By everyone else’s measure, the fantastic food, warm locals, impressive temples, and lush wild places are reasons enough to warrant Malaysia a top spot on their “must visit” list. From my experience in Kuala Lumpur (KL), I would add “psychologically disturbing scam artists” to the mix.
Traveling alone isn’t unusual for me. I’d done it a number of times before, in various parts of the world, and had certainly become keenly aware of places not to visit, situations not to engage in. KL was no different as I began my stroll from my hostel to visit the Petronas Towers.
Petronas Towers, a famous tourist attraction in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
It was a hot and sunny December day. As I strolled along a main road toward the Towers, a family jogged up to me asking for me to take their photo. The husband, wife, and their daughter got close for a sweet photo. Malaysians always seemed curious about foreigners. Fitting to this stereotype, they asked me where I was from. After learning that I was from California, the man informed me that his sister would be moving to San Jose soon to work as a nurse. We warmly related to my home and I did not for a second hesitate to agree to meet his sister back at their house. After all, he was with his wife and child. I didn’t even think twice.
I joined them at their house where there were more women and children hanging out. I was enjoying my ice cold Coke when out came an elderly gentleman named Uncle Roger. Uncle Roger was friendly, forceful, and in charge. He was curious about me and my home country. He was familiar with many American cities, including Las Vegas, where he loved to gamble. In fact, he was a dealer at a casino not far from KL. After learning that I was familiar with the game of blackjack, Uncle Roger offered to teach me the single foolproof trick of winning the game. Hah, how quirky, I thought. Sure, why not.
Uncle Roger, the man who brought me to the house, and I walked into a small, empty room filled with nothing but a table, four chairs, a filing cabinet, and a set of chips. Uncle Roger shuffled his cards as he explained to me that the foolproof way of winning blackjack was that he, as the dealer, would do two things: 1) Using hand signals on the table, he would signal to me what the opponent’s hidden card was, and 2) he would slyly reveal to me what the next card in the deck was. He can’t be serious, I thought. This is hilarious, HAH! What a goofball. I was thinking this would make a great story when I got home.
He then began to tell me about the mahjong game he hosted the night before. He was not pleased with the Bruneian businessman who won $30,000 because he didn’t fairly tip the host. Uncle Roger would attempt to win some money back by hosting a blackjack night. I wished him luck.
As if completely on cue, a Bruneian businessman walked into the room. If I never knew what a Bruneian businessman looked like before, I did now.
Thick, black-framed glasses sat on his sweaty face. Hair slicked back with too much gel. His silk dragon shirt had way too many colors, mostly blue. His hands, covered in heavy rings, clutched a worn leather briefcase. What the what. Huh?
Time flowed in a funny way, and suddenly we were all playing blackjack. Uncle Roger was dealing, I was playing against the Bruneian businessman, and the man who brought me to the house was pretending to be my boyfriend while giving me blackjack tips. It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to register how strange this was, to be playing blackjack with three strange men.
I won a couple of hands to start. Uncle Roger’s hand signals were so blatantly overt I nearly laughed out loud. We arrived at our last hand.
As I mulled over how to move, the Bruneian businessman pulled out of his briefcase a stack of $100s, summing $30,000. He went all in. My jaw dropped. Eyes grew large. No words came.
I looked back and forth, between Uncle Roger and the Bruneian businessman, my hand, and back at them. What? No. No way. Wait, what was happening? The only thing I could utter was, “no.” Having repeated it a number of times, Uncle Roger took the hint and relieved me. “It doesn’t seem like Fiona’s ready to proceed. Why don’t we take a 1-hour break and come back to finish the game.” I dumbfoundedly obeyed.
In order to take a break, we each sealed our hands in an envelope. Uncle Roger was doing this for the Bruneian businessman. Just before slipping his cards into an envelope, he gleamed at me with encouragement as he flashed me my opponent’s cards. He had a losing hand, which meant I would win the game. My mind was finally beginning to catch up with time and registering the ridiculous reality I was in. He wanted me to play a hand of blackjack for $30,000.
We signed the envelopes and placed them in the filing cabinet. I shook hands with the Bruneian businessman before he departed the room. Quite pleased, Uncle Roger readily took out his notebook and began to do the math for how we would win this game. He would loan me $30,000 to keep playing, and naturally, I would win. We would split the winnings among the three of us.
Breaking a Sweat
In this instant, my dumbfounded, awestruck naivete spun into a force of fuming anger. I was livid. “Is this what you do?? You go around, looking for vulnerable foreigners, to scam them!?” I yelled at Uncle Roger for taking advantage of my innocence and openness to connect with locals when I travel. I yelled at myself for being taken advantage of. I threw my arms up, yelled some more, and Uncle Roger wasn’t going to have it. “Well, it seems you’re not interested in playing further. You can go, then.”
That was it. They brought me back to downtown KL, gave me hug, and wished me a nice trip in Malaysia. What. The. F***.
I stumbled back to my hostel, barely discerning the day’s hot sun from the dreamy cloud from which I just emerged. I caught the hostel manager’s attention and had to share. “I think I just got scammed.” Wait for it – here was the best part.
The manager repeated, play-by-play, what happened. As if rehearsing a script, he started with the invitation to the family’s home, the blackjack games, and the offer to loan a large sum of money to “win” the game. He told me that many others had returned from their days’ touring with a similar story. “The German guy last week took many photos with the family. The Finnish guy last month actually went to the ATM and fetched $500 to pay back the money he borrowed.”
I was flabbergasted. Was this some joke? Did he know the people who did this? How often did this happen?
That evening I caught up with a British fellow who was also staying at the hostel. I shared with him what happened to me and he echoed a similar story. I couldn’t believe it. He was also traveling alone and a gentleman caught his attention and asked where he was from. They related to his hometown and the stranger claimed that his sister was attending university in a nearby city; that they should certainly catch up over tea. The British fellow was caught off guard by the strange man’s claim because he seemed too old to have a sister who would be attending university. Otherwise, he probably would have joined for tea.
I felt personally offended and disturbed that my genuine desire to connect with locals was received in this terribly foul way. Why did the family spend hours and hours engulfing me in this scam, just to send me on my way with soft smiles and gentle hugs? So. Confusing. Perhaps Malaysia has strict laws against anything that could jeopardize the tourism industry, which may explain the discreet and covert nature of these missions. Apparently these types of scams are not uncommon in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, and most recently internet dating scams have arisen in Malaysia.
I managed to visit the beautiful Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur (below) before continuing my SE Asian adventures in India. If you’re planning a trip – be smart, and enjoy Malaysia.