Comparing Street Crime In The Americas, Europe, And Asia

The World’s Safest Places To Retire?

Want to reduce your exposure to street crime?

Consider moving to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Vicki and I both grew up in the United States. Since then we’ve lived in Argentina and Mexico; England, France, and Spain; and Thailand, Malaysia, and China. We’ve also lived in New York, Las Vegas, and Austin.

In my observation, Asia’s view on crime differs from that of the Western world in two key respects.

First, we in the West take crime for granted. We believe we have to live with crime, that it comes with the territory. Second, we in the West assume there’s very little we can do about crime. As a society we’ve tried putting more people in jail, we’ve tried letting more people out of jail. Nothing works.

Asians reject both these views, in my experience. Thais and Chinese view crime as an aberration, rather than a daily occurrence. Thais may get ripped off now and again, or know someone who’s been hit. Scams happen. Then again, Thais never take crime for granted.

Vicki and I have been pickpocketed in Paris, had a purse snatched in Panama, had items stolen from our luggage in a London hotel’s luggage area, had bags stolen from a car in Mexico. For every theft we’ve been hit with, two or three attempts have failed.

We’re talking about odds here. As an example, consider Buenos Aires and Chiang Mai, two cities where we’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years.

In Buenos Aires these days, nearly all visitors who walk the streets, or take cabs, buses, and subways, get ripped off. You might complete your visit there without incident. But you shouldn’t bet that’s going to happen. You travel down there, you figure you’ll get hit. The U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires recently issued a security alert. This is a place where you know crime is likely, so you prepare for it.

By the same token you could get hit in Bangkok or Singapore. Malaysia, especially Kuala Lumpur, seems to be experiencing a crime wave. Just last month a young British couple was murdered on the beach in southern Thailand. Phuket jet-ski operators and taxi drivers have been scamming tourists for years.

Crime happens. But in most of Asia you’re more likely to avoid it.

Vicki and I calculate we’ve been hit on Buenos Aires streets, or have put up with attempted hits, roughly every other week there. We figure we do better than average because we’ve lived there, and we know many of the tricks. Tourists who walk BA’s mean streets for the first time nearly always get taken.

In Chiang Mai, by contrast, we live without fear, we relax and drop our guard. We take normal precautions. We carry valuables in a money belt, for example. But we rarely see crime, or hear about it, and we don’t consider it comes with the territory. We know crime can happen, but the subject rarely comes up.

Here’s my main point: If you choose to do so you can live without taking crime for granted, without daily fear. Simply move to Chiang Mai, Kunming, Luang Nam Tha, or other safer cities in Southeast Asia. You’ll want to avoid higher crime areas, like Kuala Lumpur or Phuket. You’ll want to check Wikipedia and WikiTravel for the latest updates from your destination. But you’ll more likely be safer than in the West.

Asians also reject the second Western assumption, that there’s nothing we can do about crime. Last time I was in Chongqing, China, a local bank robber killed people in a couple of hold-ups. Suddenly the guy’s picture appeared on posters in cafes, on the streets, in subways. A few days later the front page of the local Chinese-language paper showed that wanted picture with a big red X drawn through it. In the background was crime-scene tape and a body.

Reducing crime involves challenges. It’s complicated. But Asians take a direct approach. They’re refreshingly clear on who the bad guys are. Guy steals my purse, he’s the perp and I’m the victim. Simple. Catch the perp, get my property back, send the perp to jail.

The French, for example, view crime differently. A French friend told me that “putting people in jail doesn’t do them any good. So here in France we tend to avoid giving prison terms.” This friend views crime from the point of view of the criminal, not the victim. My friend’s concern goes to the welfare of perps, rather than to reducing crime.

Latin American populists tend to embrace what I call the Marxist flip. With the Marxist flip, the guy who steals my purse is the victim (of social injustice). And since I have something worth stealing, and others have nothing, I must have stolen in the past or at least have engaged in underhanded attempts. So I become the perp, deserving of my suffering.

Last month a Canadian tourist riding a bicycle in Buenos Aires was held up at gun point. He filmed the holdup on a GoPro attached to his helmet, and delivered the video to the police. The police found the perp, discovered he had a pound of marijuana on him, and arrested him. But the court promptly put him back on the street. The perp had problems of his own, he said, and he was sorry. The Marxist flip.

The Marxist flip seems to lead to more crime. Wherever populists have come to power in Latin American—Venezuela, Argentina—crime rates have shot up.

Curiously, when crime goes up and voters say they’re concerned, they rarely throw out the populists. During the reign of Hugo Chavez and his successor in Venezuela, Caracas turned into what might be Latin America’s most dangerous city. Yet Chavistas still win elections.

Life and choosing where to retire involve more than avoiding crime. But if you’re fed up, and think you might like to live without fear, consider a low-crime city in Asia. You’ll improve your odds of living without violence.

Paul Terhorst

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