Guide for travelling to dictatorships

One of the largest reasons for people not to travel is fear. Specially when it comes to countries with bad reputation or with systems that is very different from the one of your own country. I thought I would share my experience travelling to some of those countries and 10 tips about how to prepare and how to behave 🙂

1. Freedom of thought does exist even in dictatorships

First of all, let me just state that there is no definite way of defining a dictatorship and even if you pointed at a country you think is a stereotype dictatorship, there will be millions telling you it is not. But this exact thing is actually the essence of the first thing you have to understand before even researching the country you want to visit.

Just like there are people of all different convictions and political opinions in your country, there is different convictions and political opinions even in the strongest dictatorships. And this is not just another “political correct” statement, this is an actual reality that you will encounter while travelling in dictatorships. You will actually get to meet people with opposite beliefs, but I will get back to that.

2. Do your research!

This is of course a given. But to relax your nerves I will tell you this: Dictatorships are often more safe to visit than democracies because law is strictly enforced, meaning no much space for thieves, rapists, scammers and the like. Some of the most safe countries in the world are what most people would call dictatorships. Just look at the Gulf or even Central Asia.

3. Check comments online

Another important piece of information is knowing the extend of the strictness of the dictatorship. The word dictatorship is thrown around very easily, even in democracies where a large minority just don’t like any of the options in an election. So it ranges from  dictatorships that probably are not a dictatorship at all, to dictatorships where you can be hanged for saying an opinion different from the ruler’s.

So here is a piece of advice you can’t just get from researching the country: Go into different social medias and find a random political topic that people has commented on from that country. Read the comment’s closely and note these questions:

  1. Are there anyone from this country that expresses the opposite opinion of his government or openly talks bad about them? (Make sure they are actually living in that country)
    • If there are many, probably the “dictatorship” is not that strict. So go there and relax but keep your opinions to yourself when meeting officials or total strangers.
    • If people comment but agreeing with the government even on insane matter’s, you will know that the country is very strict, however the population might love their “king”. But you will have to know, that there is always someone of the opposite opinion and if none of them express their opinion openly it is because they are scared for their lives. You can go there, but under no circumstances should you talk against the government while you are there (unless you are a political activist, then I wish you luck from all my heart).
  2. Do people easily fight in the comments?
    • Be aware of the topics they discuss and avoid talking about your own opinions with the wrong persons. Do some research to know in which part of the country or city that those opinions are dominating. Do NOT be afraid of talking to people from both sides. People on the internet are way more aggressive than in real life. When meeting people from the opposite opinion than your own then ask lots of open questions instead of discussing your personal opinion. Maybe you will even learn something new.

4. Passport renewal and visa

Some dictatorships and questionable democracies do not allow you to enter the country if you have been visiting one of the “enemy” countries. If you are going to several countries and you know that the second country do not like the first one, you can sometimes ask for a removable visa. It is basically a normal visa, but instead of gluing it to the passport, they just put a paper clip so you can remove it.

Another idea is to renew your passport before you leave. Be careful that they would not be able to find out where you have been e.g. if you have visited before with the old passport or if you have lots of pictures online from that country. If so, do not lie if you are asked.

5. Take precautions before landing

Some dictatorships will interrogate you upon landing, specially if you come from a country they do not like or if you are known for your political statements on the internet. I would advice you to delete your Twitter app and log off from most of the websites and apps you normally use to express your opinions. Delete sensitive messages. Some dictatorships looks intensively in your phone and make you unlock it for them to read your messages.

They can be very insisting, even if you do not have anything to hide. For example: If you say “I don’t have Facebook”, they will insist they don’t believe you.

If you are going to China or another country who block’s common western websites, then make sure to install a proxy and WeChat before going. A proxy might be illegal in some countries so prepare yourself before going. For China I would recommend installing the proxy beforehand because they are not nosy with your phone at arrival, but keep a low profile. Do not walk around with Google showing on your screen or you can be facing a large fine.

Remember, this is not only for China. WhatsApp and Skype might be blocked in many countries, at least the calling service of it. Here WeChat or Telegram might be handy to use instead, but make sure those at home also have it.

6. Keep it cool at interrogations but do not lose your integrity!

If they want to talk to you at the airport, do not freak out. This happens probably a lot and in the worst case they will just send you back. Do not state any political opinion, just say that you do not care about politics and only interested in seeing culture and nature. But do not compromise your integrity either. Do not admit to an opinion that you do not have – but do not tell them your real opinion if it is against their system. Just keep avoiding the question – either they get tired of you and let you in or they get tired of you and send you back. There is nothing worth losing your integrity over, specially if you only want to do tourism.

My best advice, is keep an open mind, stay out of political discussions and treat them with a sweet behavior.

7. Do not express yourself openly

Keep your opinion to yourself publicly. Watch your mouth for things you say. I have done this mistake before where I just say something without thinking about where I am. Always be conscious about what you are saying and where. Most importantly: Do not question the ruler’s authority, right or opinion.

8. Adapt to the culture  

You are out to experience a new culture, so adapt! It will also keep you safer. Again, do not lose your integrity, but do not do anything that is culturally not accepted or shameful in this country you are visiting.

9. Be careful with photography

Some dictatorships will ban you from photographing government controlled buildings or border crossings. I did the mistake once to have my GoPro video camera up at the border crossing between two dictatorships but I luckily got away with it after assuring them it was not filming. If photography is legal, then still be careful not to pose in a disrespectful way.

10. Meet different people

Remember the whole reason why you travel. It is not to confirm your own ideas about the world but to actually learn about the world. If you only hang out with people of the same political conviction as your own you will have wasted a whole trip convincing only yourself. Instead engage with everyone, do not be afraid and be understanding when someone expresses something differently. If you travel right, you cant avoid meeting people on both sides or even hearing opinions you never heard before. This is the best thing about travelling, so enjoy it with an open mind!

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The Palace of one of the most terrifying dictators in human history

Keeping your integrity while traveling

The other day I met this traveler who has been volunteering in various countries in Africa. Let’s call him Tim. He have been helping out building sanitary facilities for a tribe in Uganda. They invited him for a traditional meal and he accepted. Now this guy is actually a vegetarian and is very disgusted by the smell of meat. Now he is sitting with the tribe eating and they serve him this bloody raw sheep eye.

If you were a vegetarian, what would you have done?

Tim felt like he could not say no and thus he tried to swallow the eye at once. Of course – it can up again and he had to chew his way through and try not to throw up. It was the worst meal in his life.

This story made me think. Many travelers out there try to keep an open mind and say yes to anything along their way. Either they are afraid of saying no or they think they should try everything even if it contradict their taste or even their values. For me this is a misunderstood way of travelling.

Travelling is not about forcing yourself to do things you don’t like or don’t believe in. Travelling is supposed to enrich your life and teach you both about the world and about yourself. If you already know that you do not like to eat meat, then do not eat it. And don’t ever compromise your integrity no matter where in the world you are.

This is not about being a good “traveler” it is about being a good whole rounded human being. A true gentleman stay true to himself while still treating others politely. So how about the fear of offending your host?

In my experience, people – everywhere in the world – understand that their way of living is not the same as others. They will not get offended even if you do something that would have offended them, but because you are a foreigner they will understand. They will not judge you as they hope you will not judge them.

If you are afraid of saying no and explain your reasons, then it is more likely because of your own judgmental mind. Probably you think they will judge you because you yourself are likely to judge. People expect others to behave in the same way they do. Basically, if you expect good you are good. Not naive.

I knew that when Tim started to tell his solution for how to save the world from poverty: To convince africans not to have children so we in Europe don’t get flooded by immigrants later on. What a disgusting point of view from a volunteer worker!

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People have introduced me to lots of weird food during my travels. But always if there is something I do not wanna eat, I say no thank you. My biggest advice when travelling: Say no when people tell you to do things you know you don’t like to do!