1. Knocked into a friend today and we started talking about my Asean on Wheels self-drive holidays. I was asked: is it safe? I had been asked this question umpteen times since I embarked on this self-drive holiday in April this year. So I thought perhaps I should just write a few paragraphs about this and share my thoughts.
2. The truth is, in the nature of things, there are always risks. Is it possible that we may be mugged or kidnapped? Or car broken in and things inside stolen? Or worst, car get stolen? What about terrorist attacks? We cannot rule out such incidents could happen to us. Are the risks higher in the places that we traveled to? Not necessarily so, I feel. Often, it is an issue of perception. Our impression of a foreign land is often shaped by negative news reported by the media. We forget that there are zillions of activities going on in that land that are not reported (i.e not news worthy) that represent the state of normalcy. When we push ourselves into greater unknown, it is natural that fear factor goes up and this may have little to do with the level of risks. We decided that a practical approach to take was risk minimization not risk avoidance. We could not afford to have fear paralyzed us into inaction.
3. We did a number of things to reduce our risks:
(a) First and foremost, we tried to do all our driving in the day. It is much harder for someone to stop the car and rob you in broad daylight. Also, it minimizes the chance of traffic accidents. In our travels, we came across many motorcycles and bicycles that traveled at night without lights or reflectors. It was a real strain trying to spot them in darkness. By the way, many roads were without street lights.
(b) As a norm, we looked for hotels with its own car-park, preferably with 24 hrs security. We avoided street parking.
(c) In general, we retired early, often to clear emails and to blog, and to get enough rest for travel the next day. We avoided clubs and pubs, rowdy places where tendency for incidents was higher.
(d) As ATMs were everywhere, we carried as little cash as possible. Also, we spread the cash between the two of us and put them in various places in the car.
Additionally, I would have loved to travel with 2-3 cars but it was not possible these times.
4. We covered extensive ground in the 2 trips, about 24 000 km over 130 days, to Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei and Indonesia, staying nights in more than 80 towns and cities, but there was not a single moment when we felt unsafe or threatened. It does not mean there was no risk. But, it could possibly mean that the level of risks was not as high as many people feared. Very often, we drew quite a fair amount of attention and were stared at. They were not hostile stares. Some of them would peek into the car. They were mostly curious people, wondering where the foreign car was from and what it was doing in the country. One of them in Lombok was so interested in the Pajero that he asked if I was prepared to sell the car. In Ho Chi Minh City, we were stopped by a policeman because he wanted to find out how much my Pajero cost.
5. We had consistently come across friendly local people who were always ready to help. If there is one important lesson I learned from these trips, it is: Never be afraid to ask. I was often surprised by their eagerness to assist. One day in Ubud in Bali, I had the misfortune of reversing my car into a drain, near to a village. Two of the wheels were left dangling over the drain. Within minutes, the noise drew some 10-15 males from the village to my car. Very enthusiastically, they helped lift the car on one end while I turned the car forward with the gear in high torque. When we got the car out of the drain, they all cheered in unison. It speaks volume, of their friendship and their preparedness to help.
6. It is in trips like that that we come to appreciate that there are many ordinary people out there, though different, actually are not too different from us. Often, they are warm and friendly, hospitable because we are guests to their country and would lend a helping hand when asked.