It doesn’t matter how experienced of a backpacker you think you are, there’s going to come a time when you make a mistake, big or small. For us, learning from an error is one of the most rewarding parts of traveling and is a major part of becoming an independent and improved version of yourself. Here’s the story of our faux pas, how we learnt some valuable lessons after being scammed in Koh Phangan, and how we can help you to avoid bad experiences while on Koh Phangan.
The journey from Bangkok to Koh Phangan
Our journey from Bangkok to Koh Phangan started with a coach ride at 9 pm. We opted for an overnight trip to save money on a night’s accommodation, which is a great tactic for budget travelers. If you prefer to travel during the day after a good night’s sleep, that’s fine because the price is the same regardless of if you travel in the night or day.
The folks sat next to us on the bus were also from the same great city of Manchester, which was frustrating because we’re trying our best to get away from Mancunian misfits. Jokes aside, the schmoozing quickly transitioned to snoozing. By 11 pm, most passengers, made up mostly of young European backpackers, were asleep, seats reclined and legroom nonexistent.
We arrived at a dark and desolate ferry port at 4am; 2 hours before the boat was scheduled to depart for the islands. So, we sat by the beach and watched the sun crack through the black clouds. Right on time, we boarded the ferry and sailed the 90-minute voyage until we touched down on the shores of Koh Phangan; sand between our toes.
Arriving in Koh Phangan
We were welcomed to the island by locals with their extortionate taxi prices. Expect to pay the asking price when it comes to isolated islands because where else are you going to find a bargain? Shared taxis are the only form of transport to get around the island, unless you decide to rent a scooter. Prices for a single journey are 100 Baht ($3.30) minimum, even if it’s just down the road! However, a scooter is 250 Baht ($8.10) for the whole day and allows you to freely explore the entire island.
A relaxing 2-days exploring the island by scooter
We decided to rent a scooter considering we almost always rent one when exploring new parts of southeast Asia. What started out fun and relaxing left a sour taste in our mouth by the end of our 2-day rental contract. We spent the first day exploring the island’s main roads, circumnavigating the entire island twice. We stopped to take photos, marvel at mountains of coconuts, admire the rooftop vistas and stop by at a waterfall or two. The second day we used the bike mainly to just get around for food and to stop by at Thong Sala Night Market. Our hotel was quite isolated, but at least we had other western couples to talk to. There were no restaurants or bars within walking distance, but what the hotel lacked in location, made up for in tranquility.
Scammed by our hotel owner
Ok, let’s get to the juicy part of the story. The sour taste of the juice being that we got scammed by our hotel. We returned the bike at 8pm, an hour later than contracted, which incurred a 50 Baht ($1.60) fine per hour; that’s fine by us. We handed in the keys to the owner at his office desk and followed him back outside to inspect the bike for damage, which is common practice after renting a motorbike.
You can see where this is going. He found some damage. A small dent in the front plastic body and a scratch to the rear side engine cover. It was at this point the dispute began. Not once did our bike make contact with anything that wasn’t wheels on the road, so we knew that the damage was either old or committed by someone else while it was parked perhaps.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Did you take photos of the bike beforehand? The answer is no, and neither did the owner, so our arguments were of equal credibility. We couldn’t prove one another responsible.
I feel like he always intended to fine us the moment we drove away without taking photos of the ‘undamaged’ bike. 2 days ago, I checked the bike before I rented it, but I was checking for noticeable damages: scraps down the side, broken mirrors, wonky wheels and bent handlebars. Not small dents and scratches!
Passport hostage and police involvement
Back at the office, he waved the contract we signed and told us what we needed to pay. Total damages came to 4,500 Baht ($145.79), which we had no intention of paying. Did we mention he had my (Jake’s) passport as collateral? We were anxious, but we weren’t scared. The owner threatened to call the police and we called his bluff. Ten minutes went by and he wasn’t speaking to anyone on the phone. We knew he didn’t want the police involved just as much as us. Going through this adrenaline-fueled moment together as a couple was beneficial to say the least. We can’t imagine having the same outcome on our own as solo travelers, not having each other there for support. One of us being assertive and hot-headed helped us avoid being taken advantage of, whereas one of us being calm and reasonable allowed us to negotiate and end the dispute civilly.
Two hours of deliberating, this fiasco was about to come to a close. He asked us what we were willing to pay. Starting from a fine of 4,500 Bhat ($145.79), we low-balled him at 500 Baht ($16.20), stating that we’re only paying a fine for our stupidity of not taking photos beforehand. It’s just as much our fault for not covering our backs, as much as it was for him. He wanted 1,000 Bhat ($32.40), but we quickly settled at 700 Bhat ($22.68) and he gave back my passport.
In hindsight, if we were stubborn enough, we would have waited in his office all night until he gave us back my passport with no charge. But at the time, I felt that £18 was a reasonable price to learn a valuable lesson of always taking photos beforehand and to NEVER use your passport as collateral
The strangest thing about this whole ordeal was the owner offering us free breakfast the next morning as we left his office, passport included. Maybe he felt guilty for scamming us? The next morning, he gave us double the amount back for our room key deposit. He definitely felt guilty for scamming us!
My advice to readers is this: Don’t be put off by this nightmare of a story. Rent a scooter and enjoy the island, because you’re going to be missing out if you don’t. Just don’t handover your passport and agree to pay their cost for damages because the prices they quote for repairs are heavily exaggerated. We were lucky this scam was during the evening. It was getting late and we could see he wanted to settle on a deal. During the day, I don’t think he would have settled without a long and drawn out battle for more money.
Avoiding other sticky situations
Following on from how best to deal with shady motorbike dealers, there are several other aspects of bad things that can happen while in Koh Phangan and neighbouring Koh Tao and Koh Samui. Firstly, the roads on all 3 islands are treacherous. The island’s roads aren’t well-maintained enough to accommodate the large amount of tourists, and their thirst to explore the mountains, back alleys and open roads on motorbikes. You would be surprised by the amount of bandage-covered backpackers we encounter when traveling, as a result of their negligence on the road. Our advice would be to drive safely. Watch out for holes in the road. Be careful on steep inclines and going downhill. Drive slowly in the rain and don’t brake too hard. We shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t drink and drive either, and always wear a helmet.
Moral of the story is to be careful when renting and riding a scooter, even if you’re renting from the hotel you’re staying at. One does not simply go to Thailand without hiring a scooter, so be sure to take photos for insurance purposes and don’t ever hand over your passport, unless you’re willing to pay the quoted price for a simple scratch. Above all, drive safely.