14 Travel Scams to Avoid in Southeast Asia!

Taxi in Bangkok, Thailand

If you’ve never backpacked the region before, scams in Southeast Asia are probably something you’ve already added to your list of anxieties. 

Throughout the years, backpackers have fallen prey to a wide range of ingenious (and some not-so-ingenious) crooks. We want to make sure this doesn’t happen to you! 

To save you from becoming a victim, we’ll help you get clued-up on the Southeast Asian scams happening right now

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Should I Be Worried About Travel Scams In Southeast Asia?

Honestly, most people in Southeast Asia aren’t trying to scam you. Sure, some will be out to make a few extra dollars from a hapless backpacker but very few have truly nefarious intentions and there’s no need to be suspicious of everyone you meet. Most people you meet will just want to practise their English or just make a novelty foreign friend! 

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Southeast Asian Travel Scams To Watch Out For!

1. “I Wanted to Go to the Club Not a Brothel” 💋

Unless you know Bangkok like the back of your hand, you’re an easy target for this common scam. Once you’re in a taxi, your driver will tell you that the bar or club you asked to visit is closed. Being local and no doubt having lived in Bangkok ‘all their life,’ they suggest an alternative.

Often this alternative couldn’t be further from what you originally requested… Usually situated on the very edge of the city and with enough sex workers to keep you busy for days (yes, even you!), it’s not exactly the hangout you were after. 

Once you’re there, a taxi back to your hotel will cost you an arm and a leg (not literally of course – you haven’t quite fallen into a cult gore movie)! At this point, you have little choice but to pay up. Undoubtedly, the bar or /club you wanted to go to has been open the whole time and the nightlife is booming. Gutted.

How To Avoid:

Always insist on being dropped off where you agreed. Do not let the driver take you elsewhere. Use ride-sharing apps like Grab or GoJek, so your trip is logged, mapped and the price is set. It’s always worth going out with other backpackers too. There’s safety in numbers. 

taxis in Bangkok
Taxis in Bangkok have a bad rep – use Grab or GoJek for a reliable ride!

Other Taxi Scams To Look Out For:

1. “This is getting expensive quick!” Rigged meters are a thing. They rise at an extortionate rate and before you know it, a 15-minute taxi ride will cost you more than a week’s accommodation.

How To Avoid:

Know roughly how much a taxi should cost in advance. If the price is rising way too fast, ask the driver to stop. Pay what you owe and get out. Using apps like Grab or GoJek is the best way to avoid this happening completely! 

2. “We don’t use the meter at this time of day.” If a taxi driver tells you this, it’s probably a lie. If they have a meter, they’re probably expected to use it. By offering a fixed rate, they’ll charge you an exorbitant price because they can practically see the trail of dollar bills you’ll leave in your wake. 

How To Avoid:

Ride-sharing apps are the best way to avoid this. But if you must get a taxi, insist on the meter. If they refuse, wait for another taxi. This is especially true at Bangkok airport where they pull this trick on new backpackers every day.  

2. Getting Driven Around the Bend by Tuk-Tuk Drivers 🛺

We’ve all been driven around in literal circles by tuk-tuk or taxi drivers trying to increase the price of the meter. Unless you’re in a major hurry, there’s no point getting too het up about it. Often when you don’t know where you are going, it’s hard to tell if you’re being taken for a ‘ride’ or not, so keep the peace and don’t make accusations unless you’re 100% sure!

Especially in Thailand, you should watch out for being told that your temple of choice is ‘closed’ or that your preferred guesthouse is ‘full.’ Taxi drivers very often want to take you to a tourist destination or hotel where they get a cut. 

Tuk Tuk in Bangkok
Tuk tuks are a great way to get around – just make sure you don’t get ripped off!

You should also expect similar treatment if your tuk-tuk ride is super cheap. Pay just 20THB for a ride from Khao San Road and you’ll end up visiting gem shops, tailors and travel agents who, you guessed it, pay your driver a commission or offer them petrol tokens! You get what you pay for. 

How To Avoid:

Use ride-hailing apps like Grab, or GoJek to set your destination and get a fixed price ahead of time. If that’s not possible, agree on a price before getting into a cab or tuk-tuk and politely but firmly refuse if they offer to take you anywhere other than your destination. If a driver is making you feel uncomfortable tell them to stop, so you can get out. And, don’t be a cheapskate. If a tuk-tuk driver offers you a stupidly low price, they’re planning to take you for a ride! 

3. The Famous Gem Scam 💎

This has got to be the most talked-about scam in Asia. It’s on travel forums and there are warnings about it in Lonely Planet. (Hands up if you remember travel guidebooks?! ??) After all that publicity, it is hard to believe that it still works – but it does! Most common in India, in particular Agra, the gem scam begins when you meet a friendly local…

After gaining your trust, they offer you an opportunity to make a lot of money by investing in a precious cargo of jewels. They explain that their gemstones are worth a lot of money if sold in another country – conveniently your country – but that they themselves cannot afford the high taxes to export them out of India. However, if you were to buy them for a ‘cheap’ price, you can export them easily under your duty-free allowance and then sell them for massive profit!

Gem Scams are common in Southeast Asia
Unless you’re an expert, leave the gems alone!

The scammers will assure you that once you arrive at the airport of your destination, an agent will meet you and help you to sell the jewels for quadruple the price. Mostly, they want an upfront payment for the gems. But sometimes they ask you to carry the gems for them, leaving a ‘financial guarantee’ of a credit card number and signature – this is because you’re under great trust not to steal them! 

Obviously, there is no ‘partner’ at the airport to meet you and the precious stones turn out to be coloured glass. Meanwhile, your travel budget has shrunk or your credit card skimmed. What a surprise!

How To Avoid:

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Unless the intended purpose of your trip to Asia is to make investments, don’t do it! Stick to backpacking and have the trip of a lifetime instead! 

4. Dodgy Food & Overly Helpful Waiters 🍲

This has got to be one of the meanest travel scams around. Unlike many, this one doesn’t require a gullible or greedy backpacker – just a traveller with a natural appetite. The scam begins as you eat your dinner in a friendly local restaurant. As you munch away on your chicken Jalfrezi, rice and naan, all of a sudden, what you may at first believe to be Delhi belly hits you. Nausea, dizziness, the list goes on…

The waiters are incredibly helpful, rounding you up and taking you to a local clinic around the corner, where you’re given tablets and water. Just three hours later and the sickness has passed and apart from feeling a little weak, the situation has miraculously turned around. And then, the clinic’s whopping bill is placed in your hand. It will undoubtedly be extortionate, easily blowing your average monthly backpacking budget.

Bowl of Bun Mam
It might be delicious but can you trust it?

After some discussion and working a few things out, it becomes clear that the restaurant was involved the whole time. Your food was tampered with to bring on the fast-acting Delhi belly. The waiters and clinic are in on it together…

The tough part is what to do next… refuse to pay the bill? Pay up and leave without a fight? It’s a tough one. Leg it we say!

Alternative Scam

A very similar scam that can happen anywhere in Asia involves you eating in a restaurant and waking up a few hours later with no money, no valuables and absolutely no memory of what happened. Yep, you were drugged and robbed. Always report this scam to the police – they might not (read: probably won’t) do anything but you’ll need the paperwork to make a travel insurance claim.

How To Avoid:

While rare, this one is tough to avoid. If a friendly stranger offers to take you to a quiet restaurant, turn down the invitation. Only eat in busy establishments and use traveller recommendations as well as sites like Tripadvisor to find the best eateries! 

SafetyWing Travel Insurance

Proper travel insurance is popular among backpackers because it helps protect you from the worst effects of scams and other travel mishaps! 

5. Bother at the Border 🛃

This scam isn’t such a bank-breaker but will certainly damage your pride. Backpackers beware when crossing the border, don’t try and cheat the system and skimp on the price. Many shops and travel agents will lure you in saying, ‘you make visa here, cheap and easy!’ These false claims are always proven untrue when you reach the official immigration control and other backpackers are paying half the price!

Crossing the Cambodian border from Thailand.
Don’t stop – get your visa from the officials!

How To Avoid:

The first rule of border crossings: We don’t talk about border crossings. Always get your visa on arrival at the border, not before. Know the visa requirements for the country you’re entering and never accept help from someone who approaches you out of the blue. If you insist on using a visa agent, make sure they’re reputable and work for a well-recommended company! 

6. Fake Fortune Tellers With Bushy Eyebrows 🔮

They appear out of the shadows with the tempting call of “I will tell you the name of your future wife.” These unusual-looking characters with their mystical ‘powers’ are hard to resist and the words “go on then” slip out of your mouth before you even realise. They lead you to their ‘office’ where the magic begins. 

The usual technique is for you to write down three wishes and the name of your mother on four pieces of paper and then scrunch them up. Your mind will then be read by this mystical creature who will miraculously know your mother’s name… oh the paper-switching trick! If you get suspicious and duck out at this point, expect to pay the whole fee (often they ask for up to 5,000THB!).

Fortune Teller scam reading using tarot cards
Expensive and rubbish. Fortune tellers aren’t worth it!

It’s almost worth continuing to hear the name of your future sweetheart purely for the comedy factor! Just like any horoscope, medium or psychic, the only thing that this bunch are professionals at is sweeping statements, generalisations and cold reading!

How To Avoid:

Politely refuse in the first instance. That’ll confuse the fortune teller who presumably only approaches people they know will say yes… 

7. The Elaborate Card Game Scam ♠️

The Vietnamese card scam is one of the rarest but most elaborate hoaxes to be found. It begins with a friendly local inviting you to their house for dinner. While there, they tell you about a recent run of misfortune at the local casino that involves a cheating businessman and a dodgy dealer. 

Then comes the proposal. Your host offers to teach you their mad gambling skills so, between the two of you, you can clean up on the blackjack table. Before you know what’s happening, the cards are out and you’re getting a crash course in card counting using a ‘special code.’ 

And then as if by magic, a businessman in a suit turns up with a suitcase full of cash ready to play. The roleplay begins. Your kind teacher will loan you a couple of hundred dollars to play and off you go on the crest of a money-making wave…

Card Game Scam
Don’t gamble with locals!

Finally, on the cusp of winning thousands of dollars, your opponent demands you show him the money. Oh, dear. What kind of backpacker carries that amount of cash? (Let alone actually owns it!) But you’d be surprised. Some, caught in the game, greedy for the winnings, cough up or put their credit card on the table as a guarantee. It is now that the ‘special code’ fails and hey presto, you’ve lost the lot! You get marched to the ATM to pay your debt.

How To Avoid:

Don’t gamble with locals. It really is that simple. If a friendly stranger offers you a game, politely but forcefully turn them down. 

Also read: Tips for Travelling Vietnam.

8. Motorcycle Maintenance 🏍️

Most adventurous backpackers seeking the thrill of speed and a feeling of freedom end up hiring a motorbike. They get you away from the crowds and into unspoilt countryside in a matter of minutes. 

But beware… These friendly motorbike hire men with their smiling faces and suggested routes often have an ulterior motive.

Whilst they distract you, they have their fingers crossed that you don’t look too closely at the condition of your rented steed. Then, when you arrive back, having felt the wind in your hair and gaining a farmers tan, they will charge you for every nick, scratch and dent on the machine. 

Motorbiking around Hoi An
Give your bike a proper once over before leaving the shop!

How To Avoid:

Only rent motorcycles from reputable companies or from someone your hostel recommends. Examine the bike closely before you ride it and take photos of all pre-existing damage. If you can get the owner in the picture, even better. 

9. Drugs Are Bad ❌

Bangkok prison is not a place any backpacker wants to spend the night, you only have to read the blurb of ‘Damage Done‘ by Warren Fellows to know that much! However, tuk-tuk drivers and shopkeepers alike know the power of persuasion. As they tempt you with drugs to ‘heighten your Full Moon experience’ or ‘chill you out man’, they will also be striking up a convenient conversation.

“Where you stay? Ahh, my brother stay there too! What room? Ahh, you neighbours!” This is usually an elaborate lie, which will then give him the ability to tip off the police as to where you and your drugs are staying. Then comes the ominous knock on the door, a search of your room and ultimately, handcuffs. If you end up being sucked into this scam, there’s very little way out.

Full Moon Party, Koh Phangan.
Drugs might ‘enhance’ the party – but are they worth the risk?

How To Avoid:

Avoid drugs offered to you on the street.  Even in countries like Thailand where weed has been decriminalised, buying drugs from someone who approaches you out of the blue is always a bad idea. Some drug-related offences in Asia still carry the death penalty – and whether the law would choose to enforce it or not – is it worth the risk?

10. The Slow Boat Is A-OK ⛴

A common method of transport from Northern Thailand to Laos is the serene slow boat, floating along the Mekong as you travel through paddy fields, unspoilt traditional villages and fishing communities. Not only is this method the perfect way to find your new best backpacking friend, but it’s also a few days’ break from the crazy driving and winding roads of Southeast Asia.

However, bus drivers waiting at the port have other, ‘better’ ideas. They try anything to get you on their ‘VIP bus’ (which is often a public bus full of mangoes, fish and occasionally livestock, with no air con and sometimes no seats!), warning you of everything and anything from being robbed at Pak Beng (the stop-off village) to catching deadly malaria in the middle of nowhere.

The Sleeper Bus That Runs The Hanoi to Luang Prabang Route
Buses can get super overcrowded – stick to the boat!

Of course, you won’t get a refund on your boat ticket. Go with your gut, if you’ve committed to the slow boat, hop on! Don’t listen to the touts trying to empty your wallet. Instead, begin your latest adventure up the Mekong. You won’t regret it.

How To Avoid:

Enjoy their creative lies but continue with the slow boat regardless. It’s one of the most popular methods of transportation for backpackers travelling between Thailand and Laos. 

11. The Baby Is Hungry 👶

The baby milk scam started in Cambodia but has been reported in Vietnam and Laos too. It’s one of the easiest to fall for and goes one of two ways:

1. A woman carrying a drowsy-looking baby will come up to you while you’re having a drink or dinner and explain that she can’t afford to feed her baby. She’ll ask you to buy some milk powder from the local shop. The milk powder is super expensive, so it’s no wonder she needs help paying for it! Once you’ve given her the milk, she returns it to the shop manager who puts it back on the shelf and pockets the money you paid. The woman gets a small cut. And the baby? We’ve heard reports the babies are drugged to keep them drowsy and docile all day.

Pub Street Siem reap Cambodia
Pub street is a common spot for the baby milk scam!

2. A young child approaches you while you’re having a drink or dinner. They explain that their sibling is young and starving, desperately needing baby formula to survive. You follow them to the shop, buy the overpriced milk powder and guess what? The child returns the milk powder to the manager who puts it back on the shelf, pockets the money and gives a small cut to the child. 

How To Avoid:

If someone asks you for baby milk to feed their child or sibling, firmly refuse. It can be distressing to see child beggars or drowsy babies but there’s nothing you can do. By falling for this scam, you’re perpetuating the use of child beggars and doping babies. 

ChildSafe has a bunch of great resources for travellers and is worth checking out before you leave for your trip!

12. A Shifty Money Exchange 💰

Most common in countries like Vietnam that offer ridiculous exchange rates and where carrying millions of dong isn’t unusual for backpackers, this scam happens right in front of your eyes. As you exchange your dollars, pounds or euros, the changer will quickly count out millions in the local currency. They’ll do it in plain sight and slide the stack of notes over to you. Confident they counted it correctly, you return to your accommodation only to realise you’re a few hundred thousand short. Those deviously quick hands deceived your eyes and now it’s too late, there’s nothing you can do about it!

Vietnamese Dong
With notes this big, it’s easy to get confused!

How To Avoid:

The most obvious way is to not change money. Use your travel card to withdraw local currency from ATMs. If the ATM asks, always opt to withdraw money in the local currency – you’ll get a better exchange rate. 

But if you have to exchange money, do so at a reputable changer. Always count the money yourself a second time and if in doubt, do it a third. If you need to challenge the changer, do it calmly and politely. Even if you think they were ripping you off deliberately, it’s best to let everyone pretend it was an accident. 

13. Dodgy ATMs 🏧

There are several ways dodgy ATMs can pick your metaphorical pocket in Southeast Asia. 

1. “That ATM looks a bit shady.” And it probably is. You go to use a battered, tired-looking ATM. With trepidation, you insert your card, type in your PIN and request your money. You breathe a sigh of relief when the machine spits out your money and returns your card. Only, a few days later, you realise your bank account is empty because the machine skimmed your card and a camera watched you type in your PIN! 

How To Avoid:

Don’t use sketchy-looking ATMs. Always cover the pad when typing in your PIN and try not to keep large amounts of money in the account you’re withdrawing from. Using a bank like Starling allows you to block your card temporarily from your phone if anything does happen. 

ATM machines
Only use reliable ATMs!

2. Is that note real?” It’s more common in Cambodia but can happen anywhere, this is when ATMs dish out fake banknotes! 

How To Avoid:

Examine your money as soon as it comes out of the machine. If there’s a fake, hold it up to the camera and note down the time so you can complain. Try to use ATMs attached to banks while the bank is open, so you can go in and make your complaint straight away. 

14. Let Me Help You Down The Sand Dune 🏄

Sandboarding or sledging on the Mui Ne Sand Dunes in Vietnam offers an excellent day out – until you realise you’ve no longer got your phone or wallet! It all starts with some friendly locals showing the ideal body position while you’re on the board or sledge. They’ll move you around and in the process, pickpocket you. Before you’ve realised your stuff is missing, they’ll shove you down the slope (on the board or sledge, of course, they’re not monsters) and runoff. By the time you get back to the top fuming about your stolen stuff, they’re nowhere to be seen. 

Mui Ne Sand Dunes
Great for sand sledging – bad for keeping your stuff!

How To Avoid:

Don’t accept help from strangers while sledging or sandboarding. If they try to touch you, firmly refuse and walk away from the area. Spending the day with other backpackers helps too – the more of you there are, the less likely you are to be messed with!  

A Round Up Of Scams In Southeast Asia

Now you’re armed with extra knowledge on some of Southeast Asia’s most common scams, you’ll know how to avoid them! 

Sometimes though, no matter how much you prepare, you will fall victim to a scam. It might be for just a few dollars or it might be for more. At the end of the day, as long as you’re safe, that’s the most important thing. Don’t put yourself at risk trying to get your money back or avoid being scammed! 

And most of all, remember that Southeast Asia is generally a super safe place. Most of the people you’ll meet will be kind, caring and honest. So, have fun, stay safe and enjoy your travels!

Have we missed a Southeast Asian travel scam from our list? Let us know in the comments!

Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

Find me: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

29 thoughts on “14 Travel Scams to Avoid in Southeast Asia!”

  1. Take care when you arrive with the ferry in Chumphon at night. It’s dark and you don’t know where to find the VIP-Bus to Bangkok when you have a combi-ticket. Unknown thai man lead you to the local bus. No AC and you need much longer time to reach Bangkok. Maybe they try the scam not only here. So keep cool and your eyes open. Ask other backpackers and don’ hurry. 🙂

    1. How is that a scam? What did the man get from you taking the local bus? He didn’t get any monetary gain, so it isn’t a scam. Sounds like he was trying to help you.

    1. Vietnam is so infamous with tourists scams so is the mother of all scams, Thailand, yet millions flock into Thailand and some stupid enough to think so highly of Vietnam, end up, they are fooled!

      This article makes s.e.a seem like an awful place to be, so vile & so vicious!

      Well, at least I’m glad to tell u that, Malaysia & Singapore would be the safest and most normal settings for anyone without having to worry about any of those things, simply put.

  2. Justin Rubin

    Watch out for the dudes with tweezers trying to pull “bugs” out of your ears in India. I hated that shit.

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