You’re sitting in a taxi in Bangkok and realize the driver can’t understand where you want to go. You’re being followed by begging kids in Cusco. You’ve just used the toilet in your beachfront cabana and find out you can’t flush…

What would you do if you were travelling in the developing world and found yourself in these situations? This post examines seven problematic travel situations you may encounter on the road, and explains what you might do about them.

Last week I discussed how you can travel cheaply by organizing your own trip to either Latin America or Southeast Asia. Of course, this “cheapness” comes at a price. Those countries are cheaper because they have a poorer economy, and this poorer economy (and poorer citizens) means that you will encounter many challenges and things that won’t go as expected.

Here are a few examples:

You are in a taxi in Bangkok, Thailand and you realize that your driver does not speak (or read) English and does not understand where you want to go.

If you have a map with street names written in Thai, and know the exact location, mark it with an X and show it to the driver. But what if you don’t? Will Google Map on your smart phone show the Thai street names? Does your phone even work in Thailand? And what are the two things you really should have done before you got in the taxi?

You are in a cafe in Flores, Guatemala and the drink the waitress brings you is full of ice cubes. Do you drink it?

Well, you know that tap water is not drinkable in Guatemala. However if you are in a popular tourist town such as Flores or Antigua, and sitting in a busy tourist restaurant, then chances are that the ice cubes are made of bottled or purified water. (A restaurant that poisons tourists won’t stay in business very long). Otherwise, if you are not sure, ask the staff (but be prepared for some eye rolls). Better safe than sorry right? What other foods/drinks should you be suspicious about? And when do you just steer clear? What do you do if you get food poisoning?

You’ve just used the toilet in your rustic beachfront cabana when you discover you can’t flush!

Look around the toilet tank for a button, a dial, or a lever. Look on the floor for a pedal. Look above your head for a string or chain. What if the toilet doesn’t have a tank? Do you embarrass yourself and go ask at reception? Hum… it’s 11 pm and the reception is closed. Now what?

You are walking down a cobbled lane in beautiful Cusco, Peru, when two street kids latch themselves onto you begging for money.

Begging kids can be totally adorable, yet very persistent (or just downright horrible). Whatever the case, it is not a good idea to give money to little beggars. Often they are taken out of school and sent to beg on the street by the parents themselves. It’s better to give the money directly to a school or organization working with kids. How do you get them to stop following you though? And what if they ask for candies instead of money?

These two are actually from Cuba

These two are actually from Cuba

You are looking for a small art gallery in Penang, Malaysia and have just been given completely conflicting directions by two people on the street.

By this point I am guessing that you are sweating like a pig and about to faint from heat stroke (most of Malaysia is incredibly hot and humid). Stop in a touristy cafe, restaurant, or hotel (air-conditioned if possible) and ask staff. That will give you a third answer, which hopefully corresponds to one of the two you’ve already got. It will also give you a chance to rest and cool down. Staff at restaurants or hotels deals with lots of tourists and may have a better idea where tourist attractions are located than people on the street.

But that brings the question: why couldn’t you find the art gallery in the first place? Could you have done better research? Used better resources? And why don’t people in Southeast Asia just say “I don’t know” when they don’t know?

You see a beautiful ceramic bowl in a market stall in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, but can’t find the price. When you ask, you are quoted a price higher than you were expecting. Yet you really like this item. Do you buy it?

If you are shopping in a market, or any store, and do not see a price marked on an item, it’s a good indication that bargaining is in order. Do not pay the first price asked. But how much do you offer? And how do you make sure you don’t offend the shop keeper?

You are walking toward the National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when a rickshaw driver tells you that it is closed for renovations, but that he can take you to a different attraction for very cheap.

This is a common ruse not just in Cambodia but in a lot of other countries as well. The driver takes you to another attraction (much further away), possibly stopping at a shop (where he gets a commission). You may find out that the cheap price you heard has now multiplied by a factor of 10, and in the worse case have no way to come back except by using the same driver again! There is a 99% chance that the museum is not closed, so just ignore the driver. What other scams should you be aware of? Is it even safe to travel by rickshaw?

So how did you do?

I hope you enjoyed this “quiz”. If you’ve noticed that it raises more questions than it answers, you get bonus points! This emphasizes the fact that if you’ve never travelled to the developing world before, then you don’t know what you don’t know. Being able to deal with these situations and dozens of others, is what distinguishes the seasoned traveller from the beginner. It can be a steep and frustrating learning curve.

This is why I wrote my two e-books:“Organize your own amazing trips to Southeast Asia” and “Organize your own amazing trips to Latin America” which answer in detail all the questions raised in this post and many many more. Leveraging my experience from nearly two years of travelling through these regions, you will save yourself a lot of headaches!

Here is a bonus question. Watch the following short video and try to figure out how you would cross this intersection. 🙂


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