ONE of the world’s most popular travel destinations, Asia is renowned for its scams targeting tourists. But what is it like to actually be at the centre of such a con?
Having spent the past five years as a travel journalist based in Asia, I’ve found myself caught up in a range of tourist scams. Some were clumsy and quite obvious, others were intricate and brilliant.
I was coaxed into a karaoke joint in Shanghai and handed a crazy bill, tricked into buying fake marble in India, extorted by police in Phnom Penh, led into an alleyway ambush in Saigon, and driven in circles in a Bangkok taxi as the driver demanded huge money.
THE MARBLE SCAM (AGRA, INDIA)
I still marvel at the sophistication of this scam, and wonder exactly how many people were involved.
Agra is soaked in travellers because it is home to India’s number one tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal. This glorious building is renowned for its extraordinary marble inlay work and right outside its eastern exit are a row of shops selling marble ornaments.
As I used this exit a young Indian man grabbed my hand. “Come with me sir, I will show you Agra’s finest marble,” he told me.
Almost immediately a middle-aged man rushed out from his marble shop, pushed away the younger chap, and yelled that he had warned him not to scam tourists. When several people jumped in to aggressively defend the young man, the owner ushered me into his shop, away from the commotion.
I was relieved and thanked the owner, who went on to explain how embarrassed he was about the scamming of tourists and how hard it made life for honest brokers such as himself.
I felt sorry for the owner and so decided to buy a small marble elephant, which I bargained down from $80 to $40. We shook hands and I walked towards the main road, where I saw two small boys selling ornaments identical in every way to the one I’d just purchased. “They’re only 300 rupees ($6)?” I asked incredulously, when they told me the price. One of the boys answered: “Yes, they’re cheap, they’re not real marble”.
It’s remarkable the power beautiful women can hold over men.
In the wee hours of the morning I was walking home alone from a Shanghai nightclub when I spotted three gorgeous young Chinese women heading in the same direction. They kept glancing over at me while smiling and giggling so, being single, I approached them. In broken
English they asked me to drink with them at a bar.
We entered an unmarked building, went up several floors in an elevator and arrived in a karaoke club. My new friends guided me into a private karaoke suite where, immediately, we were served several huge platters of food and a big tray of cocktails.
Alarm bells started to sound in my head. “Who’s paying for all of this?” I asked them. Two of the girls shrugged, while the other had a very nervous reaction, which made me suspicious. I walked out to the bar’s front desk and asked to see the menu.
A burly bald Chinese man shoved into my hand a bill which left me in shock. “2000 Yuan ($400) — are you crazy?” I yelled at him. Repeatedly I told him there was “no way” I was paying that much money.
Then he knocked loudly on the counter and three more chunky Chinese men appeared and surrounded me. It was time to pay the bill. I’d been seduced into a wallet-lightening scam.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. My Phnom Penh-based mate Erin told me if I planned to ride a motorbike in the Cambodian capital I’d quickly encounter the local police.
“They’ll be standing on the roadside waving at you to pull over so they can squeeze cash out of you, but don’t stop for them, just keep riding,” she said.
Later that day, as I cruised on a Honda scooter through downtown Phnom Penh, I was confronted by exactly this scenario.
I thought about ignoring the waving policeman but took what I thought was the safe option and stopped.
“No. No. Your headlights are on. Cannot do,” the small policeman told me.
While families of four, without helmets on, flew past us all crammed on to one motorbike, this officer was more concerned that my dim headlights were a distraction in the midday sun.
“That’s a fine, 30 US dollars,” he told me.
I argued, briefly. He told me I could pay $100 if I wanted to take up his time with conversation.
Thirty dollars it was, then. The next day I came across another waving policeman — he quickly disappeared in my rear view mirror.
THE ALLEYWAY SCAM (HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM)
There are times when it’s a curse to be a very large human, and occasions when it’s a blessing. This time it was the latter.
In Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker mecca, Pham Ngu Lao Street, I was about to enter my small hotel when a young, scrawny man tapped me on the arm.
“Front door is closed for work, need to use back door,” he told me, gesturing for me to follow him to the rear of the hotel.
He was so confident that I did just that, walking behind him around a corner into a cramped alleyway. Four young men then lurched out of a doorway to scare me.
But, as it turned out, it was they who were scared. It became clear the first man’s job was to lead an unsuspecting foreigner into an ambush, but he had failed by picking a 197cm-tall
Australian who weighed literally twice as much as any of the men.
They looked up at me, smiled sheepishly, pointed me out of the alley and vented fury at their friend.
THE TAXI SCAM (BANGKOK, THAILAND)
I knew the taxi driver was scamming me, and he knew that I knew he was scamming me. Yet the contentious taxi ride continued for another 30 minutes.
I was going across Bangkok to look at an apartment, using a route I knew well due to my years of living in the Thai capital.
Distracted by the work I was doing on my laptop computer I didn’t notice when the driver deviated. I looked up to find us hurtling along an expressway in a foreign part of Bangkok.
“Where are we going?” I asked the driver. After speaking decent English earlier, he suddenly couldn’t understand a word I was saying.
It became clear he was doing laps of inner Bangkok on its expressways, sending the meter
spiralling. I scolded him in my limited Thai language and warned him I was calling the police. Then he said he, too, was calling the police and proceeded to have an animated conversation with someone on his phone.
Because we were on Bangkok’s elevated expressways, there was nowhere for me to get out safely, even if he had agreed to stop the car. Eventually I lost my temper and screamed in his face as loudly as I could.
He took the next exit off the expressway, came to a screeching halt on a roadside and pointed at the meter. It read 600 Baht ($25) when the designated trip should not have cost more than 100 Baht. I threw 300 Baht at him and stormed off.