Stay Safe While Traveling in Asia
Let’s talk about safety. Now, I am an incredibly anxious person, from a long line of very anxious people. That means that I am not only afraid of most situations, but I also have my family calling and emailing me while I’m abroad reminding me of other things to worry about.
When I went to Singapore I was made very aware of every possible law I could break and how I could be excessively punished for doing so. Traveling to Guatemala brought up new worries of kidnappings, muggings, and disease. Vietnam elicited a call from the older generation in my family about how there is probably still anger towards the US. But here’s the thing. As I sit here writing this, I’ve traveled to 13 countries and have found that people are generally the same and mostly kind.
Mr. X and I did our month-long trip to Asia together, but in each location, I had days where I was touring and using public transportation by myself. So far my Asia experience covers, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, but we went from the packed metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City to the relaxed Kata Beach in Phuket, and the smaller city of George Town Penang. So we had a bit of everything while we were there, and while your experience may vary I found most people we encountered to be very nice and welcoming.
How to Avoid Pickpockets in Asia
Before my first trip, I was convinced I was going to be a prime target for pickpockets. I knew I’d be wandering around with a look of wonder on my face. I knew how girl pants are designed to leave 60% of your phone exposed, and I also knew how easy it is for a potential thief to open a backpack while it is on your back. So I bought an anti-theft bag, meaning it is made from this strong canvas that can’t be cut with a knife and has safety clasps on the zippers, which is definitely overkill–nobody has ever tried to slash the bag off my shoulder. Although if they did, and their plan was foiled thanks to my anti-theft bag, I would be singing a different tune.
The bag actually turned out to be a great bag for day travel. It has a ton of compartments, fits a snack, a small water bottle, my wallet, phone, hand sanitizer and kleenex, which have become my daily travel essentials. And the best part is, every single compartment zips, so even if you’re packed in like a sardine on a small city bus, your things are safe.
My general advice for avoiding being the target of a pickpocket in Asia is the same as I would tell someone going to any big city.
- Don’t flash your money. Keep it organized with the smallest bills on the outside, and only pull out what you need. And don’t pull it out until you’ve agreed on the price of whatever you’re going to buy.
- Keep your stuff in your bag and your bag to the side/front. If you’re not a person who brings a bag, keep your stuff in your front pockets. It is way easier to pick a phone or wallet out of a back pocket in a crowd, especially if it is sticking out part way (looking at you again, girl pants).
- Don’t make yourself a target. By this I mean, don’t draw attention to yourself by being too drunk or too boisterous or too aggressive. When you are the guest in somebody else’s country, I always say do your best to blend in and to keep your eyes open.
- Understand the bill denominations. If you’re switching countries frequently it can be confusing always remembering which bill is worth what. But make sure you’re getting the correct change by knowing what you’re handing the person.
Safety tips for Public Transportation in Asia
Public transportation can be scary in any part of the world. Luckily, Uber and other ridesharing services like Grab and MyTaxi are changing the game. Having an app that shares my location, has a profile on the Driver, and the predetermined price has always made me feel safer, especially when I do any solo travel. And in southeast Asia, the price of these services is very affordable (okay, downright cheap). But some general tips for transportation:
- Act like you know where you are going. If you don’t, ask an employee or someone near a large group of people. Generally, the worst thing you can do anywhere is walk around looking scared and confused, so do your best to avoid that.
- Have google translate accessible on your phone so you can communicate with employees at metro stations or fellow bus riders if they don’t speak English. This also means knowing the local name of the place you are trying to get to.
- Google how the bus/trains/cabs work beforehand. Sometimes you need to buy your tickets at a stand, sometimes you need exact change. It’s good to know what to expect so you can get there successfully.
- If you take a wrong turn or get off at the wrong stop, don’t panic. Pause somewhere and look at your phone/map. Read the signs on the streets around you, and remember that you can always just go back the way you came. Use this technique to de-stress. It’s proven and it works.
- If you take a taxi, always, always negotiate the price beforehand or make sure the driver is using the meter. Do not take the cab if the driver won’t use the meter.
Motorbiking Through Asia
Motorbikes had to be their own category. We drove one through Thailand but were too intimidated by the madness of Ho Chi Minh City to brave its streets. So when you rent a motorbike in Asia, you’re not going to be given any gear, but a reputable shop should provide you with a helmet. Wear it!
- Make sure you know how to drive it. Extra points if you have an international driver’s license or a motorcycle endorsement on your license (seriously, this got us out of a ticket and a huge hassle because Mr. X happens to be an expert at a surprising amount of things including riding a motorbike). There are a whole bunch of people on motorbikes on the road, and the last thing everybody needs is some tourist toppling everybody over because they thought they knew how to drive it.
- Remember which side of the road you’re supposed to be driving on. Actually not joking here, and if you have a copilot tell them the same thing. Check each other constantly that you’re going the right way.
- Wear your damn helmet! It’s hot and it’s not cute, but cracking your head open is way worse.
Personal Safety in Asia
Traveling as a solo female, I don’t like to be told I can’t go somewhere or that I shouldn’t go out at night. So, I have perfected the resting angry face, and my don’t mess with me walk. That being said, I don’t often feel unsafe when I’m traveling. But here are my tips to ensure that I don’t.
- Walk like you know where you’re going and you can’t be stopped. People sense tourist, especially if you are a different race than the predominant one in the country you’re visiting. Pretend like you live there and can’t be stopped by people hawking goods or asking for money. It’s harsh, but you need to perfect the “no thank you” and keep walking.
- Don’t stand out. This means, if you’re in a conservative country, keep your dress conservative. Don’t be drunk and stumbling down the street, especially if you are traveling solo.
- If you are scared, being harassed, or sense that you are being followed, get into the most crowded and well lit space you can–grocery stores, restaurants, subway station, anywhere where there are a lot of people.
- If you have cell phone data you can share your location using Google Maps with either your fellow travelers or someone you trust back home. Do not do what Sarah did in Italy! She had a travel safety fail. Read her story about that here. If not, organize check-ins so somebody knows where you are and expects to hear from you.
Another reminder that this is the list of someone who worries about everything. Most likely you will not feel afraid at all, or will only encounter a few moments of worry. But my stand by is to be confident, and over research before it happens. Asia is beautiful and be sure to check out some more of our articles for other bits of info you may need.