For the 50+ Traveler

In some countries, you're innocent until proven guilty, you can make bail, and you won't be arbitrarily detained. In some countries.

1. South America

We're well aware that South America is a continent, not a country, but we're listing it at #1 because you really don't want to get arrested anywhere from the Falklands to Colombia.

There are lots of desirable places to travel in South America, but they're also infamous for the inhumane treatment of prisoners. You know a country's prison system is especially brutal when even its own government officials are speaking out against it. For example, the Brazilian Minister of Justice had this to say about their prison system: "We have a medieval prison system, which not only violates human rights, it does not allow for the most important element of a penal sanction, which is social reintegration."

Ironically, another quirk of South American prisons is that they function similarly to hotels in one specific way: they charge rent to inmates for the "right" to a bed and a cell. That motivates inmates to do other unsavory things while incarcerated just to earn enough money to afford their "rent." We're curious to know who dreamed up that brilliant idea!

2. Thailand

The punishment doesn't always fit the crime, and despite being its breathtaking beauty, Thailand can be pretty ruthless with their treatment of criminals.

A Swiss man once graffitied a painting of the Thai King. While that's definitely illegal, it doesn't seem like such a serious offense to westerners. His punishment? Ten years in prison.

Stick to the beaches and avoid anything to do with politics. Avoid drugs too. That should go without saying, but note that any drug smuggling in Thailand will be dealt with in the most severe way: the death sentence.

You even have to watch out for some innocent acts that, as it turns out, are crimes in Thailand. For example, it's apparently illegal to leave your house without underwear. Don't ask us how any police officer would discover that someone isn't wearing underwear, but we hope the punishment isn't too severe for that one!

Thailand island
One of Thailand's gorgeous coastal islands. Unsplash / Mo Baghdadi

3. India

Don't expect special treatment in India just because you're a tourist! The same laws that apply to an Indian citizen apply to travelers from other countries, and Indian officials have no qualms about holding visitors to the letter of the law.

Drug smuggling is an especially touchy subject (obviously), but lesser charges can land you in hot water just as easily. Daniel Robinson was a traveler who received much infamy when he was arrested in India for a visa violation and threatened with ten years in prison. The only reason he was released was a coordinated campaign to free him.

Not only does India fully enforce their laws, but they're also not stingy at all about the length of their sentences. Five and ten-year stints are handed out freely in the face of legal violations, and the prison conditions are none too pleasant.

None of this should stop you from visiting India and learning more about its rich history. But it should make you think twice before you do anything even borderline illegal.


4. Singapore

Despite the modernness of Singapore in architecture and lifestyle, there are some pretty archaic and severe punishments for illicit acts.

An American 18-year-old, Michael Fay, experienced the cruel hand of the Singapore law when he spray-painted a building and received a $2,000 fine, four months in prison, and perhaps most shockingly, whippings with a bamboo cane.

If you're not a fan of lashings similar to those performed in medieval times, don't be defacing any Singapore structures with graffiti!

5. China

There's so much to see in China, and so many ways to get in trouble doing it! Most people wouldn't think twice when they connect to the internet in their hotel, but a group of 20 international travelers realized how careful you have to be. Eleven people from the group were deported for watching banned videos on their hotel's wifi. Be careful what you check out online when you're on public wifi in China. It's safest to assume you're always being monitored and behave accordingly.

Another peculiarity of Chinese law is the fact that defendants do not necessarily have the right to a lawyer when they're being interrogated by the police. Still more unpleasant is that forced labor will very likely be part of your prison sentence, should you get one.

If you're surprised by some of these laws and cases from around the world, remember how important it is to read up on a country's laws before traveling there. In particularly severe cases, you might even want to think twice before booking travel to certain countries. Always pay attention to the news for recent incidents, and read up on feedback from other travelers to see how visitors are treated. The last thing you want is to end up famous for being the latest tourist to cause a legal and diplomatic incident.