Too smart to be scammed, right?

Journeywatch looks at some common scams and how you can avoid them. 

They often start as soon as you get off the plane. The taxi driver, upon hearing your destination, proclaims that your guest house or hotel is somehow exceptionally far away or closed but, casting a wily smile, he has the perfect place to recommend. Of course, the perfect place is often an out of the way flea infested dive that is highly over priced due to the driver’s commission.

Scams – in a myriad of clever, shameless, and sometimes expensive forms – are an unfortunate part of travel. Whether it is the ubiquitous hassles with taxis or specific scams like carpets in Turkey, ATMs in Bali, or gems in India, a foreigner in a foreign land is often an easy mark for local scam DSCN0233artist.

While con artists are bothersome, their scams are often not particularly clever as much as they are designed to prey upon the dividing line between a traveller’s greed and their rationality.

The gem scam is a case in point. Scam artists in gem shops preach salivating tales of huge profits that travellers can turn by buying gems now and selling them back home. And, the more money the traveller invests on their maxed out credit cards and dwindling travellers cheques the more profits they will earn back home. While pesky rational thoughts might be trying to remind the victim that they can’t tell the difference between a proper gem and a polished shared of glass from a broken bottle or the nagging question of why global market forces haven’t made gem prices comparable around the world, these thoughts are drowned out by the daydreams of a large payday.
Besides, wouldn’t it be cool if you pay off your vacation trading gems? This scam must be particularly painful when the victim tries to flog their shiny glass bounty back at their local gem shop.

Some scams are far more dangerous. Single travellers, often young men tempted by an alluring female or two into joining them for a private drink back at their hotel, are particularly at risk. Known as the ‘honey trap’, the inviting lasses spike the victim’s drink quickly causing him to blackout. When the victim wakes all their possessions are gone, and in one tale told to me, the victim woke up in an empty room to find nothing but a small bottle of water, one cigarette, a lighter, and enough coins to make a local call. While the scammers were kind enough to leave a comically appropriate consolation prize, the consequences can be more serious. Many victims are hospitalized as their perpetrators have doused their drinks with dangerous, even lethal, levels of animal tranquilizers.

What you can do

The general rule for scams is that if something is too good to be true, it probably is. A huge return for gems or wild night with some frisky locals are con-tricks designed to be tempting enough for the target to forgo rationality in pursuit of the promised rewards.

Most scams can easily be avoided. In the case of taxis; always agree on price before getting in, never allow the driver to make a “quick stop” at a retail shop, and don’t leave your luggage in the boot while checking a hotel or getting change for the meter. For other scams, some simple rules can help.

Keep things in perspective. Whether it is Shillings, Pesos, Rupees, or Yuan, normally when you are ripped off the sums are very low. While it is good to count your change and barter hard, there is little sense in arguing over pocket change.

Keep your cool. While a scuffle might seem a tempting way to appease your anger at being on the losing end of a scam, the perpetrator is unlikely to favour a fair fight, probably has friends, and can likely better explain his position to local police.

And finally, never let greed outweigh your rationality.


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Guns and opium in the Xaisomboun Special Zone

Journeywatch takes a look at a little known part of Laos where Vietnam war era alliances and long memories are a continuing source of instability.

Armoured R-28D-5 plane at Long Tieng airfield ...

The airfield at Long Chen c1970. Image via Wikipedia

The mountainous Xaisomboun Special Zone (pron: sigh-som-boon) in North Laos has been turbulent for years. Even today it is closed to most foreigners. During the Vietnam War the CIA ran clandestine operations out of an airfield in a broad valley in the middle of the zone called Long Chen. The Americans trained the local Hmong inhabitants in guerilla warfare to support US operations and harass the Lao and Vietnamese communists.

In 1975, when the Americans withdrew from Indochina, the Hmong were left to fend for themselves against the communist Pathet Lao government. Those who didn’t receive asylum in the US either fled to Thailand or faced persecution at home. The trouble has rumbled on over the years and even now it is reported that some Hmong groups live in jungle camps to escape government forces. In the 2000s, news of banditry and skirmishes with Lao government forces emerged periodically from this part of Laos. These were the long term effects of Vietnam war era expediency, as Journeywatch was to discover first hand.

We went to the region recently following an incident where a foreign worker had been shot by an unseen assailant. He had been returning on foot to a work compound with his colleagues one afternoon when a burst of gunfire had erupted from bushes nearby. In the hail of fire, several cars, the building and he had been hit. Fortunately for him his wound had been superficial. The bullet had tunnelled cleanly through the flesh above his collar bone.

On looking around the site, we found the place where the gunman had lain. An area of flattened leaves, empty bullet cases and dry chalky white spit stains suggested that whatever grievance had been the cause of this incident, the gunman had been high on opium at the time. Who did it was never discovered. In this turbulent area where AK47s abound and people live in the forest it would have taken many weeks of investigating and months of patient hearts-and-minds campaigning to find out.

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The Haiti earthquake and other humanitarian emergencies

The recent tragedy in Haiti in which, according to BBC World Service this morning, over 100,000 people may have died, illustrates yet again the need for a service such as Journeywatch. Why?

The immediate aftermath of this disaster is, like many other emergencies, a time of confusion, disorientation, shock and fear that there might be more to come. Journeywatch is a network where people in the emergency zone can report what is happening on the ground right now, and plot locations on the user maps. This helps aid agencies and others to avoid duplicating their efforts and assists in clearing the fog of disorientation. So if you’re in Haiti now and you have a moment, please sign up and start reporting. You can find the site at

On patrol in the danger zone

Journeywatch’s Southeast Asia correspondent chronicles his experiences in Thailand’s violent ‘deep south’.

IMG_1343resizedThe most common reaction when I explain I work in Thailand’s insurgency-affected southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala is to question whether it is dangerous. It’s a logical question. Since early 2000, a separatist-oriented insurgency has claimed over 3000 lives and the region is heavily militarized.

Yet whether it is dangerous or not to work and travel there is not a straight forward answer. Despite the fact that news coverage from the region is filled with images of warfare and carnage, daily life can be surprisingly peaceful and calm.

While my work has taken me on military patrols, guard duty with militia forces in remote villages, and crisscrossing the provinces in a Black Hawk helicopter, my experiences are usually much more prosaic. Academic conferences, lunch meetings at street-side cafes, field trips with Islamic school students, swimming off largely-deserted beaches, and nights out at a couple of surprisingly wild discos are just examples of how normal life persists despite the ever-present threat of violence.

While insurgency is a real and serious issue, the relatively low frequency of violence and its geographic disbursement over three provinces gives a somewhat false impression of safety.

Travellers traversing the relatively safe National Route 4 highway between Malaysia and Thailand’s southern city of Hat Yai are likely not to notice anything more than a few soldiers loitering around quiet check stops.

This is not to say that the threat of violence is not real. I have been woken up by the sharp boom and shattering of windows as a late-night bomb was detonated outside my hotel and once was violently ambushed on a rural road and forced to flee. These incidents thankfully didn’t result in injury but they were life threatening. CBV Blackhawk in Narathiwat

Yet the paradox of Thailand’s southern insurgency, and other war zones around the world, is how easily one can be lulled into a false sense of normality. Each time I go, after a day or two, my heightened sense of awareness eases and it is life as normal. I walk around crowded markets which were once the scene of grisly bomb attacks and travel on rural highways plagued by devastating improvised explosive devices (IEDs)

So, when my friends in Thailand ask if it is dangerous I usually respond in two ways. The first is to say that it is statistically more dangerous to cross the road in Bangkok or spend any time on the chaotic Thai highways that it is in the conflict-affected southern border provinces.

Then, I reluctantly admit that it is a very dangerous place. After Afghanistan, southern Thailand has the most incidents of devastating IED attacks. And some influential counterinsurgency specialists such as David Kilcullen are claiming that Thailand’s insurgency is only matched in intensity by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Until a political solution emerges and brings an end to the violence, Thailand’s southern border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala should be considered strictly off any travel plans when visiting Thailand.

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