Scams just come with Southeast Asian travel. In fact, two of the most common scams in general happen immediately after leaving the airport usually, over-priced taxis and taxis selling a particular hotel.
But don’t let scams stop or ruin your trip. Some of the scams you hear about don’t even exist and a lot don’t happen very often. The truth is that most scams only set Western travelers back a few dollars and a few actually make for a good story.
Nonetheless, it’s not a subject that should ever be taken lightly. Travelers should always make themselves aware of possible scams so they’re prepared to handle the situation if it happens. Rather than preparing you for scams I’ve heard of, but never seen in action, here are four I’ve run into and the best way I found to tackle them.
Made up services
I’ve written about my adoration for the Philippines on several occasions. Part of the reason why I like the country so much is, because it’s off the tourist trail, a bit rugged and untouched. But with untouched also comes undeveloped tourist services. This is a great thing for intrepid travelers, but something that allows for a lot of scams.
Twice I’ve seen random people actually write down a price on a piece of cardboard, expecting an arriving crowd of tourist to start dishing out cash. Once was for a fight that was actually free, but a random guy started telling everyone it costs 20php. Next was for a ferry service, which just needed to be negotiated for a more reasonable price. Both these experiences added a lot of character to my journey
What I did:
Basically I just said no. With the fight it just seemed ridiculous. It literally looked like a guy straight off the street jumped into an old collection box. Unfortunately, all the Filipinos at the arena started to get in on it too and urged us to pay. Okay, when have you ever been to a sporting event where fans were actually forcing other fans to pay?
In the case of the over-priced ferry service, well I have Lonely Planet to thank for that. In Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, LP authors wrote about this exact scam in the exact place it happened to me. They wrote to only accept a certain rate. So that’s what I and a band of five or six travelers did. In the end, the cargo boat took our offer.
The moral of this story is to ask around, read up on the area, stand your ground and don’t be foolish.
Recommended accommodation by taxi drivers
Taxi drivers are honestly the biggest scammers EVER. Not all drivers are caniving, but in pretty much every corner of the world a taxi driver has and will take advantage of tourists in more ways than one.
A taxi scam method I noticed a lot in Southeast Asia was drivers recommending or even forcing accommodation on their passengers. I wrote about this happening to me on my first day in Southeast Asia. It happened even more forcibly in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
After a day of driving from 4,000 Islands in Laos to Siem Reap, Ric, my boyfriend and I arrived at the bus junction in our destination city exhausted. On the bus journey there we met a woman who owned a hostel and arranged to stay with her. That may or may not have been a scam of its own, but we promised to go with her anyway.
Then we arrived at the bus junction to dozens of determined drivers. We tried our hardest to stick with our girl. We came so close too. She stuck us on a tuk tuk, instructed him to go to the place that was mapped out on her business card. However, as the tuk tuk drove away from her, the guy in the cart with us started talking about some place different. “It has a pool” he said. “Close to town,” he told us. We kept saying no, but we really didn’t have any choice.
What I did:
We were exhausted and knew nothing of the town. So Ric just yelled, “Take us wherever, but we’re not paying for this ride.”
We didn’t pay and luckily the guest house they delivered us to was amazing and cheap. It even had a great pool.
The moral of this story is that when drivers recommend accommodation, it’s not because they’re being nice. It’s because they’re receiving commission. If you have reservations already booked, talk with the driver about where it is and what their price for the ride is prior to getting into the car. That said, sometimes it is literally impossible to get out of this situation, but hey, it might work out for the best.
Tuk Tuks in Thailand
This is probably the most-talked-about scam in Southeast Asia. There’s a reason why so many tuk tuks are just hanging out rather than driving people places in Bangkok. They are a guaranteed scam. That said, this scam is actually an experience.
I read and heard about the tuk tuk scam long before I arrived in Thailand. Passengers board a tuk tuk giving the driver their destination. Driver says sure. Halfway through the drive, during which he’s absolutely lovely and personable, he says, “I know a really great shop where you can buy one-of-a-kind Thai gifts.” Enthusiastic traveler thinks, “Amazing, take me there now.”
However good or whatever this shop turns out to be, the driver only took his or her passengers there, because he’s getting a commission.
What I did:
Since I knew this, but wanted to go for a tuk tuk ride just once in Bangkok, I planned to board one when I had nowhere to be. My boyfriend, a friend and I were straight with the driver and said, “We know you’re going to take us wherever, this is all we’re willing to pay to get to our final destination and we most likely won’t buy anything from wherever you take us.” He asked us to just look around the tailors he would take us, so we promised to do so.
Great ride, great conversation, then we arrive at said tailors. The salesmen inside were all over Ric. “You buy suit? We have nice suits. You like this suit?” My friend and I just laughed and looked around on our own. One saleman astray spotted us and started asking us to buy ties for our boyfriends back home. I said mine is right there, so I don’t need to.
He looked at my friend and asked her. Before she could answer I said, “That’s her boyfriend too. We share him.” It either really offended them or they just realized we were wasting their time, but either way they kicked us out of the store and we actually made it home sooner than expected.
SE Asian travelers, you’ve been warned about tuk tuks yet again. Basically, expect a detour if you ride one. Enjoy it instead of getting annoyed.
Price inflation in general
Money, money, money. That is the entire reason why any of these scams even exist. That’s why the most basic of SE Asian scams is adding a few or a lot of dollars onto the real price of a service or item.
To be blunt, haggle on everything in SE Asia. This means clothes, food, massages, but especially all forms of transportation. Travelers should never accept the first price a driver gives them unless they’ve read that’s the going rate or it was set up by someone trusted.
This isn’t just for private travel either. I’ve been charged twice the locals on public buses before.
My favorite price inflation came in a taxi in Bangkok. We picked up the ride at Khaosan Road, which was our first mistake. We needed a ride to Lumpinee Boxing Stadium. I tried to learn a few phrases in Thai every day I was there and the phrases that day just happened to be: “How much? (Tao-rai?)” and “Very expensive! (Phaeng Mark)”.
We boarded the car and gave the driver our destination. He didn’t turn his meter on, so I asked him to do so. He said, “No it will be a lot cheaper if I just give you a general price.” I replied, “Nah, I want the meter on.” He priced the ride at 500baht, which I knew was absurd considering our taxi from the airport to the city was less than that.
What I did:
So I did what any logical person would do and yelled, “Phaeng mark mark.” He looked at me and said, “Nooo! Took mark mark!” A Thai phrase I learned at that moment, which means “too cheap”. We went on like this until he started to bargain with me. I got him down to 150baht and actually had him laughing by the end of the ride.
I have to reiterate how important it is to haggle in SE Asia. It’s necessary and actually quite fun. Other than that, look at what the locals are paying, always ask taxi driver to run their meter and negotiate before entering a cab. If the driver won’t budge, there are a million other cabs around to choose from most of the time. One of them will.
Other good reads to prepare travelers for scams:
- 8 Popular Scams in Southeast Asia
- 10 Travel Scams to Avoid in South East Asia
- Don’t Ride the Thai Scam Bus