Or, The Day Bangkok Nearly Ruined My Honeymoon.
If I had a list of rules for travelers, right up near the top I would write “Don’t Get Cynical.” Cynicism is the cheapest form of wisdom. Then, just below, I would write in the shaky hand of an international bridge magnate “Trust No One.”
Both good lessons, especially when you’re about to get arrested on a train in Athens.
Travel is about trading in the normal rules and expectations in exchange for a sense of adventure. What other reason could there be for abandoning a perfectly good house in favor of guesthouse rooms, monsoon seasons and life out of a backpack? Common sense doesn’t have a lot to do with it.
That doesn’t mean throwing the rulebook out the window, just tweaking a few chapters. Picking which chapters is the problem though. Figuring out when to drop your guard, telling the difference between when something is just unfamiliar or actually dangerous, isn’t always easy. (I’ve written about this over at The Street.)
It’s also easy to get too alert. Instinct can keep you safe right up until it goes too far. Then it can backfire, like the time my instincts nearly got me arrested in Athens.
For our honeymoon Laura and I decided to go to Greece, which meant flying through Athens and spending a night in the jaw-dropping King George on Syntagma Square. I’m ordinarily a pretty hardcore guesthouses and hostels kind of guy, but this place with its marble bathroom and rooftop dining room put even my commitment to the test. Turns out that getting up before 9:00 isn’t all bad when you can sip coffee with an air conditioned view of the Parthenon.
After (reluctantly) checking out we hopped the metro out to the airport to catch our first flight to the islands, but in the two years since we were last in Greece Laura and I had managed to forget a few things. Like if you want to take the train from downtown Athens to the airport the fare costs 6.60 euros extra. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be so bad except sometime over the prior 21 months they began staffing the trains with transit cops who check tickets.
Still ordinarily not a problem, except the people checking for tickets don’t wear a uniform, carry a badge or post any signs, and I’ve spent enough time in Bangkok to see the Thai Bus Scam in person.
Here’s how the bus scam works. You get on a bus, usually running between towns, and settle in for a long ride in a foreign language. Somewhere along the way a young man with a printed ID and an official bearing asks to see your ticket. No, not that one, he says your bus ticket.
What? You don’t have another ticket? Oh sir… this is a big problem. A very big problem.
In a rapid-fire mix of Thai and English he explains that you paid the wrong fare. His friendly smile fades and he demands your passport while pointing at the printed ID and announcing “Police” many times. You owe the full price. Plus there’s a fine. Pay here or pay in jail!
By now you’re distracted and flustered, too much to see the other passengers hiding smiles, because now he’s upped the ante to include that most feared institution: Thai prison. But he’s willing to give you a break. You’re a tourist and he loves (insert your nation here), so for you it’s only 300 baht. By this point it’s worth $10 American just to have the whole experience over. You pay up and maybe even say thanks for the break. He tips the driver and jumps off at the next stop after a flawless execution of the Thai Bus Scam.
Gotta admit, it’s pretty brilliant in its simplicity.
So it was while on honeymoon that I had a chance to prove my travel bona fides. On the train to Athens’ airport a Greek man wearing a track suit with his printed ID on a lanyard approached asked for our tickets and announced that we had the wrong ones. He asked for 8 euros apiece. Well I’d been to this rodeo before, and confidently told him that I didn’t believe he was a cop.
Things went poorly from there.
Certain that we had gotten to the shakedown, the part where he’d grab our passports and demand exorbitant sums to get them back, I dug my heels in and insisted that we did have the right tickets and wouldn’t be paying him. Pissed off at this American tourist giving him a hard time, the (very real) cop began to threaten arrest. Not wanting to miss our flight, Laura urged me to pay our fine and get off the train.
Boxed into our seats by a large, increasingly angry Greek man our the confrontation escalated. Eventually I decided to call his bluff. You see, con artists are like bears. Often the best way to deal with them is to make yourself look big and confident and just call them on their shit. After all it’s not like that guy on the bus actually has a station he can haul you down to, so the quickest way to scare off a fake cop is by insisting that he act like a real one.
“You’re right, we should do this at the station,” I insisted. “Go ahead and arrest me.”
Five uniformed cops, five badges, a ticket and a brush with international incident later I paid up. The worst part? Our (once again, very real) Athenian cop turned out to be a decent guy who gave us the student discount of 20 euros apiece.
In my defense, he was wearing a track suit.