Saturday, 4 October 2014

How To Stay Safe On The Paradise Thai Islands

With the recent nightmare murders on Koh Tao turning into a worldwide media enquiry, questions are being raised about safety in Thailand. 

How safe is it to travel in Thailand? For a long-term visitor to the islands?  How safe as a back-packer? And most of all, as a single woman traveller?

The events this time are too horrific to be swept under the carpet.  There are many Thailand pundits, such as Andrew Spooner, who now say the dangers of travelling here should be brought into full view - so people can understand the risks. 

Then there are in-the-know expats like Richard Barrow and Q Bar owner Andrew Clark, who have lived in Bangkok for decades - and say 'random shit happens everywhere' and they've always felt safe living in Thailand.

So is it just the islands that are dangerous?  Anyone can be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And nothing is foolproof.  But it is possible to minimise the risks of disaster befalling you in Thailand, by keeping your wits about you.

The Murderous Facts

Officially there are 3,600 murders in Thailand every year, compared with 600 in the UK. But considering most Englishmen solve their arguments with fist fights - and not guns and knives - you could well expect the UK to be 6 times safer than Thailand.

It may be that murder numbers in Thailand are actually higher, and that the Land of Smiles is 10 times more dangerous than the UK - as it is for road fatalities.  But again, with the UK's level of health and safety, the road death figure is hardly surprising.

In the UK it is illegal to drink and drive.  It's a legal requirement to wear seatbelts.  And who would dream of riding a motorbike in flip-flops and shorts, without a crash helmet? Thankfully, there is a lot less crash and burn in the UK. 

But what about the murders? 

There is no denying it: we just witnessed the most gruesome farang murder in history.  And I guess that is what is so shocking - there is no recent precedent for such an horrific event on the islands.  It's not something we are used to seeing or coping with. 

I can't speak for Koh Samui or Koh Tao - each island is like a microcosm, consumed with its own existence - but in 20 years of travelling to Koh Phangan, I can count 3 farang murders: 2 long-termers and 1 tourist. 

 *  First there was dive shop owner Sam, around 1999.  He'd killed a Thai child in a road accident in Thailand, and had made business enemies in the industry.  Stabbed on the beach on Koh Phangan, the rumour was it was a contract killing. 

 *  Then, in 2009, Astrid got strangled by a tattoo artist.  Astrid had spent a couple of seasons on Koh Phangan, and she had very antagonistic energy.  She wanted to fight everyone.  Eventually her tattooed Phuket lover, who she had 'humiliated', killed her.

 *  New Year 2012, Stephen Ashton got shot in the crossfire of gang warfare. The story we heard was that it was very close range, and it was more reflex than intention. "The foreigner got in the way," apologised the Nakhon Si Thammarat gangster in court. 

A Rogue Element

None of us can explain away the abhorrent murders of Hannah and David on Koh Tao.  Only those who were there or have seen the evidence know the truth.  We hope justice will be served.  Meanwhile, I can only say what we know about Koh Phangan.

There have been three murders involving farang in the last 20 yrs (that we are aware of) - and they have a common theme: they weren't committed by Koh Phangan people.

Haad Rin has - until very recently - been demonised as the most dangerous place in Thailand.  But it is more of a rogue element of itinerant workers that has given Koh Phangan's Full Moon Party a bad name. 

As one Koh Phangan local said, "Koh Phangan guys don't do like that.  T
hese outsider boys come here, make trouble for us, then leave us locals to clean up their mess."

That's not to say there isn't danger or violence on Koh Phangan.  But it is completely unjust to tar the whole island with the same brush.

Over the last 20yrs the Haad Rin Thais have accepted me into their community.  I've been to their weddings and funerals, I've celebrated festivals and birthdays with them, and I've sang karaoke with them until 4am in the morning, after a skinful of whiskey.

And I can honestly say, in all those twenty years, I have never seen a Haad Rin Thai pull a gun or a knife, ever, in all that time.

Haad Rin Thais are more likely to tie each other up with string than pull a gun
The native Haad Rin people were always peaceable and happy-go-lucky by nature.  It is more likely to be outsiders from places such as gangster heartland Nakhon Si Thammarat that are trouble makers in Full Moon Party town.

And knowing that you are more likely to find trouble within a certain crowd, it is possible to mitigate the risks of you, too, getting into trouble.

* Rule No.1 in Thailand:  Never cross a Thai.

And that's the second point about these murders on Koh Phangan.  Each of those farang, inadvertently or unwittingly, put themselves in the path of danger.  Long-termers Sam and Astrid caused their protagonists so much heartache they got killed for it.

Whereas, in a classic case of wrong place at the wrong time, tourist Stephen, as his killer unfortunately admitted,"got in the way."

* Rule No.2 in Thailand:  If Thais are fighting, walk the other way.

If you see some Thai guys having a bust-up on the beach at close quarters, run the other way as fast as you can.  Thai fist fights can quickly turn to broken glass and knives and gun fights. Know the risks, and get out of harm's way.

I have no desire to enter the moral debate between victim blaming and cause & effect.  Cultural misunderstandings and opposing points of view abound.  Admittedly, it's a minefield.  It's hard to claim the high ground when cultural attitudes are so opposite. 

But by becoming aware of the risks, right or wrong, hopefully similar tragic crimes may be avoided in the future.

Opposing Cultural Attitudes 

Which brings us on to the next subject: sex and violence.  In his recent story on rape culture in Thailand, Cod Satrusayang quotes well known Thai critic, Kwaemala, author of Thai Love Talk.  

"Portrayals of rape (in Thai soap operas) are a symptom and not a cause," she said. "Traditional Thai values still place so much responsibility on women to behave properly, to be safe and untarnished." 

An affront to Western sensibilities?  That doesn't change how ingrained this attitude is in Thai culture, regardless of how right or wrong we think it is.  The Bikini General may be politically incorrect in Western terms, but nudity is an affront to Thai sensibilities. 

The Thais, who have never been colonised, have to put up with gap-year students with 'loose morals' - farangs getting naked and flashing at Full Moon Parties - because they believe in Thailand anything goes.

(A Koh Phangan friend, who I've known since I used to teach her English when she was 10yrs old, recently put up an
FB post to say as much).

In the topsy turvy Land of Smiles, in a controlled environment (say, a girlie bar) yes, anything goes.  But to Thais there is a huge difference between poor Northern girls working to pay their bills, and 'high class Eurotrash' behaving immorally in public.

Full Moon Party September 2014 via Thai Party for Me
Respect Yourself

As a lone female traveller to the islands in the early 1990's, hanging out in the Bauhaus bar in Lamai on Koh Samui, it was explained to me - by the bar boys - like this:

It is completely acceptable for fat, old, rich white men to go with young Thai girls - but it is taboo for rich white girls to sleep with poor Thai boys.  "Why would she lower herself?", I remember the Bauhaus bar boys questioning in disgust.

Also, the idea of jumping from one Thai guy's bed to another is worse than anathema to them.  As far as they are concerned, you have just become their property, and to so much as flirt with another Thai guy - or even worse, a farang - completely humiliates them.

This is where a lot of the violence at beach bars on the Thai islands comes from. 
Girls, sex, alcohol and Asian boys.

Who hasn't been attracted by the wily charms and lithe muscles of an Asian one?

* But girls, leave those brown-skinned boys alone.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule.  I have lots of farang girlfriends who are in successful relationships with their Thai partners.  But the difference is, all those girls spent time living on the islands and developing long-term relationships with local guys. 

All those girls have a high level of self-respect.  They never, ever had one night stands; if they did, those Thai guys would never have respected them. 

As a tourist, if you want to make new friends, play it safe and make sure it is another farang.  Take heed of the potential dangers.  Also remember, as in the rest of Asia, public displays of affection are frowned upon.  If you want to get intimate, do it in private.

Loved up: Full Moon Party July 2014 via Thai Party for Me
How To Stay Safe In Paradise
Thai Party for Me's 'Full Moon Party FAQs' - put together earlier this year - sum it up in 'Things to Avoid':

As long as you keep to basic rules you would follow anywhere in the world, the Full Moon Party can be the most amazing experience of your life:

* Respect Thai culture, respect yourself; be aware of cultural differences: you are a guest in a foreign land you may not always understand. Leave your Western hot-headedness at home, always walk away from trouble, and never, ever get into a fight with a local. 

* It may feel like you are on the beaches of Europe, but remember you are in Asia, and in the Land of Smiles 'rational logic', as you know it, may not always go your way.

* Don't get into fights with strangers. Don't get so drunk you can't make your way home safely. Or if you do get that drunk, make sure your friends have got your back. 

Thailand is a safe country to travel in for the majority of travellers, but at the same time: it can be up to ten times more dangerous than being in your home country. 

Keep your wits about you.  Danger increases in equal increments to the amount you leave your brains behind - although that would be the same in any country, or city like New York or London.  Keep a tab on your friends.  Don't go home with strange men. 

Looking out for each other: Full Moon Party June 2014 via Thai Party for Me
Simple advice, that any father would give his daughter when she went to any strange town.  Be sensitive to local culture and attitudes, and chances are you'll be just fine.  I, along with many others, have had no problems in 20 years of travelling to Thailand.  

As awful as the tragedy that has just happened on the Thai islands is, it does not happen everyday.  Stay mindful, and you too will stay safe in paradise.

© Mia Escobud 2014 

It's easy to Slate the Full Moon Party, but isn't it TIME we told the Koh Phangan truth?

Full Moon Party town, 1993: 

A little piece of raver's paradise that kicked until dawn a few times a week.

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