Piyamanee - May 25, 2005
A victim's story: I feel the need to warn others about my experience with these gem-scam artists, and hope that my warnings will at least save some potential tourists the painful and exasperating experience that I had to go through.
I was on a business trip for my company, and I was booked in meetings and conferences for almost the entire stay in Bangkok. My itinerary had me leaving the U.S. on May 7 and returning on the morning of May 13, 2005. I had only 1 day free (it was the last day on May 12) and I used it to go sightseeing and to buy some gifts for my wife and kids back home in the United States. Little did I know that I was about to be swindled out of over $3000 dollars.
The day (May 12) started with me taking the water taxi from my hotel (Royal Orchid Sheraton) at pier #3. The boat dropped me off at pier #9 (Wat Phra Kaew--the Emerald Buddha). As I was making my way towards the Emerald Buddha and then to the Grand Palace, I was approached by a friendly tuk tuk driver, who told me that today was a religious holiday and that the temple would be opened later in the day. It was 9:40am at that time. He said he would gladly take me to the other temples for only 40 baht, and that I would be back in time to see the Emerald Buddha. I decided to go ahead, as I've never been in a tuk tuk before, and it seemed like an adventurous thing to do at the spur of the moment.
The tuk tuk driver first took me to the Golden Mount, parked the tuk tuk, told me to take my time and that he'd wait for me. I proceeded up the climb to the top. I took a number of pictures, and after about 40 minutes came back to the tuk tuk where I was approached by an older Thai gentleman who was about 50 years old. His Toyota Corolla was parked next to the tuk tuk, but my driver was nowhere in sight. We struck up a conversation, and he seemed genuinely friendly and helpful. He asked if I bought anything for my family, and I showed him a bag of little porcelain toys I bought at the top of the Golden Mount. These were for my kids, I told him. He asked if I bought anything for my wife, and I told him no, but that I was thinking of buying her something nice since I had missed Mother's Day. He told me about a very good jewelry shop named Leela Export Center, and that I should ask my driver to take me there. He told me that rubies and sapphires from Thailand are the best in the world, and that Leela sells at 50% to 80% off the prices I'd pay if I were to buy them in the U.S. My tuk tuk driver reappeared, and the Thai gentleman said something in Thai, and then pointed to me. My driver came over and nodded, and he told me that he can take me there if I want. I told him sure. I thanked the gentleman as the tuk tuk driver and I left the parking lot.
The tuk tuk driver dropped me off at Leela. I was approached by the store manager, and he proceeded to show me a number of rubies. After asking for some prices, I decided that the rubies were a bit expensive, and not worth the savings. I told the manager that I had bought my wife a ruby ring a few years ago, and that I didn't remember rubies being that expensive. He told me that these rubies are of the best qualities, and that the prices are actually much lower than if I were to buy them back home. I thanked him and left, not realizing at the time that I had unknowingly steered clear of the first of many traps.
The tuk tuk driver took me to another temple. At this temple, there were 2 guys sitting by the bench. One was an older Thai of about 40 years old, who said he now lives in the U.K, and the other was a younger man about 30 years old from England. The English guy is named Steve Allen. Both were friends, and they told me they came here together once a year between May 5 and May 12 for their special functions. We struck up a friendly conversation. They asked me what I was carrying, and I showed them the porcelain toys I got at the Golden Mount. The Thai then asked me if I got something for my wife, and when I told him no, he proceeded to come closer and told me about this special function that only a few people knew about. Apparently the Thai government allows the wholesales of gems to tourists only one week out of the year. And since today was the 12th, I was in luck since it was the last day that this offer was available. That was the reason these guys were here. Steve Allen told me that he was able to come to Bangkok every year 'free' because the gems he brought back and resold in England for profits essentially paid for the trip. Steve told me that he's able to resell the gems at 180% to 195% of what he paid for here. Twelve hundred pounds, he said, can easily fetch 2500 pounds at a minimum. I had some doubts, but both of them were insistent. However, sensing my uneasiness, the pressure was suddenly lifted. Both of them became cordial again. In fact, the conversation veered towards an earlier conversation we had--Steve and I were discussing Muai Thai fighting, Pride fighting, UFC, etc. They brought me back at ease. With the pressure gone, it seemed they were genuine. When I told them I am still a bit skeptical, Steve proceeded to give me his email address: [email protected]
He told me that I didn't have to buy the gems, but perhaps I should just look. In fact, the store will only sell me a maximum of 3 pieces. I can buy small, or I can spend more like they did and buy bigger pieces. It was really up to me. The store they told me to go to is PIYAMANEE. I told them that I was already told of the Leela Export Center, and they both told me that that place is a tourist trap, and that it was not backed by the Thai government. PIYAMANEE is backed by the Thailand government (TAT). I trusted these guys a bit more after hearing them giving me their warning about Leela as a tourist trap, and to stay clear of Leela as the prices are very high.
I had my camera, and was about to take a picture of the two of them, thanking them for their help. The Thai quickly told me to put the camera away, as it was considered very bad luck to take pictures in the temple. I was very surprised, but did as they requested. Right after this the driver came into view. The Thai called the driver over, and told the driver something in Thai. The driver approached me and apologized, telling me that he should have told me not to take pictures in this particular temple as it was considered bad luck. To make up for it, he will take me to PIYAMANEE as the other Thai and Steve had recommended.
The driver took me to PIYAMANEE. As an aside, the store's front is exactly the same as the picture you have posted on your website! My heart sunk when I got back to the US and did a search on PIYAMANEE on Google and your website turned up. Anyway, I digress.
Once I stepped inside PIYAMANEE, I noticed something out of the ordinary. The place was not very well lit, and most of the sales people were very young female (ages around 16 to 25). I was approached by an older woman (around 40 years old) and she proceeded to show me Thai Sapphires. I had considered buying my wife something in the $300 range, but what they told me was that Thai Sapphires are worth a lot more than that. I thanked them and left. Little did I know that I just stepped out of the 2nd trap.
The tuk tuk driver then took me to the temple of the Black Buddha. I felt bad for my driver, as he's been chauffeuring me around for the past 3 hours. He told me it was okay, and that I should take some pictures of the Black Buddha. I went in and was approached by a young Thai. He showed me around, and seemed very friendly. In fact, he was reciting history lessons for me. There was no mention of jewels, and the thought of buying gems had finally left my mind. As we were kneeling in front of the Black Buddha (he gave me some incense to pray with --- although I am not Buddhist, I thought it was the polite thing to do), two tourists came in. We struck up a conversation. They asked me my nationality and where I work. I told them. One of the guys was an American from San Jose. He said he worked for Cisco and had a Vietnamese girlfriend. Although back in the United States our companies are competitors, he told me that over here, we 'Americans must stick with each'. The other guy was from England. He looked Indian. They proceeded to tell me about them hurrying this morning to buy some gems, as today is the last day that tourist could buy gems at a huge discount. I told them I thought it was funny that they mentioned that, since I was already told of this story earlier in the day. Both of them told me that it was serious business, and that Brad (the guy from Cisco) is able to purchase these gems to bring back to the US and resell them to high profile places like Biddle Banks & Bailey, or Tiffany, or any other high end stores. I recognized these names, and my interest peaked again. Brad was the consummate salesman. He told me he's been doing this for 3 years. He started out like me, an unbeliever. However, he took the first step and bought small 3 years ago (around $1000). Today, he just bought a complete set (pendant, earrings, and ring) for over $4000 at PIYAMANEE. He said that he could resell this easily for over $8000 back in the US. In fact, if I make a purchase and could not sell it, he will buy it off for me at double what I paid. He even gave me his email address: [email protected]
The only reason why Brad couldn't buy more is because the Thai government limits his purchase to just 3 items. However, if I were to buy it, when I get back to the United States I should contact him and if I want, he will buy it back from me for double what I paid. He insisted that it was such a good deal that I would be stupid to just let it slip away. They poured on the sales antics fast and furious. When I mentioned Leela Export, they both warned me to stay clear of that place, as it was actually a tourist trap. They told me that I should only go to a government backed place like PIYAMANEE.
At this point, I started to seriously waiver. Here was an American (Brad), working for a well known company, who actually spoke a few words in my native tongue, trying to tell me that he's only looking out for a fellow American. As we walked back to my tuk tuk, these two guys climbed into their own tuk tuk, leaving me with the impression that they were indeed tourists. As my tuk tuk driver was backing out, Brad jumped out of his tuk tuk and came over to me. He told me that I should go and look at PIYAMANEE, and to please send him an email regardless of whether or not I make a purchase. He's just happy to find a friend in a competing high-tech company.
Needless to say, I was totally swayed by Brad. His story is consistent with the story from the 1st two guys (the Thai and English guys) I met at the temple, and backed by the story from the sales lady at PIYAMANEE. I decided to go back to PIYAMANEE for a final look.
When I came into the store the second time, the original sales lady came up to me again. She showed me some Thai Sapphires. I was still skeptical, as the prices seemed extraordinarily high. I asked why the prices were so high, and she told me that these were the best qualities. In fact, she asked a girl to bring out a display case showing the different colors and cuts of sapphires, and asked me to rate them. I chose what I thought was the clearest and most brilliant sapphire, and she told me that it was fake, that I chose wrongly. In fact, she told me, the best ones were the ones she had in the store, the ones I was looking at. They were a bit dull, but that was to be expected from true sapphires, she said. The others were fake, she re-emphasized, and I should not be fooled so easily. I have never bought sapphires before, so I didn't know if what she was telling me was truth.
I looked for less expensive sapphire sets, as the price for the set I was given was 150,000 baht. However, I was told that today there was a discount of 20%, making the total price 120,000 baht. There was also no government tax, so this was the best price they will do. However, they wanted full payment in cash. When I told them that I never carry that kind of cash, they asked how much I did have in my wallet. I pulled out my wallet and showed them that I had only $400. However, they noticed my family picture and my credit cards. The sales lady complimented me on my wife and kids, and told me how my wife would love this special surprise. In fact, almost all of the sales girls in the shop came over to look at my family picture, and they all chimed in that it was the best deal I could make. (In the back of my mind, I was being swayed to buy the complete set for my wife, since I had left the US before Mother's Day, leaving her behind with our two young kids). The fact was, I did not have that kind of cash with me. They called the sales manager over and he proposed a deal for me.
The sales manager was an older Thai gentleman around 55+ years. He took kindly to my situation, telling me that he understands how much this gift would mean to my wife. He told me that there was a bank close by, and that he would send a security person to accompany me to the bank to withdraw 60,000 baht, charging it against my credit card in the form of a cash advance. The remaining 60,000 baht would be charged normally to my credit card. The bank, apparently, was in full support of their operations, as this business was government approved. He pointed me to a corner of the room where a TAT official was sitting in the TAT booth. He called one of the sales girls over. She brought me some water to drink, and after a few more indecisive minutes, I decided to go ahead with the purchase. The security person turned out to be one of the sales girls. She and I got into the tuk tuk and the driver took us to the nearby bank. It was only about 2 city blocks away. At the bank, I was able to easily withdraw 60,000 baht with simply my credit card and passport.
Back at PIYAMANEE, I handed the 60,000 baht to the sales manager, who proceeded to close the sale. At the end of the sale, the general manager of the store came over to congratulate me on a wise purchase. I was given an official looking Certificate of Guarantee. He warned me that there are good people in Bangkok, and bad people in Bangkok. He told me to guard the sapphire set very carefully. In fact, he said, he would like to send along one of the sales girls to accompany me for the duration of the day, just to keep me safe. He told me to go out and dismiss the tuk tuk driver, as he should not be trusted. I obliged, went outside and paid the tuk tuk driver 200 baht (the original deal we had was 40 baht, but I felt bad for the guy as he had driven me around for about 4 hours). When I went back inside, the manager restated that he would like to send me on an all expense paid tour of the Thai Village, with 500 baht to spend, and with one of the sales girls to keep me safe. I declined the offer and told him that I would prefer to go back to my hotel, rest up, and get ready for my 6am flight the next day. Since it was about 2pm, he told me that he would call me a taxi to take me back to the hotel, and if I want, he could send one of the girls over to pick me up at 3pm to go to the Thai Village. I thanked him for the taxi, but respectfully declined the tour. He sent a girl out to flag a taxi for me, and I left.
Here is a picture of my 'official' Certificate of Guarantee.
When I went back to the Royal Orchid Sheraton hotel, I immediately sent an email to Brad to tell him that I made a $3100+ purchase (120,000 baht is around $3150) and that we should talk back in the US. I wanted to thank him. I locked the jewelry set in my hotel safe, went downstairs to grab some food and relax on the river. I felt good about the purchase, thinking that my wife would be very happy once she sees the great deal I got for these sapphires.
My flight back to the US left at 6am local time on May 13. I didn't get a chance to log in to check email again until I had landed in the US. My final flight to JFK landed on May 13 at 3:10pm. I declared on my entry form that I purchased some jewels. The customs official pulled me aside, and after checking out the jewels, forced me to pay $180 in taxes. He told me that any jewelry from Thailand is hit with a 6% tax. I was not happy, but there was nothing I could do. So I paid the tax.
When I arrived home, I showed my wife the gift set. She was happy, but she told me that the sapphires didn't look right. I told her it was the best quality from Thailand, but that we will have a quick check of its real value the next day.
On Saturday (May 14), I logged into Bailey Banks & Biddle to do a quick comparison check for sapphires.
Even on the computer screen, the pictures of the stones shown by Bailey Banks & Biddle far outshone the stones I bought from Thailand. A lump formed in my throat when I noticed that the email I sent to Brad the day before was returned with an invalid user ID. In other words, the email server returned the email I sent to Brad, stating that the user does not exist. I immediately sent another email to Brad, and followed up with one to Steve. I also went onto Google to search for PIYAMANEE. My blood turned cold when the search came up with your 2Bangkok.com site, warning tourists of the gem scam.
Later that day, my wife and I went to a jewelry store in Philadelphia where we had purchased previous items in the past (engagement ring, anniversary items, etc), and asked the owner to give us an estimate of the complete set. She valued the entire set at no more than $700, that's less than ¼ of the price I paid. The reason, she said, was that these sapphires are commercial grade, i.e. they are of poor quality. The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, came on my computer screen when I arrived back home from Philadelphia on Saturday night. Both emails I had sent to Brad and Steve bounced, as those email addresses were invalid.
I feel like a complete fool. I was manipulated. The person whom I trusted the most was the American imposter named Brad. I didn't purchase these sapphires to turn around and make a profit. I honestly thought I was getting a good deal. I don't fit the profile of the rich tourist who wants to make a quick buck, and who "deserves whatever he gets". I purchased these items for my wife. I had wanted to give her something special for our 8th wedding anniversary. I wanted to have something that reminds me warmly of Thailand. Instead of remembering the sweetness of the Thai culture and the friendliness of the people, I now have a bitter bile taste of the corruption and manipulation that seems to be running rampant in this country. I no longer feel the urge to one day go back and partake in the many beautiful offerings that Bangkok has. The only good news is that, unless we can somehow return these commercial grade sapphires and get back our full refund, my wife will continue to keep these items as gifts from her loving husband who didn't know any better.
The PIYAMANEE address and contact information is
468-470 Bamroonmuang Rd
Bangkok, 10100 Thailand
Tel 0-2621-6341, 0-2621-6342
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