Like elsewhere in Southeast Asia, many of the scams in Bali are the same old tried-and-true traps that keep working, perhaps with a few small tweaks over the years. The never-ending rotation of tourists keeps hustlers from having to be too creative.
Bali is the most visited of Indonesia’s many thousands of islands, so tourists inevitably become prey hunted by scammers who fish for them day and night.
Basic discretion mandates that you run far, far away when anyone mentions gold, gemstones, drugs (fake Viagra and other meds are sold from backpacks), and most ominous of all—timeshares. Also, be wary of anyone who crosses the street with perfectly calculated trigonometry to intercept you, no matter how big the smile.
Most of all, know that every destination possesses a learning curve. Everyone eventually gets caught in Bali. Even the pros get snared. Running the gauntlet is a rite of passage, part of the ticket, for enjoying one spectacular island and culture.
Currency Exchange Scams
Signs for “official” money exchanges line the roads in Kuta, Legian, and elsewhere. The advertised rates on these signs are often higher than the current international rate—in your favor! Many boast no commission or fees. Don’t believe you’re going to make a profit by swapping currencies in Bali; you aren't trading the Forex.
The staff at these kiosks are expert at slight of hand. They may count money in front of you but still manage to drop a 50,000-rupiah note behind the desk without you noticing. Sometimes damaged or invalid banknotes are passed on to tourists.
Using the ATMs will usually land you a better rate anyway. Unlike the $6 ATM fees in Thailand, the ATM fees in Indonesia are still relatively low. If you have to exchange currency, do so at a real bank—not in a shop.
Rideshare Drivers Go Rogue
Ridesharing services such as Uber and Grab (from Malaysia) are technically forbidden but still remain popular in Bali.
Despite being more hush-hush now, these services survive for a reason: they allow travelers to avoid some of the predictable hassle dished out by regular taxi drivers.
Unfortunately, a lot of the ridesharing drivers have begun asking for additional money to be paid on top of the agreed fare secured in the app. Don’t assume that an Uber or Grab driver will stick to the app—you’ll most likely have to negotiate just as you would for transportation options without a working meter.
Fake Blue Bird Taxis
Bali’s traffic is a nightmarish test of patience on an island generally associated with paradise. A majority of the non-motorbike variety consists of taxis circling endlessly and honking for your attention. As is often the case elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the drivers have mastered the art of delivering a scam.
One taxi group stands alone as the most trustworthy and reputable: the Blue Bird Group taxis. Drivers prominently display identification and use meters. They won’t try to hustle you along the way. There is even a Blue Bird app you can download for your smartphone.
Several less reputable taxi companies know about Blue Bird’s shining reputation; they attempt to mimic Blue Bird in every way with the exception of being honest. Many taxis in Bali are painted a soft-blue color now, and some even have a similar blue bird on their “taksi” sign, although it’s not the same logo.
These fakers aren’t a part of the official Blue Bird Group. Beware of rogue taxi drivers from other companies that place “Blue Bird Group” stickers on windshields to confuse tourists. They aren’t the real deal.
Regardless of the taxi company you use, ensure that the driver agrees to use the meter. Be aware that some meters on the island have been altered. But in standstill island traffic, there is little chance of a driver taking you the long way to run up a working meter!
Beach Hustlers and Touts
The wide, gorgeous beaches of South Bali are home to an endless procession of sellers. From smiling women peddling bracelets, massages, and pedicures, to men inexplicably offering dangerous toys (real crossbows and blowguns) to drunken beachgoers, you’ll find yourself shaking your head “no” often.
Rest assured that 90 percent of what you are offered on the beach can be found for much cheaper and with better quality elsewhere. The persistent “aunties” as they’re known use cheap polish that probably won’t survive a day at the beach. Once you’re locked into one of their services, you’ll have to endure plenty of high-pressure upselling as they work.
Some of the children are forced by family members or bosses to work tourists rather than go to school. Buying bracelets or trinkets from children may inadvertently support bad practices. Avoid making them profitable.
Temple Entrance Fees and Guides
Much in the same manner as the fake parking fees, sometimes individuals will stand near Hindu temples to demand entrance money. A few of the temples do require a meager entrance fee, however, the person asking you for money may not be associated with the temple. Sometimes you’ll be hassled to pay a guide to walk with you around the temple grounds. Free guides will most likely demand a “voluntary” donation at the end of your simple tour.
The photogenic temples near Mount Batur and Pura Besakih are popular places for this scam in Bali. On the way to Mount Batur, you will have already paid a steep entrance fee (per person and for the vehicle) just to drive into the Kintamani region.
All of the Hindu temples require legs (men and women) to be covered with a sarong before entering. Dress modestly. You can borrow sarongs at the entrances of many temples, but some will ask you to “rent” one for a small fee.
Motorbike Rental Scams
Although motorbike rental scams are a problem throughout Southeast Asia, they occur frequently in Bali and neighboring Lombok. Individuals try to rent their personal motorbikes to travelers; you’ll turn down numerous offers every day.
These informal rentals are fraught with potential problems. A worst-case scenario is that the owner uses a spare key to steal back the motorbike. You’ll have to pay for the scooter. Other scammers may blame you for existing scratches or damage and demand that you make repairs.
Avoid renting from hustlers on the street. Stick to renting scooters from proper rental shops. If you can’t find one, ask at your accommodation desk about arranging a scooter for the day.
Room Renewal Scam
In Bali, the disparity between walk-in prices and internet prices for rooms is bigger than usual. You may score a great online deal for a room, but if you ask to extend another night or two, you’ll receive a higher price than you paid before.
Even if the booking site still shows the lower rate, you’ll be charged the “walk-in” rate. To get the same rate as before, you’ll be asked to pack up, go somewhere, book the room online again, then check in again. Arguing the absurdity of the idea usually ends up in a face-saving situation that won’t work out in your favor.
Owners are hoping that you’ll be too lazy to pack and find a new hotel; many tourists just pay up and stay.
Unfortunately, to lock in the online price, you’ll need to commit in advance and book the length of your stay. Booking a tentative night or two then extending if you like the place isn’t always an easy option in Bali.
Bonus Parking Fees
Local opportunists have a tendency to set up a chair or makeshift kiosk at places which are ordinarily free. They’ll ask you for a relatively small amount to park or enter.
One such place is the giant parking lot for Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave. Sometimes people ask for a fee if you park in front of certain shops along the busy road at the rice terraces above Ubud.
Your only option is to park elsewhere. Standing firm and not paying means risking a chance your scooter will “accidentally” get knocked over.
The police in Bali strictly enforce a helmet policy—which you should be wearing regardless.
Unfortunately, many of the officers target tourists on motorbikes—including the ones with helmets—to pay fines. It begins with asking for an international license. Even if you produce one, you’ll be told that it isn’t valid in Indonesia. Tourists are expected to pay on the spot; you can guess where the money goes.
Aside from avoiding police checkpoints when you see them, the only thing you can do to protect yourself is to separate your money. Carry it in two different places on your person. The fines aren’t fixed, so the officer generally sees how much money you’re carrying and takes a sizable cut—most of it—for himself.
Maybe the most dangerous of the scams in Bali is the practice of swapping arak for other alcohols in drinks to increase profit margins. If you order a clear spirit that is familiar from home and it tastes funny, there’s a chance the bottle has been refilled with arak in a bait and switch.
Arak is a clear, home-distilled spirit in Indonesia—call it the local “moonshine.” Because arak is cheaply produced, batches become contaminated with methanol. Methanol poisoning from drinking arak is responsible for the deaths of tourists—and many locals—per year, mainly in the Gili Islands and Bali. As little as 10 milliliters can cause blindness; slightly more causes organ damage and kidney failure.
Unfortunately, the problem of arak is covered up and kept quiet; tourism is vital to Bali’s economy, and tourists enjoy their drinks. Although you can avoid cocktails such as the popular “arak attack” easily enough, sometimes arak is substituted for vodka in mixed drinks; it’s a lot cheaper. Free "welcome" drinks often have arak as an ingredient.
The only real way to mitigate the risk is to stick to drinking beer or purchase bottles of imported spirits and open them yourself.
Note: The word arak comes from Arabic and is used in a multitude of countries to denote different kinds of spirits. The context will be completely different outside of Indonesia.