Gem of a con polished to perfection
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.