No one likes to be taken for a ride and when you’re in a foreign country with limited resources it can be downright maddening. Scams in South East Asia range from the mild (getting hit with tourist prices at every turn) to the downright dangerous. This is a quick guide to the most common scams in the Asian region and some simple things you can do to keep your precious money in your wallet.
The line between being open to new experiences/people and being an overly trusting chump is a tricky one. Your best weapon against being taken advantage of is to be informed. You are likely to be charged more than locals, like it or not, that is just a fact but if a price is either hundreds of times more or much less than local rate you know to be suspicious.
Know what to pay
To make sure you are not an easy target, always be aware of where you are in relation to your destination/homebased. Know what something costs before you buy, forums and couch surfing are a great place to get an idea of local prices, or just observe a local buying the same item and then be prepared to haggle for a similar price, then have change in local currency to purchase it. Lastly always make sure if you’re purchasing an experience or transport that the price is clearly agreed on before purchase.
Who to trust
A good rule of thumb is to take unsolicited advice with a grain of salt and always double check info you’re given. Don’t disclose where you’re staying ever and don’t let people carry your bags, take photos or do small tasks for you unless you’re willing to pay them. Check your change carefully for fake bills and keep your credit card in site at all times. If you’re renting transport or equipment take some quick before shots. Lastly don’t break the law, in some countries corrupt cops are a problem but buying drugs or not wearing a helmet is just playing into their hands.
It’s a lot to take on board but try and remember that travel is supposed to be enjoyable, don’t let a few extra dollars here and there ruin your experience. There are plenty of lovely people out there that are truly excited just to get to know you.
To help you determine the difference between a genuinely friendly local and a potential scam here are some of the most common scams operating in Asia right now.
Common South East Asian scams
Boarder scam - You approach the boarder and the official demands twice the visa fee that you researched/is written above his booth.
Tea ceremony – Practice English – Karaoke – Art student – This common scam has several forms but generally involves being approached by a local in a public place to take a photo, they start chatting with you and end up inviting you to a tea ceremony, Karaoke night etc. at the end of this activity you are hit with a bill sometimes totaling hundreds of dollars.
Unofficial guides – You are approached at a monument by an enterprising local saying they can give you a tour for a fraction of the price. Not only may you end up paying much more than the official price but the information imparted may not even be true.
Tour rip offs – Bargain basement tours are cheap for a reason, you may find yourself with substandard transport/ guides and taking many forced stops at shops where pressure is put on you to buy, to support your guides commission.
Free show with beer – If you are in a tourist area you may be offered the chance to see a lady boy/ping pong type show. You will be approached on the street and be told that there is “no cover free with beer”. After drinking and seeing the show, when you go to pay your bill suddenly the show is no longer free, in fact it’s astronomically expensive.
Attraction/accommodation is closed - A helpful local waylays you on the way to an attraction, you get talking and they mention that your destination is closed today but helpfully suggest a similar attraction nearby and even offer to take you there. Needless to say your original destination was open all the time.
VIP bus upgrade – At the bus station the helpful teller suggests you upgrade to the VIP bus, you agree but when you go to catch your bus it is overbooked and substandard and you end up standing for hours.
Too good to be true – Get rich quick schemes are all the rage with gems and art being particularly popular. If a helpful taxi driver says they know a secret place where you can buy gems at low prices, to sell on back home, beware that despite any authentication certificates available these are indeed fake and won’t be worth anything.
Bar tabs – Can mysteriously double at the end of the night, yet another incentive to keep track of what you’re drinking.
Official collector – Helpful minor officials have been knowing to start chatting about their international currency collections, built over time form tourist donations. You happily offer to provide a coin from home, only to discover that the official in question only collects $50 or $100 notes.
Per person taxi – You and a few friends haggle with a taxi driver and agree on a price. When you reach the destination the drive suddenly decides the agreed fee is in fact per person.
Two menus – You may be spotted as a tourist a mile away and presented with a jacked up menu. Alternatively you order your meal from a reasonably priced menu and when you protest at the high price of your bill, are shown the same menu with greatly inflated prices.
Beggars and fake monks – Some people just want to take your money, beggars with unfortunate disabilities and pious monks are plentiful in most cities. Give with caution as a percentage of these are not authentic.
Hostess bars – A stranger on the street says they know a great nightspot. When you sit down a beautiful, half naked girl appears beside you and asks for a drink, once you say yes she starts ordering drinks and snacks and you get hit with an exorbitant bill at the end of the night.
Fake helpers/attendants – This ranges from guides at monuments, through people dressed like border officials and even toilet attendants. You approach your destination to be stopped by an official looking person who explains there is a fee. You pay the fee and continue only to discover the official turnstile or payment booth up ahead and end up having to pay twice.
As you can see there are numerous schemes to help you part with your cash, everyone gets got at some point but many can be averted by understanding the situation; keeping a cool head and quietly insisting on double checking all the facts before you part with any cash. In saying that, your safety and even your enjoyment of your trip is worth no amount of money and sometimes it’s not worth quibbling over a few dollars. Do your research before making any large purchases and you can be happy knowing you are making an informed decision.
Stay safe out there.
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To read about how to avoid common backpacker mistakes check out this post.