Planning a trip to South-East Asia? Maybe you’re spending a few weeks exploring Vietnam or soaking in the sun in Thailand. Maybe you’re off to beautiful Cambodia or heading to Indonesia for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Wherever you’re headed, you’re going to encounter the occasional scam. Some are harmless while others are far more sinister. The good thing is, they can all be avoided by knowing what to look out for and what to do when they happen. Here’s a look at 12 common scams encountered in South-East Asia and how you can avoid them!
If you’ve experienced a scam not on this list, please share it in the comments below and your tips for avoiding it!
1. The Happy Ending
If you fall for this, you’re a stone cold idiot. This one plays out as follows…. you (most likely a solo male traveller) are approached by a massage parlor employee offering a too-good-to-pass-up price on a happy ending massage. You gleefully agree and follow them to the parlor. You’re immediately flanked by thugs who walk your horny ass to the nearest ATM and force you to withdraw money, which they steal, together with all the money you already have on you. If the goons don’t get you, a dodgy cop might fleece you with threats of arrest for illegal activities and you, not wanting your mum to find out, agree to pay whatever it takes to get out of this situation!
How to avoid it: Ummm, gee, I don’t know… maybe don’t agree to get jerked off by a stranger on the street?
2. The Dodgy Tuk Tuk Tour
This is a favourite in Bangkok and a true classic! You meet a Tuk Tuk driver who offers to show you around the fine city of Bangkok at a reasonable rate. You say yes and climb aboard the trusty Tuk Tuk. It starts off well but before you know it you’re being pushed into a store selling jewelry or knock-off handbags, for example. You may be shut inside the store and, feeling trapped and cornered, be pressured into buying something at a crazy price. Yowzah!
How to avoid it: Don’t accept the offer a tour from Tuk Tuk drivers, simply use them to get from point a to point b. If you are taken to a shop, refuse to go inside and calmly but assertively walk away from the situation.
3. The Hungry Baby
This scam is popular in Cambodia, especially Siem Reap and Phnom Penh (where I came into contact with it). You’re approached on the street by a young girl clutching a weary baby. Instead of asking you for money, the girl will cleverly ask you to buy her baby formula. This appeals to even the most sensible of travellers! The scam is that after you buy the formula from the store she guides you too, she then returns it and she and the store owner split the profits. This goes on all night.
How to avoid it: Just say no, even though it might feel difficult. You aren’t helping the girl or the baby in any way by buying the formula, you’re just adding to an industry that encourages women to skip an education and beg on the streets instead, falling into the hands of local gangs. It’s also important to note, this one also takes the form of the young girl asking for you to buy her a meal. You’ll be slapped with a huge bill at the end of the night and she’ll earn a cut!
4. The Friendly Local
This one happens all over the place. It happened to a friend of mine and has been attempted on me three times. You’re out and about taking in the city, next thing you’re approached by one or more friendly locals who may just get chatting with you or may ask you take their photo or something. You chit-chat with them and they invite you to do something with them, this could be to enjoy a traditional tea ceremony, join them for dinner and drinks or just have a few cold beers at a bar. Whatever the activity, at the end of it, you’re hit with a huge bill for $700 or more that you are forced to pay.
How to avoid it: Just say no. It’s sad, because you may be missing out on a genuine offer from a local one day, but the reality is you can’t trust anyone. So as soon as someone starts to run this game on you, you just say no. Don’t reason with them, don’t engage, just say no and walk away. These people are professionals, they will say and do whatever it takes to lure you in. Be aware! Don’t cave!
5. The Slight Of Hand
You need to get money exchanged, so you head to a local
magician currency exchange bureau. You request the equivalent of 1,000,000 Indonesian Rupiah be exchanged. In front of your very eyes, the magician currency exchange person counts out your 1,000,000 while you count along with them, confident you’re receiving 1,000,000. It’s not until you get back to your hotel or recount your cash later you realise you’ve been hit by a smooth criminal and had 400,000 ripped off your total!
How to avoid it: I prefer to withdraw money from an ATM each time, rather than exchange. If you absolutely must exchange, count it again yourself after they hand it over to you, but before you put it in your wallet/leave the store.
6. The Malfunctioning Taxi Meter
Another classic scam for all you fine scam connoisseurs out there. This one is pretty simple, you jump into a taxi and find the price on the meter goes up very quickly, leaving you with an exorbitant taxi fare at the end of your journey! In some cases, your view of the fare meter may be obscured so you don’t notice it happening until it’s too late.
How to avoid it: The best way is to agree on the price before you get in, if possible. It also pays to ask your hotel how much a fare from point a to point b should cost you and confirm with the driver, before you get in, the approximate cost of the journey. If something feels off or the driver is being weird about it, don’t get in.
7. The Scooter Pirate
This happened to a friend of mine and while it’s technically not a scam, you do need to be aware of it in the bigger cities of Vietnam and Cambodia. Picture yourself walking along the streets of Hanoi, not a care in the world, your camera and bag hanging off your shoulder, your hand firmly gripping the straps of both. Now, picture yourself in the street crying because a Scooter Pirate whizzed past and grabbed both right off ya shoulder and disappeared into the winding streets of Hanoi. They can get away with it cos you’re moving slow and they’re moving real fast. You’re helpless!
How to avoid it: As DJ Khaled would say, “Secure your bag.” Thanks, Khaled. Seriously, though, you have to secure your stuff. I had some local Tuk Tuk drivers in Phnom Penh be really concerned about me driving me around solo, they made me strap my backpack to my body, with the bag to the front of me and the straps done up in my pack. They made me put my wallet and phone in the bag, wrap my arms around the bag and then sealed up all the plastic covers on the side of the Tuk Tuk for extra security/to hide me. It’s serious, you guys. Secure your shit!
8. The Ping Pong Show Price Switch
Bangkok is notorious for Ping Pong Shows and with such a seedy form of entertainment comes scams galore. One common scam involves the old price switch-a-roo, where you’re told the cost of the show is something like $15-$20 plus a free drink. Then, at the end of the show, you’re slapped with a huge bill of around $500 or more! If you refuse to pay you can be threatened by bouncers until you agree to pay.
How to avoid it: Don’t support this industry in any way, shape or form. The human trafficking and sex trades in Bangkok are alive and well, attending these shows just supports them. Don’t go to one. Trust me, it’s not a woman’s preference to perform a sex show for a living.
9. The Tortured Artist
Similar to the one above that leaves you with a huge bill for a meal, this one focuses on art. You’re at an art gallery and strike up a conversation with a local art student whose only art is the con! Burrrrrnnnnn! Anyway, they lure you back to their ‘studio’ so they can show you their skills of an artist and you can have a great experience story to tell your friends back home. Only thing is they’re going to fleece for you a lot of money for a piece of art, pressuring you to pay them.
How to avoid it: Just say no. Don’t go with them. Tell them you hate art and you hate the world.
10. The Ol’ Switcharoo
Again, this one happened to friends of mine. You decide to purchase your sweetie a nice piece of jewelry. So you visit a local jewelry store and spend an appropriate amount of time inspecting the goods to make sure they’re real. You haggle with the store owner and pay an appropriate amount for the product. You hand over the money, they bag it up nice and tight so it won’t be damaged on your journey back home and send you on your way. The only thing is, they switched out your expensive, genuine gold bracelet out for a knock-off.
How to avoid it: Don’t buy jewelry in these places! Guys, come on! Even if they don’t switch it out on you, you’re running the risk of it being a fake anyway. A certificate of authenticity and money-back guarantee are less useful than the toilet paper in your hotel room.
11. The Short Change
This one is really common. When you find yourself moving around a lot, dealing with different currencies and varying denominations, it gets overwhelming. It’s very easy to mistake 10,000 for 100,000 and hand over the wrong note entirely. Crafty scammers are more than willing to take advantage of this!
How to avoid it: Take some time to familiarise yourself with the local currency before spending a single Dong. Look at the notes, study them and work out what each is equivalent to in your native currency. When paying, take your time to slowly and carefully count it out and double check each note’s value.
12. The Look At These Cute Kids!
Children in South-East Asia are irresistibly adorable! Sadly, there are bad people out there who have realised this and exploit young kids. Scams involving kids can take the shape of using them to distract you while you’re pickpocketed, having them sell items to tourists outside of frequently visited spots like Angkor Wat, using them to establish a fake orphanage and arranging for you to visit and donate money or having them beg on the streets.
How to avoid it: Don’t accept offers to visit orphanages from people on the street, in fact, be wary of visiting an orphanage altogether as these children are humans, not a tourist attraction. Don’t encourage the cycle of purchasing anything from children or by giving them money or food. Honestly, it just encourages them to skip school and hustle instead. If you want to do good, donate your money to official charities that actually help them get education, food and basic necessities.
I just want to end this blog post with this…. The world is full of people looking to take advantage, but the few do not represent the many. So don’t let these scams turn you off travelling through South-East Asia. The people of these places are beautiful, friendly, welcoming and genuinely lovely people, many of whom depend on tourists to support their families. Rather than being afraid, be educated! Read as many blog posts about scams as possible, learn what they are, learn how to avoid them and you’ll be fine!
Watch: our ‘Road to Phnom Penh’ video
Phoebe Lee is a travel writer and award-winning blogger with a love for storytelling. Phoebe creates practical, fun and engaging written content designed to inspire and energise travel-lovers and dreamers. Follow her and Matt’s adventures at home and around the world, right here on Little Grey Box and through Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.