Calling all young and fresh-faced backpackers! Is your mum worrying about you going travelling? Calm her nerves and show her this article!
Is Southeast Asia safe to travel? It’s a question we get asked a lot, especially by newbie solo backpackers (and their mums!).
From the hippie trail of the 60s to the Banana Pancake route of today, Southeast Asia has long been a backpacking hub. And, with over a decade of combined travel experience in Southeast Asia, we’ve come to know a thing or two about travelling here.
Violent crime is generally unusual and tens of millions have trouble-free visits every year, making Southeast Asia one of the safest places to travel in the world. But don’t just take our word for it! Below we’ll dive into all things Southeast Asia safety, from common scams to global rankings and tips to keep you safe.
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A Safety Guide for Travellers in Southeast Asia 🌏👮♂️
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Is Southeast Asia Safe to Travel – Resources 📄
We can sit here and wax lyrical about how safe Southeast Asia is til’ the cows come home but I’m guessing you’re not going to believe us until you see some cold hard facts. So, read on!
The Global Peace Index – a ranking system determining a country’s level of safety based on a range of factors including political stability, violent crime and security – rates Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Singapore as very safe. Cambodia and Thailand come in with medium safety ratings. All the countries in Southeast Asia, except Myanmar, are ranked as safer than the United States.
Many of the region’s most popular tourist cities, for example, Hanoi, Chiang Mai, Singapore and Penang, all come in with great safety ratings according to Numbeo. In fact, Chiang Mai has recently been named the safest city in Asia and sits in position 32 worldwide!
Natural Disasters in Southeast Asia 🌋🌊
As much of Southeast Asia sits on the Ring of Fire, it is at risk of some natural disasters. You have likely heard of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which devastated parts of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar, among others.
Since this huge disaster, millions has been poured into natural disaster infrastructure and warning systems – the region has never been safer in terms of disaster prep. As well as tsunamis, volcanoes, monsoons and earthquakes also pose risks. While it is extremely unlikely that you’ll be caught up in a natural disaster on your trip, it is still possible. To stay safe, do the following:
- Sign up for local government alerts in high-risk areas
- In case of tsunami or flooding, head for high ground
- If there is an earthquake, venture away from buildings
- If you are in a city during an earthquake, hide underneath a table and protect your head with your arms
- If the area you are in is affected by wildfires or volcanic eruption, evacuate immediately
- Cover your mouth or nose if you’re in a smoky area
- Most importantly, get travel insurance – a good insurance policy will get you out of these situations as soon as possible
SafetyWing is the travel insurance of choice for scores of backpackers!
- Subscription style insurance
- Cheap and flexible
- Available after your trip has started
Transport in Southeast Asia 🚕🚍🏍️
The cheapest, most environmentally friendly, and all-around best way to travel through Southeast Asia, is overland. Buses are usually the most convenient mode of transport but in some places, trains can also be a good option. Make sure you book transport ahead of time during national holidays.
Tuk-tuks and taxis are a great way to travel small distances. While not all taxi drivers are out to scam you, taxi scams are not uncommon in Southeast Asia. To save yourself the hassle of haggling with a local taxi driver, instead opt to use one of the many ride-hailing apps such as Grab, Bolt or Gojek.
“I was scammed by a taxi driver in Ho Chi Minh City who had a fast meter installed. My five-minute journey ended up costing me over a million dong! I definitely recommend sticking to a ride-hailing app like Grab rather than using taxis – the price is stated at the time of booking so there are no nasty surprises!”
Southeast Asia is home to some truly inspiring landscapes and the best way to get off the beaten path and explore them is to rent a motorcycle. While the rules about who is allowed to ride varies depending on the country, you should only hop on a bike if you feel confident on the roads and are insured. Backpackers regularly get into scrapes on motorcycles and if you are involved in an accident, there are big costs involved with getting the necessary medical assistance if you are not covered.
🎁 The Perfect Gift For Any Backpacker… 🎁
– World Nomads
If your intrepid kid will be riding a motorcycle in Southeast Asia, check whether they need an International Driving Permit and make sure their insurance covers them to ride.
Scams in Southeast Asia ⚠️
Even though Southeast Asia is generally a safe place to travel, scams can and do happen. To prevent yourself from becoming a victim, it is important to know what to look out for. A few to be aware of include:
- 🛃 The Border Crossing Scam – Only ever buy your visa from the official immigration office.
- 🙅 The ‘Your Attraction is Closed’ Scam – If your taxi or tuk tuk driver says your temple of choice is closed, refuse to ride and instead use Grab or an alternative.
- 🏍️ The Motorbike Damage Scam – Always check your rented bike for damage before accepting it. You don’t want to be met with a large fine if they ‘find’ scratches on the bike when you go to return it!
👉 For the most common scams in Southeast Asia, see this post.
Food and Drink in Southeast Asia
Is the Food Safe in Southeast Asia? 🥘
Street food is a hugely important part of local culture in Southeast Asia and is a great way to experience the cuisine and feast on the cheap. Eating at street food stalls is perfectly safe, however, there is always a risk of eating something which upsets your stomach.
To lessen the chances of this happening to you, look for a street food stall with a high turnover of customers. This shows that the food doesn’t sit for long and is popular. If the water is not potable where you are, avoid getting ice in your drinks (unless it is factory ice) or ordering salad (this is often washed in tap water).
“With so many amazing street food stalls filling the roads, it can be hard to choose between them. While a long queue is usually a good indicator of a delicious meal, you can always ask the people working in your accommodation for their favourite places. I’m yet to receive a bad recommendation doing this!”
Can You Drink the Tap Water in Southeast Asia? 🚱
Generally speaking, you can’t drink tap water in Southeast Asia. However, there are exceptions to this rule. This comprehensive guide about tap water in Southeast Asia provides a country-by-country breakdown, so you can see exactly where the tap water is potable.
As tap water in the majority of countries isn’t safe to drink, it is worth investing in a filtered water bottle. While these are quite a big outlay, they are well worth the investment and will make tap water safe to drink – saving you money on single-use bottles and stopping you from getting ill!
“My Grayl Geopress is my favourite travel accessory. After spending hundreds of dollars in South America on my first extended trip there, I vowed never to get caught out again. Over five years of travel later and I’ve never got sick drinking water from my Grayl!”
Healthcare in Southeast Asia 🧑⚕️🏥😷
Healthcare in Southeast Asia is a mixed bag. Some hospitals and medical centres provide an extremely high level of care whereas others get by with very basic facilities and supplies. Make sure you have travel insurance so that you can access the best hospitals and make a swift exit if you become seriously ill.
Staying healthy in Southeast Asia is important. Make sure to slather on the sun cream, practice good bite avoidance and drink lots of water – you’ll be grateful for the last one when all your pals are suffering with Chang-overs! 🤢
You’ll likely be able to buy all the usual stuff in pharmacies across the region, from painkillers to anti-sickness meds. Some prescription medication may be available over the counter in Southeast Asia but it will depend on the drug in question. If you are travelling with prescription medication, make sure to check whether it is allowed in the country/ies that you are visiting.
“The first time I visited Thailand, my boyfriend needed some more prescription medication from home. We contacted our travel insurers (who specialised in pre-existing medical conditions) and they recommended a pharmacy nearby and even gave us the name of the meds written in Thai to show them. We had the medication by the afternoon – it saved us a lot of stress!”
It is always recommended that you get any essential vaccines before your trip begins but there are also places to be vaxxed in Southeast Asia. Ask in the South East Asia Facebook community for the most up-to-date information.
Oh, and boys – always wear a condom, okay? 🍆💦
Is Southeast Asia Safe for Female Travellers? 👩
In general, Southeast Asia is an excellent destination for women travelling alone. However, you should always apply personal safety protocols like avoiding wandering around after dark, keeping your valuables hidden and never leaving your drink unattended!
While we HATE telling women how to dress, much of Southeast Asia is religious and dressing conservatively will help you avoid unwanted attention from men. Bear in mind that many temples have dress codes and you will be refused entry if your shoulders and knees are not covered.
📢 Safety Tips for Southeast Asia 🌏
1. Wear a Helmet 🧠
Our brains are pretty soft. In fact, our brains are so soft that they actually float inside our skulls in cerebrospinal fluid, so they don’t come in contact with the bone. When our bodies have gone to such effort to keep our brains safe, the least you can do is use it when you’re on a motorbike. Don’t ride without a helmet – it just ain’t worth the risk.
2. Use Ride-Hailing Apps 🚗
Getting taxis can be an exhausting process. With many unscrupulous drivers waiting to rip you off, the battle often isn’t worth the fight. Make your own life easier (and likely save yourself some baht) by using a ride-hailing app like Grab or Bolt.
3. Avoid Drugs 💊
Taking drugs is never a good idea in a foreign country. While Thailand has made weed legal (in a weird sort of grey area), this could be rolled back. Many of the countries in Southeast Asia have very strict drug laws which could see you get banged up or even put to death! 😱 Stick to the boozy buckets instead!
4. If in Doubt, Filter Your Water 💧
The tap water across Southeast Asia varies in quality and you can’t drink it everywhere. To make your tummy and the planet happy, invest in a water filter bottle which will take out all the nasties. Too pricey? Stick it on your Christmas list! Santa loves a bit of travel don’t you know.
5. Download Local Alert Apps 📱
Let us be clear here, getting caught up in a natural disaster is rare in Southeast Asia. But it can still happen. Sign up for any area alert apps, follow local instructions and reconsider travel to places with high volcanic/seismic activity when you are due to visit.
6. Steer Clear of Wild Animals 🐒
Those baby primates may look sweet but they can be vicious! Be they feral dogs or cheeky monkeys, you don’t want to get bitten by any wild animal in Southeast Asia. Avoid approaching street animals and make sure you’ve had your rabies jab.
7. Get Travel Insurance 📝
I grant you, travel insurance has been mentioned a lot in this article. However, that is only because it is so darn important! Get peace of mind and save your mum from worrying herself into an early grave – buy travel insurance.
Safety in Southeast Asia FAQs 🤔
Is Southeast Asia safe for solo travellers?
Yes, Southeast Asia is safe for solo travellers and is full of backpackers travelling alone for the first time.
What is the safest country in Southeast Asia?
The safest country in Southeast Asia is Singapore. Read more about the safest countries in Asia here.
Is Southeast Asia safer than South America?
While South America is not as unsafe as shows like Narcos would have you believe, petty crime is common across the continent, particularly in the cities. Southeast Asia is considered to be safer for travellers than South America.
While bad things can happen anywhere, the main takeaway from this article is that travel in Southeast Asia is generally very safe and very rewarding. Take personal safety precautions, always ride with a helmet and make sure you are covered by insurance and you will likely join the millions who have a trouble-free visit to Southeast Asia every year. Now hurry up and book those flights already! ✈️