Having spent over a decade of my life on university campuses attempting to ascend the ivory tower of higher learning, I can assure you that most of the stereotypes about academia and its disciples are more fact than fiction. Actually, I’m guilty of perpetrating many of them myself, especially when it comes to the joke about the willingness of graduate students to do just about anything for free food, whether it’s volunteering for undesirable experiments or attending tedious departmental talks. Don’t believe me? In undergrad, brandishing an academic gown like a bull fighter’s cape, I once absconded with a two-pound slab of pâté from a university garden party, which my housemates and I then subsisted on for the better part of a week… Given that I wasn’t even a grad student at the time of The Great Pâté Heist of 2004, my affinity for free food seems hard coded into my DNA. It’s a skill (calling?) that has largely translated well to our budget backpacker lifestyle, but every so often, the prospect of a free meal short circuits my higher cognitive functions and leads to less desirable results…

Take, for instance, our visit to the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur. We spied its colorful, statue-encrusted gopuram (temple gate) during one of our urban rambles through the city, and we were delighted to discover the temple doles out meals to its lunchtime visitors. Pâté pilfering not withstanding, I do have some sense of decorum and dignity and try not to be utterly gauche in my pursuit of free food—Tony & I had already experienced the munificence of a free meal while in Malaysia, and not wanting to be greedy, we weren’t planning on partaking in another free meal unless someone offered one to us. Instead, we were quite content to gaze longingly at the plates of food whisked about by the penitent and simply soak up the buzzing, lively atmosphere of the temple. Although Hindu temples have a completely different aesthetic to Taiwanese temples, they are no less gaudy or garish and they instill within me a similar sense of discombobulation and wonder. We have never entered one of these places and not been immediately awash in a wave of welcome, and the air within crackles with a spiritual intensity that manages to both energize and soothe.

As if summoned by the rumbling of our stomachs, an older man, face plastered with a beaming crescent moon grin, approached us through the throng and stretched his wiry fingers around Tony’s upper arm. Tugging Tony alongside him, he stepped lightly towards the fragrant trays of food and vehemently insisted that we enjoy some. He thrust two plates at the men standing in front of steaming chafing dishes and grunted with satisfaction as a thick semolina porridge was ladled onto them and topped with a rich gravy laced with veggies. Turning back to us, he pressed the plates into our hands and gestured towards a curb for us to sit, urging us to “eat, eat!”

Like a hawk, he watched as we dipped the tips of our fingers into the soupy mixture and scooped a bit of it into our mouths. It was scorching hot, but absolutely delicious, the deep flavors and pungent spices belying the simplicity of the ingredients. We smiled up at him and murmured our delight, assuring him the food was good. He nodded and patted Tony’s shoulder, telling us we should eat as much as we liked. And then, when we were done, we could make a donation to the temple.

Free lunch at Sri Mahamariamman Temple

As catches go, this one seemed pretty fair. After all, even our meal at the Sikh temple in Melaka hadn’t been entirely free, and we had no problem contributing a few ringit toward the meal we were enjoying and the temple that was providing it. The fact that a charitable request had sounded an awful lot like a demand made me feel a little bit uneasy, but we had already accepted and begun to eat the food, so there was really nothing more we could do but nod our agreement and continue eating. Our new “friend” drifted back, the crowd of people slowly swallowing him up. We assumed that, having impressed upon us the importance of giving something back, he was leaving it up to us to follow through and do the right thing.

Miraculously, as we scraped up the last morsels of food from our plates, he reappeared, this time with a bag full of trinkets. He poured several of them into the palm of my hand and began to chatter on about what each one symbolized. At first I thought they were part of an offering we could make at one of the shrines, but I soon realized they were simply little tokens for us to keep. I said we would buy one, but he kept insisting we buy two. When I asked how much each little charm cost, he told us it was two for 20 MYR (~$7US). The steep price was enough to shake me from my food coma; I balked and shook my head, resolved that we would only purchase one. As good as the food had been, surely 10MYR was a sufficiently generous offering. We watched as our friendly chaperone morphed into an aggressive salesman before our very eyes, his gestures becoming more animated and his English teetering on the edge of incomprehension. When he insisted he would only sell us two tokens, I refused and said that we would not buy any if that was the case.

Lady making offering at Sri Mahamariamman
Sri Mahamariamman temple goers

We edged our way toward the temple gates, anxious to escape a place that was quickly beginning to feel oppressive and overwhelming. As the din of traffic from the street began to mount, he relented and agreed we could just buy one. Swiftly, I plucked a tiny elephant-headed statue from the group and pressed a 10MYR note into his hands. Clutching our tiny purchase, we made our escape into a mass of flower sellers, letting the sea of chaos consume and conceal us.

Back in the refuge of our room, I lay on our bed, burnishing the tiny gold figurine between my fingers and reflecting on what happened. In retrospect, it was clear that none of the local temple goers had been purchasing similar trinkets and I mentioned to Tony that I thought we had been hoodwinked by a trickster who wasn’t even affiliated with the temple. This suspicion rankled me, partly because no one likes to be taken advantage of, but also because as a “seasoned traveler”, I felt we should be above falling prey to schemes of this ilk.

With a little more contemplation, however, I realized that our time in Asia has taught us to open ourselves up to others and place inordinate amounts of trust in strangers. On the whole, the rewards of this approach have been worth it, and I firmly believe that there are more good people than bad who will shepherd us on this journey, but obviously not every gamble pays off. We are learning to listen when our gut tells us someone can be trusted or, conversely, when a situation seems fishy. Traveling in Asia means striking a balance between vigilance and relaxing your guard. Quite honestly, the truth is that no matter how long you’ve been traveling, no matter how on your game you think you are, you’re going to get ripped off and taken for a ride every now and then. It’s rare we get fleeced, but when we do, I try to maintain perspective: in most cases, these scams or instances of being overcharged have such low-stakes it’s not worth getting overly upset about them. In this case, we hadn’t been duped into purchasing a bunch of worthless glass in an intricate gem scheme or been charged a crazy price for some mediocre tea. We were out $3US, and had gotten lunch, a story, and a little souvenir for our trouble. Though we had surely overpaid, the meal—and its surprise toy gift—was not only memorable, but still wound up being one of our cheapest while in Kuala Lumpur.

We decided we would carry our little talisman with us in the hopes he would ward off future scams and act as a reminder that, especially when it comes to free food, we should go with our guts. An internet search revealed our gilded guardian to be Ganesha, a Hindu god traditionally worshiped as the remover of obstacles, though he occasionally throws up impediments in the path of those who need them. May he guard us well and ensure that the hurdles between future scammers and our wallet are many indeed!

Ganesha Trinket

Tell Us: Have you ever been scammed? Do you carry any good luck charms with you on your travels?

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

We want to hear from you!

Required fields are marked with red.
Anything you share with us will not be published, traded, sold or otherwise used outside this site in any way, ever. We will not spam you.

We moderate comments, so if you haven't posted with us before and your comment doesn't show up right away, we will get to it, no need to post it twice. Thanks for your patience!

A comment is required.

Name is required. You can only use alphanumeric characters (a-z, A-Z).

CommentLuv badge

Read comments (24)

  1. February 11, 2014 at 4:16 am
    Feb. 11, '14

    The temple gate looks amazing, I could just stand there all day staring at it 🙂 Sorry to hear you got scammed, but on the bright side it could have been a lot worse!

    • February 11, 2014 at 9:30 pm
      Feb. 11, '14

      Hindu temples really are sensory overload! I know I spent a lot of time just standing there, open-mouthed, staring at things for ridiculous lengths of time.

      And yes, the scam could have been so much worse!

  2. February 11, 2014 at 4:18 am
    Feb. 11, '14

    As being fleeced goes, I think you got off pretty easy. It does leave a bad taste in your mouth, though, doesn’t it? It’s true; traveling in Asia is a balance, and hopefully, most of the balance is on the good and friendly people. Great story; I certainly can relate!
    Corinne recently posted..Rafflesia – Stinky Flower and One Cool Bloom!

    • February 11, 2014 at 9:31 pm
      Feb. 11, '14

      I know that in the moment, right after this happened, I was a lot more frustrated and upset about what had happened at the temple. In retrospect, however, I really have gained perspective and can see that it really wasn’t a big deal at all. I think the hardest thing about situations like this is not so much the money that is forked over but the feeling that someone has taken advantage of you… that is far more painful and difficult to shake off.

  3. February 11, 2014 at 6:57 am
    Feb. 11, '14

    I love this story, and your conclusion. If we close ourselves off to small swindles like this then we also close ourselves off from other, more genuine, interactions. I guess it’s the price to pay. And you have a great souvenir with a great story to go with it!
    Gillian recently posted..The Un-Planning Guide to Cycle Touring Europe

    • February 11, 2014 at 9:35 pm
      Feb. 11, '14

      Yes, it would be so much easier to just close ourselves off and watch the world with a wary eye but… that’s not why we travel. For us, it’s always worth taking the risk and trusting someone, because 9 times out of 10, it works out fine and we’re glad we did. Interestingly, I think it’s these little $1 or $2 scams that are the hardest to avoid, because the amount is so small. If someone tried to rope us into spending $50 (or whatever), we’d see them and their scam coming from a mile away and know to hightail it out of there. But a little money spent in the pursuit of authentic kind moments isn’t so much to allot.

  4. February 11, 2014 at 3:12 pm
    Feb. 11, '14

    Situations like this often make for the best stories. We did get scammed a couple of times, no big scams thank god. But it something that comes with traveling. It’s important not to take it personal (which I totally do ‘How can someone do this to meeeee’).
    Angela recently posted..Home Inspiration: Our Home Office

    • February 11, 2014 at 9:37 pm
      Feb. 11, '14

      I tend to take things personally too, so I understand what you mean. I always feel so dumb after a scam, but also really sad too, because the person was just after our money and I feel taken advantage of. We’ve been ripped off a few times on our trip, but it’s never been for more than $10 (a story for another time), so it’s not really the loss of money that is the big deal, it’s the feeling of betrayal!

  5. February 11, 2014 at 7:22 pm
    Feb. 11, '14

    When we first traveled we had a minor scam in Thailand and so have tried to be hawk-eyed since. I think the silliest scam we recently encountered was in Cuba when a couple asked us to buy Russian milk for their baby as the store ‘only sold to tourists’….ummmm…yah right. It’s all about following your gut, but also not beating yourself up in the end too!
    Emily recently posted..What to Know about Mexico

    • February 11, 2014 at 9:38 pm
      Feb. 11, '14

      One thing that really set our minds at ease was the constant reminder that we are in control of our money and if we don’t want to spend it, we don’t have to. Doesn’t matter if someone has asked us to or has quoted us a price, as long as we don’t agree to anything, we have no obligation to hand over small or large amounts of money. It means I’m a lot less worried about big scams, and the little ones, well, they still get us every now and then, but they’re small so we can absorb them a lot more readily without being absolutely devastated.

  6. February 11, 2014 at 11:16 pm
    Feb. 11, '14

    Can’t believe your meal at Sikh temple was n’t free. If you are made to pay for it, the ‘langar’ which is what your free meal is called is not being served in the right spirit. I am a sikh myself so I got stuck on that part. If you come to India you must go Harmandir Sahib popularly called Golden temple in Amritsar or Bangla Sahib in Delhi to witness the institution of langars

    • February 12, 2014 at 1:13 am
      Feb. 12, '14

      Just to clarify, when we went to the Sikh Gurdwara in Melaka, we weren’t forced to pay anything. Friends who had previously visited simply told us that it was customary to make a small monetary donation in the main hall before heading to the kitchen, so we did. But at no point did anyone approach us and tell us this was mandatory. Given that I don’t think the guy who was adamant we buy a trinket at this temple actually even worked there or was affiliated in any way, I think we could have gotten away with dining for free too.

      I really want to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, whenever we should happen to make it to India!

  7. February 12, 2014 at 1:58 am
    Feb. 12, '14

    Great temple, even though it didn’t end too cordially. It makes me so angry to see religion or religious icons being used in this way.
    Tim | UrbanDuniya recently posted..Antipodes Lonsdale Street Festival brings Melbourne’s Greek soul to life

    • February 12, 2014 at 8:35 pm
      Feb. 12, '14

      I figure that if you aren’t taking some risks when you travel then you’re not doing it right. Scams happen and they suck, but this was not nearly so bad as it could have been. But it definitely is frustrating when people don’t respect religious monuments and the spirit of the place they are and hustle you anyway.

  8. February 12, 2014 at 7:22 pm
    Feb. 12, '14

    Throwing yourself into a completely new place always opens yourself up to being ripped off (Thinks back to the tea ceremony in China). It’s all part of travelling. My rule is just to accept it as trial and error and learn from it. Before you know it, you’ll be living in that place like a local.

    Beautiful photos as usual. that temple is stunning and the intricate details!
    Jimmy Dau recently posted..This week in photos – “In waiting”

    • February 12, 2014 at 8:54 pm
      Feb. 12, '14

      Yes, opening yourself up to the kindness of strangers and the world around you goes hand and hand with the increased likelihood you’ll get ripped off. As long as it’s not a huge amount of cash we’re out, we try not to get too bogged down in the scams and the cons. As you say, they’re great opportunities to learn and are all part of this travel adventure.

  9. February 13, 2014 at 7:00 am
    Feb. 13, '14

    Yep! Well not me personally but my boyfriend when we were out at the market in Egypt. With his ridiculous love for tea can you believe he paid 125 euros for tea!!! In Egypt! Fresh tea leaves in all kind of flavours but 125 euro big ones for too much and didn’t sit well with me. They saw him a mile away.
    Bianca recently posted..Cologne’s Love Locks Bridge

    • February 14, 2014 at 9:04 pm
      Feb. 14, '14

      Wow! 125 euros for tea? That is a lot of money, even for a tea lover, I’d wager. If you and your boyfriend ever go to China, make sure you keep a close eye on him—they are notorious for their tea scams! 😀

  10. February 19, 2014 at 2:33 am
    Feb. 19, '14

    “Traveling in Asia means striking a balance between vigilance and relaxing your guard.”
    Never has a truer statement been made!

    We’ve really struggled with this balance. It was a little harder for Shawn than for me to relax his guard, but it’s so easy to be swept up in the “kindness” we’ve been shown. I’d say we adjusted pretty well, but it doesn’t make us immune. Nor does it have to – we’re still human, right?
    Carmel recently posted..PLAIN OF JARS

    • February 20, 2014 at 12:36 am
      Feb. 20, '14

      I think some of this balance just comes with time and getting comfort with this part of the world and traveling in general. I think back on how terrified Tony & I were about tea scams in China and worrying about how/when to haggle, and now we’ve gotten familiar enough we just go with the flow and follow our guts. Also, realizing that the really huge scams are pretty obvious and easily avoided (i.e., don’t buy $1000 “real silk” rugs, etc.,) has made it easier to unclench.

  11. February 22, 2014 at 11:59 am
    Feb. 22, '14

    I got scammed in Shanghai, which was terribly galling since I lived there and was well-versed (or so I thought) in all the scams. I was showing visitors around an old-town temple for the umpteenth time when a friendly old man approached and started telling us about one of the statues. Then he wanted to tell us about another statue and bid us to follow him, and naively we did. He kept talking and talking, and while it was interesting, I started to get an uncomfortable feeling in my gut. Sure enough, he asked us for 20 RMB for his trouble. I balked and only gave him 10. To his credit, he accepted defeat gracefully, probably because I spoke some Chinese and towered at least a foot over him. I don’t even think my friends noticed that we’d just gotten scammed, since he was so nice and did share some interesting information. Beware those charming old men!
    Heather recently posted..36 Hours in Tokyo

    • February 22, 2014 at 10:26 pm
      Feb. 22, '14

      Ah, the retroactive tour guide! We had read about that possible scam when we visited Angkor Wat, normally run by police officers (or people dressed like police officers) who are off duty. Sure enough, we had a guy in uniform start to try to explain things to us and get us to follow him around, but we kept telling him “Thank You but we want to tour it at our own pace by ourselves.” Eventually I just wandered off in a different direction and lost him amongst the ruins!

      At least your guy only got 10RMB—that’s not too much money and you did learn a little bit from him! But what cheek, eh?

  12. February 26, 2014 at 3:05 am
    Feb. 26, '14

    Why not just thank him and say you’ll make a donation directly to the temple (and donate whatever you feel comfortable with)?
    James recently posted..Zombies, Cheese and Bacon Pillows – Can You Ever Go Home Again?

    • February 26, 2014 at 5:20 am
      Feb. 26, '14

      Because that would have made sense, James. Duh!

      Seriously, this was still when we were relatively new to traveling and were not so great at sticking up for ourselves when it came to money/haggling and we were still thinking getting steamrolled was preferable to inadvertently causing offense. You know how talking about money in a direct, unapologetic way is not a strong suit for most Westerners!

Leave a comment!