Philippine economy

Almost kidnapped while backpacking

One girl's cautionary tale about a backpacking trip to Malaysia that went terribly wrong

DANGER. Getting yourself in real, serious danger could happen anywhere and it could happen to anyone

MANILA, Philippines –The next time you think about going on an adventure, think about it deeply.

To me, traveling always meant stepping out of my comfort zone and confronting the life unfamiliar. If I didn’t come home with a story of strange encounters or episodes of losing my way, the trip was incomplete. My confidence for all this recklessness came from luck – a commodity I recently realized can run out.

Getting yourself in real, serious danger could happen anywhere and it could happen to anyone. I happened to meet it in Malaysia.

What could I have done so I wouldn’t have this story to tell at all? Here are a few things that come to mind, looking back. 

Research, research, research.

From the comfort of our diving inn at Mabul island, my friend and I traveled to Lahad Datu in search of more Malaysian scenery. Lahad Datu is a small remote town in the eastern part of Sabah, known to tourists as the jump-off point for the Danum Valley. Two young girls with nowhere else to be, we fearlessly faced the journey head on.

With a little more research, we would have known that in early 2013, it was a site of standoffs between Malaysian security forces and suspected members of a known rebel group. The place’s history of incursions, would have driven us away. (READ: [TIMELINE] Sabah’s bloody Friday)

A few minutes on Google also would have told us you can’t go to Danum Valley without a permit that needs to be booked weeks in advance. In the end, we never got to see the valley’s famous rainforests. (READ: Women and the art of travel planning)

Don’t let aggressive locals get the best of you.

Once we stepped off the bus in Lahad Datu, taxi drivers started hounding us asking us where we were going. Their aggression and the fact that it was late night in an unknown place made us hastily pick the first driver who approached us and introduced himself as Ben. If we had been a little more patient and a little less frazzled, we would have waited for a taxi with an official taxi sign on it – this car didn’t have one. Ben happened to be Filipino though, a good thing in our eyes.

My friend and I travel together often and it’s always been a pleasure for us to meet fellow Filipinos along the way. We ask them where they’re from, how long they’ve been in the country, what they do, and do they miss the Philippines? We did the same thing with this driver and by the time we got to our hotel, he had offered to drive us the next day for a cheap rate. The morning after, Ben was ready and waiting at our hotel way before we were ready.

MOUNT SILAM. One of the viewpoints in Lahad Datu

Since we didn’t have the required permit for Danum Valley, he brought us around Lahad Datu instead. He had a friend with him whom he called Atchay, a local training to be a taxi driver. On our drive around the town’s outskirts, the both of them were friendly and extremely accommodating, something we thought was classic Filipino. I felt lucky for not wasting the day.

By 5pm, Ben brought us back to the center of the town with the promise to pick us by 8 – just in time for our 9pm bus back to Kota Kinabalu.

Pay close attention to your instincts.

NIGHTMARE. Our driver turned into a dirt road with no lights. I had stopped breathing for a while

Atchay came to our hotel unbidden at 7:30pm. Unmindful, we thought he was just extra early and we didn’t ask him why he was there. After chatting us up for a good 30 minutes, he called Ben to ask him where he was, then went out to the street. By 8:30pm, the Ben was at our hotel and Atchay nowhere to be found. Leaving 30 minutes before our departure didn’t worry us since the station was just 5 minutes away.

A few minutes into the ride, I noticed I didn’t recognize the places we were passing by. In English, I asked my friend if she knew this way – she shook her head no. I asked our driver about the detour and his simple answer was “Traffic jam.” There aren’t too many people in Lahad Datu and most of the establishments were closed by 6pm. His excuse raised alarms in my head.

Before I could think any more about it, he started asking us about Atchay. Had he gotten into contact with us? Had he said anything about anything? We answered him to no reply.

We kept on getting farther and farther from the route we knew. Politely, I inquired about the way again, asking if this was a longer cut through the area. He graced us with a flat yes.

At that point, the possibilities of the situation were running in my head, starting to make my heart beat faster. For a few minutes I was immobilized by nerves, just watching the buildings pass by. Memories of the kidnapping stories they told us during the day replayed in my head. I snapped back to the present when I saw him turning into a dirt road. Here, the grass was taller than I was and there were no lights whatsoever. My friend and I looked at each other – I had stopped breathing for a while.

Trying to sound calm, I asked what we were doing there. He said we were going to pick up his friends who lived down the road. Frantically, we sprung into action. While my friend half shouts, “I left something at the hotel!,” I open the taxi door while the car is still moving. He makes an abrupt stop and immediately asks, “Why are you worried? I’m not going to do anything to you. We’re just picking up my friends.”

At the early sight of unfamiliar roads, I already got goosebumps. If I had listened to myself, we wouldn’t be in an isolated road in the middle of nowhere, far away from anyone who could’ve helped us.

Keep all important local numbers on your cellphone.

KEEP ALL IMPORTANT NUMBERS IN YOUR CELLPHONE. Numbers for the police, the hospital, the Philippine embassy, and a reliable transport service are key

“Don’t be scared. I’m not going to do anything to you.” That was the script Ben repeated over and over as we attempted to get away. My friend’s door wouldn’t open so I had to pull our two huge backpacks out of the way before she could make her exit. Without talking much, we both brisk walked back to the main road, still within hearing reach of his assurances and sounds of the car making a u-turn.

We crossed the road to the other side where there were houses. Our luck was running out – all the doors to the houses were on the other side. We kept on knocking and calling to the nearest door anyway but the owner spoke no English, had no phone and immediately closed the door on us. Ben was still there calling us back to the car, shouting, “There are bad people here!”

The fear in my gut kept on growing. I whipped out my cellphone in an attempt to call the only number we had, the bus station. With my ear on the phone and my eyes to the road I could see two things: 1) our taxi driver continuing to call us back, and 2) a huge white truck emerging from the dirt road we had walked out of, with two men inside, seeming to be waiting for something.

The numbers weren’t working, and we were running out of ideas.

Always be on your guard.

Feeling like we were walking towards our graves, my friend and I walked back to the road where the driver was. While we were trying to get in contact with the bus station, Ben had hailed us another taxi in an effort to reassure us. He told us this taxi was safe. Like his car, this one had no official taxi sign. The driver was Malaysian and didn’t know a single word of English. They were speaking in Bahasa, supposedly haggling for price. Without a choice, we got in the car.

In no way did we feel any safer. We could still see Ben was still ahead of us. Were they in a convoy? We kept our doors half open the whole way and agreed to get down at the nearest establishment.

At the establishment, a row of restaurants, no one knew how to speak English and no one had a phone. We went back to the curb with the faint hope of getting a safe taxi to take us to the bus station. It was 9pm. If we didn’t make the bus, we’d miss our flight back home. Worse, we’d have to stay in Lahad Datu for another night without a place to stay.

On the street, a private car stopped in front of us with a girl and a guy inside. They offered us a ride, telling us they just wanted to help. Finding ourselves in another situation where we felt out of options, we agreed. They were both Filipino, a fact that was no comfort to us now. To get a better impression of them, we kept up a conversation. 5 minutes of talking and we finally saw familiar places. I laughed in relief. We kept on laughing all the way to the bus station, like crazy people. When we got there, the bus hadn’t arrived and they asked to take a picture with us.

Joyfully thinking the ordeal had passed, my blood ran cold when I saw Atchay taking a photo of us posing with our rescuers. We made eye contact. Gone was the young smiling Malaysian and his many questions. He loitered around the bus station for a while, never approaching us. After around 20 minutes, Atchay finally left.  (READ: 6 safety tips for women traveling solo)

The bus arrived and we got on. The nightmare was over.

RELIEF. When we got on the bus, the nightmare was finally over 

You could say it all turned out fine. We’re alive and back home in the Philippines.

But if we had done anything else differently – if we had gotten out of his taxi just a few seconds later, if the second taxi driver hadn’t stopped when we asked him to, if the two Filipinos weren’t good people – this story would have a completely different ending. The possibilities are endless and frightening.

One thought floated at the top of my head amidst all the fear and problem solving. I can’t die here. If anything happened to me, my parents would absolutely be devastated. It couldn’t happen to me or my friend.

This story is one of warning. You only live once. Traveling will open your eyes and inspire you to no end, but it’s not worth it to waste your one life on one reckless trip. There’s a fine line between adventurousness and foolishness; always make sure you stay on the right side.  –

Note: Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, the author has decided to use a pseudonym. The names of the perpetrators have been retained.