Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world and is a must-see for anyone wanting to experience the unique culture of India. Yet, along with the serenity of the Ganges and sanctity of the riverside cremations… you will also find plenty of locals who are good at scamming you.
If you’re wanting to avoid scams in Varanasi, you can start by understanding how they work. Here are 9 of the most commons scams:
- Wood Donation Scam
- Boat Tour Scams
- Photo License Fees
- Expensive Bindis
- Crooked Temple Priests
- Fake Nepal Bus Tickets
- Snake Charmer Scam
- No Money Massage Scam
- Expensive Taxi Scams
NOTE: Most Indians you meet are going to be super nice and hospitable. I spent a lot of time researching scams before my India trip, and while they are common, you are going to meet many more locals who are honest and helpful. Don’t get too paranoid after reading this 🙂
Planning a trip to India at some point? Check out my free ebook to help you save time and money, and avoid headaches. After +4 years in India, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and this guide shares what I’ve learned so you can have a smoother trip.
Wood Donation Scam at the Burning Ghat
The most common scam in Varanasi happens at the burning ghat. You will be asked by a local “tour guide” to donate money for cremations for the poor.
Here’s how the scam works: As you are walking up to the iconic Manikarnika Ghat, where the most cremations happen, you’ll be approached by a young man who starts telling you about the area.
He will be friendly enough and the information he shares will seem helpful. He won’t ask for any money at first.
After walking around the outside of the ghat and showing you the cremations, he’s going to ask if you want to see the fire where each cremation is lit from.
Then he shows you into the building overlooking the ghat and eventually leads you to an empty space away from most people.
Then his tone changes as he explains how expensive it is for each cremation. He’ll go into specific prices for 1 kg of wood and how each cremation requires multiple kilograms of wood.
He’ll also go into how sad it is that there are poor people waiting to die here so they can achieve the ultimate moksha… yet they don’t have money for the wood. 🙁
He’ll then give you the sales pitch… if you can donate today, you can help his “organization” help someone achieve their ultimate dream to be cremated in Varanasi. How much would you like to donate right now?
My aunt and mom fell for this scam, as I waited outside.
Later our tour guide explained this scam and how it happens to countless tourists every day. These aren’t licensed guides, they don’t work for an organization and there are no lines of poor people waiting to be cremated.
NOTE: If you would like to help, you can find respected organizations in Varanasi that help the poor and would put your donation to good use.
Read more: Reasons To Not Visit India
Boat Tour Scams
Sunrise and sunset boat tours in Varanasi are a must-see for tourists.
If you want to get a good price, avoid popular ghats like Assi Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, and Dashashwamedh Ghat. Walk away from those ghats and negotiate a good price with a boat owner who approaches you.
I recommend taking a private tour, so you can go wherever you want. Although you can get better prices on group tours.
Foreign tourists will pay 250-300 rupees for an hour for one person. For a group tour, you can pay as little as 100 rupees per person. If you order a tour with a good guide ahead of time, you may pay as much as $35 USD for a 3-hour tour.
Having a great guide was worth it for us because we learned so much about Varanasi which made our trip very special.
I mention the prices so you can negotiate a fair price. But there is another scam as well. Here’s how it works:
As you are taking your tour, your driver will “helpfully” suggest you go ashore near the burning ghat AND will introduce you to a “local guide,” who is going to pitch you on the same wood donation scam mentioned above.
You can avoid this scam by simply declining and saying looking from the water is okay with you.
Read more: Tourist Scams in Goa
Photo License Fee at the Burning Ghats
Another scam at the burning ghats is to charge you for taking photos.
First, remember that these are actual funerals happening at the burning ghats and it is disrespectful to take photos.
If you want to take photos from further away though and someone sees you, they may try to scam you.
Here’s how the scam works: He will ask if you have a “license” to take the photo.
He will say he’s going to take you to the office to pay the fine. If you refuse, he will say he will call the police and you will be put in prison.
To avoid this, you can just refuse and walk away.
I would avoid this by only taking photos on a boat tour though. On my trip, we didn’t go too close to the burning ghat and our guide encouraged us to take photos if we wanted.
Expensive Bindi Scam
The biggest Ganga Aarti ceremony starts at sunset at the Dashashwamedh Ghat and is the main event in Varanasi at night.
As you walk around, you will find some helpful “priests” coming up to you to put a red dot on your forehead without asking… which will seem nice.
The scam works like this though… they will guilt you into donating large sums of money.
First off, you are not required to give anything. They are not priests even though they might do a small “blessing.” This is simply to give the impression they are doing more so they can ask for more money.
If you wanted to say thank you, but no I am not giving… that is okay. If you wanted to donate 10-20 rupees that is fair. If you wanted to donate a bit more for taking a photo that is also fair.
I paid 100 rupees because the “priest” gave my mother, aunt and I all bindis while I filmed it. BUT he kept hounding me asking for more money.
Just keep in mind giving more, in my experience, will just encourage them to ask for more because some assume you have a lot of money.
Crooked Temple Priests Scam
The Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple is one of the most famous temples in Varanasi and one of the most popular Hindu temples in all of India.
It is known for the one ton of gold that are in the shikhara (roof towers) of the temple.
If you can visit the temples, you should because they are beautiful. NOTE: Sometimes they are not open to foreigners though.
But just be careful because you are going to find a number of ways you are going to be asked for more money.
The most aggressive scam is from priests in or near the temple. They are going to ask you to donate large sums of money for things such as:
- Blessing for your dead parents
- Blessing to find a wife
- Blessing for your career
- Or donations to help brahmins get educated
They may ask for as much as 6000 rupees. Maybe more. AND they are going to use guilt and spirituality to pressure you to feel bad enough to shell out the money.
Please refuse these scams. If you would like to donate a fair amount, you are more than welcome to of course.
You might also find plenty of unofficial tour guides who want to show you around the temple. You also will be asked to buy an offering to take into the temple.
Fake Nepal Bus Tickets
You can find a number of buses heading to Nepal from Varanasi, but not all of them will take you there.
The scam works like this: You buy tickets thinking you are getting a bus that will go all the way to Nepal. Instead, the bus will leave Varanasi only to break down before it gets to Nepal.
Then you will need to buy more tickets to get another bus to continue your trip.
Or the bus will stop near the border and say the trip is over. Then you’d have to pay more money to get another bus across the border.
How to avoid this scam: Find a bus company with plenty of reviews and ask to ensure it goes all the way into Nepal.
Cobra Charmer Scam
Along the ghats, you may seem some colorfully-dressed snake charmers making dangerous cobras dance with their hypnotic music.
These are actually pretty cool at first.
The scam works like this though: The cobras are defanged and drugged, so there is no harm.
Also, this is not a free show. If you show interest, you will be required to donate some money. If you take a photo you will be required to donate more. If you take a video, you will be required to donate a bit more.
I think this is fair since they are providing a service. But just know it’s all for entertainment.
“No Money” Massage Scam
Near the Dashashmedh Ghat, you’ll find plenty of men coming up to you and massaging your arms or head. They won’t ask, they will just start.
Here’s how the scam works: Even if you refuse the massage, they are going to try to persuade you by saying “no money.”
But if you allow the massage to continue, they are going to ask for money. AND no matter what you give them, they are going to ask for more.
Remember a basic principle, if someone does something for you even if they present it as “free” or a “gift,” they are going to ask or demand money.
Expensive Taxi Scam from the Airport or Train Station
The airport in Varanasi is actually a good distance away from the center part of the city and if you don’t have transportation lined up you are going to face plenty of taxi drivers wanting to charge you for an overpriced ride.
Here’s how the scam works: The initial prices you are quoted are going to be 5 times more than the price to get to the central Varanasi. Plus, they may drop you off 15 minutes away from your hotel.
You can avoid this scam by knowing the price to the city. The price from the airport to the central Dashashwamedh Ghat is 500 to 700 rupees. It takes ~25 minutes.
If you can find someone for that price, take it. You just need to be clear they are going to drop you about a 15-minute walk from the ghats. It is hard to drive close to the ghats. We had a private driver and even he dropped us off and we had to walk through the crowded streets.
Big Cab is a respected cab company in Varanasi, so you could set up a ride before you arrive. They charge flat rates. Ola Cab is another respected option (it is the Uber of India). Uber is not in Varanasi.
The best option is to book a shuttle from your hotel. Navigating the alleys near the ghats at first is very confusing. It is worth paying extra to have someone from your hotel pick you up and show you the way.
These are some of the common scams that you will encounter in Varanasi. I hope by understanding them you can avoid them and enjoy your time in this iconic city.
There are many other scams that you may run into in Varanasi. I listed 80 tourist scams in India in this extensive post, and you will want to read that as well. Many of them also occur in Varanasi!