On my first solo trip, I experienced the dangerous side of travel.
I arrived in Vientiane on an overnight bus from Bangkok. As the bus pulled into the station, tuk-tuk drivers swarmed from all sides. I was tired and jet-lagged, after all, I had only arrived in Bangkok the previous day. I was in no mood to haggle, so I took the first one I saw and said, “Vientiane Backpackers Hostel.”
When I arrived at the hostel, I checked-in, ate breakfast, and took a much-needed shower.
Despite my weariness, I did not want to waste a minute, so, I grabbed my guidebook and started to explore the capital.
There were a few sites I wanted to visit, and I started with That Dam (aka black stupa). It was not the most exciting structure, but it was the first stupa I had ever seen in person. So, I took a picture.
While I snapped my picture, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a short stocky woman in her forties and she wanted to know where I was from. I said I was from Chicago but was living in France.
As I walked away, she said, “Wait! Can I buy you a soda? I’d like to learn about the US.” Not wanting to be rude, I accepted the offer.
She had an endless list of questions, and, after about an hour, she began to tell me about herself. She was actually from Thailand and not Laos. She and her husband moved there a few years ago for work and decided to raise their children in Laos. They were also big into gambling and had a casino in Cambodia.
I started fidgeting with my bag and gracefully swung it over my shoulder, hinting that I wanted to leave. She, on the other hand, wanted to continue our conversation and proposed that we meet later for lunch. My naivety assumed this would be a great opportunity to eat at an ‘authentic restaurant.’ So, I agreed and we set a meeting time.
After a short nap, I sat in my dorm room, regretting my decision, but I felt obligated to uphold my commitment. I sighed, grabbed my things, and returned to That Dam stupa.
When I arrived, she was there, waiting with a tuk-tuk. She had, apparently, prepared lunch for me at her home. I was perplexed and under the impression we were going to a restaurant in Vientiane. I was uncomfortable but wanted to be polite. I was a visitor and she prepared a meal for me, which, in my opinion, is the ultimate act of kindness. I thought I was in no position to decline.
We arrived and lunch was ready. She had prepared a delicious spicy chicken curry. Each bite was like a flavor explosion in my mouth, something only a local could prepare.
A few minutes after we started eating, her brother arrived. He was also into gambling, and he wanted to show me a ‘card trick’ after lunch.
So, here I was at someone’s house in the countryside of Vientiane without an escape. At this point, I started to panic, and not because I was worried about being robbed but because there was no exit. I was trapped, and it triggered my cleithrophobia.
We finished eating, and her brother began to show me a card trick he uses to cheat in poker. In short, the dealer discreetly reveals the cards of other players to his/her partner, a player at the table. This went on for about 10 minutes before another gentleman showed up.
I use the word gentlemen not because he looked honorable in any way, but because he looked like a pimp. He wore a shiny black suit with a white button-down shirt. The top buttons were open, which gave way to a clump of visible chest hairs. To top off his ensemble, he was sporting a gaudy gold necklace and oversized sunglasses, which detracted from his greasy combover.
Her brother introduced him as a BIG gambler in southeast Asia. Apparently, we would have the ‘opportunity’ to play him in poker and use the ‘trick’ they taught me earlier.
You are probably thinking, “How naive is this girl?” Yes, I was that naive. I grew up in a small town where everyone was honest. Before this experience, I never realized such a situation could even exist. So, there I was young, innocent, and new to travel, the perfect target for any con artist.
The first round was friendly (i.e. without money). Her brother was the dealer, and the two of us were playing against this ‘gentleman.’
After the first round, the three of them started putting money on the table, and they were pushing me to do the same. This is where my instincts kicked in. Scam or no scam – I’m cheap. I hate unnecessarily spending money, and gambling is equal to throwing money away.
I said I did not have any money, even though I had a few Lao Kip and some US dollars hidden in my pocket.
This went on for about 30 minutes until there was a large lump of money on the table.
Then, the pimp-like gentleman wanted to play for more money.
He said, “Ok, let’s play one last hand for 30,000 US dollars.”
I don’t know where he came up with this number, but he proceeded to open his briefcase and take out large wads of cash. He insisted I empty my pockets and put the same amount of money on the table. Of course, I did not have that much money, who would travel with so much cash? I reiterated that I did not have any money.
Despite this, he still wanted to play.
The cards were dealt, and, when it was time for everyone to show their hand and reveal the victor, he refused. He demanded that I put my share of the money on the table, and, until I did, he was not going to show his cards.
Obviously, I had the winning hand – a straight flush, one of the best hands in poker. With an apathetic look on my face, I said, “I don’t have any money, so I guess can’t continue.”
Just as these words poured out of my mouth, I was pulled aside. They were, now, trying to convince to me take out a loan. They said we could all take out loans of 10,000 US dollars and split the winnings. At this point, I should have been panicking, but I was calm and, most importantly, broke.
I said, “No, go ahead. You can have the money. Take it.”
Their jaws dropped and they froze. They had not anticipated my response. I continued to assert that I was broke and had a massive amount of student loan debt. I was not going to take out a loan, under any circumstance.
All of a sudden, their body language and tone of voice changed. They were trying to assert dominance over me. Feeling this sudden change, I realized I was in danger, and it was time to leave. In a calm and assertive voice, I said I wanted to leave and asked them to call a tuk-tuk.
They looked defeated and reiterated that I would be losing out on a lot of money. I said they could have everything and encouraged them to take the victory without me.
When the tuk-tuk arrived, I thanked them for lunch and headed back to my hostel.
At the hostel, I bought a large beer and pondered about the day’s events. I realized that this situation could have ended much worse. I should have been more confident with saying “no” or “stop” when I felt unsafe. I was too naive and I let this control the situation. I was more worried about being impolite than being safe, which is something I never should have done.
As travelers, we are our own guardians, and naivety is unforgiving. And, while scams are almost inevitable, there are several things you can do to stay safe.
Here are 6 safety tips that can help you minimize your chances of being scammed.
1. Learn common travel scams and be aware of them BEFORE you travel. In general, young solo travelers are easy targets. Be prudent!
2. Write down emergency information. You never know if you will need to call the local authorities or your embassy. You don’t want to be searching for this information during a crisis.
3. Email your itinerary to friends and family. So, if something goes wrong, they can help contact the proper local authorities or the embassy.
4. Avoid sharing too much with strangers. Someone with ill intentions would love to know your travel plans. Don’t divulge your itinerary to strangers, especially where you are staying.
5. Trust your instincts! If it feels unsafe, chances are it is. Walk away!
6. Travel in numbers. It’s far safer than traveling solo. That’s not to say you can never travel alone, but, if you are, consider making friends and go exploring together.
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Hope you enjoyed my scariest travel story, and you learned something from my mistakes. Here are some of my other adventures in Laos that you might find interesting.
What is your scariest travel story? Do you have any travel safety tips? Share your experience in the comments below!
Interested in more travel tips & tricks? Check out my other posts for more travel tips.