Is Family Travel Dangerous? Looking, Leaping and Learning your Limits

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Is family travel dangerous? It can be if you’re not careful, calm and self aware. I am rarely all of these things at once, but I’m working on it.

Learning your limits. Family Travel Malaysia Humility 101: Looking, leaping and learning your limits

Is Family Travel Dangerous?

As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, this blog is called An Epic Education, but the kids aren’t the only ones learning here. I am getting an education of my own, and my plan is to document that as well. It appears that safety is this week’s subject, and my lesson’s focus is understanding my own capabilities. My homework is humility and to accept that I am no longer 25 years old and indestructible. For extra credit, I will express gratitude for the ability to remain living and walking.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Did I mention that I nearly killed my son and cracked my spine doing something stupid?

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Is family travel dangerous? Looking, leaping and learning your limits

What makes Family Travel Dangerous?

Is family travel dangerous? Looking, leaping and learning your limits

Dangerous family travel is in the eye of the beholder. For some people, simply riding in a car without a seatbelt is dangerous. They would be right. However, if you refused to put your kids in a car without seat belts, then you would dramatically limit where you traveled in southeast Asia and many parts of the world. We encountered very few seat belts in Chiang Mai, Sumatra, and elsewhere.

Don’t want to ride motorcycles or scooters? Then you’ll have a hard time getting around Bali, Taiwan and Vietnam. Is long-term family dangerous in these places. Perhaps, but a wise parent is cautious and calculates the risk. A smart dad thinks about the kid and his capabilities before starting some crazy new stunt.

I was not that parent. Not enough of one, anyway.

When it comes to family travel and dangerous situations, every parent has to draw the line somewhere. This is a story of where I drew mine.

Don’t get me wrong: I do not put my kids in harm’s way. However sometimes in family travel, dangerous situations — when witnessed from a safe distance — can be can be learning opportunities. We’ve taken our kids to look for poisonous snakes and have let them handle blades, carving tools and bows and arrows in order to know how to use them.

What I’m talking about here is a different kind of danger: hubris. I thought I could handle something. I thought my (then 10-year-old) son could too, and if he couldn’t, I thought I could handle it for both of us. I was wrong.

When is Family Travel Dangerous? When You Think You Know it All

Seven Wells Waterfalls Langkawi

Some background: we were in Langkawi, a spectacular island in Malaysia with pristine stretches of coastline, abundant wildlife and interesting people. We drove our rental car to the Seven Wells Waterfalls, a beautiful series of cliffs and cascades that are open for swimming.

We swam in the pools below the falls, and it was magical. The water was a perfect refreshing temperature after a day of sightseeing in a muggy southeast Asian climate.

I tested the various swimming holes myself to make sure they are free from branches or debris below the surface, and that their depth is suitable for the kids to jump into from nearby boulders. We played here for over an hour, during which time our girl conquered another fear and made the same leaps that the big boys were making, and I praised her accomplishment the way all dads should.

So far, so good. At this point, I am exhibiting all the characteristics of a responsible father in the wild: avoiding unnecessary risks, double-checking depths and then maintaining a position in the water to help kids if they get into trouble — at this point, I had four kids my care: mine and the two sons of a friend

Cue the Family Travel Danger

The kids jumped and splashed. We were all having a blast (cue ominous music). Soon the other parents arrived to pick up their kids and we all began to say our farewells. Then the boy asked me if I would take him up the side of the waterfall where he had seen me climb on my own earlier.

Keiko gave me a look that says “NO,” but I told her that I had “promised” him, which was only half-true. I could have easily changed my mind. Did I? Nope. Instead, we started scurrying up the side of the falls to an enticing pool along a ledge. Cue the dangerous music.

The rock face was smooth — the kind that turns as slick as a waterslide once it’s wet. We were barefoot, so I tell the bot to keep his feet on the thin strip of dry rock that went up the ledge to the pool.

He followed me obediently, if reluctantly. Then spray from the higher falls began to sprinkle on us, and I decided to abort our foolish mission. I told the boy to turn around. He wheeled around in a huff and began to head down the side, but he was angry and moving too fast. I shouted to him to watch his step. As I spoke he lost his balance, slipped on the oil-slick surface and began to sliding downwards uncontrollably. Fortunately, after about ten meters, he hit a patch of dry stone and skid to a stop.

A Dangerous Interlude

Seven wells Waterfalls Langkawi Is Family Travel Dangerous? Looking, Leaping and Learning your Limits

He turned, his face contorted in anger and frustration: “SEE?! I TOLD YOU!!” he shouted as if he had just won an argument with me in his head. His face was twisted in indignation. I could tell that he felt both vindicated and furious that I’d made him worry so much.

I was formulating my reply when I lost my grip and began sliding — hurtling — straight towards him, clawing at the surrounding stones but unable to stop or change course. At this point, the whole “time slows down” thing began and I pondered life without my son. I wondered what the guilt would feel like, knowing that I had taken my 10-year-old on a task above his depth — and above mine — and then oafishly slipped and collided with him, taking us both off a ledge, only to land on top of him amongst the rocks below.

The Nick of Time

I was certain that was going to happen. Glad I was wrong. The boy was agile enough to move out of the way in time. However, as I barreled towards him, he looked as if he was going to attempt to stop me. Bad idea. He didn’t, and I, fortunately, made the plunge alone. It wasn’t a huge drop: a little more than 2.5 meters. That said, the fall felt like forever, but probably lasted half of a second or less.

Is family travel dangerous? Looking, leaping and learning your limits

I landed on my tailbone and my left hand. The boy let out a wail like he had just watched me gunned down by the mafia (cue the shot of birds taking flight above the tree line). The scream brought me to my senses and I jumped up, then wondered if I should have: my left arm and leg were numb and my right leg felt like it was permanently flexed — every step felt like a stab.

Langkawi x-ray Is Family Travel Dangerous? Looking, Leaping and Learning your Limits

I pulled myself together and limped 15 minutes down the path to the car. I already felt better, but went to the local hospital for an X-ray just in case. I was in and out of the Langkawi Emergency Room in about 90 minutes, complete with registration, pain medicine and two X-rays, which they let me keep. Total cost: 90 Malaysian ringgit (USD $28 / JPY ¥2,833).

Learning Your Limits: Lessons Learned

Is family travel dangerous? Looking, leaping and learning your limits

The lessons here are obvious, but I’ll reiterate them for my own benefit if for no one else’s: the boy learned that he should listen to me in situations like that (he’s been apologizing over and over like it’s all his fault). And I learned that my gonzo backpacker days are over.

No more stupid risks and I’ll choose my adrenaline rushes more carefully.

Twenty years ago, I would have scrambled all over those falls, but my body is less nimble now. More importantly, I am responsible for the lives of others. Their well being comes before everything, especially cheap thrills. There is nothing along that ledge that was worth unnecessary risk.

Don’t get me wrong: we won’t be avoiding risk altogether. I’ll just ease off the active seeking of risk for risk’s sake. If life was a swimming pool, I’m not banishing us to the shallow end. We’ll still explore the deep, but don’t expect me to try a backflip off the roof anymore.

Is family travel dangerous? Only as much as you make it out to be, and as much as you prepare for risk. What makes family travel dangerous? Thinking you have control. You don’t. Not often anyway.

I look at this experience the same way I looked at our rough first week of family travel. If you’re gonna get hurt, get hurt early and learn from it. If you’re going to fall out of the tree, fall from the lower branches. I’m walking around like I was hit by a truck, but hey, I’m still walking. The pain will pass. The lessons will last much longer.

What makes Family Travel Dangerous for you?

Have you been in a dangerous family travel situation? What happened? How did you overcome it?

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Is family travel dangerous? Looking, leaping and learning your limits

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means, at no extra cost to you,  we might receive a small commission if you make a purchase or book using those links. My opinions are my own and I only recommend places/services that I believe will genuinely help your travel. Is travel dangerous? You decide. 


  1. Oooh ouch! I remember you telling us this story in Penang and just makes me cringe even more seeing the written version. Hope you are all getting used to Thailand and hope to see you in a few months:)

    • Hey Mo! YES, I wish we’d be in Japan at the same time. Felicia and Zoe *should* spend their birthdays together, but alas it was not meant to be this time around. I hope all has gone well in Sri Lanka & India. If I can help with you Japan trip in any way, let me know!

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