12 Most Common Tourist Scams in Myanmar

Safety at Yangon/Rangoon, Mandalay, Bagan, Nyaung Shwe, Ngapali, Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), Kalaw, Naypyidaw, Taunggyi, Nyaung U, Ngwe Saung, Mawlamyine, Bago, Hpa An, Hsipaw, Mrauk U, Myeik, Dawei, Pyay, Myitkyina, Sittwe, Chaungtha, Loikaw, Monywa, Kawthoung, Lashio, Magwayy, Pathein

 

Myanmar

Image source: hotels-myanmar.com

 

For many years Myanmar was difficult to enter but now this amazing country is open and many are pouring in to enjoy some of its prettiest sites such as the spectacular temples of Bagan.

Other highlights include stunning Mandalay where you can check out lakes, pagodas, and palaces, and this part of the world also has lively markets and a delicious street food scene.

The country however remains one of the least affluent in Southeast Asia and this brings with it tourist targeted scams as its tourism picks up.

Although most visits to Myanmar are trouble-free and violent crime is rare, visitors still need to keep their wits about them.

Read on learn how to protect yourself!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Shoe guardians

Shwedagon Pagoda

Image source: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

 

How it works:

It is common practice in Myanmar for all visitors to religious sites to take off their shoes before they enter as a sign of respect.

As you remove your footwear to enter a temple in tourist areas like Bagan and Mandalay, a helpful local will tell you that they will ‘look after’ your shoes until you return.

When you get back, they will ask for a small fee for their troubles or ask you to buy a souvenir from their shop or kiosk as a way of repaying them.

If the monetary exchange has been decided before hand however, then this is technically not a scam. Just do not go into thinking that this is a “free” service.

 

What to do:

It is true that you will need to remove your footwear before you enter a temple.

However, it is unlikely you will need someone to take care of them as locals would not usually steal from a religious site.

You can either make it clear you do not need any assistance, or just take off your shoes and carry them with you into the temple in a bag.

 

2. A friendship tour

Myanmar village

Image source: grasshopperadventures.com

 

How it works:

This is a prevalent scam around tourist areas, usually at guesthouses or cafes.

A local will make your acquaintance and get talking to you.

They will appear very friendly and ask you about your life. They then say that they consider you a friend and would love to give you a free tour of the city.

Once you go on the tour however, they will take you to eateries and shops where you will feel pressured to buy something as they will get a commission.

At the end of the tour they will tell you that they have spent a huge amount of money on gasoline to take you around and so need an inflated tip from you.

 

What to do:

If someone offers you a free tour then you need to make sure it is actually free.

Most of the time it will not be and you will be expected to pay at the end despite whatever was promised initially.

As such it is better to avoid the situation by politely refusing to join a tour or have a firm agreement that you will not be paying any money for your guide’s services.

 

3. Fake gemstones

 

How it works:

Myanmar is famous for its gemstones just like Thailand and Sri Lanka, but this also means that fake jewels are rife.

A common scam is to be offered gemstones from a local, usually produced from their pocket, which they claim are sapphires or rubies and come from Mogok which is an area in Myanmar famous for its beautiful stones.

They will almost certainly be fake however, especially if they are being sold at a lower price than usual.

 

What to do:

Remember that if a deal sounds too good to be true then it probably is.

If you want to buy real gemstones then do so from licensed shops.

 

4. Unique stone carvings and paintings

Myanmar stone carvings

Image source: silentskylark.com

 

How it works:

One scam that is on the rise in Bagan centers on a seller telling you that you are getting a ‘unique’ item.

This is usually a painting or stone carving that the craftsman will tell you took hours to create and is one of a kind.

Due to its unique design features, you will be asked to pay a high price. However, the item is really not that unique and can be found all over Myanmar.

 

What to do:

Always bargain and be wary of anyone telling you that they are selling you a ‘unique’ piece.

 

5. Restaurants without set prices

Image source: indochinatravel.com

 

How it works:

Some restaurants in Myanmar are basic and as such do not have menus. Some will come with a menu but without any listed prices.

This opens you up to the chance of getting scammed, if you had not confirm the prices for whatever you are ordering.

 

What to do:

Ideally, do some online research or check with your hotel staff for recommended places to eat at.

Before a meal, confirm the prices. After the meal, make sure you receive an itemized bill and check it carefully.

 

6. Coin collectors

 

How it works:

This scam is rampant in Southeast Asia (e.g. such as in Cambodia) and is often used in Bagan or Yangon.

A friendly local will strike up conversation with you and ask where you come from.

They will then say they are a coin collector and need some notes or coins from your home country which they will exchange for a few Kyats.

The problem is that you will be getting a bad rate of exchange and the scammers then try to pressure other tourists to buy back the coins and notes at a similarly bad rate of exchange, claiming they are useless as the locals can’t change foreign currency in Myanmar.

 

What to do:

Walk away politely or say that you don’t have any foreign currency.

 

7. Fake entrance tickets

myanmar temple ticket

Image source: heybrian.com

 

How it works:

This is is a common scam in Bagan which is famous for its temples.

A group of scammers will sit inside a temple usually with just a small wooden desk and claim that you have to pay a high entrance fee in order to see all the temples.

In reality this is a scam and you will only need to pay once to enter the Bagan Archeological Zone.

Once you are inside you do not have to pay again to visit any of the individual temples.

 

What to do:

If you are asked to pay a fee inside a temple then show your pass for the Bagan Archaeological Zone and explain that you have already paid.

Should the scammers insist then simply walk away and visit another temple.

 

8. Pickpocketing

 

How it works:

Pickpocketing is prevalent across Southeast Asia (e.g. Indonesia, Vietnam, etc) and it happens in Myanmar.

Some hotspots they operate at include:

  • Tourist spots in Bagan and Mandalay (e.g. U Bein Bridge)
  • Buses: in early 2018, 3 members of a 7 person gang which targets passengers on YBS 20 (runs from Hlaing Tharyar township to Thakin Mya Park) have been arrested
  • Street fairs

These thieves work in gangs, and will hang around to spot anyone carrying an expensive or neglected phone / jewelery / valuable / bag and where it is stored.

Once they mark a target, they will surround him or her and then work like this:

  • One will keep a lookout and block passer-bys from seeing the scene.
  • Another will block, push or distract the target (e.g. ask you an innocent question / survey / drop something and ask you about it).
  • A third will steal your valuable / slash your bag and then passes it on.
  • The last will hide the loot under a jacket / coat / newspaper and then escapes with it.

 

What to do:

Stay alert and watch out for suspicious characters, though that is easier said than done.

The best solution is still, to not make yourself look like a target. 

Further, make it impossible for thieves to steal from you with these methods:

  • Carry around a photocopy of your passport instead of the actual one.
  • Carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet that you wouldn’t mind losing. Do not leave it in your back pocket.
  • Conceal small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch, large valuables in a slash-resistant and lockable anti-theft bag.
  • Leave most valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment, secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get travel insurance so even if all else fails, you are still protected.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Overcharging taxis

Yangon taxi

Image source: Ilya Plekhanov

 

How it works:

In Myanmar, taxis do not have meters, hence you might find some drivers who charge a much higher rate.

 

What to do:

You simply have to do your research to find out how much a route will cost.

This can be easily checked online with a taxi fare estimator tool or with hotel or shop staff.

For instance, a taxi ride from Yangon airport to town will cost 8k-9k Kyatt.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Snatch theft

 

How it works:

Snatch theft is a rising problem in Myanmar and wider Southeast Asia (e.g. Malaysia, Philippines, etc).

Generally, there are two versions of snatch thefts – strike and run, or distract and grab, in many possible contexts:

  • Bikes / mopeds riding past, with a pillion rider doing the snatch.
  • Snatching from behind you, then running into a getaway car to escape.
  • At restaurants, stealing unattended bags / valuables on the chair or table.
  • Hotels airports, where distracted / tired tourists carry all their valuables out.
  • The beach where tourists are relaxed, or when they head to the water.
  • Nightclubs, where “prostitutes” pretend to proposition tourists by grabbing them but are really trying to steal your valuables.
  • Seats beside a train’s doors where a thief gets out just before the doors close.
  • Stealing of bags on overnight trains / buses.
  • Valuables snatched through a car / bus window.
  • Thefts around ATMs.

 

What to do:

At crowded places, even seemingly safe places like at a restaurant or hotel:

While out walking / on transport:

  • Use a cross body anti-theft bag facing away from the road / windows of your vehicle.
  • Do not carry valuables in your hands when walking by the road or when beside a vehicle window / train door.
  • Avoid wearing obvious jewelry which can be easily ripped off.

Other protection measures:

 

2. Fake monks

 

How it works:

As long as there are tourists, there is a chance you will find fake monks, they are global (e.g. US, UK, Australia).

These scammers, dressed in orange robes, go around tourist attractions such as at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, or at crowded transportation hubs like the Mandalay Bus terminal.

They offer golden medallions and greetings of peace in exchange for donations to help some temple which they are from.

Some of them even double up as unofficial tour guides and offer to bring you around the temples and pagodas.

 

What to do:

Firmly decline.

 

3. Fraudulent money changers

Image source: travel3sixty.com

 

How it works:

Money changers in Myanmar are known for several fraudulent tricks.

The first of these is to give you a bad rate of exchange, but the second is more difficult to detect.

Once you agree on a price, the money changer will hand you half the bills to count.

Due to the large number of bills they will then offer to hold the money for you as you keep on counting but will actually take some of it when you aren’t looking.

Often a crowd will form and take an interest in the transaction so that you are distracted. The money changer will then put an elastic band around your money and may also take the opportunity to pocket some notes at the same time.

Unfortunately, it has been reported that even money changers at Yangon Airport have been guilty of this scam.

 

What to do:

If at all possible use only money changers inside banks or hotels and avoid money changers in the streets.

If you do use an unlicensed money changer then watch very closely to make sure they are not pocketing any of your money.

 

D. KEY SAFETY ISSUES

This is not a fear mongering exercise, as most visits are trouble free as long as you exercise some common sense.

However, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Information below has been compiled from:

                                                     

1. Violent crime, hazards, hotspots, terrorism, civil unrest

Image source: smartraveller.gov.au

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: those targeted against foreigners are rare and occasional.
  • Hazards: unexploded landmines along border conflict areas (Shan, Chin, Kachin states).
  • Hotspots: prolonged internal conflicts between the country with ethnic armed groups (e.g. Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)) and militia forces in various border regions.
  • Terrorism: if you define ethnic armed groups as “terrorists”.
  • Civil unrest: could happen at short notice.

 

What to do:

Stay alert, avoid secluded areas, travelling alone at night, hiking alone, and don’t look like an easy victim.

Monitor local media in case of any threats, especially during public holidays like Martyrs Day (19 July) and Armed Forces Day (27 march). Avoid the danger zones and demonstrations.

Avoid these places due to armed conflicts:

  • Rakhine State, except southern townships of Kyaukpyu, Ramree, Munaung, Toungup, Thandwe (including tourist resort of Ngapali) and Gwa.
  • Paletwa township, in southern Chin State.
  • Shan State (North), except Kyaukme town, Hsipaw town, and train line from Mandalay to Kyaukme and Hsipaw.
  • Kachin State (except towns of Myitkyina, Bhamo and Putao).
  • Areas bordering China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India, even authorised land border crossings.

 

2. Medical care

Image source: Trover.com – Hmyintoo Hmyintoo

 

How it works:

Medical care is pretty much inadequate here.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: zika, malaria, dengue, chikungunya, scrub typhus, and Japanese encephalitis.
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, hepatitis, typhoid, cholera, schistosomiasis, polio.
  • Animal borne diseases: avian influenza, rabies.
  • Human borne diseases: HIV, tuberculosis.

 

What to do:

If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel, as:

  • Emergency health services can cost a bomb.
  • Insurance providers can make complex logistical arrangements to get you the best medical treatment fast.

Vaccinations to consider:

  • All travellers: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, flu shot.
  • Most travellers: Hepatitis A, typhoid.
  • Some travellers: Hepatitis B, Japanese Encephalitis (rural areas), malaria, rabies (outdoor activities, or working around animals).

Prevent insect bites:

  • Protective clothing.
  • Insect repellents.
  • Insecticide treated bed / cot nets.
  • Plug-in insecticides.
  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass.

Food safety:

  • Practise safe hygiene such as washing hands with soap.
  • Only drink bottled water or water that has been boiled.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, ice cubes, uncooked and undercooked food.

Activities:

  • Avoid swimming in freshwater sources (lakes, rivers, ponds).

 

3. Natural disasters

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Cyclones: April to October.
  • Rainy season: June to September (southwest), December to April (northeast), severe rainstorms can cause flooding and landslides.
  • Earthquakes: frequent.

 

What to do:

Check the latest media reports and weather forecast. The Myanmar Department of Meteorology and Hydrology website is a good source.

Effective preparation and prevention involves staying at the “right” place, travelling at the “right” time and getting adequate travel insurance protection.

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Driving in Myanmar can be very dangerous, due to a multitude of reasons:

  • Poorly maintained vehicles and roads.
  • At night, headlights are not switched on and roads do not lighting.
  • Very aggressive driving amidst congested traffic.
  • Pedestrians and animals walking on the road.
  • Narrow and winding mountainous routes.
  • Roads can become impassable during the rainy season.

Public transportation do not meet international safety standards as well.

 

What to do:

Stay alert while driving, always wear seatbelts and keep doors locked and windows up.

Again, we can’t stress enough the importance of travel insurance in case anything goes wrong.

If not driving, it is recommended to take taxis with red license plates instead of public transportation.

 

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Myanmar police

Image source: mizzima.com

 

  • Police:  199
  • Fire service: 191
  • Ambulance: 192
  • Tourist police – Yangon: +95 1 379 991
  • Tourist police – Mandalay: +95 267 382

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3 Comments

  1. Richard Seinstra

    Make sure that you have an idea how much certain distances will cost. Check in your hotel or with another local, they usually know the regular prices. Negociate with the driver before getting into the taxi.

    Note though that prices vary per region or city. E.g. a taxi in Yangon from the airport to downtown will cost you 8000-9000 kyatt (10 miles), where in Dawei from the airport to town will be 4000-5000 kyatt (3 miles).

    Reply
  2. Paul

    The vast majority of people are good, honest people either trying to make a living or showing an interest in foreigners. Smile, talk to them, be friendly, don’t assume someone is trying to ‘scam’ you because they approached you. It’s rare and pretty obvious when its happening if you have one iota of common sense.

    Reply
  3. Ronny

    Fakemonks are common.

    Reply

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