As you might be guessing from the title, this article is about the most common traveler scams in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is filled with beautiful places that attract thousands of tourists every year and the region is generally safe, but just like every other touristy region in the world, there are a lot of scam artists that make a living by tricking or scamming tourists and you should be aware of what can happen to you. Most locals in these countries are genuinely friendly and warm with tourists, but honestly, there will be a lot of them that will see you as a walking $100 bill. Most of these scams aren’t that dangerous, but some of them can really ruin your trip and you should be aware of them. Here’s a list of the most common traveler scams in Southeast Asia that most tourists fall victim to!
So, if you’re planning a Southeast Asia trip soon, I suggest you read on.
1. The ping-pong show
If you decide to explore Bangkok’s red-light districts, you will see countless people showing you their crazy offers for the night. They will try to lure you into one of their ping pong shows. If you look like you’re hesitating, they will say that you don’t need to pay an entrance and you just need to pay for your drinks and enjoy the show. If you decide to take one of these lucrative offers, chances are you’ll be disappointed and you’ll see some disgusting things inside.
You decide you’ve had enough and ask for the bill only to find out that your 60 baht ($2) bill turned into 2,000 baht ($60). When you try to explain that that’s not what you agreed with the promoter, (who is nowhere to be found) they will say that you need to pay for watching the show.
Solution: Just don’t accept these offers! If you want to see a ping-pong show just go to one of the places that already have a reputation for that. You’re going to pay a similar amount of money, but at least it will be worth it.
2. Adorable kids
I know, kids in Southeast Asia look adorable and harmless. However, some of them have been trained to rob people from their earliest age. One night in a bar in Phnom Penh, five kids were tagging along and dancing around us when I saw one of them taking a $10 bill from my friend’s pocket. She didn’t feel anything! There’s also the milk scam when a kid on the street isn’t asking for money, but for milk and food. You feel sorry for them and go to the store and you buy food for them, only to see that kid returning the things you bought to the market and sharing the profit.
How to avoid it: I know they look adorable and harmless, but always be cautious around kids.
3. Bus traveler scams
There are two most common types of this scam that mostly happen in Thailand and Cambodia. When crossing the border between Thailand and Cambodia, the bus driver might drive slowly on purpose till the border is closed or ferry boats stopped running (if you’re crossing by boat). So we have to stop the bus and rest till the border opens again. And surely it’s a coincidence that one of his friends has a guesthouse close to the border crossing.
The second scam involves VIP tickets. The tellers at most bus station try to pitch the VIP tickets to foreigners. And that’s fine. The thing is most of the time, the VIP bus gets broken and you’re stuck in the regular bus instead, without getting a refund of the price difference.
Can you avoid this scam? There’s not much to do about the first one I guess. Regarding the second one, I always rejected the offer to buy VIP bus tickets and I always traveled by the normal bus. Most of the times, the buses were quite decent.
Related: Things I wish I knew before visiting Thailand.
4. The scooter thief
This is a very common thing in cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I have seen people getting their phones stolen like this on several occasions. The thieves pass by you on a scooter while you’re talking on your phone and they take away your phone bag. They are obviously much faster than you and you can’t do anything about it. Needless to say, finding the thief in these urban jungles is close to impossible.
Solution: I know you must have heard this a million times before, but take care of your things. Hold your bag firm and avoid speaking on your phone when you’re walking down on the main roads.
5. The drug dealer scam
This is a very famous and dangerous scam that can get you in a lot of trouble. A random guy approaches you on the street and he offers drugs to you. You think you could use some weed to relax after a long day and you decide to buy it. Just around the corner, you’re intercepted by a cop that asks for your legitimation and searches through your pockets. Once he finds the stuff, you’re given the chance to bribe him or face the legal consequences. And I’m talking about a big, juicy bribe here, that sometimes goes up to $500 USD.
Quck fix: Just ignore the temptation and don’t trust anyone. Drugs are easy to get off course, but never do that in public, and especially not from a person you just met on the street.
6. The money exchange scam
The money exchange scam is typical for countries whose currency has plummeted, like Vietnam and Indonesia. You go to the money exchange and want to exchange your couple of hundred USD for few millions of the local currency. You and the teller both count the money, you take it and go to your hotel. A few hours later, you realize you only have 600,000 instead of a million.
How to avoid it: if you can’t follow the teller’s quick hands, always count the money twice after receiving them.
7. The cheap restaurant; \ \\\
This one begins when you meet a friendly local at one of the tourist sights. He is unusually friendly and after chit chatting for a while, he offers to show you a good and cheap place to try local food. You accept the invitation, but you’re not aware that this guy knows the restaurant owner and they’re running a scheme. After a few hours you found yourself unconscious, drugged (it was in the food) and moneyless. Something similar, but not so drastic, happened to me in Hanoi.
Solution: Even though this types of scam don’t happen very often and some people might be genuinely nice, it’s the best to decline all such invitations by friendly locals.
8. Tourist information offices
The sign “tourist information” doesn’t have a lot of value in Southeast Asia. In fact, a lot of scammers operate under this name. You will get this from the crazy prices that they are charging. If they tell you that a place you want to go to is closed or something similar, that means it’s just not on their tours. You will probably find yourself in one of these offices on a recommendation of a driver, who acts as a middleman.
Solution: Don’t take the advice of the drivers and do your homework before you visit a place. That way you’ll know how much the visit to a certain sight is worth, thus knowing whether you’re being ripped off or not.
These scams are one of the main reasons to get travel insurance for your trip. However, when choosing a travel insurance provider, you can never be too careful. You need a reliable provider with a great customer service, flexible terms, and the option to get money for your claim ASAP. In my experience, the best deals on the market are offered by World Nomads.
9. The closed monument
You are on your way to visit one of the monuments that were on your list. A tuk-tuk driver asks you where are you going. Even if you decide to ignore him, he’ll tell you that the monument is closed. Or that you are not properly dressed to go there if you’re wearing shorts or a skirt.
If you take the bait he’ll say that he knows a better place to visit. Instead, he’ll take you to a bunch of expensive places, like his friend’s tailor shop, his friend’s restaurant or his friend’s souvenir shop. All of these places will be extremely expensive and he’s getting a commission out of everything you buy.
Solution: If you don’t see for yourself that the monument is closed, don’t believe the tuk-tuk drivers. Additionally, if a tuk-tuk driver offers to take you somewhere for a low price like 20 baht, just walk away. He’ll drive you around to his friend’s shops and only waste your time.
10. The tour guide scam
When visiting some of the great tourist sights in Southeast Asia, like the Grand Palace of Bangkok or Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, you will meet people that will introduce themselves as guides. They won’t charge much, but roughly half of the things they will tell you will be at least questionable.
Solution: Just walk away and don’t let them lure you in one of their traps. The real official guides don’t target individuals and you can usually see them with big groups.
11. The special massage
The target of this scam is usually white or western looking males that are wandering around the town on their own. It starts with a girl that approaches you on the street offering you a ‘special massage’ for a ridiculously low price. You agree and after getting to the ‘saloon’ you are flanked by three big guys that will take you to the ATM and take all of your money… or else! And it might be even worse; there’s a corrupted cop threatening you with arrest. And the choice is either pay the bribe or get arrested.
Solution: You need to be really horny to fall for this one. I know it can be hard, but just say no and move on. There are a lot of other safer places where you can do that. The price will be a bit higher, but at least you’ll get to keep the rest of your money.
12. The border scam
I noticed this one at one of the border passing between Thailand and Cambodia. I arrived at the immigration office and the guy there wouldn’t accept my $30 bill and was even asking for $40. Did I mention that there was a clear writing on the wall behind him stating the price of $30 USD for the visa on arrival?
Solution: They are just waiting for you to lose your patience. You should stand your ground, be patient and not accept to pay anything above the $30 fee.
13. The tea party
This one starts when a group of girls approaches you when you’re walking down the street. They ask you to take a picture of them or use some other innocent ice-breaker. After some chit-chatting, they invite you to a tea exhibition organized by them and their college colleagues.
You go there and taste a few different teas when they start insisting that you should buy one. The issue: a bag costs around $120 USD. These scams were more commonly used in China, but nowadays they appear in Thailand and Vietnam as well.
Solution: Just politely refuse all invites for tea (or any other kind of) exhibition. Finally, another solution for all of these scams is getting off-the-beaten-track. It’s less likely to come across scammers if you’re visiting a place that doesn’t get a lot of tourists.
Helpful resources for visiting Southeast Asia
When it comes to travel insurance in Southeast Asia, World Nomads is always a safe choice.
For traveling around Southeast Asia with train, bus or ferry, I always recommend using Bookaway.
If you want to rent a car in any of the Southeast Asian countries, get up to 25% off with this AutoEurope special offer.
To save on accommodation in Southeast Asia, use this Booking.com offer to get up to 20% off on all bookings.
Did you like this list of traveler scams in Southeast Asia? Did you ever come across a scam that I didn’t mention in this list? Share your experiences in the comments!
Sunday 3rd of February 2019
Very useful post as it alerts the tourists who are visiting the Far East, especially for first time. It is very sad these fraudulent people use kids to target tourists. I don't blame kids because they don't know good or bad as they are very poor and are working on some adult's supervision. I was not knowing that cheap restaurants lace the food with sedatives and rob you. Thanks for keep us alert.
Sunday 3rd of February 2019
Thank you, Yukti- I'm glad you could find some useful information in this article.
Saturday 2nd of February 2019
I should know better but that’s why these scams are successful. We were pickpocketed by kids in Paris. A lot of these scams remind me of those you warned us about in Eastern Europe. I’m so trusting that I would likely accept an invitation to go somewhere so I’m glad you warned me. We’re going to China next month and I’ll be on the lookout for these and the tea scam too.
Sunday 3rd of February 2019
I'm sad to her about your experience, Annick. It's true scams happen everywhere and the least thing I can do is warn people with articles like this one.
Friday 1st of February 2019
I’d heard of a few of this before visiting Thailand. The closed monument scam was one that I was warned about beforehand. I guess because we’re travelling we can sometimes let our guard down. The consequences, as you say, can be pretty bad though!
Sunday 3rd of February 2019
Indeed, David. That's the main reason why I wrote this article- to prepare travelers in the region about some of the worst things that can happen if we're not careful.
Thursday 31st of January 2019
Thanks fr bringing these scams to light it is super useful for a lot of people planning to travel t south east Asia like me. I am from India so I already have a sixth sense about these scams because they are common in my country too but things like the tea party scam or the ping pong show are still good to know. I am always vary of my personal belongings when travelling especially if I see someone coming too close to my personal space !
Friday 1st of February 2019
Thank you, Medha. I'm glad you liked this post :)
Wednesday 30th of January 2019
This is a very informative article, and I will admit that I have not heard of most of these before, so thank you for sharing! I haven't traveled to Southeast Asia yet but plan to within the next couple years. This was a great article to read to help me realized the things I need to start looking into and considering before I go. I found #9 to be especially interesting!
Thursday 31st of January 2019
Thank you, Leah. I hope you have an amazing journey and stay safe :)