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Accessible travel tips for seniors, amputees, wheelchair users, and other people who have mobility conditions or disabilities
Traveling the world’s ancient ruins, cities, and other noteworthy sites can mean the fulfillment of big lifetime bucket list goals. However, as anyone who has a mobility condition knows, to travel with limited mobility in these destinations can be especially challenging. Many sites are in hot climates. Odds are nothing will be fully accessible—or accessible at all. And getting up close to world-famous places can seem just about impossible, as can finding information in advance about accessibility challenges or features.
Whether Monte Albán in Mexico or Angkor in Cambodia, your accessible vacations to ancient ruins and other incredible cultural sites can be tricky. Whatever the nature of your limited mobility, we’re figuring that if you’re here, you are figuring out a way for you to get the most that you can out of experiencing these places.
Jodie is an above-the-knee (ATK) amputee who has traveled to multiple countries, including the UK, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore. There are things she might find hard that you find easy, and vice versa. We will not presume will not presume to tell you what you can and cannot do on a trip. Every mobility condition, travel experience, and personality is different, after all.
Real talk about a hard reality of accessible travel
We believe deeply in making travel accessible and in helping fellow families and travelers figure out what works best for their circumstances and mobility. There’s also no sugar-coating things though. Traveling at ancient sites is hard, and it’s all the harder when you have a mobility condition.
We’re going to talk a lot about stairs, difficult terrain, and what can sometimes be impossible circumstances. Here’s the crux though: Even when a site is incredibly difficult to navigate, odds are you can figure out how to experience the most important parts and/or the areas you prioritize.
Just like anything else when traveling when you have a disability or mobility condition, there are trade-offs and difficult choices. We hope that accessibility options continue to improve at ancient sites. We’re also confident that any traveler heading to these places can figure out what’s best for them so they can get the most out of their experience.
How to travel ancient ruins when you have a mobility condition
The tips below are based on our experience working together as a family to help each other get the most out of the places we visit, and we’ll focus a lot on things we learned while visiting Monte Albán in Mexico and Angkor in Cambodia. We hope Jodie’s perspective as a traveler and a person with a disability helps you figure out the best way for you to experience the places you want to visit, no matter where in the world that is.
Ancient construction is not accessible, but you can figure out what works for you
In the long human history of building, accessible design and construction are a very new consideration. Even in countries that have accessibility laws, access is not guaranteed. Older buildings may not have been renovated or retrofitted to meet standards for access.
Historical and cultural sites, unfortunately, are no different. Ancient architects, designers, and builders did not take people with different mobility into account.
Getting around ancient sites can be inherently difficult. That’s the case for kids, senior citizens, amputees with state-of-the-art prosthetics, wheelchair users, you name it. Even people who don’t have a mobility condition can find these places hard. Anyone traveling to ancient sites will likely make decisions and accepting compromises on what they will and will not experience.
When you travel with limited mobility, what matters most is that you figure out what can work for you, and go for it.
How we handled it
A city built on a hilltop outside of modern-day Oaxaca de Juárez in Oaxaca, Mexico, Monte Albán is the antithesis of accessible. Slopes, ridiculously high and steep staircases, uneven terrain, gravel paths, and sun exposure are just a few of the challenges.
However, Monte Albán also enables incredible insight into a major indigenous culture, the stepped pyramid architecture is enthralling, and the views of the green, surrounding hills are simply beautiful.
We visited Monte Albán as part of an organized English-language half-day tour. The tour focused on some of the main sites. While some areas were tricky to get around, and there were some difficult staircases, Jodie could navigate most of the tour. Once we had free time to explore some of the ruins, though, Jodie took that time to rest up and look out at the vistas. Connor kept her company while Aster and Anthony did some exploring.
You probably won’t do everything. More importantly, you don’t need to
Many ancient sites are simply huge. Angkor in Cambodia, for example, is bigger than Manhattan, and it has over a thousand different structures. No one is going to check out every nook and cranny. Unfortunately, travel with limited mobility can make it harder to experience even some of the core places of an ancient ruin.
There may be areas that are too difficult or dangerous for you to navigate. However, other areas will be totally doable. Aim to prioritize as best you can for the places that are the most important to you. It’s also okay not to see everything, and it’s empowering to set realistic expectations and goals for what you can experience. Put your attention and energy into the places that you consider a priority, and you can get the most out of your visit.
How we handled it
Inside the Bayon, the huge temple and government complex at the heart of Angkor Thom, the former capital of the Khmer Empire in what’s now Cambodia, stone faces gaze down from the tops of towers. It’s an amazing place to see.
It also requires dealing with lots of steps. Not only modern steps, but uneven, high, ancient steps. Going through the full visitor path can easily take at least a couple of hours, and requires dealing with steps and uneven terrain.
However, plenty of the most iconic parts of the Bayon can be seen very close to the entry area. We made our way into the Bayon, examined panels of carvings, and took in many of the four-faced towers. When we were done, we turned around and left the way we came.
Unabashedly use whatever mobility aids help you travel and navigate spaces
The right type of wheelchair, trekking poles, medical devices, whatever you need to get the most out of your travel time, have at it. Don’t be embarrassed, either. Own it. You are there because visiting this place matters to you. You have just as much right as anyone else to be there as fully as you can.
How we handled it
Prior to starting our world travels, Jodie got a pair of LEKI trekking poles from REI. Whether we are wandering a night market in Chiang Mai or wandering a massive cave in Idaho, her trekking poles have made a world of difference to her walking, balance, and energy level. She can get more out of our excursions and adventures, simply because she can use her energy better, thanks in part to walking with a trekking pole.
For day-to-day walking, Jodie usually brings one pole. That’s sufficient when we’re wandering a night market or having a wander along flat terrain. For more challenging trails or landscapes such as beaches, hill trails, and good ole ancient ruins, Jodie relies on both of her trekking poles. They help her distribute her weight and balance, and the poles provide additional support when dealing with uneven surfaces.
She’s also found these preferable to a cane. Jodie can adjust the trekking poles to best fit her height and make adjustments for the activity. She can add a rubbery tip to the end for traction, or use the pole’s exposed metal spike end to navigate mud, snow, or ice. Plus, the trekking poles collapse down for easy transport and storage.
There will be steps and staircases. They won’t be even. They will be difficult
Ancient peoples really liked their stairs. They didn’t necessarily like them level, plumb, the same height, or deep enough to fit an entire foot. Some steep staircases might as well be ladders. Corridor junctions—we’re looking at you, Angkor Wat—may have a couple of steps on each side.Walking down an otherwise flat hallway adds up to going up and down a couple of flights of stairs.
Ancient cities, ruins, and other sites are going to be chock full of steps and staircases. They rarely will be even or consistent.
Steps can be too narrow to fit the full length of a foot, which can make it really hard to bear down with your full weight. Many steps are also very tall. When your body has asymmetry like Jodie’s, one side ends up doing more of the work and tiring out quickly.
When you travel with limited mobility, there’s no way around the difficulty here. Odds are, steps will be the only way in, out, or through a site, and you’ll need to evaluate many of these situations on a case-by-case basis, depending on your comfort level, mobility needs, and available assistance from people or equipment.
How we handled it
Steps also take a lot of work for Jodie. We try to be very tactical about stairs, not to mention obstacles on the ground. Sometimes, though, dealing with lots of stairs is simply part of the deal. The kids are wonderful at scouting ahead a little, and seeking alternate routes for Jodie to take.
When we take stairs, Anthony stays close to Jodie to spot her. This is especially important when there are no rails. It’s rare that she stumbles, but he’s always ready to help, just in case. Occasionally, she also braces with a hand on Anthony’s shoulder (much stronger and sturdier than a hand). We also check in regularly so we can have a break or a sit-down whenever any of us (or all of us) need a breather. When possible, we skip stairs altogether and find another route.
Even modern staircases might not have railings
Lots of stairs and steps are a commonplace reality at these sites. Railings aren’t.
Sometimes that’s because any sort of railing or bannister simply wasn’t often part of the original construction. Other times, a modern plank staircase has been added (though even a built staircase may be wobbly or have a less than preferable depth and height). New stairs might have been added to improve overall navigability.
Sometimes the new wooden steps are built over the original stairs, to help preserve the stonework from erosion or damage from tourist foot traffic. While this can be a little easier, it rarely makes the steps any less steep or the staircase any shorter. And even when steps have been added, a ramp or alternate path has not.
Frankly, these scenarios can be tricky when you travel with limited mobility. If there is a staircase, it might be steep. Or there might be no railings, so if someone stumbles or trips, it could be very hard to stop a fall from going bad.
How we handled it
As we left the main temple complex of Angkor Wat, a couple of dozen steps down were between us and the road to the parking lot where our tuk-tuk driver was waiting.
We directed the kids to go down first. That way they could be at the bottom, in the shade, doing their own thing, and we knew exactly where they were. Jodie handed the camera to Anthony, and he put the strap around his neck so she wouldn’t have to worry about it. Then, bit by bit, moment by moment, we went down step by step.
Anthony knows just to stay not too close and not too far. Jodie needs to concentrate, so he’s there simply to give support and company. She used her trekking pole to navigate each step, moved one foot down, checked her position and balance, then brought down the other. The lack of railings on both sides was disconcerting. But bit by bit, we got down just fine, and took advantage of some cold water and a good long sit-down once we returned to the tuk-tuk.
Expect uneven and sometimes rough terrain
In the US nowadays, we can find wheelchair accessible trails that also work great for a stroller, or for someone who uses a trekking pole or a walking stick to get the most out of their mobility. However, just as plenty of trails, paths, and general terrain in the US can be rough and uneven, that’ll be the case at plenty of heritage and cultural sites too.
Some sites have paved trails or paths, and some have been built to accessibility standards. Overall, though, that is still very much a work in progress. Part of travel with limited mobility is remembering that every site will be different. Odds are there will be some areas that are flatter, more even, or more navigable overall. Keep awareness of those areas, and see if they might be better for you to get around.
How we handled it
In Angkor Thom, the former capital city of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia, there are paved roads and a few earthen paths. Sometimes we would walk along the road. Other times, such as when we wanted to walk alongside structures such as the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, we followed a lovely dirt path that ran under shady trees. It was a big help not only in following a fairly level trail, but it helped us get closer to some structures than we might have otherwise.
Take a break whenever you need one
No matter your physical condition, the climate, scale, and inherently arduous nature of visiting these sites might be the bucket list checkoff of a lifetime, but it’s also exhausting. Any hint of weariness is a sign that you want to take a breather, or get ready to soon. Better to relax soon and regularly, than tire yourself out and lose your fire for being where you’ve worked hard to travel to.
Plus, getting tired is an invitation to injury to anyone, but especially when you travel with limited mobility. By taking regular breaks that are as long as you need and want, you are less likely to overdo it and wind up hurting yourself.
When your schedule allows, it can also be useful to take a rest day in between days at a big site, especially when you travel with limited mobility. Especially after your first day in a place, a day to relax and recover can also help you reflect on the experience and refine your strategies for the next outing.
How we handled it
At the top of a wide, steep staircase at Monte Albán, a broad tree gave ample shade to a wooden bench by the trunk. Our tour of the hilltop city’s ruins had finished, and we had begun a long stretch of free time before we headed back to Oaxaca.
First order of business? We snagged that bench and everyone took some time to relax. Below us, we could watch people wander a huge grassy field, or climb the far staircase to the top of the highest pyramid. This peaceful moment gave us the opportunity to see the strangest and largest caterpillar we’ve ever seen! That helped us all be ready to explore more, and to be fresh for the descent back to the parking lot.
Amenities and necessities may be far away. Pack lots of water, snacks, and whatever supplies you need or that help you travel better
Typically, part of preserving places like Angkor or Monte Albán means leaving the overall area intact, and not allowing new construction—you know, of things like beverage stands, wee food stalls, or little supply shops. There are no vendors in the middle of ruins (well, usually, we hope).
While this is great for helping us experience a place more in its original historical context, it reminds us we need to make sure we have what we need. Clean drinking water is top priority, especially given that many sites can be hot and in full sun.
The right snacks help you maintain your energy level and can keep your mood up. If your condition requires certain equipment or medications, please take care to bring what you might need both in ordinary circumstances, and if any tricky situations come up.
How we handled it
Going down the trail from Monte Albán, Connor wasn’t feeling his best. Anthony gave him a few snacks to help perk him up until we could get to a bigger meal. Plus, Anthony and Jodie each carry 24-oz. water bottles. For the few hours we were at Monte Albán, we knew we had enough water to help us be okay. Then, if we needed more, there were beverage stalls near the parking lot.
Hire a good, helpful driver
Getting around with the help of a good, reliable driver helps you marshal your energy for traversing what’s necessary. That helps you conserve your energy and focus for when you really need it, especially when you travel with limited mobility. Different places will have different options, and hopefully you can find the right fit for your condition.
How we handled it
In Angkor, we knew there was no way we would try to get around the ruins without transportation. Even if it hadn’t been essential for helping Jodie conserve her energy, we never would expect the kids to burn all their energy simply getting from, say, Angkor Wat to Ta Prohm. It’s simply too much to ask.
Since so many people go to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit Angkor, it’s pretty routine to make arrangements for a tuk-tuk, car, or van to shuttle you around, and wait for you as you finish at different structures or areas. Our tuk-tuk driver charged us US$20 a day. That included transportation to and from our hotel, driving to the different parts of Angkor we wanted to see, and him waiting for us on the other side. He even kept a cooler full of ice-cold drinking water on hand, so we could easily slake our thirst and refill our water bottles when we returned.
No matter what, Angkor is going to leave you tired by the end of the day. Relying on someone to drive us around helped us conserve our energy so we could focus it on getting the most out of each part of Angkor.
Others want to help, but might not understand your needs or condition. Be specific about what you need
One of the hardest things about travel with limited mobility is communicating what you need—and remembering that people typically are not going to innately understand what you need.
It’s okay to be clear and direct, such as
- “This route needs to have the least amount of walking possible.”
- “What is the closest point where you can pick me up?”
- “I need you to be…” (followed by exactly what you need)
How we handled it
Anthony’s been there for Jodie for a long time. He tries to be pretty aware and anticipate what Jodie needs. Even so, he sometimes needs guidance, too. He knows it’s more important to listen than to assume.
So, whether in Angkor or Monte Albán, when we were at a tricky area, he checked in and listened when she said things such as “I need to brace my hand on your shoulder,” or “I need quiet so I can concentrate,” or “I need you to go over with the kids so I know they’re okay, and I’ll focus on getting down.”
You can travel with limited mobility and get the most out of your visits to ancient sites and ruins
Traveling ancient ruins can be difficult for anyone, but especially for travelers whose mobility has limitations. We can’t promise every part of a site will be accessible, some sites will be harder to navigate than others.
However, if it’s important to you to visit a place, we’re confident you can get the most out of your time there. Travel with limited mobility has its difficulties, both in planning and in being on the ground. But experiencing a bucket list place the way you want is something you can find a way to do.