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There are times when I wonder if all of Asia are in on the scams they perpetuate, or perhaps they simply don’t know the best ways to do things. While there is a significant percentage of the latter – citizens who genuinely don’t know about better buses, routes or activities – the number of scams throughout the region still puts a big damper on the enjoyment of these countries.
While I haven’t been to all the countries in SE Asia, I’ve been through Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Laos, and I’ve resisted scams every step of the way. It’s just an assumption that Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines have similar problems, and perhaps Myanmar as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I love SE Asia. I considered Chiang Mai my winter home base, and I can’t wait to see more of this part of the world. The food is delicious. The people are normally friendly (especially Laos!). The landscape is stunning. But with all that, you still need to know what you’re doing, and that includes the ability to detect and avoid scams.
This month, my adventure was a week in Laos, starting with a cruise down the Mekong River. Just getting to the slow boat at the Laos border from Chiang Mai was an adventure in itself. I opted not to pay the $60 for a 3-day package which included a tour of the White Temple in Chiang Rai, a night at the border, and then two days on the boat, with [almost] all transportation covered.
Instead, I took a bus up to Chiang Rai on the last night of Songkran for 129 baht ($4). On Sunday, I took a tour of all the highlights in Chiang Rai. The next morning, I was up at 5:30 to get the first bus to the border. It was supposed to leave at 6, but didn’t leave until 6:30. That was another 65 baht ($2), but didn’t actually take me to the border. It dropped me off a kilometer away, and I had to get another tuk-tuk for 50 baht to take me the last two minutes!
At the border I had to pay 25 baht for a ticket which clearly said the fare was 20 baht to get across the Friendship Bridge spanning the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos. On the other side of the border, I purchased my Laos visa for $35, specifically with US bills.
At that point, the lady who organized the tours from Chiang Mai tried to sell me a ticket for the slow boat, saying the price was 1200 baht. When I told her I planned to get one at the pier for 900, she insisted that was impossible, and dropped the price down to 1100 for me. When I refused her again, she said there weren’t any taxis to the pier.
Ignoring her, I walked outside and grabbed a tuk-tuk with a bunch of other locals for 100 baht to the pier. There I got my boat ticket for 210,000 Laotian kip (about 880 baht, or $25). Yeah, the exchange rates in Laos is crazy! Roughly 8200 kip to the dollar!
The scams didn’t stop there. That evening we arrived in Pakbeng, the only town on the Mekong between the border and Luang Prabang. By town I mean a single street with a bunch of guesthouses and restaurants catering to the passengers of the slow boats. When we landed, someone on the boat was trying to sell us a room, saying that there wouldn’t be anything available in Pakbeng. While his price was quite decent, I decided to venture into town myself and find my own accommodations. Turns out nearly every guesthouse had rooms available. While I spent nearly double what the guy on the boat was charging (a whopping $5), I also didn’t get bitten by any bed bugs which had apparently infested his guesthouse.
I thought the food for the voyage in Pakbeng was part of the scam, but over the next week I came to learn that the price of food in Laos really is just about double what you normally pay in Thailand, and the food on the boat was double the price on the street, but that’s to be expected on a cruise.
The second day of the voyage was great, but ended with the slow boat dropping us off half an hour outside of town. You have to get one final tuk-tuk for 25,000 kip ($3) to get into the city center, where dozens of Workawayers are ready to entice you to their hostel.
Even had I paid 50% more for the ticket from Chiang Mai, I still would have had to pay for the final tuk-tuk, negotiated the scams of Pakbeng and skipped all the activities of Chiang Rai. At least there isn’t a massive scam at immigration as there is in Cambodia, although the price for the Laos visa does seem to vary depending on what country you’re from, and perhaps the mood of the officer on duty.
It’s not a lot of money, but sometimes I wish the countries in SE Asia would just have legitimate services and be honest in their conditions, rather than trying so hard to create scams. What do you think? Are the adventures of haggling and potential scams part of the allure of SE Asia? Unfortunately I don’t see anything changing anytime soon, especially when the West happily charges $4000 for a vacation package worth $600.