We are celebrating two years on the road this month; a milestone in our personal history. And we are celebrating that 2 year anniversary in Thailand, one of our favorite places in the world. It also happens to be the same week as a coup d’etat here in Thailand. Not anything we weren’t already kind of expecting, and not anything we can’t handle. But not exactly the most ideal time to be in Bangkok, since this city that never sleeps is currently under a curfew from 10 pm-5 am each night, and there are daily protests.
Since last Tuesday, we’ve gotten so many wonderful messages from friends and readers sharing their concern for us, offering support, telling us to stay safe and be careful, and letting us know they’re thinking about us. It’s been overwhelming, in the best possible way, and we are so grateful to have so many people who care about us.
But we’ve also gotten some notes from people admonishing us for our choice to be in Thailand at this time. We’ve been accused of being reckless, irresponsible, and of encouraging others to do the same. And I’ll be honest with you. It kind of pisses me off. But, at the same time, I also realize that these people are just as concerned for our well being as the ones with the more positive messages up above. It’s just that maybe they don’t know us as well and so they don’t realize all the time and effort we put into vetting situations we are planning to head into.
So, today, I’m inviting you behind the scenes here at WWY Central, to see how we plan, and to talk about some of the unexpected roles we have assumed since deciding to become world travelers. Let’s use Thailand as an example, shall we?
People often ask us what has surprised us most about this trip. There are loads of different answers to this question. But probably the one that comes up the most is that we’ve had to become political scientists. We live in a great big amazing world and the nature of travel and technology has made it both smaller and bigger. Many of the places we most want to visit have political instability or corruption or their infrastructure isn’t what it needs to be. So how do you anticipate what might happen in a place? I admit that both Kyle and I have a bit of girl scout/boy scout in us and we try to be prepared. Here are a few of the things we do to try and stay on top of situations we are heading into (or find ourselves in).
When we know we’re going but haven’t arrived yet:
We follow what the US State Department and the British Foreign Office have to say.
The US State Department and the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office provide resources on travel to every country in the world. On their websites, you can read about local customs, see what the current political situation is, and learn all sorts of other things, such as what vaccinations or visas you might need. We subscribe to updates on the countries we are planning to visit.
We read a LOT!
Every day, we read the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, NPR, and many major newspapers around the world. And we stay up to date on the latest current events around the world via BBC.com, AlJazeera.com, The Guardian, NPR, and usually some local news sites. You will notice that there are not a lot of US based news sites on this list. That’s because they often aren’t even covering what’s happening in another country, or their coverage is a bit biased or reactionary, or it is 2-3 days behind.
We stay active in the expat community throughout the world.
This is a big friendly group and they are always happy to help out with information or recommendations. They provide a unique insight into customs and events that, as expats ourselves, we often find helpful. They’re also a great resource for finding the good local spots that tourists never get to see. And sometimes they’ll meet up with you and buy you a beer.
Follow Local Events on Twitter
We try to find at least one person active on Twitter who posts regular updates on the current situation in any given place. For Thailand, that is Richard Barrow. A British expat who has lived and worked in Thailand for the past 20 years, he is EVERYONE’S go to person for real time information on what is happening in Thailand. We start following when we know we’re on our way there (which could be months in advance of our arrival – for Thailand, we started closely following things in November, when protests first started) and continue to follow while we are on the ground. With Richard, we will continue to follow him even after we leave in order to stay up to date on what is going on here.
Once we have arrived in country:
Register with STEP – The US State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program
We always register with STEP. You can get information from STEP in two different ways.
You can register your trip with the State Department, and they will notify the US Embassy in whatever country you are in that you are there. They also provide briefings and travel alerts and warnings to you via email. I think it is probably a good idea to register with them no matter where you are going. That way, if anything happens (political unrest, terrorism, tsunami, earthquake, etc), they know that you are there and might need help.
You can also register for travel alerts and warnings about specific countries, without having to register a trip with them. You will receive regular email updates based on State Department alerts and warnings.
We have a smartphone
We use our smartphone for so many things when we travel, including to follow updates in real time when we’re on the ground. Our phone is unlocked so it is very easy for us to get a local SIM card when we arrive in a new country. For a short trip it is probably more cost effective to just buy a cheap local phone and a prepaid plan.
We use our phone to continue to follow twitter updates as well as updates from the US State department and British Foreign office. We also use it for navigation, to keep a list of key phrases, and to keep a copy of our local address and phone number. We use it frequently everyday for looking things up while on the go, following local news and updates, and taking photos of odd and funny things.
We try to get a feel for what things are like on the ground.
Often, when we check into a hostel or hotel, the person at the front desk will give you a rundown on what is going on. You may see a printed briefing of current conditions in your room, in the elevator, or at the concierge desk. Or other guests can tell you what’s been going on (this is especially true for hostels). Here in Bangkok, there is an updated printed briefing every few days posted in the hotel lobby and in the elevator. The front desk and door staff are also happy to answer any questions you have.
Taxi drivers are another good resource, especially a friendly chatty one who speaks English. (BTW, we always offer our taxi drivers a mint or gum. You’d be surprised at how far this can take you in establishing rapport.)
We connect with local expats and travelers.
Like I said before, they are a great resource. And they’re a group we tend to have a lot in common with, as we have many of the same life goals and desires that don’t always fit into the norm. Plus, they’re fun to go grab a beer and sit and chat with.
We stay smart.
For instance, in Bangkok, it is possible to avoid protests and problem areas completely. This is a big city and in our neighborhood nothing is going on. It’s one of the reasons we chose this location, because we knew it would most likely not be at the center of a demonstration or protest. By staying up to date on what is going on in town in real time, it’s possible to avoid protests entirely. The last thing we do before we go to sleep and the first thing we do when we get up is check the current situation.
We stay smart on the fly as well.
Things are unfolding here rapidly and often with not a lot of notice. During the Bangkok Shutdown in February and just this week, we’ve found ourselves walking right into the middle of something. Often at this point we’re just relying on instinct and what our gut tells us to do and whether or not we feel the situation is safe. For the record, we haven’t ended up in any situation here in Bangkok where we have felt unsafe. Of course, we’ve gone out of our way to try and stay out of the thick of things. We’re not stupid. But sometimes life just happens.
In February, we found ourselves having to walk through one of the protest sites/camps in order to catch a taxi to the hospital. Nobody could predict that the street we needed would be fully shut down and that not even taxi drivers or buses would be allowed through that afternoon. We evaluated the situation and took a calculated risk to walk through the site that day. It was fine. More than anything it felt like a street fair, complete with food, souvenirs, and entertainment. If it had felt unsafe to us, we would have made the more than an hour detour to get around it.
And just a few days ago, we came off the Skywalk at Ratchaprasong (very nice shopping district in Bangkok) and practically walked into a line of soldiers. Just then, the tweet came through saying there were soldiers gathering at Ratchaprasong because there was going to be an anti-coup protest there in an hour. There had been no protests in this area prior to this and there was no way to predict what happened. We popped into the Boots drugstore for a few things (which is why we had come in the first place), took a selfie with one of the soldiers, and then headed out of the area. We were some of the last people they let back onto the Skywalk before they locked it down to prevent protesters from using public transportation to get there. We didn’t go back to see what happened later, but did follow it on Twitter. Once again, we felt fine and not at all threatened. We also left before the protest began.
Sometimes you do all the research and you know something is likely to happen, but you continue to plan anyway. With our time in Cambodia coming to an end and our trip to Thailand coming up fast, we knew things were probably going to come to a head soon in Thailand. We just didn’t know when. And then we woke up on the morning we were flying here from Cambodia to news that, just 2 hours earlier, the Thai army had declared martial law. It wasn’t anything we were not already kind of expecting to happen, but it wasn’t the greatest of timing either. We made the decision to not delay our trip. To be honest, it wasn’t even a consideration. We both knew we wanted to go and that this wasn’t enough to prevent that or make us think twice.
In the end you have to try and be as smart as you can…and then just go with the flow.
Have a Plan B
We usually have a plan B in place, whether that is to go to a different location in the country we are in, or to leave altogether and go someplace else. In this case, we have several contingency plans including holing up in a hotel next to the airport until we leave, heading to Phuket or Krabi, or leaving for London early. We fly Etihad to London on June 1st, and they have said that, due to the coup, we can reschedule our flight to leave early for no additional charge. But we’re fine and enjoying our time here, so here we will stay.
In other instances, we have chosen to delay or cancel our trip to certain places because we just didn’t feel comfortable in light of current situations. I think in the end, it comes down to your own personal comfort level with being in areas where things are unpredictable. But doing a bit of advance legwork and staying up to date on the situation is always going to be what we advise. We’re already well into advance research and studying of current events for many of our destinations this year, including Peru in just under a month.
In the end, this is part of what travel is all about. Expanding your horizons and experiencing different cultures, including political situations from time to time. It’s learning to roll with the punches and constantly recalibrate your expectations in very different cultures and this ever changing world. In this case, we had been to Thailand and to Bangkok many times before. We feel comfortable here and know how to navigate around town and we chose to continue our trip here as usual. And it has been a glorious time to be in Bangkok. It’s bloody hot, but no hotter than it was in Cambodia. And the city doesn’t have a whole lot of tourists in it this week, which means when we want to do something touristy (like a food tour or going to do a photo trip to the Grand Palace) there are not thousands of other people doing the same thing. We aren’t doing anything different on this particular trip to Thailand than we have done on any other trip (except paying slightly more attention to Twitter & staying in at night due to the curfew). We are still wandering many of the fascinating neighborhoods in this town, visiting historical and cultural sights, window shopping and people watching at the many malls here, and enjoying as much street food as we possible can.