Madagascar is a fairly safe country. You must, however, respect some simple principles:
- Don't exhibit signs of wealth (cameras, jewels).
- Similarly, always carry small notes. Paying with large domination notes shows off your wealth, can insult the seller because they will not have change, and opens you up for becoming a target for crime.
- Keep an eye on your belongings when using public transport or visiting markets where numerous pickpockets swarm.
- Learn the Malagasy word for thief, "Mpangalatra" which is pronounced "Pun-gul-ah-tra". If someone is trying to rob you in a busy market area scream this. The fact that a vazaha is screaming thief will unsettle the thief and alert the people near you to help.
- Always listen for the words "vazaha" or "vazongo" when spoken in low tones. If you hear these words be aware that someone is talking about you, for better or for worse!
- Like any other developing country, there are a lot of beggars. This is sometimes uncomfortable for tourists, but these people should be respected nonetheless. They are, predictably, attracted to foreigners and will not hesitate to ask for a hand-out. If you don't want to give, a simple "Non, merci" or "Tsy Misy (tsee-meesh)" (I have nothing) will do the trick. If they persist, try shouting "Mandehana! (man-day-han)" (Go Away!) It is recommended not to give money, but other useful items, such as a banana, a piece of bread, etc. It is usually accepted with gratitude, and if the beggar is a child, he will run away with a smile on his face. It is imperative not to encourage begging - in Madagascar the people do not really believe in getting something for nothing and will invariably offer you something first. For example, a chameleon to photograph.
Visitors to Madagascar should be aware of a vast number of health concerns. Diseases such as the plague, which are almost unheard of elsewhere, still occur in Madagascar. Drinking water is almost never safe for foreigners; treated or bottled water should always be used, and salads or dishes containing unpeeled fruits or vegetables should be avoided. While the AIDS epidemic has not reached the devastating level found in many southern African countries, it is widely assumed that the incidence of AIDS is underestimated and rising, so you should take no risks and avoid unprotected sex in all cases. When swimming, beware of the possibility of human waste in the water, which can cause cholera, typhoid, and a number of other diseases. Leeches and tropical parasites are also a concern.
Research malaria prophylaxis options, and follow through. If you are not taking any prophylactics, be sure to always apply mosquito repellents once dusk sets in. On-skin repellent (only repellents containing ~40% DEET are effective, such as NoBite, or Azeron Before Tropics) is good but should be used in combination with on-clothes repellent (i.e., NoBite). The clothes repellent is odorless approximately an hour after application, and clothes can be washed up to 4 times before it needs to be re-applied. If you wear long-sleeve clothing treated with the repellent and apply on-skin repellent to the skin parts not covered, you will be very safe against mosquito bites and can skip the prophylaxis with its notorious side effects. Take the repellent issue seriously, though, as it's very easy to fall into a more 'relaxed' mode after you've spent some time in the country.
Areas inhabited by humans will invariably have large populations of stray dogs. Avoid stray dogs, and although bites are rare if bitten seek medical assistance promptly as rabies is not unheard of.
Remember that Madagascar is in the tropics and take precautions against sunburn and heat exhaustion seriously. Wear lots of sunscreen and keep hydrated. A cloudy day does not mean you won't get burnt.
Everyday life in Madagascar is regulated by numerous fady (taboos) which vary from one region to another. They can forbid foods (pork, lemur, turtle), wearing clothes of a particular colour, bathing in a river or a lake. Observance of "Fady" is mostly limited to rural areas, as tourists will most likely not encounter this problem if they stay in the main towns. However, there are Fadys in places such as Antananarivo but most vazaha are exempt.
Fady are attributed to ancestors, to whom Malagasy adopt a respectful attitude whatever their religion. It is safest to respect these prohibitions and not violate them, even if you feel they don't make sense. Inform yourself about local fady when you arrive in a new place.
When addressing anyone older than you or in a position of authority (e.g. police, military, customs officials), use the word "tompoko (toom-pook)" the same way you would use "Sir" or "Ma'am" in English. Respect for elders and authority figures is important in Madagascar.
Do not ever take photos of a tomb without permission. Always ask permission before taking photos. Also, if you go to a remote village or hamlet it is fomba or tradition that you first meet with the head of the village if you have business in the village. Meeting this person can save you a lot of time if you have work to do there.