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Fear not the Bangkok scams

When my cousin inquired over Christmas whether she'd be held hostage by police-sanctioned bandits for shopping in the Bangkok airport's duty-free plaza, I knew another salacious Bangkok scam warning had become legend.

Turns out she's been reading Travel + Leisure, which just compiled the "World's Worst Travel Scams." Surprise! Bangkok makes the list twice.

In addition to potentially scaring my cousin from ever visiting, these panicky travel warning lists build an impression that Bangkok is a nest of pick-pockets, hustlers and conmen.

Maybe I'm a Bangkok apologist. Maybe I've just been lucky. Maybe the hubris of tackling this chaotic city’s ins and outs has caused me to forget my first day here, when I was enamored and intimidated all at once.

But I'm insisting that Bangkok is quite safe for tourists. The predators here seem gentle compared to Rome’s aggressive street kids and Rio's stick-up gangs. (I've yet to hear of a stick-up here, ever.) Moreover, I often feel these scam warnings are overblown.

First, let's dissect what Travel + Leisure calls ...


Travelers in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport duty-free shops browse then leave. Police falsely accuse them of shoplifting, then request a hefty fee — or else the traveler is bound for prison.

This stems from an incident last year, first made famous by the BBC. A British couple was reportedly falsely accused of lifting a Givenchy wallet, stripped of their passports and holed up in a pink hotel near the airport until fines were paid. This was, at one point, the top-read story on the BBC’s web page.

Guess what received far less attention? The duty-free operator's surveillance footage which appears to show this lady stealing the wallet.

Sadly, the couple's wacky account of their police treatment — involving extortion and a Sri Lankan middleman — is plausible. I have no doubts that, if tourists fall into police custody here, life will get very weird very fast. But, hey, the cops let them stay in a run-down hotel instead of prison. I wonder if every Thai suspect is given the option of hotel or cell.

So now the "Airport Zig Zag" has inherited a cute name and it's accepted as an entrenched scam. Even though the most notable victim appears to have shoplifted on tape. (A similar case, against a Malaysian man, was also refuted by the duty-free operator with surveillance video.)

I say that if you're not a shoplifter, fear not the Gucci outlet and browse freely the racks of discount Marlboros. Besides, they're selling twin bottles of Jack Daniel's for $33 over there. What a steal!

Next up, the gray lady of Bangkok cons ...


Friendly stranger or tuk-tuk driver insists that a popular attraction is closed for the day. Instead, they offer a tour of local gem shops hosting sales. Buy as many as you can here, they say, so you can sell them for a profit back home!

Somehow, this one has been around for decades. Really, gem scam victims, how gullible are you? Perhaps you've got a sweet payday coming from that estranged prince you've met via Hotmail? And you thought you'd splurge early on a Thai holiday? If that's the case, I'd love to interest you in this new property I've just inherited. It's simply grand. Cash only, please.

I won't argue that the gem scam isn't widespread, because it is. I won't argue that it's easy on the wallet, because it probably isn't. I'll just argue that it's 100 percent avoidable. Besides, what do you need a bunch of loose gems for? To festoon your scepter?


A favorite of paranoid expats. Maybe I have meek powers of perception. Maybe I’m not smart enough to calculate velocity-per-Thai baht algorithms in real time. But I just don’t believe rigged meters are rampant. And anyone who wants to use their engineering savvy to squeeze me for 70 cents might as well have it.

And lastly, a travel warning rather than a scam ...


Adopted by Thai political factions, these colors invite harassment or beatdowns from Thais who support the opposing camp.

No one will ever mistake a tourist for a Thai politics diehard.

In fact, after the yellow-clad People's Alliance for Democracy seized the premier's compound in 2008, I toured two college friends through the occupied grounds. And I watched with embarrassment as they bought "NEW POLITICS!" T-shirts as souvenirs. The vendor was equal parts confused and amused.

Even if you're Thai in appearance, please note that Bangkok is not a Grand Theft Auto-style nightmare where partisans regularly accost political rivals on the street. Thais of all stripes wear both colors without thinking much of it. You'll be fine.