Monday, November 23, 2009

How I Almost Got Sold Into Black Market Slavery In Thailand

Ok, you voted and here it is: my tale of intrigue, danger, and very good pineapple...



In 1994, at age 19, I signed up to do my Anthropology senior project in India. My friend Rachelle and I decided to get round-the-world plane tickets and see a bit of the world before and after our semester in India. Our itinerary went L.A., Seoul, Hong Kong, Bangkok, India (for 4 months), then Frankfurt, London, and back home.

We planned for about 2 weeks to tour Asia before we were due to arrive in New Delhi to meet with our university group. We had an amazing time. After a few days in Seoul and Hong Kong, we arrived in Bangkok for 6 days. We were in love with it. It was an exciting city. The food was spicy and delicious. It was hot and humid with swaying palm trees. The people were beautiful and friendly. The shopping was amazing, and there was so much culture everywhere you looked. And everything was dirt cheap. The dollar had a great exchange rate at the time. About 30 Baht to one U.S. dollar.

Rachelle and I stayed in a youth hostel on the outskirts of town. It was air conditioned, had a sit down toilet (a bonus in Asia) and a hot shower. Heaven. In the lobby of the hostel, there were signs posted all over to beware of well-dressed men trying to sell us jewels. These men were usually con-artists who would sell us junk or else grossly inflate the price for raw jewels. So we were on the look-out. We weren’t about to get scammed.

One day Rachelle and I decided to go see the Grand Palace. We headed towards the nearest bus stop and munched on super juicy, chili-dusted pineapple while we waited. Finally the rusty bus arrived and we made our way through the busy streets of Bangkok. There were so many pieces of beautiful Thai architecture throughout the city. Suddenly we saw a massive white building with a golden roof and were sure it must be the palace. But we had mistakenly got off at the wrong bus stop. As the bus pulled away, we found ourselves staring at a large Buddhist temple rather than the palace.


Just then I felt a hand touch my arm. I turned to see a tiny, middle-aged Thai woman. She stroked my arm lightly and said, “So white. So beautiful.” Then she introduced herself as M’am and asked us if we were lost. We told her we had planned to see the Grand Palace but had gotten off at the wrong stop. She told us that she was a school teacher from Chiang Mai, an area 400 miles north, here on vacation. She spoke very good English and offered to take us on a tour of the palace since she often did so with her students. We agreed. So we accompanied her into the temple to do her prayers and then set off.

We hopped in a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled cab of sorts (called a Rik-shaw in India). M’am asked if we had been on a banana boat ride. We hadn’t, and this was one of the things we really wanted to do while in Thailand. So we took a detour with M’am down to the harbor. As we went past the pay booth on the dock, M’am spoke to the woman in Thai. She waved us through the turnstile. I tried to read the pricing sign above her head, but all the words were in Thai.


Up ahead was a beautiful, banana-shaped, rainbow-canopied boat. We climbed in with M’am and our two drivers, a brother and sister team in their late teens. The boat ride was amazing. After making our way through the filthy brown harbor littered with garbage, we entered the back canals of Bangkok. We wound through these narrow reed-filled rivers for over an hour, getting glimpses of the real Thailand: women knee-deep washing their clothes, children splashing in the water, nursing dogs lolling on the shore, family shrines to Buddha strung with fresh marigolds. It was the kind of thing an anthropology student lives for.

As we glided along, M’am spoke of her city of Chiang Mai. It was green and mountainous, not dirty and crowded like Bangkok. Her father was a wealthy farmer. He owned a large house with many rooms, all of them air conditioned. He owned elephants, which we could ride. Wouldn’t we like to come and visit her and her family in Chiang Mai? It sounded wonderful to me and Rachelle. Exactly the kind of adventure we were looking for. Something off the beaten track, something gritty and real, away from the tourists.

But as the trip continued, and M’am continued to sing the praises of Chaing Mai, I began to be filled with fear. I can’t explain it exactly, but I knew we shouldn’t go to Chiang Mai. As much as I wanted to experience the real Thailand and ride elephants and see the jungle, I just didn’t feel it was safe. M’am was selling it hard. Almost too hard. And I realized that if we went with her, no one on this earth would know where we had gone. Our families were back in the U.S. and Australia waiting for, at best, a weekly check in. Our teacher and university group weren’t expecting us in India for another few days. No one would miss us. No one would no where to look for us. If something happened to us, we would be gone without a trace. So I whispered to Rachelle as the boat sailed back out into the open harbor and headed for the dock that I didn’t have a good feeling about the way things were going and I thought we should try to lose M’am. She agreed, and we decided just to pay for the boat ride and then get rid of our tour guide. M’am had graciously paid for the tuk-tuk we rode to the harbor, so we figured we should at least offer to pay for the boat ride. When we asked her how much it was, she told us it was 3000 Baht each. This seemed like a lot to us. In fact, it was all the money we’d taken out of the ATM to last us our whole time in Thailand. But we’d been through three countries’ exchange rates in a week so we weren’t 100% sure how much 3000 Baht was. And it had been a very long boat ride, over an hour and a half. And we’d had it all to ourselves, with no other passengers. And we were in the middle of a deep, filthy harbor—not someplace you’d want to be dumped off if you refused to pay and made the boat captain mad. So we paid for the boat ride. But it solidified to us even more that we needed to lose our native companion. Obviously she had no problem taking us to very pricey tourist attractions.

Back at the dock, M’am suggested we go to the Grand Palace and then stop for dinner afterward. She knew of an amazing restaurant with traditional Thai dancing. I’m sure in any other situation we would have loved that type of thing. But by now all the alarm bells in my head were ringing full blast, and I knew we needed to get ourselves alone. At the very least so we could make plans without her pressuring us. But I also felt inside that we were better off without her, that there was some danger to the situation that I wasn’t yet fully aware of. So we told M’am that we were all out of money and wanted to go back to our hotel first. She offered to accompany us, several times, but were insistent that we go alone. We promised to meet her at the Grand Palace in an hour after we rested and visited the ATM. Finally, with no other choice, she agreed and we got in separate tuk-tuks and went our way.

As we drove, Rachelle and I both agreed that we had a bad feeling about the situation. We were pretty sure we’d paid far too much for our boat ride. And we just wanted to clear our heads before deciding whether or not to meet M’am for the palace tour and dinner. When we arrived back at our hostel, we inquired at the front desk about how much a banana boat ride should cost. The girl working the front desk said that a regular banana boat ride should be about 7 Baht, and a sunset dinner cruise would run about 30. And we had paid 3000 each! Clearly we had gotten scammed. And not by a well-dressed man trying to sell us jewels. No, it was a sweet, tiny, middle-aged woman who got our money. The lady at the front desk could see our shock when she told us the boat ride prices, so we recounted our story to her. Now it was she who looked alarmed. “Do you realize,” she told us, “that you probably just avoided being kidnapped? Here in Thailand, there is a secret slave trade. Unsuspecting foreign women are lured into leaving their surroundings, kidnapped, and kept as prostitutes, sex slaves. They’re kept high on drugs so that they cannot think or run or try to escape.” This news chilled us, as I’m sure you can imagine. If it hadn’t been for the feeling we’d had that something was wrong, we might have gone off to dinner with M’am. She might have slipped drugs in our drinks. And we might have disappeared from a restaurant in Bangkok, never to be heard from again. Yes, it’s possible that M’am really wasn’t trying to kidnap us. Maybe she was just after more of our money. But thinking back to the way she had stroked my arm outside the Buddhist temple, I know which way I lean.

In the end, I guess I’ll never know what might have happened if we’d agree to go to Chiang Mai. I’m glad I’ll never know.

19 comments:

Kristina P. said...

Holy crap! What a scary story!

Jen said...

That would freak me out so bad! SCARY stuff! Glad you are safe, and not a prostitute in Thailand.

Jaime Haney aka ArtsyFartsy.Me said...

Wow!!! That is a fantastic story! Isn't it amazing to think back at how naive we all are at such a young age? Glad you listened to you gut.

alex dumas said...

Wow. That reminds me of that movie "Taken." Have you seen that? If not, it will show you the living nightmare you escaped.

Wym said...

Wow, I have never been to a foreign country but I KNOW my bells would be sounding at the stroke of her hand. Run!!

Mrs. Organic said...

Always listen to your gut. Always.

Um, wow! I can't believe that story, does it make you want to never let a child of yours go off 'sploring?

L. said...

Thank the Lord for His spirit when you needed it! And thank YOU for listening to it! What a creep to ROB you! What a racket!

The photos made your story very graphic. Tragic that your camera and the originals were stolen from the train! Were you able to save ANY of your photos from Bangkok?

Anonymous said...

But you forgot to mention the very good pineapple! Where? How?

Omgirl said...

Anonymous, weird....it was in my rough draft. I must have pasted an older version of the story or something. Thanks.

Mom, that was my second trip to India that my camera got stolen. I still have pictures from this trip. (Altough the ones from this post are all stolen from the internet. I was too lazy to go find the real ones and scan them in.)

Koreena said...

CREEPY! So glad you listened to your instincts!

erica said...

Creepy!!!

rae said...

EPIC!

kado! said...

WoW! What a story!

MiaKatia said...

When I first read this I had nightmares. Seriously scary. I am so glad you listened to the warnings and left her in the dust.

André said...

By the reports coming from the news, this happens in Utah County. Even scarier and creepier!

Plain Jame said...

Oh my hell, that was intense. I love a good story like this - you told it well!

jennie w. said...

Nothing sucks more than being taken advantage of in a foreign country.

tiburon said...

That is a fantastically freaky story!!! And one that I had yet to hear.

Glad you didn't get sold into slavery - that would have sucked.

Reginald Gelson said...

When I was 19 I took a missions trip to CHaing Mai. Me and my team of 160 teenagers ranging from 13 to 25 taught english for 3 and a half months out there. It was beautiful but I know exactly what you are talking about. I witnessed alot in the night bazzarres of ChaingMai. Its a dark city. Never got to see Bangkok x.x