On my first day in Laos, I was mugged. I had flown into Luang Prabang from Bangkok on Monday afternoon and was ready to get on the backpacker trail again, seeing Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I was walking down a quiet street from my hostel, Spicy Lao, just before 10 p.m. with two other girls from the hostel. We were walking in the street because the sidewalk was pretty narrow and I was closest to the road. All of a sudden, I heard this motor bike zoom up beside me and my left shoulder was jerked violently. I thought the bike’s mirror had sideswiped me but then I saw my knock off Mulberry bag whiz away with the motorbike, in it my credit card, digital camera and cash. All three of us screamed out after the two men on the bike and 20 metres ahead on the road, some locals darted out onto the street and knocked the men off the bike. Sparks flew into the dark street and we sprinted toward the bike, me yelling, “stop him, he stole my purse, he’s a thief” over and over. One of the men on the bike ran away but the man with my purse was caught by the locals and my bag lay on the ground, all the contents in tact and just the strap slightly broken. I was panting and shaken up but not injured. I realized the force of him ripping my bag off my had left a bruise on my arm but I was lucky the bag wasn’t worn across my body otherwise I might have been ripped down behind the bike.
We waited around while the locals called police and temporarily restrained the man with a plastic rope. Then one of the men came back with a pair of handcuffs, which we thought was bizarre. Some of the women who saw the theft were very compassionate, making sure I was alright and offering me a seat on a wooden bench. Eventually four plainclothes guys in an unmarked pickup truck arrived, shoved the guy into the back of the truck, loaded the motorbike in the back and drove off. One of the men who intervened said I had to go to the police station and said "we take you on the motorbike" and I said no, I'm not going on some random motorbike with someone I don't know. I wrote them a statement on a piece of paper right there on the street, thanked everyone for their help and then we were on our way. I didn’t even want to stick around for the cops to come since I was worried the thief would get a good look at me and maybe come after me later. Christina told me later that she feared every car that passed by the scene was the man who ran away and some backup to wreak more havoc. It might have been far fetched but when you’re victimized, all sorts of paranoid thoughts run into your head.
Every guide book in pretty much every country warns travellers about common scams, from the person who falls on the street and then takes your wallet when you help them up to the seemingly friendly tuk tuk driver who takes you on an unsolicited tour of the city and then demands and exorbitant amount. My friend Cassandra had her iPhone stolen the same weekend as me during the Coachella music festival. It can happen in Toronto just as easily as Luang Prabang.
The British girl Christina said she has heard stories in Vietnam of backpackers being pulled off the back of motorbikes when thieves grab their backpacks and three of her friends were held up by men with machetes demanding all their cash, cards and electronics. There are always horror stories but you always think you’ll be a bit smarter than the thieves and wont be an easy target. I unfortunately was a target. I think I had become a little complacent after backpacking in Burma — where theft is just not an issue, largely because of the devoutly Buddhist population and the eager welcoming of tourists — and living in sleepy Mae Sot, where there are few backpackers and therefore not a lot of scam artists or thieves to prey on them.