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

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 know from experience that this is one of the most common scams in Kathmandu. “I’m not looking for a guide,” I replied. “I’m just wandering,” 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
Side-by-side Buddhist and Hindu monasteries and a lovely Buddhist stupa in the Chhetrapati district of Kathmandu
Sadhu (Hindu holy man) posing for a photo at a temple in the Chhetrapati district is all smiles, until he demands money for your photo. Yet another of the common scams in Kathmandu.
Sadhu (Hindu holy man) posing for a photo at a temple in the Chhetrapati district is all smiles, until he demands money for your photo. Yet another of the common scams in Kathmandu.

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
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
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.

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 this 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.

50 thoughts on “A Tout, A Tooth God, and A Tiff in Kathmandu”

  1. Many thanks for sharing Barbara! Wow, you encountered these (shoe box scam, milk begging scam, fake sadhu scam) in 2010, and they still happen today! They are either really convincing, or travellers just dont take the time to research hah..

    If you don’t mind me sharing a “new” scam (appeared in recent years), it is the helicopter trek scam, though the authorities have been informed and there have been efforts to clamp down on it. This is where they pull victims in with cheap Everest base camp tours for instance. They then design a crazy itinerary or spike drinks/food so that once the trekker falls sick, they force you to evacuate to an expensive hospital in Kathmandu via an expensive helicopter ride. The insurance payout for the medical bills and helicopter ride will be shared amongst the perpetrators.

    And of course, to add another perennial one, would be the fake orphanages and NGOs. Watch out who you volunteer with if you do and wishing everyone a good trip in Nepal 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment David. I’d heard about the helicopter scam of late, and I believe there is another version of it being done by the travelers themselves. They arrange to trek to Everest Base Camp, buy insurance for the trek, then feign illness once they’ve reached EBC. The insurance kicks in and they are flown down the mountain, rather than having to descend on foot. The government is aware of this practice and is, I believe, clamping down. As for the orphanages and local NGO’s, yes indeed! I was one of the first to call them out and warn against working with them. In those days, I was severely criticized for attacking “volunteer” organizations.Of course nowadays, everyone has their eyes wide open and most agree with my initial assessment. Glad to hear you are sending that message loud and clear as well.

      • Hi Barbara, yes, you are totally correct, there are indeed tourists who partake in the schemes as well sadly.. Seems like these have somewhat died down thanks to the media attention, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they come back again since capital has been invested into buying new helicopters, and they need to make a return out of it (rumours that I’ve read, can’t guarantee if it’s 100% true).

        Regarding the NGOs and orphanages, really great what you did there, I didn’t realize it haha.. In fact, I joined a group to help build a fence and library at a school in Nagarkot ~10+ years ago. Hopefully that was a real project and helpful for the kids!

  2. I hate to write it, but I was caught in a similar tourist trap last night. In Thamel I was also approached by a man named Sanjay from Darjeeling, India who told me that he was not selling hash like many other touts (thank goodness) but only wanted to practice his English. I hesitated but thought I would give him the benefit of the doubt. He proceeded to tell me in detail how he grew up in India and his family was attacked and murderer by the Maoists since he would not join them, how he got a woman pregnant there and could not go back but had married a Nepalese woman, how he was HIV positive, and how his daughter was in the emergency room with pneumonia. He even started crying with tears rolling down his face. I offered to take him to dinner because he mentioned that he had been begging for five days without food, and spent $2.50 on a plate of rice and dal bhat for him. He also mentioned that he had been trying to get money for 13 days and only had until 8:00 to pay the bill, or he would ‘leave his daughter in the hands of Vishnu.’ He had a limp, and explained that he had been an Everest guide before he had been caught in an avalanche and damaged his left pelvis. He also told me that he had accrued 3000 rupees ($25) for his daughter but had been robbed a couple nights ago by a gang of hash sellers in front of the police. I got him a taxi to the nearby Teku Hospital, but he mentioned that fair-skinned people should not enter with him since the Nepalese doctors “are corrupt” and they would charge more if they knew I was there as a sponsor. I should have realized then his dishonesty pervading the entire situation, but I naively gave him 15000 rupees ($130) for what I thought would save his daughter’s life.

    Telling me to come back the next morning to see his daughter, I returned around 7:30 a.m. and found him in the HIV section of the ward. He continued lying, saying that his daughter had been with him during the night, the operation to remove phlegm from her lungs had been successful, and she was coming back at 9:00 for a check-up; he had sent her home with his wife since the infectious disease ward might be dangerous for a child’s immune system. I told him I would wait. Around 8:30 he finally reached his wife via mobile phone and he told me she would not make it until 12:00 or 12:30 noon, since she had to stop by her office which she had not been to for days. He had also mentioned ironically that he was “[selling] truth,” and that he was writing a book (of nine pages) and I was in it. He went to walk outside and I followed; by this point I was finally cognizant of his deceit. After badgering him for answers he told me that his wife was taking the daughter to a different hospital, but had first considered taking the daughter to have her illness removed by “black magic” voodoo. Finally he admitted that he had just needed the money to pay his rent and that was why he was sleeping on the street; his daughter already had been given medicine from the hospital and was doing much better. In the end I never saw his daughter, and it could be that he does not even have one.

    In a sense it was more a ‘voluntary donation’ than a scam, but the intent was definitely to deceive to an insane degree. $130 is a huge amount of money to lose so carelessly, but I suppose it was a good lesson. I thought myself a fairly experienced traveler and not prone to these sorts of deception, but this guy is a master manipulator and clearly desperate. Coming from the West, the levels of desperation in areas like Nepal are apparently practically incomprehensible.

    Expensive, but much better than getting robbed!

      • Probably not his real name anyway. And it made me realize that I should mention one other thing. Many, if not most of the people running this kind of scam are from northern India, rather than Nepal.

    • Oh my gosh, Alexander, So sorry you had to go through that. These con artist have a really well-developed story and for the novice it is easy to get sucked in. Heck, by the time it happened to me, I’d probably been to 50 or 60 countries and even I gave the guy the benefit of the doubt at first. And this, of course, is what they bank on. Now I tell people they have “my permission” to be rude in these circumstances, if need be.

  3. Barbara, in 2013 I had a very similar experience with the shoebox scam only I had two tour guides. At the end of the day they took us to their home, near the Boudhanath stupa, which was an extremely impoverished slum. I fell for it hard though and bought the box. It was sold to us for something like US$120 by a \’blind man\’ who we were told could no longer work. Three weeks later, leaving for the airport I saw the exact same blind man huddled over the same shoebox on the street. This time he looked me in the eye and asked if I wanted a shoeshine.

    This scam is incredibly clever. I\’m curious if one of my guides was the same person you encountered. I\’ve linked their picture below.


    • Hi Preston: Took a look at your photo and my guess is your guy is a different on from mine. That wouldn’t surprise me, as “the shoeshine box” scam has become quite widespread.

    • This is so crazy, I went to Nepal on a High School Service Trip and half of the kids that went got scammed. The shoe box scam was used on my mate and the poor bastard forked out $50 Australian Dollars on it. The most common scam tried on us was when kids, probably under ten, ran up to us and told us that it was an emergency and that we needed to go with them. They’d take us into a rundown store and ask us to buy them paracetamol and other painkillers, which are incredibly pricey in Nepal, which they then attempted to re-sell. When we refused, they’d boot us in the shins and run. My mate and I got the worse though. We got led down a tiny little alley, where this kids father had apparently fallen off a ladder. Now, we were sceptical but we aren’t small blokes, both playing Rugby Union, we liked our chances of coming out alive. Anyway, when we got down to the end of the alley, we were held at knife point by 6 teenagers, younger than us and robbed. I lost a decent hat and some money, my mate lost a nice watch and some decent earphones. Moral of the story, don’t trust any damn kids in Nepal. Also, the Nepalese Police are honestly useless, corrupt and often refuse to do anything, so be wary.

    • Disorientated tourists are so easy, I walked out of the Green Line tourist bus yard in Thamel to be immediately approached and asked if I needed a taxi to….Thamel. I just pointed at the ground and said…Thamel, the guy just smiled and drove off.

      Any supposed non-committal but ongoing interaction with a tourist is intended only to provide the opening for a later expensive pitch at your heartstrings.

      Watch out for urban street kids begging, they\’re bussed in and are often addicts.

      Look for opportunity to make charitable donations to sincere and deserving causes, they\’re unsurprisingly, the ones that aren\’t \’in your face\’.

  4. Hahaha my gosh, the same thing just happened to us in Kathmandu.. But a “sunny” instead of a Robbie. We got a full city tour then taken to his home to see his wife and kids. His wife cooked us some dahl baht then he mentioned that he would love a shoebox to be able to earn money and wondered if we could buy him it. He didn’t know how much it costs but an Indian in the shanty town was selling one. I went with him to see it and the guy wanted 46,000 rupees about 400 eur for it. I didn’t think it was worth half of that. The guy said to buy that night as someone else wanted it. I said I need to consult with my girlfriend and transfer money if going ahead. We went to his home and I told him if it is a scam then it would be bad karma for him. He said OK. I said I need to sleep on it. We bought him 1000 rupees of food, but we had a lovely day and saw things that we would not have seen otherwise so felt that was a good exchange. Typed in shoe box scam in Google and straight away found your site among many others. I don’t think that I will be buying the shoebox for him. The family lived in absolute poverty so I have no bad feeling towards him. We will probably be back to his shack to give them some nappies and rice, but somehow he was asking for almost as much as I would earn in half a month.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

      • Namaste you been writing the story and i find the stories interesting but I am not be that interesting what you explain . you never have a experience to see or live with the slum people and understand them insidely and u know you live nice place good break fast good house good cloth but you ever think of them what they do want or how they eat you don’t know the street life it’s because you don’t have the heart and ma’am you know when you die you know take money in your chest and die and you know God Jesus he sacrificed himself to give freedom for good life he don’t know the which people are good or bad he just want love and freedom for them to make them happy so just think like it and feel it when you are free and tell you family also the story

  13. 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!!

  14. 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.

  15. great post! all and all you can’t beat kathmandu..touts and all… first time in your blog, it’s great,
    we’ll be coming back for sure.
    agi and jorge

  16. Pingback: Topsy.com
  17. 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 🙂

  18. 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.

  19. 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 🙂

  20. 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.

  21. 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!

  22. 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.


Leave a Comment