Vagabond Tales: Shady Back-Room Deals With Questionable Thai Gangsters

There is a Nikon camera lens on the ocean floor between the Thai islands of Phuket and Koh Phi Phi.

No, I didn’t see it while scuba diving with leopard sharks in the warm waters of the Andaman Sea (I swear they sneak right up on you). I know it’s there because I put it there – with my foot.

Despite my knack for getting off the beaten path, the ferry ride from Phuket to Koh Phi Phi is not one of those moments. In fact, it’s about one of the most heavily trafficked tourist routes in all of Thailand. When boarding the overcrowded ferry between Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, it seems as if every alcohol loving, sex-searching, half-dreadlocked backpacker from Melbourne to Montreal is crammed on board right next to you.

For those not familiar with the Thai islands, if you’re looking for isolation and relaxation, go to an island like Koh Mak. If you find yourself heading for Koh Phi Phi, there’s a good chance you’re looking to get weird.

Crammed onto the small ferry with about 150 other backpackers, my wife and I were squeezed over to the port side of the vessel where we were forced to sit on the outside of the boat with our legs dangling over the side – questionable seating at best, yet strangely romantic.

Leaving the resort-lined shores of Phuket behind, we marveled as Thai long-tail boats darted through the turquoise waters. A little over halfway into the two-hour crossing, the lush, limestone formations, which provide the backdrop of Koh Phi Phi, began to become visible on the tropical horizon.

“Hand me the wide-angle lens,” chimed my wife, the ever-talented photographer of us two. “I want to get some shots as we come around the corner of the island.”Reaching for the camera bag, which houses our various lenses, I handed my wife the wide-angle and watched as she removed the 18-55mm lens and placed it in her lap. Then, in a moment of horror, I watched as that same lens decided to roll down her legs and fresh off the side of the vessel.

Instead of opting to reach down with my hand to try and catch the lens, I opted instead to try and trap it against the side of the boat with my bare foot. All I accomplished, however, was managing to catch the lens with the top of my foot and punt it 25 feet into the rolling blue water below.

Goodnight, sweet prince. May you rest peacefully in your watery grave.

For the next two weeks we were forced to take photos of the southern Thai islands with either an ultra-wide angle lens or a 200mm zoom, because as you might imagine, there aren’t many places selling Nikon lenses in the Thai islands. If we wanted to take photos, we could still do so, but only from about a half mile away.

“Great photo. Stay right there. I’m just going to go and perch myself in that tree across the ravine. Be back in 45.” That sort of thing. Since we still had two months left on the trip, which would take us across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, this camera situation simply wasn’t going to do.

This is why we were so enthralled to find a cheap lens advertised online at an obscure camera store up in Bangkok. We would be passing through Bangkok in a few weeks, and the owner, Alak, had actually responded to our email and said that he had the exact lens that we needed. Furthermore, since it was a part of a floor set, he could offer it to us at a steep discount.

Under the table, if you will.

Which is how we ended up in an odd corner of Chinatown in a remote corner of Bangkok searching for a hole-in-the-wall camera shop and a mysterious Thai man named Alak. After about four failed attempts at asking for directions we sauntered sweaty and starving into a camera store that sold everything from tripods to lens cleaners to fancy looking surveillance systems.

From the look of things, if there was anywhere this deal was going to go down, it was here.

Eying the shifty man behind the counter, and not knowing whether to verbally strike with Thai or Mandarin, I opted for the former.

Sa-wa-tee-kraup,” I offered, completely butchering the language in the process, “Ummm… Alak? Nikon? Email? Kyle?” Apparently, in addition to my poor Thai, I had also managed to butcher my own language.

A tense three seconds of silence passed in which the thinly bearded gentleman appeared to stare into my soul. I immediately felt uncomfortable, which is strange, because I was only in a camera shop.

Finally, he spoke.

“You come with me,” he hastily barked in English as we walked towards the back of the store. “You see Alak.”

Peeling back a blanket, which covered a clandestine exit from the shop, we followed the clerk into a backroom with chicken wire over the windows and shelves filled with various curios.

There was something weird about this, but I didn’t know why. All I knew was I was in the back room of a shady store in Bangkok in a neighborhood where I had the funny feeling that laws were merely guidelines.

Finally, Alak entered. He was tall, dark haired and had an intimidating presence about him. Another smaller man accompanied him in the backroom. There were now three of them to the two of us. Why did this feel so strange?

“Hi, Alak,” I nervously stammered. “I’m Kyle, we had emailed about a Nikon lens that you could get us for a good price. A special price.”

Without saying anything Alak turned around and rifled through the shelves. In the distance I could hear a siren. Looking to my left, a child had silently materialized in the blanket-covered entryway. He looked at us but made no noise. I smiled. He stared.

Eventually Alak placed a brown cardboard box on the table and mimicked for me to remove the lens. I did, and it was the exact one we wanted. I checked the size, I checked the glass for scratches, and I wondered why he was selling it for so cheap.

“You like?” Alak finally sneered, the lone hair on his chin quivering from the breeze coming through the far window.

“I want to make sure it works,” I replied. Then, to my wife, “hand me the bag.”

Reaching for our camera bag – which is specially designed to look just like a backpack – I unzipped the casing and removed our Nikon camera body. Breathing deeply, one of Alak’s cronies loudly cracked his knuckles.

Stroking the lens and attaching it to the camera body, I listened as it clicked into place without a hitch.

I suddenly knew why I felt so weird. This had all the makings of a backroom arms deal going down in a misty, backroom den in the Orient. I played the part of the undercover CIA operative and Alak the unsuspecting dealer who used his camera store in Chinatown as a front.

The stock lens was now my silencer, the camera body my automatic weapon. I suddenly felt the urge to have a briefcase full of money and a drinking problem. It was all too surreal.

“3,000 baht,” Alak suddenly declared. It was a price higher than what we’d discussed.

“That’s not the price we agreed upon, Alak. You said you could get this to us for 2,000. Remember, special price.”

Squinting his eyes and conversing with his cronies, Alak returned with his counter offer of 2,400. What he didn’t know was that he had us in his hands. This was the cheapest – and only – lens that we could find in all of Thailand at this price.

“2,250 or we leave right now.” This operative was playing hardball.

Exchanging cash in the backroom we pocketed our lens and got out of there as quickly as possible.

“Did that feel weird to you?” I asked my wife.

“No, why?”

“You didn’t feel like we were undercover operatives during the Cold War purchasing a black market silencer that was recently smuggled out of Iran?”

I was met only with a blank and curious stare. “It was a camera store with a sweet little old man,” she finally reasoned. “You’re weird.”

Hailing a pedicab in a narrow alleyway beneath a sky of swinging red lanterns, I couldn’t shake the feeling we’d just mingled with shady Thai gangsters. Sliding into a two-seated tuk-tuk, we honked our way out of Chinatown and into the pulsing Thai night.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.