Some Surpsingly Safe Places to Travel

June 28, 2011

I am writing this blog from the point of view of a white Westerner, so forgive me if I seem to exclude anyone. I am simply speaking from my own perspective. Well, the US State Department pus out information on every country and describes the current political situation, and says whether it is safe for Westerners to travel there. You might correctly imagine that some places are obviously unsafe in the current world: Iraq and Afghanistan to name a couple. But I have been quite surprised at some of the countries that seem terribly dangerous, but are actually quite safe and welcoming.

1. North Korea: that’s right, the People’s Paradise is bizarrely safe right now. Granted, you will have a uniformed government official with you at all times, and you cannot even walk down the street alone or leave your hotel room. But, ironically because of the harsh police state that it is, crime is practically non-existent in the DPRK. The slightest of offenses, even imagined insults to Dear Leader, are harshly punished with life sentences in prison and labor camps. Petty theft will usually mean execution or torture. Even saying hello to a Westerner can earn a North Korean a hefty prison sentence and torture. So the chances of any North Korean harming a Westerner in any way are zero. You will be treated royally by your government minders, and although you will only see what they want you to see — Stalinist propaganda monuments — you will be safer than just about anywhere in the world.

2. Myanmar (formerly Burma): Myanmar ranks a close second to North Korea in its harshness toward its citizens. Any sort of protests, and sometimes even innocent crowds, are lithely gunned down. It is illegal for more than five people to assemble anywhere, in fact, so paranoid is the government about any sort of rebellion or revolution. However, Myanmar culture is very warm, inviting,and friendly. Also, locals are not forbidden to talk to visitors, and in fact, will likely invite you into their homes and feed you. You are free to walk about in Rangoon and most cities, and you will almost certainly have a great experience (and the cuisine is wonderful!). Myanmar is almost terrified and paranoid of any Westerner being harmed or wronged in any way, because the country is trying to gain international status and reputation. If you yourself do anything stupid or illegal, you will likely be arrested and deported, but if you are a polite visitor, the government will go out of its way to make sure you have a safe, good trip. In fact, they will probably keep an eye on you, not for reasons of espionage, but to make sure you are safe and sound.

3. Rwanda: Most Westerners know little about the 1994 genocide, because the West largely ignored it, thinking it was a civil war. The truth is that Hutus slaughtered about one million Tutsis over three months, in a government-supported massacre. The government-backed militia, the Interahamwe, led the killings. The preferred method of killing was hacking people alive with machetes. No one was spared — not even babies. When Paul Kagame the Rebel Army reached Kigali and took power, thus effectively ending the horror, there was a mass exodus of Hutus to Uganda and Congo (then Zaire) for fear of reprisal. When these Hutus returned to Rwanda, there were some vengeance killings, and even today near Rwanda’s forested borders, groups of Interahamwe guerrillas still lurk. But President Paul Kagame has done a remarkable job of uniting the country. He insists that no one look at themselves or others as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa, but simply as Rwandans. The country has changed to become a model of post-genocidal recovery. Today, it is very stable and safe, one of the most stable countries in Africa, in fact. It is completely safe for Westerners to visit, and in fact, most visitors marvel at how friendly and warm the people are.

4. Laos: One of the few Communist states left in the world, Laos is a traditional Asian culture. It is said to be the only country left that truly represents “the old Asia”. Despite a one-party Communist regime, and often, very harsh crackdowns on citizens, Laos is known for its hospitality, and the charmingly lazy attitudes of the locals, who have a love of life. The cuisine is world-famous, and a popular activity is tubing down the Mekong River with beer in hand. While tourists are probably better off in and around the big cities, like the capital of Vientiane, and while there have been reports of some tourists being mugged, the fact is that it is still a very safe place to visit. Like that of Myanmar, the government is seeking to improve its international reputation, and does not want any sort of international incident involving harm to Westerners.

5. Vietnam: Also a one-party Communist regime, Vietnam has changed much since the 1970s. Today, Vietnam is opening up to the West like never before, and has become a mecca for business, education, and culture. While it is still not recommended to go to Vietnam and insult the government, still, smart Westerners will find it a very safe, charming place. A land of stark beauty with busy, modern cities that also have traditional Asian charm, and a cuisine that rivals any out there, Vietnam is a great destination.

6. Iran: Yes, Iran! Alright, so civil unrest and government crackdown might mitigate this a bit, but generally speaking, Westerners are safe in Iran, a country that also does not want an international incident. You will find traditional Middle Eastern hospitality there, and if you are simply respectful to the culture and above all to Islam, you will have no problems.

In all of these places, the Westerner must, of course, act respectful and understated. But you will likely find a level of hospitality that you have never experienced. This is due in part to the Buddhist culture of most of these countries (DPRK is obviously an atheist state, but with a Buddhist past). Also, be sure to check in with the local embassy. But do not fear going — people are people the world over.

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