns punching out new numbers on her ancient little calculator. The lady from Brazil was impressed. And then, assuming she could speak English in front of the vendor without her understanding what she said, asked me if the woman was a thief or if she could be trusted.
Huh. Now you could ask me if a price was fair, you could ask me what the value of a stone was, you could ask me if I thought a particular stone was a bargain at the price you were haggling toward. Asking me if someone I like is a thief isn’t a good move. And then compounding your error by showing your greed and stupidity in one fell swoop . . . okay, so maybe my moral compass’ arrow fell off a few years ago.
I told the touri that I’d been doing business with the lady for years in reply to her question about the vendor’s honesty. Then, holding up the stone she was interested in she asked me, “Is this emerald real?”
Not that I’m that pedantic , but usually when I get the ‘is it real?’ question my reply is, “No, it is a figment of your imagination.” This time I shot a quick look at the old lady. Who managed to keep a straight face while her eyes implored me not to kill her sale. She does not speak English, but does know the English names of stones and undoubtedly knows the difference between an emerald and a piece of tourmaline. Taking advantage of someone’s stupidity is one thing, purposely mis-identifying a stone is another. I asked the touri what the vendor had told her and her reply was, “She doesn’t speak English, she just used her calculator”
The vendor had not said the stone was an emerald, the touri had decided it was. Emeralds are not native to Thailand. You are not going to get a good deal on an emerald in Thailand. You would though in a country where they are mined. Like Brazil. Idiot. “How much does she want?” I asked.
In a low whisper to not alert the gods to her good fortune, her eyes filled with greed, she murmured, “She only wants 2,000 baht!”
The old lady followed our conversation, her eyes moving from one of us to the other as we discussed her goods. That piece of tourmaline, had it been an emerald, would have sold on the wholesale market for at least five grand. U.S. dollars. Using the same clandestine voice, I told the touri what she wanted to hear, “At 2,000 baht for an emerald of that size, it’s a steal.”
And it would have been. But for a piece of tourmaline it was about ten times higher than what it should have been at retail. The Brazilian woman quickly handed over her cash and scurried away quite pleased with the deal she’d just pulled over on the stupid old Thai woman. She knew she’d just been part of a scam but thought she was the scammer. When she’d cleared the area, the vendor let loose with the epitome of a Thai smile (which you may just want to keep in mind the next time you are on the receiving end of one of those glorious face-wide smiles). And then offered up a tray of rough that I always buy a few pieces of with a nod and, not surprisingly, one of the few English words she knew, “Free!”
Not only did I get to participate in a scam on the side of the scammer, I got a cut of the profits too. Now whenever I visit her booth the first thing she does is pull out her tray of tourmaline to offer to me, a joke so that we can both have a laugh and remember our day of mutual good fortune. That woman from Brazil, on the other hand, has probably been busy telling everyone she knows about how dishonest Thais are and of the gem scam she got taken for during her visit to Bangkok.
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