Staying safe in Southeast Asia

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First published 14th April, 2013

For many it is a trip of a lifetime -- a month or more backpacking through the tropics of Southeast Asia. For an unlucky few however, the trip goes sideways and they end up having a trip of a lifetime for all the wrong reasons. While Southeast Asia remains overall a safe destination to travel in, here are some simple ways to minimise your chances of having problems and that should (hopefully) help you get the most out of your trip.


Motorbike madness

Motorbikes are arguably the number one way travellers manage to injure or kill themselves, but with some simple precautions, you can minimise your risk. Firstly, wear a helmet -- the roads in Southeast Asia are just as hard as the ones in your home country and wearing a helmet will help to keep your head in one piece should you have an accident. Also, dress sensibly. We're not suggesting full leathers here, but something more than a bikini or a pair of shorts for starters. Closed shoes are better than sandals which are better than flip flops which are better than nothing. Ideally already know how to ride a motorbike and if you want your travel insurance to be valid, have a license. Do you often drive unlicensed in your home country?

It's called a helmet. You should try one one day.
It's called a helmet. You should use one.

Mosquitoes

Yes we know, they're bastards. While everyone, including your travel doctor, will tell you it is all about malaria, it isn't. It is all about dengue fever. In most of Southeast Asia, you are far more likely to contract dengue fever than malaria. Both are carried by mosquitoes but there are only pills and potions to prevent and treat malaria, meaning you will still need to protect yourself from mozzies to dodge dengue. Dress sensibly, use repellant, burn mosquito coils and use a mosquito net if one is supplied (even though dengue is spread by daytime biting mosquitoes, we've read of concerns they could now also bite at night in some areas). Don't sleep naked in a swamp.

Rabid animals

Rabies remains a problem in some parts of Southeast Asia. The best way to avoid rabies is to keep your distance from common carriers such as monkeys, dogs and people foaming at the mouth. It is possible to get preventative shots but unless you're planning on having contact with animals or are travelling to a particular area that is known for rabies, this may be an unnecessary expense. My family and I had the shots a couple of years ago in the middle of a rabies outbreak in Bali, Indonesia, but we'd lived for over a decade previously in Asia without them (without coming into contact with animals regularly).

Watch out for geese.
Watch out for geese.

Use government buses

Theft on privately run buses, particularly in Thailand, is endemic. We can't emphasise this enough. If you decide to catch a private bus at night from Bangkok to say Chiang Mai or the southern islands and you stow valuables in the luggage compartment below, please just send them to us as you obviously do not want them. Use the government buses and never stow valuables in your stowed luggage.

Night trains not night buses

Bus accidents happen with disturbing frequency in Thailand. Where possible avoid bus travel at night and catch the train instead. We realise this isn't always possible as there may not be an alternative, but in those cases consider catching long distance buses during the day. Buses do not have seatbelts and despite having an assistant to prod them when they fall asleep, accidents related to drivers falling asleep remain an avoidable risk.

Yes to miniature steam trains, no to night buses.
Yes to miniature steam trains, no to night buses.

Watch your stuff

In the big cities and especially during festivals when the streets are packed, pickpockets can have a field day. While the easiest response is not to take valuables out with you (does your room have a safe? use it) sometimes you need to have valuables with you. Use a moneybelt or a button down pocket. Don't drink 600 beers and expect to get home with all your valuables -- opportunistic thieves abound.

Snatch and grab

An annoying and quite dangerous derivative of pickpockets are snatch and grabs. This is where the thief (generally on a motorbike) will zoom past and grab the bag, camera, iPhone off your shoulder or out of your hand. If this happens to you, do not try and hang onto the bag. While you may think you'll pull the motorcyclist off their bike, you won't -- you'll be dragged down the road and end up badly injured or killed instead. Best protect yourself by carrying valuables on the offroad side of the footpath and by carrying a samurai sword.

Robbery: What not to do

Armed robbery in broad daylight in Southeast Asia is thankfully very rare, but robbery of rooms unfortunately is less so. If you wake up in your bungalow to find thieves rustling through your stuff, do not resist nor try to fight them. In many cases they have far more to lose than you (if they're caught by locals they may be beaten to within an inch of their life) and so may turn violent and in rare cases travellers have been killed when a robbery went bad. Our advice, unless totally unavoidable, is to avoid confrontation. In cases where you feel you have no choice and you feel they plan to physically do you harm, fight for your life or flee.

Smoke a peace pipe.
Smoke a peace pipe.

Robbery: How to avoid it

Don't flash your wealth. Don't head out on a boozy evening with thousands of dollars of electronic equipment. Stay in control. Lock your room at night when you're asleep and obviously lock it when you go out. Don't leave valuables in positions where they can be reached from the window.

Sexual assault

While rare in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand the number of reported cases of sexual assault appears to be growing. Single female travellers should be wary of others showing undue attention and stay in control. If a situation becomes uncomfortable, leave, preferably not alone. Don't put yourself in situations of extreme vulnerability -- walking home along at 3am along a deserted beach alone while heavily intoxicated, say. We're not saying you don't have the right to do this safely, which you most certainly do, but rather that you may be putting yourself in a more vulnerable position, whether talking about robbery or physical safety, by doing so. It's probably safer to party with a friend.

Getting high

Southeast Asia has some extremely harsh drug laws. The laws regarding entrapment which may apply in your home country may not in Southeast Asia. Just because the tuk tuk driver offers you a bag of weed doesn't mean it is legal nor that he won't give your room number to the police after dropping you off. Never travel with drugs. In Cambodia, especially Phnom Penh, heroin is often passed off as cocaine -- travellers die because of this. Don't work on the assumption you'll always be able to pay your way out.

What not to do 5 minutes after arriving.
What not to do 5 minutes after arriving.

Food & drink: Ease your way in

The food across Southeast Asia is fantastic and you'll be tempted to throw yourself straight into it. If you're new to the region, we'd suggest easing your way into it rather than having 15 chillies in your first som tam. This will give your digestive system time to adapt and make for a more pleasant trip -- both for you and your travelling companion.

Food & drink: Don't drink the water

Unless you're staying in a fancypants hotel, don't drink the tap water. Bottled water is available just about everywhere and free refills are becoming more common. The exception here is Singapore where the tap water is fine to drink.

Food & drink: Drink the water

Drink a couple of litres a day. If you're normally shovelling snow this time of year the heat in Southeast Asia may be a shock to the system. Drink a lot of water to keep on top of dehydration.

Use your common sense.
Use your common sense.

Read the newspaper

People may be saying they're dying, but newspapers (yes, or the internet) remain a great way of keeping on top of current events. If there has been a cholera outbreak in your next destination, it may be be mentioned in the paper. Read the news -- international and local -- and plan accordingly.

Travel insured

Make sure you have comprehensive insurance cover for when you travel. Sometimes this comes with a credit card or your standard health insurance provider, but other times you are well advised to buy travel insurance. We recommend World Nomads -- they are who we use every single time we travel.

Don't freak out

Despite all of the above, Southeast Asia remains a very safe region to travel in. Pack your brain and use your common sense and you'll be a long way down the road to having a good trip. Also, worth noting, don't assume that every local is out to scam, rob or attack you. They're not. The vast, vast majority of locals are one of the greatest reasons of all for travelling to the region.

Safe travels.


About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


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