Gem of a con pol­ished to per­fec­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Greg Jor­gensen

WHY are you be­ing so stupid?’’ the God­fa­ther looka­like shouts through un­even brown teeth while jab­bing an over-jew­elled fin­ger at me. A bead of sweat marches down my tem­ple. How did I wind up sit­ting across a rick­ety ta­ble from this con­man?

De­spite ev­ery guide­book telling vis­i­tors to Thai­land not to trust any­one of­fer­ing free rides or cheap gems, about 15,000 vis­i­tors a year spend be­tween $55 mil­lion and $110 mil­lion on low-qual­ity stones with the in­ten­tion of sell­ing them in their home coun­tries for huge prof­its.

‘‘ The rea­son why so many peo­ple buy gems is be­cause they see dol­lar signs. The ven­dors are sell­ing hope,’’ Adrian, a Cana­dian who has fallen prey to the scam to the tune of 39,000 baht (about $1340), tells me. ‘‘ I was look­ing at it as an in­vest­ment.’’

Most hap­less buy­ers dis­cover their ‘‘ pre­cious gems’’ are worth lit­tle more than the postage it would take to send them back to Thai­land. Tech­ni­cally, it’s le­gal; as one tourist po­lice­man tells me, there’s no law against jack­ing up the price. But it’s the smoke and mir­rors nar­ra­tive that pulls you in.

To find out what’s so con­vinc­ing about th­ese well-pub­li­cised scams, a friend and I set out to be led down the gar­den path. With our sil­li­est ex­pres­sions and maps up­side down, we pre­pare to get swin­dled.

We ar­rive at touristy Wat Saket in Bangkok and barely have time to won­der how long it will all take be­fore a friendly man stops us. ‘‘ Where are you go­ing?’’ he cheer­ily asks. When we tell him we’re head­ing to Wat Pho, he says, ‘‘ Oh, Wat Pho closed to­day!’’

He then says that for only 20 baht, we can have a tour of the city, visit­ing the places he points to on our map. We ea­gerly agree and five min­utes later we are in the back of a tuk-tuk rac­ing to­wards our first des­ti­na­tion. It is so by-the-book, it nearly hurts.

As we weave in and out of slow-mov­ing traf­fic and al­leys packed with ven­dors sell­ing ev­ery­thing from live tur­tles to bulk steel shav­ings, our driver, Pong, ex­plains that if we visit a tai­lor af­ter our first stop, he will get a ‘‘ gov­ern­ment pro­mo­tion voucher’’ worth five litres of free gas.

‘‘ Just look, you no have to buy!’’ He smiles at us when we agree. ‘‘ OK! You help me, I help you!’’

Our lit­tle tuk-tuk belches blue smoke as we tear off. Five min­utes later, we ar­rive at the Lucky Bud­dha, a nearly de­serted wat (tem­ple) with a small Bud­dha im­age as its cen­tre­piece. As we are look­ing at the golden statue, a well-dressed Thai man ap­proaches and starts telling us about the hand-painted walls and the his­tory of Thai­land. He tells us he works for UNICEF and when we tell him that we have yet to visit a tai­lor, he is sur­prised and rec­om­mends a shop where he takes his UN as­so­ciates to get kit­ted out. We thank him and con­tinue on our way.

Back in the tuk-tuk, we aren’t at all sur­prised when the tai­lor we promised Pong we would visit turns out to be the same one men­tioned by the UNICEF chap.

We are shown some over-priced sam­ples, which we de­cline, and con­tinue with the tour.

Pong takes us to a gem shop. ‘‘ You don’t have to buy, just look for 10 min­utes.’’ The jew­ellery is over­priced and once the sales as­sis­tant re­alises we aren’t buy­ing, she shows us the door.

At the next tem­ple, some beefy Thai men usher us to a ta­ble at which the afore­men­tioned God­fa­ther-style chap sits be­side a greasy, chain-smok­ing French­man. Over a friendly chat, they ex­plain they own a restau­rant in France, and sev­eral times a year come to Thai­land to buy cheap gems and sell them back home. Coin­ci­den­tally, to­day is the last day of their once-a-year pro­mo­tion: we are in such luck.

They pull out re­ceipts show­ing their pur­chases, glare at us and wait for an an­swer. We de­cline. ‘‘ Why don’t you buy any?’’ they chal­lenge us.

When we exit the tem­ple to meet Pong we dis­cover, much to our amuse­ment, we’ve been ditched. A per­fect end­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.