Posted June 5, 2014 by Steve McDonald in Backpackology 101

Steve McDonald’s Guide to Playing the Dumb Tourist Card Like a Symphony Harp

Dumb tourist card cover

“Welcome to Singapore,” smiled the customs officer, ripping apart my luggage. “Do you have anything to declare?”


“Are you sure?” he frowned. “Cigarettes, food products, firearms…”

“Nope,” I grinned. I already knew I was in deep shit.

The X-ray supervisor shouted to him in Mandarin, before he unzipped an outer pocket and plunged his hand inside.

“What about this?” he asked, pulling out an AK-47 bullet cartridge.

“Oh that thing,” I chuckled.

Faster than you can say allaho akbar, I was dragged by an armed sergeant into a backroom for intense questioning.

Welcome to Singapore, indeed.

This wasn’t my first police interrogation, nor my second, nor my fifth. And while Singaporean cops are no happy Teletubbies (petty crimes like vandalism and shoplifting are punishable by caning here), I saw little reason to panic.

I had a powerful ally on my side.

In the past two years I have infiltrated a restricted military zone in Pakistan, snuck into the Tomb of the Terracotta Warriors, breached a secret CIA city in Laos, slept under desert stars at an off-limits Silk Road temple, as well as lots of other stupid schemes that would have never been possible without abusing *~*~*~*The Dumb Tourist Card*~*~*~*~. So in this week’s tutorial, I’m going to teach you how to break every rule in the book—and get away with it—by convincing people that you’re a dunderhead.

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Before you burn the law books, try to rationalize why your inherently unethical goal is in fact ethical. If you succeed—great work! Whatever you’re scheming is totally okay.

Basically don’t be a dick. I obviously can’t list all the acceptable and unacceptable uses of the Dumb Tourist Card (DTC), because even if I had a reliable moral compass, that would take half an hour. But generally speaking:

It is not okay to use flash photography if it can damage historical artwork. It is not okay go streaking in Yemen. It is not okay to go hunting in a panda reserve.

However it is okay to trespass on commercial property if you’re in need of shelter. It is okay to sneak into restricted areas, military zones, and prohibitively expensive attractions. It is okay to bail yourself out of trouble if, say, the police find an AK-47 bullet cartridge in your luggage. I should remind you that these are not opinions. Doth not question my word, for it is written on the Internet, and is good.

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Now you must don your war paint, Grasshopper. Avail yourself with a fanny pack, a novelty tee-shirt, loud colors, goofy sunglasses, a camera, a guidebook, and (for the hardcore) a plastic visor. Be sure to unzip your fly.

Eighty-percent of communication is non-verbal, so details are important.

Your first challenge is to master ‘The Dumb Tourist Stare.’ This mostly involves vacant, hollow eyes and a shit-eating grin. Shoot for manic yet out to lunch—somewhere between Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Terri Schiavo. If you’re not sure of yourself, get in front of a mirror. Try smiling more psychotically.
When you’ve nailed your look, you need to start developing a tight plan, a provable alibi, and a well-conceived backup strategy.

PRO TIP: If you want to sneak into an expensive tourist site, check hostel dorm rooms and trashcans for used ticket stubs. Next, brandish the stub as you harass the site’s Exit guard (not entrance!), pointing through the gate and repeating the local phrase for “I’ve lost my American tour group!” After several minutes of pestering, they’ll often let you through. This worked particularly well for me in China.

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If you need to sneak past guards or staff—DON’T GODDAMN RUN. Don’t gawk at security or lurk in the shadows like Snidely Whiplash. You’re better off high-kicking and wearing a marching band outfit and playing a tuba. Appear calm, confident, and deliberate. Masters of the DTC are blatant—but not conspicuous. Misdirection is the key. Proper timing is an art form.

Say you plan to slip through a museum entrance by riding a tour group. You’ve just merged into the flock as they swarm the ticket checker. Wait until the ticket checker is distracted or busy. Then, at the most chaotic moment—as the tour guide hands her a massive bundle of tickets—slap on The Dumb Tourist Stare and blankly march through the entrance. For bonus points, pretend to be engrossed in a brochure, map, or guidebook. If someone calls after you, don’t respond. Just keep pottering forward like a benign zombie in Crocs.

In the unlikely event that a guard chases after you, it’s time to throw down the Dumb Tourist Card.

PRO TIP: Sneaking over, under, or around perimeter fences is often effective, but in this instance DO NOT expect the Dumb Tourist Card to bail you out of trouble! The only chance of it working in this scenario is if there’s a debilitating language barrier and you possess a used ticket stub.

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If you’ve been caught, your new goal is simple: try to convince everyone that you’re a garden-variety idiot. The beauty of the Dumb Tourist Card is that you don’t always need to succeed in this. Human beings will do backflips over hurdles to avoid conflict (especially in Asia), so just offer a friendly smile, calmly explain what you were doing, and apologize for your naivety. You didn’t know you couldn’t swim in the penguin tank.

This provides an easy resolution so that the underpaid security guard can go back to playing Candy Crush on his iPhone. Nine out of ten times, they’ll give you a verbal threat and send you on your merry way. It’s only in rare instances that things get heated and more advanced stratagems are required…

PRO TIP: If you’re using an expired pass and can’t chalk the date, be prepared when you’re asked to present it. A useful trick I’ve found is to stuff your pockets with handfuls of brochures, receipts, tissues, and other clutter. When the guard asks to see your pass or ticket, proceed to waste several minutes of their time fumbling through the contents of your pockets while apologizing scrupulously. If you waste enough of their time before finding it, they’ll often give it an inpatient, nano-second glance, before waving you out of their sight.

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Oh no! The power-tripping security guard has something to prove! The sign clearly warned you ‘No Walking on the Grass,’ and now you shall pay with blood.

At this point the most sensible plan of action is to make up an excuse or politely reason with the gentleman like an adult.

These are both rookie mistakes.

Instead you must sink into deeper, impossible depths of stupidity.

Start by turning the language barrier into a suit of armor. Most people get anxious when they can’t communicate with others, so be sure to clobber them over the head with your native tongue as you feign total incomprehension. Be chatty; smile like you’re good friends. As they belligerently point at the grass and yell in Mandarin, nod in agreement and mention how lawns are an excellent place for signs.

They’ll usually get overwhelmed and walk away. If not, abruptly thank them for their time before walking away yourself. While this can seriously backfire, most employees aren’t paid enough to chase you. Trust your judgment.

If the guard is REALLY, REALLY angry, a more reliable tactic is to pretend you actually have a crippling mental handicap. Give yourself a subtle tic. Whenever they speak, start blinking rapidly, or softly mutter to yourself, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” before jamming your fingers into your ears and letting out a sharp whistle. At the very least, this will make them uncomfortable.

True thespians can replicate speech patterns and finger movements by re-watching movies like “I Am Sam,” “Rainman,” or anything with Adam Sandler.

Don’t worry if your performance sucks. Nobody will ever call you out, because in the unlikely event that you actually have a disability, they would look like the most horrible person ever.

But they won’t suspect anything in the first place. Because, I mean, what kind of awful person would pretend to be handicapped in front of strangers?


For more tips and tricks to the art of budget travel, click the Backpackology 101 tab at the top of this page, or just look elsewhere as clearly I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

To see the Dumb Tourist Card in action, head to the secret city of Long Chen in “Detained in Laos: Lost Tribes of the CIA’s Secret War”

Or laugh at me getting arrested in “Detained in Bahawalpur”

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Steve McDonald

Writer and photographer. Adventurer and didactic prick. Guru of globetrotting, sensei of savings. PhD in ADHD. Staunch opponent of the mundane. Avid fan of sunrises, playing with fire, and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Casual existentialist. Bus stop gypsy. Dirty jeans, plastic sunglasses, whimsical death wish. Rudyard Kipling on mushrooms. Smells of goat.