Is it safe?

Will I be kidnapped?

Taken hostage by terrorists?

My favorite one: could I be sold into slavery like that movie with Liam Neeson [1]? On a side note, wouldn’t it be hawt if he was the one to save you from Eastern European gangster scum?

I hate these questions. There, I said it out loud. Not because these questions are stupid, but I often wonder where they come from.

I tend to fire back with, what source did you read? How old is the information? Do you believe this image is the entire country?

Someone recently asked me about Malaysia. I spent a quick, but satisfying weekend there. Oh dear, that sounds like a fling I just had.

Let me rephrase, I had a memorable time and connected with people I will see again. The culture in Kuala Lumpur appeared mostly innocuous. I didn’t clutch my bag in fear, never felt that my taxi driver (metered I might add) was threatening or leering at me at all. I actually had an informative conversation with him about the government and the development of Kuala Lumpur. The only thing to watch out for are motorbikes hopping the sidewalk behind you during rush hour traffic. The Malaysian people? Some of the warmest I’ve ever encountered. The end.

The question posed to me was, “Is Malaysia safe? I read reports of American women being kidnapped, terrorist groups, etc.”

It went further. “I’ve heard about Al Qaedea-esque groups. Taxis being problematic, US state department website advises against east Malaysia travel.”

These are valid questions, hands down. But I must admit I was lost at first on how to respond. The question conjured images of a country I had not visited, some lawless nightmare where people don’t live, work and love. That the only events that happen are gunfire, terror and physical violence.

The person’s concerns concentrate on this part of Malaysia:


That’s a very small area of a country with a total land mass of 329,847 square kilometres (127,350 square miles), that’s separated by the South China Sea and has two sides to explore.

I really had to break down the rest of the question to get it solid in my mind:

1.  Kidnapping – Quite true, a recent incident happened when a husband and wife from Taiwan were attacked in their hotel room at a luxury resort located in eastern Sabah [2]. The husband was murdered and the wife kidnapped, but they aren’t American. The Taipei times have reported that the Malaysian police believe the Islamist separatist group, Abu Sayyaf is responsible. This is concentrated on the map I have posted above, an area that is not the whole of Malaysia.

2.  American women victimized – I had to search for this one, but I figured my questioner might have been referring to a case from  March 2013. A 24 year-old American woman was raped by a taxi driver and two accomplices [3]. But my search brought up no other cases about Americans. Sure, there were a few about Koreans getting robbed. The American case was 7 months ago, certainly something to take into consideration, but a reported case doesn’t equate to all taxi drivers being evil.

3. Al Qaedea-esque groups – The most active group that operates in and around eastern Malaysia is actually from the southern Philippines. They are called Abu Sayyaf [4], and their numbers are as low as 200 and high as 2,000. Their aim is to establish an independent province in the Philippines through armed conflict. The two essential leaders, both brothers, were killed in separate gunfights with government forces many years ago. The group has resorted to kidnappings, but usually it’s motivated by money, one of the ways to fund their activities. Several kidnappings happened at high end resorts, so my obvious recommendation? Stay away from high end resorts in eastern Malaysia.

4. Taxi drivers – There’s no way for me to comment on the character of Malaysian taxi drivers, but this is what I’d do: ensure the one you flag down doesn’t have a secondary passenger (some taxi drivers do this to make extra cash fast, by picking up 2 passengers in one haul) and be certain he has a working meter.

Oh my, reading all that doesn’t exactly put one’s mind at ease, does it?  But I encourage you to review again, because when you really look, it’s a tiny portion of Malaysia (Sabah) to be aware of with a couple of cautionary tales thrown in. Does that amount to the entire country being unsafe? Uncivilized? Absolutely not.

I understand this person’s feelings well, she was worried and women are taught from an early age to comb over every possibility, leaving nothing unturned. To be afraid before anything else. Her question, though subtle as it seemed, was really not. It was a feeling of unease, a darkened corner in an alleyway of the unknown.

It’s an insidious reflex that I’ve had to beat out of me the past 3 years.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t bear it anymore, to abide by a culture that doesn’t teach girls to be strong women and take chances once in a while, but instead feeds our daughters the pill of dread, to instruct them to recoil from the dark, viewing it as incendiary.

I personally like the dark, to witness a city change from day to night is a right I cherish and will continue to.

As Brene Brown said in her viral TED talk, we are always trying to “make the uncertain CERTAIN” [5] and to do this means fear evolves into exaggerated proportions, and those proportions lead to assumptions. So we take fragments of a few situations and weave an intricate argument against going to that country.

If one area of the country is in turmoil, then all of it is tainted.

If one or two assaults happened in the past 5 years, then I shouldn’t go, the same could happen to me.

I cannot promise nothing bad will happen to anyone, that things don’t go wrong, because they do. But falling prey to broad brush strokes only fuels those overblown feelings of risk, when truthfully, risk is everywhere, even in the very city you reside in.

That doesn’t mean I’m a maverick and toss down my bag at immigration and say, gimme your best shot, crime! Far from it. I enter a country knowing that danger is a possibility, but never a certainty.

So how to balance the exaggerations and feel confident to go there, to go anywhere?

1.  Listen to yourself. Read the warnings that your government website issues, but also listen to your instincts. If it’s a country you’ve been dreaming of visiting, it’s worth going to see with your own eyes. If a country feels right, stay. If it feels wrong, don’t wait it out, leave if you want to. Every living person I know warned me to not visit Brazil solo, but once I stepped onto Brazilian soil, it felt so right to me. As a result, I had one of my most memorable trips.

2.  Reboot your vision.There are misaligned perceptions of the third world that needs shattering. I felt more watched and vulnerable at the Barcelona train station than I ever did in Malaysia. Spain is a first world country with assumed checks and safety nets in place, yet I really felt uncomfortable on the streets sometimes, especially checking into some sketchy hostel at 12:00 am. A third world country does not mean you are automatically in a grey zone.

3.  Break down the information. Slow down that fear and really understand the information being fed to you. Where is it originating from? A streetwise local you’ve met? A media news report intended to generate ratings and advertising dollars? A traveler’s website with current information? Don’t catastrophize and accept a blanket depiction of a place, because it just isn’t true.

4. Understand warnings. Warnings should never be outright ignored, yet remember that some warnings tend to focus on the most extreme situations, which does not color the daily life of that country.

5. Listen to the locals. Hey, you know I’m a curious broad and tend to wander to places I probably shouldn’t, but if a local is giving you advice, listen and absorb. They live there, they have the intel. Based on their opinion, you can make a more informed decision on where you want to go.

I felt terrible, because I stood on my soapbox and ranted after she asked this question. I’m so sorry for ranting at you lady, but really, I hate that question. But never stop asking, because I’ll always answer. I promise.