Stories about raped or murdered tourists seem to be a favourite with news organizations the world over. It seems that stories about people on a well earned holiday, trying to leave their worries behind but instead encountering crime and violence sell news papers. Usually there's a not so subtle undertone of "it could happen to you! Or your kids!". Individual incidents are picked over in graphic detail again and again.
In my opinion, the news hugely over-emphasizes the risks you face while overseas. While horrible incidents do occur occasionally, vast numbers of people have wonderful violence-free trips to all manner of exotic locations. Indeed many of the countries in question have violent crime rates that are not significantly above most western nations. In some cases it may even be lower.
That's not to say that risks do not exist and that you should not try to minimise them.
We've been full-time nomadic world travelers for two years now. During that time we've hung out in our fair share of dodgy places from the steamy streets of Bangkok to a country where even members of the British royal family have been mugged. And yet, through a combination of good luck and good planning, we have yet to be mugged, stolen from or to personally encounter any sort of crime more serious than a disregard for traffic laws.
We don't do anything particularly unusual or difficult. We don't lock ourselves away. We don't react to strangers with undue paranoia. We just try to be a bit careful. But what exactly does that mean?
In the hopes of boosting your chances of being in the happy safe crime-free majority I'm going to share some assorted safety tips. Then I'll go through the risk factors you should be aware of to reduce your chances of being the victim of a violent attack.
Put Your Shoulder Bag Across Your Body
This one is fairly common knowledge but we still see people not doing this, particularly women with a purse. If you have a handbag, shoulder bag, messenger bag or similar always wear it diagonally across your body. So if the strap is on your left shoulder the bag itself is on your right hip.
With the strap across your body the bag sits on your hip or in front of you on your stomach. That makes the bag less visible. The strap laying flat against your body making it difficult to grab. Finally, anyone wanting to take it from you would have to cut or break the strap or physically wrestle it away from you.
By comparison if you have your bag strap on your left shoulder with the bag itself hanging next to your left hip the bag is very visible, the strap is clear of your body making it easy to grab and its very likely that someone approaching you from behind could relieve you of your bag before you are aware of what is happening.
You could argue that having the bag across your body and forcing an attacker to work harder for your bag makes you more likely to get hurt. Remember that a bag snatcher isn't looking to wrestle bags away from people in a tug of war style test of strength. They're looking to score a bag and be away as quickly and as easily as possible. By making yourself a hard target you can prompt them to move on and look for an easier target.
Dont Flash Your Cash
This hopefully needs little explanation. If you walk into a bar to buy a drink don't produce a giant roll of currency equivalent to three month's salary for most of the locals. If you must carry a significant amount of cash then split it up. For example, you may have a few bucks in your pocket to pay for small things, more money in your wallet (which should be tucked away somewhere very hard to access) and perhaps even more money hidden elsewhere.
If you do this and your "walking around money" store runs low, do not replenish it in public. Be somewhere private before you transfer money from one stash to another.
The point of this is two fold. Firstly, if you get pick pocketed likely all you'll lose is your walking around money. If you get robbed you may lose your wallet too. It's fairly unlikely you'll lose all of your stashes so you can reduce the harm done. Secondly, and more importantly, as with the bag across the body, this makes you much less likely to be targeted in the first place. Thieves are looking for a score that justifies the risk. If you look like you only have $10 on you then you're just not worth the bother.
This requires some habit breaking. When you're with someone who is concentrating on something it's habit to simply stand there and watch. When you come home late at night and you're unlocking the front door what is your partner doing? They're almost certainly standing two feet away just watching you. You probably do exactly the same while they're getting cash out of an ATM. If someone approaches you with a map suddenly you're all standing in a circle around the map with your heads down. No one is watching what is going on around you.
This takes some practice but learn to trust the other person to work the ATM or open the door on their own. They can do it without your supervision. As soon as one of you is focused on a task the other should keep an eye on your surroundings. If they're trying to unlock a difficult lock or are suddenly engaged in conversation by a stranger, look around. Simply having one of you with your head up, alert to the environment makes you a less attractive target.
Wear Shoes You Can Run In
Impractical shoes make you look vulnerable. "I'm incapable of either chasing you or running from you" is not a message you want to broadcast.
If you do encounter a potentially violent situation you will likely want to leave immediately. That may well involve dealing with poor lighting, broken glass, uneven ground or other obstacles. That's much easier to do in footwear which is firmly attached to your feet. They don't need to be runners or army boots but just steer clear of high heels, flip flops and anything else particularly impractical.
Yet again, this makes you a less attractive target. Wearing practical footwear isn't about chasing down a thief or out running an attacker. It's about not looking vulnerable.
Use Your Locks
When you go on holiday it can be tempting to get lax about things like taking a nap with doors or windows left open. Doors and windows have locks for a reason. Use them. Many of them can be locked partially open. If not, close them, lock them and fire up the air-conditioning. I don't care how nice the afternoon breeze is, how friendly the locals are and that you're only going to lay down for a few minutes. Lock up.
If you are driving a car make it habit to lock the doors. No fun happy story begins with a stranger getting into your car while you are stopped at a red light.
That is it for my random tips. Now on to the violent attack risk factors. Minimize these to stay out of harm's way.
Violent Attack Risk Factors
There are exceptions but virtually every story I've heard about someone being assaulted or becoming the victim of an armed robbery have featured some, if not all, of these risk factors.
When you are drunk your awareness of your environment, your ability to recognize danger and your ability to respond to it appropriately all go way way down. To make matters worse, your state is likely obvious to anyone who sees you. You may well be a martial arts expert, a soldier or a police officer but how well do you perform with a belly full of whiskey?
Being Out Late At Night
Even in cities like Bangkok where there are people in the streets 24 hours a day, the streets get quiet late at night. Muggers need to avoid detection and arrest so they naturally gravitate to times when fewer people are around, when darkness helps conceal their identity and when drunk people are out and about ie late at night.
Being in a Dodgy Area
People in dodgy parts of town tend to mind their own business so shifty characters may feel more comfortable loitering while they wait for a suitable target to appear. Also, locals are often unsympathetic towards foreigners who are mugged in the vicinity of strip clubs or brothels. Your attackers are human beings with a conscience but they won't feel quite so bad about robbing some guy who just staggered out of a brothel. And of course red light districts are a convenient place where you can find drunk people wandering around late at night.
I have a lot of admiration for solo travelers. It is certainly possible to travel safely by yourself but no one has eyes in the back of their head. Being by yourself puts you at additional risk. If you are on your own, think about how you'll get home at the end of a night out and any other situations where your solo adventurer status could increase your risk. If you are with others, don't wander off on your own while drunk, late at night in between strip clubs.
By not exposing yourself to these risk factors you greatly reduce your chances of being involved in anything violent. I'm not saying that you should never drink again and that you must be home in bed by 6pm. That's not realistic. Just make an effort to limit your risk. If you're going to be drinking heavily, do it with a group you can trust and be aware of what part of town you are in. If you're going to be out late at night by yourself then stay sober. Manage your risk.
Sadly, a lot of people do not do this. During our travels we've heard quite a few stories about muggings, assaults and similar. They vary but a lot of them go something likes this...
"I'd been drinking all night with Davo and Sean. About 2 or 3 am I decided I'd had more than enough. I settled up the bill, said goodbye to my mates and walked out of the Pink Pussycat. I turned down the street to my hotel and some guy asked me for a cigarette. When I was digging around for my pack someone hit me in the back of the head with something heavy. That's all I remember. There was nothing I could do."
It's worth noting that once you're there in the moment there probably is very little you can do. Muggings in south east Asia seem to be commonly perpetrated by a group rather than by an individual. And rather than threatening the victim with a weapon until they hand over their valuables the victim may simply be assaulted without warning. Most westerners have a significant height and weight advantage over the locals and if you are going to mug someone twice your size you will want to avoid it turning into a boxing match. Far better to relieve the victim of their valuables while they are unconscious. They skip the threatening you see in movies and go for a surprise attack instead. You, on your own, intoxicated and ambushed, are likely no match for a group of sober, armed men with a plan.
You can however simply not be there. Or you can be there but be sufficiently sober, alert and with friends prompting your would be attackers to wait for an easier target.
Hopefully this post hasn't frightened you. The world really is a far safer place than most people seem to think. Most people are friendly and have no interest in hurting anyone. Most people are pretty honest. Most people care about others. You just need to take some basic precautions to maximize your chances of having a fabulous yet safe adventure. Have a good time.