I wake up in the morning with the intention of going to MDK, a giant shopping mall, because I have to buy a phone for my trip. Unfortunately, MDK is far away from where I'm staying, so I need to catch a boat to the train station, then a train to the mall.
Here I am walking aimlessly around, trying to find the ferry where I can take a boat. Suddenly, a man standing near a bus stop asks me what I'm looking for. I tell him I'm looking for the ferry. He tells me it's a Thai holiday today, and the ferries and malls are closed. Instant excitement on my part: a holiday on my second day here? Bingo!
"Because it's a government holiday today, you can hire a government tuk-tuk to bring you to some temples and government buildings. Only 20 baht for the day!"
In my head, I've just hit the jackpot. 20 baht is roughly 60 cents, and I've been meaning to see some temples anyway, so...
I ask him how to find a government tuk-tuk, and he helps me flag one down. "The one with colors like the Thai flag!"
I thank the man, wave goodbye, and step into the tuk-tuk. We're on our way. Let me tell you, this driver is one of the best drivers I've ever seen. He's weaving in and out of cars, tuk-tuks, and motorcycles, speeding the entire time. There are several moments where I'm sure I'm going to die. But there's Bangkok's insane traffic system for you.
First he takes me to see the "Lucky Buddha." This is my first temple experience. A guide brings me inside, I take my shoes off and stare at the Buddha. The guide speaks English well, and tells me all sorts of things about how the Lucky Buddha brings luck to people. I take a photo, then walk back to my tuk-tuk.
The driver then brings me to "Thai Factory," a suit shop. He tells me that he gets free gas vouchers for bringing me to various government owned shops. "None of these shops have tax, because they have a special deal with the government!"
I have no problem with this guy getting free gas vouchers, but I tell myself that I won't buy anything. I figure that the government cuts deals with companies to bring some extra tourist dollars into the economy. So I go to the suit shop, ignore the aggressive salesman, and am on my merry way.
Next, he brings me to the "Government Tourist Office," where I can talk to people who will give me any travel information that I want. I step in and am immediately seated by an intense looking fellow. He tells me I need to get out of the country immediately, because of political instability caused by the military coup. I've heard that things aren't really that bad in Thailand, so I tell him I'm going to stay. "Three people have already been killed, you have to get out immediately!"
I mention that I've already booked a full month's stay at a guesthouse, and don't want to leave. His response? "What's more important, your money or your life?"
Then he holds up photos of the three aforementioned people who were killed. "They were trying to have a good time, just like you."
Shaken, but maintaining a sense of calmness about the situation, I refuse to buy a ticket out of the country. With a final assurance that I will be killed, he bids me good day, and I leave.
By the time the tuk-tuk driver brings me to the second temple, my mind is racing a million thoughts per minute. Is my life really in danger? Was it stupid to take my chances in such a serious situation? Anyway, I arrive at the next temple, and peacefully look up at the Buddha. Another man is there kneeling. We talk about various things, namely travel. He recommends that if I'm already on my government tour, I should check out the Baan Thai Gems Co., a jewelry store where they cut jewels. Oh, and they have one of those government deal things with no tax.
Well, where do you think the tuk-tuk driver brought me next?
So I'm in Baan Thai Gems Co. Ltd. and damn, it's a beautiful shop. It looks like a very expensive upper class jewelry store, and although I've decided not to buy anything, I'm enamored by all the beautiful rings and such. A well-dressed shop worker shows me around, and I finally decide to buy the cheapest ring I can find. My eyes land on an amethyst ring cast in silver, valued at 1,600 baht (like $50). I hesitate, but then I've been having such a great day...I need something cool to remember this trip by! The man fits my finger for the ring and I buy it. It comes with a stamped certificate of authenticity.
Fast forward like five more shops, and the driver drops me off. I pay him the 20 baht, and leave, beaming. What a day! For only 60 cents I got to ride around Bangkok in a super fast tuk-tuk, saw some temples, and now have a classy ring!
When I get home, I flop onto my bed, exhausted. On a whim, I decide to Google search the Baan Thai Gems Co. It's never a good thing when the word "scam" shows up as part of your suggested search phrase...
I do some research on the internet, and find out exactly what has happened to me. The entire thing was a scam. Every single person was in on it but me: the guy who gave me instructions, the driver, the shop owners, the travel agent, even the temple guides and the fellow I spoke with about traveling! Thankfully I only paid $50 for a ring that most certainly is worth a fraction of that. It could have been much, much worse.
If I'd done my research beforehand, I would have immediately recognized a gem scam, one of the most common scams in Bangkok. However, I'm glad that I had to learn about it the hard way. Very little damage was done, so I now have a great story to tell, and a badge of shame to wear on my finger forever!