Well, it finally happened, I got taken by a scam in Southeast Asia. And not just the everyday “charging a tourist more than it should actually cost” situation that I get taken for literally every day. Before coming on the trip, I had steeled myself against the probability that I was going to have to be ultra-alert and resistant to scams and over-paying at every turn. I had encountered situations like that before in the Middle East and assumed it would be similar here based on reading about fast taxi meters in Vietnam or any number of other scams that travelers have to be wary of. I also had the memory of my friend Adil’s story — his bus in Thailand had been potentially gassed and robbed (at any rate, passengers woke up and had all of their valuables missing).
I spent the first six weeks in Philippines and Vietnam reading up on what to expect to pay at places, constantly negotiating and staying on my toes. Sure, I avoided some of the typical over-pricing, like the time we managed to pay the local rate on the bus from Da Nang to Hoi An, and also secured that rate for some fellow travelers. But in the end, none of the more serious scams had hit us. We never experienced any taxis with funky or broken meters and most people seemed very trustworthy, while at the same time being ruthless negotiators.
Usually, when I thought I was being scammed, I was actually just operating on outdated information. Such was the case when we were trying to get to Phu Quoc and the boat tickets had doubled in price from online information. It turned out there was now only one ferry in town. I was also extremely wary of people misdirecting me to the wrong place, or lying to me at bus stations and elsewhere, but it always turned out that they were just there to help get us in the right place.
After Vietnam, we headed to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore and I began to let my guard down. Prices were posted more frequently and I was worn out from bargaining so hard in Vietnam. There’s nothing to be gained from trying to bargain for a slurpee in 7-11. For the most part, I didn’t feel like I was getting ripped off every day in these countries, or paying significantly more than the locals do.
Then we headed to Cambodia.
We were prepared for the first scam that we knew would occur at the border. Not the $2 “stamping fee” that each side’s officials extract from you (which happened to be $5 in Cambodia on the day we got there). Or the $1 that the bus driver wanted so he could collect 50 passports and hand them to the stamping agents to net a cool $50 tip for himself. There is a “health check to prevent the spread of malaria” that is performed at the Cambodian border. This involves pointing a thermometer at your forehead and then waving you through. This service costs $2, but Lisa had read online it was possible to just ignore them and walk right through. So that’s what we did. The problem was, we didn’t stop walking because the Cambodian passport control at this border is basically a shack that looks like another scam. So we wandered about 50 yards into Cambodia without passing through passport control when someone asked us if we planned on getting visas and having our passports stamped. Oh yes, that was back there? OK, we’ll do that. But hey, we had saved $3 over everyone else on the trip by hanging onto our passports and bypassing a couple of the rip-offs. It was also the second country in a row that we had technically entered illegally. So that’s fun.Only two hours down the road I would be outright lied to for the first time on the trip. Passengers to Kratie (us) had been put in a mini-van and the rest onto a bus (they were headed to varying destinations near and far). We reached Stung Treng and a bunch of people got off the bus and they told us to move from the mini-van to the bus. The problem was, there were absolutely no seats on this bus. I tried to mutiny against the driver by returning to our mini-van, sitting in it, and demanding that they just drive the mini-van where we needed to go. They repeatedly assured us we would be on the bus for only fifteen minutes before we switched into another bus headed for Kratie. Why can’t you just drive this mini-van another fifteen minutes? No use, solidarity from other passengers evaporated (if it was ever there) and we just slumped onto the bus to take our “seats” on small plastic stools in the aisle. I’d say about thirty minutes later it became clear there was going to be no other bus. This was our nightmare for the next few hours. At least we weren’t heading to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap as some customers were (easily another six to twelve hours away). The bus employees knew what they needed to say to get us on board, and once they have you, well, there’s really no other transport option from Baan Nagasang into Cambodian cities anyway.
This was the worst bus ride in Cambodia, but also a preview of their ability to estimate time. Busses were always at least two hours longer than they advertised, but often four or more. We’re used to long bus rides — just tell us what to expect! A fifteen hour bus ride that arrives on time somehow feels easier than a six hour ride that turns into ten. In fact, on our bus trip out of Cambodia, I honked the horn at the bus driver after forty-five minutes at our “fifteen minute” stop. All passengers were already on board.
In Phnom Penh I encountered the first “personal-desperation scam” of the trip. It was a variation I have been aware of at least since college and deflected many times. Usually someone will approach you and claim they are out of gas, food or
Now, I have a hard time turning down someone who is really in need. I buy meals for homeless people when requested, donate yearly to charities I believe in, and also dedicate significant energy to bring about a more just and equitable society through our democratic government (How’s that working out? Not well…) If someone is really on hard times, it’s hard for me to say no. I have a great life and am fortunate to be able to afford what they are asking. My one rule, however, is that I don’t just hand out cash.
So the “personal-desperation” scam is an easy one for me to avoid. When prompted for gas money in college (on multiple occasions), instead I would offer (genuinely) to go fill up their gas tank if we just headed over to their car. Surprisingly, I was never taken up on these offers.
In this instance, the guy kept pursuing to see if I could help him out and I said I would accompany him to get him a night in a hostel — something that would likely run me about $5 and help get him through to tomorrow. He sat around for about five minutes, chiming back in every now and then to see if I was ready to just give him money. The first time it was that the hostel was going to need his passport. Nah, I’ve been staying all over Cambodia without showing one. But, you see, he’s checked around, and nothing close has rooms. He could just do it on his own if I gave him cash. I was finally just blunt with him and said, “look, I’m just not going to give you cash. If you want a room for tonight, find a place that has one, and I will go with you to pay for it.” After another minute or two of considering my offer, he said, “so you’ll wait around here if I go find a room?” I promised him fifteen minutes (admittedly, not much, but Angie and I were just about to leave to meet her colleagues for dinner). His parting words were “ok, it could take a while, so if I’m not back in fifteen minutes, don’t wait around too long.” Well, that was a good sign he wasn’t coming back. At any rate, I had Angie and I sit there for another fifteen minutes just in case.
Five days later, I was in Siem Reap and on my way back from a full day of bicycling through Angkor Wat and surrounding temples. I had returned my bike rental and was walking towards my hostel when a mother with her baby and an empty milk bottle approached me. Her first words were “no money, just food.” OK, well, I’m probably not going to be able to resist this one. She could tell she had me hooked and started leading me towards the mini-mart. “OK, food.” As we headed towards a mini-mart, I realize she is just going to have me buy food and then return it later. Yes, I’m always paranoid when helping people. “No, fresh food only,” I tell her. She points at her baby and says that she needs the formula. Now, in hindsight there were multiple clues that this was a scam, particularly when her child needed the specific formula that only came in the large size. I refused to pay $16, and I started to walk. Then, all of a sudden the smaller formula would work after all. I told her no a couple times and tried to walk out, but it’s kind of hard to do with a mother that seemed so desperate and was badly pleading for help. So in my gut, I highly suspected this was a scam, but was I really going to say no?I bought the smaller formula for her ($8) and we walked out. She headed across the street and I turned right to my hostel. As I got far enough away, I turned around, ducked behind a sign and waited to see what would happen. A minute later she is walking back to the mini-mart. I edged closer but she was looking around and not heading in yet, so I decided to wait until I saw the door open and then head into the mini-mart and request my money back. Well, this operation is so well-oiled that, before I knew it, she was already without the formula having never re-entered the store. Clearly, multiple people were in on this scam and it was going to be too late for me to reclaim my money — I believe she even performed a handoff of the cash to a motorbike. I walked away defeated, but twenty seconds later decided to head back to at least say some words to her (which wouldn’t really accomplish anything other than making me feel temporarily better). To my surprise and amazement, the actors in this scam had already been replaced by a different mother, child and milk bottle and the scam was already being run on the next Westerners approaching the mini-mart. This operation was pretty well-oiled and I wonder how much they are bringing in each day!
Flustered, I walked to the ATM to grab some money. My thoughts were so preoccupied with the scam that I ended up leaving my ATM card in the machine and walking off. Fortunately, another traveler chased me down the street to prevent this from becoming a much worse situation. In the end, it wasn’t really a big loss — I’ve been scammed for much more and it won’t really impact my life or change my attitude and behavior towards those in need. It’s just extremely frustrating in the moment to know I’ve been fooled and failed to help someone. Especially when I saw it coming.
After writing this post, I did some googling and it turns out this is not a new scam. Maybe a little more research ahead of time would have prevented me from falling prey. TripAdvisor has a post with 98 comments titled Mini-mart in Pub Street and the Milk Formula Scam — easy to find when you know what to search for! The comments there also confirm my findings that the person does not even need to walk back into the store. I was surprised to see that the store may be getting a 50% cut on this!