Scams in Southeast Asia – And the Ones We Fell For
Scams in Southeast Asia
Before I get into this post I want to first state that Southeast Asia is safe. In fact I believe that this region of the world is one of the safest places in the entire world. However, with tourists come scammers and even though the chances of being scammed are slim, it is still smart to be up-to-date before travelling to a certain area.
Scammers can be found all over Southeast Asia and if you spend enough time here you’ll inevitably hear dozens of stories from other travellers who’ve been ripped-off at least once one way or another during their trip. After travelling for one year in Asia, we were not immune to getting conned and fell for a few different scams, some of them we’d heard about previously, others we hadn’t.
In Part #1 of this post I describe the most common scams and crimes that you may run into in Southeast Asia and then in Part #2 I share some of the scams we fell for during our year in Asia. Hopefully after reading this you will be able to recognize these scams before they happen to you!
Part #1: Scams in Southeast Asia
Tuk-Tuk Tour Gone Bad
Location: Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, & Other major cities
This is an oldy but a goody so I’ll start with this one. This one is still going on in Bangkok which means people are still falling for it. This is where you have a tuk-tuk driver convince you that he’ll drive you around and show you the best sights around the city. He may take you to one or two of the main sites before you end up being dropped off at one jewellery store after another where you are given the full court press to purchase something so that your guide can earn a commission.
Tip: Be clear from the get-go where you want to be taken and that you do not want to visit any of these souvenir/jewellery shops. If he does take you there, be assertive with him and if he still insists, leave and go flag down another tuk-tuk.
Rigged Taxi Meter
Location: Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We got scammed with this one which I go into more detail near the bottom of this post. The short story with this one is that some of the taxi drivers in Vietnam have rigged meters which are controlled either by a secret button, the horn, or are simply set to go up in price extremely fast. A lot of times they try to obstruct the meter with a bag while keeping your attention out the window by playing faux guide.
Tip: Just make sure you can see the meter during your trip and be especially weary of the taxi drivers meeting you as you get off your bus trip from another country.
Price Change – Ping Pong Shows
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
If you are so inclined to go to one of the notorious ping-pong shows while in Bangkok, be careful. There are countless stories of people going to these shows, being quoted one price at the door (perhaps $20 each including a free beer) and then given a bill at the end of the night for anywhere between $100 to $800. When you refuse to pay, your could be threatened by the shop owner who claims she will call the “Mafia” and have her bouncers rough you up until you pay.
Tip: Avoid these shows for more than just the risk of getting scammed. Among the thriving sex trade in Bangkok the horrific things that these girls (usually sex slaves) have to do to their bodies and conditions they live in are usually horrendous. If you do go, check out the bigger clubs like Super Pussy….yes that’s the name.
“Buy My Baby Formula!”
Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
If you walk around the Pub Street area long enough chances are you are going to be approached by a young woman carrying a baby asking/demanding you come with her to the store to buy baby formula. What happens then is that you will be brought to her preferred store (she will not let you go to any other claiming they don’t have the right formula) she will have you buy it (which will be at an inflated price) then she’ll leave you. After you leave, she brings the formula back to the store keeper, gets some of the money you spent on the formula while the shop keeper keeps the rest.
We didn’t fall for this scam because we were aware of it already and so told the girl politely that we couldn’t help her. Her response to us was not unique as others have told us the same – she blows her freaking top and makes a big scene hoping to make you feel embarrassed.
Tip: When approached by one of these girls, be assertive and just say no and keep walking. Expect her to probably make a scene. While the situation is not a pretty one, there are many better places to put your resources if you really want to help out the community. Check out Joe’s School near pub street, where English speaking foreigners can drop in to one of the classes freely open to local kids hosted each day at 5 pm (except Sundays) and help out.
Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
One scam that we heard about a lot while staying in Siem Reap was about the number of fake orphanages popping up around the city. The scam usually goes something like this: most commonly a tuk tuk driver or perhaps just someone on the street will approach you and talk about their orphanage needing food and donations. They will then take you to one of these orphanages but not before getting you to buy loads of food before arriving. After touring the orphanage (which may or may not contain true orphans) they will ask for money in addition to your food donation. The food is returned to the vendor who’s in on it (just like the formula scam described above) and they collect their money and of course the money you donate will go straight into their pockets, not to the kids.
Tip: There are a lot of very worthwhile and well-run charitable causes in Cambodia to donate to and support but do your research before donating. We were pretty impressed with the level of expat participation in local NGOs in Cambodia, very inspiring – check it out.
Common Crimes in Southeast Asia
The Big Swipe
Location: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
This one is not so much a scam as a common crime to be aware of. It is very common for men on motorbikes that speed through District 1 (the backpacker district) of Ho Chi Minh City to grab purses, necklaces, backpacks, phones, cameras or anything else of worth right off your body. I witnessed this first-hand as a woman from Belgium had her iPhone out and was texting while walking down the main backpacker strip and a man on a motorbike grabbed it right out of her hands and sped away.
Tip: Be aware of your surroundings and don’t flash anything expensive around while walking around District 1 or anywhere in Asia for that matter. Keep your bag close to you with your hand on top, preferably on the opposing side of oncoming traffic. But most of all be inconspicuous with your high value gear and sensitive to your environment, that $400 iPhone is worth a few month’s wages to a lot of people.
Stuff Going Missing From Bags on Buses
Location: Throughout Southeast Asia
Again, not a scam but common enough to take note of. We’ve heard of many people having their stuff stolen from their bags while on buses.
Tip: Never ever leave your bag unattended on a bus even if they driver says it is ok to leave things on board. Use your judgement on certain bus trips as to whether you should hold on to something expensive like a laptop or a camera as that just puts a big target on you for any pickpockets and thieves on board.
Rare but Very Dangerous Taxi Ride in the Philippines
Location: Throughout Philippines
This one is rare but is something we were made aware of by a couple different taxi drivers in Cebu only a few months ago. What we were told is that recently taxi drivers in the white taxi cabs steal from their customers without them knowing. When the passenger isn’t paying attention they spray something into the air conditioning vents which the passenger then breathes in because the vents have been positioned towards them before hand. The passenger passes out, the driver robs them and leaves them on the side of the road. We haven’t actually heard of this happening from other travellers but we just wanted to put this one out there so that people are aware because we heard this from a couple different drivers in Cebu. We took white taxis twice while there and had no issues other than one of them trying to charge us more than he should have which is really as common as backpacker telling you they are from Holland (very common, lol).
Tip: Try to find a Yellow Taxi if possible but if you can’t, be on your guard just in case.
Pickpockets in Crowded Areas
Location: Throughout Southeast Asia
This one kind of goes without saying as there are pickpockets all over the world but in parts of Southeast Asia like Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia they can be pretty damn skilled. I know a couple different travellers who were pickpocketed in Ho Chi Minh City with one luckily only having a map stolen from her pocket while touring the War Museum.
Tip: As always, be aware of your surroundings especially in crowded areas like subways, trains, markets and anywhere else where people are bumping up behind you. Some travellers like the money belts which do help, especially when you’ve been drinking. Basically, just remember they are professionals so don’t make it easy for them to grab your wallet or open your purse.
Part #2: Scams We Fell For
Getting Scammed #1
The Hyper Inflated Taxi Meter
Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
After getting off our 14+ hour night bus travelling from Nanning, China to Hanoi, we were dropped off early in the morning at a spot resembling a bus station in no way whatsoever. Alyse and I, still groggy from the sleeping pills we had taken the night before, got off the bus and of course had only one thing on our minds, get to our guesthouse and go back to bed!
There was a lineup of taxis waiting for the bus to arrive and from what we later learned, are all most likely working for or with the mafia which controls much of Northern Vietnam.
We first tried to negotiate a rate with the taxi driver as we knew after two months of travel to always negotiate your rate before you get into a tuk-tuk or taxi unless you want to risk having a massive disagreement later on. This guy was super calm and friendly telling us not to worry and that he has a meter and then showing us that it worked. So we got in, drove toward our guesthouse, which of course he took the more “scenic” route, common for taxi drivers anywhere in the world but what he also did was much worse.
He cleverly placed my backpack in the front seat so it kind of blocked the meter while also keeping our attention outside as he pointed out landmarks to us. When we arrived at our guesthouse after a ten minute or so ride, we were shocked to see our meter read 700,000 Dong ($35 CAD).
Now at this point Alyse and I were bagged, still groggy from the sleeping pills and stupidly hadn’t looked into the exchange rates before getting to Vietnam. So I asked him if that was right, to which he replied stone faced that it was. I paid him and then after getting to the guesthouse checked the conversion and realized we had just been scammed big time. What should have a been a 35,000 Dong ($2 CAD) trip ended up being a pricey and avoidable mistake.
From what we’ve learned since, these rigged meters are controlled by a button close to the driver that they push when the passenger is not looking to make the price jump up, sometimes going up when they honk their horn (i.e., a LOT in Vietnam). Other meters are set to rise much more quickly than they should.
The first, but certainly not the last we’d see on our trip but just like our other run-in’s with scammers I can only feel that karma will catch up with them. Also, although $35 is a lot (60%) of our daily budget, it really isn’t that big a deal but that $35 to the Vietnamese cab driver probably made his whole week, if not more.
Tip: Always be a little wary of taxi drivers who prey on travellers just getting off long bus rides (usually night buses) who are tired, confused, and may not know the currency rates just yet. These guys are notorious for scams just about any where you go. Be sure to negotiate the rate before hand with the driver, or at least speak to a local who can tell you how much it should be for the trip. If you can, contact your guesthouse and find out what you should be paying to get to them. We have heard from other travellers that they have had the same scam pulled on them in Ho Chi Minh City so be careful there as well.
Another tip in a number of Southeast Asian countries is to try to go with Bluebird Taxi Company (operating in a few different countries like Vietnam and Indonesia) as they have a reputation as being the most honest and reliable. They have a distinctive sky blue colour.
Getting Scammed #2
“Come Visit My Monastery”
Location: Yangon, Myanmar
Because Myanmar is still relatively new to the tourist game, the scams thankfully are not widespread enough to report. However there is one that we fell for in Yangon that I later found out is happening at a few different spots around the biggest city in the country.
We were approached by two men at the Chauktatgyi Pagoda who spoke very good English (usually not a good sign as far as scams go but not always the case) who walked with us through explaining the history and symbolism of the Reclining Buddha. They were extremely friendly and knowledgable about everything and so we talked with them for over an hour. They explained how they were studying at the monastery next door and wanted to show us around.
At this point we would normally have left sensing a scam, but with 10 months in Southeast Asia under our belt we thought these guys seemed honest, and because we had been in Myanmar for almost a month we kind of let our guard down. We went with them, they toured us around the cooking and sleeping areas, showed us the meditation area, and explained the history of the monastery. After the Pagoda and monastery they had spent almost two hours with us. As we approached the road they explained that they have many orphans living at the monastery and they need money for food and medicine and it would be good for our karma to donate.
We figured they would be asking for a donation at some point so we weren’t surprised by this. What we were surprised with was after we handed them what we thought was a pretty solid 20,000 Kyat ($20 CAD) they didn’t appear satisfied with this and asked for more. Asking us to donate at least another $20 USD saying they need American dollars to pay for medicine. Alyse and I politely declined explaining that we were comfortable with the amount of our donation. After leaving them I couldn’t help but feel like we were hustled and after checking out a few stories online I realized we probably were. Apparently this scam happens at the Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon’s most popular tourist destination) as well as on Mandalay Hill during sunset.
Tip: Be wary of guys who speak excellent English and hang around the tourist spots claiming to be monks and then asking to tour you around their monastery. They often claim they are studying at the monastery or are even dressed as a monk and will ask for money, something true Buddhist monks would normally never do.
After having now travelled to every country in Southeast Asia we can state for a fact that Southeast Asia is safe. Yes, you do hear of scams and crime happening to other travellers but they are relatively rare and decidedly non-violent given how many backpackers travel to the area every year. You truly have a much bigger chance of having something stolen by another backpacker at a guesthouse than by a local.
The people we have encountered in Asia are overwhelmingly honest and genuine with a strong concern for family and community that extends to a pride and concern for the welfare of visitors. It is such a special place and we believe the risk of having something nasty happen to you is definitively lower than many other parts of the world. Don’t let any rare horror stories keep you away!
The same principles apply to staying safe travelling as they do at home: stay aware of your surroundings, don’t go out by yourself in an area you’ve never been at nighttime, and trust your gut instincts.
It is important to remember where you are in the world and how that iPhone or DSLR you are carrying around is basically like a brick of gold to people living on less than $100 per month, don’t tempt them!
When we were scammed I was initially angry but after calming down I realized that although that $30 tricked out of our pockets really sucked, we weren’t harmed and found soft comfort in the hopes it would go a lot further for the person now holding it than an excursion or a bunch of stupid souvenirs for us.
I wanted to share these scams in Southeast Asia so that you are able to recognize and avoid them yourself.
Cheers and thanks for reading,
Ross & Alyse