Travel Safety: Southeast Asia

By Alan Stremel and Bryan Rite

So you're planning your backpacking trip / grad trip / one month getaway of a lifetime? Heading out to Southeast Asia? Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos... Nice. You just might be going to meet new people, for excitement, or beaches and parties but remember, nothing ruins a good time like unknowingly committing the most offensive faux pas, or even getting thrown in jail. Sure, part of being young is a few youthful indiscretions and a bit of trouble, but different cultures have different rules and you don't want to be surprised.

I'm definitely not suggesting bringing your knitting supplies, staying on the beaten path and turning down every opportunity that comes your way - I just don't want your next vacations/travels to turn into a remake of "Brokedown Palace" or "Return to Paradise".

Here are some things to note before heading out. Some of them are common sense, but everybody needs reminders.

Not the welcome committee you were hoping for.

Be Careful near Airports

Zero tolerance means JUST that. When you're in an airport, regardless of where you are, watch your gear. Don't hold anything for anyone or leave your bag unattended. If the authorities bust you with even a bag of marijuana tucked into a pocket in your daypack, they just might not believe that someone slipped it into your bag because they were scared of getting caught themselves.

As in most places, airports and borders have tight security. Drugs are a big problem in most of Southeast Asia and the governments takes very strong positions on smugglers. Life in prison is not uncommon, neither is execution in extreme cases. Be on your toes as drugs are a lucrative business! In a time where we can't bring hair gel on a plane, I hopefully don't need to remind you not have anything dangerous on your person.

Here are some tips for optimal luggage safety:

  • Nothing is dorkier than little locks and little keys - but it will keep you a little safer. They won't stop anyone determined, but if your bag looks like a challenge to get into, it'll get passed over in favor of someone else's.
  • Slam your bag into a plastic bag and tape it up. Sure it'll be a total pain to open it yourself after the flight - but no one's getting through that without you noticing.
  • Carry your carry on. Simple? Not for some people. Don't leave it on the floor, by the payphone, on the seat next to you while you doze, or in the hands of some random dude. You can’t travel like EVERYONE is out to get you, but you have to travel like someone MAY be out to get you.

As long as they're fresh...

Just Say No

Drugs in the airport? No way. In other parts of the country? You're going to see them. If you're going to indulge, not that I'm suggesting it, try and be as safe as possible. There are going to be people smoking joints on the beach, pills at parties, and mushroom milkshakes in the woods. Like I said before, penalties are severe for drugs in Asia. Even small amounts of "soft" drugs equal serious jail time if busted. Arguably worse than the death penalty, is winding up in a jail. Conditions are bad, and many things that we would consider necessities aren't provided. Make sure to pack a tooth brush...and sheets, and pillows.

At the very least, you're looking at deportation AND finding yourself on an immigration blacklist. That means you can never get back in.

Knowledge is Power

Nothing is worse then an ignorant tourist. You don't like them much in your city and everyone else feels the same way. Make sure you spend some time and learn about the places you are going. Some countries have very different attitudes towards things you may take for granted. You could be missing out on the very things that make Southeast Asia unique, enduring, and exotic. You could be offending everyone around you.

Things as simple as touching a child on the head, or doodling on some Baht (Thai currency) are big no-nos. Plus, understanding the culture and customs of your travel destinations will make you appreciated and love them even more.


Undercover police are quite prevalent as with most countries, unfortunately so are crooked cops. Both of which you should watch out for. When there are so many fun things to do, just stick to the legal ones. That way you're not going to wind up in any terrible positions. Everyone has heard stories of being able to bribe yourself out of trouble, but bribing an honest cop can open quite the can of worms. Just don't put yourself in the situation.


Other than at a few major race tracks, betting of any kind is very illegal in most of Southeast Asia. Just like everything else, you're looking at jail or deportation. I guess you didn't bet on that...lame. Anything from bungalow poker to sports betting is technically illegal over there. If you have to, keep the money in a hat or something, don't leave it out while everybody is screaming and throwing cards. Its harmless fun sure, but when in Rome...

This is a nice photo

Over-staying Your Welcome

When you get a travel visa, look at the expiration date. Just like milk, you don't want your visa to go bad. Different countries have different restrictions dealing with visas. In Thailand, all you need to do is leave the country for one day and walk back in for another 30 day stay - well worth the trip, whereas in Cambodia or Vietnam, you need to purchase visas ahead of time.

Along similar lines, if you've got a traveling visa and you're doing a little work to make ends meet, make sure it's VERY under the table. Instead of working for money, maybe make a business deal to arrange lower rent, food, or free beer. It'll keep you way under the radar.

Keep it safe out there Footstoppers. Have fun, be crazy, and really experience other countries. Just know what you're getting into before you head out.

By Alan Stremel and Bryan Rite

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