We were standing on a sidewalk in Bangkok, walking aimlessly in the thick, heavy heat. It was the end of our trip in South East Asia. My friend and I had specifically held off on buying anything for the past three weeks; we were told that Bangkok was a shopping mecca for (I am somewhat embarrassed to admit) knock-off designer goods. Neither of us really cared about brands that much, but we had heard such good things about the shopping in Bangkok, we thought we might be able to pick up a fake designer handbag or two. We had seen a million of these handbags weeks earlier on the beautiful island of Koh Samui. Yet today, the streets seemed bare, grubby and uninspired.
We roamed the streets, desperately searching. We passed a lot of markets selling fresh produce, dried fish and bright colored beaded jewelry. No “designer” goods. No “leather” handbags or wallets. No clothes with misspelt labels like “Guccie” or “Kevin Clines”. We were about to give up; we were hot and tired and frustrated.
A young Thai woman who seemed to be an ordinary passer-by approached us and stopped. “You looking for shopping? For Prada?” Usually, we would be skeptical of such an approach. Almost any Western traveler will have a tale of being blindly ripped off in Thailand. We were wary of these types of pitches and scams after several weeks of politely saying “no thank you” to hawkers and street vendors. But this woman was different. She didn’t have the hawker vibe, she wasn’t carrying a bag of beaded necklaces and didn’t have a board of “Ray Bons” slung over her neck. She was dressed in plain clothes and carrying a plain tote bag. She seemed genuinely concerned about us.
“Yes. We are looking for shopping,” I replied.
Her English was very good. “You can’t find that here anymore. The government has cracked down on it. They started fining everyone selling the fake goods. It’s very difficult to find anything these days.”
Ah. This was to be somewhat expected. We should have bought those fake Chanel wallets back in Koh Samui, where they had entire stores dedicated to this trade. We chatted to our new friend for a little while about this recent state of affairs. Just as we were getting ready to move on, she told us she knew “somewhere” that still sold these types of goods. Given her previous statement, we were instantly on alert. We guessed that selling counterfeit goods had been illegal for some time, but with the recent crackdown, it was obviously now even more risky. We were suddenly suspicious of our new friend. Was she part of an elaborate scam to lure us into a false sense of security, only to lead us into an alley behind one of these grubby old buildings where we would be attacked, robbed and left for dead?
We were wary of these types of pitches and scams after several weeks of politely saying “no thank you” to hawkers and street vendors. But this woman was different. She didn’t have the hawker vibe, she wasn’t carrying a bag of beaded necklaces and didn’t have a board of “Ray Bons” slung over her neck.
She continued talking to us about this store she knew of, but she wasn’t being pushy. She talked to us about a lot of other things, about how she was in school and studying for exams. She just seemed so trustworthy. We eventually let her hail us a tuk tuk to take us to the store. She instructed the driver and negotiated a price for us. It was significantly cheaper than any other form of transport we had taken throughout the trip. This only made us trust her more, she had negotiated local prices for us!
We climbed into the tuk tuk, with some hesitation, but not enough to stop us. What exactly possessed us to do this, we shall never know. Was it simply that we had been on vacation for three weeks, and had gotten too comfortable going with the flow? Looking back, it seems a tad reckless. There we were, two young woman, roaming the streets of Bangkok with that face and manner only tourists have when they are utterly lost – the confused and searching look in their eyes, the constant twisting of necks looking around at all angles, the lack of urgency and purpose in their pace – and we had been approached by a stranger who within five minutes had convinced us to get in a tuk tuk to a completely unknown destination under the guise of picking up a fake Louis Vuitton purse.
Once we were in the tuk tuk it seemed too late to back out of the situation. We zipped through the traffic and the thick Bangkok smog for about ten minutes until we found ourselves being driven down backstreets and alleyways. We had no idea where we were. The tuk tuk bounced and shook as it navigated the uneven gravel road beneath us. We looked at each other nervously while trying not to give away to the driver that we were scared. What were we thinking?!
We peered out of the tuk tuk, anxiously looking for clues, a familiar sign or landmark, something to reassure us that we were not about to die. Of course, the exercise was futile. It was obvious – this was the most stupid thing we had done on this trip. The tuk tuk rattled along, and we reached an empty car park, with a few small, abandoned buildings a few feet away. The tuk tuk screeched to a halt and we lurched forward; almost tumbling right out of it as we had been sitting on the edge of our seats in a wild but silent panic. The driver pointed to one of the buildings. “There’s the store!”
We breathed a half-sigh of relief. While it seemed we were not going to be kidnapped just yet, we still had no idea where we were, and we were being directed to a building that looked like it might collapse any second. Our driver agreed to wait for us. There was no sign on the building to indicate what might be in there. It was not even obvious where the door was, until we noticed a blackened pane of glass slide open an inch, presumably by someone to check that we looked like the naive backpackers we were. We stole a quick glance at one another to say our muted goodbyes, and the door slid open just enough to let us in. We took a deep breath to meet our fate and stepped inside.
It was obvious – this was the most stupid thing we had done on this trip. The tuk tuk rattled along, and we reached an empty car park, with a few small, abandoned buildings a few feet away.
The first thing we noticed was the carpeting. All of the floors and the shelves were a coral color, the type of color you’d expect to see in a Florida vacation home that hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. Then we saw the handbags. Then the display counter of watches and jewelry. It’s a real store! We tried to hide our mix of excitement and relief – there were a few other customers around and the staff were eyeing us suspiciously. No background music was playing and the store was eerily quite, except for the hushed whispers of customers and store clerks negotiating prices. We suddenly became very aware that what we were doing was not legal in this country. We feign interest in the products on the shelves and hurriedly purchase one item each: not because we particularly liked them, but out of fear that if we tried to leave store without buying anything we may be held up at gunpoint.
We exited through the same blackened sliding door and were relieved to find our tuk tuk dutifully waiting for us outside the store. We gave him the address of our hotel and began the journey home. The further away from the store we got, the more the absurdity of the situation started to sink in. We laughed with relief that we made it out of there alive, albeit somewhat disappointed with our Guccie and Cartiere.