Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The same old trick - Bangkok, Thailand

Silom road, central Bangkok. I'm kind of shouldering my way through a typically busy Asian sidewalk, towards the escalator of the Sky-train station. I swerve around an elegant Thai lady on the left, a flower street vendor squatting on the right, I skirt a hooker who's chasing his catch, hop past the table of a noodle-soup stall and I finally make it to the bottom of the stairs. Just when I'm about to set my foot on the step, a teenager shows up and blocks my way.

Maybe he's begging, or wants to sell me something. With both his hands he's carrying a bag, the content of which I cannot see. When I try to rush past him and up the stairs he does something that could be normal in India or in Morocco, but that one wouldn't definitely expect to see here. He doesn't give up and keeps blocking my way, walking backwards with a stubborn grin. As I don't surrender and keep trying to overtake him, he uses his bag to shove me against the rail. I'm totally taken by surprise and for one or two seconds I just stay still. Out of the corner of my eye I notice that his partner is approaching from behind, so I tell him to back off and push his bag and him away.

The escalator is carrying me away from troubles, but I'm still looking down at that pair of cunning urchins. I watch them while they play the same trick with a tourist. For a while he pretends he's not bothered at all, but finally he explodes with a liberating cry: “I'm not interested!”
Interested in what? I say to myself. In being pick-pocketed? I'm quite sure that the second thief didn't have a chance to search my bag, but I still check my belongings once I am upstairs. Everything seems to be all right.

I approach the banister of the elevated station and try to spot them on the street below. They seem to be gone, but I'm not sure, therefore I walk down to the opposite side. I meet them there, they look relaxed, strolling and hunting for another prey. I stop on the sidewalk and stare at them: the one who pushed his bag against my chest smiles for a moment but then, maybe because he remembers my face or for the hostile look given off by my eyes, he turns away to join his friend.

Fortunately these things don't happen very often, that's the main reason why I was so surprised. It's true that in Thailand scams, pick-pocketing and other troubles occur, but it's usually not very serious stuff or things that can be avoided with a little care.

Accepting a tuk-tuk ride of one hour for ten baht, for example, can lead you, as a worst case scenario, to a boring hop-on hop-off tour of silk-outlets, tailors, jeweleries and other shops. Some other drivers will try to convince you that the Royal Palace is closed for the day, in order to take you somewhere else and get a good deal for a whole afternoon.
Apparently reliable and well-educated touts might invite you to follow them to a gambling house or to buy some unbelievably cheap sapphires. There's no need to say, of course, that the gamblers are crooks and the sapphires fakes.

There are people who decided to buy drugs on the street. A few minutes later they received a free gift: a cordial visit to their hotel room from a patrol of corrupt but zealous cops.

Some other foreigners (including who writes) have had some belongings stolen in their rooms. Those, however, were rather cheap hotels, with low levels of security or none at all.

There have even been cases of armed robbery and murders. Such serious crimes though, do not happen often, anyway less than in some more developed countries.

Obviously today's incident cannot be dismissed as a trifle, for one could have had his passport or wallet snatched. At the same time it's not easy to avoid falling for it as the trick, though old, proves to be an effective one.

Anyway I wouldn't worry too much about this. All in all I've had few problems since I came to Asia years ago. I don't believe that what happened today marks the beginning of a new, worrisome, era in terms of Thai security standards.

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