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Are you a street-smart traveler or just travel-jaded?

christine kaaloa

Street-smart or travel-jaded?

Street wise.

Been-there and done-that.

Old hat.

After traveling in Asia over the course of a year,  there were two things I felt I had become proficient at:  haggling and avoiding scams.

If I sensed a scam, my windows rolled up and my auto pilot kicked into a prickly cold shoulder with a ‘Don’t fuck with me‘ attitude.  In a negotiating situation, I’d don my best poker face and never trust the first price up front. Assuming the dealer was trying to score a few extra bucks, due to the “tourist” sign blazing on my head, I’d shoot for a lower price or walk away… and keep walking.

Did I forget how to have fun at these times? Maybe so. But as a solo female traveler looking out for my own back, I’d learned to cultivate street smarts.

Then again, maybe you’d call me …travel- jaded.

 

Could you tell the difference between a local who’s giving you honest advice or  scamming you?

Not always.

As a traveler, is it naïve to assume every stranger is innocent and sincere?

Or is it wise to be guarded until you get to know someone’s intention first?

It’s a fine line, straddling between the two.

In countries, where a tourist toting a fancy DSLR might equate “rich”, not every local is out to make a quick buck off of you. Sometimes, a conversation is  sincere and friendly and a sale, a smile or a piece of advice, honest.  But when happens whens when a smile is dishonest?  Would you be able to tell the difference ?

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Street-smart or jaded:  Never trust tuk-tuk or taxi drivers.

It’s one of the many warnings you hear about in Asia/Southeast Asia: scams with taxi and tuk-tuk drivers telling you your hotel is closed, was burnt down, etc… only to redirect you to another hotel, where they garner a commission.  I’ve even diverted this scam myself in the past, a few times.

When my bus lolled into Phnom Penh at 6 am, tuk-tuk drivers swarmed around the new arrivals like buzzards.  Drowsy travelers, standing in couples and teams, were scooped up into negotiation with their drivers. Dopiness was quickly replaced by slightly skeptical ‘game faces’ of a war dance. With the business of haggling, one needs to be quick on their toes.

A wiry Khmer tuk-tuk driver approached me as the crowd thinned.  He asked me where I wanted to go.  As the one female soloist around, I felt naked… an easy target with no one to shield me.

Whether I’d gotten used to planning my itinerary on a  day-by-day basis or the fact that many budget hotels in Cambodia don’t have a website listing nor a way to pre-book reservations, I was growing bolder about finding my hotels on foot as a “walk-in” arrival.

On the bus, I had picked out a guesthouse from a second-hand Rough Guide to Southeast Asia guidebook I bought in Thailand. It was the current version and it read:

 

Lakeside /Number 10:  A guesthouse offering budget rooms in a spectacular spot, with a large terrace overlooking Boeng Kak Lake. Free pool table plus videos, hammocks and sunset views $3″.

I showed the driver the listing. The guesthouse lay north of the city center.

 

” No no, not go there.  Hotel not good.  I take you somewhere else.…  “, my driver responded.

I volleyed-

Are you sure? Hotel by Boeng Kak Lake?

 

” No, lake dried up. You no want to go there. Not good place. I take you somewhere else.

 

I rolled my eyes back into my head. It was 6 am in the morning and in my mind, “the scam” was underway.

I wielded a lie in quick defense…

 I’m meeting a friend there. I must go there.  My friend is there waiting for me. Take me there.

 

After a short tennis match of words with me, doggedly lying through my teeth (something I’m not very good at), the driver agreed to take me there.

How much?

“One dollar”, he quoted.

At least he wasn’t going to make me haggle. A dollar is said to be the going rate  for driving short intercity distances in Phnom Penh. I agreed to his price and we were off!

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When ‘scams’ don’t turn out to be scams

– “Errr …this… isn’t …it,  is it?”  I said, as we pulled up at the guesthouse where I was supposedly “meeting my friend”.My eyeballs wanted to fall from its sockets from the sheer shock of what lay before me.

  “Yes,” he answered.

The surrounding area of the guesthouse looked ghetto. The streets were empty and were spotted with a few demolished buildings and rubble. Vandals had tagged the crumbling walls with spray paint. It felt like an area where you might find crack pipes and broken needles on the ground.  The so-called lake? More like a shriveled swamp pond; hardly something to invite a “picturesque sunset”.

– “No.”   I responded.

“Yes,” my driver replied, smiling. His grin was burning a hole into my pride and filling me with shame.

 

north center phnom penh

north center phnom penh

north center phnom penh

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I went to the manager’s office to ask to look at the rooms. The hallway and rooms were at least, bright, but they still reminded me of a crack house or squatter home for homeless. I showed my guidebook to the disheveled and grumpy manager and pointed at the listing.  This was it– Lakeside/ Number 10.

So then I pointed to the next listing, which was supposedly a neighbor:

Number 9:  The  most picturesque of the lakeside guesthouses with basic en-suite rooms set around a small lily filled lagoon. Free pool, videos and a relaxing deck restaurant serving the usual travelers’ fare. $3″

 

The manager grunted incoherently to the effect of either, this was the same place too …or guesthouse no longer existed! They both equaled the same thing. Shock, panic, confusion,… I didn’t know what to do but curse my Rough Guides guidebook and its lame-ass “updates” of ‘recommended hotel listings’!

How could a guidebook listing be so off-base?

I emerged from the guesthouse to find my tuk-tuk driver waiting for me.

“I take you to City Center now?”

When a shocking situation like this hits you, you don’t know what or whom to trust.

Paranoid  shapes your mind, as daylight begins to warp.

Perhaps this was one enormous scam that everyone, including the lake, was in on?

I had to walk around the area to see for myself. I knew there were more guesthouses in the neighborhood and more listings in my guidebook. But most places were closed and despite the signs advertising ‘Falafel Cafes’ and international food (which hint that travelers must stay here), the boarded up windows and doors of guesthouse exteriors didn’t look too promising.

north center phnom penh

I turned to my tuk-tuk driver who now followed me.

“I take you to City Center now?”

How much?  I responded.

“Two dollars.

 

Street-smart or jaded: Everyone’s out to rip you off

In Asia/Southeast Asia, I’ve learned never to take the first quoted price. I paid one dollar to get in. Now being charge double to get out!  Nothing was open and no traffic stirred on the sleepy streets. My tuk tuk driver had the upper hand and he knew it.

But now that my pride was at stake, I wouldn’t back down.


I’ll walk.

 

I said, non-chalantly as my mind seriously considered the hours it might take to get into the city by foot… if I could even find my way to the city center.

With that, he tossed me a cynical glance and left with a laugh, only to park at a safe watching distance a block away.  So I approached a nearby motorbike taxi .

 

City Center, how much?

“Two dollars,” the motorbike taxi responded with a grin.

 

We went back and forth between one dollar and two. At this point it was hard to decipher whether I was getting too wounded over a dollar or just being proportionate. He was only asking a dollar extra, something I might unconsciously tip a  young iPhone-toting barista at Starbucks in the U.S.,  out of some twisted form of social guilt. If anything, both drivers would gain more value from my dollar than a some spoiled American. But the environment plays weird mental games on you too and if a room in this city, cost anywhere from $3-7,  then for a two dollar ride, I’d hope for at least a pillow on the back of that seat.

I decided I’d go back to my tuk-tuk driver, where I could at least be driven in shaded comfort. It was then that the motorbike taxi said-

Okay. One dollar.

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Perhaps the lesson here, is to not put too much trust into guidebooks. I pointed to a new guesthouse listing in my guidebook.  If this joint didn’t pan out, I promised to burn my 2010 Rough Guides guidebook!

Capitol Guesthouse.  Take me there.

Are you street-smart traveler or travel-jaded? Would you be able to tell the difference?
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(to be continued)
Part II:  Winging your Hotels: How far would you walk to find Mr. Right? >> 

29 Comments

  1. Ooh now this is a tough situation…..you really can never tell sometimes when people are trying to rip you off or being helpful and friendly. When I arrived off a bus in Turkey, this guy immediately approached me, asking me which hostel I was staying at. I rolled my eyes (expecting to hear that it had been demolished) only to have him tell me, “it’s down that street” and then wander back to the friends he was hanging out with.

    Luckily I can lie through my teeth if I have to, but like you write here, I do wonder if I’m just jaded sometimes…but then again, you do have to be on your guard. A conundrum!

  2. Christine says:

    Amazing photos of the area east of Boeng Kak Lake. Guide books are rarely as wrong as this, but my 2008 LP explains it – already, at that time, slated for redevelopment. Sounds like the info in the Rough Guide is far too out of date to rely on.

  3. Dave says:

    Yep I’ve seen people lay into locals too thinking they were scamming them. In fact I could well be one of them at one stage.

    As you often point out being a solo traveler often means you have to watch your own back. And sometimes that can mean pissing some people off.

    The one that strikes me was in Manila with their asinine 12 /24 hour hotels. Check in at 4am and you have to be out by 4am. The girl never explained that and just told me about 24 our aircon. I said no I didn’t want 24 hours of aircon at an extra price. Long story short when I tried to check out the next day at 10am they said I had to pay another 24 hours as I didn’t leave at 4am. Well, I blew a fuse, mainly thanks to not using the aircon all night, and threatened them in so many ways I think I must have been a psycho escaped from somewhere not so nice. In fairness and in my defense their website never mentioned any of this either. At then end of the day I didn’t pay. And they probably weren’t trying to cheat me, and just had an obscure rule … Which, they’ve probably not changed. Which says something about them. okay, rant over!

  4. Susana says:

    I’m surprised to read that the Lake Side has turned into a ghetto! I stayed there (actually in number 11!) 4 years ago and it was THE place to be for backpackers…Sad!

    • @Susana: Well, that’s what I was trying to figure out. The cafe signs I saw had remenants of what you say, so I was curious if it was different during working hours and maybe I just didn’t see that? I realize things might look different in the morning. Or maybe I was there during off-season??? But the guesthouse was definitely a shock.

  5. Gray says:

    What a great story. I’d have done the same thing you did in the first place, assumed the guy was lying and insist on going there anyway. But I think I’d have swallowed my pride and paid the $2 to go back to the city center. I would not have stayed in that neighborhood any longer than I had to!

  6. bronwyn says:

    I stayed at Number 10 Lakeside in June last year.. yep it looks pretty dodgy, and the rooms are possibly the worst I’ve stayed in! But I survived and didn’t lose any of my possessions so it was all good! I wasn’t travelling solo though, I probably wouldn’t have stayed there alone!

    • @bronwyn: Thanks for your comment, Bronwyn. Even as I wrote this, I had difficulty believing that was the guesthouse in my guidebook listing. But I guess I’m curious now, did the neighborhood it was in, any more redeemingly pleasant during working hours? More hip and backpacker-ish or was it a dive?

  7. Julia says:

    I read a great blog post by a frequent traveler to SE Asia stating that Thailand, at least (and potentially Laos as well) all have meters in their taxis and tuk tuks. They’re required by law to have them, just as they are required by law to have standard fares to different areas of the city. Locals never bargain for fare, they just get in and the driver turns on the meter. I saw it happen myself in Thailand when I rode in a taxi with my Thai friends, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Apparently if you just act like you expect to have a metered fare, they’ll do it, and they only try to negotiate a fare when you ask them, because hey, you asked. Unfortunately, I scoured my FB page to find a link to the blog post for you, and I couldn’t find it. I’m sorry. 🙁

    I only wish I’d known before I went to SE Asia!

    • @Julia: Thanks for returning, Julia and I appreciate the article link! =)
      .
      Yes! Rule is: all taxis are supposed to use their meters. Never ‘bargain’ with a taxi. Never jump into a cab unless they’ll use their meter. I do, however, find it safer to ask them to use their meter than assume. But that’s me. I’m a tourist. As soon as I open my mouth or hold an air of naivete, it gives me away and I’m not always good with bluffing unless I already know the place. That said, Cambodia tuk-tuk & motorbike taxis do NOT have meters. No meters on tuk-tuks in India or Laos either.
      .
      So in those situations and I *highly recommend* this (and Earl’s article says this also) is to ask trustworthy locals -ie your hotel, tourist info desk, regular locals on the street- how much the standard fare rates for transportation are. This helps you *bigtime* in situations, where you must bargain. Also tangentially, FYI: even motorbike taxis in Thailand have “set rates”. You don’t really know what the rate is unless you ask and if you have to ask, you’ve blown your “local” cover; so ask a local.
      .
      Excellent tips by Wandering Earl! I guess we’re so conditioned (partially by guidebooks and travelers’ tip-offs about scams) to question the norm and be paranoid. It’s hard to say if the “Don’t ask ‘how much?'” tip would be effective for tourists, who aren’t confident or don’t look streetwise. Personally, it gives me stress to pull off a Superman cool when I’m a stumbling Clark Kent. But each traveler’s comfort zone differs & if you’re good with that, use it.
      .
      Better option with Thailand: use public transportation- bus, ferry, metro. No stress, no haggling, no bluffing. It’s cheap and efficient (especially during traffic time….although the bus is an exception).

  8. Dave says:

    This all sounds so familiar 🙂

    I laugh now then the local “transport” guy smirks and says “I told you so”. I also tip them just for breaking up my day.

    I even met a few and asked for their numbers to use them as regular transport people. When you meet a “smart” local transport person they are worth keeping around. If for anything a reward for being honest in the first place. I’m sure if there were better linguistics involved the person could explain better why your pre-chosen guesthouse was a dive. That’s the language barrier for you. And these guys have to put up with it all day everyday. Bring on part 2!

    • @Dave: Very smooth. I love that advice about rewarding people for their honesty or using them in the future. I’ll have to remember to use it… if I’m not too jaded.
      .
      But you also hit something I failed to mention– correct, these guys have to put up w/ it everyday. Street smart travelers, come prepared to be ripped off or scammed and we attack as a knee-jolt reaction anytime we feel threatened with the possibility of scams. I remember a time when inquiring travelers practically bit a hotel clerk’s head off over how the gh had suddenly gotten booked (within the 10 minutes that they went to search others). To them, it was a gh ploy to get more money or whatever…but I saw ‘the last room’ being sold before they arrived. It put a frown on that hotel guy’s day & he just transferred that onto other tourists.

  9. rachel says:

    My experience in Bangkok

    After breakfast at the hotel, we stopped a tuk-tuk parked nearby our hotel. We asked him to send us (4pax) to chatucak market and he offered USD2.
    Along the journey, he stopped by the Gem Factory outlet and he asked us to “go inside and see”
    At that moment all of us suddenly realized that we hv been cornered by the tuk tuk driver.
    Stupid enough, we completed the tour in 5 mins and came out from the shop. He was shocked when he saw us coming out in such a short time.
    He then took us in his tuk tuk for aout 1km from the gem factory outlet and then he stopped a cab. He returned and asked us to leave his tuk-tuk and tell the taxi send us to the destination we wanted.
    We paid him nothing at the end.
    Basically, tuk-tuk is not a good choice if you are not familiar with the route in Bangkok!

    • @Rachel: Thanks for sharing your story. Oooh, I”ve not experienced that scam yet. Glad you didn’t pay him for that- good for you! Bangkok tuk-tuks I try to avoid; they seem to have foul attitudes when they know they can’t scam you. I’ve tried to use a few & they never wanted to use the meter and always wanted to charge me way too much.

  10. CathyTrails says:

    Oh man. I was hanging onto every word! That place did look ghetto and glad you got out of there. I remember when I first arrived in Bangkok and hailed a cab to get to a friend’s apartment. Already on the freeway, I finally remembered to look at the meter to make sure it was running. Nope!!

    I asked the cab driver to turn on the meter and he told me, ‘All meter is broken in Thailand’ – – WTF! So when we finally got there, he quoted me approx. 15 US dollars (for a 20 min ride) but luckily I was able to haggle it down to 5 US dollars.

    You’re right, there is a fine line between between being street smart and travel jaded – but hey, each situation is unique and sometimes, it’s really tough. Just feel out people’s energies, know your own situation, and see what needs to happen next 🙂

    Cathy Trails

    • @Cathy: Excellent advice Cathy. Love what you said about:
      .

      Just feel out people’s energies, know your own situation, and see what needs to happen next.

      .
      Good job on the haggle and not getting suckered by that taxi! Also FYI: Bangkok has a Skytrain line from the airport direct to downtown. Also, if you must use a taxi from the airport, go to the 1st floor where they have the legal taxi hailing booth/line. It’s regulated and the drivers are supposed to use meters.

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