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Exploring Asia

On overcoming the fear of traveling alone in an unknown country

THAILAND | Thursday, 10 December 2015 | Views [5635]

Bangkok Floating Markets

I landed in Bangkok February fourth and, as usual, I became anxious.

Thailand will be the fifteenth country that I’ve visited alone, but I still haven’t learned to handle the fear of not knowing what to expect.

It’s a primordial fear, a subtle one. But a completely natural one. Our self-defense mechanisms lead us to fear what we don’t know.

These days there are no longer sabretooth tigers around to attack us as soon as we step outside of the cave. The fears that we measure ourselves by are perhaps less lethal, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less frightening.

I won’t pretend to be a courageous traveler. When I land in a new country, dragging behind me everything I own, I always keep it on me.

While in the past I suffered through atrocious moments of panic– for example when I got lost in the Paris metro during my first trip abroad or when, in Dublin, I had no idea which was my stop on the double decker bus – today I’ve learned to calm this fear, limit it to just a minute or two (usually the time it takes to get out of the airport and find the metro line, bus or taxi).


First, being prepared for the worst. Second, facing my fears from a rational point of view.

Why upon landing in Bangkok do I fear losing my wallet or that someone swipes my passport while when I arrive in Shanghai I turn on my iPod, put on a Los Redondos album and have no fear of the guards that yell at me for not respecting the passport control?

The answer is because in Shanghai I feel at home, I speak the language and know that wherever I go I know lots of people that are ready to help me.

Instead in Bangkok I don’t know anyone, I can’t read these – for me – bizarre symbols that mush together to compose street and neighborhood names that are unknown to me. I feel like the little old lady who’s afraid of the man that passes by just because he’s black. And she’s never had any dealings with black men!

Here’s a list of the precautions that help me overcome the fear of traveling alone in an unknown country:

Always use two wallets

To avoid surprises at the airport exit or on the subway I always travel with two wallets. One in the pocket of my jeans, where I keep a rechargeable credit card (almost all banks offer one at the cost of about ten Euro), a small amount of money and a photocopy of my passport and visa.

The other wallet, the main one, I always keep in an internal pocket or in one of those belts that look like a compact marsupial (to wear under your shirt). Here is where I keep my passport, the majority of my money and my main credit card.

This way, in case of a mugging (it can happen) I’m certain to limit the damage.

Take out a health insurance policy

When I travel to a country that doesn’t belong to the European Union it’s a good habit to take out a health insurance policy that covers you in the case of an accident or sickness.

Make a backup of important documents

In this digital era all you need to do is take a photo to get a copy of your passport, visa, health insurance policy and identity card. You can then send them to yourself via email or use a backup service like Dropbox. For your hotel reservation or air ticket this usually isn’t necessary since they send it to you via email.

I like to save a copy of these documets also on a USB fob that I keep in an internal pocket (in case I need it in a moment when I don’t have an internet connection).

Organize transport from the airport to the hotel

The trip from the airport to the hotel is when you’re most vulnerable, especially if you arrive at night. When they see a white devil with so many backpacks at the airport exit, the taxi drivers don’t see a person, but rather a chicken ready to be plucked.

Last August I landed in Ho Chi Minh City, the legendary Saigon, at two in the morning. At that hour the bus drivers are all sleeping and you have to take a taxi.

Searching a little on the internet, I discovered that Ho Chi Minh taxi drivers are well known for modifying their meters in a way to get them to go much faster, telling you that your hotel is closed and bringing you somewhere else. The only serious companies are Mailinh and Vinasun.

Knowing which company to use spared me a real headache and, perhaps, a night sleeping outside.

I also printed out a map from the airport to the hotel, complete with the name and address of the hostel. This move not only avoids misunderstandings (you know how it is, I’m not an expert on Vietnamese pronounciation), but lets the driver know that you’ll know if he’s bringing you in the right direction.

Talk about bluffing...

Last but not least, I mark the license number of the taxi driver (usually found on the dashboard).

It’s not that I don’t trust them, let’s just say... OK, I don’t trust them at all. Especially when I’m carrying my passport, credit card and two thousand Euros worth of photography equipment.

Backup phone

I always travel with two phones. An old clunker with an Italian card that when needed I use to make international calls (such as when they block my credit card, which happens frequently when you withdraw from three different countries in a month, which I have to do at times) and a smartphone into which I can insert a local telephone card.

In the end it will all work out...

...and if it still isn’t resolved, it means the end hasn’t yet arrived.

Be mindful of the fact that in the event that you lose everything, there’s always a solution.

And if I lose all my money?

Suppose you lose all your money and credit cards (an improbability if you travel with two wallets and a few banknotes in your backpack).

In this case all you need to do is call Italy and ask a relative or friend to go to the nearest Western Union counter and lend you the money you need.

Western Union will give you a code for the nearest counter where you can pick up your funds. It literally takes ten minutes.

If you don’t have anyone that can help you, perhaps before leaving you might want to think about getting a social life: P

Another way to go “safely” is to have a PayPal account and transfer some money there before departure.

And if I lose my passport?

In this case you’ll have to call the Italian embassy and ask for a new one. In extreme cases the embassy usually provides repatriation.

To be sure that they look for you in the event of a tsumani, earthquake or civil war, you can always register in the site Dove siamo nel mondo, run by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs before you leave.


Be rational

This is probably the most important point of all.

The fear of the unknown moves us to fill the void of information with our imagination, leading us to conceive catastrophic scenarios that in reality have no chance of coming true (for example what I had described earlier).

There is a way, almost a formula, to stop worrying and begin to live in the most relaxing way:

1) Analyze the situation honestly to the point of what is the worst thing that can happen to you.

2) Once you discern the worst scenario, accept it calmly. 3) From now on, work on bettering your situation, at the same time having already accepted the worst case scenario.

3) From now on, work on bettering your situation, at the same time having already accepted the worst case scenario.

Tags: bangkok, thailand, travel alone

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