With the exception of Singapore, safety standards in Southeast Asia may be lower than what you’re used to in the developed world. Here are some of the main things to watch out for.
Personal responsibility carries a lot more weight in Southeast Asia. It is often up to you to see the hole in the footpath, to not ride or drive drunk, and to only engage in activities that are safe.
Always expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised when other drivers (and pedestrians) do something totally out of the blue. Cars may not have seat belts (so can’t be used to strap in car seats) and you may need to ask for a motorbike helmet rather than automatically being offered one. Drunk and otherwise impaired driving is common, so do take care, especially in the late and early hours.
Always look behind you before opening a car door, as motorbikes often scoot up between stationary cars. This is especially important when getting out of a taxi. Always look behind you before opening a car door—it’s worth repeating. It needs to be a habit.
Roads often have no shoulder, so cyclists in particular need to be doubly aware. Practically, right of way is determined by size more than anything else; trucks then buses, then cars, then motorbikes, then bicycles, then pedestrians. Local drivers will expect you to yield if you are in a smaller vehicle; not doing so can be dangerous.
Road markings are often inconsistent and signage random or nonsensical. One-way signs often mean nothing; on the other hand, some roads may be mostly one-way but there will be no sign indicating this.
Don’t assume your driver has undergone a driving test to get their license. If they fall asleep at the wheel, get out (after you’ve woken them and asked them to stop, naturally).
The smaller your ferry or boat is, the less likely it will have life jackets. The larger it is, the less likely it will have enough life jackets. Overloading of ferries is common.
Speedboats, especially those operating between Bali and the Gili Islands, and to anywhere from Phuket, should be used judiciously. Often overloaded, the large amounts of fuel on these combined with less than ideal fuel handling and lackadaisical attitudes by crew make for explosive situations. Speedboats in high seas should be avoided. If the crew are drunk or stoned, need it be said, wait for the next boat.
When snorkelling, especially in Thailand, be aware of your surroundings and in particular keep an eye out for passing boats that may not be able to see you—a gesture or wave to check they have seen you is wise. Snorkelling areas are rarely netted off so you are sharing the waters with more people than you may be used to.
Watch out for yourself, especially your eyes and head, when walking around. Random pieces of wood, metal bars, formwork, low ceilings and so on are often ideally positioned to take your eye out. Never assume anything has been built with much more than a token thought given to pedestrian safety.
In particular, watch where you are walking. Manhole covers are removed with no guards erected and random holes big enough to swallow a grown adult can be in the middle of the footpath. Falling down these holes can kill you.
In heavy traffic, motorbikes will use the footpaths to get around traffic jams. Always look to the left and right before walking onto the footpath—essentially treat the footpath as an extension of the road.
Airport security practices may applied in a haphazard fashion, especially at second tier airports. Don’t be surprised when other passengers ignore instructions to remain in their seats.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.