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cambodia-cyclo.jpg Traveling in Southeast Asia has something to attract everyone. Sure, it costs a lot to get there and is far away, but the region compensates by offering lush jungle treks, stunning beaches, exotic food and mysterious ruins on the cheap. And, for the most part, some very friendly people.

But on the bad days of your Southeast Asian travels, it will feel like the locals are interested only in separating you from your money. Someone is always trying to sell you something, and haggling (a foreign and often frustrating experience for most Americans) is just a part of doing business over there.

Some people arenít interested in cutting a fair deal with you. Some are just out to scam you or rob you. While most European or American urbanites are already familiar with the nearly universal ploys used to distract the unwary from pickpockets and snatch-and-grab thieves, scamming in the Far East has been raised to a level that regularly takes in even jaded, cynical Westerners. Travelers need to prepare themselves for and adjust to these hurdles, lest sheer frustration ruin their trip. So, here is a handy guide to common scams and dodgy places in Southeast Asia.

THAT TEMPLE/PALACE/MUSEUM IS CLOSED!
laos-monks.jpg If someone says they have been to Thailand, and they havenít experienced this scam, you automatically know they are lying. If you are walking to a popular tourist attraction just about anywhere in that country and pass a group of tuk tuk drivers, odds are very good that one of them will come over and tell you that wherever you are going is closed because of maintenance, a Bhuddist holiday, the Kingís birthday, or whatever other reason he imagines. The driver will then come to your rescue by suggesting that you take a ride with him to a place he knows that is just as good!

Donít worry too much—none of these guys are kidnappers. Instead, they just want to steal your time and money by taking you on a detour to a silk boutique, jewelers, or some other shop. They get a nice commission if you buy something, and invariably these shops are the most overpriced in town. Then they take you to the promised destination. If you didnít buy something, they will ask you for more money than the agreed upon price and get pretty angry if you donít want to pay it.

Never believe any local who tells you something is closed. Always go see for yourself. Also, always negotiate prices for cab, tuk tuk, or motorbike rides before getting into one, and hold your driver to it. Never pay in advance. Donít hesitate to ask where you think you might not be going there. Even if your driver doesnít understand you, it lets him know you are paying attention.

HEY MISTER, WANNA SMOKE?
Many Westerners go to places like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia to enjoy cheap recreational pharmaceuticals in exotic, scenic locations. However, some of these countries have strict, brutal drug laws and medieval prison conditions to go along with them. A common scam is for your seemingly friendly dealer to go tell the police about your recent purchase. The police will bust you shortly thereafter, and either fine you (in countries where that is applicable) or demand a bribe in lieu of throwing you into a dank hole for 10 years. Your dealer gets a cut of that money, and the police invariably keep the rest.

The best rule is simply not to break the law while overseas, especially if you arenít in a country with a liberal attitude towards human rights. However, if you are determined to run stupid risks and pah-tay, follow these two rules. Unless you are in Cambodia (where ďlawĒ is a merely academic concept), never buy more than what you need at that time. Countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia set the amount of drugs they need to find in your possession to label you a drug dealer at a very low level, and are infamous for throwing convicted Westerners into barbaric prisons for long, long terms. Always be wary of the guy who sold them to you, and donít make it obvious where you are going with your recent purchase.

HAGGLING IN VIETNAM: BE WARNED
vietnam-pagoda.jpg Haggling is part and parcel on the culture in this part of the world, and travelers either need to get used to it or just accept being overcharged for everything. However, haggling takes on a wholly new and generally hostile dimension in Vietnam. One of the admirable qualities about Vietnam is that it is full of hard-working, industrious people. Those very characteristics also make them very tough bargainers. A common haggling tactic around the world is that when an impasse is reached, and the customer still thinks the price is too high, the customer walks. Anywhere else in Southeast Asia, this tactic will bring the merchant out of his stall and following you down the street, begging you to come back and haggle some more. Not in Vietnam. Nine times out of 10 those flinty Vietnamese merchants will just let you go, and the 10th time the merchant will gloat about how heíll get the next foreign tourist who comes by!

While not a scam, visitors should realize the Vietnamese drive a hard bargain and tourists invariably get the short end of it. Keep your cool. Either donít buy it or remember how cheap it is compared to prices back home.

MEKONG BOAT MAFIA
One of the most adventurous border crossings in Southeast Asia is traveling overland at the Laos-Cambodian border. For people who are heading south from the scenic, rustic, and incredibly laid-back Si Phon Don area in Laos, it is certainly the most convenient option. The alternative is backtracking hundreds of miles to Vientiane and flying to Cambodia.

The problem with this route is as soon as you enter Cambodia, you given a warm Khmer welcome by the Cambodian Boat Mafia. The roads in the northeastern part of Cambodia are the worst in the entire country and are little more than dirt and gravel embankments featuring expansive pothole gardens. There is no bus traffic, only shared taxis and mini-vans. The alternative is to go by boat down the Mekong, and this is where the boat mafia steps in. They demand up to a massive $50 per person, just for the ride from the Lao border to the first sizable town, Stung Treng. The ride in the reverse direction is a mere $4.

It is a major rip-off, but there is no way around it except returning to Vientiane and flying into Cambodia (which will cost you more than the price-gouging Khmer boat mafia demands).

A related scam that can be found across the region is the boat insurance scam. Sometimes this scammer is working with your boat company, but sometimes he isnít. This is when a man jumps on your boat prior to departure with various shady claims of authority, and says that it is the law for all passengers to buy insurance for the boat ride. He will have forms for you to sign, will want to see your passport, etc. There is no such thing anywhere in Southeast Asia. Donít believe anyone trying to sell you insurance for any reason (could there be a more obvious scam?), and never give anyone your passport outside of the hotel or guesthouse staff, and the proper authorities.

DO NOT GO TO POIPET
The Bangkok-Poipet bus is a scam so infamous, it is a monument to the stupidity of naïve, deep-fried foreigners everywhere that anyone still falls for it. Poipet is a Cambodian town just inside the Thai-Cambodian border, and is the only legal overland crossing point between those two countries. For years, companies have been advertising too-good-to-be-true bus fares to Poipet, which is on the route to Siem Riep and the world-renowned ruins of Angkor.

These cheap buses are no bargain. They take their time making their way to the Cambodian border, turning a half-day ride into a full day ride. By the time you arrive in Poipet, it will be well after dark, and the bus will drop you at a guesthouse that has arranged a deal with the bus company. Your under-priced bus ride will be more than made up for by the overpriced room at this guesthouse, which is in the middle of nowhere. Did I mention you arrive in this strange place, in a strange country, in the dark? Furthermore, there have been incidents of people who did try to leave being threatened with violence.

What is worse is Poipet itself. The town has the well-earned reputation of being the toilet bowl of Cambodia. There are well-documented gangs of child pickpockets and other assorted thieves operating on both sides of the border. You may well be more likely to get robbed during a brief stay around Poipet and the border crossing than anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

Do not ever go to Poipet. Even if you think you arenít on a scam bus, you are probably wrong. Even if you really arenít on a scam bus, why do you want to go to Poipet in the first place? If you want to get from Thailand to Cambodia, just save yourself a lot of trouble and fly into Siem Riep or Phnom Penh.

DO GO TO LAOS
laostemple.jpg Laos has a well-deserved reputation as being the best-kept secret in Southeast Asia, and the most relaxed, laid-back place on the planet. Because you are not being constantly harassed by people hawking trinkets and postcards, yelling ďmotobike, mistah!?Ē at you, and generally trying to separate you from your money, once in Laos you would hardly know you were in Southeast Asia. If you want to visit the region, but cannot stand this kind of behavior, head for Laos.

MY BIKE GOT STOLEN!
Another scam common throughout Southeast Asia involves renting bikes or motorbikes to tourists. This one is simple enough. You rent the bike, and are followed from the rental shop by a thief. As soon as you leave the bike, he steals it and takes it back to the shop. The shop then demands you pay for the bike that they stole.

Getting around this scam is problematic, because a foreigner will have no idea who is a legitimate businessman and who is not. The best you can do is ask the staff at your guesthouse or hotel about a reliable rental shop. While they might steer you to a shop that cuts them a commission on such referrals (and thus charges more), at least you know the shop isnít plotting to steal your bike! Also, keep in mind that if your bike is stolen, your rental shop isnít necessarily the culprit.

YOU WILL NEED THIS AT THE BORDER
There are a host of scams that are common across Southeast Asia targeting border crossings. It seems that whenever there is a new disease scare in the region (like SARS or bird flu), scammers will appear claiming that the immigration officials down the road will require you to prove you are disease-free, and offer to provide you with that certificate for a modest fee. Another common scam that never loses its popularity is for someone to appear claiming that you are required to have a certain amount of money in the neighboring currency upon showing up at the border. They will then offer to exchange some money for you, but at a very bad rate.

No country anywhere requires you to show up with their money in your possession. While a few require that you get your shots, some strange guy at the bus station or border offering a medical certificate is so shady that he should be ignored.

       
 

 

Rich Thomas once paid $20 for a bowl of rice. But he had a great vacation.