How to Avoid Getting Robbed in Southeast Asia

How to Avoid Getting Robbed in Southeast Asia

While most articles take the liberty of describing how to do something, I’ll focus here instead on how not to. In this case, how not to get robbed or pick-pocketed while inebriated in Southeast Asia. If you think that is too specific, then you probably haven’t spent enough time there.

From Bangkok to Siem Reap, there are heaps of rabble-rousing bars and liquor streets that cater to backpackers and foreign tourists. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time perusing these streets and thus claim a stitch of authority. The tripartite worlds of transportation, food, and drink usually coalesce around the hottest spots, which become breeding grounds for drunken phone-and-money fumbling; in other worlds, perfect haunts for thieves.

An average night can have you glancing at your reflection from the bottom of an ice-rimmed liquor bucket. If you’re like the multitudes, you’ll pepper in a beer and some Jack that tastes mysteriously like local booze before wandering towards the street food. Maybe it’ll also be time for a cab.

The usual

And then, before you know it, you’ll reach for your phone. While doing so, you’ll happen to glance a lady-boy of the night and her/his troupe skulking away in the darkness of a nearby alley. You fumble and curse, but your pocket is empty. Congratulations! You’ve been snatched.

When this happened to me (on Kao Son Road, the most famous of Bangkok’s bar streets), I made use of my loose tongue and fired off some unsavory Thai, making obscene demands that the thief show themselves and generally causing a scene.

Khao San in its glory

On the bright side, this was the most fluently I had ever spoken the language.

I was saved by a Thai girl and her brother who led me away to file a complaint. It was to assuage my attitude, mostly, because they would never find the culprit. This is the first point I’d like you to take away; If you’ve had your stuff taken, you’re unlikely to get it back, with or without official help.

There will be many times when you can wander away from a drinking bout topsy-turvy and be totally fine. That’s how most of my own nights out went, along with all the other travelers I met upon the way. But the loss of a phone or wallet (or heaven forbid, a passport) can ruin a trip, and once is all it takes.

The best thing you can do for yourself is avoid being drunk and alone at the same time (more so for solo female travelers).

Siem Reap is one of the few places I’ve travelled to totally solo, and it was a blast. There were friends to be made along the way, and I’d assembled a mob with whom I could approach ‘Pub Street’ (the name says all you need to know). When people in motion started appearing still and the rest of the scene began spinning, I knew it was time to go. The outer rim of the street is fraught with tuk-tuks, whose drivers are some of the most aggressive of any country’s.

Once people start looking like this you should probably leave

After being harangued about whether I would fancy a ride back to my hostel (the name of which had escaped my muddled memory), I found myself on the ground. Unsure of whether it had been my own feet or something else that landed me there, I reached towards my pockets. My wallet, and every dollar I’d had at the bar, was gone.

I distinctly remember entreating another driver, maybe even with tears, to take me back to my hostel. Of course, since the card had been taken with the wallet and I didn’t know its name, we ended up driving around for Siem Reap until my brain could piece together where I’d been earlier. This is where the memory fades away.

Thus, be forewarned that waking up in a spin with dry contacts still in your eyes, utterly bewildered as to whether you’re still in Thailand or not and finding your money missing, is no fun. Though a Canadian friend I’d made the night before loaned me enough money to get along and see Angkor Wat, it would have been a bit better to have not lost my debit card.

My wretched state allowed me to take only one rather sub-par picture at Angkor Wat, but I still went

The moral here is not to avoid drinking, or traveling alone, or even drinking alone (it’s solo drunkenness that’ll ruin you). It’s to set up a contingency plan. Don’t take all your money with you when you’re out, and split it up between your pockets. Leave the passport at the hotel unless local law requires you to have it (and even then consider leaving it behind). Remember your goods aren’t safe there either, though, unless you can stow them in a lockbox or at the front desk. Don’t be like my cousin who had thousands of dollars worth of fishing gear stolen from his hotel in Costa Rica (one of the safer central American countries).

Complacency is the bulwark of vigilance. Once you’ve traveled for over a month and run into very few serious problems it’s easy to think that’s normal. Most people, even those in grinding or abject poverty, are positive and helpful. However, it just takes one pickpocket to put a damper on your finances, vacation, or even mindset regarding the locals at your destination. On subways, in alleys, at bars, don’t forget to mind your stuff and the people waiting for you to stop doing so.

How you’ll look should it happen to you

Another thing; If you look like you’re ready to be taken advantage of, chances are you just may be. It’s great to be bright eyed and bushy tailed, your Nikon roped around your neck and fanny pack across your waist. It’s not so great to be a target for price gouging in countries where bartering is part of the culture or for vagabonds looking for low-risk snatch and grab. Know your location and the customs.

For normal people, vacation is about relaxation, so arm yourself with what you need to know and have a plan. The well-prepared may travel in peace. And, if anything does happen, it’s not the end of the world, or even of your vacation. Just stay calm, avoid yelling and making a scene, and cry in front someone who can give you a free ride to your hotel or the nearest police station.


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