You’ve landed! You’re ready! You’re gonna travel like a boss and get knee deep into the culture woohoo! By all means, jump into everything you can and hang with the locals but whoa there buddy: some people have got some nasty tricks up their sleeve. Ever since falling for the milk scam in Cambodia, I asked the experienced travellers out there to share their Travel Scams in Asia stories and oh boy do we have a few! Sit back, become a little wiser and run a mile if you start to sniff any of these out!
The ‘Great’ Bus Scam
To be fair, we were warned that the route to the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall of China is ripe with scams. In fact, we were told that even people from China have been known to get tricked whilst travelling to the Wall. Still, we thought we could totally make it there on our own.
The first popular scam occurred at the bus station. While waiting in line for the bus, a woman approached us and said there was a faster bus. We didn’t recognize the bus number and after initially following her, we decided to stick with the original one. Scam number one was neatly avoided. The second occurred well into our bus ride. At one of the stops, a man boarded, walked directly to us and said “Going to Mutianyu. Must get off now. Roads are blocked. Only taxis can get through.” Luckily, a young Chinese woman, also on her way to the Wall, got off with us to make sure we were okay and ended up negotiating a cheaper fare than what we would have had to pay if we had gotten off the bus at the correct stop.
Our suggestion? Identify your route, including bus numbers and bus stops, and stick to it. It’s surprisingly easy if you can avoid getting caught up in scams!
Don’t Let China Trick You!
A serious word of warning. China blocks many things on the internet, including your precious Facebook and Gmail. Be one step ahead of them and make sure you get a VPN before you go, to access everything you need.
Shopping Like A Pro (or not at all)
Have you ever been to Hanoi, Vietnam? It’s hot, busy and noisy, so much so we nicknamed it Hanoi’ing. On day two of our visit, we were desperate to get out of the heat and to find some green space. After a major fail where were ended up in the Ministry of Defence quarters (it was green on the map, turns out green does not mean park) we settled for buying some shades and a cold drink. Craig ventures in to the market to price glasses for the second time (you’ve got to get those Fakebans at a good price) and I am left amongst the beeping cars and zooming bikes, stress levels at an all time high.
A trader approaches me and holds out a hat. It’s a Che Guevara style number that Craig has been eyeing up outside of our hostel. I ask how much and I try to convert the dong into pounds but struggle; I am not the money person in this partnership. I decline his offer and move away. The trader follows me and hands me the hat again. Eventually I agree and pay the man what turns out to be FIVE TIMES what I should have paid. Craig returns, happy to receive his gift but mocks me. Every time we walk past a shop which sells hats outside a hostel, he reminds me of the time I paid the trader a month’s salary for a cap. Don’t leave Gemma with the money, lesson learned!
Work out what the general prices are of your destination beforehand. You can ask travel communities online and your local hostel to get a good idea! Even if you hate haggling, don’t do yourself a disservice. Stick to your guns. Asians love a good old haggle.
Water Scam in Vietnam
I saw The Water Scam in Vietnam by accident on my first morning in this amazing country. The travel warnings said, and they still do, to avoid tap water as much as possible and only drink bottled water. It was my first visit to Vietnam and to Ho Chi Minh City. I woke up early and raced to the balcony to watch the city arise. If you have been, you will know that this is a city where there is manic activity 24/7, where cars beep continuously and people are everywhere. The shops across the road were starting up and restocking.
I saw a man squatting next to a tap in the side alley surrounded by the mongrel dogs of the city. He was filling water bottles as dogs also drank the water at the same time. He lined up all the bottles of water and then got a little machine out. This machine was a bottle sealer. Not only did it put the lid on the water bottle but also the plastic that makes it look like it was sterile! He then added professional labels. He placed them in a crate with a sign of fresh water and voila, they looked like what you would expect. Yikes. Moral of the water scam in Vietnam? Drink beer.
The Bus Ninja Pickpocket
You buy a bus ticket (usually long distance, like Bangkok to Krabi or Phuket) for a very cheap price. When everyone is sleeping and the lights are off, one of the members of the company will sneak in and open all the backpacks trying to steal your money and valuable possessions. They managed to steal 600 euros from me. When a guy traveling with me saw a guy trying to open his backpack, he alerted us. When I checked my belongings (with a torch as they won’t turn on the lights), I thought my money was still there as they left some of it folded.
There are a few ways to avoid this scam. 1) Always lock your backpack. I was sleeping with mine under my head but they are clever. I think they spray some sleeping gas into the air as I am never able to sleep on buses or trains. EVER. However, this time I fell asleep almost immediately. 2) Take pictures of the bus plate, the company name on the bus side and one of the driver. This way the police was able to track down the incriminated bus and even gave me all my money back.
The Bangkok Gem Scam
One of the most famous scams in Asia is in Bangkok, where someone will come up and tell you the Grand Palace or some other tourist attraction is shut. They’ll then direct you to other temples and a gem shop where there is currently a ‘special’. Here you can buy the gems for cheap and sell them for more overseas. Hmm! On my first trip to Bangkok, many years ago, I was sucked into this scam. An old man who said he was a teacher stopped us, convinced us the Grand Palace was shut and drew a map of some other great temples and a gem shop we could go to just if we had time. He pulled over a seemingly passing tuk tuk and we were on our way.
It was well done. The temples we went to were fantastic and the gem shop was only mentioned again when another person, who was ‘coincidentally’ at the temple, told us about it! I went and bought a great ring which I still wear now and we had a great day so it was a happy ending for us! Some people do get scammed out of a lot of money though and the scam is continuing to be in full swing!
The Yogyakarta Art Scam
“Hey, America! You like art? It’s a student batik show, tonight only. Come with me”. We were halfway down a dim alley before my better instincts kicked in, but a mannerly upbringing prohibited me from making quick departure. He led us into an unmarked shop with brilliantly colored batiks adorning the walls.
“Tea?” he offered. Equally afraid of cultural faux pas and drugged tea, I took the cup and feigned a sip. We were led around a gallery full of skilfully mass-produced batiks, with price tags both exceeding their worth and our marginal interest as buyers. We would come back tomorrow, I assured him as we politely exited and asked for a business card. He did not have a card, and didn’t I remember? The exhibit would not even be here tomorrow. After soft negotiations came a haggle, shortly followed by raised voices, and a classic ‘Why did you even waste my time?’ We walked out uncomfortably and retreated back to our hotel to regroup. We’ve come across the art scam several times since. While I try to be a good ambassador, I don’t feel nearly as bad about saying a hard “no” as I used to!
Runaway Miscommunication Driver
In Indonesia, my husband and I took a Bajaj. It’s a noisy traditional vehicle. They were originally developed in India by Vespa and later imported and built in Indonesia. We are frequent travelers and know it’s a good idea to agree a price in advance. As we did this time: 14,000 rupiah!
After a short trip we got out of the Bajaj and paid 20,000 expecting 6,000 rupiah back. We didn’t get it. On the contrary, he said we were 20,000 short. What? He started claiming that the agreed price was 40.000! I realize that he was using the language as a misunderstanding since forty thousand and fourteen thousand sounds a lot like each other. I insisted that we agreed 14,000 since I didn’t just arrive to Jakarta, and knew a bit about the prices.
Without a word, he ran away with our 20,000. I shouted F**K you! He wasn’t more than a few meters away, when he hit the brakes; ran back and raised his hands to slap me. I yelled at him, ‘You damn well just try’! He was getting quite red in the face and threw the 20,000 rupiah in my face, ran back to his Bajaj and took off!
More ‘It’s Closed’ Madness
India must be the scam capital of the world when it comes to scamming tourists. In my decade in India, I ran into many scams, but thankfully only got caught in a few! One of the most common that I saw throughout the years was being told that a shop, office or store has closed down. A tout or taxi driver will then lure you to a place they can receive a commission.
A popular place for this scam is at the New Delhi train station. As a tourist, you are able to get last minute train tickets through the tourist office and their ‘tourist quota’. Tour operators routinely stand on the stairway leading up to the tourist office telling foreigners that the office is closed, with the hope to provide an alternate option of a car and driver package for a lot more money. I knew about this scam in advance, so I knew to keep going. But it’s not that easy. The touts will literally block your way making you forcefully push past.
Lesson: if anyone in India tells you an office is closed or shut down, make sure to push past them to see for yourself. Be persistent and trust your instincts about whether a shop has closed down or moved.
The Cheeky Rickshaw Driver
It was my last day in India, and it was an easy one. I didn’t get lost as I navigated my way through Chennai, checking off the last few attractions on my list. Feeling satisfied that I was ending my seven week stay on a high note, I flagged down a rickshaw for the 10-15 minute ride back to my guesthouse.
When I gave the driver the address of my destination, he launched into a series of questions and compliments in flawless English – weird, since most rickshaw drivers I encountered had basic English at best – but I went with it, given my light mood and his seemingly friendly disposition. My guard went up, however, as he got increasingly flirty: he kept saying I looked like Kate Winslet in Titanic. He continued to chatter, so I tried to just relax and take in the scenery.
I shot up though when I heard him utter “shop” and “good price”. “No!” I said firmly, starting to get a little suspicious of his intentions, “I do NOT want to go to a shop.” He kept saying, “OK, OK,” laughing at my insistence. It was then I noticed that nothing around me looked familiar and we had been driving well beyond 15 minutes. “Where are we going?” I barked at him but he ignored me. When he swerved into the parking lot of what looked like a high-end antique store, I jumped out of the rickshaw before it came to a complete stop. “You lied to me!” I shouted. I stormed off on foot, even though I had no map or cell service. I walked for more than an hour before I finally recognized where I was, but got back to the guesthouse safely in the end. India gives, India takes away.