While Chiang Mai is quite a safe place, there are still some risks lurking beneath the surface. The unaware can easily fall prey to gem scams, overpriced tuks tuks and credit card fraud during their time in the city. With the right knowledge and some keen observation, however, it is simple to remain free from danger whether living or traveling around this beautiful destination.
One of the most common scams found in Chiang Mai is the inflation of prices on the local transport. This happens to both Thai people and foreigners though and is one of the only scams that seems universal.
As Chiang Mai has very few metered taxis, travelers will mostly be reliant on tuk tuks or songthaews (red pickup trucks) to get around. It is always necessary to haggle for the price before getting aboard. Here, the drivers will often charge more than their usual rates, preying on the traveler’s lack of experience. Once armed with knowledge of the right fares, it is easy to avoid this scam. The following should provide a decent idea of how much should be paid when buying a one-way trip by tuk tuk in Chiang Mai. All rates are from Tha Pae Gate:
- Night Bazaar or Kad Suon Kaew = 60 Baht
- Railway Station or Arcade Bus Station = 80 Baht
- Airport or Chiang Mai Immigration = 100 Baht
The following prices are for return trips and include wait times at the destination:
- Wiang Khum Kham or San Kamphaeng = 300 Baht
- Mae Sa = 400 Baht
- Hang Dong = 500 Baht
At nighttime, there will be a 20 Baht surcharge for taking a tuk tuk to any destination.
Songthaews (red pickup trucks) offer a flat rate of 20 Baht for any destination around the center of town such as the Night Bazaar, Airport Central Plaza and Kad Suon Kaew. Those going a bit further, for example to Arcade Bus Station, will charge 30 or 40 Baht depending on the driver and how many passengers are already in the back.
With the right knowledge, it is easy to avoid being overcharged with both tuk tuks and songthaews. If one comes along that asks for too much, simply wave them along and wait for the next. After all, Chiang Mai has plenty of both to help travelers and residents get about.
Tuk Tuk Scams
If traveling by tuk tuk, it is important to be wary of those offering cheap or free fares around the city. They will generally take visitors to a few attractions such as temples and then end the tour with a stop at local handicraft stores, jewelry retailers and/or tailors.
This is similar to scams found in Bangkok, although the Chiang Mai variety seems to be more relaxed. Pressure is rarely put on the traveler to make a purchase, and in most cases they will simply be left to their own devices. In some instances, this added detour can even be entertaining or educational as the passenger is taken to paper umbrella workshops or shown how gemstones are cut and polished in the factory.
Actually buying something will make the trip worthwhile for the tuk tuk driver, as they will then receive some commission. Generally, this seems to be one of the more harmless scams in the city. The major risk factor is that the goods sold are either overpriced or inferior in quality. If there is any doubt in mind, it is better to simply walk away.
Visas to Laos
Chiang Mai is a popular point of departure for overland travelers to Laos. The border crossing of Chiang Khong is 380km away and takes about 6 to 7 hours by bus or minivan. Because of the number of tourists going that way, numerous travel agencies in Chiang Mai offer Lao visa services for a fee. Since a visa on arrival can be obtained at the Thai-Laos border, these services are redundant and end up being an unnecessary expense.
These types of scams will most often occur to those who travel by minivan to Chiang Khong as these vehicles are generally aimed at foreigners. After the minivan picks up its passengers from their hotels in Chiang Mai, it may make a stop at a connected travel agency. The driver will then tell his or her passengers that they need to pay for a Lao visa before departing. They will say that this is necessary as visas cannot be obtained at the border. This is an outright lie aimed at playing on the uncertainty of travelers and those new to the region.
An easy way to avoid this scam is to travel to Chiang Khong by bus from Arcade Bus Station. One of the better companies is Green Bus which has clean, modern vehicles. They also supply food and beverages en route. Most Thai people travel in this way and the bus will simply leave Chiang Mai for the border at the scheduled time.
This is another scam that has migrated from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. It starts when an individual gets approached by someone out of the blue. They will begin talking generally about their life, travels, etc. Often a meal will be purchased to make the situation seem more friendly. The conversation will later turn to jewelry and how that individual is looking for tourists to transport gems and other accessories out of the country. Tax avoidance is usually stated as the reason and the traveler is promised a large payment (typically around US$10,000) to act as an air courier. As the task of carrying a bag of jewels to someone at their destination is a simple one, this prospect seems enticing.
It is here that the scam begins to fully form. The tourist will be asked to pay for the jewels on their credit card as this will make the whole process more legitimate. If the traveler is stopped at customs on the way through, they will be let through unhindered as they have proof of purchase on their card. This amount is promised to be returned on arrival once the jewels are picked up at the destination. What happens in reality, however, is that the traveler disembarks the plane only to find that there is no one there to meet them and collect the gems. They are then left with a large credit card debt and a bagful of jewels which are worth very little.
To avoid this scam, always be wary about those who strike up a conversation for no reason. While Asian hospitality is such that a complete stranger may want to chat in a harmless manner, in some cases there is malicious intent lying behind the scenes. Here are a few red flags to watch out for:
- Being approached by a random stranger
- The offer of a large amount of money as payment
- Some knowledge of Thai language by the individual (if they are obviously not Thai)
- A lot of initial gifts such as free meals, beers, etc.
- A final request for a credit card payment (for security purposes)
Credit Card Fraud
This scam is found all over Thailand. If an individual pays by credit card, the staff member may take the card out of sight and proceed to make several purchases with it. They will then take the legitimate slip back to the customer who will sign it. After this, the employee can forge that signature on the rest of the slips and get away with the extra purchases.
The easiest way to avoid this scam is simply to pay in cash. If a credit card purchase is absolutely necessary, however, here are a few ways to remain safe:
- Always remain with the credit card
- Never sign a slip unless it is printed in plain view
- Regularly check online transaction records
New Service Centers to fight Tourist Scams
In 2012, the Thai Government announced seven new Tourist service centers in Thailand to help fight scams