Scambodia: the Tonle Sap Lake scam - Travelling Homebody

Scambodia: the Tonle Sap Lake scam

Everything you need to know about the Tonle Sap Lake scam (and why I will never go back to Scambodia). 

There are a few locations in Asia that have been on my bucket list for ages: Myanmar, Luang Prabang (in Laos), Chiang Mai (in Thailand) and Siem Reap/Angkor Wat (in Cambodia). I decided to remedy that this year. In May, I travelled to Myanmar, and in June — because of an “interesting” set of circumstances — had the opportunity to go to both Chiang Mai and Siem Riep in the space of a week.

A press tour that went pear-shaped…

I was booked to go on a five day press trip to Nakhon Phanom, Thailand for the Mekong Tourism Forum At the very last minute, it ended up going pear-shaped. To cut a long story short, I was “partnering” with another blogger* (who I had never met) who ended up being very demanding and difficult, and pulled the plug on the trip the day before I was due to fly out of Hanoi.

The terms and conditions of being on the trip meant that I had to get to and from Thailand from Hanoi, and then the MTF was taking care of my flights and accommodation once I was in Thailand. Not having been to Chiang Mai, I decided to finish the press trip with a few days there at the end, and then fly back to Hanoi from Chiang Mai. I’d booked my accommodation and flights weeks before.

With the press trip cancelled, I had five days to fill before I headed to Chiang Mai because I didn’t want to lose money on flights and accommodation. Aha! I thought. I could go to Siem Reap. Brilliant! So 24 hours before travelling to Thailand, I booked flights and accommodation in Siem Reap.

̣(*This particular blogger couldn’t go on the trip, so she did a call-out on Facebook for someone to replace her. I had met her in another Facebook Group, and was “friends” with her because she was staying in Hoi An and said that I could do the trip on her behalf. She emailed her list of demands (because I was representing “her brand”), which included writing an introductory story for her blog. I submitted one story, and she wasn’t happy. Then another. Still not happy. I refused to submit a third, and that’s when she pulled the plug, saying that I didn’t meet her terms and conditions. She then blocked me on social media. Urgh.)

Let the Angkor Wat scams begin

I spent the first couple of days at Angkor Wat, exploring the ancient ruins, feeling kind of like Lara Croft. The temples were everything I thought they would be: mysterious, magical, peaceful. I imagined life thousands of years ago — very different to life today. I bought a three day pass, but I only visited the area twice. The hotel assigned me a driver to take me around the site, and while he didn’t speak any English, he took good care of me. On the second day, I got up early to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat, and after a full day, opted to go for a trip to Tonle Sap Lake instead of back to the temples, mainly based on my Inle Lake, Myanmar experience, which was just delightful.

During my two days wandering around the ruins, I experienced a couple of low level scams but nothing to write home about. On the first day, a young Cambodian man (who told me he was looking after a particular temple) was very chatty while I was climbing high, steep and crumbling temple steps. He was “kind” enough to show me where to walk — going both up and down. He gave me a bit of a commentary while he was leading the way, telling me about his life and the work he did in Angkor Wat on the temples. At the end of his “guiding”, he asked for a “contribution”. Of course, I thought. This is probably not a place where anyone does anything for anyone out of the kindness of their hearts. I paid up, though. A couple of US dollars.

The next day, I was wandering through another longish temple, when a security guard started chatting to me. Come with me, he said, noticing my DSLR camera. I can show you great place to take photo. No other tourists. Clearly, I wasn’t going to say no, so I followed him and, true to his word, I took some fabulous pictures where access was not available. When he led me back to the entrance of the temple, he asked for a “guide fee”. I thought (again) that no one does anything for nothing in this country. And though I was miffed — mainly at myself for falling for it — I paid up and gave him a few US dollars. I did get some great photos though, and vowed to ask “how much?” before anyone was kind to me again.

The Tonle Sap Lake scam

I asked my hotel to book my trip to Tonle Sap Lake — one of the largest lakes in South East Asia — and they arranged it through Easy Tour/Hello Bird. The tour itself wasn’t the best: a bus ride to Tonle Sap Lake, a short ride on the lake, and a quick break for refreshments on a floating restaurant. My travelling companions were five other women — no men, apart from the driver and guide — who were pleasant.

I sucked it up until we were taken for a walk through a village.

We were taken to a school, and we were introduced to the teacher and students. A woman* approached selling pencils and books “for the students”. Being community-minded and believing in the power of education, I gave her USD$10 (which I knew was too much, but education).

When we left the school, the guide apologised and said the woman wasn’t actually associated with the school. I was gobsmacked. I said to him that he should have warned us and he said, sorry but he forgot. I was immediately suspicious. What sort of guide forgets to warn his guests about what is essentially a scam? I said that he should have said something while she was there and he replied that he couldn’t. Why the hell not?

Well, I put two and two together and worked out he was in on it. I confronted him when he dropped me off at my hotel, telling him that he had a responsibility to look after and take care of his guests — and I have never seen anyone turn so quickly. He started yelling at me, grabbed my arm, and menaced and intimidated me, blocking off my entrance to the hotel. I managed to escape, but I have NEVER been so concerned about my personal safety, and I’ve travelled in India. No one came to my rescue, although there were plenty of onlookers. I’m pretty sure if he had a knife or a gun, I’d be dead. I’m not kidding.

Shaken, I reported this to the hotel, who rang the company and… nothing. Luckily, I had not paid for the tour, so of course, I refused to pay. I was so shaken that I have never been happier to leave a country in my life.

Oh, and my research showed a number of people have been scammed this way. I wish I’d read the reviews. You have been warned.

*I chased this woman down when I found out she was scamming tourists. I followed her through the village and demanded that she put my US$10 in the donation box associated with the school. She argued with me, saying that she had bought the books and pencils and she deserved to be remunerated for her efforts. I told her she was a very bad woman using children to line her pockets. I have no idea whether the school got the donation — I suspect not — but I felt a sense of satisfaction that my money wasn’t in her pocket.

Further reading

I would urge you to think twice about going to Cambodia. It is not safe for tourists. Period.

Photo credit: The Naked Ape on / CC BY-NC-ND

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  • Gaz October 8, 2018 at 4:27 AM

    I’ve never been to Cambodia and no desire to now.

    • Diane Lee October 8, 2018 at 8:34 PM

      It’s a pretty f*cked country, Gary. So I found out after this experience.

  • Melinda Nankivell October 8, 2018 at 9:50 AM

    Oh my gosh, how incredibly awful, Disey 🙁

    • Diane Lee October 8, 2018 at 8:45 PM

      I was flying out the next day, and I did not leave my room, Melsy. I didn’t know if he was part of a gang, so I kept to the safety of my hotel. I didn’t relax until I had my boarding pass.

  • Hugh Hill February 23, 2019 at 11:00 PM

    Hi Diana,

    Thank you for choosing to use my image in your blog, I am not sure you are aware though that although I allow people to use my photographs. They still have copyright restrictions and conditions of usage, primarily that I must be named as the photographer and the image source to be displayed. Usually people just embed a link back to the photograph in their metadata as its the easiest option.

    Secondly the images must not to be edited in any way which includes cropping as in the case here.

    Imagine if all your blog articles were copied and put onto photographers websites/galleries to accommodate and compliment their work without any mention of who the writer was, that wouldn’t be very nice, would it yet bloggers constantly take photographers copyrighted work over and over again without so much as a thank you let alone crediting them.

    I do hope that you can see from my point of view and understand that all I ask for using my images is just to credit me and a link back to the original page.

    In regards to your article you are right, Cambodia does have a much higher element for danger there which is much more prevalent than most other countries in the region.
    at night it is not advised for tourists to go out alone or couples away from the main tourist areas.
    Scamming there will be a problem for as long as the government allow it to be as they could stop it tomorrow by licencing all street vendors and revoking the licence for any crimes.

    • Diane Lee February 24, 2019 at 9:58 AM

      Hello Hugh, thank you for stopping by Travelling Homebody and for your feedback. I chose your image via VisualHunt (it was perfect for what I wanted to convey) — and I did credit you because I always credit photographers for their work (if you look around my site, you will see that is the case unless no attribution is required or I use my own photographs). You don’t have to convince me about copyright! However, I don’t know what happened to that credit – I have updated the page a number of times (and changed some code), so it may have dropped off. I’m sorry about that and I have added the link to credit you again. By the way, I did not crop the image — I used it “as is” from Visual Hunt. (Here is the link to the pic I downloaded I have been based in Asia for two years, and I acknowledge that scamming tourists is part of the fabric of life here. What shocked me was the nastiness and undercurrent of violence that characterised these scams.

  • Chris Bundy June 19, 2019 at 8:41 PM

    A Khmer woman in Siem Reap took a swipe at me with her fist when I intervened to prevent a foreigner from falling victim to the baby formula scam. I gave her a good wack with my umbrella. She backed off pretty quick. I’ve used my trusty umbrella many times during my 2-year stint teaching in Cambodia. Never travel without it.

    • Diane Lee June 21, 2019 at 4:38 PM

      I must start carrying around an umbrella! Love it! It looks like scamming is on steroids in Cambodia. It is a thing in Vietnam too, but I like to think of it as generally quite low level (visa scams aside). Have you enjoyed teaching in Cambodia?

  • Jose Saucedo November 20, 2019 at 5:10 PM

    Cambodia, Cambodia, Cambodia… Worst country I’ve ever lived in. I still don’t know why people still come here to visit. There’s absolutely nothing to see besides Angkor Wat. Even Angkor Wat, given the ticket price, the herds of ill-mannered Chinese tourists and the thieving beggars, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    After being here for almost three years, I have developed defense mechanisms that would be considered psychotic in the US: I call my girlfriend to let her know that I am out and about. Why? People here have the driving skills of a 5 year old. You could get ran over and die on the scene (if you end up getting into an accident in Cambodia, people will simply not help you as they will be held accountable for your misadventure). Road deaths are so common that they became some kind of morbid attraction for the locals. I also live far from the expat areas. As a result, I became a target. I now walk around with a knife strapped to my belt. I also refrain from talking to people as I now understand some Khmer. Being called a faggot, stinky foreigner, a kid-fucker, and other colorful names on a regular basis deterred me from wanting to associate with the local population.

    I have been going to the same coffee shop for three years (closest coffee shop to my office). Every single day, the barista tries to scam me by charging an extra dollar. Every single day, I have to argue with her and explain that her idiotic self should may be realize that after three years, I have an idea of how much an iced Americano costs.

    The country itself is dull and ugly. Trees are gone and mountains of garbage have become part of the landscape. Let’s not forget that garbage reeks… The city of Phnom Penh seems to be turning into a giant landfill. However, the local population doesn’t seem to be bothered to learn to put trash in a trash bin. They are fully aware of the consequences of their lack of environmental discipline, yet, they will look at you, smile, and just say “it’s ok. It’s Cambodia”. After all, the very leaders of the country are a bunch of morons. As saying goes, the fish rots from the head down.

    Diane pointed something out in her blog: She gave $10 to a woman and the driver refrained from saying anything. The culture in Cambodia kind of goes that way: if a Cambodian can financially benefit (maliciously) from a foreigner without causing physical harm, then other Cambodians must not say anything as the scamming Cambodian is doing it for her/himself and other Cambodians. Give the same people a taste of their own medicine, and it’s the end of the world. Been there, done that.

    All in all, I would recommend everyone to steer clear from Cambodia. Angkor Wat isn’t all that crazy anyways. Vietnam and Thailand have much interesting things to do/ see. Everything you’ll look for in Cambodia can be found in both Vietnam and Thailand.

    I never thought I was ever going to say that, but north America had never seemed so perfect. Hell, I’m even willing to move to France and deal with French after three years here.

    Cambodia, not even once. Just like meth.

    • Diane Lee November 21, 2019 at 2:53 PM

      I had no idea Cambodia was as bad as it was until I travelled there and had my experience. I now tell anyone who will listen to be very, very careful if they plan to travel there.


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