Touts, Scams in Kathmandu, Nepal

A Tout, A Tooth God, and A Tiff in Kathmandu

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After a good night’s sleep I felt sufficiently recovered from the previous day’s long layover in Bangladesh to tackle the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. Armed with a simplistic map that showed streets but no street names, I stepped out the front door of Madhuban Guest House and tuned left, intending to head for Durbar Square to see the UNESCO World Heritage palaces of the ancient kingdom.

The hotel owner said it was easy to find Durbar Square: “Go one block to the roundabout and continue straight; you can’t miss it.” But once there, I found three streets radiating from the roundabout, none of which went straight. I was puzzling over my pseudo-map while keeping one eye peeled for speeding motorbikes on the traffic-clogged road when a young Indian man approached and inquired, in a delightful British accent, if he could be of assistance.

“I’m not looking for a guide; I’m just wandering,” I replied by rote, used to this kind of approach from touts. In the din of blaring horns, chiming rickshaws, revved-up engines, chanting holy men and retailers hawking their goods, I headed off in a random direction, intending to shake my would-be guide.

“Oh, I am not a guide,” he insisted. “My name is Robbie and I just want to practice my English.”

I stopped in mid-stride and pierced him through with a look designed to intimidate. “I know this scam and I don’t want a guide.”

“No scam, ma’am. I really just want to practice my English.”

“You can show me around if you like, but I’m not paying you a cent.”

Side-by-side Buddhist and Hindu monasteries and a lovely Buddhist stupa in the Chhetrapati district of Kathmandu

A Sadhu (Hindu holy man) poses for a photo at a temple in the Chhetrapati district

Almost immediately he diverted down a dark, virtually hidden lane, indicating I should follow. A hundred feet later the cramped alley opened upon a spacious square anchored by Buddhist and Hindu monasteries. In the center of the square stood an exquisite Buddhist stupa with a gleaming white dome topped by a gilt spire, painted with Buddha eyes that gazed out in all four directions. Chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, I spun the prayer wheels surrounding the stupa’s upper platform as I circumnavigated three times in a clockwise direction, figuring that with everything that’s happened so far on this six-month Asian tour, I could use all the prayer I could get.

Tooth God – where worshipers attach small metal discs to an ancient hunk of wood for help with dental problems

1,500 year old Buddha statue in “The Place of Five Things” square

Next, Robbie led me to “The Place of Five Things,” a smaller neighborhood square with five sacred sites. In addition to the Shiva, Naga, and Yamaga Temples in the center of the square, he pointed out the Tooth God, where worshipers nail round metal discs to a hunk of ancient wood as a ward against toothaches. Over the years, thousands of these metal discs have accumulated to form a grotesque blob that could be an abstract sculpture of a decayed tooth lying on its side. Across the square, Robbie pointed out a small Buddha statue wedged in a nook between two concrete stoops. Each day, worshipers scatter flower petals and colored dyes in front of this tiny, 1,500-year old representation of the Buddha.

Can’t view the above slide show of Kathmandu, Nepal? Click here.

We moved on to a retail district where every street was clogged with pedestrians shopping for Dashain, the most important Hindu festival of the year, scheduled to begin in just a few days. I stood on the edge of one of the more crowded lanes and let the whirl of colors and movement rush by, astonished to see rickshaws, handcarts, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, and even trucks force their way through the throngs without harming a soul.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Robbie said.

Women in luscious colored saris; men in traditional checkered Nepali cloth hats; Sadhu holy men in orange and red robes with faces painted like African warriors; men, women and even children carrying impossibly heavy loads on their back – all flowed by me in kaleidoscopic color. “You see a little bit of everything,” I answered, astonished.
 

Can’t see the above YouTube video of walking the streets in Kathmandu, Nepal? Click here.

The more Robbie showed me the more obligated I felt, which is exactly what he was hoping for. The moment he sensed me weakening the pressure began. First he claimed he needed a shoeshine kit, complete with polishes and brushes so that he could open a proper business and support his family. The cost was only 16,000 Nepali Rupees; surely I could help outfit him. I quickly did the math; he was asking for the equivalent of $230 in U.S. dollars. I laughed and told him he was crazy.

His second request was much more modest. Perhaps I would consider buying food for his family. Just a little rice and rice milk and a few vegetables so they would not go hungry. With prices so cheap in Nepal, I thought this sounded like a good idea; I hate for anyone to go hungry. Robbie led me to a local grocer where he ordered the goods we’d discussed. The bill came to a whopping 2,500 Rupees, or about $35 USD. This kid wanted me to pay $12 per hour for his services, when licensed guides were receiving tips, on average, of $14 per day. And since the food prices were exorbitant, I had little doubt that the grocer was in on the scam as well.

“There is no way I’m buying you 2,500 Rupees worth of groceries, and now I think we’re done.” He followed me back to my hotel, haranguing me the entire way, insisting I pay him something, whatever I like. I offered him 300 Rupees, slightly less than what a professional guide would get, and he came unglued.

“That is an insult. I can’t even buy a little rice for 300 Rupees.” He refused to take the money and continued to scream at me in the courtyard of my hotel.

“So you lied when you said you only wanted to practice English?” Again I offered the 300 Rupees and again he claimed to be insulted and refused, so I walked away. I must admit to feeling guilty but in the end his dishonesty won him his just reward.

I never did make it to Durbar Square, but after my three-hour tour I felt quite certain that I could find my way around Kathmandu’s confusing maze of streets in the Chhetrapati and Thamel districts. Getting to Durbar Square should be a breeze.

33 Comments on “A Tout, A Tooth God, and A Tiff in Kathmandu

  1. Oh great piece of writing back in 2010. Enjoyed the writing, so sad to see the story that he was not learning but actually begging.

  2. This is a wonderful blog….it was like reliving my visit there. You are a great writer. I totally agree w you and in my case might have been cowered into giving him some money then stewing about it. They say never to give begging children money because it reinforces a lifetime of begging….well, same for adults, eh? Am in Guatemala now, twice got ripped off by tuk tuk driver. Lessons in negotiating before you get in and repeating price and sticking to your guns.

    • Paula, I think tuk tuk drivers the world over must be the same. They must have a union or something :-)

  3. Well in India there is a fable of how to trick a monkey to come down a tree. I guess you can say that tout was a trickster. To him it is just a game, a deceitful one. If you’re doctrinally Christian you would just say he was a liar.

  4. I am ashamed of the dishonesty that you had to deal with. But it’s reality. Did you see Bhaktapur, my town?

    • Unfortunqtely, on the day I was scheduled to go to Bhaktapur, I was sick but
      I will remedy that on my next visit this fall. Despite the touts, traffic,
      noise, etc. I love Nepal.

  5. Hi Barbara, I’m so glad I found your blog! This is a common observation for travelers to India/Nepal etc – either you get scammed or else you’ll get the most lavish treatment that a host would ever get. I admire your courage in confronting his outrageous demands. See, if he manages to find one out of three foreigners who feel obligated to give him money, then his job is done…. its a smart business tactic, but not sustainable for him, his family and his country at all.
    Priyank. :-)

    • Priyank: Thanks so much for your comment. I thought that he was a very smart
      young man, and that he could be so much more productive if he put his
      talents to better use. Only time will tell, I guess.

  6. 300 Nepalese rupees = just over $4 USD at current exchange rates. $14 for a licensed guide = slightly over 1,004 rupees. So, you were willing to offer about 30% of what a professional guide might have received. (Not really “slightly less.”)

    You agreed to go with this man, against your better judgment. But you DID go and in a place/culture where tips/gratuities are expected for this kind of experience, despite what people might say. As a supposedly experienced traveler, were you REALLY surprised that this was the result? You enjoyed some wonderful sights/experiences you might not have done on your own, someone spent three hours of their time to help you and you were outraged/disappointed.

    Get real.

    • Stormi: I appreciate your comment but I obviously have a much different
      view. My biggest complaint was Robbie’s inherent dishonesty. I was willing
      to give him the benefit of the doubt when he said he wanted to practice
      English, knowing full well that he would at some point hit me up for money,
      and as I stated in the article, I was willing to help him out. But when he
      started with a request for a shoeshine box for a couple hundred dollars, and
      then food that was inflated by perhaps three times the actual price, the
      extent of his dishonesty became apparent.

      Plus, the going rate for licensed guides is $1,000-1,200 Rupees for a whole
      day; Robbie was with me for three hours. World Vision International, an
      agency I trust because they are one of the few organizations doing really
      good work in Nepal, has this to say about the income of Nepali:

      *”Half the population is jobless in Nepal. Most Nepalese live on a $1 day or
      less. Average income of Nepal is less than $200 a year.”*

      That equates to about 14,000 Rupees per year, or slightly less than 40
      Rupees per day. I made him a legitimate, fair offer for services rendered,
      despite the fact that he had lied to me blatantly.

  7. Wow I really hate these experiences because sometimes people really do want to practice their English and we dismiss them assuming they want more. It’s a tough one.

  8. Sorry you had such a bad experience Barbara. But you were right and at the end of the day cheating others is not a very good business model!

    • Todd: The worst part was actually feeling guilty over the whole thing,
      because he did show me some interesting stuff. But next time, I’ll just say
      no and save myself the trouble.

  9. Ohhhh…. I just got taken by Robbie not 1 hour ago. I figured I was being fleeced, but I went along with it anyway. Damn my bleeding heart. Would that I had read this in preparation!

  10. Just about everywhere we go outside of Europe and North America we’ll encounter touts. They manifest themselves as guides, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc. and I always, always feel bad for them at first, until they turn aggressive. In Vietnam and Morocco, touting starts early – I mean, kids (not yet teenagers) are doing it already! We were harassed by a pack of Marrakech boys because one boy led us to our hotel (and we gave him money for it) but then his posse came and said we had to give them money also because they were all in one group and we didn’t give enough! We brushed the others away, but guess what? Every morning they came to our riad and waited for us to come out – they stalked us! They even harassed the riad staff to get to us…That said, Marrakech is still a favourite place!

    • Jennifer: Glad the terrible touts did not put you off of Marrakech. I felt
      the same way, loved Kathmandu despite the scams.

  11. Love the photos, and if he wasn’t willing to take what you offered it’s his loss. That’s the risk he took when he decided to target you for his scam. I’m sure you will see more of this but hopefully like you said it just adds more flavor to your experiences. Hope tomorrow is a better day!!

  12. That is a bummer that you had such a horrible time. I know of some great people in Kathmandu that you should meet up with. We had tea with Kul and Mim and they paid our bill! It is awful when people take advantage like that. We have been approached in Asia with that scam so often. You really just have to be firm right off the bat and say no. It feels terrible and it sounds terrible, but we don’t let them get past hello:-) Kathmandu is quite easy to get around once you get the hang of it. Once you are there for a few days you will love it. I so want to go back.

    • Hi Agi & Jorge! Thanks for the compliment and great to see you here.

  13. Pingback: Tweets that mention Touts, Scams in Kathmandu, Nepal | Hole In The Donut Travels -- Topsy.com

  14. I don’t think you should feel guilty, obviously he scammed you. However what a nice little tour you have there. Great pictures, btw. Just keep imagine that Robbie was being honest the first time about just wanting to learn English. That way, it’s a win win situation for both of you: you got the little tour, he indeed practiced English with you :)

  15. I think you acted quite properly. You explained the situation beforehand and even when you were prepared to pay an amount for his efforts, he tried to rip you off some more. While n ot as bad as Delhi, I found a lot of people harassing me for money and what not when in Kathmandu. It seemed to clash with the wonderful karma of the temples in the various squares (especially Durbar Square).

    • Hi Fida and Mark: The really interesting thing is that after the first day,
      I was never bothered again.Maybe that first time I had “fresh meat” written
      all over me, but as soon as I looked like I knew where I was going, they all
      just left me alone. And once I got out of crazy Kathmandu, the whole scene
      was much more chilled.

  16. So, nothing changed over the past two decades :) If you survive all the tourist scams in India and Nepal, you can go everywhere and not feel overwhelmed . Nepal was one of my favorite places, but I got so tired of all the self-proclaimed ‘good doers’ in Kathmandu that forged unasked services upon me and then demanded money, even if they only walked next to me while I ignored them. To be fair, the rest of Nepal was OK, and the beauty of the country made up for the hassle :)

  17. I guess the scam is just part of life – perhaps it’s better to pay a genuine guide so that you ward off the unofficial ones, but even then I suspect that you could end up every shop owned by a brother, cousin or other family member.

    • Hadn’t thought of that Heather but you’re probably right. I just think of it all as a richly woven tapestry that, when complete, makes travel an experience that provides us with incredible memories. And it certainly makes for great stories.

  18. Hi Anis: Yes, I pretty much suspected how it was going to end, but thought,
    what the heck. And you’re right, I shouldn’t feel guilty, especially since
    he was so blatant about it, but I can’t help it. At least I was able to let
    it go after I wrote about it. Rather like purging the soul with a pen.
    Thanks for your long and thoughtful comment. Appreciate your support!

  19. Barbara,

    You should definitely not feel guilty. You were very clear from the beginning, and it’s not like you did not offer to pay him a suitable amount. The fact that he tried to scam you with the groceries and then yelled at you makes him almost not even deserving of that.

    This story is such a contrast to your story about being warmly taken in by a woman you met on your previous travels and her community in Penang (LOVED that blog post btw!). I’m glad you shared this story; even though most locals in most poorer countries are very nice, there are definitely some scammers of which travelers should be wary. My husband and I were in Delhi, and we fell for the tuk-tuk driver scam, where the driver offers to take you somewhere for a cheap price and then takes you straight to businesses with which he has a prior arrangement for commission. It made me sad to be scammed, and I mentioned it to our tour guide the next day. He said that a lot of the local merchants, peddlers, and drivers do not see the person; “they see a big dollar sign walking around.”

    I’m actually impressed that despite knowing he might very well try to scam you, you still gave the guy a chance! You chose to risk being scammed rather than risk turning away a young man who was genuinely interested in practicing his English. I would like to think that I would do the same.

    • I agree! It was very kind of you to still oblige him in his desire to “practice his English”, and to even consider buying him groceries.

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