Stay safe in Thailand
The most common cause of death for visitors to Thailand is motorbike accidents, especially on the often narrow, mountainous and winding roads of Phuket and Samui. Ride defensively, wear a helmet, don’t drink and avoid riding at night.
Long-standing tensions between pro- and anti-government groups came to a head in 2008 when the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) first blockaded several airports in the south of the country for several days in the summer and then took over the two airports in Bangkok for a week in November, massively affecting tourism and the Thai economy. Although several demonstrators were killed or injured in the skirmishes, overall the protests were peaceful and no tourists were injured.
After the resignation of the prime minister in December 2008, things have returned to normal for the time being, but the situation remains unstable. Keep an eye on the news and try to keep your plans flexible. Avoid demonstrations and other political gatherings.
Under no circumstances should you say anything negative about the Thai royal family. This will usually land you in jail and your embassy/consulate will have little consular support (power) to get you out.
Bad news again in May 2010 when Red Shirt demonstrators occupied a large part of Bangkok, which was not dispersed for 2 months. This led to a lot of violence, arson etc. and some deaths. This problem is still festering and although it is not a real threat to tourists, one should always keep in mind that things can easily flare up again.
The Thai army took control of the government in May 2014, marking the country’s twelfth successful coup since 1932. Despite the lurid headlines warning of Thailand’s dangers, travellers who use common sense and avoid potentially dangerous areas or situations should have a trouble-free holiday.
Although not as serious as in neighbouring Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia, corruption is unfortunately still quite common in Thailand compared to Western countries or Malaysia. Traffic police in Thailand often demand bribes of around 200 baht from tourists who are stopped for seemingly minor traffic violations. Immigration officials at land border crossings often demand a bribe of about 20 baht per person before stamping your passport, although airport officials generally do not demand bribes.
Thailand has more than its fair share of scams, but most are easily avoided with a little common sense.
More of a nuisance than a danger, a common scam by thugs, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand is to wait outside important monuments and temples and trick Western travellers by telling them that the site is closed for “Buddhist holidays”, “repairs” or some similar reason. The “helpful” driver then offers to take the traveller to another place, such as a market or shop. Travellers who accept these offers often find themselves in remote markets where prices are exorbitant and there is no way to return to the centre of the town they came from. Always make sure that the entrance to the site you are visiting is closed.
Some tuk-tuk drivers may charge a much higher price than agreed, or take you to a sex show and claim they didn’t understand the address (they get commissions from sex shows). For the same reason, avoid drivers who offer their services without being asked, especially near major tourist attractions.
Do not buy tours at the airport. If you do, they will call your hotel several times to remind you of the tour. During the tour they will take you briefly to a small temple, without a guide, and then take you to one shop after another (they get commissions). They may refuse to take you home until you have seen all the shops. On the way home, they urge you to buy more tours.
Easy to spot with a little practice, it is not uncommon in tourist areas to be approached by a well-dressed and well-groomed man, often brandishing a mobile phone. These scammers engage in polite conversation and are interested in the unsuspecting tourist’s background, family or itinerary. Inevitably, the conversation will drift to the heart of the scam. It may be something as trivial as overpriced tickets for a meal and a Kantoke show, or as serious as a gambling scam, or (especially in Bangkok) the infamous gemstone scam. Once identified, the careful traveller should have no trouble spotting these scammers in the crowd. Their uniform consists of trousers and a shirt with pressed buttons, freshly cut conservative-style hair and a modern mobile phone. When wandering through tourist areas without a specific destination, the prudent traveller should have no difficulty spotting and avoiding these crooks.
Many visitors encounter young Thai women, armed with paperweights and smiling, asking for their nationality, often with an aside such as “please help me earn 30 baht”. It is suggested that the visitor fills out a tourism questionnaire (which includes the name of the hotel and room number) with the incentive of winning a prize – in reality, everyone receives a phone call to say they are a “winner”; however, the prize can only be earned by participating in a tedious timeshare presentation. Note that the lady with the clipboard will not receive her 30 baht if you do not attend the presentation; also, only English-speaking nationalities are targeted.
A newer, more serious scam involves being charged with shoplifting in Bangkok airport duty-free shops. This can involve accidentally crossing unclear boundaries between shops with stock or receiving a ‘free gift’. Always ask for a receipt. The accused are threatened with long jail sentences and then offered to pay “bail” of $10,000 or more to make the problem go away and be allowed to leave Thailand. If you find yourself in this mess, contact your embassy and call your lawyer or translator, not the “helpful” guy hanging around.
Theravada Buddhism is an integral part of Thai culture and it is common for Buddhist monks to walk the streets in the morning to collect alms. Unfortunately, the presence of foreign tourists who are unfamiliar with local Buddhist customs has led to some impostors taking advantage of unsuspecting visitors. Note that the real monks only do alms rounds in the morning, as they are not allowed to eat in the afternoon, nor are they allowed to accept or receive money. Alms bowls are for collecting food only. If you see a “monk” asking for money donations or having money in his alms bowl, it is a fake.
Night bus robbery
Thailand is safe enough for tourists. However, there have been some reports of people being drugged and robbed while travelling on night buses. To avoid this, stay away from cheap, non-government buses, make sure all your money is safely stowed in a money belt or other hard-to-reach place, and always check your bank balance before getting off. It is also advisable to warn your fellow travellers of this danger. In this case, steadfastly refuse to get off the bus, inform the rest of the population about the situation and call the police immediately. It may not be possible to stay on the bus, as your refusal may result in the staff unloading your checked luggage on the street and the bus moving on without your luggage, forcing you to get off or lose it.
In Thailand, the age of consent is 15, but a higher minimum age of 18 applies to prostitutes. Thai penalties for having sex with minors are strict, and even if your partner is of age in Thailand, tourists who have sex with minors can be prosecuted by their home country. As for checking your partner’s age, all Thai adults must carry an identity card showing that they were born in the year 2538 or earlier if they were over 18 on 1 January 2013 (in the Thai calendar, 2013 is the year 2556).
Some prostitutes are “independent”, but most are employed by bars or similar businesses. When you hire a prostitute at a bar or similar business, you have to pay a fee to the establishment called “bar fine”, usually 300 to 500 baht. This gives you the right to remove them from their place of work. No additional services are paid. These services are subject to a separate contract.
Bar girls, go-go girls and freelancers are all professionals who are much more interested in the money you can give them than in a lasting relationship for its own sake. Cases of visitors falling hopelessly in love and then being robbed of everything they are worth abound. Thailand has a high rate of STD infections, including HIV/AIDS, both in the general population and among sex workers. Condoms are readily available in all shops and pharmacies in Thailand, but they are not as safe as Western condoms.
Technically, some aspects of prostitution are illegal in Thailand (e.g. soliciting, pimping), but law enforcement is liberal and brothels are commonplace. It is not illegal to pay for sex, as there is an exemption for “special services” under Thai law, or to pay a “cash fine”.
Thailand has extremely strict drug laws and your foreign passport is not enough to get you out of the legal quagmire. Possession and trafficking offences that would result in fines in other countries can result in life imprisonment or even death in Thailand. Police frequently raid nightclubs, especially in Bangkok, where urine tests and full body searches are conducted on all patrons. Ko Pha Ngan’s full moon parties, notorious for their drug use, also often attract the attention of the police.
Possession of cannabis (กัญชา ganchaa), while illegal, is treated less severely and if you are arrested, you may be able to get away with an “on the spot fine” even though it may cost you tens of thousands of baht. It is very unwise to rely on this. While some police officers accept on-the-spot payments for drug law violations, others strictly adhere to the strict drug laws.
Penalties for drug possession in Thailand vary in severity depending on the following elements: Category of drug, quantity of drug and intent of the possessor. If you are at risk of being arrested for drug possession, your first step should be to contact your embassy immediately. The embassy usually cannot get you out of jail, but they can inform your home country of your arrest and can often put you in touch with a lawyer in Thailand. The availability of drugs in Thailand can mislead tourists into forgetting the penalties for possessing or selling drugs, which is not wise.
In 2004, long-standing resentment in the southernmost Muslim-majority provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala erupted into violence. All are off the beaten tourist track, although the eastern railway line from Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok (the gateway to Malaysia’s east coast) runs through the region and has been repeatedly disrupted by attacks.
Hat Yai (Thailand’s largest city after Bangkok and the suburb of Nonthaburi) in Songkhla was also hit by a series of attacks. However, the main cross-border railway line connecting Hat Yai and Butterworth (on the west coast) was not affected and none of the islands or beaches on the west coast were targeted.
In September 2006, three foreigners were killed in bombings in Hat Yai. Some rebel groups threatened the foreigners, but while hotels, karaoke lounges and shopping centres were attacked, Westerners were not the target of the attacks. Southern Thailand has Islamist and jihadist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah.
Make a photocopy of your passport and the page with the visa stamp. Always carry your passport or a photocopy of it (the law requires you to carry your passport at all times, but in practice a photocopy is usually sufficient). Many nightclubs require a passport (and ONLY a passport) as proof of age. It is not necessary to leave your passport at the hotel when you check in.
It is advisable to carry your own padlock, as cheap rooms sometimes use a padlock instead of (or in addition to) the usual door locks; carry a spare key in a safe place, e.g. in your money belt, otherwise you risk losing the original, at considerable cost and inconvenience. Also consider attaching your bag with a cable to something too large to fit through the door or window.
There are some dangerous animals in Thailand. The most common threat comes from stray dogs, which are also common in the streets of Bangkok. The vast majority of them are passive and harmless, but a few can carry rabies. They should therefore be avoided and not fed or petted. If they try to attack you, do not run away as this encourages them to chase you as if you were prey. Instead, try to walk away slowly.
Monkeys may be cute and friendly, but in any place where unwitting tourists have corrupted them, they expect food from humans. They can be very sneaky thieves, and they can bite. As with dogs, you will not want to be bitten whether they have rabies or not. Most urban areas do not have “stray” monkeys, but Lopburi is famous for them.
Poisonous cobras can be found all over Thailand, hiding in large bushes or along rivers. You are unlikely to ever see them as they hide from humans, but they can bite if surprised or provoked. The Siamese crocodile, on the other hand, is almost extinct and is only found in a few remote national parks. Monitor lizards are common in the jungle, but despite their fearsome reptilian appearance, they are harmless.
Thais are generally very tolerant of people and tourists are very unlikely to be subjected to aggressive racist abuse, regardless of their skin colour. However, some visitors notice that their ethnicity attracts the attention of bystanders. These situations are usually limited to stares or unwanted attention in shops. Most Thais are often curious about the nationality of the black travellers they meet. In addition to this curiosity displayed by Thais, most travellers from different backgrounds will enjoy their stay in the country and can easily communicate with Thais who are often a little tired of young Caucasian backpackers who only see the country as a great drinking holiday.
Do not fight with the Thais. Foreigners end up outnumbering Thais 15 to one (even against those who are not initially involved), and there are usually weapons (metals, sharp objects, beer bottles, martial arts) involved. Trying to stop someone else’s fight is a bad idea, and your intention to help can hurt you.
Stay healthy in Thailand
As a tropical country, Thailand also has its share of exotic tropical diseases. Malaria is generally not a problem in the major tourist destinations, but it is endemic in rural areas along the borders with Cambodia (including Ko Chang in Trat province), Laos and Myanmar. As in all of Southeast Asia, dengue is found just about everywhere, even in the most modern cities. The only prevention is to avoid mosquito bites. Wear long trousers and long sleeves in mosquito areas after dark and use mosquito repellent (available in all corner shops or pharmacies).
The level of food hygiene in Thailand is quite high and it is generally possible to eat at street markets and drink the water offered in restaurants. It is always advisable to use common sense – for example, avoid vendors who leave raw meat in the sun with flies buzzing around – and to follow the precautions listed in our article on travellers’ diarrhoea.
Thailand has a high HIV rate (HIV prevalence among adults (15-49 years) is estimated at 1.3 percent of the population in 2014) and other sexually transmitted diseases are common, especially among sex workers. Condoms are available in all shops, supermarkets, pharmacies, etc.
In Thailand, there is a pharmacy in every neighbourhood and most of them will happily sell you anything you want without a prescription. Technically, however, it is illegal and the police have been known to arrest tourists from time to time for possessing over-the-counter medicines, even things as harmless as asthma medication.
Thailand is a popular destination for medical tourism and is particularly known for gender reassignment surgery. Health standards and medical facilities in Bangkok’s top hospitals are comparable to those in the West, with significantly lower treatment costs. Bangkok’s public hospitals are also generally of an acceptable standard, although they tend to be understaffed and therefore have long waiting times. However, the quality of medical care can drop sharply as one leaves Bangkok for small towns and rural areas.