The sound of the mounted police riding past my Charleston house sent shivers down my spine years later, despite the fact that there was nothing afoul with their patrol. It brought me back to the first time I ever saw mounted police, in Paris on New Years Eve 2006. But since my very first trip without my family, I’ve found myself traveling during turmoil to countries involved in political protests at least three times. I’m not sure if I’m a magnet for these events or if I just decide to go anyways, despite what the news says. I’ve learned that not every country has freedom of speech and right of assembly and deals with protests and upheaval in different ways.
My friends and I had met up with a group of Italian guys from our hotel to go see the Eiffel Tower at midnight, but after the pomp and circumstance, there were drunk people throwing champagne bottles aimlessly near the Arc de Triomphe. The mounted police came out in full riot gear, including armor for both them and the horses, to settle the crowd. I didn’t like the look of the situation, so I knew it was time to make my way back to the hotel.
The Turkey Adventure was one that almost didn’t happen, as there was turmoil and protests going on before and after my trip. A number of people had canceled their trips to the country, but since the company I had booked with wasn’t one of them, I wasn’t concerned. I also wasn’t worried to stay near Taksim Square, ground zero to the protests, as they seemed to have calmed down by then. But that didn’t mean I didn’t feel a police presence. I saw plenty of armored trucks, soldiers and police in Beyoglu, but usually turned in the opposite direction when this happened. I never felt unsafe during the entire trip and the political turmoil was contained mostly to Istanbul.
Thailand seems to have protests and government overthrows on a nearly every other year basis. My mom first witnessed it in 2008 and we visited together in 2010 when the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests were at their peak, but we stayed in Chiang Mai and avoided Bangkok. This time around, we knew there had been protests to remove the despotic prime minister, but hadn’t seen much difference in Bangkok, apart from the tent city in Lumpini Park and some patriotic t-shirts worn by locals.
But by the time the wedding in Koh Samui was over, I was receiving worried texts and emails, saying that the US news was reporting that Thailand was now under martial law. But down in the islands, the bars were still open late and there was no military presence yet. By the time we got back up to Bangkok to apply for our visas for Vietnam, there was a noticeable shift. Protests would occur in places like the Victory Monument and in front of most of the malls, which we saw on our way to the movies. Restaurants closed early due to the informed curfew from 10 pm to 5 am. We ended up sleeping at the airport before flying out, since we didn’t think a taxi would pick us up at 3 am when we needed it. The curfew was lifted within a week and everything went more or less back to normal, but it could have easily gone in the opposite direction, involving another shutdown of the airport.
We also heard about violent protests going on in Phnom Penh, Cambodia while we were there, but mostly saw the aftermath, including the armored trucks still parked on the streets and the razor wire being rolled up.
So what can you do if you’re traveling during turmoil?
1. Be aware. Know the political situation beforehand and take note of the areas where protests might happen, namely large squares and the American embassies, and stay away from them. Sign up for emails from the State Department or your country’s presiding body regarding your destination. You should also be educated enough on the topic to not say anything offhand to a local that could put you in a dangerous situation.
2. Be prepared for the situation to change at any moment. You could be walking down the street and find a protest that quickly turns violent. Such was the case when Hecktic Travels saw a protest in Cambodia that ended with an innocent bystander being killed by a stray bullet. If you see people starting to gather and police appearing, don’t stick around to see what they’re protesting. Get out of there.
3. Always have an escape plan. This is perhaps the most important detail in traveling in general, not just to countries that could potentially erupt in political turmoil at any moment. Get travel insurance and make sure that you’re covered for a flight out, even if your government hasn’t yet posted a non-essential travel evacuation. Is there a nearby country you can get to in case the airport gets shut down? These are questions you should ask yourself, even if its the worst case scenario.