I rarely write posts like this, but in the wake of the brutal murder of British backpackers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on Koh Tao I feel compelled to write about the topic of safety for young female travellers, particularly those away in South East Asia for the first time. I write this post as advice from a woman traveller in her thirties on how to stay safe in Thailand if you are a young woman travelling for the first time.
The first thing to remember is that crimes of this sort are still, thankfully, rare, and that Thailand hosts millions of foreign women every year who enjoy the trip of a lifetime and return home safely.
But that does not mean that caution should be abandoned. The murder of Ms Witheridge and Mr Miller is a stark reminder that these things can, and do, happen from time to time.
I am not writing this post about the specifics of what happened to Ms Witheridge and Mr Miller, but merely to advise women travellers on how to keep safe in general.
Let me tell you a story from my own travels.
A female friend and I visited Goa in August 2005, when I was about the same age as Ms Witheridge. It was during the monsoon and the beaches were quiet. We ate at the same restaurant every night; it was the only restaurant operating out of season. During our visits we chatted to the male waiters who were friendly, polite and attentive. Every night they offered us a drink ‘on the house’, which we politely declined. On our final night the men became persistent, pushy even.
They said that we shouldn’t refuse hospitality in India—that it was rude. Not wanting to offend we accepted one drink, declining the men’s offer to bring us more.
Around midnight we asked for the check. When the check came our waiter informed us that the manager wanted to meet us to thank us for our business and wish us well on our travels. The waiter insinuated that we mustn’t refuse because we had enjoyed a drink at the manager’s expense. Forced to agree, we waited at the table for the manager to arrive. Ten minutes later the waiter returned and told us that the manager was at a bar down the beach and would like us to meet him there. A group of men offered to take us to him.
Alarm bells began to ring.
We had been at the beach for over a week and knew of no other bar that was open in the area.
Even if the story were true, the beach along which we would have to walk was dark and deserted.
When we declined their offer the men turned aggressive. It was an uncomfortable situation in which we had to firmly stand our ground. We paid and left, and I would be lying if I said that we didn’t run back to our hotel.
Nothing happened, and maybe nothing would have done even if we’d gone with them down the beach, but a tiny feeling in the pit of my stomach warned me not to go.
That tiny feeling would have been a lot harder to read if I’d been drunk.
How many women would have accepted drinks all week?
How many women would have flirted with the waiters in order to get more free drinks?
How many women, drunk and giggly, would have gone with them down the dark beach?
And what would happen to them if they did?
I have written previously of another incident concerning a young woman I met in Bolivia. It is a chilling story of a girl who narrowly escaped a nasty situation. There is a common theme: alcohol.
I am not saying that female travellers shouldn’t drink, but I firmly believe that you should control how much you drink, or at least drink in large groups and stay together. Yes, drinking might be fun but women become so vulnerable when drunk.
Public binge drinking is not common in most regions; especially Asia where many countries have a conservative attitude towards alcohol consumption and public displays of affection. When locals see tourists (especially female tourists) behaving in a drunken manner, with explicit displays of sexual or loutish behaviour they are confused by the lack of personal respect, and offended by the blatant lack of cultural respect. A moonlit beach liaison to smitten backpackers is an insult to local sensibilities and customs. In many Asian countries public displays of affection, even simple handholding, simply don’t happen. While most locals will look the other way in embarrassment, in an extreme case offense could turn to anger. And anger can turn to rage. You get the picture.
As far as I see it, travellers have an obligation to respect local customs. Women should observe how local women dress and behave. If you can’t see a local woman with a lacy bra on display, then maybe you oughtn’t have yours on display either. I’m not saying that you should adopt local dress codes, but if the only women you see wearing thigh-high mini skirts and tiny tops with exposed bras are the local hookers (as is often the case on Thai or Cambodian beaches), then your attire, if similar, will convey the same message to a local man.
I am aware that I am wandering deep into murky waters here, so let me clarify that I don’t believe it is the responsibility of a woman to cover up so that she doesn’t tempt men, or that a woman wearing a short dress is ever ‘asking for it’, but I do believe that women have a personal responsibility to protect themselves in whatever way they can, especially in areas that gender equality has yet to reach.
Drugs, alcohol, backpackers’ uninhibited behaviour, and the archaic attitude towards women (demonstrated publicly by the Thai Prime Minister’s infamous ‘bikini comment’ after the murders) across Asia—particularly in rural areas—is a lethal cocktail, and the murder of Ms Witheridge and Mr Miller, possibly provoked by sexual jealousy, proves that.
Common sense for women really is the key. Here’s how to stay safe in Thailand:
- If you wouldn’t walk alone after a night out at home then don’t think a deserted beach is safe to do so either. It only takes one person with ill intent, or simply a crush, to follow you.
- Don’t flirt with local men – if the local women don’t do it then you shouldn’t. If a local man offers you drinks only accept if others in your group have done so and don’t take more than one, especially if you suspect that he is interested and you do not reciprocate. If you are flirting with a foreigner, do so with subtlety. Bedroom behaviour should be taken to the bedroom, not the beach.
- Allocate a ‘designated driver’ in your group – somebody who will drink less, or not at all, each evening so that you know at least one person is able to make rational decisions.
- Don’t leave your drink unattended.
- Stay with or around large groups when leaving bars at night and stick to the road or most busy walkway when going back to your guesthouse. Don’t take a tuk-tuk alone.
- Avoid confrontations with local bar owners. As this article explains, Koh Tao, as well as other islands, is run by mafia groups. You will not win a fight with them should you get into one.
- Drugs. Do I really have to say any more? If there’s a sure-fire way to get yourself noticed by people who will take advantage it’s to take drugs – particularly local drugs like Ya-ba.
I know this article is rather preachy, but I have been around a bit and I have heard first-hand of too many incidents where women I have met have found themselves in unpleasant situations.
Incidents of sexual harassment or intimidation towards women are more common than you think. And guys, there have been a fair few violent muggings taking place too.
Thankfully, the women I know escaped unharmed, but tragically Hannah Witheridge didn’t.
Look at her photograph above. She is a carefree young woman travelling the world like many others, her attire on the evening of the murder is no different to any other girl on the beach that night – she is dressed for a hot climate. She did not ‘ask for it’ by her clothing or behaviour, but unfortunately managed to attract the attentions of men with ill intent.
This could have happened to any other young woman on the beach that night, or any night.
Details of her final moments are unclear: some reports say that she smoked a cigarette alone with her killers before the attack, others say that her and David Miller were kissing. Mr Miller, it seems, died trying to protect her. Whatever happened that night one fact remains the same – an isolated beach, made even darker by the shadows of the rocks amongst which they were killed, was a conveniently empty location in which the men could conduct an attack without being seen.
If, by a bit of ‘boring’ common sense, we can prevent this from happening to another young woman (or man), then we must do so. Enjoy the gorgeous beaches by day, but remember that people who hang out on them when the crowds have gone are usually up to no good.
I have travelled to Thailand a number of times and will continue to do so. I do not wish to contribute to scaremongering or the misleading assumption that Thailand is no longer safe. Events like this are rare, and we must ensure that they remain so.
Female travellers, what are your top tips for female safety? Have you been put off visiting Thailand with the recent events?