After a particularly eventful first half to 2009, I elected to disappear to Thailand for a month with a good friend of mine – explore the southern islands around Phuket and what would be my first of countless forays to Southeast Asia.
My story starts with a Full Moon Party
We arrived in Phuket and, having done absolutely zero investigation prior to our arrival, instantly realised the Full Moon Party of legend we sought was held in an entirely different part of the country…
We did what anyone sensible would do – rented a pair of scooters and headed out for a 1000km journey of 2-stroke hell.
I'm sorry to say that we lied to the owner about our ultimate destination, karma took blood for our sins.
Travel is all about balance, isn't it?
Jet boats and island hopping, what could go wrong?
While the journey across Thailand itself was not at all uneventful, it is a story for another day.
From Koh Samui, we headed out on a jet boat and enjoyed a bit of island hopping before arrival to the exquisite bay at Haad Rin, on Koh Phangan.
You see, while bouncing around the sand and actually enjoying the beauty of the moon from the bay, we were told it was the ‘third-best place to view the full moon’ by some interesting reckoning, we found ourselves in the company of some air travel professionals from a then not-yet-scandal-bound airline in Malaysia.
There was a heartfelt invitation to visit our new friends in Kuala Lumpur and, after we returned bloodied and bruised to Phuket two days later (another story for another day, I remind you!), my travel companion and I decided it was a great idea to head out again almost immediately to visit KL.
My own 'pilot error' comes into play
Another not at all uneventful visit later – I can’t yet apologise for the plot points so far – we enjoyed a fantastically hosted visit, including an incredible home-hosted potluck with black and white-themed after party!
Bouncing back from our hangovers, we headed by bus to Singapore where we’d explore for a day or three then fly back to Phuket and actually get to see our original destination!
This is where my own pilot error comes into play.
You see, one of our pilot friends had gifted us a small bag of in-flight bottles to enjoy during our bus ride down to Singapore.
You know, the kind you see only in hotel minibars and during flights?
Well, we had a literal selection of drinks we failed to consume by the time we met with the border to Singapore.
What bottles remained were simply tossed in a small bag and placed in my backpack as we headed for customs, the bus would carry on through its own inspection and we’d all re-embark with our new bus journey friends in a few hundred metres.
I was promptly separated from the rest of the passengers
This is where things go a little side-ways, and the real point of my story.
From customs and inspection, I was promptly separated from the rest of the passengers and led to a small set of rooms for further questioning.
I'm unsure how long it took, but I was relieved of my alcoholic burdens and encouraged to execute a sort of pledge that I'd never again commit such injury to the State.
In reality, my detainment was quite a positive experience, all told.
Today, however, I look back and cringe with how irresponsible I had been and how easily I could have found myself at the mercy of different circumstance.
I'd use this positive outcome to impart such wisdom on the traveller of today, when it comes to local regulations and their violation.
For those of you unaware, Singapore has famously strict rules regarding some interesting, everyday items and which extends with more severity against those items our society also deems illegal.
Chewing gum is illegal
For example, chewing gum is prohibited. You can’t even bring it into the country. I should have expected a small collection of undeclared mini-bottles to join the gum...
I also had gum.
A small amount of any narcotics comes with a very severe penalty.
All of these items have one thing in common and they share this in common with our own society, yours too! Ignorance is no excuse.
While my situation was arguably innocent, I was detained long enough to be a burden to my fellow bus passengers and probably just became another dinner table story for the family of the customs agent to share with his kids about another stupid foreigner.
I had my spirits lifted; I was about 7-10oz lighter at the end of the experience!
Now, my scenario was likely just a customs violation, to this day I'm unsure if it could have come with a hefty fine or even jail time - but how often does the modern traveller unintentionally violate the rules?
Do we sometimes even willfully turn a blind eye, thinking local custom to be unimportant or just brush off another culture's values as silly or unenforceable?
As a visitor to any country, we are instantly on the back foot.
Local laws are just that, made for locals. Some cultures can be more forgiving, understanding that as a foreigner you might not fully grasp the law - others might be less so.
Travel is meant to be about new experiences, about excitement and adventure
Think about this:
A handful of mini-bottles is almost laughable, what about counterfeit clothing or accessories?
You wouldn’t bring a child back to your hotel room, but what if a friendly fellow bar patron accompanied you back to your accommodation for a night-cap?
You wouldn’t transport a kilo of drugs, but what if you hit a cyclist while driving your rental car?
As mentioned, some scenarios are laughable – you’re happily married and pay full tag price for your legitimate clothing, you are a good driver and you always obey the rules…
Well, it doesn’t matter.
Being a traveller means enjoying the excitement of the unexpected, that can sometimes mean less-than-positive experiences.
How do you navigate the outcome or immediate aftermath from those which carry a financial penalty or hold even more severe outcomes?
Here come the 3!
I’ve elected to highlight my most basic three recommendations to help guide your future success, preparations I recommend to each of my clients anyway, but which can keep your travel dream afloat when the unexpected occurs:
1. Ignorance really is no excuse
I like to believe that people all around the world are inherently good. They are your new friends and they want your life to be as successful as anyone else’s, especially if you are visiting their country.
Show them the respect goes both ways by taking at least a little time to familiarise yourself with some of the customs before you travel or at least during the first day or two when you arrive.
Learn quickly what is or isn’t acceptable, but maybe start with a visit to your government’s own portal for travel advisories. Extreme examples of different laws might be readily presented to help maintain a high standard of relations between your two countries!
You may find other people have faced enough potential trouble in past that there is a relevant warning or a frequent question has a ready-made answer for you to discover by simply reading the latest updates.
2. Register your travel
Another aspect of the service we make for our clients here at Odyssean Travel when we are able; while you are in the web portal making your review of the travel advisories, take a moment to at least register your entry and exit dates with your own government.
By registering your presence in the country, you are aiding your own consular assistance if need should be triggered during your trip.
Remember that legal aid may be delivered in a less familiar manner, as the embassy / consulate may be disallowed from recommending one legal professional over another.
However it stands, you stand the best chance of getting support by not showing up on law enforcement radar with your local presence as a total surprise to consular officials.
3. Be more aware than you would be at home
This comes two-fold.
You will have to be diligent in that your destination might make you a target for unsavoury behaviours.
The cost of your flight alone to a country in the developing world might be more than local families make in a month, a year, or even longer – it has the unfortunate effect of making your valuables more valuable.
Further, you come from a country in which you have a healthy respect for law enforcement and tend to abide the demands of those in authority positions.
This can make you a target for scams.
Sometimes elaborate scams in which the local law enforcement is not on your side, or at least those who appear as authority may not be on your side:
When I was living in China, there was an interesting scam which involved the fleecing of locals and foreigners alike – there are so many different branches and levels of law enforcement that it’s sometimes hard to discern among them, let alone gain an awareness that a particular individual isn’t actually law enforcement.
The scam was this: Someone would throw themselves at your vehicle or pretend that you had otherwise injured them. While an argument ensued, a police officer would show up and try to arbitrate.
Arbitration by police in China can be different than what you might expect and the idea of what is or isn’t fair can mean equal payment by each party or even just handing cash over to the person the police officer perceived as having been wronged.
But what if the police officer is not actually a police officer? Would you know the difference?
Police uniforms are easily acquired in legitimate purchases in any large city. If you aren't exposed to the uniforms every day, would you spot a fake?
What about those of 'plain-clothes' officers?
While I’m certainly not encouraging you to challenge each and every authority figure with card-inspecting scrutiny and belligerence, I’d simply remind you to be more aware than you would be at home.
If something about the situation feels off, maybe it is right that you seek a second officer or even just some help in breaking the language barrier from a local friend, a bystander, or even your own phone. (Want to see how you can use your phone to break communications barriers even offline?)
You might have to be a bit creative to confirm your suspicions.
At any rate, sometimes the quiet of a police station is preferable to the chaos of a market.
I’d love to hear more from you, the audience, please get in touch to share a personal experience or impression of your own or legal troubles of others.
Maybe you’ve got a question of your own? While I am a travel professional and not a legal professional, I will help to the best of my ability and see if we can’t find some answer to your question or solution to your problem!
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