How to beat Bangkok's scams

Bangkok can be a baptism of fire for rookie travellers who have never experienced how far some people will go to part you from your precious travel budget. While it is very unlikely that you will end up in serious danger, without some rapidly acquired street smarts you may end up leaving town with a lot less spare change than you were expecting.

Scams in Bangkok break down into four key types, ranging from the laughably transparent to elaborate tales with a cast of actors that are likely to fool even the most seasoned traveller. Knowledge of these and a dash of big-city cynicism should keep you safe.

The taken-for-a-ride scam

'Go Baby, Go Go' by lynhdan. CC BY 2.0

Expecting your tuk-tuk to take you where you’ve asked, or your tour bus to drop you back at your hotel? You must be crazy. Being 'taken for a ride' by a tuk-tuk or tour bus is the most common scam out there, but luckily it's the easiest to avoid. While this scam can be unnerving, it will usually only cost you sightseeing time.

If you fall foul of this scam, you may have to resign yourself to a few hours being trailed around gem, suit and souvenir shops or being dropped off somewhere (often just walking distance from Khao San Road) where it appears your only way home is to hire a tuk-tuk. From personal experience, this scam becomes a lot more hair-raising at night when the journey to the cool nightclub recommended in your guide book becomes a tour of dodgy prostitute bars and a refusal to take you home.

Danger rating: 3/5
Cost rating: 1/5
Solution: take metered taxis or public transport rather than tuk-tuks and only book through reputable tour agencies.

The gem scam and other rip-offs

'Bangkok's Khao San Road' by Kevin Poh. CC BY 2.0

Most often encountered in shops and tour agencies on and around Khao San Road, this scam comes in two forms: getting something substandard for a decent price or being seriously overcharged. Its success depends on many visitors’ desire to find a bargain without taking the time to shop around.

The best known and probably most expensive version is the infamous 'gem scam'. Tantalising as it is to imagine that you can buy authentic gems, designer suits or fancy electronics at a fraction of their price back home, it's a travel mirage. Even if you do find a legitimate product at a decent price, remember that it will be almost impossible to get a replacement under warranty - as I discovered when the brand new camera I bought in MBK broke after just three weeks.

To a thrifty backpacker, there are few things more infuriating than discovering you’ve paid double what everyone else has. Tour agencies in Bangkok are infamous for charging what they think they can get away with. It is almost inevitable that at some point you will be overcharged, so try not to get too stressed if this time you happen to be the one.

Danger rating: 1/5
Cost rating: 4/5
Solution: don’t buy anything you don’t understand, find out how much other travellers who have done your tour previously paid and whether they would recommend it, shop around.

The 'temple is closed' scam

'Wat Pho' by Walter Lim. CC BY 2.0

Think you’ve escaped the taken-for-a-ride scam? Think again. You may have made it to your destination but the scammers are ready to try and reel you in again.

This is a hard scam to escape and in the heat of the moment it can seem incredibly convincing. It is most often encountered at Wat Pho, the Grand Palace and on Khao San Road. Generally, as you arrive at the temple or sight you are visiting you will be greeted by an official-looking tour guide or member of staff who will tell you that unfortunately the sight has had to close due to any one of a myriad of plausible sounding reasons. These characters are incredibly convincing and the pretence of officialdom makes them hard to ignore.

Even if you manage to make it past the scammers, there have been reports of marked-up tickets being sold from a table just outside the entrance when you could get the normal price from the official ticket booth just inside. When you leave the temple, scammers may even try again, telling you that there is another temple nearby and a tuk-tuk will take you there for free.

Danger rating: 1/5
Cost rating: 2/5
Solution: the key goal is to get you into the taken-for-a-ride scam - anyone trying to get you into a tuk-tuk should be ignored outright. As long as it is normal daytime hours (and you've checked the times in your guide book), assume your chosen sight is open for business unless you are refused by the official ticket booth.

Getting tricked out of your money

Going off the beaten track, such as to a local’s house, is where you're most likely to encounter this scam, which seems to hit people who often consider themselves experienced travellers. Being invited to join locals for a meal is one of the greatest honours of travelling - where intentions are good on both sides, it can be an enriching and memorable experience. But if you're unlucky enough to encounter a scammer, the meal and entertainment may involve some sort of rigged card game and/or drugged tea.

'pad see ew sen me' by Jude Adamson. CC BY 2.0

Bangkok is not a country village. Just as you’d be unlikely to accept an invitation to visit a complete stranger’s house alone in the capital city of your home country, so you should politely decline in Bangkok - difficult as it may be to refuse. Regardless of where you are or who you are with (including other travellers) you should always refuse any kind of game that involves money - it is not just the locals who have realised that off-guard travellers are easy pickings.

The worst thing about this scam is that it often preys on travellers’ good intentions. The first time I was in Bangkok, I met an American guy who had been pressured into donating his entire travel budget to a claimed Yogi using a pot of drugged tea and a guilt-laden speech about hungry children.

Danger rating: 5/5
Cost rating: 5/5
Solution: treat Bangkok like the big city it is by keeping your wits about you.

Despite the challenges, there are few places that deliver the adrenalin rush of Bangkok. A few days in the Big Mango will give you years of travelling experience and with a bit of common sense and pre-planning, you can leave as one of the smug few who escape the scammers intact. If you are unfortunate enough to get stung, at least you can console yourself with the fact that you are not alone.

Tom Hewitson is lonelyplanet.com’s Destinations Editor. Follow him on Twitter @tomhewitson.