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Shopping while farang

How much ID does a foreigner need to redeem a discount?

It is the New Year. In the spirit of the holiday season, I notice the man behind me is holding a single bag of mangoes, so I say: "You go first."

I stand back to let him pass.

"Thank you," he says, and proceeds to the cashier.

I am standing in Tops Supermarket, clutching seven items in my little Tops basket, approaching a cashier who, though certainly not forlorn, is not reflecting the peace and joy as represented by the red Santa hat she is wearing.

And yet she is efficient and the gentleman I just allowed past me is paying quickly.

I notice that the woman standing next behind me is also holding a single item. It's washing powder.

Oh man, do I let her through, too? She throws me a friendly glance, which suggests she can read my mind, knowing what I am contemplating.

Alas, she is out of luck. I believe in selective benevolence; otherwise I'll be standing here forever as an endless stream of single-item shoppers pass me by. I ignore her, and start piling my items upon the conveyor belt.

"Do you have Tawan Card?" the cashier asks me. It took at least two years of visits to Tops to understand that cashiers were not, actually, asking me if I had a Tawan Card. Tawan in Thai is another word for "sun", and I assumed, for two long years, that Tops had a member card named after the sun.

How foolish I was to assume that; in fact they were asking if I had "The One Card", Central's all-encompassing, octopus-like card that one simply cannot escape from if one chooses to shop in that ubiquitous department store. "Sun Card" would sound so much better.

I held out for ages, dear reader. I have a hard enough time finding my car keys and ATM card every morning without having to worry about carrying membership cards. Luckily Tops doesn't require you to have a card; you just give them your phone number and the cashier types it in and, voila, you start earning points, whatever those are.

And that is what I do. I quickly say my phone number, though not too loudly in case the woman with the washing powder, hell-bent on revenge for my not allowing her to go ahead of me, wants to stalk me.

My seven items come to 420 Baht.

"You have 3,600 points. You can exchange 1,000 points for 100 baht off your purchases," the cashier tells me.

"I didn't understand a word of that."

"You have collected 3,600 points on your Tawan Card. Every 1,000 points can give you 100 baht off what you buy."

"So you can discount 100 baht off this amount?"

"Yes."

"Then do it," I say.

I smile and glance across to the lady with the washing powder, who replies with a polite smirk. The thought of a 100 baht discount is nice, but hardly worthy of a spontaneous display of traditional Thai victory dancing.

"I need to see your ID card," the cashier says.

"My ID Card?"

"To get the discount. I need to see your ID card."

"I'm a farang. I don't have an ID card."

"Then I need to see your passport."

"My passport?" I could start to feel the blood rising to my head. "What is this -- an airport lounge? Why would you want to see my passport? I'm not leaving the country."

"I need to see your passport."

I glance helplessly at the lady clutching the washing powder. Now, behind her is a woman with a basket of items, then a youngish man clutching a sports drink. How did those two get there so quickly?

And while my face may have looked helpless, none of those three visages were shooting anything back that resembled sympathy.

What use would Tops have for my passport? Such questions should not be posed in this country. It is better to simply go with the flow, as outrageous as that flow may be.

Incredibly, in my satchel I just happen to have my passport on me. I make a mental note to carry it at all times in the future when shopping at Tops.

I hand it over. The cashier takes it … then disappears. She leaves me standing with my seven items, and a line of three shoppers -- no, wait a minute, another two have joined. I can almost hear the thoughts in those five heads: "Trust me to pick the line with the big farang standing in it kicking up a stink."

The cashier has returned with another employee, someone a rung higher up in the Tops food chain because she's not in uniform. I wonder if she may be Secret Service. She is more likely to be the duty manager. She is now clutching my passport.

"I need a pen," she tells the cashier, who duly finds one. She gets out a document and writes down my name and passport number.

She is not a fast writer.

The line behind me has grown to eight. Even with my back to her, the washing-powder woman is shooting me arrows laced in loathing and disgust.

How I want to tell her that I'm a victim, too! I never asked for this! I was just popping in for a few necessities and this woman … this cashier … tells me I can get a discount. Who wouldn't say no?

The manager hands back my passport and says: "Check your phone, please."

"Why? Has someone stolen it?"

"You should be getting an OTP number from Tops. I need to know the OTP number before I can give you the discount."

It took me a few seconds for that to sink in.

You know when you buy something online, and the banks send you an OTP -- one-time password -- to verify who you are? Tops had sent me an OTP for my discount.

"You've got to be joking," I say.

"Quickly," says the manager. "If you don't tell us within two minutes of receiving it, the OTP number is null and void."

It's now a race against time. I scramble through my satchel looking for my phone and the more I scramble the more I cannot find it but yes! I can hear it beeping! When I do locate it, in my panic I momentarily forget my passcode for the phone. Damn! I have face recognition and the phone can read that it's me, even when my face is screwed up in panic.

"Oh no," I say.

The cashier and manager look at me quizzically.

"I've got three OTPs," I say.

"That can't be right," says the manager.

"Have a look yourself," I say.

Sure enough, for some reason known only to the Tops customer-rewards department, I have been sent not one OTP. Not two. But three! In rapid succession.

"What do I do now?" I ask hoarsely.

"Give me the last one," whispers the manager breathlessly. If this were an action movie, this part would be the thrilling climax.

"Six five one three."

She types that in and -- YES! It's the right one.

What a relief! My joy is quickly thwarted as I turn around and see the line of five glaring at me as if I have just murdered an innocent child.

Three have gone over to another cashier, but awkwardly the woman with the washing powder is still behind me, silently evoking ancient Siamese daemons to curse me for eternity.

"Three-hundred twenty-five baht kha," says the cashier.

In a few short seconds I am out of Tops, having survived a purchase that required cash, a passport, my mobile phone, three OTP numbers and a store manager.

It really is wonderful to be living in the Thailand 4.0 era. Nevertheless, Foodland here I come.

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