The Palace is Closed Today: How to Deal with Uncomfortable Travel Moments

From an American point of view, some areas of the world are somewhat easier to visit than others. Europe, while at times pricey, isn’t that difficult to navigate frankly. Although there are language differences, the food is familiar, the culture is similar and for the most part everything is pretty much as it seems. When expanding our travel circle to other areas of the world though, appearances can be deceptive and travelers may find themselves in uncomfortable and even compromising situations.

Grand Palace, Bangkok

The Palace is Closed Today
My first experience with a non-Western country was Thailand. No matter what anyone tells you, your first time in a developing nation can be a culture shock at first. On our second day, we were walking from the river taxi pier to the Grand Palace, the most popular tourist attraction in Bangkok. Within a few paces of leaving the boat, we were approached by a man who tried to convince us that the Grand Palace was closed that day, but he would help us see other sights instead. Even though I knew he was trying to lure us away to get our business, I still hesitated half a second before my partner grabbed my arm and whisked me away. I’ve since observed that this is a fairly popular con targeted towards tourists. The con artist tries to take advantage of a person’s ignorance or naiveté in order to make a quick buck, or worse. I have a friend who fell into a similar trap in India and wound up in a horrible situation where a tourist agency actually had possession of his passport and threatened not to return it unless certain travel packages were purchased.

The lesson here is to not ignore local advice, but to use common sense. If a situation feels wrong, then it probably is. Trust your gut and you’ll be fine.

Djeema El Fna, Marrakech

No, you don’t really want to go there…
On our trip to Marrakech we made the foolish decision to stay at a Western-style hotel ten minutes from the Old City. The hotel was fine, but pretty bland in retrospect. As independent travelers, we didn’t mind the walk or navigating our way around town, most of the time. There was a certain location in the medina that I couldn’t seem to find on my own, yet wanted to visit, so I asked the hotel concierge to call a cab so they could just take us there. The fare would be less than $5 and well worth the time it would save us by not getting lost. I thought he understood my request, until it came time to give the cabbie instructions. The concierge and the cabbie had a five minute conversation in a mix of French and Arabic, all the time looking and pointing at us. Finally, he approached with the map I had given him and told us flatly that we really didn’t want to go there. This was a personal first and I just stared at him, incredulous at the comment. The concierge, I call him Mr. Swarthy, took advantage of my hesitation and said “Here, you want to go to this mall instead. There‘s nothing to see in the medina, it‘s just crowded and dirty.” That’s when I knew I was in trouble. I’ve heard that before. “We’ll take you there, but first visit my cousin, he has a shop…” I looked at him straight in the eye, stood up tall and let him know in no uncertain terms that I did not need to buy leather goods and I actually yes, did want to go to the medina. He got the idea, quickly issued a command to the cabbie and that was that.

It’s not that the concierge was trying to take advantage of me, not exactly. Rather, he was trying to help himself by sending me to a friend or family member who would throw him a few bucks for referring me. The intent isn’t malicious, although it may at first appear so to someone not familiar with the complex social networks which exist in many countries around the world. Just because he wants to get paid off though doesn’t mean that you have to be a willing participant. While it’s not always possible to avoid the mint tea/buy a rug experience, if you’re firm but polite, you can usually bypass the situation altogether.

Wat Po, Bangkok

Super Duper Official Airport Taxi

Airports around the world can be chaotic and extremely confusing, from New York City to Bangkok. After a 16 hour flight, it can be daunting to emerge from the immigration/customs hall into an arrivals lobby swarming with hundreds of people with signs, each yelling a variety of names and offers. Returning to my Bangkok experience, we were fresh off of a nonstop flight from Paris and were exhausted. As an over planner, I knew where we needed to go to find a cab that would take us to our hotel, but for some reason my partner fell prey to an old trick – the “official” cab service. First of all, never believe anyone that claims to be the official anything, because they almost never are. In Bangkok Scott saw a sign for official airport cabs, and bee-lined for the booth. Of course it was a limo service and after they quoted us $150 for a Cadillac into town, I politely said no thank you, grabbed Scott and finally found the taxi queue.

This goes back to the old travel rule, trust but verify. A certain level of skepticism is a key quality for any traveler, as long as you don’t go overboard. Never turn away from a genuine opportunity because of your distrust, but always make sure it’s the real deal before moving forward.

Jericho

Dealing with People in Need
No matter where you go in the world, you will encounter people who ask you for money. This is a serious issue for all travelers, and how one deals with these situations ultimately comes down to personal choice. As with anything, there are good and bad actors in this area, and it may be impossible to tell the difference.

Once when we were in Paris, we were walking along the Champ de Mars towards the Eiffel tower when I noticed a woman with a sign asking for money. According to the placard, she was a Bosnian immigrant who had lost her hearing. She looked down on her luck, and many people were throwing a few Euros into her cap. I’m not sure why she made an impression, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her and I regretted not giving her some money. The next day we were near the Marais, buying yet another Nutella crepe when I noticed that the crepe makers were having a good laugh with a friend who was also munching on a crepe.  I looked over and was shocked to see the girl from the Champ de Mars, the “deaf Bosnian” woman. It was obvious that she was certainly not deaf and based on her accent, I would guess she was from the Paris suburbs and not Bosnia. I was glad I hadn’t given her any money, but wondered what would compel someone to lie for a living.

Last year while in the Palestinian Authority, we made a brief stop outside Jericho to visit an ancient church. Outside the gate to the church was a young boy, probably eight or nine, with a bunch of bananas he was trying to sell to the visiting tourists. Now I’m a deeply skeptical person, and I watched him from the corner of my eye during the visit. He tried so hard to sell just one banana to someone, anyone, but everyone just walked past. I found the irony intense, as we were all leaving a site of extreme religious importance, and yet no one found the time to offer a farthing to the young boy. It was like living in a parable; I half expected a shining beam of light to illuminate the path ahead. I gave the boy enough money to buy the bananas ten times over, told him to keep them and walked back to the van. Before climbing in he gave me a hug and thanked me. Like the Grinch, I felt my heart grow three sizes that day. I didn’t give him the money for self satisfaction, but because he was trying to earn it and because I believed him.

This is an extremely sensitive subject, everyone has their own policy and I dare not say who is right or wrong. Believe me when I say that I am not a bleeding heart person, but I’m also not made of stone. I don’t reward people who expect something for nothing but, like the boy, if they are trying to better themselves even just a little bit, how can I not help.

Travel is about learning and growing as an individual. This process can include some fairly uncomfortable situations, but rather than be avoided, it is best to know how to understand and deal with them when they arise. No matter what though, make sure you take every situation with a sense of humor and open mind.

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

19 Responses

  1. Andy Jarosz

    Lots of great advice here Matt (around 3 blog posts’ worth!) Particularly identify with the driver story, taking you to his cousin with the carpet factory. Sometimes very hard to get away from these scams. They don’t even cost money – they just eat into your precious time. Like you say, firm and polite is the best response.

    Reply
  2. Suzy

    I think most travelers can relate to these uncomfortable moments. Even in Europe, there can be a wealth of scams and people trying to take advantage of tourists. Recently, I talked with a guesthouse owner in Belfast. She told me how the cabbies there rip off the American and Canadian tourists horribly. It makes me made when certain nationalities are targeted or assumed to be idiots. However, you do just need to brush it off and move on.

    Reply
  3. Charles McCool

    Just getting back from Marrakech, I totally understand what you are saying. Nearly everyone there wants to have a brother or cousin show you so-and-so sight that is better than the medina, casbah, or jardins. Whatever. Comes with the territory, I suppose.

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  4. Emily

    Oh wow–that must have been odd seeing the “deaf Bosnian” as a hearing Parisian the next day! It’s definitely a good lesson that things aren’t always as they seem and that locals will do anything to con tourists into give them money. Then again, it’s hard when you see something that tugs at your heartstrings when you know there’s the chance that it’s real.

    I have definitely had my fair share of taxi issues. I feel like I get even more people trying to take advantage of me since I’m a woman. Grrr!

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  5. Laurel

    Very interesting read and agree that anyone’s first time in Thailand will be a culture shock. I think everyone at some point has signed up for an impromptu tour only to be lead to a cousin’s jewelery shop or somewhere else where he will make a few bucks, but after doing it once you start asking more questions.

    Regarding your comment that the palace is closed, this is so interesting as sometimes local have fantastic advice of where to go and where to avoid, and sometimes things are legitimately closed for a local holiday you’ve never heard of, but I agree that it’s better to get that info from a reliable source to avoid a scam.

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  6. Andrea

    Ah, the old “Palace is closed” trick. My father and I actually fell for that one when we were there in 2001…stupidly got into a Tuk Tuk with the guys for a tour of some other sites. Luckily we looked at our guidebook and wisened up to the con and ran off after the second stop. Third stop was probably some storeroom where they would have locked us in until we bought merchandise. This is a really great post – it’s hard to strike the balance between protective and paranoid when travelling. You’ve given some good tips here for sorting out how to handle tricky situations.

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  7. Tom @ HeadingThere

    I think this post is going to resonate with most of us who have travelled. We’ve probably all seen a carpet shop or two that we would rather not have done at one time or another. I met a particularly honest (well sort of) tuk tuk driver in Bangkok who told us that we had left the shop too soon so he wouldn’t get any money and asked us to look more interested in the next shop!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Yeah, it’s really part of the experience. In Turkey our guide gave us options which cracked me up – she totally owned up to everything. We got to choose between a leather shop, rug store or ceramics factory. We went with the ceramics, and actually bought a couple of pieces. They were nice. LOL

      Reply
  8. Abby B

    We had so many of these experiences when visiting Cairo last November. It was fun to read this and reminisce about how we had similar experiences on our travels. Sometimes we forget that our experiences aren’t perfectly unique and others have had similar experiences.

    Reply
  9. Nate

    Dealing with extreme poverty in third world countries resonates with alot of western travelers for sure. I was in the main square in Sucre, Bolivia where there is an army of ‘shoeshine boys’ hoping to polish the shoes of the many foreigners that pass through the square. I sat on a bench and was immediately approached by two of them. I was wearing sandals so clearly their services weren’t required. But since they wouldn’t leave me alone I decided to give them some snacks I had bought earlier. I told them, in spanish, that they needed to share. I gave the bag to one of them. Maybe I was a bit naive, but I trusted that he would share it with his friend. But that wasn’t the case – once he had that food he refused to share it. He ate the whole stash himself, and they both continued to ask for more. I very rarely give out anything to those simply asking for things. I generally believe it’s better in the long run to empower people to improve their lives on their own in a sustainable way (and I know this far easier said than done…). But this was a reality check that reminded me how bad (and cut-throat) things can be in extremely poor countries. And I think it really speaks to the problem of just giving things away in these situations – since you were willing to give a little, maybe you’d be willing to give more… Anyway, great post! Sums up perfectly some of the things you need to be aware of when traveling independently outside of a western country.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thanks, I appreciate it. Thank you for sharing that story, you’re right it’s something everyone who travels internationally will come into contact with at some point. They are awkward situations, but as long as you have a “policy” it seems to make things easier.

      Reply
  10. Kay

    Reminds me of my first time European travel and as a solo female, rather unsure of myself. I was in the huge Milan train station and attempting to order a sandwich from a kiosk vender when I was approached by a young man who recognized I was alone and American. He seemed to be telling me that I had to pay him in order to buy a sandwich. After a closer look at his eyes I realized he was a druggie so I quickly told him in the strongest of terms to “f…. off”. The kiosk man got a big laugh out of this saying to me (translated) “Way to go”.

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  11. ailleen

    The Palace is closed today bit is actually a funny anecdote between my group of friends during our Bangkok trip. We always crack up when we recall how half of our group’s faces looked listening to the local guy being helpful and offerring to bring us to a temple instead. They would’ve come with him only some of us were warned beforehand so we just called them back. We did not wise up to the taxi driver’s deal though, jewelry store browsing before dropping us off to our real destination. Still it was fun.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I’m glad you can look back at the experiences with positive instead of negative emotions. Some get really irritated and it tends to cloud their trip. For me it’s just one of those things and as long as I know it’s there, I’m fine.

      Reply
  12. Kaylin

    The most ridiculous scam I saw in bangkok was a “disembarkment fee” of 20baht for being allowex off the pier from a riverboat. I just gave the guy a “Really?” ▲_▲ look and walked right on by. My biggest problem is haggling. People tell me Ive been ripped off but its like I got a tank top for 3 bucks in Cambodia. I got a leg threading for 10. Yes that might be expensive there but its still way cheaper than I would pay at home so I dont feel ripped off and ok the locals get a bit of extra money that day. Lord knows they probably need it. I cant give to people who are just begging though (unless maybe they are landmine victims or otherwise obviously disabled). But ok the kid is selling bracelets or a woman selling scarves I might consider it.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      That’s a common feeling Kaylin, many won’t haggle for the reasons you listed. I’m torn on the issue. On one hand, it’s the cultural norm and I enjoy haggling, but you’re right. It’s not very much money and they probably need it more than I do.

      Reply
  13. Sarah

    While in Marrakech my friend and I were persuaded to visit a carpet shop. We knew what we were letting ourselves in for but went along anyway.

    We had cups of mint tea served from silver tea pots, looked at handmade rugs and chatted with the shop assistants before going on our way.

    We actually really enjoyed it, as it was off the beaten track and we learnt about how the rugs were made, so it was a worthwhile experience. The second, third and fourth times, less so!

    healthy-holiday.org

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      As long as you know what you’re in for, then it’s your choice. 🙂 I’ve also willingly participated in these experiences, mostly to help out our various tour guides.

      Reply
  14. Amber

    At least I am not alone. I was the target of a con on a polish train recently where they were trying to make off my my passport along with the 3 Japanese tourists in the compartment. Luckily, I was skeptical enough to realize what was going on.

    The official airport taxi thing is big in Vietnam as well. I just hate taking a taxi from the airport in any new city, it is just so stressful – I would rather take a train or a bus because I always am worried I will get taken for a “ride”.

    In Budapest a few weeks ago we saw a desperate looking woman asking for money. I felt for her, until our friend who lives in the neighborhood warned that she is local, and she earns between 50-100 Euros a day with this shtick. Its awful because it makes you less trusting as a traveler!

    Great blog post!

    Reply

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