Buying batik in Indonesia: How I fell for the most obvious travel scam

There is a trio of colourful, slightly evil looking cats hanging on the wall above my bed. They are painted in a traditional Indonesian art technique called batik.

They remind me of the time I got scammed.

Yogyakarta is probably Indonesia's second-most popular tourist spot, after Bali. It's an ancient city, surrounded by temples.

A colleague and I were there for work, and had some free time up our sleeves. We looked up the city's main attractions and found Jalan Malioboro, a 24-hour shopping street.

Not wanting to waste a second, we jumped in a taxi, and soon found ourselves in a souvenir paradise, with mountains of t-shirts, jewellery and handicrafts.

My friend wanted to buy some batik, which Yogyakarta is famous for. We ventured down one of the narrow alleys, getting lost in a swirl of colourful fabrics.

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Within minutes, we were approached by a man with a broad grin who wanted to know where we were from.

He clapped delightedly. "All Blacks, very good!"


The nice man asked if we were looking for batik, and offered to show us the best stalls. Hot, tired, and overwhelmed, we decided to follow him.

He chatted non-stop as we wove through the market, pointing out the different qualities of fabric, and dismissing most of them as "too expensive".

"My friend is an artist, he receives money from government to teach batik," he told us.

"Come visit his gallery. I would like you to see real batik."

We hesitated for a moment, before agreeing. After all, it was a tourist area. He was probably a well-meaning tour guide, giving us a cultural experience.

We left the bustling market and followed him through dusty backstreets, stopping at an unmarked shack. The artist was waiting outside.

As promised, we were shown the wax and dye used to create batik. The artist held the fabric up to the light so we could admire the effect. We oohed and aahed and nodded politely.

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Our tour guide brought over some ice-cold water bottles. "Free of charge," he said.

He also gave us a list of prices from A to Z, each corresponding with an artwork on display. He encouraged us to look around - "slowly, slowly. Take your time."

My friend and I felt we had better buy something. The cats caught my eye, and didn't seem too expensive - maybe $30? It's hard to tell when you're dealing with hundreds of thousands of rupiah.

The artist said I could buy another one for half price. "Present for your mother," he suggested.

I didn't have enough cash on me. No problem, our tour guide said. "I take you to cash machine."

Once again, I followed him. It was a couple of blocks away. I got out the money, and we returned to the gallery, where my friend was waiting anxiously.

It wasn't until I was handing over the wads of cash that alarm bells started ringing.

Later, when I did the conversion, I realised I had spent more than $100. By Indonesian standards, that's an obscene amount of money.

Back at the hotel, I looked up Jalan Malioboro again. "Beware of batik scam", one of the first posts said. Our experience was textbook. The batik we bought were more than likely screen-printed fakes, worthless pieces of cloth.  

The main lessons I learned? They're painfully obvious, but in the heat of the moment, it can be easy to forget.

Always do your research. Be skeptical if someone is too helpful to be true. And know the damn currency conversion.

I know you're judging me. Don't worry, the cats on my wall are, too.

Have you ever experienced a travel scam? Let us know in the comments.

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