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Top 5 Travel Scams of South East Asia

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 Third World countries.

For xample, 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!).

Land of Smiles

Land of Smiles

Travel Scam #1: 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.

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 Grand Palace at Bangkok

The Grand Palace at Bangkok

Travel Scam #2: 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-tought 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 yourย 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 Eye of the Tiger

The Eye of the Tiger

Travel Scam #3: The Cambodian Charity

This is becoming extremely common 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.

Khmer Folklore

Khmer Folklore

Travel Scam #4: Mispronounced Fixed Fares

So far, I have only encountered this scam in 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.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

Travel Scam #5: This shop belongs to the descendents 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 descendents 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 descendents 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.

Indian Jewelry

Indian Jewelry

A Foreword on Scams

“Don’t forget to pack your common sense” is one of the most clichรฉd 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.

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!!!

The Thar Desert

The Thar Desert

November 22nd, 2013|Categories: Asia Travel|Tags: |
Raphael Alexander is a Nomadic Digital Marketer and Travel Influencer who overcame the chains of the local economy and found a way to achieve his dream of having a professional life while traveling the world non-stop. His goal in life is to inspire the people of the world to unleash their full inner potential. A perfect day for him includes exotic animals, ancient pyramids, breath-taking waterfalls and tasty tacos. Lots of tacos.

33 Comments

  1. Chris & Heather (@ABritSoutherner) January 24, 2014 at 11:15 pm - Reply

    While we were in Paris over Christmas 2013, those bracelet guys were everywhere close to the Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum trying to sell bracelets and illuminated Eiffel Tower souvenirs. We were not sold on any of the scams that they tried to sell us and just continued to walk past them, simply ignoring them.

    However, you can see that many folks who are probably unaware that these people exist are sold by the sight of the souvenirs and will pay money for them. The scammers are pretty convincing and generally pick on certain groups of people, I would say in particular individuals or young groups of females. I also noticed that they were attracted to families with kids probably because they felt they would convince their parents to let them have one.

    Either way, this is a great post but your ending is critical – always use your gut and if you feel uncomfortable about something, there is probably something wrong and you should just walk away.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren February 19, 2014 at 1:39 am - Reply

      Oh yes, the Africans of the bracelets near Sacrรฉ-Coeur! Who can forget about them? More often than not, tourists end up buying said bracelet because they fear to be mugged if they don’t comply ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

  2. ahubbard10 January 25, 2014 at 12:33 am - Reply

    Great tips! I’m going to bookmark this and keep these in mind when I go to SEA this year. This will be my first solo and long term trip and my first trip to SEA so it will all be very new to me. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren February 19, 2014 at 1:41 am - Reply

      Remember, no local who approaches you in the street is your friend! They’re all con-artists who can befriend you for hours before using emotional blackmail to rob you blind. If you want to meet friendly honest locals, hostels and bars are your best choice ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. foreignsanctuary January 25, 2014 at 12:55 am - Reply

    Great list of things to watch out for while traveling!

  4. Sharon @ Where's Sharon? January 25, 2014 at 2:18 am - Reply

    Lol I have actually been a victim of scam #1!! It was a bit more elaborate than you detail and very well done! It actually led to a really awesome day though, so I’m glad it happened. My name links to the story if you are interested ๐Ÿ™‚ It is actually one of my most popular posts!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren February 19, 2014 at 1:43 am - Reply

      Happy Victim Bangkok Scam? Those are words that I’ve never ever heard together before! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

  5. frankaboutcroatia January 25, 2014 at 3:22 am - Reply

    Great list! Thanks for keeping us aware of all those scams.

  6. Michele January 25, 2014 at 6:02 am - Reply

    We are heading to Cambodia on Monday and I had never heard of the scam you mentioned thank you, I am such a softy I would be broke buying milk ๐Ÿ™

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren February 19, 2014 at 1:45 am - Reply

      Even though it is hard to say no to a starving child, let’s remember that all revenue goes to the evil man who controls them ๐Ÿ™

  7. Travelling Book Junkie January 25, 2014 at 7:15 am - Reply

    The milk scan is a popular one in Havana, Cuba as well. We were nearly the victims during a trip there and whilst your heart does go out to these children that are playing in the ruins of one of the many hurricane hit buildings there are other ways to help them. When we visit places like that we always have plenty of cheap things in our backpacks – cheap sunglasses, pencils etc and hand those out instead. We also make sure that we leave our expensive sunglasses at the hotel. That way if they want the ones we are wearing we simply give them over and get another pair out of the bag – it makes you very popular with the locals and you don’t feel that you are being mean by ignoring them.

    Another scam I was unfortunately privy to was in Madrid last year. Whilst sitting outside enjoying an evening drink two girls came over waving tube maps in my face, really annoying me. After about a minute they disappeared off. A group behind us them informed me that the likelihood of us still having all of our possessions was very slim. Looking in my handbag that had been on my lap and hooked over my head, as I had already been told that if not careful handbag theft was high in the city, I found that they had managed to nick my phone – I didn’t even notice – that is a skill! When we reported this to the police they almost resigned themselves to never finding the culprits and placed my report on top on an ever increasing pile of similar claims. Very disheartening – but I definitely learnt my lesson! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren February 19, 2014 at 1:56 am - Reply

      I didn’t know that the milk scam was popular overseas, must definitely be careful in Cuba as well! Great idea about the sunglasses, it sure is a way to make good friends all around the world! ๐Ÿ˜€

  8. mytanfeet January 25, 2014 at 11:41 am - Reply

    Great tips! I haven’t run into many scams so far but I’ll definitely be on the lookout. They’re so tricky too and they’re so convincing that you really don’t think twice about it if you never knew. It’s sad there are people who try to scam tourists and visitors, it really ruins the appeal and your visit. I just know one in Nicaragua where a boy will make you a flower or something out of bamboo but if you accept it from him, he’ll start following you until you get him money.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren February 19, 2014 at 2:08 am - Reply

      A bamboo flower? I want one now! I hope he can accept my Mexican pesos in exchange for it! ๐Ÿ˜€

  9. Chasing the Donkey January 25, 2014 at 2:12 pm - Reply

    What a great bunch of tips – so many I had never thought about. My fave piece of advice was the “bad karma” call out. Nice!

  10. The Caffeinated Day Tripper January 25, 2014 at 4:58 pm - Reply

    Excellent tips! Very useful for traveler’s and I so agree about using your common sense.

  11. Bemused Backpacker January 26, 2014 at 7:02 am - Reply

    Haha, great post and well written I loved it! One thing I will add to the common sense rule is confidence! ALWAYS act confident, like you are the one in charge, because guess what? You are! How many people are scammed not just because of a lack of knowledge but because they were nervous, didn’t want to offend anyone or didn’t listen to their gut feelings?

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren February 19, 2014 at 2:10 am - Reply

      Over confidence has also helped against potential muggers who feel threatened by my savvy way of walking the streets haha ๐Ÿ˜€

  12. Gallivant Girl January 26, 2014 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    Ha. Totally familiar with all these. I also had several taxi drivers in Beijing trying the “mispronounced fare” shabang. I twigged on and got them to write the numbers down before getting in. I bought a can of coke at a cafe in Beijing too, and was given a bill for something like $50 or something ridiculous. LOL. I put down a dollar and walked off. I don’t have time for this crap anymore.

    That said, I suppose it’s easy to get pulled in if you don’t know, and are nervous with confrontation. I even had an American friend get scammed in London recently – I didn’t even think to mention that stuff as I just thought people knew to be wary, but people really don’t know about this stuff!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren February 19, 2014 at 2:13 am - Reply

      Scammed in London? And here I was believing that the only danger in European cities was mugging and pickpocketing ๐Ÿ˜ฎ How did it happen?

  13. Syd @ Nomadically Inclined January 26, 2014 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    Ha, the second one is so elaborate. And impressive that it actually works to draw people in…I can’t imagine myself buying a dress suit anytime in the near future, in SEA or otherwise, so hopefully I’ll be safe from that one at least!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren February 19, 2014 at 2:03 am - Reply

      Yeah, I cannot imagine the mindset of the people who give an advance payment to a complete stranger in foreign city! I’ve heard of a woman that was asked for her wedding ring by a “friendly Thai gentleman”, he offered to polish it for free after she bought some very expensive (fake) jewelry. Of course, she never saw him again.

  14. Travelling King Blog February 22, 2014 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    Scammmers can be terrible in Thailand! we experienced a few of them in Thailand but were already aware of what to look out for

  15. Lucy April 26, 2014 at 11:17 am - Reply

    Fantastic post; I’m actually in “Scambodia” right now, so this is super helpful.
    I was in India for six months and had heard a couple of people who fell victim to the milk scam. One tip I found to be handy was if you do find yourself falling prey to this, test the sincerity of the scammers by opening the product on site. You can say you want to make sure it’s good quality if they protest – but once they do protest it’s confirmation that they plan to re-sell it.

    Thank you again for a great post! X

  16. TammyOnTheMove July 24, 2014 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    It is good to make tourists aware of these scams, but you have to be careful not to generalize a whole country. To call Cambodia Scambodia is very disrespectful. I lived in Cambodia for two years and have never been scammed. Ever! In fact I found the Cambodians to be the most generous people I have ever met. Even if they were extremely poor, they would offer me a meal or a drink whenever I engaged them in a conversation. If you come across as an arrogant traveler who flashes his or her wealth then people shouldn`t be surprised that they get scamed. If you treat locals with respect, make an effort to at least learn basic expressions in the lcal language and approach locals with a smile, you will be surprised by how this will change your travel experience.

  17. Escape Hunter December 3, 2014 at 11:04 am - Reply

    A hilarious scam a sales lady tried to pull on me once was to convince me that her humble Buddha statuettes were made of “solid gold”. I laughed and she replied (compensating for the big lie): “yes, bronze!”.
    I think they were mere pewter, not even bronze!

  18. Graham Franklin February 3, 2015 at 8:03 am - Reply

    Luckily enough I’ve never been scammed in Thailand. I speak a little bit of Thai and if someone tries to sell me something or I think it’s a scam I always say “falang nit noi dang kab” which means “white foreigner does not have any money”, lol

  19. Francois April 7, 2016 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    Well everytime I see a tourist in my city (Montreal) with a map… I walk to them and ask them if everything is fine and if they need indications. I feels its the right thing to do.

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