When visiting unfamiliar places with language barriers and different customs, travelers often find themselves the target of unscrupulous individuals looking to take advantage.
Scams in Southeast Asia are no different; most are based around the naive trust of tourists who are enchanted by the people and the place they are visiting.
The only way to avoid to scams is to know about them in the first place. Here are a handful of common ripoffs to be wary of when traveling around Southeast Asia.
- Read other budget travel tips for saving money.
1. Beggars, Monks, and Students
Some popular scams in Southeast Asia which appeal to your humanitarian side include:
- Some women in northern Thailand smear grime on their baby's face, then walk around with an empty bottle asking for money.
- Popular in Malaysia, men dress in Buddhist monk's robes and roam the city asking for donations for their temples. If you want to donate, do so at the temple itself rather than through an individual on the street.
- Young people claiming to be students that are no longer able to afford their education ask for money to stay in school. In Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, many claim to be art students attempting to sell their work – cheap imitation prints - in order to pay tuition.
2. Scams While Renting Motorbikes
Be cautious when renting motorbikes from shady businesses in Indonesia and Vietnam. One common scam is to be followed by someone from the rental company who also has a key to the lock provided with your scooter. Once parked, they steal it, requiring you to pay for the missing bike.
Less severe but equally as tricky, some rental companies will have someone put a scratch on the motorbike or disable the engine once it is left unattended. You will be required to pay an outlandish repair fee for the damages or to get it started again.
Always check a scooter closely for existing scratches before driving away from the rental lot.
- Read more about this popular Vietnam scam.
3. Cheap and VIP Bus Tickets
Particularly common in the route between Thailand and Cambodia, bus companies advertise low fares to undercut their competition. Once booked, the bus driver deliberately stalls until either the border crossing is closed or the ferry boats have stopped running. Conveniently, the driver knows a good guest house which is doing business with the bus company and deposits the entire lot of passengers there.
Paying to upgrade to “VIP” buses is chancy; many times these buses are conveniently “broken” and you wind up on the regular bus instead – with no refund in the fare difference.
4. Scams While Exchanging Money
Always exchange currency in legal establishments rather than with individuals on the street. In some countries even calculators have been fixed to display wrong information. Money is best exchanged away from borders where rates are inferior.
Never accept torn or damaged bills, these are usually pawned off on foreigners and are difficult to spend later. Always count the money yourself before walking away rather than letting someone else do it.
5. Visa Offices at Borders
In some places - such as near the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos - drivers will take you to an office for processing the visa paperwork before you cross the border.
These offices offer no real value and use the same forms that are available to you for free at the actual border; save money by doing the same paperwork on arrival yourself.
6. Easy Ways To Get Rich
Some scams are more obvious than others, but unwary tourists still fall for them. Con-artists approach visitors, earn their trust, then during friendly conversation begin planting ideas for ways to make money in a country. Usually these business ventures sound simple enough, but if they worked wouldn't the same guys be taking advantage already?
Walk away quickly anytime the words gemstones, cards, or exports are mentioned!
7. Tourist Information Offices
Offices designated with signs such as “tourist information” are rarely legit; they earn commission by sending tourists to restaurants and hotels that charge higher prices to pay the middle-men. Don't believe when they tell you that a place you mention is closed, it probably isn't in their network.
Never ask a driver for recommendations about restaurants or hotels, they will inevitably suggest a place with a higher price where they have family working or receive a commission.
8. Watch Out For the Drivers
Never trust the drivers in any country! Most scams happen near borders and at transportation hubs such as train and bus stations where only locals may know the correct fare to a place.
The best rule is to always agree on a price before getting inside of any wheeled vehicle; don't be afraid to negotiate prices in Southeast Asia. Catching a ride from a smiling local may seem like an act of kindness until they demand money at the destination.
Even finding a “working” meter in a taxi may not mean that you are getting a fair price. Drivers regularly take the longest route or pass up hotels on “accident” so that you will be charged to go around the block.