Memoir Excerpt: A Brief Account of Corrupt Thai Cops, Taxi Scammers, and Erik the Beachboy's Harrowing Phuket Legal Adventures
Excerpt from in-progress memoir on expat life and existential crises titled "Notes From Exile: Broken English Teacher":
Let's un-muddy the dank drug waters of SE Asia with a simple rule of thumb: Remember where you are, which is the jungle, literally and metaphorically.
Welcome to it.
With its tropical brush and pearl-white resorts of promotional tourism advertising fame, the bustling southern Thailand tourist hotspot of Phuket looks like Shangri-la. Some of the world’s elite, most-photographed beaches are within a 100-mile radius.
Things are not as they appear; all is not as utopian as it seems. The expat who survives and thrives learns this deep truth and uses it as a mantra to avoid the pitfalls of life as a farang (the Thai word for “white foreigner” — they don’t distinguish between nationalities in this regard).
In 2011, in Phuket, police picked up a young 20-year-old Dutch boy I once knew, named “Erik” for the sake of this piece.
The important thing to remember about Phuket is that, although all Thailand is corrupt to the hilt, Phuket revels in the corruption from head to toe. The southern Thai island is a simmering cesspool of debauchery and degeneracy in all forms – performed by both native Thais and foreigners alike. The corruption is baked so deep into the cake that a de facto mafia, just as one example, openly ran the entire local taxi scene in broad daylight until 2015.
Young and naive 20-year-old Erik – who could have been any of us -- found himself relaxed on the beach when the police picked him up, smoking some marijuana he had purchased from a tuk-tuk driver. (A tuk-tuk is a three-wheel taxi driven predominantly by impoverished rice farmers from the provinces in the eastern Isaan region of Thailand.)
Let this rookie mistake sink in so that you never repeat it: Erik bought his marijuana in Thailand from the sketchiest of all sketch artists, a tuk-tuk driver. Tuk-tuk drivers are unfeeling scam machines. Scamming to the tuk-tuk driver is a way of life. Asking why a tuk-tuk driver runs his scams would be akin to asking a fish why it swims in the ocean; that's what it does.
Tuk-Tuk Scammers, Tailor Shops, and Dishonest Dealing
Tuk-tuk drivers would scam the lowliest, most innocent, most undeserving target to make a few baht. Unfortunately for the farang, tuk-tuk drivers try to run their scams mostly on foreigners because Thai people all know what they're about.
Your neighborhood tuk-tuk driver: no Mr. Rogers.
Ask a Thai whether a tuk-tuk driver is a reliable source for your SE Asian marijuana. Then, let their laughter and derision in response steer you far away from soliciting tuk-tuk drivers for drugs or anything tangentially related to drugs.
Tuk-tuk drivers will even use their position to scam their own partners using their former targets as accomplices in a sort of reverse scam. As a case in point, I once made $30 in two hours by driving around with a tuk-tuk driver nicknamed Samsung to various tailor shops, souvenir shops, and travel agents in the Silom area of Bangkok.
These businesses target foreign tourists, so as part of their business model they pay tuk-tuk drivers to take passengers who think they're going to see a picturesque tourist attraction like the Grand Palace or Wat Pho to an Indian tailor, a souvenir shop, or a travel agent instead. There, the foreigner will serve as a somewhat captive audience to receive the sales pitch on a brand new suit or an elephant gold necklace or whatever. In return for delivering the tourist to the business, the driver gets a 200-baht ($6) tip for his share in the scam.
Samsung and I frequented all the tailor shops and travel agents we could squeeze into an afternoon. I would go in, pretend to be interested in their wares, look around, tell them I had to go to an ATM to get money for my imminent purchase, and then fuck off. Samsung would collect the scam tip while I was inside and we split it two ways before heading to the next shop.
The moral of the story is: tuk-tuk drivers, while sometimes charming in their own scam-their-own-grandma-for-whiskey-money kind of way, are seasoned conmen veterans, never to be a trusted provider of your marijuana needs at any point during your SE Asia stay.
Back to Erik the Beachboy and His $1,000 Joint
Most likely working on a hot tip from the same tuk-tuk driver who sold him the weed in the first place, police extracted Erik from the pearly-white Phuket beach and took him to the station. They confiscated his passport, put him in a cell, and left him there to worry about his future.
As a pair playing the good cop/bad Thai cop ploy, the bad cop lit into Erik. They employed the classic "violation of Thai culture" routine (a favorite manipulation tactic used on the farang) in which they claimed that smoking some weed on the beach was deeply sacrilegious to their traditional way of life… or something.
This manipulation tactic works wonders on foreigners, particularly of the Western variety, because they are trained to reflexively apologize for any affront to local culture. Thais, generally very highly emotionally intelligent, execute the “this is Thai culture routine” flawlessly in multiple contexts.
And there are penalties for such cultural transgressions, the police informed young Erik the Beachboy.
The bad half of the good cop/bad cop duo, in this manner, threatened, threatened, threatened the whole afternoon with stories of young Erik's impending one-way trip to the infamous Bangkok Hilton prison.
In the interrogation room, the bad cop wrapped up, then the good cop came in with the good news.
Erik, he reported, could walk home today after a small one-time extortion payment of 30,000 Thai baht, or about $1000. Erik actually had this money in his account, and was not just willing but eager to pay his way out of the situation.
The only logistical snag to getting free came from his bank's withdrawal limits. Erik could only withdraw $400 a day from his account, as he informed the good cop.
That's fine, the good cop said. The station arranged to escort young Erik to the ATM in one of their police trucks each day for 3 days to withdraw cash and then return him to the jail where he would spend the night.
On the third day, after paying the remaining $200 balance on the extortion debt, Phuket police released young Erik the Beachboy back onto the streets, $1000 poorer and, undeniably, soberer.