A Country in Upheaval: 6 Rules for Staying Safe Abroad

Protests can be peaceful or troublesome: be prepared. Image from michaellorinfriedman.com.

A recent trip to Bangkok, Thailand reminded me of one of the most important things to remember when traveling: be prepared for the unexpected.  In this post I want to share with you my six rules for being prepared to travel in a country experiencing political or social upheaval.

My plane touched down in Bangkok on December 6, 2013, two weeks into turbulent and building turmoil in Asia’s premier city.  To prepare myself, I put into practice:

Rule #1: Do your homework

Read the newspapers of the country or city you plan to visit. Learn about the issues and stay abreast of how opposing factions may escalate their confrontation.  Register with the American consulate in the country you are visiting for updates on any areas you might want to avoid.  Visit websites like Lonely Planet forums, Go Girl Facebook forums, and other media where you can ask current travelers what conditions are really like on the ground.

From reading The Bangkok Post, I knew that anti-government protestors were occupying many parts of Bangkok, including some of the areas I planned to visit.  I kept a close eye on what was happening day-to-day as my departure date approached, and by the time I got on my flight to BKK I knew that traffic would be atrocious, there may be few fewer tourists than usual, and tensions could be high.  Set phasers awareness to alert!

Rule #2: Be ready to change your plans

Have a backup plan for your backup plan.   Is the hotel you had planned on too close to the action for comfort? Have the phone number for another accommodation in your back pocket, along with a reputable transportation source to get you there.  Maybe the buses aren’t running due to closed streets?  Build flexibility into your budget and schedule to take a different mode of transportation.  By being flexible and able to change your plans, you can always make choices that take you out of harms way.

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Political protests are often friendly, parade-like events. But keep in mind that a situation can shift from smiles to shoves in an instant. Photo by Hannah Harrison.

When I visit Bangkok, I like to stay near Khao San Road, a popular backpackers area.  With the protests just blocks away, I knew I needed to be ready to change my plans if I wasn’t able to access that part of town from the airport.  I also had to be ready to leave in case staying there became unsafe.  This meant that I had to pay attention to the rest of my rules.

Rule #3: Know your area, including escape routes

In this case, Bangkok is a large and sometimes unwieldy city.  I brushed up my Thai language skills as part of Rule #1 so that I could easily use a taxi, city bus, river ferry, or ask a pedestrian directions if I needed to use an unfamiliar route to safety.  I also used common internet tools like Google Maps to get a bird’s eye view of the area in which I was staying and commit it to memory.  Stuck at an intersection? No problem; I know of another street that will get me to where I want to go.

Cities are a tricky beast in that a commotion on one street might be totally unnoticeable just a block or two away.  At my little guesthouse on a street adjacent to Khao San Road, I could hear the noise of thousands of protesting Thais as I munched through my morning muesli.  But, if not for the chanting and singing, I would never have known so many people were just 50 meters away.   I chose my guesthouse because of its inconspicuous location, quiet atmosphere, and because if things got weird, I could duck away into my room and feel relatively secure that no protesting mob would bother with the three flights of stairs and winding alley to get to my room.

Rule #4: Stay out of it

Realize that conflict happens, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you.   It is important to stay out of foreign conflicts, which can sometimes mean keeping your questions and opinions to yourself.  If you do want to ask questions, make sure the person you are asking will not take offense or become suspicious of your curiosity.   For me, this means only talking about Thailand’s politics if a Thai friend brings it up first.

If you do find yourself caught in a sticky situation, remember to smile, keep your head down, focus on finding an escape route, and hang on tight to your traveling companions.  Above all, try to manage your emotions and stick to the following.

Rule #5: Keep calm and travel on

To borrow a line from Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic.  Use your common sense, and realize that stressful and bad things happen everywhere, nearly all the time.  In my day-to-day life, I’m lucky to not encounter very many of them, and it’s likely the same for you, too.  But now you find yourself in a sticky situation; is that a protest up ahead? An emerging riot? Take a deep breath, summon up your Go Girl courage, and follow your plan to get you to safety.  Develop rules of your own, but make sure you include:

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Where are your escape routes? What modes of transportation are available to you? Photo by Hannah Harrison.

Rule #6: Always prioritize your safety

Confession time: I’m that person who always wants to get a little closer to the action, snap just a few more photos, walk just a little deeper into the crowd. It can be hard for me to see past a few moments of excitement to the deeper potential for danger that may lie beneath.   But, Rule #6 is important, and I try to keep it in the forefront of my mind.  My personal test for danger lies within a question I ask myself, “Is what I’m doing right now worth the hurt my loved ones would feel if something were to happen to me?”  Your question might be different, and everyone has different limits to the risks they are willing to take.  The most important thing is to have limits and understand what they are before testing them. You are the best person to be looking out for your own safety, and sometimes you are the only person who is watching out for you.  So be your best advocate and be a safe and sane Go Girl when traveling in the changing parts of the world.

Travel on, sisters.

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