The “Litter Scam” in Bangkok

A few week’s ago, the excellent Spectrum supplement of the Bangkok Post did a big feature on the so-called Bangkok’s ‘cigarette police’. If you haven’t read it already then I suggest you take a look now. For a while there has been a law in Bangkok against littering which has been enforced with a heavy fine. There is nothing wrong with that in itself. Like the next person, I don’t like seeing litter around. So, I am happy they are cracking down on people who dump their rubbish on the roadside. But, that is not exactly what is happening. Instead of targeting local people the BMA officials, called “thetsakij”, are going after a softer target – foreign tourists.

After the Bangkok Post article came out there were a lot of comments about it in their letter’s page and also on Internet forums. Many people came out to say that they were fined 2,000 baht by these officials and were never given a receipt. They were hassled and told that if they didn’t pay the fine on the spot then they would have to go to the local police station where they would have to pay more. Interestingly, Manit Techa-apichoke, the deputy director of the City Law Enforcement Department, told the the Bangkok Post a few days later “foreigners who feel they have been unfairly targeted by the thetsakij should refuse to pay the fines”. Really? How many tourists know the difference between a police uniform and the one of the “thetsakij”. Most are too scared and just pay the fine.

The BMA promised a crackdown on officials that were found guilty of extortion. At the weekend I decided to go and take a look for myself. I went to the sky walk in front of the MBK shopping mall where the “thetsakij” have a table. Three of them were at work and as I was approaching them I could see they had just finished fining a female foreign tourists. Two of the officials then went off to the top of the steps to catch another tourist. At the bottom of these steps there is a small sign that says “no smoking”. There are no rubbish bins here so what the tourists are doing is throwing their cigarettes onto the ground. The BMA official then grabs them when they get to the top of the steps. The only sign about the 2,000 baht fine is this one next to the table where the officials are stationed.

I was hanging around here for about 30 minutes before I was well and truly spotted. But, by that time I had witnessed FOUR foreign tourists being fined for littering. So, that is 8,000 baht for 30 minutes work. Not a bad earner for someone. When I came back five minutes later the BMA officials had all gone. I’m not sure why. It was mid-afternoon. Maybe they had gone for tea or just didn’t like me hanging around taking pictures. I’m not saying that people who litter shouldn’t be fined. But, 2,000 baht does seem to be a bit high for dropping a cigarette butt when elsewhere people are dumping bucket fulls of rubbish in the streets with no consequence. In addition, targeting foreign tourists isn’t fair. If a Thai person is caught they just get a warning or told to do push-ups if they are a teenager.

COMMENTS ON TWITTER:

While I was taking pictures I was also posting them live on Twitter on my account @RichardBarrow. I wasn’t able to reply to everyone but here are some of the comments that I got within that 30 minutes I was tweeting:

@gskphoto: Hilarious. did you tell him he can just walk away and not pay?
@gskphoto: I’m going to pay for a billboard in front, saying “you don’t have to pay, just walk away!”
@forestmat: are these guys also stopping and fining Thais?
@dany_k: how did u get that photo!
@freakingcat: I am sure the President of TAT would be happy to hear what a great memory of Thailand tourists get from the cigarette Mafia!
@GlobalMouthful: the questions being whther they really littered, and whom do the fines go to…?
@thaicam:“2,000 baht fines every 5-10 minutes” // wow, i’m in the wrong business…shoulda been a cigarrette monitor cop
@freakingcat: Guess Ratchprasong is for Tourists now more dangerous than it was in April/May 2010
@two10eleven: That’s ridiculous. Illegal as it “may” be (given each circumstance) the law should be a blanket law not just a white skin law
@oldskooldi: And that’s how tourists will want to come to Thailand… a great place to get ripped off!
@oldskooldi: 80% ( a random figure!) of ppl here think foreigners are rich 🙂
@KristoferA: And while is documenting how the police are fleecing tourists in front of MBK, the woman that stabbed an expat to death…
@WomenLearnThai: Follow @RichardBarrow as he documents the Thai Gestapo ripping off tourists at MBK.
@forestmat: they don’t look best pleased with you!
@freakingcat: Police! Your friend when you are in need! Guess they hv special Tourist Cigarette Police. #Amazing Thailand, never come back!
@forestmat: what authority do they have to enforce the law? Do you know if they are legitimately allowed to issue fines?
@gskphoto: are they real police or just security guards in fancy uniform?
@GlobalMouthful: Amazing Thailand: a great place to part ways with your cash.
@Saksith: Don’t they notice you taking pictures of them of the same table in the last 20 minutes? Not that you get a fine as well! 😀
@freakingcat: Do Tourists get “proper” receipts 4 fines or is the money as usually just pocketed by Police? What if they refuse to pay?
@gskphoto: No bins or ashtrays, is there actually a clear and obvious sign in English?
@RobinThailand: I used to put my butts in a pocket of my shorts just for these reasons. And, because it’s rude to ash out on the walk.
@Matt_Jasper: maybe we could organise a camera tweetup at that spot and get a whole bunch of ppl to take their pics all at once.
@freakingcat: Why don’t u light a cigarette,refuse to pay and tweet what’s happening. Happy to pitch in for the fine u hv to pay eventually
@RobinThailand: In SG, first time offense is $150, second time I think $300 or more and after that public service.
@Ithinkimlost: are they a victim if they have committed an offence? There must be a bin somewhere.
@AndersInNon: The three members of the Thai Gestapo in front MBK have fled > A citizen win moment 2 treasure, thanks a lot 🙂
@ahyangyang: When they had enough ,they go drinking and celebrate..
@freakingcat: There should be big signs warning Tourists of the Cigarette Criminals trying to extort money.
@thomaswanhoff: First: using gestapo is just bad. second: would you smoke in Singapore as well? Dont smoke, dont get fined. easy.
@KainerWeissmann: at the main entries have been signs “no smoking” all around mbk.. 4 month ago.
@thomasjojo: that fine is deserved of they throw garbage around. but its a shame no thais around here (around bkk) gets fines too.
@thomasjojo: i have seen signs in Bkk about littering, fines. every intelligent person know that they should not trash around. Smokers too
@Orientix: Friend from Thailand visiting here informs Thailand no fun anymore. Fines fines fines for whatever

8 responses to “The “Litter Scam” in Bangkok

  1. Great post Richard. The idea of easy money is so embedded in Thai culture that even if something was done about this other methods would quickly pop up. When authorities spend their time figuring out how to deceive tourists (as well as Thais) there is no chance it will get better.

    There are countless other examples: taxis at the airport, feeding elephants, traffic violations, two-tier pricing, exceptional cash for immigration and work permit procedures (like cancelling an “expired” work permit), restaurants and bars that pay a lot of cash every month to police in tourist areas just to stay open.

    If people didn’t inadvertently throw garbage on the ground the police would invent another way of making money. In another less obvious way of ensuring no pressure is put on the “overworked” police you have adverts with PM Abhisit telling Thais not to buy fake/counterfeit goods, such as CD’s/DVD’s. And yet the whole industry is geared to produce these items in huge quantities – much of it managed by the police themselves. And the lottery! We could go on forever… 😉

  2. Funny they didn’t fine anyone for vendalizing the notice board. LOL

    “@RobinThailand: In SG, first time offense is $150, second time I think $300 or more and after that public service.”

    Honestly, have you ever seen any tourists being arrested in SG for littering and were fined? SG is well known for being lenient to foreigners, so much so it will become front page news if foreign tourists were to make a complaint. Say, like the “seafood” scam in Newton and the occasionally taxi scams. You will immediately hear the seafood stalls being closed down by order and drivers being suspended almost immediately.

    If a SG civil servant was to be complaint (by a foreigner especially), you can assure there will be investigation and if found guilty, will have serious consequences.

    In Thailand, the offficer involved will be transfered to an “inactive” position where he will continue to have his fair share of tea money.

    Amazing Thailand, thats why SGean bored of SG life love coming.

  3. Great article Richard…

    But to give some of the tweeters some solace I have also seen the officers stop Thai citizens too. I personally don’t smoke but I have been with a group of Thai friends and they were stopped. The officers never approached me but did approach my Thai friends. When my friends refused to pay the officers asked for a copy of their ID cards to be handed in at the local police station. Needless to say my friends refused to do that too but in the politest way. Eventually the officers got bored of trying and said next time be more careful.

    I definitely do not condone any form of extortion however I really don’t believe it is always a pick on the foreigner scenario.

    In my 20 years in Thailand I have been very rarely stopped for anything and when I am stopped I am usually in the wrong. What is even stranger everytime I have played the part of an unknowing tourist I have been let off Scott free.

    Saying this, Richard’s articles are a wonderful way to learn the possible scams that are out there and the ways to avoid them. Basically if you know they “the officers” are wrong don’t give in but, if you know you are wrong, be polite, apologetic and try to bargain your way out.

  4. I haven’t been to Singapore but as far as I know, it is a clean city. so, there is actually something to keep up and preserve. I agree with fines in this case – if there are signs, there are rubbish bins, and it is not simply a form of extortion, but a genuine effort to make a city more liveable.

  5. Singapore does not tolerate littering,vandalism nor
    the consumption and importation of drugs among
    other anti-social and illegal acts.
    The whole world knows about these laws,so I don’t
    feel the least sorry for those who get caught
    blatantly breaking the law and then crying for mercy
    and even asking their government to plead on their
    behalf as well.

  6. I’ve got no sympathy for litterbugs who get caught and fined, and especially not for the many smokers who somehow feel that tossing a butt on the street is somehow different from say, a soda can. Having lived in a couple of very litter-prone US cities, I wish we could import some thetsakij!

  7. I live in Thailand and know what goes on here.

    I recently walked 2 kilometers in Bangkok looking for a trash bin to throw away a plastic bag from some fruit i bought from a roadside stall and i was followed part of that distance by a local authority scammer just waiting for me to dump the bag in the canal or by the roadside.

    Is it a scam some of you ask?

    Yes it is because the bins that were there previously have been purposely removed so the scam could be put in place.

    Next time you’re in Bangkok take time out and watch who is paying the litter fines and you’ll find 99% are foreigners.

    Are foreigners purposely targeted?
    You can bet your bottom dollar they are.

  8. I am trying to bring to your attention the scam that many foreigners are getting trapped in Bangkok.

    There is a shop called “ERAWAN LAPIDARI” whose address is 101-103 Peachathipatai Rd., Bangkhunprom, Pranakorn Bangkok 10200. This shop targets tourists and tells them different stories about the lucky buddha day and gives them different offers on tuk tuk deals e.g. 20 baht for 3 hours, tells them about promotions. At Erawan Lapidary, they sell people jewellery and the jewellery is all fake.

    Does any of you guys know something about this shop. It is causing mayhem to many people and it is damaging the reputation of this great holiday destination and amazing people.

    Thanks.