Backpacking Southeast Asia, Part Two: How To Travel Safe Without Regrets
Text by Rebecca Bowslaugh
Photos by Rebecca Bowslaugh and Stephanie Hiltz
Fun first, safety second! This is exactly the kind of advice I don’t like to give— however, it is the way I like to travel.
Prioritizing fun over safety is bound to create problems if you do it all the time (i.e. an untimely death), but throwing caution to the wind when the mood strikes is definitely a good way to travel (i.e. the best time ever).
As a woman, I am constantly being told not to do things.
Don’t walk alone at night, don’t hitchhike, don’t talk to strangers, don’t travel alone. I have to admit that sometimes fear gets the better of me, but I am always fighting it. When I did my first solo travel in Thailand, I was 26 and old enough to know that danger is not lurking around every single corner.
One year earlier I had moved to South Korea all by myself and lived alone in a country across the world from home, and it was the most fun I’d ever had. It was important for me to know that I was brave enough and strong enough to travel alone and actually enjoy myself. I am from a big family, so independence is something I’ve worked hard on since childhood.
After doing a little research, I learned three important things about backpacking in Southeast Asia: First, it’s relatively safe for female travellers, whether in groups or flying solo; second, the rules and laws aren’t the same as at home, which creates something of a “Wild West” vibe for Westerners; and three, it’s easy! As I mentioned in part one of my series.
The most difficult aspect of travel safety is knowing when to listen to the warnings.
In my experience, when a guidebook says to watch out for pickpockets, that just means you should be alert when you’re in high traffic areas. You don’t always need to wear your backpack on the front, or tape your passport to the inside of your underwear. Just be aware of your belongings and surroundings and you should be fine.
If only I could go back in time and tell the teacher who was leading our tour during a high school trip to Paris that there is absolutely no reason to yell “EVERYBODY OFF THE TRAIN!” when you see suspicious characters near you on the subway.
However, I would also like to go back in time to tell Past-Rebecca that she should have listened to the guidebook’s warnings about In the Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos. Back in 2011, there were many words to describe In the Tubing, including fun, wild, chaotic and party. But at the other end of the spectrum were words such as blackout, booze, drugs and dangerous. Luckily, I only lost a day instead of my whole life. I don’t necessarily regret the experience I had—more so the choices that I made.
Luckily, staying safe in Southeast Asia was pretty easy.
At times there is conflict, such as recent events in Bangkok (and less recent events when I was first there), but a quick online search will give you enough details to make an informed choice about whether or not you should put off going there, or leave early, or avoid that country altogether. Ask yourself the following questions: 1. Am I willing to put myself in danger? 2. Is this my only chance to see this country? 3. Are other travellers still heading in that direction? 4. Is it absolutely vital that I go right this minute? 5. Do I have life (never mind travel) insurance? If the answer to any of the above is “No” then you should probably stick to the well-lit areas and calm tourist hotspots.
In case you’re still feeling worried, here is a helpful list of safety tips I learned from mistakes I made during my backpacking days. And lucky for you, I am more than willing to share my embarrassing moments.
- Keep track of all your belongings (making a list helps). There is nothing worse than getting to the airport and realizing your passport is still in your beachside bungalow.
- Don’t get off the train, even for a second, when your belongings are still on it. The train WILL leave. This happened to some friends of mine (you know who you are).
- Spread your money out, don’t keep it all in one side pocket. Put a little in the bottom of your backpack. Put some in the toe of your hiking boot. Tuck a few inside the clothes you’re wearing. Just in case you become separated from your bag.
- Always notify your bank when you’re travelling outside your home country. Also, if you change your banking passwords before you leave, don’t forget your new pin. Otherwise, you’ll spend your first few days in Bangkok trying to get the bank (and your mom) to send you a new pin because you are locked out of your account and starting to feel really hungry.
- Make sure somebody always knows where you are. Whether they are your travel mates or your family at home. Loved ones panic way too easily.
- Don’t play with stray animals. They might be adorable little kitties and puppies, but the rash you get won’t be so cute. We joke about #deathbycuteness, but rabies will actually kill you.
- If you’re not sure, don’t eat it. Otherwise, you’ll spend your entire time in Kuala Lumpur on your friend’s couch after vacating your entire insides into their toilet.
- Make sure you understand the road (and bike lane) rules. Especially if it’s late at night and you’re making a right-hand turn and a motorbike decides to crash into you. If you know the rules, you can win the screaming fight that will ensue.
- Do your research! If you are going on any tours, make sure the guide company is certified or at least well-regarded for whatever it is that they do. I don’t have any “or else” for this because I do my research. *Pats self on back*
- Get travel insurance. In life, things always go wrong, so you just have to plan for it. And you never know when the fire limbo stick is going to fall on your neck.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t step outside your comfort zone—you absolutely should. Right now in fact! Travel is about having experiences outside your daily life back home. Use backpacking as a chance to push your limits, face your fears, make mistakes (and learn from them), have no regrets and really find out what kind of person you are (or become the person you want to be).
When I moved across the world, I wanted to do all those things. I wanted to try everything once, and I did my very best to get the most from my adventures.
Find out how I was able to backpack Southeast Asia with no regrets next week in Part Three: My First Time Trying Everything Once
Rebecca just moved home after six years of wandering (mostly) aimlessly around the world. After visiting 24 countries and living on three continents, she decided it was high time to get down to work. When she’s not on an airplane, Rebecca can be found eating homemade chocolate snacks directly from the freezer, building lampshades out of recycled cardboard, or trying to read and walk simultaneously. She is also a self-proclaimed chip connoisseur and is happy to be home (at least for a few minutes) in the land of many flavours. Twitter: @BeckBeforeDawn
Click Next to read Part 3 of Backpacking Southeast Asia