Thailand is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited in my life. The authentic food, friendly locals, bumping nightlife and gorgeous beaches will seduce you, and rightfully so. But Thailand, like many countries with tourism-fed economies, can also be a merciless tourist-trap.
I speak from experience. I was coerced into looking at gemstone jewelry by Tuk Tuk drivers, taxied three hours into the middle of nowhere to the not-so-real “real-life floating markets,” and missed out on seeing The Grand Palace because it was “closed.” While most of my experiences were completely harmless inconveniences, I probably would have enjoyed my trip much more had I done my research and known the most popular scams before traveling to the Land of Smiles.
Here are five tips for avoiding the most common tourist traps and scams in Thailand.
1. Always agree on the price and destination before taking a Tuk Tuk
Some travel experts advise travelers to avoid Tuk Tuks entirely, as they are one of the easiest ways to get scammed in Thailand. I disagree. One of my favorite things about Thailand was whizzing down the crowded streets in a Tuk Tuk with the wind in my hair. It’s an experience you shouldn’t miss! Just be careful.
Tuk Tuk rates vary depending on time of day, distance traveled and whether you are in a large mainland city like Bangkok or in a smaller island like Phuket. In my experience, Tuk Tuk rides are more expensive the more secluded the area and the later the hour.
To avoid getting swindled, always establish exactly where you are going on a map and the price you are willing to pay before you sit down in a Tuk Tuk — once you are sitting, you are at the driver's mercy. Tuk Tuk drivers often have arrangements with shops that sell overpriced jewelry, silk and other commodities, and the Tuk Tuk may take you on a shopping tour instead of to temples or The Grand Palace, as you requested.
It’s also important to establish the price of your ride beforehand, as drivers tend to quote tourists inflated rates. A good rule of thumb is to cut whatever they quote you in half and go from there. You’ll likely always pay over what you should, but it’s more about the journey than the destination.
2. Only ride in metered taxis and understand Thai currency before you go
While taking a taxi can be cheaper, faster and more comfortable than riding in a Tuk Tuk or via public transportation, you can also get expertly hustled by taxi drivers.
First things first — always demand that the driver use the meter. If they refuse, find another cab. Sometimes even if you agree on a max fare before you start your trip, the taxi driver will increase it by the time you arrive.
Make sure to educate yourself about Thai currency before you get to Thailand, especially if you are using larger bills. A popular scam for taxis picking up new arrivals from the airport is to shortchange tourists who don’t yet know enough about baht to notice they were given incorrect change. If you’re confused, ask airport information what a typical fare should be for your jouney.
3. Book excursions through your hotel and know where you want to go
I made the mistake of trying to book excursions myself, and it was a complete disaster. DO NOT book excursions through street vendors, Tuk Tuk drivers or directly with tour companies on the beach. Best case scenario, you’ll get ripped off and pay double or triple what you should. Worst case, you’ll pay double for transportation to a tourist trap in the middle of nowhere that in no way resembles the attraction you wanted to go to and will have to pay even more to get back to civilization.
My advice is to buy before you go through a reputable travel agent or a tour company that has favorable reviews. Plan an excursion every other day of your trip, with a rest day between for lounging on the beach, shopping or smaller sight-seeing adventures. This way, you can experience all of the most iconic things to do in Thailand, like seeing The Grand Palace and Floating Markets, but still have room for spontaneous trips as well.
4. Steer clear of the red-light district (or enter at your own risk)
This is pretty obvious, folks. Thailand is well-known for its risqué nightlife — one does not have to travel far to experience a go-go bar, ping pong sex show or downright prostitution. While travelers may be curious, the red-light district can be very dangerous, both to your wallet and to your physical person.
If you simply must go to a sex show or a go-go bar during your visit, make sure you go in a large group and pay a reasonable price. Safer establishments will have fixed-price menus and are generally located on street level. Bars above street level are often disreputable. Street-side hustlers who offer you free drinks and tell you that you don’t have to pay anything if you don’t like the show are LYING. They will lure you away from the crowds and into a secluded bar where you will be given a “free” drink that actually ends up costing 1000 baht or more. If you can’t pay, you might be threatened by gang members or physically assaulted.
5. Be cautious when renting a motorcycle, jet ski or car
If you plan on renting any type of vehicle, be very cautious. Take detailed pictures before you leave with the vehicle and upon return, and never surrender your passport as collateral for a rental.
Though Thailand has recently cracked down majorly on jet ski and vehicle scams, rental companies have notoriously scammed tourists by claiming that they damaged the vehicle, charging outrageous repair fees and holding passports until fees are paid. If you must rent, try asking your hotel for a trusted rental company.
While there are plenty of hustlers in Thailand who will try to take clueless tourists for all they’re worth, most scams are predictable and easy enough to avoid if you educate yourself before departing. If you successfully dodge these five common tourist traps, you’ll be well on your way to a relaxing and enlightening adventure in the Land of Smiles.
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