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.