Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Dala touts who want your dollars

The trishaw driver spat his betel nut onto the ground.

“You are in my country. Here, I say what is going to happen,” he said, angrily.

And that was when I knew I was in trouble.

Photos: Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar TimesPhotos: Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar Times

I’d spent the past two hours on his trishaw, being cycled around the peaceful fishing village of Dala, for which I’d agreed to pay him K4500. When the trip was over, however, he – and the group of friends that suddenly appeared – demanded I hand over K36,000.

“K4500 for each half hour, multiplied by two, as the tour guide was on another trishaw with you,” said one of his friends. The group of men that had gathered around us started threatening me, and I ended up paying the K36,000.

Looking back, I should have realised earlier that they were trying to scam me. During the trip, my self-appointed “official guide” asked me to make a “small donation of rice for the poor”. This “small donation” turned out to be a huge sack of rice for the not-so-small price of K40,000.

I’m not the only one to have encountered con artists in Dala. Recent posts on online forums and expat groups suggest the charming, rural escape has become an important hub for touts and scammers operating in the wider Yangon area. When questioned about the problem, an official at the tourist police office in Yangon, who asked not to be named, confirmed: “Tourists complain regularly about being ripped off in Dala.”

According to reports from tourists, touts start to operate before visitors even arrive in Dala, approaching unsuspecting visitors at the Pansodan jetty ticket desk, and claiming to be “official tourist guides” which, they say, are “compulsory for foreigners”. Upon arriving in Dala, tourists are directed toward “trishaw drivers with the best price”. In some cases the guide then joins you for the trip, doubling the cost at the end.

And it’s not just trishaw drivers that have been known to try and make a quick buck.

“I was approached by a man on the ferry who made small talk and then found out I wanted to rent a motorbike,” said Rachel Hall, an Australian tourist. “He said he had many friends who would rent me a motorbike for K5000 per hour, and they would provide the petrol,” she said.

When she arrived in Dala, Rachel and the tout negotiated a fixed price of K10,000 for a motorcycle, including petrol, which was rented through a third party. But when she returned the tout was gone and the tout’s friends demanded extra money for petrol.

Photo: EPAPhoto: EPA

These “misunderstandings” are a common part of the tout’s scams. A post on Lonely Planet’s online forum tells the story of a traveller who was tricked into paying US$100 for a horse-drawn cart trip. In the end, he got away by paying $50 to escape the situation.

When tourists refuse to pay up, however, touts have been known to become very angry, very quickly.

“Me and my friend rented a motorcycle [in Dala] to go to Twante. We understood the price would be K3500 each, but when we came back, they charged us K30,000 each,” said Joseph Willenborg, an expat from America. Willenborg acknowledges that the situation was partly their fault, since they had been away for about four hours and realised that K3500 was not a fair price.

But the situation quickly turned ugly.

“We tried to talk to the owner, to explain the misunderstanding, but he suddenly became very aggressive and began to shout wildly at us,” he said.

Photo: Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar TimesPhoto: Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar Times

French expat Philippe Lenain told The Myanmar Times a similar story. He and his Cambodian wife agreed to pay K5000 each for a two hour ride around Dala. Upon returning, the drivers and the tout, who acted as a broker, demanded K5000 per half hour. “I started to protest, rather loudly, but I could see on their faces that they could get nasty,” Lenain said. Eventually, he backed down and paid what they were asking. “It was one of the only times I have felt a degree of real threat in Yangon,” he said.

Many of the scams experienced by visitors to Dala are similar, organised by the same groups of con artists.

“The leaders of the scam groups work with different kids everyday, making it harder to track them,” said the tourist police official, adding that number of cases of fraudulent activity is much higher than the number reported to the tourist police.

“Tourists usually leave Yangon after a few days and they don’t want to spend the little time they have talking to the police, so they decide to just let it go,” he said.

He recommends that tourists call the tourist police immediately if they experience any kind of suspicious activity.

“The touts are a problem not only for tourists but for the whole country, as they worsen the otherwise good reputation of the country,” he said.

Need to know

To report scams aimed at tourists, contact the Yangon Tourist Police, 110 Pansodan Street (lower block), Yangon, or telephone 01378479