As amazing a place as Southeast Asia is to travel, the reality is that scams are frequent. You’re in a new place with a different language, currency, and customs, making you an easy target for devious locals looking to take advantage. While many locals are genuinely friendly, others just see tourists as stacks of cash, and countless amounts of travelers have fallen prey to their trickery. During my five months backpacking Southeast Asia, I witnessed far too many people being ripped off, and I was grateful for the warnings I’d received from other travelers before I began. The first step towards avoiding scams is to be aware of them, so here’s a list of common scams that I encountered in Southeast Asia, with tips on how to avoid them:
1. Pickpocketing. Unfortunately pickpocketing is very common, especially at night. While it can occur anywhere, it’s more common in big cities, and I had many friends who were pickpocketed in Bali (specifically Kuta Beach), Hanoi, Saigon, and Bangkok. The best bet is to leave valuables locked in your hostel, but I kept everything in a zippered pocket inside a zippered purse, and I never lost anything. Be especially careful of your belongings when you take busses – sleeper busses in particular. Always carry all your valuables with you onto the bus and lock your backpack closed while you sleep, and I’d even recommend keeping the most important things in a money belt. One friend was robbed of 3000 baht (~$100) out of the backpack at her feet while she was asleep!
2. Drive-by Robberies. Sometimes the thieves are not so subtle… In Saigon, a friend was standing on the street looking up directions, when a man on a motorbike grabbed her phone out of her hand as he drove by. In Hue, a man drove my and tried to take my purse, but quickly let go when he saw it was cross-body. Keep valuables out of sight when you’re on the streets unless you really need them, and girls, wear your purse across your body instead of over your shoulder.
3. Motorbike Drivers. Another kind of motorbike robbery you have to watch out for occurs when you’re paying after they’ve driven you somewhere. It happened many times in Vietnam that motorbike drivers either drove off without giving change, or grabbed all the bills from the person’s wallet as they were counting payment. If you get a ride on the back of a motorbike anywhere in Southeast Asia, I’d highly recommend having exact change (you should negotiate the price beforehand) and putting this money in a separate pocket, so the driver never sees the rest of your money.
4. Motorbike Rentals. If you travel Southeast Asia long enough, chances are you’ll rent your own motorbike at some point, because at a typical rate of $3-5/day, they’re the cheapest and most convenient way to explore. However, oftentimes when you return your bike, the rental company will find a “new” scratch or some other form of damage and charge you a ridiculous amount of money to fix it. Alternatively, you may purchase a motorbike and plan to sell it when you’re finished, but find that it breaks down within days, and you end up spending lots on maintenance fees. Before you rent or buy a bike, carefully test it out and inspect it for any damage, and make sure you have it down in writing. If renting, it’s a good idea to go for the older bikes instead of the shiny new ones where a scratch will be more obvious. And it’s always a good idea to leave just a copy of your passport instead of your real one if you can.
5. International drivers license. Despite the fact that you didn’t break any road rules, police in Southeast Asia frequently pull you over if you’re driving a motorbike, simply because you look like a tourist. When they ask for your license, you’ll have to pay a bribe (which they’ll call a “fine”) for not specifically having an international drivers license. This is very common in Bali, but does happen in other areas as well. In Bali I’ve even come across checkpoints, where the police check licenses of anyone that looks like a tourist, but let all the locals through. The easiest way to avoid this is by just getting an international driver’s license before you travel, but alternatively you can try to convince them that your license is actually international. This won’t work in Bali (you’ll have to just suck it up and pay the bribe), but I’ve heard of it occasionally working in other parts of Southeast Asia.
6. Money exchange. If you need to get money exchanged for local currency, re-count the money they’ve given you before leaving the shop. It’s quite common for them to discreetly take some of the money back before physically handing it to you. A friend in Hanoi went to a currency exchange, where the man counted out 1,000,000 dong in front of him. However, as he left the shop, he counted and only had 600,000. In the few seconds between counting out his money and handing it to him, the teller had secretly taken back 400,000 dong! To avoid this, I personally prefer using ATMs, but if you must get money exchanged, double count – even triple count – your money before leaving.
7. Adorable kids. While the kids in Southeast Asia are cute as can be, some of them have unfortunately been trained to rob unsuspecting tourists. One night out in Cambodia, three kids around 7 years old came running over pretending to dance with us. It was distracting with all of them laughing and hopping around, and sure enough, they managed to get $10 out of a friend’s pocket without her even feeling it. A few days later on the beach, one kid yelled and distracted everyone, while another ran up and grabbed a friend’s backpack. Then there’s the infamous “I don’t want money, I just want milk,” line. These kids get you to buy them milk from a shop, and as soon as you leave they’ll give it back to the cashier and split the profits. Most of the kids in Southeast Asia are innocent and loveable, but after witnessing all of the above, I learned to be a little more cautious around them.
8. Drug offers. In this case, just saying “no” has never been smarter. Walking around the streets, you may hear people whispering offers to you such as, “Marijuana? Magic mushrooms?” While it might be legitimate, oftentimes the dealer is working with a cop who’s just around the corner to fine you immediately after you obtain the drugs. The best scenario is you’ll end up with a hefty fine, but it could also end in jail time or worse (just Google “Indonesian drug laws” to see what Southeast Asia’s strictest drug penalties are). Best way to avoid this? Just walk away from the initial offer.
9. Taxi scams. Taxi drivers will frequently drop you off at the wrong hotel, because if you end up staying they’ll get commission. They may use an excuse like “this is the sister hotel” or “that hotel closed and this is the new one.” Or they’ll drive “the long way” to increase the meter. Make sure you know your hotel name and address, and if you don’t have a sim card with data you should download maps.me (an app for maps that work offline) so you can check if you think they’re driving you in circles to rip you off. Another thing to watch out for is false meters. One friend stopped at an ATM in Vietnam for less than a minute, only to find that the meter magically increased by 300,000 dong (about $15). No way was the driver getting away with that one…
10. Ridiculously cheap tuk tuk rides. Tuk tuk drivers (especially near Khao San Road) will offer you a ride for some absurd price, and then drive you along to various shops where they get free petrol and commission on anything you buy. The driver will casually drop in that there’s a shop along the way to your destination, and if you “just look” for 5 minutes he’ll get a free carton of gas. This happened twice to a friend and I, and honestly we didn’t mind stopping by the shops as we’d been doing souvenir shopping anyways. However, after two shops and two tourist attraction sights, we exited to find that our tuk-tuk driver had disappeared and wouldn’t be providing the return transportation he’d promised. He’d gotten 2 free cartons of gas (worth about $6 each) from the shops, commission on our purchases, and then ditched us to find new victims. Terrible, I know. But then we used the scam to our own advantage. We found another tuk tuk driver and asked him to drive us back to Khao San Road, telling him that if he’d drive us for free, we’d stop at a shop for him to get a carton of gas on the way. Free ride for us; free gas for him… win-win for everyone!
11. Border crossing. Oftentimes if you cross borders by land, you’ll get people proposing to process your visa before the border, saying it’s cheaper and easier to get it through them. However, then you reach the border and find that everyone is actually paying less than what you just paid. Or maybe you’ll find that the entire border crossing is corrupt, and you’ll be charged more for the visa regardless. When entering Cambodia from Vietnam, a man offered to process our visas for us early for $37, saying it would make everything faster at the border. We declined and said we’d do it ourselves since we’d done our research and knew the visa should only be $30, but upon reaching the border we were charged $35 each. We argued for a few minutes, but when we could tell they weren’t going to budge without the extra $5 each, we handed it over… There’s really nothing you can do to avoid this except by entering by air. Another thing on the way into Cambodia is we had to get a “health check” where a man in a shack basically took our temperature and asked for $1 each. To that, we literally just said that we didn’t have any money left after paying the visa fee, and he let us in anyways.
12. Fake tourist stops. It seems that more and more places are catching on that unaware tourists are easy sources of money. For example, the slow boat in Laos has recently started letting all the tourists off a few kms away from Luang Prabang, just so that everyone will have to pay for a tuk tuk (around $2 per person) into the city. I was also occasionally told to get off busses at a stop before they reached the city center, only to find out later that if I’d stayed on with the locals I could’ve avoided the extra tuk-tuk charge into the city. Researching where the last stop is beforehand, and then tracking it with offline maps is a great way to avoid this.
13. Tourist menus. Many places in Southeast Asia have a separate (more expensive) menu for tourists. The food will be the same, but the prices might be tripled on the menus written in English. Once I knew about the scam, I found it happening frequently throughout nearly every country, but was able to avoid it by eating with a local (I found that some hostel employees love to take out groups of travelers to eat local food).
14. Fake fortune tellers. This is very common along Khao San Road. As you’re strolling along, a man may tell you something about yourself that actually rings true, and once intrigued, you follow them to hear the rest of your fortune, only to be charged for it afterwards. However, these fake fortune tellers simply use generalist statements that would be true for most travelers. I was told that I was sacrificing finding love for traveling but that I would find it soon, whereas my friend was told that she was being very indecisive about a big decision. Both of these broad statements would be true for many backpackers along Khao San Road. The man then tried to lead us to his office to give us details and advice (and charge us money), but we said no and walked away.
15. Bus Tickets. With all the busses you’ll take throughout Southeast Asia, at some point you’ll probably get one that’s different than described. Maybe you paid for a “VIP” sleeper bus and ended up on a regular bus with no AC and water dripping from the ceiling and a broken chair that won’t even recline. Or maybe you paid for a sleeper bus to find that all the seats were occupied by locals and you have to sleep on the floor. There’s not too much you can do about this unless you want to get off and pay for another bus, but I found that booking through hostels usually worked well, as they’ll generally want to avoid any bad reviews and will try to book you on busses with other tourists.
Aside from all the scams I witnessed during my time in Southeast Asia, I also came across some very friendly and helpful locals who made me realize that not everyone was trying to rip me off. When I lost my motorbike key in Asia and the company easily could have charged me, instead they brought me a new motorbike completely for free. And when my backpack zipper wasn’t completely closed, locals came up and closed it for me, warning me to keep my belongings safe.
In case you do get scammed, try to look at the overall picture and realize that in the grand scheme of things it’s not so bad. $200 may be a lot to you as a budget backpacker, but you can easily make that money back in the future.
There are always risks in traveling, but that’s no reason not to do it. The incredible experiences you’ll have in Southeast Asia far outweigh the risks, so now that you know what to expect, don’t forget to pack your common sense, and go have that adventure you’ve been dreaming about.
As always, keep on livin’ pura vida ✌