Mysterious Coed Backpacker Deaths in Southeast Asia. Also Henry James.

She’s headed for doom.

It’s Southeast Asian Mystery Death season again—and this time, coed girl backpackers appear to be especially vulnerable. Cue the B movie screenwriters.

CNN has reported on the curious deaths of a number of people in Southeast Asia, a number of them young American women who appear to have been poisoned by—something. It might be DEET, it might be chemicals used to kill bedbugs, it might be the various chemical dangers of Southeast Asian life. No one is sure. But they are dead, and the media’s collective hands have, inevitably, begun to wringe.

Obviously, investigations to figure out what exactly is killing people are fully warranted, and I hope the cause is ferreted out as fast as possible. That is not really what I want to talk about, although I am damned well going to be doing more through sniff checks of my future Asian hotel rooms. (I don’t drink unidentifiable shit out of buckets, so that’s one base covered).

But the coverage of these incidents, with their focus on young women traveling the Mysterious East © is depressingly obvious, focusing on their beauty and friendliness and love for humanity and all the usual bases hit when someone young and promising dies.

The articles reiterate the point: “If you allow your promising young daughter to travel overseas and pursue her dreams of adventure, she may be pulled into the dark, slavering maw of the mysterious East. Just so you know.” 

There’s even talk that these deaths are somehow linked murders, although a serial killer who has managed to haul his devious rump from Indonesia to Thailand to Vietnam for the singular purpose of offing cute wide-eyed young Western girls would have a really enviable number of frequent flier points. Also, I don’t believe it for a second.

To me, it is obvious: we are looking at Henry James and Isabel Archer’s foolhardiness all over again, Daisy Miller going against the reasonable suggestions of her elders and cavorting in the Colosseum at midnight with mysterious swarthy men, and sweet Christ, just look at what happened to her. (In case no one ever forced you to read the story: Daisy Miller dies. Of a mysterious illness.)


Let me quote James on the topic of Daisy Miller and foolish young American femaleness:

“Winterbourne had now begun to think simply of the craziness, from a sanitary point of view, of a delicate young girl lounging away the evening in this nest of malaria. What if she were a clever little reprobate? That was no reason for her dying of the perniciosa”

A nest of malaria.

That about describes the popular perception of Southeast Asia. Indeed, we’ve been dealing with this particular attitude regarding attractive young women and foreign travel for generations.

It sometimes appears that bad things sometimes only are acknowledged to happen when they happen to young women from nice families, at least when it comes to the Western media.

I followed the expat news pretty closely while living in Phnom Penh, and the deaths of old, non-innocent-and-wide-eyed foreigners in Cambodia were a relatively regular occurrence as anyone could determine by hanging around on the Khmer440 forums for a while.

Some were offed the obvious ways: motorcycle accident, motorcycle accident, and drug overdose, to name the most common offenders.

But other deaths could have been a suicide, could have been a posioning, could have been a murder—the facts aren’t there, and there isn’t exactly a lot of popular interest, either in Cambodia or in the West, for determining the cause of death of middle-aged, un-charismatic outcasts.

They’re not delicate reprobate young ladies, you see. Or admitted punk rock meth heads. Or locals.

This indicates, to me, that these mysterious Coed Backpacker Deaths—while tragic—may be less of an epidemic of suffering and more business-as-usual in the uncertain world of Southeast Asia. We are likely looking at yet another case of pretty young girl from a nice family selection bias.

I hate to see incidents like this used to provide ammunition to the omnipresent It’s Just Too Dangerous Young Lady contingent.

In the USA, most young people who want to travel, especially to “weird” places, are already subjected to a gauntlet of confusion and questioning from their less worldly families and friends—who often operate under the curiously common assumption that everyone in the world is desperate to string us Americans up from trees by our pinky-toes upon visual identification.


For young women, it’s much worse. Young female travelers often tend to be subjected to oodles of stories from concerned family and friends about the sexual licentiousness of Those People Over There, an argument that usually has a poorly concealed or just-not-concealed at all racial element.

All that talk about the sexual dangers of travel always sounded to me rather like old, vile assertions about the remarkable attractiveness of Southern white women during the Civil War era: that these white women were so pretty that those terrifying brown people (slaves, foreigners, carpetbaggers of ill repute) simply couldn’t resist a spot of molestation when in their luminous presence.

This, I suspect, is born of nationalist egotism and weird, antebellum sexual paternalism. And lord, does it need to end.

And now, in addition to the omnipresent You Gonna Get Raped!!! threats, these young women will likely have to deal with some sort of poorly-thought out “But you might get poisoned by stuff!” argument from their archetypical Aunt Trudy, the one who always vacations in Disneyland and likes-it-just-fine-thank-you.

And CNN and other media sources are not doing said women any favors by the particular tone of their coverage, which seems to imply that nubile young Western ladies are specifically being targeted. (Like they always supposedly are!)

I would like to add that I am a young blonde American female who has thus far managed to travel alone in third world countries without real incident.

This is sometimes countered with “You’re lucky!” by certain people back in the USA, and followed with “But wouldn’t you prefer to visit somewhere nice?”, as if my un-dismembered survival up to this point can be chalked up to the vagaries of fate, and not to any amount of aptitude or independent competence on my part.

The reality is that pretty young women can in fact be astute and clever travelers, just like men and middle-aged people and everyone else.

This is just Tuesday when you’re traveling young and female.

Not everyone in the world is looking to throw pretty young American women into a sack and sell them to the sex slave traders, or to dismember them, or whatever you might think could happen.

(Realistically: it’s infinitely easier to throw some poor girl from a poor country into said Sack of Misery and save the legal fees and drama. Which is a depressing commentary on our planet).

Of course, bad things can happen to young women traveling abroad, even experienced travelers—as these most recent young victims appear to have been.

Sometimes, no matter how clever you are, your luck runs out.

We seem to be much more comfortable as a society with allowing young men to take responsibility for their own safety and fate then we do young women, whose demise often seems to be seen as something of a collective failure of society.

If we want equality, that attitude has absolutely go to go.

What advice would I give young women going overseas? I would first advise them not to be too trusting, because many young American women appear to be trained that every smile and request should be met with amiable consideration. This is not how things are. Young women—and men—should break themselves of this foolishness immediately.

Mostly: for God’s sake, don’t drink things you can’t identify. Don’t do hard drugs in foreign countries, even if they’re totally cheap and it would like, make your evening. Just skip the damned Full Moon parties: you can drink cheap booze out of buckets and paint yourself neon colors and roll around in the sand with Mysterious Strangers back home and save yourself the plane ticket.

My most important advice? Ignore Aunt Trudy, ignore Disneyland, ignore CNN, ignore your peers, ignore that keening voice within your head that tells you it’s probably best to just hang around your familiar neighborhood and watch some nice travel documentaries instead. Yes, bad things can happen to you. But bad things can happen to you in your own backyard.

Go. Make plans to travel, and go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *