“The palace is closed.” If you’ve been anywhere near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, you’ve likely heard those words. No matter what day you heard them or who said them, I can guarantee one thing: the palace was not closed.
You don’t even have to be near the palace to hear those words. On my second day in Bangkok, I was approached by a well-dressed man while waiting to cross a street on my way to a river taxi pier. After some friendly small talk, he asked where I was headed. I told him I was going to the pier to take a water taxi to the Grand Palace and he kindly informed me that the boats weren’t running. It was a Buddhist holiday and the Palace was closed as well. A large group of monks was just coming out of the alley leading to the pier and he explained that the boats shut down to regular traffic so they can ferry monks around on their holiday.
Luckily he knew Bangkok well and told me of several lesser-known temples. He assured me they were far more interesting than the more famous ones I had planned on seeing and helped me locate them on my map. He suggested I hire a tuk tuk for several hours and visit them all at once. He made sure to warn me that many drivers will overcharge foreigners and he offered to negotiate on my behalf.
He flagged down the next tuk tuk to drive by and exchanged a few words in Thai with the driver. He managed to get me a price of 15 Baht for several hours of chauffeuring. That’s less than 50 cents US. If I were to ask a tuk tuk driver to take me two blocks, I wouldn’t hear a number under two hundred. His negotiation skills were amazing…and I knew it was time to get far away from the man.
I had done very little traveling at the time and I had no idea what my new friend was up to exactly, but I could tell he was up to something and I knew it wasn’t good. He was far too friendly and his English far too smooth. People in Thailand (or anywhere else for that matter) don’t generally walk up to strangers—especially foreign strangers—and start offering travel advice. They certainly don’t do so in English so perfect it can only come from daily repetition of the same speech.
On top of that, his claims made no sense. Why did they close the palace on a Buddhist holiday while keeping the temples (and only the lesser known temples apparently) open? And why did the stores and banks not close? And why would they shut down the whole river taxi system for a few hundred monks, instead of just giving them a boat whenever they needed one? And why were monks traveling all over the city on their supposed holiday anyway?
I decided not to accept the amazing tuk tuk fare the kind stranger had negotiated and continued to the pier, ignoring his calls behind me. The river taxis were running as usual. Thirty minutes later I entered the Grand Palace. It was open, too. Just down the street from the entrance, I passed a sign informing visitors that the palace is never closed and warning them against anyone who claims otherwise. I was not surprised.
I did some research at my guesthouse that evening and learned I had avoided one of the most common scams in Bangkok. An overly friendly guy with excellent English will helpfully inform you that someplace—usually the palace—is closed. He will offer better alternatives and flag down a tuk tuk to take you there; more accurately, he will signal his friend who was waiting in his tuk tuk just down the street. That friend will then show you to a temple or two before visiting some shops where aggressive sales people ratchet up the pressure until you open your wallet, earning the driver a commission.
Especially lucky victims might even end up at a gem store to experience Thailand’s most famous scam: in a wonderful turn of good fortune, their stay in Bangkok will coincide exactly with a brief period in which local gemstones are extremely undervalued and those in the know are making a killing exporting them to the very country the lucky visitor calls home!
A few years after my first visit, I found myself in Bangkok again, this time with friends. We were on our way to the Grand Palace when another cheerful local approached us with overly rehearsed small talk and news of the palace’s closure. He did so just outside the palace, directly in front of the sign warning against this very thing. It had been covered with a tarp. The palace entrance could not be covered, though. It was visible further down the street, as were all the people heading in and out.
It would seem this scam has gotten less sophisticated over the years, which can only mean the average tourist has become more gullible. I imagine by the time I get back to Bangkok, these guys won’t even bother leaving the palace. I’ll meet my helpful local friend while actually walking around the palace grounds and he’ll warn me of its imminent closure and try to hurry me out before I get trapped inside for the duration of the fake Buddhist holiday period.
How to celebrate my miraculous last-second escape from the palace? By treating myself to some gems, of course. Wouldn’t you know it, I will have once again ended up in Thailand just as prices bottomed out and dealers are practically giving away precious stones, while those very same stones are fetching record prices in the US and Europe. I guarantee I will not let this opportunity slip by again and from that day forward, I will be typing all my blog posts on a diamond-encrusted laptop in my helicopter.