Category Archives: travel

Getting Ripped off in Shanghai

­I got off the train at East Nanjing Road Station. As soon as I was out on the street a girl approached me. It was already past 11 pm.

‘Ni hao.’ She said something in Chinese.

‘Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese,’ I said.

‘Korean?’ she asked.

‘No, I’m Japanese.’

She started speaking broken Japanese. ‘Would you like a massage? We have cute girls,’ she said.

As soon as I heard this, I started walking away. I knew what she was up to. You don’t trust people who randomly speak Japanese to you in a touristy place.

But she followed me. ‘Cute girls, look, look!’ She took out some photos and waved them in front of me. I didn’t pay any attention. She kept following me for a while but eventually gave up.

‘So this is how things work here,’ I thought. ‘It’s not too different from Japan.’


After exploring the pedestrian area a little bit, I decided to go to the hotel.

I was waiting at a red light when somebody said ‘ni hao’ to me. I said I didn’t speak Chinese and they switched to English. There were three Chinese women. All of them were a little older than me.

I thought that they were up to something, but I didn’t know what it was. I was expecting them to offer me something but they just kept talking.

‘So what are you guys doing?’ I asked casually.

‘Well, we are just walking around. We are tourists but it’s hot during the day, so we prefer going out at night.’

Even though it was late, there were many people on the street. It was a touristy part of the city with a lot of western shops: the Apple Store, H&M, Forever 21, Zara, Starbucks, etc.

‘What do you guys do? What are your jobs?’ I was cross-examining them.

‘I work at an insurance company,’ one of the women said. They were not very good-looking (it would have been even more suspicious if they had been) but if I had to choose, she was the cutest one.

The light turned to green. I could just go. But one thought held me back: I wanted to find out what kind of seedy business they were up to.

‘Let’s go somewhere,’ the oldest one said.

‘Well, I don’t know, I’m kind of tired,’ I said. I was still hesitant. This was clearly a trap. I thought about risks. Would they rip me off completely and leave me in the middle of nowhere? Would they sell me something expensive? Would they ask me to join a suspicious organisation?

‘Come on, we are not bad girls,’ she said, sensing my suspicion.

‘I’m not sure. I just arrived. I haven’t even checked into the hotel,’ I said, gaining more time to decide. ‘If you want to talk, we can always talk outside. There are benches here,’ I said.

‘What? Where? We don’t want to stay outside,’ the oldest one said.

I had two choices: 1. Leave and be free from the trouble. 2. Find out what their true motives were. I am usually quite cautious in this kind of situation and say no, but that night it was different. I felt like my trips were too trouble-free; I felt like there weren’t enough things to write about; I felt like I needed to pretend to fall for their trap. Curiosity won.

‘All right, let’s go then,’ I said, making up my mind.

I was still very cautious and tried to think how I could avoid the worst. I was making some internal rules: I wouldn’t let them decide the place, because they might take me somewhere seedy; I wouldn’t drink anything suspicious and would make sure they didn’t put anything into my drink.

There was one bar I’d found earlier that night and I thought about suggesting it, but it was a bit far.

‘How about that place?’ the oldest one said. She said it in such a way that she sounded as if she had just found the bar by chance. In hindsight, she might have been acting, but I fell for it. We were still in the busy pedestrian area and that was one of the reasons the place didn’t look too alarming.

‘Where, exactly?’ I asked.

‘There,’ she said, pointing out the upper part of the building.


It was a normal-looking café. It was spacious and there were a few groups of people inside. When we entered they took us to a seat by the window.

They brought us a menu.

‘So, what would you like to drink?’ the oldest one asked.

‘Well, do they have some kind of fresh juice?’ I asked. I didn’t want to drink any alcohol.

I looked at the menu. They had a wide variety of beverages and the prices were normal. There was fresh juice called ‘Love Fresh Juice’. ‘Interesting name,’ I thought. The price was 38 Yuan ($5).

‘Hey, what’s this ‘Love Fresh Juice?’ I asked.

She asked the waiter and translated what he said. It was grapefruit and watermelon juice. I ordered it.

When the drinks were served, I didn’t drink it immediately just in case. I’d watched to make sure they didn’t do anything suspicious to the drink, and they didn’t, but I tried to be extra careful. I slowly sipped the drink to see if there would be any effect. It did nothing. It was just fresh juice.

I noticed that they also ordered some fruit.

‘Try it,’ they said. I picked a piece of watermelon. They were also eating fruit from the same dish so I didn’t worry much about drugs.

Our conversation was very general. I was expecting them to drop some hint about what their true purposes were but I didn’t get any.

I was sitting facing the oldest one. Next to me was the cute one and she was the one who talked to me the most. I forget what I talked about. Our conversation wasn’t that interesting. The other one was next to the oldest one.

‘So are you guys married or have boyfriends?’ I asked.

‘No, we aren’t. If we were married, we would be travelling with our husbands,’ the oldest one said.

‘So how do you meet guys in China?’ I asked.

‘Well, usually they are friends of friends. Or somebody introduces a guy to you,’ the oldest one said.

‘My parents constantly introduce guys to me,’ the cute one said.

‘Do you want to marry a Japanese girl?’ the oldest one asked.

‘Well, I am not sure if I want to get married but if I do, I don’t really care about nationality,’ I said.

‘How about Chinese girls, Thai girls, or Russian girls?’ the oldest one said.

‘Maybe. Some of them are pretty,’ I said.

‘I think Russian girls are cute. There are many Japanese men who marry Russian girls, right?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t say many but yeah, some do.’

I wondered if they would start offering me girls (not for free, obviously) but they didn’t.

‘I’m going to the bathroom,’ the oldest one said.

‘She has some woman’s problem,’ the cute one said, giggling. The oldest one repeatedly went to the restroom. I wasn’t sure what exactly the ‘woman’s problem’ was but didn’t say anything.

‘Hey, what are you doing tomorrow? You are travelling, we are travelling, so we can travel together,’ the oldest one said when she came back.

‘Well, maybe. I’m not sure. I might be tired. I’m not staying too long. I want to get some sleep,’ I said.

I had read a scam story from the Philippines. A friendly old woman would approach you and make friends with you. She would invite you to her house and introduce you to her family. After gaining your trust, she would invite you on a trip. You would get into their car. They would offer you a drink. And that’s as far as you would remember. You would later learn that in the middle of the trip, they ripped you off and left you in a remote place.

I was expecting something like this.

I noticed they ordered some whisky. ‘I thought we were just drinking tea,’ I said to myself. The oldest one poured whisky into everyone’s glass.

‘Cheers,’ they said.

‘Cheers,’ I said. I brought the glass to my mouth and pretended to drink. I was sure that it was safe. We were drinking from the same bottle and I saw her pouring the whisky so it was unlikely that she had had a chance to put something into it. But I didn’t want to drink any strong alcohol. I needed to keep my thinking sharp.

‘Japanese people are so thin. You are very thin,’ the oldest one said, ‘and you have great skin. Show me your arms.’ She touched my skin and said, ‘See, it’s very smooth.’

‘Yeah, it’s smooth,’ the cute one said. ‘Look at my skin. My skin is kind of rough, but yours is really nice.’

And so, three Chinese women complimented me on my skin.

‘Hey do you want to dance?’ the oldest one asked.

‘Well, I love dancing but not tonight. I’m tried,’ I said.

‘Come on, it will be fun. You are on vacation; you should enjoy it,’ she said.

‘Not tonight,’ I said. It seemed a very bad idea. I didn’t know the city at all and I didn’t want to go anywhere far from the hotel. Also, it would be easier for them to do something seedy in a dark nightclub.

‘Oh, I guess they are closing,’ she remarked. I looked around and sure enough, we were the only ones in the café.

Then they brought the bill.

The total amount was 2,100 Yuan ($340). They pushed the check towards me.

So that was what they were up to. I was almost glad that I found this out. It was like reading a crime story and finding out who the murderer was. The murderer wasn’t the one I was suspecting. I didn’t see that coming. It was a good mystery. I was also a bit relieved that it didn’t turn out to be something violent.

I felt that my job was done, except it wasn’t. Now I had to deal with the consequence. ‘How do I get away with this?’ I thought.

‘What? Are you expecting me to pay this? No way. I’m not paying,’ I said.

‘You should pay. You are the guy. Chinese guys always pay,’ the oldest one said. By this time, it was quite clear that she was the leader.

‘This is not right. Let me call the police and see what they say,’ I said. It was a bluff. I didn’t even know how to call the police. (Admittedly, it was bad practice that I hadn’t written down the police number. If you want to know, it’s 110. It’s the same as in Japan.)

‘No, no, no. You pay first,’ they said.

‘Let me go down the street and talk to security. You can follow me if you want. I’m not running away,’ I said.

‘No, you pay first, then go,’ they said. There were two Chinese waiters beside me blocking the way.

I realised that it would be difficult to get away with this.

So I started haggling.

‘Come on, there’s no way I should pay. This is not right. I didn’t even order any of these,’ I resisted again.

‘You drank and ate.’

‘That’s not true. I only ate one piece of watermelon and drank a glass of fresh juice. I didn’t consume any other stuff.’

‘How are we supposed to pay? We don’t have enough money.’

‘Look, I didn’t order this. How can you assume that I have that much money?’

‘Uh, maybe we can all pay?’ the cute one said, seeing that this wasn’t going anywhere.

‘How much do you have?’ I asked.

‘We have…’ she took out her wallet and started counting money.

‘Let me count,’ I took the money from her and counted.

She had about 600 Yuan ($100): 1,500 Yuan ($240) more to go.

‘Hey, that’s still very expensive for the stuff you ordered. There’s no way I can pay that much money,’ I said, ‘I want to call the police. Let me just go outside and ask someone to call them.’

‘Chinese people don’t like Japanese people. They’ll beat you up,’ the leader said. ‘Do you want to make the Chinese-Japanese relationship worse?’

It was of course a ridiculous claim, but I refrained from making fun of it.

‘Are you, by any chance, threatening me? Because if you are, that would be a problem,’ I said.

No response.

‘We can pay half. We pay 1,000, you pay 1,000.’ The cute one lowered the price.

‘1,000? I don’t even have that much money,’ I said. I actually didn’t, although I wouldn’t have paid even if I did.

‘Do you have a credit card? I think a Japanese credit card works; you can try.’

‘I am not using my credit card,’ I said firmly.

I thought of making an offer. ‘How much would I be willing to pay?’ I asked myself. After thinking briefly – it was quite difficult think calmly in this particular situation – I came to the conclusion that 500 Yuan ($80) would be the acceptable rip-off price. It would still be a rip-off but much more affordable. I could easily spend $80 on a single date in Tokyo.

Obviously, I didn’t offer the target price immediately. This was a negotiation. You should start with a lower price.

‘All right, I could pay 300,’ I said.

‘No, no, no, you pay half, and we pay half,’ the leader said.

‘If you don’t pay half, you pay the full price,’ one of the waiters said.

I had noticed that the cute one was holding my arm the whole time. Was she doing this so that I couldn’t escape? Or for some psychological effect, that she was on my side?

They were playing different roles. The leader was the angry one. She was speaking non-stop in an agitated manner. She was to pressure me and make me unable to think straight. The cute one was the kind one. She was like the sweet girl who rescues a little boy from bullies. They must have thought that this was an effective method. When someone is nice to you while you are under attack, you tend to listen to the nice one and jump at the offer that one makes. Little do you know that the nice offer was their goal in the first place.

The other woman wasn’t doing anything in particular. She tried to say something angrily, but her thick Chinese accent was almost incomprehensible. Was she there because they thought adding more people would make it easier to pressure the person?

‘You are the man, so you need to pay. Chinese men always pay.’ The leader was repeating the same stuff over and over again.

‘I don’t even have 1,000. There’s absolutely no way I can pay that,’ I was also repeating.

‘How much do you have?’ the cute one said.

‘Well, I certainly don’t have 1,000,’ I said.

‘Take out your wallet. Let me see how much you have,’ the leader said.

‘What? No! I’m not taking out my wallet. That’s my private stuff,’ I said. ‘Let me pay 300,’ I offered again. Come to think about it, 300 Yuan could have been the actual price for what was on the table considering the café’s price range.

‘Maybe 600?’ the cute one said.

I smiled without smiling. It was coming close to my price.

‘600 is still expensive though. Look, I only drank a glass of fruit juice which was 36, so 36 is the only amount I am supposed to pay. But I’m saying that I’m willing to pay 300. Isn’t that enough?’ I said.

‘No, you pay 600 or you pay the full price,’ the waiter repeated.

‘OK, how about 500?’ I made a final attempt.

‘No, 600,’ the cute one said.

I looked around. All eyes were on me. The leader was quiet now. In fact, everybody was quiet. I suddenly felt the heaviness of the air. It was getting late, almost midnight. I was tired and probably so were they. We were at an impasse.

‘All right, 600. Are you guys happy with that?’ I finally said.

They nodded.

‘Let me use your pen and paper,’ I said. The waiter handed me the pen. I flipped the bill and wrote a large 600 on it. ‘I’ll pay 600, and I will go. Deal? Shake my hand,’ I said.

I shook hands with one of the waiters and the cute one. I took out my wallet and carefully produced 600 notes while not showing the contents of the wallet. I paid.

They were dead silent. Nobody said anything. Nobody moved. They almost looked tired of the long haggling. The leader kept the angry face.

‘Uh, I’m going,’ I said.

They didn’t say anything.

I grabbed my backpack and took off.

I took a final glance at them. They still remained immobile like stones. It was as if time had stopped. Their facial expressions were frozen like statues. It was kind of comical, I thought.



I think this was a very popular scam. I was also approached by a couple who asked me to take a picture and unnaturally started a conversation afterwards. They invited me for tea. There was also a middle-aged guy with a map who asked me for directions. He also tried to talk to me and follow me as I left.

It’s actually quite easy to avoid them. There are quite obvious but in this article, I practically asked for the rip-off for experience’s sake. So if you are going to Shanghai, don’t worry about it. Shanghai was a nice place to travel and I had a positive experience overall. The city also felt quite safe and easy to navigate.

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How to avoid tourist traps (and find authentic places)

People often don’t understand me when I say that I don’t go to famous tourist places when I travel. They get confused when I tell them that I haven’t been to many famous spots even though I travel a lot.

If I want to go to a new country, it’s because I’m interested in its culture. Tourist places are the least interesting to go to because all you will see is people from other countries and those who make money out of them; there’s no real culture there.

But touristy places are not easy to avoid if you are not familiar with the country. All the guidebooks and travel information you find lure you to the most unauthentic places. But it’s possible to avoid those places and experience something real.

Be wary of TripAdvisor

Sure, you can check some hotel reviews on TripAdvisor but I would have to say that it’s not the best source of information if you are looking for authentic places.

I find it particularly unhelpful when visiting a heavily tourist-infested area like the Caribbean. I made some silly mistakes in the Dominican Republic and Barbados. Basically, I went to places that had good reviews on TripAdvisor, only to find myself in the least authentic places with other clueless tourists. I was actually interested in those countries, so touristy places were the last thing I wanted.

It actually makes sense if you think a little bit about it; those who write reviews are exactly the kind of people who are not familiar with the local culture. So it’s only logical that their reviews are very unhelpful.

Having said this, you come across good information once in a while. The key is to look for places where the reviewer was “the only tourist in the bar” and there were “only local people having fun”.

In less developed countries, you will find very little information (if any) about those local places. But don’t be discouraged. If you do thorough research, your effort will certainly pay off.

Only visit the famous places you are actually interested in

Let’s say you are going to Paris. Where would you like to visit? Paris is filled with famous places like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, Notre Dame de Paris, the Arc de Triomphe to name (very) few. But do you really want to visit every single one of them?

Think what you like to do on normal weekends. If you like to go to a club, look for local clubs. If you like bookshops , go to local bookstores. (You will always find something interesting even if you don’t quite understand the language.) If you like to spend your time outside, go to parks or city squares.

Just because you are travelling it doesn’t mean that you have to go to museums. (If you actually like them, by all means go, but also consider checking out local galleries too.)

Stay in a less famous place

A big city usually has areas with a high concentration of hotels. Some of these areas are very famous and all the tourists go there. But there are often other areas that are much less famous but also have many hotels. If you choose the latter, you will see far fewer foreign tourists.

For example, in Rio de Janeiro, Copacabana would be one of the most famous places. If you stay there, you will see a lot of tourists in the beach area.

But how about Lapa? Lapa is a very good area with lots of bars where they play live Samba music. It also has many places to stay. It is still famous but if you haven’t been to Rio de Janeiro, the chances are you’ve never heard of it. For this reason, you will see far fewer tourists than in Copacabana.

Choose less touristy cities

This may sound ridiculously obvious but it’s very effective.

This technique is especially important if you go to the top tourist destinations like the Caribbean. If you choose the wrong country or city, it is absolutely impossible to avoid foreign tourists. Some of these countries are quite dependent on tourism.

The solution is very simple: go to the places where tourism is not the number 1 industry.

Port of Spain is such a place. It is one of the least touristy places I’ve everbeen to and I had such a good time there. There were very nice bars and clubs where they played local Soca music (which I love). There were plenty of young people (many of whom were hot girls!) having fun dancing. The only tourists I met during my entire stay were two Venezuelan guys who were there on business.

In the Caribbean, if you avoid famous beach resorts you are much more likely to be able to experience authentic local culture. If you go to Jamaica, go to Kingston instead of Montego Bay or Negril. If you go to the Dominican Republic, go to Santo Domingo instead of Puerto Plata or Punta Cana.

I don’t want to enumerate every good city I recommend but let me just add one more thing: if you go to India, try South India. You will not get constantly harassed by people who are trying to take advantage of tourists. South Indian people are very friendly and helpful. You will have an authentic Indian experience.

Stay in a weekly apartment instead of a hotel

I often stay in a weekly apartment instead of a hotel. These apartments are often situated in residential areas and it’s an excellent way to get to know what it’s like to live there.

Some of my favourite parts of staying in weekly apartments are going to a local café/cafeteria to have breakfast, and going to supermarkets to do grocery shopping. It’s very interesting to discover the kind of food people eat daily. Every region has different kinds of fruit, meat, fish, vegetables, cheese, crisps, chocolate etc.

Finding weekly apartments is usually quite easy. It’s often enough to search “[location name] weekly apartment”. Alternatively, you can use AirBnb.

Apartment owners are also a good source of information. They have lived there for a long time and know a lot of good places to go.

Ask the right questions

You may think that the best way to discover authentic places is by asking local people. Well, not necessarily. Imagine your friends are visiting your city and ask you where they should go. What will you say to them? I think most of you will suggest popular tourist attractions.

It actually makes sense because, for you, places you go every day are just ordinary and of no interest. But that doesn’t mean that those places are not interesting to people from outside. What you consider normal is not normal at all for non-local people.

So, if you are the one who is visiting a new place, how do you ask questions?

First of all, avoid general questions like, “Where should I visit?” or “What are good places to see?” You are likely to get guidebook answers.

Instead, ask questions like, “Where do you go shopping? Where do you take your date? What are your favourite places to spend free time? Where do you go when you go out with friends? Where do you buy clothes? Which café/restaurant do you go to most?” Those specific questions tend to get very authentic answers.

Throw the guidebook away and start experiencing!

If you try to do something different from other people, you will sometimes have disappointing results. But the kind of experience you can possibly have is so great that it’s totally worth trying!


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Just Ask: An Important Lesson Learnt in India

I learnt an important life lesson when I was 18. I was in India for two months, and it was my very first travel experience completely by myself. I took an interest in India in my early teens, and when everyone was busy studying for the university entrance exams in the last semester of high school, I decided to go there.

There was one thing I wanted to do…

One of the reasons I wanted to go to India was that I liked Indian classical music (especially south Indian). I wanted to go to live concerts in India. But I was thinking of taking things a bit further; what if I check out music schools too? The way Indian people learn classical music seemed very interesting.

So before I went to India, I made a short list of music schools I might be able to visit. There wasn’t much information I could find but I could at least get a few addresses. Thank God there was already the Internet, although Google Maps hadn’t been invented yet.

First attempt

The school I wanted to visit was in Chenneai, a big city on the south east coast. A few days after I arrived there (where I had my 18th birthday), I decided to try a music school I looked up online. It was Friday and I assumed that the school was open.

I had to take trains to get there from where I was staying. Since the place wasn’t on the map I photocopied from a guide book, I had to buy a proper map in a local bookshop to locate the school. One good thing was that I wasn’t bad at reading maps. Without one, I was (and I still am) pretty clueless and I would end up in some random, unexpected place, but as long as I had the map, I could find my way around. I love the feeling when I find places I’ve never been to, just by reading maps. That’s probably why I enjoy travelling so much.

The school was a bit of a distance from the nearest station, and I was quite happy when I finally found it. However, it didn’t take long before the happiness turned into disappointment; apparently, the place was closed.

My first attempt had ended in failure.

Second attempt

I wasn’t giving up. Visiting the music school was important to me. There was no way I would go back to my country without taking a peek at Indian musical education.

I went back to the place the following Monday, three days later. I didn’t think that it would be open on Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t actually know when it would be open. All the information I had was the name of the school and the address. But I had the impression that the place was still operating.

And I was right. When I got there, I found the gate open.

As I tried to go through the gate, I noticed that there was a guard. I spoke to him to get the permission to enter.

“Excuse me, can I visit the school?” I said.

“Why?” said the guard.

“I am interested in south Indian music and I want to see the classes.”

“Well, you have to talk to the head-mistress.”

“Can I see her?”

“No, she’s not here today.”

“Then, when will she be back?”

“Tomorrow. Come again tomorrow.”


I nodded and left the place. I was getting closer.

Last attempt

When I got there on the following day, the same guard was there and he took me to the headmistress’s office. She was a (good-looking) Indian lady dressed in traditional clothes. When I entered the room, she calmly asked me why I was there.

“I came here because I am interested in south Indian music, and I wonder if I could see some of the classes in this school.”

“What kind of class are you interested in?” she asked.

“I’m interested in vocal classes.” I answered, hopefully.

“And why should I let you see my classes?” she challenged me.

I was slightly taken aback. Interestingly, it hadn’t occurred to me that she had absolutely no reason to let me visit her school. In fact, I could have already been kicked out by the guard. I was just a random – very random – Eastern Asian guy wandering into some remote music college in South India. I don’t think that was something that would happen everyday. I could have been some sort of bad person.

“I am just asking your favour…” I answered, rather weakly.

She reflected for a few seconds.

“OK then, I’ll let you do it,” she smiled.

The power of asking

It didn’t occur to me until much later in my life, but not everybody does the kind of thing I did. In fact, I wouldn’t have done it either if it had been in my own country. It might have been the unusualness of travelling in a foreign country and the passion for music that made me bolder than usual.

But, come to think about it, even if she had no obligation to let me visit her class, there was absolutely no reason why I couldn’t ask her a favour. And it actually worked. People are generally kind. You will never know what you can get just by asking.

Bonus 1 – the classroom

I think that what I saw in the classroom is worth sharing.

When I entered the classroom, my heart filled with joy; it was exactly the kind of scene I was expecting to see.

The teacher – the word ‘guru’ would be more suitable to describe him – was sitting at the back of the room, and about a dozen students were sitting around him. There were no chairs or tables in the room. All of the people were sitting on the floor, as traditional Indian musicians do. It looked more like a yoga class than a (Western) music class.

When the teacher sang a short passage, the students would follow. Sometimes the teacher did it slowly for the students, but it seemed like the students already knew the song fairly well. South Indian music is very complex to sing and I was impressed by how well the students managed the song. They turned out to be in their second year.

The teacher didn’t speak English but many of the students did, so I could communicate with them. Everyone was very friendly and curious to know who I was. I even exchanged e-mail addresses with one of them.

Bonus 2 – south Indian classical music

If you are not familiar with classical South Indian music (and I assume that most of you are not) this video will give you an idea. I know that it’s not exactly the kind of music a teenage boy will get crazy about. You can easily imagine how hard it was for me to share my taste in music with my peers in high school.

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