How not to be a traveling target

If you’re a novice traveler, allow me to let you in on a little secret. That little Canadian flag some Americans like to stitch onto their backpacks? Not fooling anyone. Your attempts to “go native” and wear Thai fisherman’s pants, or drink maté, or flaunt a bindi? Nope. They still know. Know you’re a foreigner, despite your best efforts to hide it.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s commendable to try and learn the local culture, and adopt some customs and habits, as long as they don’t inadvertently cause offense. But don’t let your immersion lull you into thinking you’re not a target for crime.

The color of your skin or hair, your accent despite fluency in the native language, even the way you walk- all are signs of your innate “foreignness.” Even if you’ve lived in a country for years, it’s hard to fully assimilate, and as such, that can make you more susceptible to anything from petty thievery to more serious crimes.

That isn’t to say you’re bound to get jacked on your holiday- odds are, you won’t. It’s just as easy to be mugged or assaulted at home as it is overseas, but one of the reasons travelers are easy targets is because they let their guard down on vacation.In the interest of keeping your trip as trouble-free-and fun- as possible, here are some tips to help you avoid looking like a walking advertisement for “Have money, will travel.”

Always look like you know where you’re going- even if you’re hopelessly lost.

Whipping out a map in plain sight and poring over the details; hesitant steps and head swiveling- these are almost guaranteed to invite a “helpful” stranger to assist you. More often than not, it’s someone who honestly wants to be of service, and I’ve had to rely on this kindness many times. But the point is, if I need help, I’ll select my source of information. If you absolutely must rely upon someone who has picked you out of the crowd, keep your distance, try not to walk near alleys or doorways, and make sure other people can see you.

Don’t flaunt your cash or cards at the ATM

This seems painfully obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many travelers blithely stroll up to a cash machine, extract their bills, and then stand there in plain sight, counting their money. Besides making you look like a bit of an a-hole in Third World countries where the average daily pay is a dollar, it’s like a flashing neon sign to would-be muggers. If you can’t go inside a bank, just be as surreptitious as possible. I keep my travel wallet and passport clipped into the interior of my day pack, so even if someone does try to snatch it, it will require a bit more effort. I also turn my day pack around to my front, and leave
my wallet down inside the pack as I pull out my cards, and insert my money.

Don’t dress to impress; honor the local dress code
You don’t need to don a burqa if you’re visiting Dubai, but some countries do have very specific rules about how much flesh (men and women) should show. In Marrakesh, you can wear a tank top if you’re female, but make sure it covers your torso, isn’t too skimpy/cleavagey/nippley, and cover your shoulders in places not dominated by tourists. Shorts should at the very least reach your knees. Following these rules is not just a matter of respect, but it also helps you to not stand out and attract unwanted attention. Men, your attire can also make you a target, so if loud colors and open collars aren’t what the locals wear, neither should you. Leave the Ed Hardy to Jon Gosselin (and you know don’t want to be him).

On a similar note: for the love of god, if you are newlyweds/a couple- do NOT wear matching clothes. Not only does it look asinine, but it’s like begging to be a victim.

Keep your wits about you
I’ll be the first to admit there have been times when I’ve gone a little overboard, and not been as responsible for myself as I should have after a few too many drinks. But overall, I try to keep it dialed down when I’m abroad. As for illicit drugs- while they may be a tourism draw in certain areas, just don’t. Not only do you contribute to the corruption of local culture, but is getting caught with that opium really worth a lifetime in a Thai prison? Whether you’re solo or with friends, the only person looking out for you is you. This logic also applies at home, but drunken escapades in Duluth don’t usually end with you being frisked, felt up, handcuffed, thrown in a police car, driven to a remote location, threatened, extorted, and dumped out on a deserted road. Not that that happened to me.

Keep your voice down

Americans are gregarious, enthusiastic folk, which has garnered us something of a worldwide reputation for being “loud,” and “obnoxious.” Please remember that you are in a foreign country, and as such, a guest. Take the time to learn a few phrases and local customs, remember that the people are not there to be your personal servants, and for god’s sake, pipe down. Don’t advertise your tourist status.

Keep your valuables at home, or out of sight

Overseas travel isn’t the time to wear your one-carat wedding ring, or your Cartier watch. Leave the bling at home, and keep your camera tucked away in your day bag of choice. Even if it’s in your pocket, it’s easy pickings. It goes without saying that your passport, money, credit cards, essential medications, etc. should be kept somewhere secure. Personally, I like to keep them on me in my day pack (see, “The empty bladder: why hydration packs make great travel companions”).

Respect local custom, and avoid potentially inflammatory topics

Foreign politics are a conversation best left at home, along with your opinions about religion/race/sexual orientation/women’s rights/child labor/animal abuse, as they apply to wherever you happen to be. This doesn’t mean you should turn into a Stepford Tourist, but there’s a difference between having a civil discussion or coming to the defense of a person or animal in danger, and putting yourself at serious risk. I’ve had to practically wire my jaw shut at times to avoid an ugly confrontation. It’s frustrating, and sometimes heartbreaking, but a big part of travel is learning to appreciate the things we usually take for granted.

South by Southeast: The hill tribes of Southeast Asia

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. Southeast Asia is modernizing rapidly. These days, malls line the streets of Thailand and WiFi signals and cell phones blanket the cafes of Vietnam. But that doesn’t mean the ways of the “Asia of old” have vanished – in fact, in the mountainous northern regions of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, a patchwork of hill tribe minorities survive by largely traditional means, subsisting on farming in remote villages. Southeast Asian visitors have a unique chance to learn and help these people through numerous activities, ranging from multi-day hikes to volunteering their time or simply acquiring locally-produced one-of-a-kind souvenirs.

Whether you’re trekking through the pastoral landscapes of Myanmar, helping school kids with their daily English lesson in Laos or shopping for handmade textiles in Thailand, getting in touch with Southeast Asia’s ethnic minority tribes has never been easier or more enjoyable. And though the exploitation of indigenous groups remains a problem, there are increasing signs that tourism offers a great way to help these groups survive and prosper in the years ahead.

Ever wanted to sleep in a traditional village under a blanket of shooting stars? Help a child learn to read English? Drink moonshine with a tribal chief? Keep reading below for our South by Southeast guide to the hill tribes of Southeast Asia.

What is a “Hill Tribe?”
Southeast Asia is home to numerous ethnic minority groups, including tribes like the Hmong, Pa-O, Akha and Montagnards among many others. Though each of these groups encompasses a unique set of customs, beliefs and habits, typically the groups inhabit high-altitude mountain regions too difficult for traditional agriculture. The history of relations between the governments of Southeast Asia and these tribes has not always been pleasant, ranging from outright conflict to racism and deportation. There is, however, a silver lining, as a thriving tourism industry has provided these groups with a new means of economic improvement and sustainability.

Top Hill Tribe Experiences

  • Trekking – the range and quality of trekking opportunities in Southeast Asia is exploding. Typically a “trek” will provide visitors with a multi-day hike through wilderness, a stop at a traditional village and sometimes a homestay. Though there are hundreds of trekking hotspots across the region, some of our favorites are Kalaw in Myanmar, Luang Nam Tha in Laos and Sapa in Vietnam.
  • Volunteering offering your time and talents in a hill tribe village can be a particularly rewarding experience and a great way to move beyond “just visiting.” Check out organizations like Big Brother Mouse in Laos and Starfish Ventures in Thailand.
  • Night Markets – another great way to explore the hill tribe cultures of Southeast Asia is by buying their affordable handmade products. From wildly colorful textiles to elaborate carvings, hill tribe crafts are unparalleled in their quality and detail. Check out the night markets in cities like Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, where sellers offer all manner of fantastic finds.

Doing It Right
Everywhere you look in Southeast Asia, someone is trying to offer you a tour to visit authentic local cultures. But not all visits are created equal. In some cases, the tours are organized without the tribes’ permission. Even worse, in more popular areas literally hundreds of visitors pass through a village in a given day. The tours feel less like an authentic cultural experience and more like an opportunity to stare at “those strange tribe people.” It’s important if you’re going to experience a hill tribe you do so in a sustainable way and with an organization that ensures the tribes benefit from your visit. Check out companies like Green Discovery in Laos and Akha Hill House in Thailand for good examples.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Outback Australia: Disappointment in the Tiwi Islands

When visiting a colonized country, it is difficult to ignore many of the social and economical inequities that exist. Australia is no different. Much like the United States, Australia’s history of dealing with the indigenous peoples is checkered at best and downright awful at worst. Native cultures have been marginalized, victimized – read up on the Stolen Generations – and subjected to both institutionalized and socialized racism for centuries. The climate has changed in recent years thanks to activist groups and improved government policies, but the poverty and stigmas that past practices created still linger. Cultural tourism has provided new sources of income for many aboriginal communities, but that often leads to commercialization and exploitation. And nowhere is that more evident than on the Tiwi Islands.


Located a mere 80km north of Darwin, the Tiwis are comprised of Melville Island and the smaller Bathurst Island. The local Tiwi people are culturally distinct from the native people of mainland Australia. Ferries shuttle passengers to and from the islands via Darwin, and charter flights make the trip in about 30 minutes. And the only way to tour the islands is via Tiwi Tours, which is owned and operated by the Tiwi Land Council (though they lease the operation to Aussie Adventure Holidays, a privately-owned venture).

I visited Bathurst Island with Tiwi Tours and was cautiously optimistic before the trip. I’m always skeptical of organized cultural tours as they often end up being forced reproductions of ceremonies that result in me feeling more guilty than educated. The last thing I want as a traveler is for people to pander to me or disrespect their traditions for the sole purpose of entertaining visitors. Whether the operation is owned by the local people or not, the resulting experience is more exploitative than authentic. Buoyed by the knowledge that all the guides on Tiwi Tours are of Tiwi decent and that we’d be speaking with island locals over morning tea, I boarded the propeller plane and enjoyed the views on the way to Bathurst Island.

Upon landing, we met our Tiwi guide, Trevor, and our white driver, Rod. We boarded our bus and proceeded into the island’s interior. Our first stop was the local history museum which houses artifacts of the island’s rural past and Catholic missionary experiences. Trevor did an adequate job of explaining both the Dreaming of the Tiwi people, as well as their dances, hunting practices and general history. Our time there was short, if not rushed, and it was difficult to absorb the abundance of information.

It was at morning tea, however, that the tour revealed itself as the faux cultural experience I had feared. We met several Tiwi women who explained the various dances that are used to celebrate auspicious events. They then demonstrated these dances in front of the tour group in celebration of nothing more than the attendance of another group of paying customers. We then watched as they painted their faces and those of their young children while offering limited explanation of the nature of the custom. The vast majority of tourists looked on in amazement while I struggled with feelings that ranged from unease to guilt.

Watching the women and children dance and sing for our amusement, with limited educational or cultural content, was beyond inauthentic. It was pandering. The same can be said for the myriad art galleries that are part of the tour. Guests are encouraged to purchase the works of local artists, though it seems that any Tiwi who wants to come to the art centers and paint a picture can be called an artist. By no means am I diminishing Tiwi or aboriginal art, but I have a hard time believing that anyone who picks up a brush is automatically an artist telling a story. Many of the artists are simply impoverished and unemployed locals hoping to make some money from tourists. Several of the installations are managed by whites, which only emphasizes the exploitative nature of the experience.

A positive highlight of the tour was the visit to the former Catholic mission. The church was a unique hybrid of Tiwi and Catholic liturgy and that is evidenced by the ornamentation that is evident in the structure. Figurines of Jesus sit next to depictions of Tiwi Dreaming spirits. And the church complex is also home to a fascinating piece of WWII history. The radio shack on the site was used by the priest to warn Darwin of the first incoming Japanese war planes. The planes flew directly over the Tiwis and the priest attempted to warn the mainland of the impending invasion. His calls for vigilance were ignored, however, and Japan struck a deadly opening salvo on Australian soil.

Overall, Tiwi Tours strive to both educate and bring much needed income into the struggling communities of Bathurst Island. However, the emphasis is clearly on the latter at the expense of the former. While I appreciate their desire to operate a revenue-generating venture in the Tiwis, the cultural costs seemed excessively steep. I would much prefer to attend several discussion groups with locals and be invited to attend an authentic ceremony than have contrived activities thrown in my honor simply because I had a ticket granting admission.

As always, cultural tourism can often have positive intentions that are lost in the execution. Tiwi Tours does seem to have the best interests of the people and history in mind. But more effort is needed to avoid turning Bathurst Island into a depressing Epcot Center version of its former self.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.