Tuesday, 30 September 2008

A Litany of Scams

To truly get inside the mind of an accomplished scammer you must first serve yourself up as a delectable juicy morsel. So thorough is my ability to get served, I now have a list of warnings and common scams operating in South East Asia to share with you. Please do not feel pity. My intentions were always noble and I have done a fine job in redistributing my wealth to others.

The truly astounding fact is that in most cases we had prior knowledge of 90% of these swindles before we left home. Traveling long distances, queuing, disturbed sleep and a liver struggling to process last nights bar top frolics can all exacerbate ones ability to be taken for ride.

These scams have all been tasted and tested throughout our trip through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. However I suspect that similar currency hijacking exists throughout our known galaxy so sit back, enjoy and hold on to your wallet.

THAILAND

The pushy Bangkok travel agent.

Bangkok is the gateway for most people visiting South East Asia. The travel agents in particular have a really bad reputation. I am sure there are some good ones out there we just didn't find one.

We entered the travel agent wanting two tickets to Koh Samui

But in the space of half an hour we managed to sign our selves up for 20 days of accommodation, travel and sundries. Our itinerary was scribbled on a never to be seen again piece of paper. We received our tickets the next day in a series of envelopes. Religious holidays were cited as an excuse why we would find it hard to find accommodation without our agents help. By a rough calculation we payed twice the list price on every single item. But we could not reconcile correctly because we received no itemised account. Conveniently our travel agent had gone home on a holiday the next day when we collected our tickets.

Needless to say we are going to have a great time enacting revenge on our return to Bangkok booking 60 days of five star travel, stalling and generally making nice nuisances of ourselves to the very same travel agent. Think of it as self enforced karma.

Unseen Travel Bangkok Naughty Naughty Naughty.

Island Travel

After a ferry ride which often will be on the back of a twelve hour bus ride all one wants to do is get to your accommodation. In general the islands are very small. It does not take half an hour to get anywhere and the roads are perfectly adequate for moderately fast travel. You will be sharing your trip with other travelers. Negotiate as a group if you can and wait till you get off your ferry. There will be no shortage of people willing to help. Confidence men actually operate on the ferrys taking money from travellers and double your money by being the nice guys in the middle. It is amazing what a polo shirt can do to make someone look semi official.

Border Crossings

Border crossings are particularly bountiful for the practiced grifter. I have the following bullet points to make these painless.

  • Know how much a visa costs
  • Have plenty of passport photos ready
  • Don't get any currency changed by a helpful stranger
  • Do not believe a word about a lack of ATMs, financial services or a regular power supply in your intended destination
  • Do not accept help from anyone who is not behind a counter or is part of your tour party
  • Know your exchange rates, have them written down

In addition be particularly wary in the immediate vicinity of a border crossing. You are most likely to be preyed upon around borders.

LAOS

Laos in general was pretty laid back. The only scam I can list could have been a mistake or genuinely mischievous.

Vanishing Clothing.

I lost a lot of clothes in Laos and it can all be traced back to using laundry services. Thankfully as I lost more and more, my clothing accounting improved. If you wanted to dodge this scam; count your clothes before you give them away or take a quick digital photo of them laid out on a bed.

I suspect my clothes are now being worn proudly from one end of Laos to the other so I am not completely aggrieved.

VIETNAM

Vietnam it would appear is in a perpetual state of war; foreigners are routinely financially liberated.

Hanoi Taxi & Hotel Scam

Thankfully we knew enough about Vietnam to dodge this bullet but the lengths we needed to take are worth rewriting.

  • Know where you are staying and have its address. We recommend the Tin Tin hotel in the old quarter
  • When you are dropped off at the wrong hotel check the name on the hotel
  • Be forceful with the driver and get them to take you to your desired hotel
  • Give the driver the money you agreed on not a new per person amount
  • Have both currencies handy so you do not have to rely on a drivers dubious exchange calculation

Hanoi Cheap Cheap Accommodation

More general advice here which is worth knowing about. If you go cheap in Hanoi you had better agree on going with the hotels tour services. If you do not, you can count on having a hard time when you check out. It is worth paying a bit more and sorting out tours by yourself.

Roadside selling

Be prepared to give your neck a thorough work out. A firm no and shake of a head is generally enough to discourage people but in tourist havens like Nha Trang the surge of salesmen is relentless. You are not even safe in a restaurant as they will come in and try to sell you all manner of things right at your table.

Unfortunately this is just modern day Vietnam. I did have one idea that might work. Wearing a pair of dark glasses, carrying a cane and leading a labrador might flag you as suitably blind and therefore not a good target.

The Ultimate Confidence Scam

To this day I do not know if this was a scam. It was so well executed that if it was I tip my hat to the gentleman that played it on me. It started with an innocent walk to find an internet cafe. I was gently accosted by a man who had mistaken me as a member of his New Zealand extended family. He proceeded to tell me he had a couple of hours to kill and would I come for a drink with him. Wanting to further my traveling experience I promptly hopped upon his scooter and we headed off to a river side bar.

A couple of bars later I had *learned* about this fellows family, his interests and he was also a writer or sorts and being the first writer I had met on my travels this in particular got me excited. Alarm bells should have rung when he told me he was a foreign currency collector and how he attempted an unsuccessful currency swap. He got me to write his wife a happy birthday note for his book of writing, it was conveniently her birthday. I then said I would like to return to my hotel and stop at an internet cafe. On our way home we stopped at a liquor store so he could buy his wife a bottle of wine. In a beer induced stupor I agreed to buy his wife a bottle of birthday wine which conveniently cost the total amount of money which was in my wallet. I suspect the wine was exchanged back less a percentage after I was dropped off.

The tale written above is undoubtedly a scam but it was done with such poise and grace that it felt completely natural. A canny old writer bugger to be sure.

CAMBODIA

Cheap TUK TUK

Crime in Cambodia is organised. At the lowest rung of the crime ladder are the tuk tuk drivers. We had a particularly ugly situation with a tuk tuk driver in Phenom Penh, He conveyed us to our guest house without a hitch for nothing. He did not accept any money and then agreed to take us to some do some tourist type things the following day.

Unfortunately for him over night we had hatched competing plans which were not fully realised until it was time to leave our guest house the next morning. We tried to pay our friendly tuk tuk driver for the previous days trip plus a generous bonus which would have more than covered his time, and then explained we had to go with other people. He got really ugly and really angry, he would not accept our money and I made the cultural mistake of throwing the money on the ground.

We learned afterwards that this is a cultural no no. We also learned that the tuk tuk driver believed that he owned us for our entire stay in Phenom Penh. If you need to organise a tuk tuk do it through your guest house because at least then the guest house can enforce some security and you have a channel for hearing any disagreements.

Do not accept free rides. Nothing comes for free. It is best to pay a bit extra and not have the burden of someone having unreasonable expectations from you the next day.

Charity Work

If you are feeling particularly humane and want to give blood, visit an orphanage or make a donation do your best to research your charity first. We have heard of the following.

  • Donated blood being sold for a premium instead of being used for free transfusions
  • Children being hired out to be dressed in rags for local mafia run orphanages

There are a lot of beggars in Cambodia. This is distressing but if you look a bit closer you will often notice the beggars are carrying large wads of cash. They are also often carrying shopping and I suspect retirement age women will take babies out whilst baby sitting to make for a more compelling sell. DO NOT give any money because if you give some to one you then will be hounded for the rest of your stay by all the beggars in your area. It is a well organised business for them.

There are a lot of NGOs operating in Cambodia looking for places to spend money. Rest assured there are procedures in place so no one needs to go hungry. Even a cash strapped tourist.

Conclusion

Be aware, be alert and be cautious.

Furthermore if you want to feel my plight without leaving your computer, donate some money or click on a google ad. I have learned from the best.


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