Getting around Bangkok is a bit of a nightmare – in the non-air-conditioned buses you can sit for hours in a traffic jam with no breeze, breathing in the exhaust fumes all around. Air conditioned buses are much better, but are fewer, and cover less routes. Tuk Tuks – the kind of thing you’ve seen in a James Bond film – three wheels, an engine and a Schumacher-wannabee behind the handlebars – are noisy, slow and can be very, very expensive (Tuk Tuk drivers are the first step in many cons in Bangkok, which result in people spending hundreds of pounds on worthless gems). But taxis are great, especially now that every taxi has got a meter, and uses it! Last time we visited Bangkok only a very few taxis had meters, which meant that you had to negotiate fares in advance. Now you just flag down a cab and off you go, knowing that the meter will ensure you pay the right price. To get right across the centre of the city, which can easily take an hour, costs about £1.20.
So there we are, crawling along one of the highways in a cab, going to sort out our railway tickets to Laos, when one of His Majesty’s finest (ie a traffic cop) pulls the cab over. The reason was that I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt (I don’t know what went wrong there – I’m normally paranoid about wearing a seatbelt in a car or taxi, but even so, it was my fault for not wearing it). Anyway, the traffic cop sees the chance to make some money. He comes over to my side of the cab, in his 1970’s CHiPS uniform (don’t ask me why, but all the uniforms in Thailand look like they were made for the series, and for officers one size smaller!), and starts to talk about what a bad boy I’d been, and how it was very, very naughty. And how I’d have to pay a fine of 1,000 Baht at the police station. (At this point, I’m apologetic and not a little amazed – police enforcing traffic laws in a city that has some of the worst driving in the world!). So I continue apologising, hoping that I might get some leniency.
Then the officer tells me that if I pay the fine at the roadside, I’d only have to pay 500 Baht. Aha, so that’s what its all about – he’s not interested in enforcing the road laws, he just wants to pocket 500 Baht! But I could be wrong – perhaps that’s how it works here, and the money does really go to the Government. But I still feel this is a scam, and if I refuse it will all go away, and it’ll be too much trouble for him to actually write a ticket. So I said I wouldn’t pay him.
So then, in true negotiating style, he offers me the fine of 400 Baht – paid to him. Now I know it’s about money for him. So I say no again – because I’m not keen on corruption, and I really don’t want to line this guy’s pockets (mind you, his uniform’s so tight, I don’t know how he’d squeeze money into the trousers). More negotiation, more refusals by me. So then he offers me another discount – this time to 300 Baht, or 1,000 Baht fine at the police station. I’m still saying no, because I still hope that not paying will result in a telling off and no fine. Then he takes the taxi driver’s licence, and starts writing the ticket, and the taxi driver starts to get really worried – he’s the one that ends up with a problem, because his licence is taken, and we’d spend all evening at the police station paying the fine.
So I offer the police officer 100 Baht – which didn’t do the trick – and he asks for 200 Baht, and I refuse. And then he writes the ticket out fully (after lots of pretence at writing a ticket…), and then I know I’m not going to get off, and I’m up for the 1,000 Baht fine. The taxi driver says to just pay up the 200 Baht, so that we can all go on. And that’s what I end up doing.
I’ve broken the law by not wearing a seatbelt. The policeman stopped us for it so that he could make 500 Baht himself (which is the only reason he stopped us). I started off threatened with a 1,000 Baht fine, and ended up paying the policeman a negotiated ‘fine’ of 200 Baht, which will have gone straight into his pocket. Did I do the right thing? (Okay, so I don’t like corruption, but I think the non-corruption route would have cost me 5x more. But is this a scam, or just law-and-order Thai style? And is it any different to speed cameras in England, where the councils are now putting up loads because they get to keep some of the fine every time they catch someone?)
At the end of the day, it was a small amount of money to me, but it’s the fact that you can’t trust a policeman that gets to me. What do you think?