Behind the Scenes in Bangkok with Scam City
Bangkok is an easy city to target tourists. In this exclusive Q&A, Scam City host Conor Woodman explains the psychology behind the city’s most famous con: the gem scam.
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Scam City host Conor Woodman says that Bangkok is a city that’s all about fun—and scams. In this exclusive interview with TRAVEL+ESCAPE, he talks about Thailand’s famous tuk-tuk cons and gem scams, and discusses why travellers sometimes leave their common sense at home.
You first visited Bangkok some 15 years ago. What changes did you most notice this time?
The skyline—it’s sprouted a remarkable number of skyscrapers and luxury hotels, and there seems to be a new one going up every few blocks.
Is there any one image you will carry away from your time in Bangkok?
I think the day we decided to follow the gem scam back to its source. I gave pursuit to a tuk-tuk on my motorbike through the streets of Bangkok. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to act like James Bond!
Does the city have a different feel by day versus by night?
Totally different. By day, the focus feels very much on culture for tourists and work for the locals, but once the sun goes down, it becomes all about fun. And in Bangkok, fun means bars and parties all night long.
How did Bangkok’s notorious traffic jams compare to those you’ve experienced in other cities around the world?
Bangkok has, hands down, the worst traffic in the world. It’s worse than Cairo, Delhi or Mexico City. This is a place that needs a congestion charge!
How did you like travelling in the tuk-tuk—the three-wheeled open taxi?
I love tuk-tuks because they’re part of the authentic Bangkok experience. The problem is, with so many cars in Bangkok these days, they’re getting less safe to travel in. And if it rains, then you’re in trouble!
By day, the focus feels very much on culture for tourists and work for the locals, but once the sun goes down, it becomes all about fun.
Of all the modes of transport you’ve used throughout your travels, which was the most remarkable?
As a Londoner, I often get frustrated that we don’t make more use of the river Thames to get around. We could learn a lot from Bangkok in that respect. There’s no end of river boats and ferries in Bangkok to get you from A to B. I think all modern cities are going to have to think more resourcefully about transport in this way.
Did you try any of the unusual street food such as scorpions, grasshoppers or cockroaches?
Did anyone try to scam you on your first visit to Bangkok?
Yes. I encountered the same gem scam that we filmed this time. I was surprised to find that it’s still going as strong as ever.
Do you understand why people still fall for the Thai gem scam despite warnings in travel books and on the Web?
The scam involves a very sophisticated network of people who are experts at befriending tourists and casually mentioning the gem sales as though they’re an afterthought. And when you’re in a foreign country, meeting a friendly English-speaking person at a tourist site seems like a lucky accident, so your guard is down and you are vulnerable.
People get greedy with the slightest encouragement. And that’s what the scammers play on.
Having seen innumerable tourist scams, are the victims simply naive or are the scammers exceptionally clever?
Both. People often act differently when travelling. Their guard is down and they’re often looking for good deals. At the same time, you have to wonder if they’ve also left their common sense at home because if you could make money buying retail gems in Thailand and re-selling them at home, everyone would be doing it. People get greedy with the slightest encouragement. And that’s what the scammers play on. Plus, they are expert con men. As with many things, it’s a combination of factors.
Did you notice any commonality among the scams in various cities? Are scams becoming globalized?
I do wonder if the internet hasn’t become a sort of global resource for people interested in targeting tourists. There are so many scams that are fundamentally the same from country to country, with just a local accent as it were. I can’t prove it scientifically, but it does seem there is very little that is new under the sun when it comes to scams around the world.
Did you encounter any scams that were truly unique to their location?
The Thai gem scam does seem unique to Bangkok. There do seem to be an inordinate number of gem shops in the city and, of course, a virtually infinite supply of temples where the touts can operate.
You were already a veteran traveller. Did you learn anything about being a more “defensive” traveller after encountering these scams?
It’s really just a matter of never doing something in a foreign city that you wouldn’t do in your home city. If a stranger approached you on the street in your own city, would you buy what they were selling? Would you buy thousands of dollars’ worth of gems if you don’t know anything about the gem industry? This series has simply reinforced my conviction that the one thing you can’t leave at home when travelling is your common sense.
By focusing on tourist scams, are these films painting an unfair portrait of these cities?
No. In many ways these films celebrate the ingenuity of the scammer versus the weaknesses of the traveller. I hope that the way we’ve chosen to investigate each city allows the viewer a glimpse at a different side to the city and its inhabitants that they wouldn’t otherwise ever get a chance to see. But let’s keep in mind that we are focusing on one aspect: the scam. So of course it’s going to be skewed in that particular direction.
How many shirts did you ruin cutting holes for your undercover cameras during the series?
All of them.