Southeast Asia is generally a safe place for travellers, but you still need to keep your wits about you to avoid scams and other problems on the road.
- The most serious risk to travellers is from traffic accidents; take care if you rent a vehicle.
- Theft is typically opportunistic; keep your belongings secure and your valuables out of sight.
- Political violence is a risk across the region; monitor the local news and avoid political rallies and demonstrations.
- Southeast Asia is prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, severe storms and other environmental hazards; follow local advice in the event of a disaster.
Violent assaults in Southeast Asia are not common, but attacks on foreigners generate media attention and corresponding anxiety. Travellers should exercise basic street smarts: avoid quiet areas at night, avoid excessive drinking and avoid getting into angry arguments with locals.
Police enforcement of local laws and investigations into crimes are often inadequate, and police have been known to collude with criminals, so don't assume that a country's general friendliness equates to a crime-free zone.
Avoid confrontations with locals, especially when alcohol is involved. What might seem like harmless verbal sparring to you might provoke disproportionately violent acts of retribution thanks to the complicated concept of 'saving face'.
Special caution should be exercised at big parties like Thailand's Full Moon raves, where criminal gangs with political connections take advantage of intoxicated revellers. Other party places such as Manila, Sihanoukville and Bali also have seedy underbellies that should be avoided.
Drugs such as marijuana, MDMA and heroin are widely available in Southeast Asia, but these are illegal, even if the authorities appear on the surface to turn a blind eye. The penalties for possession are severe: large numbers of foreigners are languishing in local prisons for petty drug offenses, and the penalty for trafficking is typically death. Fake or impure drugs are another risk – there have been deaths from dangerous cocktails sold as less harmful intoxicants.
Traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, and motorcycles riders are among the most vulnerable road users, in part because of poorly enforced helmet laws, reckless driving, poor road conditions and inadequate emergency health care. The World Health Organization (WHO) has begun a region-wide campaign trying to reduce these accidental deaths.
Foreigners who rent motorbikes in the region expose themselves to greater risk because they lack experience of local driving conditions, and many tourists are injured in motorcycle accidents every year, particularly in Thailand and Indonesia.
If you accept the risks, be sure to take the following precautions:
- Always wear a helmet and appropriate clothing (long pants and long shirts, and shoes rather than flip-flops/thongs).
- Drive carefully and defensively; beware of oncoming vehicles in the middle of the road.
- Yield to bigger vehicles; 'might is right' here.
- Slow down in rainy conditions, and watch for loose gravel, potholes and debris on the road.
- Remember to retract your stand before riding off; a stand left in the down position can tip the bike over when turning.
- Get into the habit of climbing off a moto to your left, stepping clear of the scorching hot exhaust pipe.
Political unrest is common in Southeast Asia, so keep an eye on local news reports and avoid political demonstrations, no matter how benign or celebratory they may appear. Mass rallies can quickly turn into violent clashes with rival factions or the military.
That said, unrest is normally localised, and a rally in one corner of a city does not mean that the whole country, or even the whole city, is off limits. Your home country's embassy will issue the safest possible travel warnings, which should be balanced with coverage in the local press in order to gauge the actual political temperature.
Areas experiencing low-scale independence wars exist in parts of eastern and northwestern Myanmar, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. In the event of serious unrest, the safest thing to do is leave the country (by any route still open) until things calm down.
Every year we get emails from travellers reporting that they’ve been scammed in Southeast Asia. In most cases the scams are petty rip-offs, in which a naive traveller is tricked into paying too much for a ride to the bus station or a hotel room, short-changed while changing money, or conned into buying overpriced souvenirs.
Many scams exploit the gullibility of travellers. Any deal that sounds too good to be true, normally is. This applies to everything from gems that you can supposedly 'sell at a profit back home' to transport deals that seem unfeasibly cheap, and usually involve a trip to a commission-paying hotel or souvenir shop.
Rip-offs are in full force at border crossings, popular tourist attractions, bus and rail stations and anywhere else where newly arrived travellers might be an easy target for con artists.
Here are some tips for avoiding common scams:
- Be politely suspicious of over-friendly locals; these individuals are often touts.
- Avoid super-cheap, inclusive transport packages, which often include extra commission-generating fees.
- Don’t accept invitations to play cards or go shopping with a friendly stranger; this is a prelude to a well-rehearsed scam to strip you of your cash.
- Understand that commissions are common business practices in the region and are levied whenever a third party is involved in a transaction.
Theft in Southeast Asia is usually by stealth rather than by force – bag and camera snatching and theft from backpacks being the most common forms. Violent theft is rare but it can occur late at night and often after the victim has been drinking. Travel in groups after a night of carousing, to ensure safety in numbers, and be wary of groups of friendly seeming locals gathering round if you have been drinking. Women should be especially careful about returning home late at night from a bar.
Clandestine theft is a concern, especially on overnight buses, in communal dorms or in lodgings with inadequate locks. In Malaysia, petty thieves have been known to check into a guesthouse and then rob the other guests in the middle of the night.
Bag snatching is an increasing problem, especially in Vietnam and Cambodia. Typically, thieves aboard a motorcycle pull up alongside a tourist just long enough to grab a bag, phone or camera, and then speed away. This can happen when you are walking along the street or riding in a vehicle like a moto or túk-túk.
Here are some tips for keeping your possessions safe:
- Keep your money and valuables in a money belt (worn underneath your clothes).
- Don't carry valuables in a bag that can easily be grabbed and don't carry your camera by its strap.
- Place your bag in between you and the driver when riding on a motorcycle or between your legs when riding in a túk-túk to deter bag snatchers.
- Don’t store valuables in easily accessible places such as backpack pockets or packs that are stored in the luggage compartment of buses.
- Don’t put valuables in the baskets of a motorcycle or bicycle, where they are easy pickings for bag snatchers.
- Be especially careful about your belongings when sleeping in dorms.
Unexploded Ordnance & Landmines
The legacy of war lingers on in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Laos suffers the fate of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world, while all three countries were on the receiving end of more bombs than were dropped by all sides during WWII.
There are still many undetonated bombs and explosives out there, so be careful walking off the trail in areas near the Laos/Vietnam border or around the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Cambodia suffers the additional affliction of landmines, some four to six million of them according to surveys. It pays to stick to marked paths anywhere in Cambodia.
Government Travel Advice
Government advisories are often so general that they seem intended to provide bureaucratic cover for the government should trouble occur. However, the following sites have useful tips:
- Australia (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- Canada (http://travel.gc.ca)
- New Zealand (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- US (https://travel.state.gov)