When backpacking Southeast Asia, make sure you’re up to date on the Top 5 Travel Scams of South East Asia and how to avoid them. Learn about travel safety and how to protect yourself in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries!
Touts and scammers have always made me laugh. Not only because of their extremely illogical excuses to run away with your hard-earned money but also because of how soon they switch their bipolar personalities from “helpful local” to “go away, farang!*”.
Nevertheless, it saddens me to see the number of people who keeps falling prey to these con artists, especially those who (falsely) believe that they were contributing to a good cause.
Scam artists in Asia operate somewhat different to those in other parts of the world, mainly because of factors such as culture, language and tourist’s ignorance of how different things are in foreign developing countries.
For example, he scams found in Eastern Europe, on the other hand, often involve tourists being led by a beautiful female stranger to a bar with two different lists of prices and, once the bill arrives, they will soon find out that they are being charged 10 times the agreed amount and are not allowed to leave without paying.
On the other hand, the scams in Asia involve deeper logistics on the part of the scammers, making them harder to avoid. Here is a list of the Top 5 Travel Scams and how to avoid them (and in some cases, how to turn the tables on the scammer and obtain some freebies!).
Your Destination is Closed but I Know a Place…
This is by far THE most common scam in Thailand. There are many variations of this one, the simplest one involves a stationary taxi/tuktuk that is parked outside of hotels/hostels offering their service to the tourists.
Once you board them and tell them your destination, they will make up some excuse about how it is closed because of a “Buddhist Holiday” (note: there’s NO such thing as a Buddhist Holiday!) but luckily for you he knows another much more interesting place (that you have probably heard NOTHING about) and that he can take you there for an extremely low fee.
He will take you, alright…before stopping at three different souvenir shops from where he will obtain a voucher for petrol and a commission for everything you buy. Once you’re inside the shop, you will be coerced to visit each and every single section, from the obviously fake gem to the tacky trinkets that you can obtain outside for half the price.
In the end, you will have wasted an entire day of sightseeing and (in case you didn’t buy anything) you’ll be left stranded in the middle of a God-forsaken place by your “friendly” driver.
Another variable of this scam involves “Tourist Police” (basically an average Joe with a fake ID in Thai) outside of the Grand Palace. He will tell you the same story about how the palace is closed because of a “Buddhist Holiday” (seriously, do these scammers expect tourists to believe that instead of massive celebrations inside of the temples, Buddhist people are just chilling at home?) and “guide” you to his friend the friendly Tuk Tuk driver (read here to see how turn the Tuk Tuk driver into your ally!!!).
How to Avoid it: Do your research of the public transportation available before you step out of your hotel/hostel. In Bangkok you can get to ALL tourist attractions by using a combination of the SkyTrain + Boat Services. In the case that you really need to use a taxi/tuktuk for sightseeing (which is believe is a must if you want to explore the Angkor Temples of Cambodia), my best advice is to book it through your hotel/hostel.
That way, even in the case that he insists of taking you to his friend’s souvenir store, you’ll have the security that he will indeed wait for you no matter what. After all, the driver is well aware that if he scams you, then you’ll report him to your hotel and he’ll never work again for them.
The Word of Mouth Scam
This one is very common in Chiang Mai and other small tourist towns. By far, this scam is the most well thought of them all since it involves an extensive network of sleeper agents. As you walk in the city, you’ll be approached by a friendly local who (surprisingly) doesn’t attempt to sell you anything and actually helps you by suggesting legit places to visit.
During the course of the friendly exchange, he/she will mention in passing that you have a good style and there’s a very reliable tailor shop in the city.
He will NOT take you there, rather, he’ll just go on his/her own way, giving the impression that this is actually a local who isn’t trying to make a commission at all.
Eventually, you will encounter more and more local persons who mention the name of the tailor shop and, like in a good Christopher Nolan movie, the name will get “inceptioned” in your mind and you’ll visit the tailor shop. Inside, you will probably find other tourists like you that are being measured for custom dresses and suits.
Once inside, the owner will show you a catalog of nice fabrics and designs, while you take a look at them, you’ll be asked your departure date from the city and it will conveniently be “too late” for them to finish the dress/suit BUT if you pay 50% in advance they will put all of their other works on hold and finish yours with the highest priority. Pressured, you’ll cave in.
Finally, when you return to pick it up in your last day, you will obtain a supbar item, made of polyester instead of silk and with a very bad fit, almost as if it was made in a wholesale factory (and trust me, it probably was). Angry, you will remand your refund back. You’ll never get it. Instead, you’ll be forced to pay the remaining amount or else the owner will call the local police (who are in on the scam and are probably loyal costumers of the shop).
How to avoid it: Ask yourself “did I travel all the way to South East Asia to get a suit/dress?” If the answer is yes, then do your own web research to find a reliable tailor with good reviews from foreigner people.
If the answer is no, then do not, I repeat, do not fall into the high-pressure sales tactics of these people who insist that this is a “once in a lifetime opportunity”. The local police will always side with the locals in South East Asian countries, probably because of the fact that they’ll gain a good percentage of the scam.
The Cambodian Charity
This is becoming extremely common in Siem Reap (check out alternative things to do in Siem Reap), Cambodia (or should I say Scambodia?). The beauty of this scam is that, from all intents and purposes it looks extremely legit and (unless you know about it beforehand) it is extremely cruel not to fall in it.
The scam involves a little kid begging for milk powder for his/her little brother/sister in arms. They will then lead the tourist into an overpriced store where they will buy expensive milk powder and give it to the child. Afterwards, they will wait for the tourist to leave and re-sell the item to the store owner, receiving a (very) small commission for their efforts.
Variable of this includes visits to schools in floating villages that end with you being encouraged to buy extremely overpriced rice/notebooks as well as to make monetary donations to them. While most people believe that they are indeed helping the local community, the sad truth is that the money goes directly to the local mafia.
How to avoid it: Firmly state that you have no money to spare and leave it at that. Yes, I know it is heart wrenching to witness these kids begging for you to buy them milk powder but if you really want to help them, offer to buy them a meal or a bottle of water.
Do not encourage these bad practices that only serve to enrich the mobster and make things harder and harder for these kids. Also, do not attempt to discourage other tourists from contributing since you will get into a lot of trouble from the locals, my best advice is for you to spread the word of this scam in your hotel/hostel instead of attempting to do so in the open.
Mispronounced Fixed Fares
So far, I have only encountered this scam in Beijing, China but I have heard many stories of this happening everywhere in South East Asia as well. It basically involves a taxi/tuk tuk driver with limited English skills (whether they are pretending or not is irrelevant) that give you a fixed price only for them to claim afterward that a) the price was in USD, not the local currency or b) what you heard as fifteen was actually fifty.
As a rule of thumb, I never agree to fixed fares on taxis since the taximeter is the most honest way for both the driver and the costumer. However, there are some cases (such as Beijing’s rush hour) where hailing a cab on the street is impossible so you have to take a stationary taxi (with a fixed price) no matter what. It is also necessary to agree to a fare for excursions outside of the city center, such as the one to the Great Wall at Mutianyu.
How to avoid it: Always write down everything. Always. And add the local currency symbol/name to make things clearer. I made the mistake of not doing this when taking a cab back to my hotel after a performance of Beijing’s Opera.
Luckily (or maybe not) for me, it was very late in the night so there were no police/transit in the area so when the taxi driver confronted me demanding 50 yuan I just gave him 15 (as we agreed on) and made a run for it. He never chased me. And yes, I am aware that this could have gotten me in trouble if it wasn’t for the fact that there no witnesses in the area. I guess I just got lucky.
This Shop Belongs to the Descendants of…
This one is extremely common in India and it involves tour guides/drivers in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, taking you to the shop of one of the descendants of the artists that decorated the marble structures of the Taj. Once inside, you’ll be treated like a king with free soft drinks and/or coffee and tea.
After a demonstration on how they create their masterpieces in
marble soapstone, they’ll start to give you a tour of each and every section and claiming that you don’t have to worry since they’ll deliver your purchase to your home, shipping fees included in the price.
While I do not doubt that they’ll keep their word, the thing is, these are NOT the descendants of the artists of the Taj Mahal and mainly, there is a very little chance that all of the articles are made of pure marble. There is a variable of this scam at the Giza Pyramids of Egypt in which your guide will take you to the Papyrus Museum, which is actually a plain ol’ shop. At least the owner didn’t claim to be descendent from the Pharaohs themselves.
How to Avoid it: Take out a coin and attempt to perform the classic marble test. If they panic because you’ll scratch the marble (actually, soapstone) then you can just call it a day and leave the shop. If you do not buy anything, there is a chance that they will attempt to charge you for the free drinks they gave you.
If this happens you have basically three options: Either seek assistance from your guide/driver, threaten to call the police or publicly shame them in front of their fellow employees by saying how they’ll receive a lot of bad karma because of their actions. Either way, they cannot and will not force you to pay what they offered for free.
Other common places where it happens is in most SE Asia’s capitals (such as Yangon) each time you visit a high-end souvenir shop. At some point, I really wonder if the owners themselves BELIEVE that they are direct descendants of the dudes that build their countries’ most famous pagodas and temples!
Don’t Forget to Pack Your Common Sense
“Don’t forget to pack your common sense” is one of the most clichéd advises ever given and yet, it is entirely true. When backpacking in South East Asia, it is not uncommon to be approached by a local stranger on the street. However, the first thing you should ask yourself is “why is this stranger talking to ME?”.
I mean, would YOU approach a foreigner in your country without any reasonable motive whatsoever? Every single time a local approaches you to practice his/her English in the middle of the street, be aware because it is most likely a scam.
Never agree to enter secluded places such as tea houses or bars with locals that you met on the street and if you are keen on doing it, choose the location yourself to see how they turn the tables and
insist beg that you come with them to the place of the scam, where you will be overcharged and they’ll get a hefty commission.
When traveling by train, never believe anyone who approaches you saying that your train has already left. This is extremely common in India where local people in official-looking uniforms with fake badges claim to be employees of the Railway Station and offer you an alternative way to reach your destination: their taxis.
Trust no one but your gut.
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I hope these five advises have helped you in your travels and, by all means, don’t be discouraged by all the stories you might heard about the dangers of traveling to Third-World Countries.
Trust me, the amount of good-hearted people far outweighs the number of scammers that prey on tourists. Have you ever been scammed? Hit the comments section down below and share your experience!!!
Until next time, my friends!!!