How to Not Get Arrested in Bangkok

Bangkok sunset

We traveled to Bangkok a few years ago as part of a celebratory trip for my partner, who had just sat for the bar exam. It was a great experience and instilled in me a great love of Thailand. However I also learned a very important travel lesson after a not so great encounter with Thai security personnel.

We were leaving a shopping mall in the main commercial area, walking towards the sky train. I hadn’t been to a night market yet and was looking forward to some great street food. So far all of my experiences with street food in Bangkok had been amazing; pineapple slices in a bag remain an all time favorite. As we were approaching the station, I threw some garbage into a trash can and kept walking. Almost instantly there were two men in some sort of military/police uniforms yelling at us and grabbing my arm.

What the hell? Bangkok may be a hectic place, but rarely had I felt uncomfortable or in danger. That feeling of ease instantly melted away as we were being escorted by these rough and tumble cops.

They led us to a card table that had been set behind a pillar in front of the station entrance. It was obviously intended to be out of sight for the casual passersby. I was scared but also really confused. What was going on?

The man in charge was sitting at the card table, grinning in a classic Land of Smiles way, motioning for us to sit next to him. Smiley then motioned to one of his assistants, who brought over the garbage I had thrown away. Correction: the garbage I thought I had thrown away. Turns out if never made it into the bin, a horrible mistake.

We began our conversation in pigeon English and hand gestures. The implication was clear, they weren’t happy that I had littered and wanted me to pay a 4,000 Baht fine, or about $120. (most of this information was preprinted in English on laminated cards – another great sign) While not a huge sum of money, it was to us. We were on a shoestring budget having paid for both airfare and hotel with frequent flyer miles and hotel points. We had some spending money of course, but not a lot and that 4,000 baht fine would hurt.

Then Smiley proceeded to show us a book that appeared to be tickets, dozens of them, all for littering or similar offenses. He showed us the book to demonstrate that we weren’t being singled out for being non-Thai. Unfortunately, every single ticket in the binder had been issued to a foreigner. Equality fail.

At that time I had become completely speechless, definitely a first for me. I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to do. I mean, it was Bangkok. I had seen people do a lot worse than miss throwing something in a garbage bin. I knew it was a setup, I knew I was being singled out and I didn’t know what to do. I had just taken out some money from an ATM, but it was in a hidden pocket that I wanted to remain hidden.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Chris Kuo

While I was staring blankly, mouth agape, Smiley touched my watch. Huh? Oh God, what now? He said that it was a nice watch and that he liked it very much. Ok. Great. He pointed at his watch, a Khao San Road edition Omega knockoff and said, “We trade? Everything be ok then.”

If I was shocked before, this propelled me into all new levels of confusion. Ok, he wanted a bribe. If I could get out of there only having to sacrifice my $50 Fossil watch, that would be ideal. But then I started worrying that it was a double setup and that if I acquiesced, we’d be hauled in for trying to bribe a cop. I had no idea what to do.

My partner, seeing my vegetative condition stepped in and asked me to give the cop my watch. As if hypnotized, I gave in, gave Smiley my watch who in turn gave me his. He then insisted I try it on, which I did. If Smiley was happy before, now he was clearly ecstatic. He gave me a friendly slap on the back and said “Now we good friends.” Incredible. After scamming me, intimidating me and stealing my watch, now we are good friends?

I just smiled, nodded and asked if we could leave. After getting the thumbs up, we scurried as far away from there as possible. I was so scared and upset that I was shaking. I just could not believe what had happened, it seemed all too incredible to me. A definite low point of the trip, we went back to the hotel and stayed in that evening.

That single experience could have soured our entire trip and made me hate Thailand. Luckily, I soon realized that it had been an isolated incident and that ultimately, I was to blame. If I had been more careful, my meeting with Smiley would never had happened. The takeaway for me was twofold. I learned that no matter how comfortable you are in a new place, be it Des Moines or Bangkok, you always need to be vigilant and aware of your surroundings. Second, I learned to always follow and respect local laws and customs, or be prepared to pay the price.

Needless to say that when we were in Singapore a few days later, I followed every single law and ordinance to the absolute letter.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

18 thoughts on “How to Not Get Arrested in Bangkok”

  1. Matt, I don’t think you were to blame. It is ridiculous that the cop targeted you and he probably would have targeted you even if you hadn’t done anything, merely because you were a foreigner. I am sorry that it happened but glad that it ended with a simple resolution.

  2. Omg how random. Thank god you were wearing a watch – i haven’t even got one! Good story to remember – thanx for the post!!

  3. It’s a shame that some people in official positions decide it’s cool to single out foreigners. They obviously could see that you TRIED to get the garbage into the trash can, they were looking to scam you right from the start. Terrible. I’m glad you didn’t let it destroy your view of the country. There are corrupt people everywhere.

  4. What a story! I’m not sure this redhead would have kept her cool if I was singled out that way. Luckily there are so many other aspects to destinations that make up for experiences like this. You are smart to recognize that immediately.

  5. Ouch, what a nasty experience! Glad you didn’t let it turn you on the entire country though – its sad that there’s always a few who are out to get the foreigners, but far sadder when people go away cursing Thais or Peruvians or Vietnamese as “all scammers” for the actions of a few.

  6. I have some Thai friends told me they refer to the police as the 200baht because for most incidents they can be bribed for this price, so they do not always target westerners for bribes although I am sure the bribes targeting westerners is much higher. Interesting story and well written. It is a good lesson for all travel that you need to be on your toes and make sure you do not break a law even accidentally. I have heard of people getting fines in Thailand for spitting on the street and throwing gum out.

  7. Thank you all for the great comments. As I said, at the time I was really upset. But after a good night’s sleep I had gotten over it. Thailand remains one of my most favorite places and Bangkok in particular is high on the “places to relocate to” list. However, it did teach me a lot and gave me a good perspective on travel I think.

  8. I can remember so clearly from my travels in Thailand two things to expect after a friendly Thai smile, either yet another smile or a scam! Not at all a pleasant situation for you to have been in! I can’t think of what would have happened if I’d been in the same situation, I’d b wearing a Khao San Road watch so they wouldn’t want that!!!

  9. Wow, that is an alarming story. Now I do wonder what happens to all those poor souls who don’t have the cash or some other valuable to trade?

  10. I hear that it often happens in the tourist areas (Suk and the like). But I’ve only read about it online, not seen it in action. After six years living in Thailand, I’ve had no runs in with scamming policeman. Only generous offers of help.

    My Thai friends grumble all the time at being shaken down though. And when asked if they ever considered being a Thai cop, they all say no. Just this week one said that Thai cops find themselves friendless and alone when they grow old. The thought of being old and alone is disturbing to a gregarious Thai.

    1. Thank you for the comment, no doubt it is hard for them. Even though I was shaken down, so to speak, I have no ill feelings for Bangkok and as I write, Thailand is one of my favorite places. There are, of course, good and bad people everywhere though.

  11. You did the right thing by keeping your cool, though after 4 years here, I know to just make a joke of it and offer them 200 baht, as someone else said.

  12. Wow! That would be intensely scary.

    Aside from the scare, though, I so agree about pineapple in a plastic bag. Have had those in a few countries, and they’re always one of my fondest memories.

  13. Think I would have been the same, err wait, whats going on?

    Glad you didn’t end up handing over 4000 baht for missing a trash can.

  14. If I were in you shoes, I would have been scared out of my wits being taken away like that without any information as to why. That is a mighty fine for a traveler on a budget to pay. At least Bangkok has a priority for a clean atmosphere. Thank you for sharing your story, and good luck in future travels!

  15. We are Ina little more of an intense situation now. I have a family member currently in Thailand. Was driving a scooter without a helmet… Got pulled over and all of a sudden had 2 rolled joints.. Was taken to police station then prison. The bribe to get him out….. 10,000 bail plus 100,000 baht bribe to have his negative drug test be negative…… We are still in the process of getting family member home and are not in the clear yet as now they want another 50,000 on top of it all…… Needless to say he will never go back..

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