Scamming the Locals
“I think you are not the real Aussie guy,” he’s saying hatefully, ushering me out of the tailor.
“The real Aussie guy say: ‘Just make it mate, no worries.’”
Though his English is slightly broken, his faux Australian accent isn’t bad. His intention is to shame me, appealing to a fanatical sense of patriotism in the hope that I will feel obliged to do business with him. Buy a suit—save the Aussie reputation.
“Oh man. Well… that’s cause… Aussie guys are dumb and rich,” I hear myself stammer. He doesn’t hear me because I’ve paused too long and he is shutting the shiny glass door in my face. It was a weak and ignorant generalisation, anyway, a bad reaction in a heated moment.
My tuk tuk driver, who’s been waiting outside, looks disappointed. No doubt he was expecting things to have gone a little better inside the tailor. I fear I’ve ruined our little scam.
Driving a tuk tuk in Bangkok necessitates the ability to manouvre a vehicle like a nihilistic fugitive but more importantly, the ability to hustle and flow. Some deal drugs, others work for pimps by transporting clients to “massage parlours”, ping-pong shows and brothels. Tuk tuk drivers in Bangkok know a lot about commission deals.
It’s no secret that you can get around Bangkok for less than the price of public transport if you find the right tuk tuk driver. There are swarms of smiling fellas milling around Thanon Khao San who will drive you around for hours, wait for you while you check out temples and shopping malls and then drive you back for 5 or 10 baht. Herein lies a scam that you can benefit from.
My driver is charging five baht, but he stipulated that I would need to go through the basic rituals of retail therapy at outlets of his choosing. He made it clear that I needn’t buy anything as long as I walk around like a bourgeois baron and make the salesman believe:
1) I’m interested.
2) I can afford it.
The crux of the scam is that if you manage to stay in the store for long enough, the tuk tuk driver who brought you there will receive a coupon for fuel.
The expectation is that you, the sweaty, culture-shocked farang, go to the tailor, “just to looking, no buying, my friend.” Before you know it you’re being measured up, treated like royalty and made to feel that baht is only some insignificant form of monopoly money. Then bam! You’ve spent $200 on a shitty suit. The tuk tuk driver is content and the tailor is delighted (and nobody is abusing you or calling you stingy).
The challenge for the hobo travelling type is to go into the store, look around, act interested, then buy nothing and leave. If you can manage to stay in the store for long enough, thereby providing your driver a fuel coupon, you can get yourself a couple hours of guided tour for one sixth of a dollar.
There are certain ways to go about this, and there are ways not to. Unlike roses, it’s not the case that a scam is a scam is a scam.
The fundamental problem for me is that I look like a fucken hobo. On this particular day I’m wearing a black, paint-stained Olde English t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. My shorts are black cutoffs, patched at the crotch. My feet are covered with an oily scum from the Bangkok streets and the cheapest thongs you can buy from the merchants on Thanon Khao San. My nose is caked with blackheads and I’m visibly sweating out last night’s dosage of Sang Som. Like most dirty travellers, my shoulder-length hair is knotty and unkempt. I’m unshaven, sporting dark, heavily scratched sunglasses to cover my bloodshot eyes.
These are the markings of a man with no job, no commitments and, let’s face it, no conventionally worthwhile or lasting prospects (just try telling someone you’re doing an arts degree). But my minimal propriety appearance makes me feel comfortable. In most cases people aren’t intimidated by me, they expect little of me and those who are unable to tolerate my decorum simply ignore me. In some sense, dressing like shit helps to repel conservatives and arseholes.
Here in Bangkok, where the tourist district is littered with touts of all kinds, dressing like shit is supposed to make me look poor. I figure that salesmen, food vendors and taxi drivers will pay less attention to me, though drug dealers always seem to find me and pay me more attention.
In light of my shabby appearance, it’s no surprise those predator capitalists bore resistance. I employed the wrong outfit for the job. My tact was exactly the opposite of how it should have been. It’s surprising that they let me enter their sterile, air-conditioned kennel in the first place…
Then it hits, the sad truth: I was only allowed in because I’m white. The shade of my skin is the only part of my appearance that suggests affluence.
Only a whitey would be able to stroll through town in rags and be treated as a valued customer. And perhaps this helps explain why we take such privilege for granted. The caste system still exists and undeservedly and effortlessly I find myself at the top. Though it’s disconcerting, I’ve sort of always known it.
I can’t blame those vultures that ran me out the door, they are just running their game, earning their bread. They are all too aware of the status I have inadvertently been awarded. They resent me for taking the piss, for acting like I was interested and could afford it when I wasn’t and couldn’t.
“You are not the real Aussie guy,” they told me, and suddenly that feels like a compliment. If Aussie guys have plenty of money and are blasé about spending it on a suit, then I’m fine with not being a ‘real’ one. This is what I was trying to say as they drove me out the door, but they were too pushy and I was too slow.
My tuk tuk driver had implied that we were in for a full day of temples and fuel coupon scamming but now he looks dubious.
“Why you not like the suit?” he asks, as if pained by the scene at the front door.
“I don’t want a suit. And those dudes were kind of heavy handed,” I offer.
He frowns, realising that I’m not cut out for the fuel coupon game.
He takes a call, weaving in and out of traffic, and then mutters something about an intention to be somewhere else. He suddenly speaks less English than before. I’m being dropped outside a megamall. I don’t question him. He takes the five baht from my grubby hands and disappears into the Bangkok smog.
I’m relieved. I’m no good at pretending that I want to buy a suit.