In the last few days the political situation in Thailand has been difficult. A long-standing conflict between the mainly rural ‘yellow shirts’ – supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and the mainly urban ‘red shirts’ – who violently oppose her, has come to a head. There have been mass demonstrations and tense stand-offs with the police in Bangkok, spreading as far as the resort town of Phuket. This is not new to the country: in 2008 a similar situation forced the closure of Bangkok’s main airport for a week. This time round no less than 23 different countries have issued travel advice warnings about Thailand to their citizens. In the UK for example, the Foreign Office has a useful site that summarises risks to British travellers all round the world, including handy downloadable colour coded-maps (red means ‘don’t got there’). For Thailand it currently says “You should avoid all protests, political gatherings, and demonstrations”.
It has been a busy time for the Foreign Office: there have also recently been big and violent demonstrations in Ukraine, so the advice for travellers there is “pay close attention to your personal security and monitor the media for information about possible safety or security risks. You should avoid demonstrations and public gatherings, as even peaceful protests may turn violent.” In contrast the Foreign Office is getting a little more relaxed about Egypt, where it says “we no longer advise against all but essential travel to Cairo Governate and Greater Cairo, including Giza and the Giza Pyramids”.
Top Tips For Safe Travel – Lonely Planet
So how should we travellers take all these warnings? Should we be quick to cancel our travel plans, or should we press on regardless? I’m definitely in favour of taking every warning seriously, but I think the whole issue of how we assess risk is fascinating and quite complex. I’ve worked as a foreign correspondent and travelled to a lot of countries: I hasten to say I’ve been more of a ‘desk journalist’ than a war reporter. But somehow or other (stupidity may have had something to do with it) I have blundered into some risky situations. So what lessons have I learnt?
The most important one is that assessing risk is relative and is often difficult to do from a distance. This dawned on me when I was based in a country with an active guerrilla movement and occasional outbreaks of violence. Whenever anything nasty was reported in the news I’d get worried calls from relatives in Britain, suggesting I really ought to come home. But it suddenly struck me that they too were living in… well, a country with an active guerrilla movement and occasional outbreaks of violence (the IRA’s bombing campaign was in full swing at the time). The fact is that for many years in the UK people have learnt to live with a pretty high level of threat, now coming from different sources but still a real and unfortunately continuing presence in our daily lives. At home we may feel more secure; perhaps we have better information; but statistically we may be just as exposed as when we travel. In either case, it is best to stay as well-informed as you can.
My lesson number two is that ‘fear is good’. I learnt this from a veteran Central American correspondent who saw me arrive as a novice to report on various civil wars. She took me aside to carefully explain that if you find a situation rather scary, it is probably because it is genuinely rather scary and something is not right: and if so the best, most common sense thing to do is to get out of there as quickly as possible. ‘We are all cowards’ she said, ‘and the ones who claim not to feel fear are the dangerous ones. Keep away from them!’. Fear is, after all, a basic human instinct designed for a purpose: to help us survive.
And lesson number three is to always try to have a Plan B. I am embarrassed to admit it, but on a visit to Cairo during the recent troubles I was doggedly walking a particular route back to my hotel. The bizarre thing about the city that day was that there were people shopping, and walking their dogs, while in other neighbourhoods buildings were burning, and gunfire could be heard. I suddenly found myself accosted by some charming and considerate locals who suggested I was walking in the wrong direction and that I should take a taxi out of there pretty sharpish. They knew their city, and they had no evident ulterior motives, so I took their very helpful advice and high-tailed it. You don’t have to be in the middle of a riot to appreciate the importance of a Plan B: it may be as simple as asking yourself: ‘what will I do if I can’t find a taxi after the party in the old part of the city which gets very dark at night?’ (There is always an answer: radio taxis, tuk-tuks, a friend who can be called, a torch… but it is best to have thought it through beforehand!)
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