Friday, 11 May 2007
"Thai Girl" Fingered in Pantip Laptop Heist
It's an urban jungle out there
In some parts of the world, every shifty-eyed lad on the street is just waiting to steal your bag or grab your camera, given half a chance, and sometimes it’s far more elaborate than simple theft. Scams against tourists and trippers can be heroic in their ingenuity.
Once in Lagos, the teeming capital of Nigeria, I parked my brand new Volkswagen Beetle in the street to go to the Ghanain Embassy to beg for a visa. When I returned some hours later, I started the car but it ran only a few hundred yards before spluttering to a halt in the heavy traffic. Three big men in long robes appeared from nowhere and pushed me into the kerb. One of them, a delightful guy with a smile as wide as a tiger’s, asked if he could help as he just happened to be a car mechanic.
I was now totally stuck, a stranger in this wild place, so this was an offer that was hard to refuse. Retrieving his tools from out of his robes, he soon had half my engine scattered in bits by the side of the road, and with a friend cranking the engine, he showed me that the coil was defective as there was no spark. His brother worked at the local VW agents, he said, so he could go and get a new one for me if I wanted him to. With the car’s innards lying in the dust, he had me between a rock and a hard place. With no way to wriggle out, I could only accept gratefully and wait while he disappeared into the crowds. All the while a policeman directing the traffic had been watching what was going on, laughing to himself about something that had amused him.
Within half an hour, my strolling mechanic had fitted a brand new coil and put everything back together again. He gave me my original coil back and after a token haggle, I parted with a little money and went on my way, heading for the border with Ghana. The car then covered many thousands of miles over broken roads and rocky deserts at high speeds, and never again missed a beat.
When I got back home to Zaria, I had the old coil checked and there was nothing whatsoever wrong with it. As I suspected, he had probably tampered with the fuel lines when the car was parked in the street and, on false pretences, had sold me a stolen coil for a very reasonable price. This was a time-consuming and elaborate scam and it seemed sad to me that a salesman of such charm and ability did not have more useful opportunities in his life. In England he could have been a very successful estate agent.
Rip-offs can happen to you in Thailand too where the huge differential between foreign visitors and locals almost justifies some informal transfers of wealth. Nonetheless, instances of theft and dishonesty are relatively rare. You can leave your bags lying around in hotel lobbies and in the luggage space under the long distance bus and generally they stay there untouched. Whether this high standard of honesty can be put down to Buddhism, I have no idea, but it’s one of the pleasant aspects of being in Thailand. I well remember the boy at a food stall on Koh Samet who came looking for me one night when I’d given him a five hundred baht note in the dark instead of a hundred, and I’m sure that honesty such as this is one of the main reasons the tourists keep come back.
Cat has locks on everything and wants to put steel bars on the windows of the house like everyone else and she’s paranoid about theft, but we’ve been reasonably lucky so far.
Once in crowded Chatuchak market, we were standing looking at some trinkets on a stall and I felt something brush against my leg. Looking down I saw that the zip of the leg pocket I keep my wallet in was wide open. Glancing round I saw a youth slipping away into the crowded alleyway, looking as guilty as hell. In the split second before I lost him, I wasn’t sure he was a pick pocket, though I now have little doubt at all.
If that attempt on my property was thwarted, the Pantip Plaza laptop heist was to be more audacious and successful.
I was quite fond of the old black Toshiba laptop I’d bought secondhand in the early days and it had followed me everywhere, faithfully recording every word of my beloved story, “Thai Girl” on its dear little hard drive. The whole novel was still on it along with all sorts of other precious stuff I’d probably forgotten to back-up.
Thus I was somewhat distressed when the Toshiba began refusing to type the letters ‘g’ and ‘y’. For a time I developed a writing style avoiding all words with these letters in them, though it became tedious constantly thumbing through my thesaurus. I thus decided I’d have to face getting the damn thing mended. As nobody in Surin seemed to know how to do it, this meant nine hours on the bus back to Bangkok and a hot and smelly sardine ride on a Klong San Saap canal boat to Pantip Plaza in Pratunam to get the damn thing sorted.
Now Pantip Plaza, as I’ve already mentioned, is Bangkok’s crazy six story computer mall. If instinctively you hate computers, as I do, and cannot begin to communicate with a computer salesman even in your own tongue, a glittering tower block packed with stalls selling every kind of computer and electronic gizmo imaginable and seething with touts and computer geeks must be your very idea of hell on earth. How would I ever manage to get my laptop mended across the double language barriers of technology and Thai?
First, to fortify myself, I decided to have something to eat at the upstairs food stalls. With my laptop securely slung across my shoulder, I bought a plate full and found a table where I wedged myself tightly in the corner, placing the laptop on the floor up against the wall. I hate eating in places like that and kept my eyes down as I shoveled in the khao phat ghai. It was crowded and noisy and I didn’t like the intrusive way the boy wiped the table around me as I ate.
When I’d finished and was ready to go, I glanced down and there was my laptop, gone! It had inexplicably disappeared. This was one of those awful moments of realization when adrenalin and raw anger surge, anger with the bastard who’d crawled up behind me while the table wiper distracted my attention and also with myself for being only ninety percent watchful. Why, oh why can’t I turn the clock back a few minutes and be more careful a second time.
But all is not yet lost. I must report the theft to the Pantip security men. I leap up looking slightly deranged and find a boy dressed as a guards officer in smart uniform and cap who’s sprawled against a rail, looking down into the central lobby where the Chevrolet pickups are on display. In my best Thai I tell him I’ve just had my laptop stolen, but somehow he doesn’t understand how very tragic this is.
Eventually he leads me away to the bowels of the building and shows me what appears to be a security office as it’s filled to bursting with at least ten uniformed security officers. Fortunately one of them speaks a little English, but he tells me the office is closed, that there’s nobody here as it’s Saturday and I can come back on Monday.
Yes, but… I protest in anguish! If my eyes are not deceiving me, the office is open and it’s full of real live security officers in gleaming uniform. But no, he insists, it isn’t. It’s Saturday and it’s closed!
I try pleading with him that at this very moment the thief is selling my laptop with its precious hard drive to some bent stall holder who buys museum quality laptops and could he please come with me and help me find it?
My delightful security officer quickly agrees and we head off on a wild goose chase. ‘Have you seen a laptop in a black laptop case,’ he asks everywhere, to which the answer is always yes. The whole place is crowded and bustling and everyone seems to be carrying my black laptop. After half an hour I get the feeling I’d better give up and call it a day.
Back home I begin to think about insurance. That’ll mean getting a written report from the Pantip security office on Monday and then finding a police station and asking for a formal police report. How long will that all take? A week? A month of endless waiting in traffic jams and offices? Once more my insurers win hands down and I face up to my loss.
I am thankful at least that the laptop was stolen before it was mended and quite gratified that the sneak thief hasn’t done too well out of it. He’s got away with a ten year old laptop which runs Windows 3.1 and Word, except of course for the letters ‘g’ and ‘y’, so perhaps I’ve been luckier than him. He’s just risked his liberty nicking something worth a few hundred baht and he’s saved me the cost of getting it mended. Lucky man that I am, I’d better bite the bullet and buy a new one.
Apart from my lovely secretary Monica, that old Toshiba was my very first laptop and I’ve often wondered what happened to it. I haven’t taken to my new one though and can never love it in the same way as the Toshiba, but at least it still does ‘g’s and ‘y’s. Most importantly, I haven’t had to take it back to Pantip Plaza, not yet at least, though I dread the day!