Monday, 13 May 2013

L.O.S or Loss? Secure Travel in Thailand

Regular contributor John Borthwick looks on the darker side of travelling life. 

There’s a joke about how foreigners arrive in Thailand and seem to leave their brains at the airport. Well, why not? You’re on holidays in the Land of Smiles, the happy valley of mai pen rai. And, especially if you’re young, you’re bulletproof. Right? 

Statistics, those grey party-poopers, reckon otherwise. Some 100 Australians died in Thailand last year, largely due to illness and accident. 

OK, unless you’re very dumb, drunk or unlucky, you probably won’t come home in a box. Maybe just traction. But plenty of other bummers do happen. 

Let’s get smart about the common ones. 

Theft. It’s real. Always use your hotel room safe or a deposit box. Don’t carry around your vital documents and cash “safely” in your bum-bag or shoulder bag — it’s the easiest target in the world for snatch-and-grab. Carry photocopies of your docs, cards and info separately from the originals. Also, photograph the lot and save the images to your laptop or phone, and a webmail account. If you do lose valuables (through theft or otherwise) report it ASAP to the police, and get a signed, dated report. Without that, your insurer won’t help. 

Insurance. Rafting, biking, climbing, diving, partying ... what’s to worry about? If you can’t afford good travel insurance, stay home and save until you can, because you can’t afford to be in Thailand without it. 

Bank stuff. Be watchful for “skimmers” on ATMs, aimed to capture your PIN. Cover the pad when you key-in. Even so, the ATM fees themselves can feel like legal theft: any cash withdrawal against a foreign bank entails a 150 baht ($5) fee-grab for the Thai bank, plus your home bank’s charge, plus currency conversion fees — ultimately making frequent, small withdrawals very expensive money. If you’re concerned about credit card theft or scams, get a “damage limitation” card with a low limit (say, $1000) and use it exclusively. New credit cards and passports have smart chips designed for RFID readers, but these can also be read by a thief located near you with a reader, making your information vulnerable. Korjo has developed inexpensive “Defender” pouches with an RFID shield to block such theft. 

“Friends” and other strangers. Don’t presume that all thieves are local punks. Fellow travellers, especially in shared budget accommodation, can be very light-fingered and soon very gone. Don’t tempt them. Similarly, if you meet an agreeable local person in a bar and decide to extend the friendship back in your room, make sure that all your valuables are locked away before your mind is on other things. 

On the Road. Whatever you secure your valuables in, don’t then stick it in the overhead storage on a plane or train. Keep it on you. Thailand’s intercity passenger vans are fast, furious and cheap. Unfortunately they’re often too fast and jam-packed, being piloted by guys on speed trying to maximize their daily runs and profit. Serious prangs happen. Think about the bus, the legroom, the restroom, the aircon ... 

Motorcycles. The most common cause of significant grief. It’s easy to hire one, even if you’ve never been on a bike in your life. However, if you don’t have a current Australian motorcycle licence (not just a car one) your travel insurance won’t cover a thing when you wipe out — wearing thongs and no helmet? Yes, it wasn’t you fault, sure — but it is still your hospital bill. Medicare doesn’t apply outside Australia and Thai hospitals can charge like wounded red bulls. 

Jet-skis. Don’t go near them. In Phuket and Pattaya, in particular, tourists are extorted every day by the jet-ski mafia who inevitably discover your “damage” to their craft on its return. Threats, violence and official indifference mean that you pay up, big time. If, however, you do hire one and then cause death or actual damage, you’re in even deeper trouble. 

Random tips. Pack a couple of small padlocks, and a supply of light cable-ties — for temporarily securing external zippers, etc. Hotel keycards can sometime contain your un-encoded data on the magnetic strip; break them before discarding. Be mindful of drink spiking; it happens rarely but, depending on the circumstances, don’t leave your drink unattended. Never get into a fight with a Thai — it won’t be one-on-one. At internet shops and public computers, log-out fully, clearing your password and history.

Pics: John Borthwick


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