You’ve been pick-pocketed. You lost your passport, or you’ve had an accident and smashed up that cute little rental car. Maybe you had too much to drink and ran afoul of the local authorities. Emergencies of all sorts do occur while traveling, and some advance preparation and understanding of Asian culture and law is in order.
Victim of a crime?
In many of the major Asian destinations, the crime rate is no worse than in the West, and often better. It’s often said that in Tokyo, you can leave your wallet on the subway turnstyle and come back the next day and find it still there. Nonetheless, crime occurs everywhere, and it’s best to be on your guard. Petty theft or pickpocketing may be common in some areas, so beware. Keep your wallet and money safe (never in your back pocket), and keep your passport locked in the hotel safe and carry only a photocopy in case you need it to show the authorities.
If you are a victim of a crime, then it may be a little confusing. You may not know how to summon the police, or how to speak to them when they arrive. Your hotel will probably have an English-speaking concierge, so keep the name and phone number of your hotel with you whenever you go out—they can usually help you with advice and in speaking with the authorities if necessary. Your embassy will also be able to help, so keep their number handy as well. Also, in some destinations, there are special “tourist police” agencies, with English-speaking officers that specialize in helping foreigners.
Commit a crime?
The first and most important thing to know in advance is that no matter where you are traveling, you must stay in compliance with the local laws, even if they differ from the laws back home. You do have an obligation to stay within the law, and don’t assume that as an American you’ll get special treatment, or that your embassy will get you out of trouble—it doesn’t work that way. Asian prisons are full of Westerners who made that assumption. If you do break the law, intentionally or unintentionally, don’t lose your temper. Stay calm and don’t try to bully your way out of it. Be respectful, and contact your embassy for assistance.
Be aware of the local law as well as custom. In Thailand for example, there is a strict lèse majesté law, which makes it illegal to speak against the king or to deface his image. There have been many cases of tourists doing just that, and winding up in a very disagreeable prison. The king himself tends to be good-hearted about such infractions and will often issue a pardon, but not before the perpetrator has spent a little time behind bars.
Need a doctor?
Eat a few too many of the local fried beetles? Chile peppers burn a hole in your stomach? Forget that pedestrians don’t have the right-of-way and get run down? Major Asian cities will usually have modern hospitals that are equal in quality to any hospital in the West. If you are in a rural, less-developed area though, you may run into some difficulty getting to a modern medical facility. The first thing to do is to find out before you leave, whether your medical insurance covers you while traveling in Asia, and if not, get supplemental coverage. Be aware as well that foreign hospitals are likely to require payment up front for services.
If you use a prescription medication, you may not be able to refill it while overseas, so be sure to take enough with you to last. Also, if you use any common over-the-counter medications, these too many not be readily available, so pack extra.
You may want to rent a car once you get to your destination—although in the biggest cities, public transportation will be readily available. If you do rent a car, understand that local traffic laws may not be the same as back home, and even if they are, locals may not pay attention to them. Drive with extreme caution at all times. If you do get into an auto accident, the authorities are likely to consider you to be at fault regardless of the circumstances, because you are a foreigner, and if you were not visiting in the first place, the accident would not have occurred.
Depending on where you are, traffic police may see a foreigner driving a vehicle as an opportunity. Bribery is rampant in some Asian cities, and you may get pulled over for questioning. If this happens, you have two options. You can go along with it, and possibly get pulled into the local police station, or you can do what many of them expect, which is to slip some paper currency under your passport as you hand it to them and be on your way.
A Few Tips for Staying Safe and Sane
• Be adventurous, but safe—know where you are at all times and what the risks are. For example, wandering aimlessly through the jungle in parts of Cambodia or Laos is not a good idea, there are still active land mines left over from the war.
• If you are traveling with other people, it’s easy to get lost or separated, and if you’re in an unfamiliar place, it can be a frightening experience. It’s usually easy to rent a short-term cell phone just for use for the duration of your trip, so make sure everyone in your party has one.
• Register with your local embassy upon arrival. Although it’s not mandatory, doing so will make you accessible in case of emergency, or if someone back home needs to contact you.
• Your credit card company may have a “travel emergency service” that can be useful. It is often available at no charge, and you may already have it. The service may include a local contact number and English-speaking assistance.