Running the Numbers: Getting Ripped Off vs. The Bigger Picture

“Oh, you know they’re always trying to rip you off.” “They’re always looking for a way to scam you.” “You have to be really firm with them.” I heard variations on this theme so many times in Southeast Asia that I started to wonder what I was missing, because I didn’t feel that way. How much of this attitude comes from personal attitude, and how much from the many, many guidebook warnings on scams and ripoffs in Southeast Asia? Probably a mix. A not very pleasant mix of reality, stereotypes, and suspicion.

In the 40,000 kip tuk-tuk

In the 40,000 kip tuk-tuk

Guidebooks and websites list the various scams you can fall prey to–the gem scam, the tuk-tuk scam, the travel agency scam, to name just a few. I even knowingly went into one of the well-known scams, to see what it was like. There are a lot of setups to separate you from your money, and the more serious ones have legal repercussions if you don’t cooperate (see: anything involving drugs). Being wary of any deal that seems too good to be true is a smart move for avoiding scams anywhere you go, including SEA. That’s pretty straightforward.

It’s the ripoffs that are a murkier area. Traveling in SEA from a Western country means encountering new currencies, new modes of transport, new foods, and a new bar of “normal” prices for it all. I got pork satay for $1 and thought I’d got a bargain, until further up the street I saw someone selling it for 50 cents. Did I feel cheated out of those extra 50 cents? Slightly. Did it affect my budget or my mood? Not at all.

I met some women on the slow boat to Laos, and when we arrived in Luang Prabang we decided to share a tuk-tuk to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, 40 minutes outside of town. We found a couple tuk-tuks and asked how much to take us there and back. (You never have meters with tuk-tuks; you always negotiate price upfront.) The drivers wanted 50,000 kip per person, round trip. What a ripoff! That’s much more than it should be! We’re going to find someone else! And then they did start walking off to find someone else. The drivers let us get pretty far; this wasn’t a haggling technique, you could tell, they really didn’t want to drop their price. But finally they consented to 40,000 kip each, which was deemed acceptable. (I should say here that I really enjoyed hanging out with these women, as we did over the next several days, but we just disagreed on this point.)

We passed a checkpoint (all the tuk-tuks in Luang Prabang belong to a group that they report rides to and presumably pool some money for), and I saw a sign saying trips to the waterfalls are 200,000 per tuk-tuk. There were four of us, which meant the 50,000 was just basic math, not a ripoff at all. But when I mentioned this, the women said no, they’d read online that it shouldn’t be more than 40,000 per person, and it’s a matter of principle, not being ripped off. And “they” will rip you off any chance you get, I was reminded; hadn’t the price of a dress been slashed in half at the market yesterday when one of the women simply started walking away after hearing the opening figure? That proves that they’re always asking for way more than it’s worth.

How much, how much?

How much, how much?

But I think it’s not that simple. The dress, yes, that was a funny piece of haggling, because clearly the woman would have settled for much less than her opening price, but why shouldn’t she give it a shot? It wasn’t out of line with prices in other stalls, and it was still only $10. It’s frustrating when you’re not sure what the normal price is, but markets here are meant for bartering, so make up your own normal, or what feels comfortable for you without leaving the seller with no profit.

The tuk-tuk, though, is much easier to avoid being ripped off. They’d gone online to see what the norm was–40,000–so if the driver had said 100,000, we would have known straight away that we were being ripped off. But 50,000 isn’t unreasonable, and according to the tuk-tuk company sign, it was in fact appropriate for the size of our group.

And in the end, it’s a $1 difference. Yes, it was the difference between a $7 or an $8 ride–for 40 minutes out, waiting several hours, and 40 minutes back to town. That $1 means so much more to the driver than it does to me, so why begrudge him that slight boost in his pay for the day? It’s going to go a lot farther in his pocket than in mine. Sure, they countered, but if you keep saying, “oh it’s only one dollar” everywhere, those dollars are going to add up, and you’ll lose a lot of money that way. Yep, I replied, and I’m okay with that.

I complain about how much I’m spending on this trip more often than I should, but I’m still acutely aware of how fortunate I am. I’m far more upset about the ATM fees I pay every time just to access my own damn money than I am about the couple hundred dollars I’ve probably overpaid to people trying to send their kids to school or get dental care.

Finally, this kind of thinking can get dangerously racially based. There’s way too much “they” and “them” in the talk surrounding scams and ripoffs. If you’re always thinking that a certain group of people is always out to get you, you’re not allowing them any individuality, and you’re closing the door on opportunities for understanding each other. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t look out for ripoffs–I had to bail on a taxi in Hanoi with a super-fast meter, for example. But try not to make it the first thing you see in a person.

If you see someone as a scam artist solely based on his race, that’s racist. If you see someone as out for your money, that’s one more friend you haven’t made. That’s a lonely way to travel, and it doesn’t fit in my budget.

16 thoughts on “Running the Numbers: Getting Ripped Off vs. The Bigger Picture

  1. WOW! That was a wonderful post and I believe I agree with you. I am not a good bargainer so I have probably been ripped off many, many times. One thought occurred to me regarding the tuk-tuk. You could give the driver a tip even though your traveling companions might not choose to do the same. That would be mooney directly into the pocket of the driver. I love your attitude about making acquaintances and the value of an experience with other peoples.

  2. AMEN!!!!!!! Such a great post, Lisa. We should all be way more reluctant to pay ATM fees to evil corporate banks than to working people just trying to put food on the table. Like you said, that dollar goes way farther in someone else’s pocket, and sometimes the symbolism of mutual friendship and/or reciprocity is much more valuable than the currency exchanged.

    • Thanks, Leah! Also, this just builds distrust on both sides; people in SEA must assume that Westerners are cheap bastards always trying to squirm out of paying, so they come at us harder to make sure they get paid. Suspicion and stereotypes make nasty cycles.

  3. Great post, Lisa! I’ve heard/read the “watch out for rip-offs” perspective on international travel before, and I think you articulated a lot of what is troublesome about it, especially in regards to racial stereotypes.

    It also occurs to me that we certainly have our own, non-barter-related, forms of “rip-offs” here. Of course I expect to pay more for a drink in a touristy part of town, way more than it’s “worth” if I bought a six-pack at Meijer. And, it’s pretty normal for a dress that costs $80 one day to be marked down to $40 on clearance the next week. JC Penny did an experiment last year where they stopped having sales, and instead just sold things for a reasonable profit point all the time. It was a flop — people wanted their sales, their Black Friday feeling of . . . I’m not sure. Having “won” somehow at shopping? I wonder if there is some of the same psychology at play with American tourists bartering in South East Asia?

    (I’m totally guilty of this at times, too — I do feel an extra little triumph when I find something I know was super expensive at a thrift shop, which I guess is basically the same weird feeling).

    • Yeah, we all like to feel that we’ve won a bargaining contest, like if we got it for less than asking price it justifies purchasing it in the first place? A subconscious manifestation of a human need to not consume stuff, which we frantically repress by buying more–on sale! Haha, probably not that.

  4. I adore this post. ADORE. Not the kind of person who’s comfortable with haggling anyway, and I know those few cents/a dollar will mean a lot more to the other party than me.

    I was pretty adamant about escaping the Cambodia border scam however – that’s just organised crime and I refused to let them extort money from us. It was scary to leave their fake visa office where all the westerners were happily filling out fake forms, andwalk out onto the road not knowing where to go next, but it paid off.

    I hear you on those ATM fees. Had a nice break throughout Europe when they were all free, but paying em at the start and end of our trip (Asia/America) was a real bugger.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words! Nice to hear a fellow traveler’s thoughts.

      The border scams do sound scary, and that’s a different level of scam, I agree. Glad you got out of it okay. I’m lucky that I didn’t run into it because I flew in to Cambodia.

  5. Yeah I agree with you when it comes to small amount’s like this why be so petty and waste your time because some probably out of date information gained from the internet. Bargain hard but choose your battles because it just gets mentally exhausting. But I will point out that letting too much go leads to local inflation which can be bad for locals when the price the tuk tuk or taxi drivers can get from foreigners gets so high they wont bother taking locals anymore.
    Very interesting point about ATM’S. Once i was crossing the Laos border from Cambodia on bus. Some of us had been on that bus for 12 hours and a lady who got on a couple of hours ago refused to pay the $4 usd bribe to the Lao border officials out of principle. The bus company told us it was part of the deal already. She held the whole bus up by 1.30hr. To say the least a lot of us on the bus hated her when she rejoined the bus with some inflated sense of pride not having paid the bribe and beating the system.
    At the time you couldn’t get Lao currency outside the country so we all had to use a ATM at the border town before getting the boat to Don Det. Guess what the ATM fee was? $4 usd! She had no problem paying this fee to a bank, didn’t think twice about it. It was petty of me but I rudely pointed it out to her. She had after all wasted all our time on a very long bus journey because of her misplaced sense of pride.

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