Reflection: Trust in Southeast Asia

The most difficult and wearying part of traveling is figuring out who to trust in Southeast Asia. When you are safely at home, you’re comfortable because you trust your surroundings. Your home is your sanctuary, you know which nearby shops and restaurants are good, and your daily routine is familiar.

When traveling, especially in Southeast Asia, all this goes out the window. When staying at a homestay or hostel, will it be clean? When looking for food, how do you find a place that is safe? When traveling around, how do you find something safe and comfortable?

And above all, are you paying a fair price, or the tourist price? How can you be sure that somebody isn’t taking advantage of you?

Yes, you can also get ripped off in western countries. When traveling in Australia, I got charged as much as $10 for a beer. When traveling in New Zealand, I had a really bad whitewater rafting experience. But of my entire three months traveling in Australia and New Zealand, I have only one bitter experience: getting pulled over by a cop for going 11 km/hr above the speed limit, for a $80 fine. And it’s not the fine that annoyed me, but the fact that the police officer was clearly targeting tourists.

Along those lines, it’s true that in western countries, there are tourist trips and other low-quality experiences. But those businesses aren’t intentionally trying to screw with tourists – they’re just not very good at what they do. Nobody is intentionally trying to scam me, nobody looks at me and thinks “there’s a potential sucker”. When asking for information, directions, or other help, I can trust the answer that I’m given. Locals see and treat me as just another decent human being, not as a foreigner who can be easily tricked.

Because of this high level of trust, you can travel in peace in most western countries, without always having to worry if somebody is taking advantage of you.

In contrast, in the rest of Southeast Asia, because of the low levels of trust, because everyone is always trying to rip you off, you have to walk around with your mental shields up, always filtering information to figure out if somebody is stringing you along. In Thailand, drivers will happily lie to you, take you to a gem or tailor shop instead of your intended destination, or simply charge you ten times the real price. In Indonesia, the price is however much you’re willing to pay, asking “How much do you want to pay?” Simply put, there’s a normal local price, and an exorbitant tourist price for suckers.

At some level, I can understand why this happens. By local standards, tourists are extremely rich, and so a massive industry has sprung up serving and preying on tourists. A couple of dollars is nothing to a tourist, but everything to a local of Southeast Asia. And so, there are so many people who try to make as much money as possible off of tourists, who see a tourist and wonder how they can separate him from his money. And it’s not hard to blame them. In Southeast Asia, half of all tourists are naive 20 year old backpackers, whose minds are preoccupied with getting drunk, getting drugs, and getting laid. A local might see this and easily think, these kids clearly don’t deserve their wealth, I’ve got no qualms treating them differently.

Of course, that’s not to say that everyone in Southeast Asia will try to take advantage of you. I firmly believe that most people not affiliated with tourism area, generally speaking, nice and upstanding folks. And even within the tourism area, you’ll still occasionally find folks who will treat you decently without trying to take advantage of you. However, there are enough people who will try to take advantage of you, that you must constantly have your mental shields up. You can’t easily trust anyone, and must filter everything you hear – does that make sense, or is somebody trying to take advantage of me?

It’s hard to trust in Southeast Asia.

As a side affect of these trust issues, whenever you meet a fellow traveler, you somehow instinctly trust them. Because they are travelers like yourself, you can trust them, they’re not out to take advantage of you. And it works, for the most part. The problem is, half the time your fellow travelers have no idea, or have bad information. And so you follow them onto the wrong bus, go to a bad restaurant, stay at a subpar hostel. Ick.

This is also the reason travel guides are so popular. It’s not that they tell you were to sleep, eat, and visit, but they are a trustworthy source that you can rely on.

It’s hard to trust in Southeast Asia.

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