We traveled to Bangkok a few years ago as part of a celebratory trip for my partner, who had just sat for the bar exam. It was a great experience and instilled in me a great love of Thailand. However I also learned a very important travel lesson after a not so great encounter with Thai security personnel.
We were leaving a shopping mall in the main commercial area, walking towards the sky train. I hadn’t been to a night market yet and was looking forward to some great street food. So far all of my experiences with street food in Bangkok had been amazing; pineapple slices in a bag remain an all time favorite. As we were approaching the station, I threw some garbage into a trash can and kept walking. Almost instantly there were two men in some sort of military/police uniforms yelling at us and grabbing my arm.
What the hell? Bangkok may be a hectic place, but rarely had I felt uncomfortable or in danger. That feeling of ease instantly melted away as we were being escorted by these rough and tumble cops.
They led us to a card table that had been set behind a pillar in front of the station entrance. It was obviously intended to be out of sight for the casual passersby. I was scared but also really confused. What was going on?
The man in charge was sitting at the card table, grinning in a classic Land of Smiles way, motioning for us to sit next to him. Smiley then motioned to one of his assistants, who brought over the garbage I had thrown away. Correction: the garbage I thought I had thrown away. Turns out if never made it into the bin, a horrible mistake.
We began our conversation in pigeon English and hand gestures. The implication was clear, they weren’t happy that I had littered and wanted me to pay a 4,000 Baht fine, or about $120. (most of this information was preprinted in English on laminated cards – another great sign) While not a huge sum of money, it was to us. We were on a shoestring budget having paid for both airfare and hotel with frequent flyer miles and hotel points. We had some spending money of course, but not a lot and that 4,000 baht fine would hurt.
Then Smiley proceeded to show us a book that appeared to be tickets, dozens of them, all for littering or similar offenses. He showed us the book to demonstrate that we weren’t being singled out for being non-Thai. Unfortunately, every single ticket in the binder had been issued to a foreigner. Equality fail.
At that time I had become completely speechless, definitely a first for me. I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to do. I mean, it was Bangkok. I had seen people do a lot worse than miss throwing something in a garbage bin. I knew it was a setup, I knew I was being singled out and I didn’t know what to do. I had just taken out some money from an ATM, but it was in a hidden pocket that I wanted to remain hidden.
While I was staring blankly, mouth agape, Smiley touched my watch. Huh? Oh God, what now? He said that it was a nice watch and that he liked it very much. Ok. Great. He pointed at his watch, a Khao San Road edition Omega knockoff and said, “We trade? Everything be ok then.”
If I was shocked before, this propelled me into all new levels of confusion. Ok, he wanted a bribe. If I could get out of there only having to sacrifice my $50 Fossil watch, that would be ideal. But then I started worrying that it was a double setup and that if I acquiesced, we’d be hauled in for trying to bribe a cop. I had no idea what to do.
My partner, seeing my vegetative condition stepped in and asked me to give the cop my watch. As if hypnotized, I gave in, gave Smiley my watch who in turn gave me his. He then insisted I try it on, which I did. If Smiley was happy before, now he was clearly ecstatic. He gave me a friendly slap on the back and said “Now we good friends.” Incredible. After scamming me, intimidating me and stealing my watch, now we are good friends?
I just smiled, nodded and asked if we could leave. After getting the thumbs up, we scurried as far away from there as possible. I was so scared and upset that I was shaking. I just could not believe what had happened, it seemed all too incredible to me. A definite low point of the trip, we went back to the hotel and stayed in that evening.
That single experience could have soured our entire trip and made me hate Thailand. Luckily, I soon realized that it had been an isolated incident and that ultimately, I was to blame. If I had been more careful, my meeting with Smiley would never had happened. The takeaway for me was twofold. I learned that no matter how comfortable you are in a new place, be it Des Moines or Bangkok, you always need to be vigilant and aware of your surroundings. Second, I learned to always follow and respect local laws and customs, or be prepared to pay the price.
Needless to say that when we were in Singapore a few days later, I followed every single law and ordinance to the absolute letter.