When considering a potential move to Thailand one common concern that many people have is safety. There is a perception among some of those living in Europe and North America that Southeast Asia is potentially a dangerous region to visit, but is this reputation actually justified? Is Thailand safe? Lets take a look at what the data says…
Is Thailand safe to travel and live?
As someone who has spent about 10 years in total living in Thailand, I feel qualified to weigh in on this topic. In most regards, I feel that Thailand is either safer or on par with living in the United States and other western countries.
The thought of crime rarely crosses my mind, and I’m almost always 100% at ease in Thailand as far as personal safety is concerned.
Traffic safety in Thailand is, however, one area where I am more concerned, and I adjust my driving habits accordingly.
Statistics are probably more useful than personal anecdotes for gauging the level of safety in Thailand compared to other countries, though. So let’s look at what the available numbers have to say about this.
Crime Statistics for Thailand vs Other Countries
Personal Safety in Thailand
Violent crime isn’t fun to think about, but when looking at the numbers we can see that Thailand isn’t particularly dangerous. Let’s start by looking at the intentional homicide rates for different countries. Your chances of getting murdered anywhere in the world are rather low, but nevertheless this category is a good one for evaluating the overall crime within a country. This is because homicide tends to have the most accurate data.
Unlike with crimes such as theft or rape, with homicide there isn’t an issue of inaccurate data due to unreported crime. Murder always leaves a body or else a missing person, so it’s rather easy for law enforcement to know when one has occurred.
Asia as a whole actually ranks as the safest continent in this regard, with a rate of only 2.9 homicides per year per 100,000 inhabitants according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). (Source: Wikipedia)
Out of 219 countries, Thailand ranked #114 for the highest murder rate, with a figure of 3.51 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants (2015). The US came in #94 in the world with 4.88 per 100,000 for the same year. Canada (1.68), Finland (1.60), and France (1.58) all had murder rates about half that of Thailand. Other western countries came in even lower with Sweden (1.15), Australia (.98), the UK (.92), and Germany (.85) all showing murder rates of less than a third that of Thailand.
While it’s true that the murder rate for Thailand is higher than most European countries, it is still less than the US. Also, we should look at the murder rates in some of the truly dangerous countries to get a fair comparison, such as Russia (11.31), Mexico (16.35), Colombia (26.50), and Brazil (26.74). Unlike in Colombia and Brazil, Thai cities don’t have no-go neighborhoods that you’d be crazy to walk through.
Lower Suicide Rate Than Finland
Does Thailand’s sunny weather lead to less depression and suicide than Northern Europe?
One of the most tragic aspects of the human condition is the fact that, in many countries, you are far more likely to kill yourself than become the victim of murder. The suicide rate in Thailand is 12.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, putting it nearly even with the US (12.6), France (12.3), and New Zealand (12.3).
Finland experiences a higher suicide rate at 14.2 per 100,000. And the rate for men is even higher in Finland at 21.4.
To put this in perspective, you’re six times more likely to take your own life as a male living in Finland than you are to be murdered in Thailand. (Source: Wikipedia)
Safety for Women
There are some countries in the world that I would not recommend for solo women travelers. Sadly, men in certain cultures can act like animals and make life difficult or dangerous for women in crowded areas and on public transportation. Thankfully, Thailand is not one of these places. Not only is Thailand more safe for women than most countries in Africa and Latin America, it’s actually much safer than Europe too.
When looking at the available statistics for rape, Thailand ranks far safer than many western countries. Undoubtedly, many cases of rape and sexual assault go unreported in all countries, and the rate at which they are unreported can be affected by cultural factors.
Nevertheless, using the statistics available, Thailand ranked #52 out of 116 countries for the most rapes per million people with a figure of 70 per million (2010). Sweden came in #6 in the world for the same year with a shocking 636 reported rapes per million people. (Source: NationMaster)
For the most recent year of available data, 15 western countries came in as more dangerous for women than Thailand, with Australia (289), Belgium (275), United States (274), New Zealand (258), Iceland (245), Norway (192), France (156), Finland (152), Luxembourg (117), Ireland (107), Austria (104), Germany (94), Netherlands (92), Italy (77), and Denmark (72) all reporting more rapes per million people.
Low Motor Vehicle Theft Rate
The available data suggests that the rate of motor vehicle theft in Thailand is actually quite low. UNODC statistics on the subject list Thailand as having a rate of 28.8 vehicle thefts per 100,000 inhabitants (2010). Many European countries had much higher rates, such as Germany (85.2), Switzerland (101.6), Netherlands (119.2), Finland (163.0), France (278.7), and Sweden (304.1).
The vehicle theft rate for the US was 227.1 per 100,000 people, which is nearly eight times higher than Thailand. (Source: Wikipedia)
Lower Theft Than Even Japan
The UNODC defines theft as the stealing of private property without use of force or threat of violence. Under this definition, the victim would most likely not be aware that the theft is taking place, and it would include crimes such as pick-pocketing. The rate of reported theft in Thailand has been on the decline. There were 96.18 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006, but the rate had dropped to 57.93 in 2015.
Japan, which is usually considered a very safe Asian country, had a much higher rate at 356.20 (2014). Other countries showing higher theft rates than Thailand for the most recent year of available data were the United States (1773.40), Canada (1402.65), Finland (1770.96), Sweden (3815.46), France (1906.93), and Germany (1657.23). The only European country to report a lower theft rate than Thailand was the Vatican City, which had zero reported. (Source: UNODC)
My personal experience with the lack of theft in Thailand may be useful here. In many places in the world, you’d be crazy to leave belongings unattended, but here it happens all the time. When I’m at a coffee shop, I never think twice about leaving my laptop sitting on the table while I disappear for 5-10 minutes to use the bathroom. Thai university students often leave their personal belongings sitting around much longer—sometimes for hours—in order to keep their claim to a table in a busy coffee shop while they go outside to eat a meal or meet friends.
Everywhere you go, you’ll see motorbike riders leaving their helmets perched on top of the bike’s mirrors. I do the same, and in all these years I’ve only had a helmet go missing once—and that was when I left the bike parked for a week outside of Chiang Mai Airport. It’s also normal to remove shoes and leave them outside temple buildings, and I’ve never heard of anyone having their shoes stolen at a temple.
Since 2006, the rate of reported theft in Thailand has been on the decline.
Robbery in Thailand is Almost Unknown
Robbery is defined by the UNODC as the theft of property with the use of force or threat of force. Muggings and bag-snatchings with force would fall into this category. The reported robbery rate in Thailand is quite low at only 2.21 incidents per 100,000 people.
The United States, by comparison, has a rate of 101.74. This means you’re nearly 50 times more likely to be mugged in the US than you are in Thailand.
Colombia, which like Thailand is a favorite destination for digital nomads, had a robbery rate of 210.14, making it nearly 100 times worse from a standpoint of violent robbery. The rate in Finland (28.16) was more sane, and yet still much higher than Thailand. Sweden was even more dangerous with a rate of 86.52. (Source: UNODC)
From my personal experience, I’ve never felt at danger of being mugged walking around any part of Bangkok or other large Thai cities at any time of day or night. I wouldn’t be able to say the same for cities in the US.
You’re nearly 50 times more likely to be mugged in the US than you are in Thailand.
Average Life Expectancy
One potential measure for the overall safety and health standards in a country is to look at the average life expectancy for that country’s inhabitants. It’s clear that genetics, dietary habits, and lifestyle play an important role in determining the average life expectancy for a population. So uprooting yourself and dropping in the middle of that environment and culture won’t necessarily have any effect, positive or negative, on your longevity. Still, we can see some reason to be hopeful based on the available statistics on the subject.
Data from the World Health Organization ranks Japan as #1 with an overall life expectancy from birth of 83.7 years. Two other Asian countries came in the top twelve. There is no reason to suspect the tropical climate of Southeast Asia has any detriment to longevity since the #3 ranked country is Singapore at 83.1 years. Most European countries come in above 80 years, with Finland at 81.1, while the US is slightly lower with 79.3 years.
Thailand’s average life expectancy is around middle-of-the-road for all countries with a figure of 74.9 years. It’s worth noting that Thailand’s neighbor Laos has a significantly lower figure of 65.7 years despite a very similar genetic makeup of the population. We can conclude that the improved health facilities and quality of life in Thailand vs her neighbor has a positive impact of the longevity of her citizens. (Source: Wikipedia)
Road Safety in Thailand
There is no way to sugar-coat the fact that Thailand has one of the highest road fatality rates in the world. The World Health Organization data from 2013 puts Thailand at having the 2nd deadliest roads per capita with 36.2 road fatalities per 100,000 residents.
This puts it at just a little over double the world average of 17.4. European countries tend to have the least deadliest roads, with fatality rates for Sweden (2.8), the UK (2.9), Switzerland (3.3), Germany (4.3), and Finland (4.8) all under 5 per 100,000. Even India, which is notorious for horrible road conditions, comes in under the world average at 16.6. (Source: Wikipedia)
The sad thing is the majority of Thailand’s road fatalities could be avoided. For whatever reason, many drivers in Thailand tend to have very bad driving habits and show little concern for—or awareness of—others on the road. When you drive in Thailand, you will notice the following behaviors on a daily basis:
- Driving through red lights
- Driving the wrong way on a one-way street
- Driving against traffic on the shoulder of the road
- Making a U-turn where it is prohibited
- Changing lanes without signaling
- Cutting across multiple lanes all at once
- Straddling multiple lanes
- Pulling out from a side street without checking for oncoming traffic
- Passing in no-passing zones around blind curves such as on mountain roads
On top of all these, other common foolish behaviors that increase the number and severity of accidents include:
- Motorcyclists not wearing helmets
- Drivers playing with their phones
- 3, 4, or even 5, sometimes entire families riding on a single motorbike (usually not wearing helmets)
Furthermore, in Chiang Mai and other Thai cities, there are lots of tourists driving around on rented scooters who have neither the correct driving license nor any prior experience driving a motorbike.
You may see them stopping without warning to look at their map, driving down the wrong side of the street, making sudden turns without looking in the direction of oncoming traffic, and taking other erratic actions due to their inexperience and unfamiliarity with their surroundings.
Even pedestrians can become a road hazard. Tourists often look the wrong way before crossing the street since traffic in their home country moves on the opposite side of the road. They also choose to walk in the middle of the road rather than on the sidewalk with surprising frequency.
With all this in mind, I still recommend a motorcycle or scooter as the easiest way to get around any Thai city besides Bangkok. You can greatly decrease your chances of getting in an accident by following a few simple tips:
- Don’t be in a big rush
- Always check your mirrors
- Never assume a green light is safe to drive through
- Pay attention to other drivers
- Expect the unexpected
You will be amazed at the selfish and irresponsible driving habits you see in Thailand. For the most part, however, you can avoid any problems by driving defensively and not being in a big hurry to get anywhere.
When someone is driving stupidly, just get out of their way.
When you’re stopped at a red light and it turns green, always double-check that the intersection is actually safe to cross. Be aware when passing side streets and driveways that there is always the possibility of another driver pulling out onto the main road without stopping or looking.
And always, always, always wear a helmet.
(A Few) Dangerous Places in Thailand
While I feel completely safe in the vast majority of Thailand, I feel that I should mention there are a couple of areas that I wouldn’t consider visiting. In particular, the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have been the site of a long-running separatist insurgency. This area, which borders Malaysia, was once the independent Sultanate of Pattani. The majority of the people living in this area are ethnic Malay, Muslim, and speak in a dialect of the Malayan language.
Since 2001, there have been regular violent attacks by insurgents in these three provinces. The targets of killings are often school teachers, Buddhist monks, and police—all of which are seen as instruments of the Thai central government and Thai people to impose cultural and territorial imperialism on the local population. There have been a few bombings thought to be connected to the Southern Insurgency in other parts of the country, but the vast majority of the attacks have all been isolated to these three provinces.
The island of Koh Tao is the other place in Thailand I would personally not choose to visit. Over the past few years, this small island in the Gulf of Thailand—popular with backpackers for all-night beach parties and coral reef diving—has been the scene of a worrying number of mysterious deaths and disappearances. I don’t have any solid information on what is actually going on there, but if you search online, you can find some theories about the cause of these events.
Recreational Hazards in Thailand
It seems to me that a large number of the dangers encountered in Thailand are due to people’s own stupidity. I already mentioned road safety in relation to other drivers, but you’d be surprised how many tourists take some road rash home as a souvenir as a result of their own poor decision making.
On some of the islands in particular, the roads can have dangerous curves and get very slick after rain, and yet far too many unskilled riders drive around at high speeds and under the influence of alcohol.
In Chiang Mai, a popular cliff-diving spot has been the site of several drownings. There have also been fatal accidents involving parasailing, bungee jumping, and zip-lines in Thailand.
Thailand also has several tiger-themed attractions where you can pet seemingly docile full-grown tigers. 99.9% of the time the big cats behave as expected, but there have also been a few occasions where they’ve reverted back to their natural instincts and bitten tourists. With these sorts of activities, always remember that your safety isn’t guaranteed.
Drownings at beaches are another type of avoidable but not uncommon tragedy. Usually drownings occur when people ignore the red “no swimming” warning flags on the beach that are put there to warn against rip currents and unsafe conditions. So if you’re at the beach and the red flags are up, just stay out of the water.
According to the website Farang Deaths, the top two causes of death for foreigners in Thailand are road accidents and drowning. The next two most common causes are suicides and falling.
Foreigners falling to their death from highrise hotels and condominiums—especially in the beachside city of Pattaya—is such a well-known phenomena that there is a name for it, the “Pattaya Flying Club”. This is not a club you want to join! Alcoholism, depression, debt, a love-relationship gone sour—we can only speculate at the reason for someone to end their own life or otherwise mysteriously take a plunge from a balcony. Staying healthy, drinking in moderation, and making better relationship choices may help you avoid joining the Pattaya Flying Club.
Outside of traffic accidents and taking risky behavior, Thailand is actually a very safe place to live. Theft, muggings, and personal attacks are all quite rare. Most dangerous situations involving foreigners occur due to speeding, drunk-driving, and swimming in unsafe conditions.
Alcoholism and depression can cause foreign retirees and some expats to give up hope. But healthy lifestyle and relationship choices can go a long way towards preventing suicides.
Overall, I would describe life in Thailand as carefree. I certainly wouldn’t have stayed in Thailand as long as I have if I thought it were an unsafe place to live.