A few sensible travelling traits can keep you and your valuables together.

By Story: Kevin Raison on October 17,2017 10:40 AM


Photos: Viet Tuan

Be honest: odds are at least once you’ve watched a movie where the protagonist fights through incredible odds to reclaim something stolen and you’ve thought ‘that’s so cool!’ Realistically though, having something stolen is an absolute bummer, and no more so than when travelling. When on the road, one has their essentials with them. Losing any of these is either a moderate pain or a profound one.

Avoiding theft is a game of inches. I don’t think any criminal is looking for a challenge on the streets, and I doubt committing crime is how they get their cardio in. They’re looking for something easy, and are often easily discouraged, so all we need to do is to give them endless reasons as to why their target is not us, not here, not today.

Three absolutes

The first trick is simple: we don’t want to look like the easiest target on the street. And to do that we need to be aware of our surroundings. Odds are we’ve all heard of people focusing on their phones and walking straight into rivers and what not, right? Don’t let that be you. We only have five major senses, and looking down at one’s phone eliminates our Number 1 defence: the sense of sight. If we can see trouble, we can probably avoid it. Keeping the phone in our pockets and keeping our heads up tells everyone we’re aware, we’re alive, and we’re going to stay that way.


While we’re putting that phone away, why not take the headphones out of our ears too? Some think that headphones tell others ‘I’m antisocial, go away’. While that does work for my friend in the gym, on the street during her last trip to Bangkok those same headphones seemed to say something more like ‘I can’t hear, so I have no idea what’s coming up behind me,’ which lead to her purse being stolen by someone walking up behind her. The sense of sound is your second greatest tool. So, take those headphones and put them in your pocket as well.

Pockets are great, actually, now that we’re on the subject. Great for everything except two things: our hands. For example, I don’t have my other hand in my pocket when carrying a drink through a crowded bar. I have it out to protect from an accidental elbow to the face or to help make space while walking through the crowd. Likewise, on the street; hands out show you can make space, block, and even strike back. To recap Lesson 1: hands out, heads up, ears open. Now we’re starting to look less like the easiest target on the street.


Out of sight, out of mind

Along the lines of pockets, a thief, no matter where they are, is looking for something of value. It might be jewellery, technology, or documents. All have value, but there’s one caveat: a thief cannot steal that which they do not know exists. Being theft-proof means not letting a potential thief know what one has. One doesn’t have to hide everything all the time, but small habits help. Necklaces and watches are easily tucked away under clothes. This is part of the reason I’m a fan of wearing a long-sleeved collared shirt while travelling. Not only does it offer protection from the sun and mosquitoes, it can also cover up valuables. For the rest of the stuff, pockets are good resources. Not all pockets are created equal, however. The first piece of travel advice I received from my father was that front pockets are typically safer than back. It seems a thief would be much more comfortable stealing from behind someone’s back instead of right in front of their face. This brings up the biggest ‘pocket’ people often have: a backpack. Because it’s behind, it’s hard to watch, though easy to spot for a thief, especially if it has a lock on it, which is a sign that the bag contains valuables. Leather and canvas are easily cut and I’ve seen more than a couple of travellers in hostels who had slashes in their bags through which their phone or wallet was stolen.


Distance is a great asset in theft-prevention. Someone certainly can’t steal something if they are ten metres away. Building and keeping a distance can help avoid trouble, even if it means crossing the street to walk on the other side if someone is coming the other way. If you’re in a narrow space and someone is walking in the opposite direction, keep your hands out, of course, and find a way to get one hand up between you and the person who’s making you uncomfortable. This creates a physical and psychological barrier. Something a friend of mine does is casually bring his hand up to scratch his nose or fix his hair. There’s only a small difference between fixing one’s glasses and a martial arts stance.

I once heard that warning posters about pickpockets are sometimes put up by pickpockets, because upon reading the signs people tend to check their pockets for their valuables and, in doing so, show all around where they keep said valuables. Another common trick is the distraction. At the Hanoi night market, for example, one can see people shooting light-up toys into the air, which then fall slowly back to the ground. People instinctively look up to watch, not paying attention to their bags or pockets in the process. If there’s a spectacle, there’s a distraction. If there’s a distraction, there’s a perfect chance for a thief.

Again, avoiding theft is a matter of being inconvenient, especially less convenient than another target. Be aware, build a distance when needed, avoid looking like the jackpot, and instead look like trouble. If you do this, you might get through your adventure without the annoyance of theft.

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