Riding with the Cops in Bangkok

by Will Wiriawan

First posted in World Wide Will, the following is a first-hand account of how other’s crime of opportunity became one’s thrilling adventure.

Bangkok, Thailand, February 6, 2012, circa 5:40 AM.

As the night train cuts into the morning light, a familiar silhouette came to life. Motor engine whispers through the window while some passengers were yawning as they awake from the twelve-hour ride from Vientiane.

I have been tracing the Mekong River and its surrounding places in the last five weeks. It was a majestic journey, much more than my budget or any given time could spare. Like a child on a pony ride, I can’t help but put a big smile thinking back about where the journey has taken me. Little did I know that my biggest adventure is yet to come.

Approaching the end of my trips, I’ve traded the Myanmar-by-land grand plan for a humbler southbound journey to Thailand by train. Joel, having been at the North of Laos crossing from Hanoi, have got himself an epic adventure too. So both of us decided to meet in Luang Prabang, and come down to Vientiane together to keep the excitement going. We then took Lao’s famous Highway 13 and bought ourselves a one way ticket to Bangkok.

What we hoped was a one-hour walk turned into a three-hour hike from the Railway station east of the Chao Phraya River. “It was a much further walk than I anticipated” said Joel. I chimed in my agreement with the little talking energy that I have left from the urban disturbance that keeps draining my battery. “Yupe, but it was all worth it.”

When we arrived at the hostel the clock hands showed a quarter past nine in the morning, much earlier than the hostel’s allowed check-in time. We left our bags at the locker after registration and head straight out.

My Name is Sheikh

“Hey how is it going?”

“Fine, thank you,” the man answered after an awkward pause as I entered my room later that afternoon. Gail, my host, has tagged my lower bunk window-side bed as requested. On the left, a couple of unpacked bags suggests occupancy to both the lower and upper bunk. Another set of beds were placed next to it near the door, and the man that I have just said hello to were talking on the phone in his native language.

Sheikh — as the man told me when we shook hands — is from Pakistan, the first I have met in my travels. He was wearing a well-manicured beard on his exhausted face, and it was obvious that the man had just came in too. As friendly as I want to be, I didn’t want to intrude a man’s desire to rest so after we both came back from the wash room outside, I left silently and joined Joel downstairs for dinner.

We screened an 11:15 AM showing of Moneyball, and had ice-cream earlier that day, on the way back, we spotted a decent looking Indian joint only to go to the corner Pad Thai stall. We gutted three servings of vegetarian Pad Thai for two, and with a heavy heart, we parted our ways, Joel, back to the railway station to catch a 10:30 PM soft-seater to Kuala Lumpur, me, to bed.

Bangkok is incredibly hot, especially around the area where my hostel is located. One of the city’s prime commercial district, the buildings have outgrown the vegetation, while all those cements and tarmac had turned the once-green area into a jungle of heat. It was unbearable.

Hours passed as the heat-streaked traffic went by, few people were walking despite the busy hour, those who did walk do so with an umbrella while I silently watched with an iPad on my hand when a new email arrived:

Subject: To Buy: IKEA Stuffs.

Message: “Are you in Bangkok? Don’t forget to buy the stuffs, here’s the list in case you forgot.”

It was from my brother, Charles. There goes my easy-hour, I thought. It took me a considerable amount of time to get myself up and about, even more effort to push myself out. I emptied my bag and put everything inside the locker in the room, but realizing it has been months since the last successful backup, I conveniently left my iPad charged and put some effort hiding it in plain sight: under the pillow covered by the blanket.

After lunch and about 35 km of commute, I came back as the sun was setting. I found the room empty when I arrived and as I sat at the bed and took a glimpse at the edge of the mattress where the power brick and the white cable was resting with the blanket casually covering it. But when I reached out my hand, despite the cable, the power brick and the properly laid blanket, the iPad was gone.

Bangkok, We Have a Problem

Trying to remain calm, I promptly fired up Find My iPhone. Having read many reports, my geekiness prepared me for such situation. Not only I have set it up on every Apple devices that I have, I occasionally run them on one another to understand the capability and limitations as well as to ensure each scenario is properly functioning.

The iPad was spotted almost immediately on the map. The first thing I did was to send a remote lock, eyeing the location, I gather my things and head down to the front desk to report the incident.

“Gail, we have a problem. My iPad is gone.” I told the girl at the desk. I have met her earlier in the morning and she happened to be the one of the co-owners of the new hostel. Obviously unfamiliar about the location, I have sent another message and fired the remote alarm hoping that it was still in the vicinity. But as I showed Gail the map, I realized I have made a big mistake.

“It’s not far, about fifteen minutes from here.” She answered swiftly while looking at the satellite image from the app. The iPad has left the building. I sent another message, this time with a phone number and wishfully thinking that someone will change their mind and pick up the phone and call me back, but unlike the remote lock and the first message and alarm I have successfully sent, it had zero response this time. Somebody has deactivated the iPad.

The room was empty when I entered, but there were bags scattered on the floor so I naively ruled out the possibility of a theft, that was the reason why I fired the alarm, hoping that someone was just ‘borrowing’ it.

A turn of event came when Gail confirmed that there were two guests checked out that afternoon. As she dug out her file from the cabinet, one of the guest who left was the Pakistani from my room, Sheikh.

By then, I have all sorts of scenarios being pictured in my head. How he was impossibly shallow to do this to a fellow traveler, how naive I was to think that no one would want to steal an old iPad, or how It could have been other guests, or the crew from the hostel. Knowing that this would be a long night, I began to feel the thrill.

I sent a message to a friend whom I supposed to meet for dinner that night, and with Gail’s apparent desire to help, I decided to fight back.

“Can you call the police?” I asked Gail.

She immediately picked up the phone and e phonebook and I went across the street to buy some credits for my local SIM card as she made the call. When I return less than ten minutes later, a police officer was already at the desk talking to Gail. After showing him the stationery satellite imagery from my iPhone, and have him convinced that it’s GPS-accurate, he spoke to his team via the radio and additional two officers came to the premise ten minutes later.

It was almost seven, nearly two hours since the iPad was gone, and I’m struggling to keep my patience as the app fails to locate the iPad to its current location. It did not moved.

Gail’s brother, Kong, had shown up at Gail’s request to accompany me and become my translator for the evening. This is really happening, I silently said, again. Having read many publicized reports about devices being found with Apple’s clever technological feature, I too, wish to share the glory. For a brief moment, I saw myself being CSI Horatio Caine driving hi-speed in the city trying to catch the bad guy and brought him to justice.

As I came back to reality, Kong finally said “Let’s go. We are going to ride with the officers and track him down.” No freaking way! I thought to myself. Is this a freaking dream or what?

We didn’t ride in pimped-up Humvees but police motorbikes, the officers were shadeless, and they wear a coffee-colored uniform, Kong and I, sat at the back of two officer’s motorcycles without any head protection. I held my iPhone on my left and we rode slowly in Bangkok’s traffic. Two other officers were at our front and back simultaneously, no siren was alarmed, but the red gleamy beacon was flooding the street around us. My heart started to beat faster, and as we began to slow down, I checked the map and signaled the entourage to stop. Less than ten minutes since we left our hostel, we arrived at the hideout.

The Alley Between the Buildings

Soi Nana Tai is small street at the edge of Thanon Sukhumvit. Known for its bars and nightclubs, the area looks like a little Khaosan Road sans the young backpackers. Glamourous ladies sat alongside the pubs and bars along the street. Every ten meters or so, lies a couple alleys with bright signs of little hotels and smaller pubs, on one side, a bigger establishment bearing the name Rajak Hotel dominate the area with its multistory building and a large parking lot, where two police trucks have rendezvoused with our four-motorbike entourage as we stop for a location match.

“We lost the signal.” Kong said in Thai after I told him about the failed subsequent attempts to remotely produce an alarm sound on the iPad. Across the parking lot, a small, dark alley was drawing my attention. The digital compass on my iPhone couldn’t cope with the electromagnetic interference, powered by instinct and some common sense, I hustled my way across the street with the officers following behind. The uniforms seem to have brought some cautionary behavior around the premises, girls were fixing their tight mini skirts and lowering down their voice as the officers walked past them, foreigners reduced their laughter to mere giggles, but my heart were beating fast in excitement.

“We are here. This is the alley.” I said to Kong as I observed the dark alley.

On the left, at the beginning of the alley is a music-less two-story pub where a couple of locals were drinking, behind it were three establishments that seems to house a dozen or so windowless rooms for rent, and a massage parlor.

We checked the first hotel at the end of the alley. Using the photocopy of the suspect’s passport we brought earlier, Kong and the officers went inside to check if any of the names showed on the registration. After the second, and the third hostels all brought zero result, I began to loose faith and sighed a breath of defeat.

“I think the iPad ran out of battery, or he may have smashed it.” Almost as I finished that sentence, I noticed there were two more hotels on the opposite side. I checked the map again, and the location clearly pinpoints the second building on the left side. I also realized that my iPad isn’t 3G/GPRS equipped, there’s no reason not to check the otherwise. So I suggested that we also check the two hotels on the opposite side. The first one was a no show too. A curious drinker nearby were kind enough to suggest us to go and walk every floors of the buildings and try to listen the beeping iPad.

With the clock showing twenty minute past eight, I brought myself together and tried hard to think of a solution — one final try — before we call it a day. “Let’s try this one, Kong” I was pointing to the last hotel on our right — opposite of the suggested location by Find my iPhone app.

Behind the reception desk was a naturally tanned lady wearing a gentle smile. Unlike the ladies outside, she was not wearing make up or a mini skirt. Instead, she wore a body-sized striped polo shirt and a kakhi-colored pants. Along with her plain outlook, she also carries a welcoming mood of courage, humor and wisdom that we all lacked that night.

She checked three — not one, like the other four receptionists — registration books. And she folded the passport copy slightly above the name field and combed through one page long of names, one at a time.

And there it is. Muhammad Tayyab. My limited Thai did not prohibit me from guessing her unmistakable look, but I needed to see with my own eyes. It was a perfect match. She then took a glimpse at the key compartment and said in a fluent English “Yes, but he not here.” Kong then went to the officers, who now appear more convinced that me and my iPhone mean business, and tell them the news. After a lengthy discussion with their radios and cellphones, three more officers came to the premise. Kong enlightened me that the first three officers belong to another district and do not have jurisdiction here, the other three are from a nearby precinct responsible for the area.

“Oh my God, Kong. He is really here”. Those were the exact words I said to Kong after the reception showed us the registration. I drifted back to the beginning where I pictured Horatio Caine and how the success stories of recovered stolen iPhones and iPads that have inspired tonight’s was actually becoming a real story of my own. It’s really happening, I said silently to myself.

The Walk-In Suspect

Three officers, Kong and I, were having a conversation with the reception. She maintained a degree of calmness beyond her years. Despite the fact that she was the only female in the room, talking to strangers — some were armed uniforms — she was playful yet determined to stand her ground as the gatekeeper. I was later told by Kong that they were discussing on how to play it out without breaking the law, and the law requires that only officers within the jurisdiction can act, and while they wait for the district’s officers to come, they were trying to confirm if the object in question was actually at the scene.

After a few minutes of conversation, she agreed to be our eyes. She, as the gatekeeper to the hotel, is allowed to sweep the rooms for security reasons, and given the situation she agreed to help us check if the iPad is indeed in the room. With her leading us, me and Kong walked with her to the second floor where his room was rented, she asked us to wait by the stairway and she proceeded to the room by herself. Ten seconds later she came out.

“Is it black? Has apple logo?” Kong translated her question for me.

“Yes,” I said in excitement, confirming my iPad encased in Apple’s Original iPad Case. Before I could add any further she gestured the two of us to join the officers downstairs to wait.

What was a twenty minute window felt like two hours. At approximately 8:20 PM, a lean gentleman approached the reception desk where we spoke to the girl.

“Can I have the key please, two-one-one?” asked the black-haired man with a handsome mustache.

Briefly startled, she then answered “We no have two-one-one, your room two-one-zero.” Looking confused, she nodded a gesture to indicate that this is the guy.

“No? Okay, I wait my friend” he answered and began to calmly walk back to the main street.

“Is that him?” asked Kong.

“I’m not sure man. He had a beard when I saw him, and it was dark, and I was a little exhausted.”

“You’re not sure?” he asked again, “Did you see him or not?”

“Yes, but I can’t be sure. He told me his name was Sheikh, but he had a beard. But we’re not going to let him walk away, right? At least let the officer do an ID check, no?” I said to Kong.

The officers chased him, and brought him back to the hotel where they ask him to sit and ask him questions.

“Baurat. AFD. Indian market,” he answered when Kong asked him whether he is staying.

“I call my friend nah, he stay here” he continues when he was asked for the second time.

“My name is Sunny, I from India”

Asked for multiple times to show an ID of some sort, he always responded with the same answer, again and again. The word ‘Baurat,’ ‘AFD,’ ‘India,’ ‘New Delhi’ were his vocabulary for the idiotized Inglish in the next two hours. Kong brought in the housekeeper from our hostel to help ID the guy. She confirmed without hesitation that he is Tayyab. Kong also requested that the girl who checked Tayyab in be brought in to ID him. She too confirmed that he is the guy in question.

With Muhammad Tayyab in custody, we finally went to the room for the first time where I immediately saw my iPad lying on the bed.

Noticing my SLR on my shoulder, the officer asked me to take photos. I have taken it out of the bag shortly after we arrive at the alley, and took a couple of shots candidly not to disrupt protocol, and have since decided not to be a shooter but a victim of petty crime.

“I can take photos? Are you sure?”

“Yes, for evidence” Kong said translating the officer. “Please take pictures.”

I’m back. I’m now a victim who happens to be a shooter with a perfect camera in his hand with the green light to shoot away. And with the stolen iPad back in sight, I was dancing with joy and excitement beneath the tired skin and bone. But the night was early, and I can only take so many photos in the room. And he was not giving up.

It was Sunny who responded calmly to the armed officers questioning him. Sunny speaks little little english. Sunny has a shop selling garment in an Indian Market called ‘Baurat’. Sunny is from New Delhi, and Muhammad Jusuf is Sunny’s friend who were renting the room.

At this point, me and Kong and the first officer were the only one in the room. I had no idea what was going on and I was loosing my patience.

“What is your friend’s name?”


“What is your friend’s name?”

“Huh? Me english no good”

“You heard me. What. Is. Your. Friend’s. Name?” I repeated the question with a slightly raised voice.

“Muhammad Jusuf”

“Where are you from?”

“New Delhi, I’m from New Delhi. I’m Indian”

“Which part of India, is New Delhi in?”

“Sorry?” he answered leaning forward after he blinked his eyes.

You can say that I may have watched too many movies, but any adult would call a bullshit, especially when it is a bad lie told with a dumbed-down me-english-no-good game.

“You heard me, please don’t make me repeat a simple question”

“Where is New Delhi in India?”

“This side” he answered with a gesture with his right hand suggesting the West.

“New Delhi is in the North, my friend. Any Indian would know without hesitation that New Delhi is in the North.”

This is me at my worst since the entire debacle. I was disappointed for being treated as a fool when I offer him my sincerity. I was disgusted for being robbed when I shook his hand. But mostly, I was angry for letting my self ignore my gut and give him my blunt trust despite what my instinct told me when I first entered the room and saw that suspicious eyes.

None of that matters at that moment. I have got to let the authority take over. Thanks to Kong, whom have noticed my anger and told me that speaking to him is a waste of time. We stayed for another half hour in the room before two other officers came. One of them looked like authority, and he turned out to be the head of the precinct.

“Where is your passport?” he asked with a nasty look.

“You think we are stupid? You think me, him and him are stupid?” he yelled while he point his fingers at the first officer, Kong and my self.

“You are in Thailand! We are not stupid, you know!”

It amazes me how he can remain unshaken despite all the lies, and the apparent deep shit that he’s in. I can only think that he’s a pro. That he’s done this countless times and I’m just his poor prey. But he began to shook when the officer asks him to pack his bag and wants him brought to the precinct for processing. The pivotal moment arrived when he was given the Rolex — Thai slang for handcuffs.

The unshaken Sunny became the poor and helpless Tayyab. And it wasn’t long till the officer finally initiated a search and found a Pakistan-issued International Driver’s License card bearing the same name as the passport copy. He finally gave up the playing-dumb act, and trying to plea to our good side and play the crying card.

From Sunny who speaks little little English he became Muhammad Tayyab with three small small daughters. Who have come to Thailand, with no money and wants to go home. Who claimed to have taken the iPad to buy his way back home. He started with a fake cry, but later real tears of fears were all over his face.

The housekeeper from the hostel squeezed my hand tightly as we walked down from the alley to the police truck across the street. No words were spoken, but she means victory.

At the Precinct

He walked in a free man and walked out with a pair of rolexes in his hands and two officers by his side. Kong and I rode to the station at the back seat of the police truck, with Tayyab between us. It was funny somehow but most of the officers came with motorbikes so none of them can guard Tayyab in custody for he might flee amidst the busy Bangkok traffic.

Joining en route was Thomas whom we picked up from our hostel. A clean-shaven fresh graduate who we shared the room with who was also a victim of Tayyab’s crime of opportunity. He had lost a cellphone.

With motorcades guarding the street and the beacon light flashing, we were the show of the night. We arrived at the Phayathai Police Station at approximately forty minute past ten, with Tayyab at the front guarded by two officers, we were led into what looked like a conference room with glass partitions and a big table and chairs surrounding at the middle of the room.

We spent nearly two hours in that conference room. Me and Kong were trying to figure out a legal outcome and how to make justice work without killing a soul. Tayyab, by contrast, was determined to maintain his cover. During the first hour or so, he tried, repeatedly, but failed to convince us that he is not at fault. The next hour after that, he turned everything upside down by confessing to everything. The rolexes, I’m told, are effective that way.

The first legal option would mean that a court date will be set about two months from that Sunday, in which I have to fly back to Bangkok and stand as witness in his trial, and Tayyab, along with the evidences that includes the iPad and the stolen cellphone, would have to spend the entire two months — and the time after the trial — under the watch of the Royal Thai Police. A time consuming and a legally complex procedure that we were reluctant to go through.

The other legal option is to simply call it a day, with a few procedural obligation.

Except for his original passport, Tayyab has been identified by three witnesses that placed him (a) in my room at the hostel we’re both staying, (b) at the timeframe when the iPad has conveniently disappear and (c) at the new hotel as the occupant of room 210 where the iPad was found lying. So that put him as a singular suspect.

Lastly, was his trace of using the iPad. He made attempt to download and install Yahoo Messenger (for Windows) via the Safari browser. The Youtube app’s history shows a dozen or more viewing of Indian pop musics, clips, and educational clip about sex, and he had logged in to his Facebook account from the Facebook app that shows a photo of himself — with the beard — and the name “Tayyab”. Though he did a misconduct, no actual harm was done to either of us, so we eventually decided not to press charges. But stealing is still a crime, so part of the procedural obligation was that he needs to spend a night or two in jail to until his court date is set.

At the end of the day we all got our stuffs back, and more. My iPad was back to my possession in perfect condition. Tayyab had managed to bypass the alarm by turning it off — there must be a way to avoid this. Thomas got his Sony Ericsson back with another SIM card that did not belong to it. But above all, we’ve got ourselves some kick-ass evening. The night was long, and it was, finally, over.

With an additional crazy experience to tell. Thomas, Kong and I parted the officers and left the station at one thirty in the morning. The night whispers peace and the hunger calls so we had a quick stop for a late supper on the way back our hostel. For the first time since the night began, we got the chance to know each other more. Kong told us a little about Bangkok and more about his new hostel. Thomas has been quiet most of the time, but he had an internship with a dutch TV station and he told us about some crazy economics behind the world of soccer

What happened that night was far more real than any reality TV, more dimensions than any movies. But life is so twisted some times that we can barely fathom how we fit into it. Perhaps Gail is right when she said that “It’s just like in the movie” after the lies and the emptiness we face everyday the only excitement we can offer ourselves is reduced to just action scenes from the movie.

If any of tonight’s event can proof is that life is genuinely exciting. That challenges are nature’s riddles we must solve and events are indications as where one must go to move on. No matter how difficult choices are we have got to keep going, because eventually, that is the journey, not the destination that we all call, life.