A gem of a story: Part II

An undercover reporter managed to take the shine off one of the city's oldest scams

This is part two of an exciting story which started last week on this very page. Normally I have no time for readers who miss a week of this column, but if for some unfathomable reason you did, here is a brief synopsis:

"Andrew Biggs, self-proclaimed Defender of the Rights of Western Tourists, masquerades as a dumb farang in order to penetrate the shady world of gem scam operators. Dressed in clashing Khao San Road clothes that look even more hideous than anything ever seen in Bangkok Fashion Week, he takes a photographer with a long-range lens down to Sanam Luang. There he is accosted by a man who, in a flash, puts him in the back of a tuk-tuk and sends him hurtling over the Pin Klao Bridge sans photographer. But pray - where is he going? And will he make it out alive? NOW READ ON!"

I was nervous being separated from my photographer who, incidentally, showed no signs of rushing off to find himself a tuk-tuk to follow me. The tuk-tuk made a sharp left onto Arun Amarin Road, pulling up outside a shophouse with the words GEM FACTRY in big letters on a hastily-constructed sign out front.

The driver turned around and pointed at the shop. He smiled, revealing a set of teeth as jumbled as his English grammar. "You go yes you inside ok? Yes inside ok number one," he said, which, roughly translated, means: "Make haste, white man, so I can claim my commission for taking you here."

A man in an ill-fitting Sampeng suit was there at the door to greet me. All I can remember is that he resembled a frog - puffy jowls and a face that looked as though any moment a long tongue would dart out to catch a fly buzzing around my head. "Welcome to our international gem factory, sir," he said. "When did you arrive in Thailand, sir?"

"Yesterday."

"And where do you come from, sir?"

"Australia."

"Ah yes. Sydney," he said, matter-of-factly, nodding and smiling. Was that a question? A statement? Was I to nod back pensively and answer "Indeed", or congratulate him on his vast knowledge of my home country? Or was I to point out that actually I was from Sunnybank, a dysfunctional outer-lying suburb of Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, famous for its sugar cane and pineapples and - oh, but never mind. He was already onto his next question.

"Would you like to visit our factory to see the interesting process of gem cutting?" he asked. Not exactly one of the 1,000 Things I Want To Do Before I Die. Who ever had the idea that westerners were keen on flying halfway around the world to see gems being cut? That's not why we're here, guys!

It's like that sinking feeling you get when, upon perusing your Bangkok itinerary, you see that tonight is a performance of traditional Thai dancing at some restaurant desperately in need of a coat of paint by the Chao Phraya. In such situations I pray to the nearest spirit house there is a drug store next to the restaurant quietly selling Xanax to get me through it all.

But this wasn't a tourist itinerary. I was on a mission; an undercover journalist seeking out the truth about gem scams. And so I nodded,yes, I would love to visit your factory and witness, first-hand, the interesting process of gem cutting.

I noticed that there were two buff, menacing Isan types standing between me and the door. Imagine if I had said "no" to the offer; I may have been a plate of larb by now. "This way, sir," said the amphibious-looking gentleman as he took me up a narrow, creaking flight of stairs to the second floor of the shophouse - I beg your pardon, GEM FACTRY.

In a tiny room worked two young men at some contraption that was designed to impress me. Their heads were down as they glued - yes, glued - gemstones onto excellent imitations of tacky silver encasements. Khun Frog waved his hand around as he spoke: "It is here our workmen carefully cut the gems into different sizes," he announced, though with what was anybody's guess. The carving knife on the table over there, perhaps? "They place them into frames, like this man here." As he pointed, the workman said in Thai, without looking up: "Dai reu yang?" Rough translation: "Have you got him yet?"

"Not yet," the former tadpole said under his breath in Thai. "I'm still working on him." I understood them perfectly, but I nodded and smiled, pretending to be oblivious, which under normal circumstances isn't hard for me to do.

"And now, please come downstairs with me, sir," he said as he flipped back into English.

What ... that was it? I felt ripped off - though not as much as I was about to be. We walked back down the steps to where the bouncers stood. The Croaker pointed to a counter where a young Thai woman sat flipping through a magazine, with a face as if just being alive was too boring for her.

She sat behind a glass counter with a selection of gemstones I'm sure would have looked lovely around the adipose neck of any khunying attending a gala charity function to raise money for the distantly impoverished.

"Good news," he said. "You have the opportunity to purchase these gemstones at a very special price. And I will tell you a little secret; take them back to Australia and sell them for much more than what you paid for here."

The woman threw down the magazine, resigned to her fate of having to do some work, took one look at me and said: "aiiiii! Na klua jang! Tua pen yak!" Roughly translated, that's: "Sh*t! How scary is he! He looks like a monster!" But Mr Toad didn't hesitate. With a smile creeping across those fat lips, he nodded knowingly and said: "She says you look very smart."

That was it. I'd had enough. It's bad enough stretching the imagination to believe this two-bit shophouse was a factory, but I didn't like being called a monster. "I don't want to buy any," I said, smiling at the woman who just scowled back. The two bouncers shifted from foot to foot.

"Oh but sir, the price is very good, and you can pay with your credit card," he said. "We will divide the total amount into two and charge it on the same card. You can pick up your purchases immediately and ..."

"I don't want to buy any. Goodbye."

I walked towards the door and the two bouncers gave me a look I would see only one other time in my life - a few years later when this Thai wanted to kill me, but that's another story. I walked out of the shop onto busy Arun Amarin, where the grammatically-challenged tuk-tuk driver was still waiting.

"Where you go I take you I."

"Shove it," I said and flagged down the first taxi that took me back to the office. I found my photographer and boxed his ears, something I could never do back in Australia without going to court for assault.

"But what could I do?" he pleaded. "You were gone so quickly!"

"I could have died on that side of the river! I could have been murdered!" I said. But actually, no, there was never that danger. No matter where I might be in this world, there is a GEM FACTRY on any corner where I can be lured. And just who dragged me into that place? Who would have forced me to sign my credit card over for cheap and nasty goods?

It wasn't the original guy at Thammasat, or the caecilian man at the door to the scam shop. It wasn't the tuk-tuk driver or the bouncers. It would have been my own selfish greed which parted the fool that is me with my money. And that's the point we foreigners fail to address when we start ranting about being ripped off by sharks such as these. Just when did they bring out a gun and force us to part with our money?

Not long after my story was published the GEM FACTRY shut its doors. The Tourist Police called and actually thanked me for pointing out the problem at Sanam Luang. And some anonymous guy called the newspaper.

"Tell that Andrew Biggs not to come near Sanam Luang ever again or his life may be in danger," he croaked. Yeah right, Frogman. Go spawn yourself.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Andrew Biggs
Position: Writer