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Thai Contraband

March 17, 2014


On my first post after returning from vacation I tried to entice you with these words: Had the massive outdoor statue of Buddha spoken he might have warned me that another Buddha would figure more prominently on this trip, forcing a confrontation between me, Mrs. Chatterbox and security in another country, prompting a situation that would send us to a guarded room for a bevy of questions designed to see if we were antiques smugglers, but I’m getting ahead of my story. The time has come (as Paul Harvey often said) for the rest of the story.


On our last night in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand we rode a tuk-tuk to the touristy downtown Night Market. Over the years we’ve cut back on souvenir buying due to a lack of space, but I do like to pick up an object or two to remind us of our travel experience. Since this trip placed us before many of the world’s great images of Buddha, I figured to commemorate our trip by purchasing one.


Thousands were for sale in the countless stalls of the Night Market. In one stall I found a fabulous figurine, but it was solid bronze and too heavy to transport home. I finally found a hollow metal replica of a Buddha head, lightweight and small enough to fit into our suitcase. I  negotiated the price down to $40. I was excited by our purchase and the next day carefully packed it in our luggage before heading to the Chiang Mai airport for our flight to Cambodia.


We queued up in the security line after dropping our bags off at the arrival counter where our luggage was x-rayed. Three uniformed men with guns approached and pulled us out of line. In questionable English we were ordered to follow them. Minutes later we found ourselves in a small windowless room, empty but for a long metal table on which our luggage had been placed. Flashing through my mind were images from the movie Midnight Express, where another Hayes was sent to prison in a foreign country. Three different security guards crowded into the room.


“Your luggage?” one of them asked in thickly accented English.


Our names were clearly printed on the tags. I nodded.


As I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants the security guard said, “You have a Buddha in luggage.”


I sighed with relief. That was what this was about? A Buddha statue?


“Yes, a souvenir of our stay in Thailand.”


“It illegal to remove Buddha from country.”


This struck me as insane and I almost laughed; half the shops in Chiang Mai sold images of the Buddha. If purchasing them was illegal, why did the authorities permit them to be sold on ever street corner? I wondered if they believed we were trying to smuggle an antique out of the country.


“This isn’t old,” I explained. “I bought it at the Night Market for forty bucks.”


Their grim expressions didn’t soften. I was handed a pamphlet which explained that sacred images were not allowed out of the country. I complained as loud as I could, pointing out that Buddha’s image was for sale on everything from t-shirts to earrings, but when a guard’s hand settled on the handle of his gun I made a sound like a ferret being crushed in a recliner before shutting up. I admit I awaited a demand for money thinking this might be a shakedown, but no such request was forthcoming. They confiscated our Buddha, and allowed us to board our plane.


I felt worse when hours later we arrived at our hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and a gift shop in the lobby displayed an exact duplicate of our confiscated Buddha for $300, many times what we’d paid for it in Thailand. A few days later I mentioned this incident to our guide Kong, who claimed to have never heard of such a thing. He took us to another shop that sold reasonably priced Buddhas. But we were returning to Thailand and I hesitated to pay for a second Buddha only to have that one also confiscated. The solution: we purchased our figurine in Cambodia and had it shipped home.


Mrs. Chatterbox claims to like the new Buddha much more than the confiscated one, but as far as I’m concerned I’ll always prefer the one that got away. It goes without saying that I’m glad I didn’t suffer Billy Hayes’ fate in Midnight Express. I suspect a chubby chatterbox wouldn’t do well in prison.




Note: The picture at the top of this post shows a Buddha much like the one confiscated. The above photo shows the Buddha purchased in Cambodia and shipped home.   


I think the full Buddha is better and you're right about prison. Happy St. Paddy's Day even if you are of Portuguese descent.
By: PT Dilloway on March 17, 2014
I might have been tempted to say, "Well, thank goodness you didn't find the hash then." Hmm, on second thought, that probably wouldn't have been a smart thing to say.
By: Al Penwasser on March 17, 2014
That is a real head scratcher. That would have scared the crap outta me.
By: Cranky on March 17, 2014
I would have been sweating mighty rivers. The imagery here is spot on~
By: Shelly on March 17, 2014
Sounds a little bit like "Argo." It's weird, but then, isn't this part of the reason you travel to foreign countries -- to experience the different customs, the different personalities, and the wonder of it all?
By: tom sightings on March 17, 2014
All seems a bit nonsensical - selling the Buddhas in multiple outlets and then not letting you take them home. I suspect corruption!
By: Bryan Jones on March 17, 2014
sounds like a terrible racket!
By: TexWisGirl on March 17, 2014
I think the mistake may have been just not having it shipped. I would never put something like that in my luggage, but thanks for the advice should I become a world traveler.
By: Michael Offutt on March 17, 2014
It sounds to me like there are certain kinds and types that cannot be removed from the country, and they play with you, hoping you won't know better since you don't know the language.
By: mimi on March 17, 2014
I'd always suspected you of nefarious things!!
By: fishducky on March 17, 2014
I think you were just unlucky. I've packed some very odd things and brought them back to the UK in my suitcase, and never had a problem. We've had our hand luggage searched many times but that's about it.
By: LL Cool Joe on March 17, 2014
My palms were sweating for a moment too. At least you only lost $40 and some sanity. The cost of a good story, I'd say. xoRobyn
By: Robyn Engel on March 17, 2014
Ah well, whatever the Buddha it mya cast calming thoughts over your home and quell any lingering doubts about having got the wrong one! :D
By: jenny on March 17, 2014
I remember Midnight Express. No, you would not want to be in prison -- not in any country. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on March 17, 2014
May you achieve enlightenment through daily meditation. Btw... I like the second figurine too.
By: Daniel LaFrance on March 17, 2014
Nervous moments! You'd think there would be much more information about not taking a Buddha out of the country.
By: red on March 17, 2014
I, too, had visions of "Midnight Express" appearing in my mind...and then, in the next sentence of your post, you mentioned the movie. Glad you did end up with a nice Buddha statue!
By: Pixel Peeper on March 17, 2014
Glad you're not a jailbird. I so envy your "sound like a ferret being crushed in a recliner."
By: Val on March 17, 2014
Yes, I like the Buddha you brought home much better. And I'm very glad I didn't receive an email from the Far East requesting help with bail money!
By: Catalyst/Bruce on March 17, 2014
Well this prompted me to Google and sure enough, it would be illegal for you to take it out of Thailand. I guess the vendors count on you not knowing that.
By: Hilary on March 17, 2014
What an oddity you walked into! I guess you can add foiled Buddha smuggler to your vita.
By: Tom Cochrun on March 17, 2014
That was quite a confrontation, Stephen! Better to allow the Buddha to get away that to invite trouble.
By: Michael Manning on March 17, 2014
That kind of logic is the sort of thing that deepens the furrow between my brows!! Pearl
By: Pearl on March 18, 2014
I doubt the Thailand Department of Tourism will be too happy to read this. Thankfully it wasn't a statue of Mo Hamid....they behead first and ask questions later.
By: Scott Park on March 18, 2014
curious ....and scary. I wonder how many Buddhas are "recycled" back into the Night Market?
By: Kathe W. on March 18, 2014
Such confusion for tourists. One would think that they would make it clear what can be taken out of the country. But I have traveled enough to know you can never know!
By: Tabor on March 18, 2014
That sounds terrifying. If that were me being questioned there would be one less bladder full of urine leaving the country. I think the Buddha in the picture is quite beautiful.
By: Cheryl P. on March 18, 2014
Seen the movie and you definately do not want that type of stay in a foreign land! Love the statue!
By: John on March 19, 2014
That does strike me as truly bizarre. But, I wouldn't have argued either.
By: Mitchell is Moving on March 19, 2014
I think I would have "I'm sorry" -ed myself into a prostrate position from which I may have then kissed their feet ... I really REALLY feel I would do poorly in prison :)
By: jenny_o on March 21, 2014

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