Advice for Seniors for Safe Travel in Asia
Is Asia a safe continent in which to travel? That is a question that many seniors embarking on their first trip to Asia will undoubtedly ask. Often their impressions of Asia are influenced by TV news reports of typhoons, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, or kung fu movies with Chinese triad gangs roaming the backstreets of Hong Kong.
Yes, there is organised crime in Asia and petty criminals as well, but when you look at the murder rates for all the cities in the world, there is not a single city in Asia that makes the list.
Out of the 50 cities in the world with the highest murder rates, 47 cities are in North, Central or South America, and three are in South Africa. Not one in Asia!
In Asia, India has the highest crime rates, but the very high number of sexual assaults against women makes those figures difficult to compare. It is highly unlikely that senior travellers to India would become victims of rape, but clearly the fact that a 71-year-old nun was gang raped in 2015 should make female senior travellers cautious about travelling there on their own.
From my own personal experience, the only country in Asia in which I have not felt safe was Pakistan. Karachi is widely regarded as the most dangerous city in Asia (aside from those where there are military conflicts) but that is not a city that attracts many travellers from overseas.
In more than 50 years of travelling I have been mugged once and have been the victim of attempted robbery on the street twice. The mugging was in Australia – regarded as one of the safest countries in the world – and the attempted robberies were in Russia – a country to which I have no desire to return.
Aside from a scary episode in a public market in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, when I was surrounded by about 20 men accusing me of taking photographs of women (there wasn’t a single woman in the market) which they claimed was forbidden under Islamic law (not true), there has been no occasion when I have ever feared for my life when travelling in Asia.
Asia is the safest region in the world in which to travel after Europe and Oceania. Of course, there are no-go areas as there are on every continent, and East Asia has its fair share of conflicts that put whole countries off limits for years at a time.
It’s not so long ago that I was toting a camera around Syria and Yemen, but today those countries are completely off limits to tourists. And many seniors can remember how Afghanistan was a popular stopover on the Europe to Asia backpacking route back in the 1960s and early 70s.
Research before you leave
These days almost every western country’s government has a website where its citizens can get advice on which areas in each country are safe to visit, which areas are off-limits, and which areas are reasonably safe to visit but where a degree of caution needs to be exercised.
The Australian Government, for example, has an excellent ‘Smart Traveller’ website at https://smartraveller.gov.au/ where it summarises the safety and security situations in about 175 countries.
It classifies each country onto one of four categories, namely:
Level 1: Exercise normal safety precautions
Level 2: Exercise a high degree of caution
Level 3: Reconsider your need to travel
Level 4: Do not travel
For countries in Levels 2 to 4, the reasons for the ratings are explained and detailed information is given about areas to avoid or other precautions that should be taken.
The areas to which travel is not recommended not only includes regions of unrest for reasons of politics, religious extremism or insurgencies, but also those that are dangerous in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam because of landmines or other unexploded ordnance.
In some cases the classifications tend to be overly conservative - most likely because the Australian government doesn’t want to be held responsible for sending someone into an area where they might get into trouble. Therefore following the advice given should substantially minimise the possibility of straying into unsafe areas.
Most western governments have similar websites, and many offer email or text message updates to travellers that register with them for travel to certain countries.
Therefore the most important advice for any traveller of any age is to check the security situation of countries to be visited before you leave.
The second most important piece of safety advice is one that is primarily applicable to seniors, and that relates to awareness when travelling. We all know that as we get older our reaction times get slower, and as we progress through our senior years some mental functions diminish as well.
It is very easy for seniors over 70 to get ‘muddled’ over tasks that in their 40s or 50s wouldn’t have required a second thought.
In a paper prepared for Developmental Psychology journal, psychologists Patricia A. Tun and Margie E. Lachman refer to “processing speed and central executive function” as two mental abilities that are especially critical for every day functioning, but show age differences across a person’s lifespan.
What that means in simple language is that as people get older, their reaction times get slower. Most people already know that, and there are many who will take advantage of these slower reaction times given the opportunity.
Therefore the key to safe travel when older, is to stay alert and not give others the opportunity to take advantage of you. If you feel like nodding off in an airport lounge or any public place, make sure your valuables are secure and you have your backpack or hand luggage strapped to a leg or an arm so that can’t be easily snatched away.
The deterioration in the mental abilities of older seniors also means they are more susceptible to falling prey to scams and confidence tricksters. This is not to suggest that seniors are going to be targets for scams every time they travel, but it’s wise to keep your guard up at all times and not be as trusting of strangers as you might be back home.
In many Asian countries, scams start on arrival at the airport. They are targeted at travellers of all ages, but especially at seniors who have come off long flights, may be suffering jet lag, and are unfamiliar with the destination at which they have arrived.
Most of the scams relate to airport transportation. In many developing countries taxi drivers will try to overcharge visitors from other countries, either by demanding a fixed fare that is two or three times the usual metered fare, taking passengers on a longer route if they are not familiar with the city, or using a doctored meter that runs faster than it should.
Or touts will accost passengers as they exit from the airport. The touts will tell you that there is a long waiting time for taxis (which often there is) and offer use of a private car for the ‘same price’ as a taxi. It is not safe to use these vehicles. Whilst some may be locals just trying to make some extra money on the side, what they are doing is invariably illegal, and in a small number of cases they may have intentions to take passengers to a place where they can be robbed or assaulted.
The best option is always to organise a car from your hotel to pick you up. This will invariably cost more than a taxi, but is by far the safest option when travelling to a new country. Once you are more familiar with the transport system, you can decide on other options to return to the airport when you leave.
The next safest option is to take a Grab or Uber vehicle. If you have the app on your phone you can call for a car as soon as you exit from the airport. You’ll need to make sure you have a wifi connection or data roaming to do that, and if you are not in a country where the fare is charged to your credit card, you’ll need to make sure you have sufficient local currency before you leave the airport.
If you don’t have any option but to take a taxi, do not get into the taxi until you see that the driver has turned on the meter. If the driver refuses, then wait for the next taxi. In some cities the airport authorities may have a coupon system that requires either prepayment for the fare, or will state the fare to be paid at your destination.
Often taxi drivers on a meter will ask you whether this is the first time you’ve visited their country. It’s best to call their bluff if you can and state that you’ve been to that country many times. If they try to test your local knowledge by asking which route you want to take, just tell them to take the one that they think will have the lightest traffic.
And if you know in advance that you will be taking a taxi from the airport, do an internet search before you leave to get the lowdown on the latest scams. For example, if you are travelling to Manila, just search for ‘Manila taxi scams’. If the city is one that suffers from taxi scams, you’ll find plenty to read and you will be better prepared when you arrive.
Walking the streets safely
The next piece of advice relates to staying safe when walking the streets of Asian cities. There are two aspects to this. The first is an extension of the earlier advice about staying aware. Try not to standout as a tourist and never wear expensive jewellery or designer clothes if you are in a developing country – that’s only inviting snatch thieves. Keep those for your shopping trips in Tokyo or Singapore.
When travelling in Asia, I always try to dress down and try to make myself look like an expatriate living in that country. Of course, that may not be easy to do if you have a Nikon or Canon SLR slung over your shoulder. A solution is to keep your camera in an ordinary bag so you look less like a tourist and more like a local resident. That will also remove a temptation for snatch thieves.
Snatch thefts are more common in Asia than in Europe, and the danger for senior travellers is that they may suffer a fall whilst a snatch theft is in progress. If a thief grabs a smartphone or a handbag, let it go. The value of what will be lost is nothing compared to the price of a long hospital stay if you suffer a broken hip.
Avoid snatch thieves by carrying bags strapped across the chest, or at the very least keep handheld bags on the side away from the road. Never walk down the street using a smartphone for talking or texting. If it is necessary to call or text whilst out on the street, find a spot where you can stand with your back to a wall and stay observant of passers-by as you use your phone.
The other safety aspect to walking the streets of Asian cities relates to the condition of the sidewalks. Aside from Japan and some urban areas of South Korea, it is likely that the condition of the pavements will be inferior to that of where you live. Therefore there is a real risk of suffering a broken ankle – or worse a broken hip – if you do not tread carefully when walking in cities.
Even Singapore, which has generally good sidewalks, has many open drains into which it is easy to fall if not paying attention. In the cities of the developing countries of Asia, it is very common to come across open manholes or excavations on the sidewalks – most of which are unmarked and have no danger signs or safety barriers.
In many places there will be no sidewalks at all, and you will have no option but to walk on the road dodging fast moving motorcycles and other vehicles. Whilst local drivers are generally good at avoiding pedestrians, don’t take it for granted that they won’t hit you.
Monitoring of drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol is very lax in most countries in Asia, and crossing the road in the cities of the developing countries is much more dangerous than in western countries. Never assume that a vehicle is going to stop for you on a pedestrian crossing. In many countries they won’t.
Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in many Asian countries, and aside from pedestrians, motorcyclists are amongst the most vulnerable. Whilst renting a motorcycle is a common way to get around Asia for backpackers, it is recommended that senior travellers stay away from the two-wheeled options. Hiring a car and driver is more expensive, but it’s the only safe option for senior travellers.
Of course, many senior travellers don’t go to Asia for the cities – they go for the mountains and the rainforests where they can enjoy nature and hike or trek in much safer conditions than they could in many other parts of the world (especially Africa or Latin America).
The most important piece of advice for senior travellers to heed when hiking is not to do it alone. If you don’t have a spouse, relative or friend who wants to hike with you, then consider hiring a local guide. In many Asian countries, a guide is not expensive, and many will be prepared to carry your belongings for you, making the hike much easier on your own body.
If trekking to a remote area, read our article ‘Health Risks for Seniors when Travelling to Remote Locations’.
When travelling away from areas where you will be staying in hotels and not able to access regular news reports, try to find ways to maintain communications with friends at home so that they can warn you of any serious weather situations such as developing typhoons.
Asia has it’s fair share of deadly typhoons, and if this concerns you, it may well be better to restrict travel to months where typhoons are not prevalent in the countries that you intend to visit.
Typhoons only affect a limited number of countries in Asia, but they should be taken very seriously, especially if travelling to remote areas where flooding and landslides can be associated problems.
Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are other dangerous events that can happen without warning in Asia (and many other parts of the world for that matter) and provide more reasons why it is important to keep lines of communication open in case such an event occurs and you need to be given advice on evacuation procedures.
Finally, whilst muggings and other violent assaults are more rare in Asia than they are in many western countries, it is advisable to stay out of any arguments with locals – particularly those who have been drinking.
Whilst drunken arguments in your own country may be seen as nothing more than letting off steam under the influence of alcohol, in many Asian cultures the concept of ‘saving face’ – particularly when it involves a foreigner – can lead to a much more violent ending.
Stay polite, stay aware, and stay away from trouble, and your travel in Asia will surely be safe and hassle-free.