In the last 9.5 months, I’ve stayed at village homes in the most unvisited parts of Cambodia, shared guesthouses with people I’ve just met after one to three days, shared hostel rooms with unlocked lockers, stayed at a traveler’s home after meeting in another country for two days and the only time I have ever had anything stolen from me and my friend is in my hometown in Vancouver, Canada. Twice. So is it safe to travel as a woman in Southeast Asia? I say yes. East Vancouver . . . depends on the time of day, haha.
Of course my family and friends are always concerned about my safety and I appreciate that. Sometimes, however, other people who have not traveled much fuel the irrational fears of our loved ones. I myself find when I don’t know anything about a place, I default to being a bit afraid and asking the same questions people ask me, “Is this area safe?”
In North America, we’re taught, “Don’t talk to strangers.” While this is good advice for children, there has to be a mentality shift as we get older and have better judgment. When you’re on a global exploration, it is much safer to talk to people, both local people and travelers, than keeping to yourself all the time. Most people are very open and the more connections you make, the more information you are armed with, the better and safer your experience will be.
I know it’s a scary concept to trust when traveling, but some level of trust is necessary to enhance your experience. And your intuition gets better the more you explore. I can usually tell in the first few minutes of meeting someone whom I can spend time with and who I’d prefer to avoid and say, “See ya!”
As much as I love adventure and new experience, I rarely take unmanageable risks like exploring new places alone at night or saying yes to go somewhere with someone where my intuition tells me not to. When I come to a new place, I take time to talk to people and scope out the area first.
While I was living in Siem Reap, I would return home no earlier than 10 p.m. almost every night and lived close to the city centre. Still, I take my basic precautions and don’t carry more money than I need for the night, my phone and my keys so I often don’t need to carry a small bag (which a thief can easily grab or pull people off their bicycles if it’s visible).
What is more dangerous than the constant fear that you will be harmed is the belief that most people in the world are bad and everyone is out to get you. It’s fascinating how much people shape their understanding of groups of people or entire countries with such small amounts of information. It’s like they are standing so close to a painting and only see the tiniest fraction of the whole picture. If they take the time to step back, go explore a bit farther, they will see the beauty and complexity of the bigger picture.
I’ve met many more honest people than dishonest people in the countries I’ve visited, particularly Cambodia. I have accidentally dropped some money in a very economically destitute villages and was surrounded by kids who played with us, and one of the kids picked up the money and gave it to my friend. I wouldn’t have even noticed if they took it and ran away.
One of my friends is a tour guide and he often helps tourists file reports and other administrative work if they lose their passport of encounter other problems. He is not a rich man by any means but he said, “I don’t like to accept tips if something bad already happened to the tourists. If they choose to give me a tip after a tour, that is ok.” I was really impressed. I told him, “It’s ok, if they offer it to you, it’s their way of showing appreciation and they can afford it.” And he replied, “I don’t feel comfortable accepting if something bad already happens to them.”
Between traveling in 10 countries in Europe, Cambodia, Laos,Thailand Indonesia and Taiwan, and the hundreds of interactions with people, the biggest problem I’ve had are annoying tourists. And to be honest, if someone does steal something from me, I understand the conditions in many places I’m visiting that would drive people to steal.
In the end, as much as it’s crappy to have something stolen from me, I can easily replace the stolen items, I have my health, my friends, job opportunities and family to go back to. Many of the places I’m visiting lack the most basic health care and live on salaries barely enough to survive. So if someone steals something from me once, well, then it’s just a small dot in the big picture.
From my experience so far, most people I’ve met around the world are incredibly generous with the highest levels of hospitality that I’ve ever experienced, and often much more open overall than many people in the West. 99.5% of the time, my experiences have been safe, memorable and eye-opening.
If you don’t believe me, go farther and see the big picture for yourself.