Safety and Security

When heading off to strange lands it is sensible to give some thought to keeping safe and retaining your cash and belongings. No-one wants to fall foul of the latest scam, have the misfortune to be the victim of a mugging or a pickpocket, or find themselves involved in an accident while attempting to travel from A to B.

However, you would do well to remember that you may experience any of these events on your way to work in your home town.  People are mugged on the London Underground/on high streets every day, taxi drivers have been known to take you on a rather circuitous route to inflate the fare and, tragically, traffic accidents are hardly rare on home soil. There are no guarantees anywhere.

While travelling along an unmade road in Cambodia in a bus bursting at the seams with people, animals and cargo of all kinds might be increasing the risk factor somewhat, we all take calculated risks every day and, frankly, risk cannot be reduced to zero.  It is just not possible.

Do not expect similar standards to those we have become accustomed to in the west as you will likely be disappointed.  Do not expect to live like a king for a fraction of the cost at home – if you want cheap you must be expected to make some compromises along the way.  Things are cheaper for a reason.

Scams are usually easy to spot but sometimes difficult to avoid (as we found out at Beijing Railway Station) and often not worth getting upset about when you calculate the actual cost to you.  It is however irritating and you hear stories of people being duped out of hundreds of pounds /dollars when closer scrutiny of those tales usually reveals an incredible level of stupidity on the part of the person scammed.  Most scams involve relatively paltry sums and it is worth stopping to think of the real costs involved (advice that I would do well to take on board myself on occasion!).

Personal safety on a day basis can be managed with a few sensible precautions: being aware of your surroundings, and remaining alert and aware to any potential dangers.  All this is possible without becoming paranoid and it can become all too easy to see danger around every corner so balance is required.   Women need to be aware of different dangers but conversely can also benefit more than men from the kindness of strangers.

And as for national security and the so-called increased global terrorism threat, airport and railway security, particularly in Asia, appears to be more visible and more efficient that we are led to believe back home.  In China, for instance, you cannot enter a railway station without showing your passport or (if you are local) your national ID card.  You must then pass through security body scanners, then arms up and legs apart while you are given the once over with the wand, and all your luggage (including any lunch) is sent through luggage scanners.  These measures are in place at every station across the country.  With half the country appearing to be on the move at any given time, and railway stations teeming with travellers inside and out at all hours of the day and night, the queues are surprisingly ordered and fast moving.  The Chinese authorities, if nothing else, excel at crowd control.  And while there have been events in China, there have been events all over the world, and the advice is to simply carry on as normal (just be careful.

That is not to say that we have witnessed so-called lapses in security procedures.  In Indonesia, we have seen people slip through passport control without having to produce identity documents, or march through baggage control without having their luggage searched.  There has never been anything particularly ominous about these fairly isolated events.  Rather it was refreshing to see minor breaches of security treated with common sense.

In terms of personal safety and security there are a few simple precautions you can take.  These are our 7 rules of the road which we think help put us in the “too hard basket” for potential troublemakers, or precautions we take to minimise our risk to within reasonable levels.

  1. Appearance

Look poor.  Or as the Wooky says, look like you’ve been sleeping on the streets for 6 months and need a good scrub and it is almost guaranteed that no-one will consider you are worth stealing from.   The problem with that tactic is that most people will give you a wide berth and it might be difficult to make friends.

You don’t quite have to go to such extremes as that and we both enjoy a shower almost every day however we didn’t look that clean on the road, we were invariably scruffy and our respective hair always looks a bit mad.

To top it all, the Wooky looks like he just might tip over the edge into insanity at any moment and, according to him, I apparently look like I might start shrieking randomly and uncontrollably for no apparent reason.

But in all seriousness, just dress casually where you can, avoid shiny new luggage, designer clobber or flash gadgets.   If you look rich, it is likely an opportunist will believe you might be easy pickings.

  1. The value of your belongings on the road

Try and limit the value of the luggage you are carting around with you although arguably that is difficult in this day and age with all the technology that we are used to having at our fingertips.  We opt for small inexpensive laptops rather than the latest iPad or tablet because they look less flash and hopefully less covetable.  Otherwise we keep our phones/iPods/cameras safe and close.  The Wooky is in charge of the main small backpack so that when we are staying anywhere we can keep everything in one bag (and he can have the responsibility of maintaining possession of everything).  When we are on the move we both have our own bags but usually, if I can squeeze it into his, I will, as I know it will be safer

  1. Money and passports

We have lightweight security wallets on reinforced straps that we keep around our necks and under our clothes which contain our passports, bank cards and any money.  We found these to be particularly reassuring when travelling on the train in Russia as they are hidden from sight, sit flat against your body and if anyone was going to try to remove it in while you were sleeping you would know about it (so long as you were not in an alcohol induced coma).   Money, such as we had at any one time, was kept by the Wooky but if we had any significant amount, he would split it between his security wallet, his main wallet and put some of it somewhere in his backpack.  With bank cards we simply kept our cards separate so that if one of us was robbed, we could rely on the other’s cards.

  1. Research

Have a look online at your intended destination and try to find out what the general consensus is about safety.  Lonely Planet Thorn Tree is a good source, speak to fellow travellers on the road, and read up to date blogs and reviews on TripAdvisor (although watch out of those that expect any destination to be swept clean before they arrive – poverty and other related factors are no general guarantee of crime or inherent danger).  Recent experience and the present situation is what you need to know and armed with current information you can make up your own mind.

However, we would hasten to take too much notice of the official government warnings – the Sulawesi warning has not been updated since 1999 and you would think that you were entering an area as unstable as Syria.

Learn the local emergency numbers for the police and ambulance.  You should really find out the Embassy details for your country of origin but we never do.

  1. Precautions

Be sensible.  Dress appropriately and respect local culture and tradition.  You will still draw attention to yourself because you are foreign (unless you are what we call a stealth tourist).  But if you have blonde or red hair, or are 6”6” with wide, staring eyes and an hairstyle reminiscent of Einstein (i.e. the Wooky on a good day) and you are wandering the streets of a small Asian village off the beaten track, you will be stared at (and possibly stabbed with a very small knife by a very drunk woman but that is another story.  However, being stared at does not mean to say you are in any danger. If you catch someone’s eye, smile broadly and 9 times out of 10 you will be rewarded with a beaming smile in return (and maybe the offer of dinner with the family, or a completely inappropriate offer, depending whether or not you have managed to engage the local nutter, which we seem to do on a regular basis). However, if you think it is your God given right to mince down a high street in a predominantly Muslim city on Indonesian Borneo wearing only a bikini or budgie smugglers then you’re probably better off in Benidorm.

  1. Insurance

Seriously, take out insurance.  It’s not that much money and the peace of mind it provides not only to you, but probably more importantly to your family and friends, cannot be overstated.  And accidents do happen and money and passports are lost on a regular basis.  If you don’t have insurance one of these things will happen to you. If you do the laws of the universe will keep you safe because you will probably come home thinking insurance was a waste of time but what you must realise is that it was because you had insurance that you did not require it. That is how life and the universe work.

And while on the subject of health check what vaccinations are recommended for your destination(s) and if malaria is a problem then you should invest in antimalarial medication.

Oh and if you have your rabies shots, remember that if you are bitten by a rabid dog you do still need treatment.  The shots buy you time and mean the treatment is not so drastic but be aware of incorrect advice on the internet that you are vaccinated from rabies.  This is not true.

  1. Instinct

Learn to trust your instincts.  Or if like us, one of you is paranoid (me) and one of you is gung ho to the point of reckless negligence, find some middle ground.  We all have different approaches and balance is good.

Remember, the overwhelming majority of people are good and decent.  Mean and nasty people and opportunists are relatively few and far between.  Most people would rather help you, a visitor to their country, than rip you off.  Remember that locals working within the tourist industry are trying to earn a living.  More often than not they are likely to give you a fair price rather than risk a bad reputation, particularly in places where competition is fierce.  But try to understand that they do need to make enough to feed their family and if you are arguing the toss about a dollar, say, for a tour guide for the day because you have decided you are not paying a penny more than it said in the Lonely Planet then maybe you should go home and save a bit more money.

In short, show a little respect, keep your eyes peeled, your ears pricked and be aware of your surroundings.

Or take a Wooky with you.

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