The joys of travel is often finding yourself entwined in something different than what it seems.
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.
Anyway, 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).
A 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.
Back 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.
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