Tuk tuk tourism

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Friday, May 9, 2014


FINALLY, a dream come true. Family bonding time where everyone blocked off our busy schedules to be together in Bangkok, Thailand. People from the City of Smiles meet people from the Land of Smiles. Sawadee.

This is a new experience for me. I have been abroad many times, but often on official business. Everything was covered, including the air flight expenses, the billets and general accommodations.

All I had to do was confirm my flights, process my visa, but otherwise the organizers had covered everything.

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With personal trips, the situation is different. We had to plan everything—the schedules, the airline, the hotel, even as simple as getting a cab from the airport to the hotel at the same time making sure scalpers don’t charge us an arm and a leg.

We are on our own. We had to work out where to go.

Along the way, we met Uthai Chaiphiban, a tuk-tuk driver, who hangs out at the Prince Palace Hotel. Tuk tuk to Bangkok is to the tricycle to Bacolod.

We had to haggle the price of his services from 50 down to 20 baht to drive us to a side street restaurant. But Uthai was good even in his understandable if fractured English. There was no need to let the calculator do the talking to close a deal.

He brought us to several touristy places such as the Buddhist temples, the diners, and the ubiquitous malls.

Uthai turned out to be a regular chatterbox, driving us where we want to go. Eventually our trip to the restaurant morphed into a two-day transaction to drive us to several places.

Along the way, we learned how the value chain of the Bangkok tourism industry works.

After bringing us to the Buddhist temples, Uthai would suggest that we drop by several gem, suit and souvenir shops stores to window shop. Somehow, we missed checking the online warnings on the gem scams.

The Lonely Planet, the quintessential backpacking tour guide, warned that “Being ‘taken for a ride’ by a tuk-tuk or tour bus is the most common scam out there, but luckily it’s the easiest to avoid. While this scam can be unnerving, it will usually only cost you sightseeing time.”

Another website, the Trip Advisor, warns of the “friendly” tuk-tuk drivers who may present themselves as guides and speak pretty good English. Uthai and other tuk tuk drivers fit the description.

These cheap tuk-tuk tours will end up taking you to a fake (or over-priced) gem stores, a crappy tailor, a massage parlor or worse. No commitment to buy anything in the so-called scam. Just increase the foot traffic inside the store.

In exchange, the establishments gave him a gasoline coupon. If their merchandisers managed to weave their magic on the customers, tuk tuk and taxi drivers get extra gasoline card. No wonder there is intense competition among them.

For many tourists, the set-up might look like an institutionalized rip-off. And the internet is full of warnings on the Thai gem scammers.
Were we taken for a ride? As the UK’s Mail Online noted, “Many Thai police are in cahoots with the jewelers, and once your stones have been posted abroad, there is little you can do.”

In the land of smiles, it’s enough to make you weep.

*****

(bqsanc@yahoo.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on May 09, 2014.

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