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5 Tips in 5 Minutes – Staying Out of Trouble in Southeast Asia

Don't get yourself in hot water whilst travelling in Southeast Asia. Read our 5 Golden Tips.

Staying Out of Trouble in Southeast Asia

You may have noticed many travel blogs out there have a dedicated section for ‘tales of the road’ and ‘travel incidents’. But we haven't got one of those sections for good reason.

There are plenty of mishaps that will occur when you're on the road for an extended period of time. There will be decisions that you regret making, perhaps accidents that you could have avoided. These things happen to even the most sensible of us, but it can put would-be travellers off from picking up the backpack.

I also see most of those stories written in a bad tone or even laughed at. Sure you can laugh the problems off afterwards, and learn your lesson.. But is there a need to glorify your experiences in short essays on how you overcome every single one and build up your personal ego? Anyway, that is my rant over.

Yet, I am sure you want to know some tips on staying safe whilst travelling. Every country works in a different way and tourism can make locals behave in an unfortunate corrupt manner. Look at this from locals perspective though. Imagine earning unimaginable low wages, with corruption strife in every facet of your life.

With thousands of tourists throwing about lots of cash left, right and centre.. Some people will think to themselves, how can I cash in?

Shit happens, you just need to keep on walking and learn from your mistakes. This page will share with you some lessons we learned, whilst on the road.

 TIP 1: Change your mindset.  This isn't your home country.. ‘you're not in Kansas any more.' 

The culture in most of Asia is different, you can't raise your voice, get visibly angry and use hand gestures to get what you want.  It won't get you anywhere when your in a pickle, all it will do is make the other person lose face.

Losing Face:

To lose the respect of others; to be humiliated or experience public disgrace.

This is a big concept in not just China, but many Southeast Asian countries.  China is the hardest, because compared to Western ways of arguing and complaining, you can't be direct with your argument. It's a roundabout way of talking.  What you never want to happen, is as the quote says, to have the individuals experiencing a loss of respect, especially in a public area with others around.

You will get infuriated at times by the way in which different cultures process things, but it is simply the method by which to get a resolution the quickest.

Getting across your message and avoiding hostilities in Southeast Asia:

  1. Be polite, be patient and don't use physical aggression at all.  Even body language can come across aggressive from Westerners.  You might not think you are doing it, but in the heat of a moment, you will throw your body and mouth into verbal diarrhoea.  We got slightly scared at times by the way in which some Westerners would confront situations.
  2. Don't hit them ‘head on' as you do at home, take a side step and be calm and collected.
  3. Think rationally about what the situation is and how there is a mutual route out of it, this is the number one rule of conflict resolution.  And I promise you this routine works every time.

I would strongly recommend, above any other books you may read before you travel, local culture & customs guides on where you are travelling.  These help you get into the mindset of different nationalities. Every nationality has it's weird traits that are if anything fun to learn.

As an example, we are British, and we know we have a dry sense of humour bordering on cynicism at times.  We are secretly disingenuous and have an uncanny ability to come across as nice and sincere, when in actual fact we are hiding our real feelings.  Every culture has these peculiarities that if you want to understand them properly, you should try to learn / understand.

HSBC Premier have a fairly good free country guide to customs and culture in most countries around the world.  You can read it here.

 TIP 2: If it doesn't feel right, don't do it. 

You've taken the brave decision to travel, you've saved up enough money to do what you want to do.  So why when you're travelling would you do something that you feel uneasy about?  It could be a person overly selling something, that you feel guilty about not buying, or visiting a place that makes you feel uncomfortable.  Being on the road free's up your mind and should make you feel more comfortable than you are at home, where you might have loads of things hovering around your mind (Bills, Mortgages, Debt).  So if whilst in this more comfortable mind set, you feel uncomfortable about a situation.. The best advice is get out, don't do it.  Your body is the best indicator for your safety and security.  You don't have to listen and adhere to everything people say, you are an individual of making up your own mind.

One of the oldest scams in the world is other peoples unscrupulous ability to get other people to ‘go along with it'.  They will feed on your insecurity and you being in a foreign place, which you don't fully understand.  If an offer is too good to refuse, it is usually a scam in disguise.  In fact 99% of the time you will be ripped off. If you want to believe in that 1% chance this isn't a scam, go with it and risk being a fool.

 TIP 3: Avoid everything on this list, most of which are general words of warning, but also some which could land you in Prison. 

Dodgy Massage Parlours

I don't need to go into too much detail, but you can read on most travel bloggers websites about their various experiences of getting a massage in Thailand. Thailand is just one country in Asia, there are plenty of dodgy massages you can get elsewhere, even China. If you are a single female traveller, your best bet is to get massages in open spaces or find a friend that will have one with you.

I've had my fair share of good massages, and lousy ones. I've had attempts at molestation and groping from China to Thailand and I've found some simple rules in which to stop any of the dodgy business happening.

  • VIP means what you think, avoid places that have this on their menu card.
  • Dark rooms, red & purple lighting should signify alarm bells.
  • Young pretty women, wearing short skirts, means they probably haven't had formal massage training.

Your safest bet is to get a massage in a place that is also a beauty spa or has the massage areas laid out in communal rooms.  If you are looking for an illegitimate massage, using the opposite of this guide.. Then I would throw you a word of caution.  Don't do it, you may get your money stolen, be harassed by Mafia cartel, or any number of things could potentially happen to you when you go down that path in South East Asia.

Cowboy Border Towns:

Border towns in places like Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are notorious for their lack of law and order.  Local officials are bribed to overlook almost everything and there are thieves everywhere.  Sometimes there are no other options, but to pass through border towns.  But if you can, make sure you book your transport in advance so that you don't get scammed at the borders.

Drugs of any sort:

It is illegal to consume (in private / or public) mostly any narcotic throughout all of Southeast Asia.  The law really isn't sketchy on the details part of this either unlike many other rules.  If you get caught with ANY narcotic in ANY quantity, you can face serious punishment.

Many travellers think that because drugs seem widely available, advertised even, and with punishments not so extreme in their own countries, they can get away with it.  The sad reality is there are so many westerners locked up in Southeast Asia every year for drugs possession, but not enough information out there about the numbers put behind bars.

If you want to be stupid, then do it.  But you will face the consequences and sadly, so will your family when you pull them through emotional hell.

Gem Shops:

This is sort of a scam, but a really stupid Westerner scam.  People go out to Asia sometimes with the intention of buying rare stones to get a bargain.  There are plenty of places to buy gems from in Asia but most are not authentic of course.  If you are looking to buy, make sure you get it independently evaluated by someone you choose.  Otherwise the likelihood is you will be ripped off.

Upstairs ‘Lady Bars' and Walking Street venues in Thailand:

The Patpong area of Bangkok is notorious for it's ‘upstairs' seedy bars and shows.  They are run by thugs and the mafia.  Don't ever as a general rule follow touts in Thailand, anywhere.  You will likely be ripped off or face a beating if you don't pay up for overpriced entertainment / beers.

Unmetered Taxi drivers in Thailand:

Again, common error by unwitting tourists.  If a taxi in Bangkok try's to negotiate a fare for you, then leave them and find another.  There is no way you will ever NOT be ripped off if they try to negotiate the fare with you.  It will always be far higher than the meter.  Another point to make is that some taxi drivers are attached to cartels in Bangkok.  If you get in asking to be taken to a specific club or bar and they then take you somewhere else because they say the one you wanted to visit is closed down.. Then just get out of the taxi and leave.

 TIP 4: Avoid Well Known Scam operations around China & South East Asia 

Travelling should never be about keeping your guard up at all times.  You've decided to travel because you want to be free to explore and enjoy your time on the road.  However, keeping at least one eye open to your surroundings can save you a lot of bother.

We have previously covered the top 10 scams that you may come across whilst travelling in the Mainland of China.

  1. Tea ceremony scams in Beijing & Shanghai
  2. Counterfeit money scams (across China)
  3. Unlicensed black cabs / fake Taxi meters
  4. Cheap tour scams – always involve extra stops to ‘souvenir shops’
  5. Offers of massages with beautiful girls from men on the streets
  6. Public bus scams at The Great Wall of China
  7. Child pickpockets & beggars
  8. Chinese traditional medicine tours / clinics
  9. Fake Monks asking for donations
  10. Invitations to visit a KTV by strangers

You can read the full list of Chinese scams in our original article ‘The 10 Worst Tourist Scams in China‘.

Many of the bigger Youth Hostels in Southeast Asia will have notice boards up that you can read up about any problems / scams locally that you should be aware of.  Failing that, ask Reception about local scams that you should know about.  Scammers are deceptive people, able to convince you of whatever they are trying to sell / trade.  Being aware of the typical scams operating locally, will make you better prepared in case you come across any.

 TIP 5: Never, EVER give your passport to anyone unless it's absolutely (legally) necessary 

Your passport is pretty much the most valuable thing you will travel with.  It's your national identity and technically belongs legally to your country's government.  So having it stolen / loosing it can land you in all kinds of problems.

The most common reasons you will ever be asked for your passport are:

  • Passport Control at Border Crossings
  • Hotels might need a copy (In Vietnam its a legal requirement that they hold your passport at Reception at all times during your stay)
  • When you apply for a Visa, the passport might be needed whilst the application is taking place
  • When you hire a vehicle (from an official) hire, they may require a copy of your passport for identity checks.
    • On the Thai Islands, they ask for your passport in lieu of a money deposit.. I will come onto this a little later..
  • Identity confirmation when buying things such as a top-up for SIM card, etc..  Again this is only a copy. They should never hold onto your passport.

The biggest blunder in Southeast Asia travellers have is simply losing / misplacing their passports.  To avoid this, you should find the safest place to store your passport.  Here are a few common sense rules..

  • If the Hotel you are staying in has a safe at Reception, then use this.  If it's a 4/5 star hotel and they offer in-room safes, then its perfectly safe to use these as well.
  • Don't take your passport with you everywhere you go.  The exception of this is countries like China where it is a real legal requirement to carry it with you at all times.
  • Keep your passport separate from where your money is kept, just in case one is lost.  You're not then completely screwed!

So I know that many people who visit Thailand / Vietnam end up hiring mopeds, especially on the Islands.  Here is the thing, pretty much all the Moped hire places on Thai Islands are owned by the Thai Island Mafia.  There is no end of horror stories on the internet of people getting ripped off.  I even had some issues on Koh Phangan.  They always have the upper hand because they generally demand to keep your passport or hold a very high cash deposit which they may or may not give back at the end.

Here is the thing though.  If they require a large amount of cash deposit or you have to hand them over your passport.  What do you think would be better should significant damage happen?  Which is entirely possible..  Technically paying the deposit with cash gives you the freedom of only losing that cash you have already paid.  You are free to leave the Islands.  If you give them your passport as deposit instead, they can simply hold you to any amount of damages they demand.  And believe me (I have been there) they will.  It takes a lot of negotiating skills to get clear of damage sustained to the moped.  And the Police will not rule in your favour (they are often paid off).

That brings us to the end of our 5 tips on Staying Out of Trouble in Southeast Asia article.  I hope you enjoyed this article, if you found it useful then please share it on Facebook / Twitter for others to read.

About Darryl Hall (85 Articles)
Darryl left the shorelines of England in 2013 to study and travel in China and South East Asia for a year. Darryl is a co-founder of, a travel blog with the aim of sharing travel tips, country & city guides for other backpackers. Visit my Google+ page.

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