≡ Menu

Inside The Happy Buddha Day Scam

The joys of travel is often finding yourself entwined in something different than what it seems.

Women in temple

One afternoon in Bangkok, I was sitting in front of a tandem of Hindu shrines (one for Trimurti and the other Ganesha) that are next to Central World, a large, high-end downtown mall. Although Thais are Buddhists, they also pray to Hindu gods if they think it will help them. They offer beverages, fruit, and red roses to Trimurti, the three-headed deity, and ask him (or her, or it, or them, I guess) for help in matters of the heart.

Woman in temple in ThailandAnyway, I was just sitting there and watching people approach the shrines when an elderly Thai man sitting next to me asked me where I was from. He spoke pretty good English, explaining that his wife and daughter were traveling in America (in the state of Maryland). I asked him about the two shrines in front of us and he was happy to tell me what he knew.

He asked me what I was doing for the day and I told him that I wanted to stop by a bookstore in another nearby mall. He told me that it wouldn’t open until later in the day because it was Lucky Buddha Day, which occurs once a month in Bangkok. He added that there was a special temple that I ought to check out on Lucky Buddha Day. I could take a tuk-tuk and be there in ten minutes. I told him that I didn’t like taking tuk-tuks (expensive and dangerous). He offered to help me get one for a good price. We walked around the corner to a main street and he talked to a young kid sitting in a tuk-tuk, explaining to him what I wanted to do. He turned to me and told me that the kid would drive me to the temple, wait for me while I went inside to check it out, and then drive me back—all for thirty baht (one U.S. dollar). Okay, I thought, that’s hard to pass up. So I climbed in and the kid revved up the tuk-tuk and we swung into traffic.

In ten minutes, after weaving in and out of congested noon-day traffic, we pulled into a quiet side street. The tuk-tuk came to a stop in front of a temple. I told the kid I would step inside, take a look around, and be right back. As I was trying to find the door into the temple, I spotted a sleeping cat (and a monk chatting on a cellphone).

Cat in a temple in ThailandA bunch of monks were eating their lunch outside under a canopy that was next to the temple. I walked past them and then found the rear door to the temple. I slipped my sandals off and walked inside. I was standing on the red carpet when another visitor entered. He looked like a Thai businessman. We smiled at each other and as I was standing there he gestured to me to take a seat near him on the carpet, so I did. I figured this is what they must do.

Luckily, like the elderly guy in front of Central World, this guy also spoke English. He told me that his wife and two daughters were shopping and he had stopped by here because he had been an apprentice monk here in this temple years before. He explained that he now lives in Singapore and works for Singapore Airlines. He took out his wallet and showed me photos of his wife and two daughters standing in front of a nice house in Singapore and handed me his business card, showing that his name was Pee Pongwattana and that he was a branch manager.

As we sat there, he also told me that, as a kind of hobby, he bought gems at low prices in Thailand and then sold them in Singapore for a profit. He pulled out a receipt and showed me how much he had paid and then how much money he had made back in Singapore. I took one look at the paper and then went back to asking him about what is was like growing up in Thailand and being a monk. He told me that many Thai men will serve in a temple as an apprentice monk for three months because it gives their parents a lot of “merit.” He mimicked how tears will stream down the faces of the parents when their sons finish the apprenticeship.

By this point, I had been in the temple for at least twenty minutes, if not more, so I told my new friend that I had to get back to the tuk-tuk driver. Before getting up from the carpet, I grabbed my camera and took a photo of him.

Thai tuk-tuk driverBack at the tuk-tuk, the kid asked me for a favor. On the way back to Central World, there was a clothing store that he wanted me to visit. If I did this, he said, the owners would give him a gas voucher for the day. I couldn’t say no. He was spending close to an hour with me and I would be giving him one dollar.

So off we zipped down another street. I entered a clothing store and pretended to look around, talking to a guy about the prices of shirts and suits, and then walked out. I climbed back into the tuk-tuk, the kid thanked me, and we took off for Central World. Back at the mall, I handed him forty baht with a thank you.

Later that night, sitting at home, I was curious about this Lucky Buddha Day, so I fired up the laptop and started searching. I immediately discovered that Lucky Buddha Day is a very old scam in Thailand. I read hundreds of accounts of people losing thousands of dollars by purchasing what they thought were genuine gems, only to discover back at home they were poor quality and sold for pennies on the dollar.

The scam is very complicated, starting with a guy like mine in front of the Hindu shrines, through the tuk-tuk driver, the guy at the temple, and then the gem stores that sell the victims the shoddy rocks. I had no interest in gems of any kind, and my guy at the temple—Pee Pongwattana—must have eventually sensed this. I was kind of stunned reading all the sad accounts of people losing so much money. Well, one look at me should have told them that I had very little money and wasn’t interested in buying gems.

So if you’re ever in Bangkok, I absolutely recommend that you visit the shrines to Triumrti and Ganesha next to Central World. But I would also caution you to be careful of these Lucky Buddha Day scam artists. They’re very good at their job. Fortunately for me, I was just too cheap (or too stupid or too naive) to get pulled into their net.

From their point of view, of course, I was a waste of time and effort — a small fish tossed back into the river. From my point of view, it had been an interesting afternoon. I hadn’t even known that I was targeted until I was sitting over my laptop later in the evening and first learned about Lucky Buddha Day.

In retrospect, as I thought about the guy at the shrines, whose wife and daughter were traveling in the United States (or so he said), the kid driving the tuk-tuk, who got a gas voucher for dropping me off at the clothing store (or so he said), and Mr. Pee Pongwattana, the ex-monk and branch manager for Singapore Airlines (or so he said), I realized that it turned out to be an even more interesting—and certainly more educational—afternoon than I had originally thought. And all for one US dollar.

Filed under: Celebrations, Danger, Religion, Thailand

About the Author:

has written 3 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

26 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Lawrence August 18, 2020, 1:36 am

    Very nice story Jeffrey. Great job of slowly building a narrative. Glad to see some people still do it.

    Link Reply
  • Trevor Warman August 18, 2020, 2:56 am

    Yeah it was your lucky day. Lucky Buddha day, who would have guessed.
    Least it wasnt the I WORK IN A CASINO BUT ITS MY DAY OFF scam

    Link Reply
  • VBJ August 18, 2020, 9:25 am

    The thing about scams is that they often take your approval for them to work. If you know it’s a scam then the ride can be interesting. I used to do this sometimes with the grifters working the Bund in Shanghai. Thanks for taking us on this ride with you. It really showed how this rather involved scam functions.

    Link Reply
    • Jeffrey August 18, 2020, 10:49 am

      Lawrence,

      Thanks. Yes, I wanted the reader to get pulled in just like I had. I’m not saying, however, that the reader would have been as gullible as I had been.

      Man, they really streamlined my path to the temple. Quite an operation. One passed me off to the other. One issue is that Westerners in general dress casually even if they’re loaded, so that’s a problem for them. How to tell who’s rich or poor? A guy like Steve Jobs probably would have been wearing blue jean shorts and a T-shirt, too.

      Trevor,

      Now the casino scam I don’t know. Probably good I don’t. I was lucky, as you say, on Lucky Buddha Day. The Casino Guy might have fleeced me.

      Wade,

      The funny part is that I took that guy’s photo in the temple — Mr. Pee Pongwattana — before I knew it was a scam. As we were getting ready to leave, I just whipped out my camera and took a quick photo of him. I think you can note a bit of concern on his face — wondering who exactly I was.

      The scariest part was easily the tuk-tuk ride.

      Link Reply
  • Jeffrey August 18, 2020, 11:08 am

    On a personal note, I just bought a one-way ticket from Beijing to Istanbul (via Warsaw with LOT Airlines). I also purchased an e-visa for Turkey from their government website. If the flight isn’t canceled, I will fly out September 18. Hope it works. My student visa expires September 26.

    Link Reply
  • Jeffrey August 18, 2020, 12:09 pm

    LOT flight just canceled. That’s two flights canceled in the last few weeks. LOT says they’re going to hold onto my money for a YEAR before offering a refund.

    It’s seems like the airlines have worked out their own type of scam.

    Link Reply
    • VBJ August 18, 2020, 12:21 pm

      That’s crazy! You should write about that! Airlines could announce flights just to cancel them just to collect revenue for a year. That can’t be legal.

      Link Reply
      • Jeffrey August 18, 2020, 12:50 pm

        Wade,

        Seems a bit off, right? Both of them, Delta and now LOT, canceled within three days of me purchasing the ticket.

        It’s like a free loan to them.

        Link Reply
        • Trevor Warman August 18, 2020, 3:01 pm

          When i flew to Kenya from Cote d’Ivoire, March 12, , they made me buy an outward ticket a la minute in Abidjan. I made it for April 5. Kenya to Ethiopia.

          Of c Nairobi shut the airport March 25.

          I filed against Ethiopia for a refund using their REFUND page to receive a voucher.
          Received an auto reply which informed me that If i didnt hear from them within 3 days, i should call and/or email them.

          Of c they didnt contact me. I tried the emails given and call. No one replied or answered.

          I waited 4 months… and then claimed through Mastercard.

          I would have been happy to get a voucher. IF they had kept their word but they didnt.. so i went in for the kill. Bypass the middle men… aim for the top.

          They temporarily paid me the money… pretty quickly and said that if Ethiopian didnt pay up by Sept 1st the money is mine, even if Ethiopian pay up next christmas.

          No need for a 3rd party lawyer.

          Happy endings all the way..

          Hope u get outta China somehow. Come to the Balkans. Its mostly open.. Serbia and Albania is still, somehow, business as usual

          Link Reply
          • VBJ August 18, 2020, 4:11 pm

            That’s messed up. On the one hand the airlines had to shut down flights for something to beyond their control, on the other you paid money for a service you didn’t receive. I think I’m going to do a post about these situations. Can I add this to it? I had one happen as well, but it wasn’t nearly as severe.

            Link Reply
            • Jeffrey August 19, 2020, 1:07 am

              Wade,

              Sure. It’s odd that two airlines shafted me just days after buying tickets from them.

              Link Reply
          • Jeffrey August 19, 2020, 12:55 am

            Trevor,

            Thanks for the suggestion. I’m looking at flights to Belgrade. Right now the ticket prices from China are high.

            I hate that onward flight requirement. It seems to vary from airline to airline.

            Link Reply
            • VBJ August 19, 2020, 4:23 pm

              Just buy a ticket through Expedia (they’re all refundable for 24 hours) right before going to the airport and then cancel it after you get your boarding pass or after you arrive at your destination, if there’s time.

              Link Reply
        • VBJ August 18, 2020, 3:57 pm

          Exactly! Would it be cool if I asked you some questions for a post about this soon?

          Link Reply
          • Lawrence August 18, 2020, 9:19 pm

            Hi Wade, not really on topic but I would appreciate a post on what you (or really anyone who regularly comments on this thread)….what they read on a day to day basis. Where do you find your info for stories, etc.

            Just a thought…..

            Link Reply
            • VBJ August 19, 2020, 4:18 pm

              Hmm… I can do that. Coming soon.

              Link Reply
          • Trevor Warman August 19, 2020, 2:00 am

            @Jeffrey i know that Poland put Albania on the RED list, which maybe part of the reason ur LOT flight got shafted and also GREECE TURKEY and CROATIA were going to be added to the UKs RED list – as in the need to Quarantine.

            @Wade yes of c add any details u need…

            Link Reply
            • Jeffrey August 19, 2020, 7:43 am

              Okay, I see.

              I might wait a few weeks to see which way the wind is blowing before I book another flight.

              Link Reply
              • Trevor Warman August 19, 2020, 8:39 am

                Cool. Ill be in Albania for another month, then Macedonia and then Serbia, assuming its still poss by then

                Link Reply
              • VBJ August 19, 2020, 4:26 pm

                If possible, I’d recommend hopping over to Korea, Japan, or Cambodia — somewhere nearby — and then getting a trans-continental flight from there. The options out of China seem to be crazy limited and expensive.

                Link Reply
  • Jeffrey August 24, 2020, 11:09 am

    Today I asked the director of the Chinese language program here to start the paperwork on a student visa for one more semester. I guess you might say I’m going to get self-Trevor’d on purpose. Right now, I’m wary of getting stiffed by another airline for a hefty fare. Maybe it’s better to wait until January for a flight out.

    Two days ago, over at Delta, I tried to book a ticket from Shanghai to Newark for $1000 and went through the website selecting my seats in Economy for the three flights. When I tried to purchase the ticket at the end, however, it kicked me back to the booking page. Then I noticed that in red ink, to the far right of the page in the Business section, it said Only 4 Seats Left … for 44,000 yuan! That’s around $6,000 dollars. Huh? How come I was able to select seats in Economy but they only were offering open seats in Business at an exorbitant fare?

    Anyway, you can then understand why I’m starting to consider staying here for another semester.

    Link Reply
    • VBJ August 25, 2020, 8:01 pm

      Yeah, man. It seems like a gamble: could get better or could get worse. My only reservation about your strategy would be the fact that Covid has spread through many countries and has pretty much gone away (I don’t buy the second wave theory). Meanwhile, the virus didn’t really spread in China, so the country could be looking at a long battle still. I know they have a vaccine that’s getting ready to go, but it’s not clear if it will actually work. People have been working on a vaccine for Sars for decades and haven’t yet come up with anything that’s been proven to work and is safe. I’d get out if I were you. Can you fly to Seoul?

      However, this is probably an interesting time to be in China and I’m digging your posts from there!

      Link Reply
      • Jeffrey August 25, 2020, 9:51 pm

        Wade,

        Over the next month, while my old visa is still valid, all options are on the table.

        No, South Korea is still closed to foreigners.

        Last night, I stopped by a high school across the road from my college to watch the opening ceremony of the mandatory military training (junxun) for the incoming gaoyi students. Absolutely zero social distancing. Around two hundred students in lines about a foot apart from each other. So yeah, if a different strain of the virus comes back through China, it could be bad news indeed.

        Link Reply
        • VBJ August 26, 2020, 12:54 pm

          I’m worried about the same strain coming back. It didn’t seem to spread, man (if we trust the government reporting). Not like the US or Europe where huge amounts of the population were exposed. This is worrisome because China / Korea, etc may face future outbreaks if they loosen their travel restrictions … the Chinese media is posting all kinds of stories now about how China is back to normal and doesn’t have the pandemic anymore, but I don’t know how long this could last when travel resumes at a higher clip again. It seems as if the entire country is in a bubble right now and that it will need to stay that way until Covid is gone worldwide, which could be a very long time. But that’s just my take. Who knows what’s going to happen???

          Link Reply
  • Trevor Warman August 26, 2020, 3:37 am

    Sit rep from Albania:

    Low number of tests carried out. 600 max but 150+ve a day yet deaths are around 4 or 5 a day

    for this Albania is red listed. 4/150 is high

    But if they carried out 2000 tests and 500 +ve a day, deaths would be still at 4 to 5 a day, a lower percentage and Albania would be on the green list!!

    4 to 5 deaths a day aint gonna freak anyone out. **Not even me.***

    Probably more RTA deaths than Covid deaths here.

    Almost no one wears a mask. Still quite a few that think wearing it around their chin is the right thing to do…this annoys me more than the non mask wearers.. and all the peeps that are always touch their mouth/nose…

    Loving Albania. Bit hot though. Lol. Gëzuar!!!!

    Link Reply
    • VBJ August 26, 2020, 1:08 pm

      “But if they carried out 2000 tests and 500 +ve a day, deaths would be still at 4 to 5 a day, a lower percentage and Albania would be on the green list!!”

      Exactly! The criteria that governments are making as to whether other places are red / green are bonkers. In NY they us percentage of positive tests. That’s idiotic and ultimately means little. If you test a zillion people per day like NY does, then this number is going ot be super low, but if you don’t it is going to appear artificially high. It should be number of cases / deaths per capita. That’s what really matters.

      Link Reply