Been-there and done-that.
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?
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 ?
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 my Rough Guides guidebook (published in 2010, it was the current version):
” 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 here. Hotel not good. I take you somewhere else.… “, my driver responded.
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 . 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 actually not very good at), the driver agreed to take me there.
“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!
When ‘scams’ don’t turn out to be scams
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 answered.
“Yes,” he replied.
By now he was smiling. His grin was burning a hole into my pride and filling me with shame.
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:
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’ 2010 book and its lame “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.
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 knew it.
But now that my pride was at stake, I wouldn’t back down.
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.
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 or travel-jaded? Would you be able to tell the difference?
(to be continued)
Part II: Budget Hotels: How far would you walk to find Mr. Right? >>