Up until last Friday, I was traveling in Southeast Asia with my friend Donovan. We were backpacking, I guess, but I don’t think either of us are the type of fart-sommeliers who think that makes us Karouac and Burroughs. It was a vacation. And we had a great time, too. The food was great. The people were great. Even waking up at four AM because I ate Cambodian BBQ and Pho in a 24 hour period and open war broke out between them was great because at least that way I had some time to get back into my book. In other words, it was pretty typical of most trips to Asia.
Another way it was typical is that some of the locals looked at us like big, stupid sacks of money with legs. They were entirely right to do so.
Scam name: The Coconut Game
Scam location: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Many Westerner’s photos of Foreign Lands have an obsession with the way that people carry things. How many pictures do we really need of African tribespeople carrying water or food on their heads? We get it, National Geographic, they don’t have SUVs.
The coconut salesmen of Ho Chi Minh have learned to exploit this fascination with people who do other things with their bodies besides socketing them into office chairs. These wiry entrepreneurs walk around with a long bamboo yoke that rests on their shoulder, dangling baskets of coconuts carved into bullet shapes from either side. Here is a picture of someone who is about to lose a bunch of money holding one:
The coconut salesman’s pitch begins when they approach you on the street, show you the callous on their shoulder they got from the yoke and then, without any more preamble, heave it onto yours. Then they lop off the tip of a coconut-bullet, stick in a straw, and charge you the price you were smart enough to agree to before hand.
Guess which part I forgot to do.
Total money scammed: 300,000 VND ($14)
Scam name: The Schoolboy
Scam location: Village near Angkor Wat, Cambodia
A network of hiking trails and small, stone structures are woven through the jungle that surrounds the larger temples at Angkor Wat. Little villages sprout from the sides of these vine-like pathways, where I heard the confident drone of Bhuddist monks from stilt houses and watched kids kicking around a soccer ball in the thoroughfare. Loose dogs chased loose chickens. Old ladies relaxed by grills that roiled with woodsmoke and sizzled with pork grease. And then there was me: the confused tourist trailing behind a skinny twelve-year-old who might have been spewing a thirty-second version of the razing of Cambodia by the Thais in the eighteenth century, but might also have been talking about how he wanted to go to a Thai rave when he was eighteen.
“AndthentheTHAItakethesomethingsomethingbuddha–BAKOW, KRISSHHH, BCKHOOOM–somethingsomethingEIGHTEENsomethingFEETarehere!”
“Hmm,” I said, staring at the huge pair of severed stone feet I had been led to. “Very interesting.”
“Is big buddha,” the kid clarified, gesturing to the feet.
“Not so big anymore.”
And then there was a blue binder in my face. I opened it and saw a letter pleading for donations to help kids like this one stay in school. Stroking my chin in a detective-like manner, I deduced that this kid was, at this very moment, conspicuously absent from school.
Story checks out, I thought, continuing: I am basically Sherlock Holmes.
I gave myself a mental high five. And then I gave the kid five bucks.
“Wait, sir,” he said as I tried to leave. “That was for my books and school. You make tip for me? One dollar?”
“Here’s a tip,” I said. “Quit when you’re ahead.”
And then I ripped off my shirt and flexed so hard the shockwave knocked him off his feet and I grabbed my five out of the air before it hit the ground. Then the monks started beatboxing sweet dubstep, the old ladies became hot babes and started making out and the dogs and chickens started dancing to the monkstep (they also became hot babes).
Actually, I just gave him another dollar.
Total money scammed: $6
Scam name: The Double-Down
Scam location: Hanoi, Vietnam
On our way out of Hanoi, Donovan and I had our hotel book us a taxi to the airport, hoping this would make sure we got an honest one. We probably did, actually, so this guy only “scammed” me the way my couch “assaults” me when I accidentally sit on my balls.
Once we got to the airport, the cabbie helped us with our bags and started to get back in his car. The rest of our conversation went like this, verbatim:
Total money scammed: 180,000 VND ($8)
Scam name: The Atheist’s Prayer
Scam location: Angkor Wat (main temple), Cambodia
Angkor Wat is still home to many important Buddhist temples despite the fact that, every year, more tourists visit the site than Disneyland (source: shut up). You see a lot of monks around. You smell a lot of incense. It’s the Vatican minus the air conditioning, plus a lot of white kids who are just trying to find themselves, mom.
So when someone handed me an incense stick in a dark stone tunnel and waved me toward an altar, I wondered if the guy hadn’t seen me very well. In the darkness, I supposed that my hot pink t-shirt and knock-off Ray Bans could be mistaken for some kind of religious garb. When another guy started showing me how to wave the incense stick around the right way, I figured I’d just go through the motions and get out of there without offending anyone. And then he told me to put 10 dollars under the Buddha’s cloth and I realized the first guy had seen exactly what I looked like:
At this point, I knew I still had the option to walk away, but I’ve seen enough kung fu movies to know you don’t mess with Buddhist monks, especially when you’re pretty sure they’re just shady dudes who are pretending to be Buddhist monks. There’s no shady dude vow of nonviolence.
Total money scammed: $10
Scam name: The No-Handed Gambit
Scam location: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
The war museum in Ho Chi Minh is the kind of squat concrete rectangle typical of the city, with each floor dedicated to a different part of a war that — spoiler alert — Vietnam would rather not have hosted. The central halls and stairways are as sticky and hot as the outdoors, but the side rooms — the ones displaying blood-rusted bayonets, twisted shards of exploded artillery, photo galleries of postwar Agent Orange deformities — are mercifully air conditioned. Where else would so many people spend hours studying pictures of birth defects and grisly wounds outside of a medical college or some super weird corners of the internet?
BOWTIE SPINNING EMOTICON.
The museum’s narrative was obviously heavily edited, but I figure that even a Communist clock is right [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED]. I [REDACTED] [REDACTED] love [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED] the [REDACTED] [REDACTED] party [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED] let’s all destroy freedom!
The top floor of the building is actually about as positive as an exhibit about a conflict most thinking people regard as utterly pointless and brutal. It’s a photo gallery with contributions from Asia, America and Europe, where the major themes are peace, reconciliation and moving forward. It hardly balances out the preceding three floors of Kubrickian Horror, but when you’re starved for something you’ll suck up whatever scraps you can get, even when that thing is hope for humanity.
EXISTENTIAL DREAD EMOTICON.
Having been spat back out into the courtyard with a fleeting sense of quasi-magnanimity, we were approached by a man with a basket of books and tourist trinkets who was missing the better part of both arms. He explained, in excellent English, that he had lost his hands to unexploded ordinance, even as he
handed passed us books about the very war we had just spent the past hour feeling vicariously guilty about. His scam was like the museum itself: even though I could see how the manipulation worked, it wasn’t any less effective.
I’m really trying hard to keep this light, which is probably why it’s taking forever to get through. But I felt for the guy, you know? Even if he was lying about how he lost his hands, which was possible given his age, that didn’t mean his life was any easier for it.
Anyway. Because I Tweet my feelings, here’s the idiot thing I wrote about it when I got back to the hotel:
Hey, it’s this or drinking. Well, drinking more.
Total money scammed: $10
Scam name: The Point-Five-Handed Gambit
Scam Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
After the first landmine guy, I promised myself I would only get tricked out of money I didn’t know I was being tricked out of. That should have been an easy promise to keep.
But then I was exploring the old market in Siem Reap, wearing a t-shirt I had bought at a different market the previous day. I was attracted to it mainly for it’s quality of not having been soaked in my sweat for three days in a row (which set it apart from the t-shirts I had in my backpack), and through the drunken haze I bought it in, I thought the colour and logo were kind of cool. I hadn’t really thought about the actual content until a dude hobbled up to me on a peg leg and jabbed at my chest with the one finger he had left on his remaining hand.
“I like your shirt!” He said with a grin, reaching for his basket of trinkets.
I didn’t even fight it. I gave him five bucks. I didn’t take any of his stuff.
Total money scammed: $5
So, if you’re keeping track, that means the Grand Total is…
But, there is one more story I wanted to tell. Something much more typical of trip as a whole, and of the people I met on it.
Anti-scam name: The Sleepy Mechanic
Anti-scam location: Small village near Angkor Wat, Cambodia
There are a few different ways to explore the temples at Angkor Wat. Tour buses will hit all the big stops, and you can hire a tuk-tuk (a smallish trolley hauled by a moped) for around 10-15 dollars a day. But if you want go at your own pace, check out some of the stuff buried back in the trees and get tricked out of some money by a twelve year old, a bicycle only costs a couple dollars and a couple days of Donovan complaining about how the bicycle seat is jackhammering him in the taint.
At around two PM, which is the time of day that Cambodia is as hot as an oven inside a furnace inside the sun, I ran out of two things: water and luck. I was pedaling hard to catch up to Donovan when my bike lurched hard to the left. I sat, hit the brakes, and looked down for the source of the problem.
I wonder if this had something to do with it, I thought as I picked up one of the pedals from where it had fallen on the side of the road. Even though I’m so mechanically disinclined that I don’t entirely believe planes fly without magic, this was a problem that even I could diagnose.
After unsuccessfully trying to reattach the pedal with a rock, I started using the the bike as a kind of awkward scooter, lamely kicking my way down the road. It was the kind of hot that kills people, and I had ridden by the last two markets where I could refill my water bottle. I left behind a protective canopy of trees a few kilometers before, I had forgotten my sunscreen, and was starting to appreciate just how little UV protection the five dollar fedora I bought in Hanoi was offering. In minutes I had swat my shirt a different colour.
Was this how it ended, I wondered? Cooked like an egg on the side of a bombed-out road while my friend waited ahead, no-doubt trying to find a discreet place to massage his battered perineum? Why didn’t I buy water sooner? Why did I forget to pack something as essential as sunscreen? Why did I buy a fedora? If I was going to die, couldn’t it at least be in a cooler hat?
I came upon a huge market approximately one second later.
Oh, I thought. Well… good.
I reunited with Donovan, bought a water, then went over to a group of tuk-tuk drivers to see if I could persuade one to bring me and my asshole bike back into town. They were all waiting for other customers, but the best English speaker among them told me there was a village less than a kilometre down the road where I could find a repairman. I thanked them and kept on as I was.
I hadn’t made it two hundred meters when I heard a voice from behind me.
“Hello! Follow please!”
It was one of the shopkeepers from the market. She had overheard me talking to the tuk-tuk drivers and got on her own bike to follow me.
“Follow please,” she said. “I know where.”
She led me maybe another two kilometers into a small village. She didn’t speak enough English to say so, but it seemed like she lived there. It had a few of Siem Reap’s Western-style buildings, but many more simple stilt houses and makeshift sun shelters built from leftover tin and old lumber. It was the kind of place with more wild dogs than paved roads.
Eventually she found a couple shirtless guys sleeping in a shelter full of bicycle parts just off the main drag. She woke one of them, spoke to him a little in Khmer and showed him my broken pedal. He shrugged, grabbed a couple parts, and started ratcheting the pedal back on.
I remembered my seven-and-a-half dollar coconut in Ho Chi Minh and thought about asking how much this would cost. But if he had asked for everything I had, what could I do but give it to him? It was too far to walk back to town, and the rental place was holding Donovan’s passport hostage pending the safe return of the mountain bikes (I figured they would want them back despite the fact that they had obviously gained sentience and were trying to kill all humans).
The repairman asked for fifty cents.
When I handed him five dollars, his face crinkled in confusion. The shopkeeper translated what she could:
“Cannot change… too much… smaller?”
I tried to explain that he didn’t need to. It took a minute or two, but I think it was eventually the word “grateful” that got through. He grinned, shook my hand, and went back to his nap. I gave the shopkeeper a dollar too, even though she didn’t ask for anything. She looked surprised.
The next day we took a tuk-tuk.
Total money willingly parted with: $6