The recent decision to close down Sanam Luang for renovations has sent me on a trip down memory lane, reminding me of a day when I went there deliberately to get ripped off. Sanam Luang is the last remaining large tract of land in central Bangkok that hasn't been cemented over to make way for shophouses selling car parts or cheap cloth which, upon coming into contact with an errant cigarette, quickly introduces you to the perils of self-immolation.
ILLUSTRATION: NATTAYA SRISAWANG
Sanam Luang is smack bang in the middle of such Bangkok landmarks as the Grand Palace, Thammasat University, and that canal next to the Royal Hotel where the "Jackfruit Ghosts" hang out. That's what the Thais call them anyway; cheap prostitutes for the man on a shoestring budget. They're Jackfruit Ghosts because they stand under the appropriately-named jackfruit trees. As for the "ghosts" tag, well let's just say when the Lord Buddha was handing out good looks, these girls were oblivious to the fact, squatted somewhere far, far away on a celestial bamboo mat gorging themselves on somtam and pork balls on sticks.
The decision to shut down Sanam Luang has upset not only the Jackfruit Ghosts. Sanam Luang is a bed for newly-arrived upcountry folk who have nowhere to go and are dirt poor - even too poor to afford to be handed a red shirt. It is also a center for newly-arrived western tourists who have temporarily given up Christianity to strictly adhere to the cult of Lonely Planet. They, too, have nowhere to go, save for the well-trod paths spelled out in that book.
But the group that's really hurting are the sharks; the men and women who prey on unsuspecting tourists, greeting them with the warm traditional Thai smile, performing the traditional Thai wai, then leading the tourist into the traditional Thai rip-off known as the gem scam, believed to be as ancient as the Sukhothai era.
You know the one I'm talking about. The sharks pounce on neon-green western tourists holding upside-down Groovy Maps, strolling up Khao San Road on their way to the Grand Palace. Have you ever seen a shark pounce? "Hello! Where you from? America? Obama! Obama! Where you go? Grand Palace?" The Thai smile quickly turns upside down to reveal a Thai frown. "Today is closed na. Buddhist holiday. But you lucky na! You can buy gems at special price today. The government no have tax for tourist na. Only three day sale. Very cheap na! You take back to America and sell and you make money! Good idea na!"
Back in the mid-1990s this scam was so well known the Tourist Police were getting daily visits from greed-driven tourists who realised within hours they'd been taken for a ride. It was making the papers too. I was writing a weekly column in Thai and wanted first-hand experience of the scam. I decided to masquerade as a Khao San Road tourist and try to get ripped off first-hand at Sanam Luang.
Boy it took a lot of preparation! I didn't shower for five days, and two days before the sting I stopped brushing my teeth. I purchased a traditional northern hilltribe shirt, the kind absolutely no northern hilltribesman has worn in decades, and forced my dog to sleep on it. I completed my disguise with cheap dark glasses, a fake Adidas baseball cap, Chinese trousers and a backpack.
My photographer was Anusorn, who had instructions to bring along a long-range lens and stay at least 20 metres away from me. In the cab on the way we discussed how I would try to get scammed. "Let's give ourselves three or four hours," I told Anusorn as we approached Sanam Luang. "If we don't get a bite we'll go home."
"You smell funny," Anusorn replied.
Three or four hours? Try three or four minutes! The moment I stepped out of the cab near Thammasat, I had my very first bite.
He was a relatively young man with big lips and tousled hair. "Hey! How are you? Where you from? My name is Pong."
"Australia," I said. Coming from Queensland, I was able to fall easily into a nasally, uneducated tone of voice.
"Wow! I stayed in Australia. I was a student in Canberra!" he said, proud of himself. A dead giveaway he was a scam artist; with Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to choose from, who would ever be proud to have chosen that place?
Actually, Australia's most prestigious university, Australia National University, or ANU, is in Canberra. I knew that - but did he? "That's great you studied in Canberra! Which university?" I asked.
A raincloud briefly crossed his forehead as he stuttered to himself: "Arai-wa arai-wa." That translates along the lines of: "What the hell? What the hell?" Finally he brightened up and said: "A&W!"
ANU ... A&W ... well, they do kind of sound the same, don't they? And of course it's perfectly normal to confuse the place from which you graduated with a popular hamburger restaurant. It's like me graduating from Oxford and accidentally telling someone I'd studied at Oxtail.
Then he said: "Hey. I show you my university."
Before I could say "But I've eaten already!" he was guiding me across the road over to Thammasat University. "I studied here, too!" he said, quickly adding it was before he set sail for Australia. When I asked him what was his major, that damned raincloud was back on his forehead until he said: "English." How many times had he run this scam by other tourists who had never bothered to ask him such things?
He took me to outside the auditorium. "That's my faculty," he said, and then he pointed to the flagpole. "And that is the Thai flag." Man, I thought, that Thammasat education is worth its weight in gold.
From the corner of my eye I could see Anusorn snapping away, but it gave me an idea. I brought out my camera. "This is so interesting!" I said. "I need to take a photo of you at your university!"
The raincloud was back, only this time tenfold. "No no no. No photo," Pong said, revealing Thammasat had never gotten around to teaching him plural forms. Being a journalist I persisted. "Just one," I said, but he was adamant.
"You are farang. You don't understand. Thai people believe if you take their photo, their spirit is caught inside your camera. Very bad luck."
I like a man of audacity; and this guy was about as ludicrous as they came. I was starting to warm to him; a bit like the Stockholm Syndrome. Suddenly he said: "Hey! You know? Good luck for you! Now it's a special three-day holiday in Thailand. No tax on gemstones. You can buy very cheap and take back to Australia and sell them same-same cheap."
Bingo! I scratched my fake Adidas cap and made a stupid face, like you see so often along the sidewalk cafes of Khao San. "Well, I don't know," I said.
"The shop owner is my friend! Good price for you!"
"Well ... okay," I said. In a split second Pong was off to the roadside where a tuk-tuk appeared out of nowhere, and my new friend mumbled something to the driver who nodded. He guided me into the back of the tuk tuk. "Twenty baht, that's all you pay. He will take you to my friend. Goodbye!"
He stepped back ... and the tuk tuk sped off with me in the back.
Wait a minute - wasn't he coming too? Where was he taking me? The tuk tuk sped off in the direction of the Pin Klao bridge, a part of town I was completely unfamiliar with. But more to the point - there was Anusorn standing helplessly at the gates of Thammasat, watching me disappear.
Soon I was over the Pin Klao Bridge, in the back of a tuk tuk, stinking to high heaven, all by myself - about to go - where?
Where? That story, dear reader, has to wait for next week's column.