How I survived my 12 worst travel experiences ever

Scammed, bitten, drugged, injured, fined, sick, helpless

… and still addicted to backpacking

Traveling is fantastic. I love it. It is part of my life. But there are certain things, that you don’t want to experience on a backpacking trip – no matter if you are traveling solo or with a partner.

While traveling, I try to be careful, use common sense and really trust my instincts. And I truly believe in treating other people the way, that I like to be treated myself. But hey, I also want to live, be curious and to experience new things. Leaving the beaten tracks and be open to new encounters always contains a risk of a bad experience – no matter if you travel or just change your daily routine. In my opinion, taking the risk is always better than no movement at all.

I believe in human beings all around the planet. There is so much hospitality, help and kindness towards travelers on earth. 99 percent of my travel experiences were great. But still, shit can happen. And some bad things also happened to me. The good news is, that I never got robbed or injured by others. I never experienced any physical violence while traveling. But backpacking can be tough sometimes.

These are the worst travel experiences, that I can remember. Some incidents just had to do with bad luck. Others with underestimating the power of nature or my own strength. And in some cases, I had been far too naive. The good news: I survived all incidents without any traumas. I even learned a lot about myself and am thankful for the challenges. But I understood, that you can get suddenly stuck in situations, that you haven’t expected at all. I like to share some stories with you. Some will shock you. Others might make you laugh. Here are my twelve worst travel experiences.

1. Scammed by a BlackJack-Dealer in Cambodia

In the capital of Cambodia Phnom Penh, I had one of the most horrible experiences backpacking Cambodia. You can read a lot about the legendary Phnom Penh casino scam online, but I haven’t heart of it until I experienced it myself.

While exploring the city center of Phnom Penh, I met a woman, who tried to get me into a conversation about working abroad in Australia or New Zealand. She invited me to have lunch with her at her cousin’s house “around the corner” to hear more about my experiences.

First, I didn’t want to accept the invitation since I had other plans for the day. But I was a typical good girl and didn’t want to reject her. When she offered me the seat at the back of her motorbike, I started to get irritated. “It’s not far”, she assured me. But when we were suddenly driving out of the city center to the outskirts of Phnom Penh into a residential area, I got a little nervous. While we were driving, she phoned her cousin saying in English: “We have a visitor”. Nothing more. That was the moment, when I should have gotten off the bike. But I didn’t follow my instincts at all.

Thoughts about human traffic and organ trade

What happened in the house? The lady was not interested anymore in chatting with me about working abroad. Instead her “cousin” called Alex started to talk to me about the casino, where he has been working for 15 years as a Black Jack dealer as he said. The whole atmosphere changed.

Then, we had lunch. Suddenly, I was getting afraid. I thought, that they could easily try to drug me. In my head were thoughts about human traffic, organ trade and the movie “hostel”. No one knew, where I was. I took care, that I just drank from sealed water bottles and just ate from the plates, that they had been eating from. I didn’t want to make them angry anyhow. After lunch, I said, that I needed to go.

But Alex insisted to show me some card tricks first in a back room of the house. He told me about his plan to cheat in the casino with my help. It was a ridiculous plan. He said, that it would just need a few hours of training and that he had done that with a lot of travelers from different countries before. You can really read a lot of stories about this scam in all kind of travel forums. It has happened to a lot of backpackers in South East Asia.

I actually met a traveler just a few days later, who had lost all his money because of a scam like this. He told me everything about it. The whole scam works that way, that they pretend to play with you in a private gambling room against others. But they make you lose and put pressure on you to use your bank card to pay off your very high gambling debts. You might also get drugged to follow their orders.

My heart was beating fast

I convinced Alex, that I am not the right person for casino cheating, a very bad actor, too nervous and unable to lie. I made clear, that I wanted to leave their house. My heart was beating as fast as never before in my life, when I stood up from the table, still pretending to be a naive happy hippie traveler, who wants to get back to the market to buy some souvenirs for my family before sunset.

I secretly checked for my valuables, my money, my phone and my passport in my bag and left the house in a friendly way just to hop as fast as possible on the next taxi motorbike. I looked back and saw Alex standing at the street, laughing. When I arrived at the city center, I just started to cry. I sat down next to the street, smoked three cigarettes to calm down and thanked God, that I survived the day in spite of my naivety.

2. Drugged in Thailand at a secret beach party

It happened on the Island Ko Phan Gan. The Island is especially popular for the Full Moon Party, Half Moon, Black Moon and so on. But it also has amazing unique hidden places. When some guys offered me and a travel mate one evening to go to a secret beach party, I was immediately into it. I love secret things. I love beach parties and I didn’t think any further, when we were hopping into the boat, that should take us to the hidden party location away from the tourist crowds. We didn’t even know exactly, where we were going.

At the party, there were a few people dancing, other playing some instruments. Not the setting for some rough things to happen. We took a few drinks, that some random people had been offering us. It was a warm summer night. Good vibes. But after a couple of hours, we decided to leave the party early and didn’t say good-bye to anyone. We hopped into the boat driving back to the main beach and got off there. I cannot remember, what happened next.

A total blackout the morning after

The only thing, that I remember is, that I woke up several hours later around noon at the main beach. My travel mate was lying 20 meters away from me in the sand, still asleep. I started to panic, checked my clothes, my little bag. I was okay. My bag was lying next to me and all my valuables were still there. I had no idea, what had happened. And my travel mate had no clue either. We had hardly drunken any alcohol at the party.

It feels bizarre, that we both had the exactly same experience and woke up without any ideas about the previous hours. I was dead scared.Today, I’m pretty sure, that we both got drugged by strangers in Thailand and were lucky enough to have left the party early.

3. Not been taken serious with a broken ankle in an Australian hospital

I have to admit, that it sounds more than stupid: I broke my ankle by stepping out of a taxi bus in Broome/Australia late at night after a party. That all happened during my working holiday year in Australia while living on a campsite in a tent. I was broke and had just started a new job in a restaurant. When I stepped out of the taxi, I was slightly drunk and missed the curbside. However. I was in pain. I broke my left ankle and hurt the right one. But I didn’t know at that point, how serious it was. I was just able to crawl, not to walk. Some friends called the ambulance.

At the hospital, the doctor didn’t recognize, that my ankle was broken. He gave me some painkillers, some crutches and told me to go home and come back the next morning for an x-ray. It was not possible to get my ankle x-rayed during the night. I thought, the doctor was joking. I wasn’t even allowed to stay the night in the hospital. Okay, I have had a few drinks, but that didn’t make me a criminal.

The guy with the snake bite was first

I went back to the campsite by taxi and ate painkillers like chocolate cookies. I was back to the hospital just after sunrise. In the hospital, I had to wait several hours for the doctor. The guy with the snake bite was first. That was okay. He was probably closer to death than me.

When it was my turn, they told me, that my ankle was seriously broken. Luckily, I didn’t need any surgery, just a cast. Have you ever stayed six weeks with a cast in a tent on a campsite with 35 °C outside? With the toilettes and showers for the disabled persons 500 meters away from your tent? Not enough money left to pay for a hostel? You won’t get bored for a second. But I don’t recommend it.

4. Suffering from altitude sickness close to Tibetan Border in China

The little town of Tagong was my absolute highlight while backpacking China. Seriously, that place is magic. Tagong is located close to the Tibetan border. It is actually Tibetan. The problem is just, that Tagong is located around 4000 meters above sea level. And I was neither prepared to cope with the height nor have I thought about adjusting to the height slowly.

Tagong is easily accessible by car. So I just forgot about the differences in height while going up with a driver in a private taxi with some other travelers.The consequence: I fainted immediately after I stepped out of the car. I just fall over. I got signs of altitude sickness. Just because the locals are driving up and down without any problems, it doesn’t mean, that you are capable to do the same.

A lot of travelers are not able to cope well with the height

My travel mates helped me to move to a guesthouse. The owners explained to me, that a lot of travelers are not able to cope well with the height and the thin air and that I should just move slowly and carefully. They prepared a salty tea made out of yak butter for me. Very friendly of them, but it tasted horrible.

The following two days, I walked around like an alien, moved slowly. I had the feeling not to be able to breathe properly. There was a pressure on my head. I was exhausted after a few meters of walk and got a headache. I was seriously afraid to maybe even die. I didn’t know, what to do. But I trusted the owners of the guesthouse, who stayed calm and who were caring for me. It took several days until I felt better. But these days were as well the most horrible days during all my stay in China.

5. Stuck at a closed border from Mongolia to China

Imagine, you arrive in a tiny Chinese town called Erlianhot close to the border of China and Mongolia in the middle of nowhere without anyone to communicate with properly. You have traveled like this already for days. You spend the night in a strange hotel without showers. You even managed to find some strong Mongolian women, who offer you a ride in their jeep across the border to Mongolia. You negotiated about the price and finally sit in the car. You reach the border. But you cannot cross.

The border is closed for foreigners because of electricity problems and some machines not working. The Mongolian ladies drive off. Your ride is gone. It’s just you and some spitting men waiting for hours and hours in front of the closed border control desk. Every pair of eyes staring at you, the only western foreigner. Your Chinese visa is about to expire. You are about to miss your connecting train to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. You don’t have food. No one really tells you, how long you will have to wait. How would you feel?

A lady called me into the back office

I didn’t feel great. I felt so much not great, that I started at some point to get slightly aggressive. I started to demand loudly to let me pass the border. I didn’t like myself acting like that. No one liked my behavior. So I finally got taken into a back office and had to speak to a lady in English about my identity, my travel plans and so on and on. After a while, she luckily finally stamped my passport in spite of the not working computers and sent me off to Mongolia.

I started to walk my way towards the closest train station in Zamin Ud in Mongolia. Normally, people aren’t allowed to pass the border by foot. But there were no buses, no other cars coming. An official
tried to stop me. But what did he want me to do? To wait? I shouted at him: “What do you want me to do, hey?”

And suddenly, I was allowed to walk on. It was a few kilometers to Zamin Ud. I tried to look cool. But I was not. At that point, my nerves had already been wrecked. I had such a hard time traveling to that place all by myself. I felt as lonely as a human being can be. Behind my dark sun glasses, I started to cry. I felt lonely and swamped. Just for a minute. No more time for self-pity. It was me, who had chosen to travel this way. So I had to deal with all kinds of stupid situations.

6. Watching a travel mate falling off a temple in Myanmar

The temples of Bagan in Myanmar are just amazing and can be discovered on rental bikes. In 2012, it was still possible to climb up every temple. Together with some other travelers, I was exploring the temple area. Our plan was to climb up a temple to watch the sunset. There were no guards to stop us. But there was also no safety net underneath.

We were all chatting and enjoying the atmosphere a few metres above the ground until we suddenly saw a Canadian girl standing up, losing the balance and falling down. Maybe two meters. Her body bumped against the stones and then she was laying on a rocky temple platform. No movement. We were completely shocked. I felt paralyzed for some seconds. It felt as if my own heart stood still. Then, we all jumped down as fast as possible. She was unconscious, but still breathing. Her sister started to cry.

Ambulance-driver didn’t have a clue about first aid

One guy was running to the street to stop a car to call the ambulance. No one had a working mobile phone. In 2012, it had not been easy for tourists to get SIM-cards in Myanmar. Probably, there was no mobile phone connection around the temples of Bagan anyway. It took just ten minutes till the ambulance came, basically a random car without any equipment. The driver didn’t have a clue about first aid. We had no other possibility than to get the girl down from the temple. We made her wake up.

Luckily, we had some head torches with us. The injured girl was totally confused and under shock, but she was finally able to get up and to move with our help. She was in pain and had some obvious bruises at her body. The next hospital was a 45 minutes drive away. Her sister went with her in the car. Several hours later, my heart was still beating fast. I wasn’t relieved until she had been released from hospital the following day after the examination. No major injuries. She was lucky in the end.

7. Gotten a 160-Dollar-fine for sleeping outside in Australia

It was at the outskirts of Darwin in Australia, when I got caught by the police while trying to sleep outside. On a hostel black board, I had found a ride share to the Kimberly Ranges. Well, I had found a bunch of crazy people from Australia and the Netherlands, that liked to explore the Kimberly Ranges like myself. I just didn’t know, how crazy and unorganized they were.

They wanted to start the ride in the evening. That was the most stupid idea ever. But I wasn’t able to find any other ride share. Joining a tour group instead was too expensive. So the first thing after starting the trip was to find a place for the night. We didn’t even leave the city area of Darwin. The others had the great idea to sleep outside in a kind of picnic area to save money for a hostel. I was already fed up with the whole project before it was about to start.

Backpacker got stabbed

I had the instinct to return to Darwin the following morning and to skip the Kimberly Ranges. But before, I spent one night with them in that stupid picnic area sleeping outside. It was summer and hot enough. And yes, we also had some beers and some funny chats. It still took me ages to fall asleep on the ground.

But it just took the policemen seconds to wake me up with their torches. „Stay up!“, they said to us. Several voices around me. Several men searching for illegal campers. They were not smiling about us in our sleeping bags. „Passports please“, one policeman said. He wanted us to pay 160 Australian Dollars each for sleeping outside. „Every hotel in town would have been cheaper“, he was joking. But he also added: „You have to be more careful guys. Just a few days ago, a backpacker had been stabbed here.“ Our night was over. My trip to the Kimberly Ranges as well.

8. Suffering from food poisoning on Borneo in Malaysia

It is said, that everyone traveling Asia will get terribly sick sooner or later. I had this experience in Kota Kinabalu on the Island of Borneo in Malaysia. It was probably food poisoning. The first and only time in Asia during nine months of travels. It all happened after a dinner in a really nice restaurant. Just a few hours later, I was sure not to be able to survive the night.

I was basically lying on the ground of the bathroom on our hotel floor for the whole night. It was a bathroom, that all hotel guests should share. On top, it was one of the not so nice hotels. The rooms looked like prison cells. The bathroom was not inviting, either. That night, it was just mine. I was too weak to move anywhere else. Terribly sick. I had never ever experienced a feeling like that before.

The following day, I could hardly stand upright, but had to go to the doctor. It was necessary to get medical treatment. I felt as if there was no millilitre of liquid left in my body. On one ear, I was almost deaf. With the help of my travel mate, I found an English-speaking medical practice. They put me on the drip immediately. The nurses were wearing short pink dresses. It all looked clean and modern. And the bill was as exclusive as the whole practice. I was happy, that my travel insurance would cover the costs. And it took around three days until I was fit enough to leave Kota Kinabalu.

9. Extreme Chinese bus ride between sick passengers

and yummy chicken feed

I did my most memorable bus journey in China. I needed two days to get from Kangding to Shangri-La with a stopover in Xiancheng. And that trip was everything, but a pleasure. To be honest: It was a real challenge.

Two days without much verbal communication due to my lacking Chinese skills. During the first 16-hours-bus-trip from Kangding to Shangri-La, a lot of Chinese men were smoking inside the bus. The streets were bad, so that I got nearly sick during the bus ride. Maybe also, because I was hardly able to stand the fact, that some other passengers were constantly vomiting into some plastic bags. The bus was speeding on the street close to the edge. The mountain scenery was beautiful. Apart from the wrecks of cars and trucks, that were lying at the slopes.

Public toilets without doors

Then we did a toilet stop in a Tibetan style roadhouse. I had already been used to the lacking privacy in public bathrooms. In that roadhouse, there were no toilet doors. The ladies were peeing in a row into a drain, separated by small walls, so that everything was running downhill and the last person in the row could see everything, the first person had done.The following toilet stop was just at an open air area in the mountains. No trees around. Nothing to hide yourself. Everything took place in public. I walked behind the bus like the other women. No choice.

After a night in a guesthouse in Xiancheng, the journey continued the following morning. But when I wanted to buy a bus ticket to Shangri-La, the office lady just closed the whole counter in front of my eyes without speaking to me. The tickets for the bus to Shangri-La had been sold out for that day. So I directly went to the bus driver. I begged to let me sit on the floor of the bus on the way to Shangri-La. He was cool. I was allowed to get in – not knowing, that 15 more people had to fit into the already full bus.

Ten hours squeezed on the floor of the bus

So I spend the following ten hours squeezed on the ground between Chinese farmers, who had carried the smell of their hard-working animals into the bus. During the ride, a lady and her child were both getting sick next to me. A Chinese man vomited on the floor of the bus. No one cleaned up the mess afterwards.

Just after that, another really nice fellow passenger offered me some chicken feed for lunch, that he had carried in some plastic package. He made me take one. I understood his great gesture of hospitality and friendliness towards a stranger. But I really couldn’t try to eat it. I wasn’t used to chicken feed. It didn’t look appealing to me. I was nearly starving, but had to pretend not to be hungry at all. He wanted to pack the chicken feed into my bag for later. So I didn’t even dare to order some other food in the next roadhouse, because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I really counted down the seconds until our arrival in Shangri-La.

10. Finding rabies vaccination for a travel mate

after a dog bite in Mongolia

Actually, while backpacking Mongolia, one of my travel mates got bitten by a dog on a small hike around Lake Khövsgöl. Suddenly the blood was running down his hand. He needed medical treatment soon. We had some first aid equipment with us for disinfection and bandaging. But it was a serious bite and we were all quite sure, that he needed rabies vaccination soon – just in case. No one wants to risk becoming a zombie and dying because of carelessness. Who knows, if the dog was infected or not. We didn’t know the dog or its owner. Suddenly, the real challenge started.

There was no doctor in the village, where we stayed. And no vaccine. A nurse was able to stitch the wound. But we had to find a driver to go to the next hospital for the rabies vaccination. The taxi ride to Moron took two hours and wasn’t cheap.

We called the international hospital in Ulaanbaatar for translations

We arrived in Moron late at night. The hospital was bizarre. Empty halls. I almost fell down at the entrance stairs, because there was no light. Most of the doctors didn’t speak English. They helplessly looked at us. To make ourselves understood, we called the international hospital in Ulaanbaatar for translations. But still nothing happened, because it wasn’t possible.The nurse, who had the key for the room with the vaccinations didn’t want to come back to work in the middle of the night just because of some scared tourists. I felt like an actor in a really bad movie. We had no choice. That was the most horrible night ever.

Very early in the morning, we went back to the hospital. This time, the vaccine was available – even for free. Additional rabies immunoglobulin had to be flown it from Ulaanbaatar by plane the following day. My travel mate had to start a vaccination scheme getting shots every few days. I’m happy to know, that he is still alive.

11. Being ripped off as a tourist in Marrakesh

Morocco is a fascinating country for backpacking. Really. There is just one place, that I really hate in Morocco: The medina of Marrakesh including the popular square Djemna-el-Fna. For sure, The atmosphere can be overwhelming with all the people, Oriental sounds and food stalls. Just having arrived from the airport by local bus, we felt like being at a fairground of a different world.

But Marrakesh’s old town it is also the area, where tourists can get ripped off easily. When we started to enter the labyrinth of the colorful medina just off Djemna-el-Fna to find our guesthouse, we quickly understood, that it is easy to get lost in there. Shop owners of the medina didn’t want to help the helpless foreign victims. The reason is, that some local guides wanted to get paid to show travelers the way. It was a business. We finally paid for a guide, who was leading us a completely confusing ridiculous way to our riad. When we finally arrived at our guesthouse, the guide wanted more money. We were already fed up.

Lady tried to charge 50 Dollars for a simple henna tattoo

The next morning, we went back to Djemna-el-Fna. where some veiled henna artists wanted to paint my hands. Quicker than I could think, a lady grabbed my hand and started to paint. Generally, I wanted a henna tattoo, but was taken by surprise. I let her paint before I could have asked for the price of her artwork. When she finally asked for 50 Dollars afterwards, I didn’t know, if I should laugh or cry. I laughed. I didn’t even have so much money on me. 50 Dollars are a lot in Morocco. And she really asked explicitly for US-Dollars, which I didn’t have at all. When I gave her around 5 Dollars in Moroccan currency for her 10-minute-artwork, she started to curse me, wished me bad luck for my life and my marriage. We walked away, feeling uncomfortable. I was embarrassed.

But the next bizarre attraction was already waiting. A few male musicians dressed in traditional costumes were jumping out of nowhere into our way like clowns or monkeys, played some oriental sounds, jumped up and down and asked for money. We were slightly irritated. We didn’t even take pictures of them. Anyway, we gave them some coins, but obviously not enough. They started to shout at us. We decided to leave the so-called romantic old quarter of Marrakesh and to walk around some other parts of the city. We almost ran to escape the aggressive vibe.

12. Bitten by bed bucks in Indonesia

It was on Lombok, when I understood for the time the meaning of bed bucks. I stayed in the cheapest guesthouse, that I could find in the Lonely Planet. It seemed totally okay. It smelled a bit strange, but the rooms looked clean, the staff was very friendly. And I was already used to sleep without air conditioning. I went to bed late. When I realized the first bites, I thought of mosquitos. Bad enough, but it happens. I was to tired to question it.

I looked like having a bad disease

The next morning, I was totally shocked looking into the mirror. My whole back and my arms were covered with red dots. It was itchy as hell. The other travelers told me immediately, what was going on: Bed bucks. It must have been an army of them sucking my blood at night.The worst thing is, that I looked as if I had a really bad disease and it took days until the dots vanished. It didn’t make me more happy, that the staff gave me some traditional herbal medicine and offered me another room immediately. I travelled on looking like an outcast.

What I learned from my experiences

  • Trust your instincts
  • Don’t be afraid to say no
  • Use common sense
  • Try to keep an eye on your drinks
  • Tell some travel mates, where you go
  • Ask for prices before getting a service and bargain
  • Even if you are a poor backpacker, others might think of you as a rich tourist
  • Get a rough idea about laws in a foreign country depending on what you want to do (like wild camping, drugs etc.)
  • You are not super human: Bones can break, your belly can revolt
  • Seeing other people vomiting constantly on a bus ride can make you sick
  • It makes sense to have a travel insurance and to carry some emergency medication with you
  • Bad luck happens
  • Don’t forget to have fun and be positive
  • Don’t be ashamed, if you got scammed. It happens to many people
  • There is always a solution
  • Life goes on
  • Horrible travel experiences are the most exiting stories to entertain your friends afterwards

About Janina

Traveling around the world is my passion. On, I'm writing about my backpacking trips with all ups and downs.

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