Blackjack and Bad Company in Bangkok

This post is sort of a follow up to the last one I did on strangers and scams. This was the closest I ever came to being scammed, and still one of my most exciting travel disaster stories. I hope you find it as entertaining and educational as I did.

songtheaoinsideI had been in Thailand for about 3 days when I decided I wasn’t going to be needing my return ticket. An old friend of mine was a professor at ABAC at the time and he introduced me to some of his friends and showed me around the campuses (ABAC had two then, there may be three now). It was my first time out of my own country and I decided I needed to know a few more languages than I did, so I decided to stay and enrolled at the university.

After I had been here for a few days my friend suggested I go check out Chatuchak market since I was already out cruising around on the BTS and it was Saturday. So I did.

Since I was planning on staying (and with the intention to study languages) I had started to study Thai and thought the market would be a chance for me to practice my numbers and basic bargaining vocabulary. I had been wandering around the market for a while when I decided to sit down and make a few notes about what I’d managed to figure out. I took a seat off to the edge of the market and started to fool around with my notebook.

A middle aged woman – Asian with tan skin, a bit on the heavy side – sat down beside me. After a while she asked what I was doing and we started talking. She told me she couldn’t help much as she was actually Malaysian, but her dad could and he would be around soon. Eventually her father, a very tiny and tan old man who looked a bit like an Asian Ernest Ranglin, and completely harmless, joined us. He helped me with the pronunciation of a few things and then showed me several different kinds of currency he had collected from his travels. I still had  a one dollar American note with me, so I gave it to him and suggested he add it to his collection.

Well, they were so happy with my gesture they asked if I wouldn’t be interested in joining them for dinner sometime and maybe going to see a few of the sights. I was thrilled, my cultural awakening had gotten some real traction. We traded numbers and said goodbye.

I bought a special yellow shirt with the royal seal on the breast pocket to wear when I met them. Everyone was wearing yellow shirts on Mondays back then to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the current king’s ascension. I was going to be Mr. Polite and culturally sensitive.

I met Timor, that was the father’s name, in front of a Big C and we started off towards his house. He talked about maybe going to the Grand Palace and putting gold leaf on something for luck, and meeting his younger daughter when she got out of school, and maybe meeting his brother.

We got to the house and it was a bit strange. For one thing it was the first place with carpeting I had seen since I got to Thailand. But most striking thing was the sense I got that the place wasn’t really lived in; it felt a lot like walking into a furniture show room. Dinner was also a bit of a surprise, as I could tell it had started the day frozen and in a plastic bag.

But the brother is the guy who really got the party started. He told me, after he had asked if I had been in the military, that he was a card dealer, blackjack, on one of these cruise ships that comes into the gulf. He “invited” me (you can’t really say no in these situations so it’s hardly an invitation) to join him upstairs where he said he had a table and some chairs.

The upstairs was equally unlived in. There was a small folding table and a few cheap folding chairs in a bedroom with a small, neatly made bed. But no pictures or Mickey Mouse alarm clocks, or any of the marks of a room that is currently occupied by humans. We sat at the table with Timor’s younger and less harmless brother across the table from me and Timor seated on my left. His brother showed me a system for collaborating with the dealer to cheat in blackjack.

Then he starts to tell me about the previous evening, when he had been on the boat and dealt a winning game for a rich prince from Dubai. The prince, who he mentioned was a bit of a girly man and liked both men and women, had said that this guy was his lucky dealer, that he would take him out in the city today for shark fin soup. Despite that fact that he was still due a bowl of shark fin soup, Timor’s brother seemed to feel as though the prince had been stingy when it came time for him to tip the dealer. He wanted me to help him cheat this effeminate  Arab prince out of the tip he felt he deserved, or so he told me.

blackjack-and-bad-company-in-bangkokAs if on cue some calling out and chatter came from downstairs, the door opened and in stepped a sharply dressed middle-eastern man. I stood and offered him my hand to shake; his shake was soft, cold, limp-wristed. That part of the story checked out and I still give them an A+ for attention to detail. He sat down, we started to play cards.

I had been told to pretend that I was a rich tobacco mogul from Virginia. I was born in Virginia, but I’m not rich and have nothing more to do with tobacco than is called for by the occasional party. I didn’t have a lot of cash, but Timor said it was fine if I had a card, he could loan me the money to play.

After a few hands were played I saw I was starting to rack up some debt and wasn’t going to let the situation go any further. I pretended that my phone was ringing and told them it was my business partner and I had to take it, it would only take a few seconds. Lifting my bag over my shoulder I made my way to the door, with the phone pressed against my ear and babbling non-sense into the mouthpiece. They protested, “wait, wait, you can take the call in here!”

As I rounded the landing at the bottom of the stairs and was putting my phone back into my pocket I looked up to see that the party had grown by more than one middle-eastern prince. There were now 3 or 4 young and attractive women in the living room; they had all rushed to the stairs as they heard me coming down.

They pawed and grabbed at me as I made my way determinedly towards the door and my shoes, which I was remembering gratefully at this point were my kitchen clogs and would not require me to stop moving for more than a split second.

And out the door and into my shoes I slipped, and I ran. I jumped in the first moving thing I saw which was a very small song taew that had been made out of something like a Subaru Brat. There was an ancient woman in the back of this thing with me who seemed very happy to see me there. Once I was moving I looked back and saw a very expensive looking sports car and wondered if I wasn’t being followed by an angry man with lots and lots of money and power.

I didn’t realize I had almost been scammed until my blood pressure went back down and I called a friend of mine who told me the Grand Palace trip and the backroom card game were both well established and popular scams. The lessons here are that you shouldn’t go anywhere with complete strangers, not all scam artists are Thai (I don’t think any of this gang were), and clogs and flip flops make for faster escapes if you have to take your shoes off when you go indoors and you don’t have calloused feet.

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