I’ve experienced more than my fair share of scams. No matter how long I’ve been in Asia, new ways to get caught off guard crop up like cattle on the road.
Some methods are annoying, some are hilarious, and some are downright dangerous.
The following series tells the stories of scams that I’ve been the victim (or near-victim) of.
By reading this, I hope you’ll gain a better sense of judgement while traveling and avoid similar scenarios. Otherwise, just sit back, relax and revel in my misfortune.
Kindly allow me to re-live the trauma, with this first tale about how a little boy in Spongebob underpants nearly killed me and my friends.
1. COOKING OIL IN MY MOTORBIKE (Kampot, Cambodia)
During the Tet holiday, some friends and I took a trip to Cambodia.
The place is a strange mix of expat and rural influence: bars, BBQ restaurants, and a European-style promenade coexist with crumbling infrastructure and packs of wild dogs (who’ve found their calling following terrified tourists).
Rabies aside, Kampot has carved quite the niche for itself as a backpacker hotspot.
Enterprising locals make the most of the tourism, running restaurants, laundry services, and even cinemas. Hostels open their doors along the banks of the Praek Tuek Chhu river, with waterside views and parties that rage on until 6.a.m.
When not knocking back Slippery Nipples, tourists tend to visit two places: The Gulf of Thailand or Elephant Mountain. Either way, you’re going to need a motorbike.
When the bikes arrived at our hostel, we were told to fill them up at a small stand just a little ways down the road.
We arrived at a small wooden shack, with a laminated paper sign reading ‘LAUNDRY SERVICE’. A young woman popped out from her house tucked behind, followed swiftly by her chubby little son. He wore nothing but Spongebob underpants.
Understandably confused, we pointed to our bikes and asked “gas?”. The woman smiled and nodded, picking up several empty glass coca-cola bottles and handing them to her son. Jiggling in the sunlight, the boy unscrewed the top of a huge container and siphoned its chemical-yellow contents one by one into the bottles.
His expression was one of pure precision; an expert at his task, not letting a single drop go to waste.
The mother picked up a bottle and started funneling them into our oil tanks. The deed done, we paid and revved our way to Elephant Mountain: a 68 mile drive up a national park.
The six of us drove down a long stretch of road, leaving behind the convenience stores of Kampot for miles of barren red earth. With nothing but the vast open road, little traffic, and motorbikes full of juice, we raced down to our destination less than 10km away.
Then all of a sudden shit started breaking down.
Whizzing at a good pace, the sounds of shouting creeped up from behind. I slowed down and looked back to see three of my friends at a standstill. They were around one of the bikes, with the tank propped open.
“It just gradually lost power,” she said. “I’ve tried everything, but it won’t start again. This must be a dud bike.”
We wheeled the motorbike to the side of the road, a spanner in our plans and a pain in our backseats. None of us had a Cambodian SIM. Riding piggyback, two of my friends set off back towards the hostel to find the rental guy.
We continued, agreeing to meet them at the nearest petrol station.
Then two minutes into the journey I felt my power start to drop. The engine, previously bursting with energy, now spat and sputtered, slowing down at a rapid pace. Not again. Mustering all that was left, my bike finally died right next to a local gas station.
They opened my motorbike to see a full tank. One of the guys shut it, got on top and tried revving the engine. Nothing. He tried again. Nothing. Confused, he motioned us to sit down and wait in the shade.
The rental guy arrived, with my friends in tow. He checked the tank.
“Cooking oil!” he said. “Very bad!”
We burst out laughing. We were played. Conned in the most ridiculous way, by a woman and a boy in cartoon underwear.
Realising they’d recommended the shack in the first place, the rental guy set off and returned with six brand spanking new bikes. Check out my fabulous hot pink Hello Kitty number:
And thusly we set off into Elephant Mountain. Out of the frying pan and into the fryer.
Cooking oil is not meant for vehicles. Because it’s not able to withstand high temperatures like regular petrol, there’s a very high risk it could end up STARTING A FIRE in your tank. This can completely screw up bikes, wrecking the engine and rendering them useless.
I’m thankful the motorbikes RIP’ed before we got to the park.
To think we could have ended up whizzing down a mountain at 60 to 70km/h, only to have our bikes suddenly break down.
We could have been left stranded on a quiet mountain road, left to survive with no phone signal as night fell on the Cambodian jungle.
We could have been thrown off our bikes as they broke down, jolting in the mismatched ignition and crashing into the mountains.
Makes me shudder.
Now I can never watch Spongebob Squarepants the same way again.
Have you been the victim of a scam whilst traveling?
Do you have any advice to give travelers in Southeast Asia?
Feel free to comment below.