There’s no avoiding scams while traveling in Southeast Asia, especially in popular tourist destinations like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. Though most of the locals are nice enough, there’s still a number of people who want to separate foreigners from their money and aren’t afraid to resort to shady means to achieve this goal. Fortunately, most of the scams in Southeast Asia are opportunistic and predictable, which means they’re easy enough to avoid. Here’s a rundown on some of the more common scams you might encounter in Southeast Asia, and how to avoid them.
Unless you’re in a fancy store with properly marked prices and a barcode system, haggling is expected in Southeast Asia. If you’re an obvious foreigner and struggle to speak the local language, you can expect be quoted a price at least two or three times higher than the fair value for that good or service. Unless you’re really good at haggling, you have no chance of getting the local price, but you should at least be able to get 40% of their asking price.
Haggling isn’t really a scam, however, as it’s more of a skill. What is a scam is when locals quote you one price, then try to charge you another. Sometimes, they do this by taking advantage of their accent or limited knowledge of English. The Thai seller might say he wants fifteen baht for the good, but mumble a bit, then later say that he said fifty. Another scam is hidden or unknown fees. The seller might tell you that a good only costs 100 baht, but when you decide to pay, he mentions there’s a 50 baht processing fee. Sometimes, these fees make sense, but be wary of the seller who makes up fees just get more money from travelers. Just remember to ask up front what the final price will be, and stand firm in that price. Don’t be afraid to argue if they want more money than you agreed upon.
Failing to Use Meters
Taxi drivers know that tourists don’t know the city, which is an easy opportunity to scam them. There’s two ways this can be done. First, the driver might insist that his meter is broken, then quote you a fixed price for the drive. This price is always at least double what the meter would read. Insist that they use the meter, and if it really is broken, find another taxi driver.
Another, more difficult to detect scam happens when the driver uses the meter, but fails to go the most direct route to the destination. Because you don’t know the city, they might take a very long route, resulting in a much higher fare. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to detect this scam by occasionally looking at the map on your smartphone. If you detect a driver doing this, get him to stop the taxi and let you out. You might even consider reporting him to the taxi company, if you’ve lost a good deal of money on the transaction and want to get him into trouble.
Closed Tourist Attractions
This scam is particularly popular in Bangkok and other popular destinations in Thailand, but can happen anywhere. When you’re walking to a destination, you might ask a local for directions, or even be approached by the local without initiating any interactions. They’ll ask where you’re going, then when you tell them, they’ll say it’s closed for a made up Buddhist holiday. Luckily, they’ll say another tourist attraction is open, and they know a guy who can take you there for a good price. The other guy will just happen to be waiting around the corner, and ultimately tries to take you to a destination you didn’t want to go to. Later, he’ll pay his friend a bit of money for referring a customer. This one is easy enough to avoid – just insist of seeing or yourself that the destination is closed. They usually aren’t, even on actual holidays.
Suspiciously Low Pricing
There’s also a less complicated version of the previous scheme, which is particularly popular among tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand. They’ll often to take you around the city for a few hours and show you all the tourist sites for an outrageously low price, often 20 baht. On the way there, however, they’ll stop at a series of destinations you don’t want to visit, usually clothing and jewelry shops. They’ll expect you to at least browse the wares for 10-15 minutes before they’ll continue the journey, and you’ll be constantly dogged by a hyper aggressive salesman. On the plus side, if you manage to not buy anything and don’t mind being hassled by salespeople, the tuk-tuk drivers eventually will take you to your destination for just 20 baht. The drivers make commission if you buy anything in the store, which is why this scam continues to happen.