For as long as I’ve been travelling, the holiday destination most likely to provide complete satisfaction, has been Thailand. Other places were generally good, but no matter what your nationality, age, sex or budget, when it came to providing complete satisfaction, and that’s not a metaphor, Thailand was always a nailed-on certainty. However, times and cultures are changing, other destinations are rising and Thailand, for many reasons, is losing some of its lustre. Tourism and Agriculture are mainstays of the Thai economy, but agriculture has faced recent challenges and the income from tourists is falling. Economically, Thailand is hurting.Shortly before leaving California, the Tourist Authority of Thailand embarked on a campaign designed to restore confidence in Thailand as a first-choice destination for travellers. I suspect that six months of political unrest, followed by the introduction of martial law and then a military takeover of government has done little to improve Thailand’s image. I can't remember the pithy strap-line that TAT employed in their latest campaign, but given other recent events in the famous Land of Smiles, the fall of a government and subsequent rise of the military was probably the least of their recent challenges.
For tourism in Thailand, 2014 hasn't been a good year. On the island of Koh Tao, the brutal murder of young British travellers Hannah Wetheridge and David Miller, and the subsequent investigation by the Royal Thai Police (RTP), has been well documented around the world. In the eight weeks since the horrific murder, there has been much speculation regarding the effectiveness of the investigation carried out by the RTP. I know nothing about detective work, and I certainly don’t watch CSI on the television, so unlike many others, I don't intend to play armchair detective here. But, I will point out a subtle but important difference between police investigations in Thailand and Great Britain. In the UK, the police are very selective when publically releasing information about on on-going investigation, but here in Thailand, the opposite is true. The more horrendous the crime, the greater the opportunity for officials to have their faces, and personal thoughts, aired on national television before 65 million people. Within hours of Hannah and David's bodies being discovered, a senior officer on the investigation announced that the assault had been so violent that it couldn’t possibly have been carried out by Thais. Thais it would seem, had been immediately eliminated from the investigation. As an observer, it also seems that here in Thailand, those officials tasked with investigating crimes develope an early theory on a solution to a case and then search for the evidence to support it.
Two undocumented migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar have now apparently confessed to murdering Hannah and David and are currently in police custody awaiting trial. If found guilty by the judge, Thailand does not have trial by jury, these two young men could be sentenced to death. I've seen no evidence, so I won't speculate on their innocence or guilt, but many observers seem to think that the two boys in custody are simply scapegoats, patsies taking the fall for a crime committed by others. Time, and further investigation, will hopefully reveal the truth and provide justice for all.
(Hannah & David, RIP)On the 31st December 2013, I chose to welcome in the New Year with friends in the rural village of Ban Noen Kum. I was the only person waiting for 2014 to arrive, everybody else was Thai and they were waiting to welcome 2557. It's complicated, but you gradually get used to it when you live here. At the same time, a thousand kilometres to the south on the island of Koh Tao, Nick Pearson celebrated the New Year with his parents and elder brother. On the first morning of 2014, Nick’s parents woke to the horrific news that in the early hours of the morning, their 25 year old son had fallen 50ft down a cliff and drowned in the ocean below. The local police quickly concluded that Nick’s death had been a tragic accident, closed the case and the incident received little lasting coverage in the media. Nick’s parents were unconvinced by the handling of the case, the lack of investigation and the untested conclusion that the police had seemingly reached so quickly. But the police, and certain local interested parties, had apparently been insistent that Nick's death was nothing more than a tragic accident that his parents ought to accept.
On returning to their home in Derby, Nick’s parents spoke openly, and on the record, about the tragedy and declared their dissatisfaction with the local handling of the case on Koh Tao. It now seems that certain local parties and places mentioned by the Pearson family at that time, have also been mentioned in relation to the Hannah and David case. However, Koh Tao is a small island, and such coincidences may simply be that, coincidences. In December, an independent inquest into Nick’s tragic death will be opened in England. Once again, time I hope, will reveal the truth.
(Nick Pearson RIP)August 20th 2014, on the island of Koh Samui, just a short hop from Koh Tao, 46 year old local bar owner Schwartges Volker was leaving a popular nightclub on Chaeweng Beach with his girlfriend. In the car park of the nightclub, a group of Thai youths were sitting on Schwartges motorcycle drinking beer. He asked them to move on, but they refused and an argument quickly transformed into a brutal attack. Schwartges Volker died from stab wounds received in the attack. Fortunately there were several witnesses to the attack, the incident had been captured on CCTV and the police quickly tracked down the suspects. The youths aged between 15 and 17, sons of local families, confessed to the murder and handed the murder weapon to investigators. Case solved? Apparently not.
Today, 18th November 2014, those same youths are due to be released from custody without charge. Apparently, due to the retraction of witness statements, it seems that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute the youths for the crime to which they’d already confessed.
(Schweartges Volker RIP)
In the early hours of 15h November 2014, a man identified only as Michael S, a 25 year old German language teacher, was sitting with two friends at the public park in Udon Thani. At the same time, three Thai youths who’d spent much of the night drinking beer, were roaming the area on their scooters. The young Thai’s had with them a garden hoe, a similar weapon to that used in the brutal murder of Hannah and David on Koh Tao. Without any provocation, the youths attacked the young man and his friends.
While the young man remains in critical condition on ICU, the police have found and arrested the three youths, aged between 17 and 18. According to the senior police spokesman, the youths had seen the German sitting in the park and simply ’dared each other to imitate the murders of the two British backpackers on the island of Koh Tao’. According to the Khao Sod English news agency, at the press conference the police colonel then stated that ’this action is a typical case of youth recklessness’.
"A typical case of youth recklesness". I’m not sure that the police colonel’s choice of words is appropriate, or perhaps it’s the translation that’s misleading, but Thailand is certainly becoming more violent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Thailand is any more violent than other places, it’s just that all places seem to becoming more violent these days.
(Two suspects in the Michael S. assault)
When I first came to Thailand in 1987, I began reading the Nite Owl column in what is now the Bangkok Post. Nite Owl was, and hopfully still is, an American character by the name of Bernard Trink, a journalist who’d moved to Thailand in the early 1960’s. In Trink’s weekly multi-page articles, he often reported on the darker underbelly of Thai society; prostitution, pimps, drugs, organised crime, extortion, corruption, gangland feuds and random acts of violence. At the time, much of what Trink mentioned went unreported in the English speaking media, but those were pre-internet days, a time long before social media could send bad news viral in a matter of hours. Trink went on to become a legend here in Thailand, and while I disagreed with much of what he said at the time, his columns were often hilarious and I loved the way that he said it. Reading those same articles today, many of which are still available in the archives of the Bangkok Post, suggests that violence and crimes, particualrly those perpetrated against Westerners, is far from a new phenomena in Thailand.
(The legend that is Nite Owl aka Bernard Trink)
By choice, I now live part of each year here in Thailand, a volunteer with the ability to relocate at any time. Aside from some minor petty incidents with authority, and the odd local eccentric, my time here here has been positivie and trouble free. However, in recent times I’ve become much more aware of how my actions and words might be interpreted by others. I’m not saying that I’ve changed my ways because of an increasing fear of violence, I’m just more inclined to think for a few seconds before I speak, especially when something is angering me. In the past, an angry Thai might be inclined to punch my lights out, but today, he or she is just as likely to reach for a knife or a gun. That, unfortunately, is not perculiar to Thailand, but more a reflection of how this whole world is changing.
For anybody considering visting Thailand, I'd certainly encourage them to come and enjoy the experience. My only advice is to be sensible, to learn a little about the culture before you arrive, what to do and what not to do, to avoid confrontation and to smile and walk away from any situation that makes you feel uneasy. Sure, there are certain things that should be avoided here, like renting a Jest Ski on any beach or taking a Tuk-Tuk in Bangkok, but aside from that, just arrive, relax and enjoy your time here. Every year across the world, tourists and expatriates will be conned, be assaulted and in very rare cases murdered, but when it happens in a Kingdom as seemingly gentle as Thailand, the tragedies seem to be amplified.
To steal Nite Owl's now famous closing quotation: TiT - This is Thailand.