I Got Abducted in Bangkok
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During a recent trip to Thailand, I discovered that in Bangkok, and most of the country, scooters/motorbikes are the fastest and cheapest way to get around. And thanks to South East Asia’s version of Uber, an app called Grab offering a motorbike option, it’s a convenient mode of transportation even if you’re not down to drive yourself through frenetic Bangkok traffic. With Grab, in select cities, you can chose to be a passenger on the back of a sweaty Thai man’s scooter to save a few baht and get to your destination a little bit quicker.
Naturally, as a backpacker, this was the option I chose every time.
My first Saturday in Bangkok, I took one up to the Chatuchak weekend market north of the central city. The driver was wonderfully polite—I think he picked up that I was a nervous passenger, and started driving a little slower and safer a few minutes into the ride.
After the market, I called another to head back to my hostel. I noticed that this time, the driver’s photo on the app was taken at the strangest angle. Kind of this weird bottom-up composition, with a lot of focus on his chin area. So needless to say, when he arrived, and gestured to me, I wasn’t immediately sure it was him. The language barrier had proven to be pretty gnarly with cab/taxi/motorbike drivers so far, so I curtly asked, “For Samantha?” and flashed him the app. He glanced at it, waited a beat, seeming to read it, and nodded. He then reached to the side of the scooter, letting loose a second helmet. I popped it on, and casually mounted the back of the scooter.
So far, I was making it a point on each ride to scoot back on the seat of the motorbike. Y’know, leaving a little room for the holy spirit. But this driver immediately also scooted back, and into my groin, as he started to drive. I definitely noticed it, and I wasn’t thrilled, but I let it go.
Pretty early into the ride, he started driving extremely erratically, going way over the speed limit, weaving between cars haphazardly, and generally scaring the shit out of me. He was not stopping at red lights, either running them, or taking dangerous turns, joining oncoming traffic. I kept trying to calm myself down, thinking, “He lives here, he does this all the time, he knows what he’s doing.” But in reality, I was actually about to shit my pants. It’s not easy for someone to stand out as an unsafe driver in Bangkok, but he managed the make clear he was reigning king of crap drivers.
At one point, he reached behind with one hand, patting my leg. I assumed he could tell I was scared. But then he started to squeeze and caress my leg. I snapped his hand away, and put it back front, saying loudly, “I’m fine. Thanks.” By now, I was pretty over this scooter ride, and just kept thinking, “Stay calm, get back to the hostel, and report it. Just make it there.” At this point, I’m also deciding that naming this app “Grab” was a little too on the nose.
Shortly after that, he again reached backwards, this time aggressively feeling me up, all while still driving (if you can call it that) at breakneck speeds. I kept moving his hand away, but he reached back once more, attempting to undo my shorts. Again I moved his hand. He then switched hands and started grabbing at mine, attempting to move my hand below his belt. As I kept pulling away, I suddenly became aware of what was going on. I noticed that he didn’t have his phone out. No app, no GPS. I started to realize we’d been going a completely different direction than I came, and I had no idea where we were headed. And it’s then that I realized, I had to get away.
He still hadn’t stopped or slowed down once, so I started trying to determine the top speed I could jump off this scooter without injuring myself too badly to get away safely. As I’m trying to figure this out, the scooter abruptly slowed. We’d run a red light, and taken a turn, only to end up in a traffic jam of trucks. As the scooter started to go again, attempting to weave between them, I took a deep breath, and jumped off. The driver stopped, and turned to face me, as I tossed the helmet at him, stammered, “I’m good from here, thanks!” and ran away. As I crossed the road, a car came gunning up, nearly hitting me. Instinctively, and idiotically, I threw my hand up at the car, and shouted, “STOP.” before continuing away. Because clearly a high speed motor vehicle is no match for my tiny hands making a stop signal.
Once I got away, I became convinced this was just some creepy idiot using the app to molest girls, and didn’t give a shit if people reported him. But still, after walking for 30 minutes service-less, and eventually finding someone to give me wifi to call a new cab home, I reported it both in the ride and the customer service tab of the app. I told them how this was way out of line, and that the driver should be removed and reported to the police. I almost immediately received a curt, pre-written response, apologizing that it’d happened, saying they’d investigate and get back to me.
Four days later, I got a call from the app’s customer service rep. The lady apologized again, and started to explain what happened. She said, “The driver assigned to pick you up accidentally picked up another passenger instead. A male. We have all the data showing where and when he was dropped off.” So I asked, “Did I get his driver then?” The woman hesitated, and then replied, “No ma’am. That driver connected with a new passenger.”
My heart started to sink. She asked if my driver was wearing a vest, explaining that there is another scooter taxi service in Bangkok, but that they wear red vests. I told her he wasn’t wearing one. She asked me a few more questions, about what he looked like, what kind of scooter he was driving, where we were headed, and where I jumped off. I told her the details, to which she replied hesitantly, explaining this was now out of their jurisdiction, but that it sounds like the driver was headed towards the Bangkok slums, home to a major port, and a place used heavily by human traffickers.
She again apologized, reminded me there’s nothing more they can specifically do, but encouraged me to report it to the police. I hung up, feeling as though the ground had fallen out beneath me.
At this point, I still had half my trip left. Things had taken a turn for the better, and I’d really been enjoying Northern Thailand. I still had more to see, and then would be off to the islands for more adventure before catching my flight home.
I decided to stay focused on enjoying the trip, letting the experiences distract me from internal panic and trauma. I went into a survival mode of sorts, swallowing my fears and feelings about what had happened, deciding to process it all once I was safe and sound at home.
And generally, it worked. But the minute the plane touched down in LAX, I came completely undone, crying tears of relief to be home. To be safe. And then, the horrors of what could’ve been and almost was started to creep in.
It took me a solid week of panic attacks and nightmares to process what happened, and what could’ve happened. It also took going over and over it in my head, and with friends and loved ones. To everyone that acted as a sounding board and support system, I’m so grateful for you. You people are my rocks. And an extra special thank you to those that put up with my wildly inappropriate jokes about it all. Processing with humor keeps me sane.
I’m writing this and sharing it to help spread awareness about how easily this can happen, and possibly to contribute to finding patterns in where/when/how this happens. I can be obsessive about things, so naturally, I’ve delved deep into researching human trafficking. And friends, it’s horrifying. While it’s terrifying to think what I could’ve ended up in, it’s inciting me to be a voice in trying to change things for women in the future.
Get out there, and get educated on the realities of human trafficking.
Yes, even in 2018.
To the women reading this:
Be obsessively aware of your surroundings at all times, especially if you’re alone. Never ask, “Uber for _____?” Instead, a friend has taught me to always ask, “Who are you here for?” Triple check photos, license plates, car info, etc.
And maybe, think twice before backpacking alone. Consider where you’re going. Consider the issues that particular place has with human trafficking, with harm against women, even with overall attitudes towards women. I can say up until now, I’ve felt pretty safe in my travels as a solo female. And I’d feel confident doing it again in other destinations. But I would not feel comfortable recommending to any solo female traveler to visit Thailand on her own. Things like this can happen anywhere, including back here in the states, which is why the above tips are universal regardless of where you are. But still think carefully, and do your research on your destination of choice. Remember that articles about “how everything was fine and safe” don’t mean everything is always going to be fine and safe. Remember that everything is always okay, until it isn’t. And overall, just be careful.
I’m so thankful to be sitting here writing this, and that this is as far as my story goes. There are people dealing with far worse every day. Please consider donating to one of the charities below, and be a voice of change by raising awareness around the modern realities of human trafficking.
National Human Trafficking Hotline
1 (888) 373–7888
SMS: 233733 (Text “HELP” or “INFO”)
Stats on human trafficking: Link
Thanks for reading. Stay safe out there friends.