Living and Working in Bangkok Problems, Corruption and the Police
Despite the appearance of Bangkok as a modern city, Thailand is still a developing country with numerous social problems, some serious, and it is certainly possible that at some time during your tour of duty, you may have the misfortune to experience some of these problems first hand.
First, let me qualify this by saying that Bangkok feels much safer than any other major city that I have visited with the exception of Singapore. One can feel as though they can walk around at night alone, down dark deserted alley ways, even while totally inebriated and unless one foolishly flashes money or valuables around they believe that they will be fine. This is a dangerous mindset to get into and the truth is that many Westerners seriously underestimate the safety aspect in Bangkok. It is true that in the most heavily-touristed areas of Sukhumvit Road, Silom Road and Khao Sarn Road, one is unlikely to have any major problems, at least in terms of violent crime against one's person such as muggings or robbery, but outside these areas, Bangkok is not that safe at all. In fact many Thais are horrified when they hear Westerners say that they feel Bangkok is safe.
Thais usually feel relatively safe in their own neighbourhood but when they venture out into other areas and neighbourhoods, especially at night, they will scurry along and make eye contact with as few people as possible. It should be noted that a lot of street crime, muggings and the like, happen late at night. There are fewer people around, it is dark of course – and often the perpetrators have had a bit to drink or worse still, are on drugs.
A lot of foreigners see Thais smiling and think that there is no danger. Just because they're smiling doesn't mean it is safe! Thais smile in almost any situation! Trust me, if the Thais say it is dangerous then yes, it is dangerous! They know what is really going on and they have a much better feel for danger. If you're not sure whether a place is safe or otherwise, ask some locals – NOT other Westerners!
When any serious crime is committed against a foreigner, it usually becomes fairly big news. And if it becomes fairly big news, the spotlight falls on the police and how they go about investigating and solving the case, and with a bit of luck, bringing the perpetrator to justice. The pressure is therefore on them to solve it, and in most cases, they do. A Thai criminal does not want to commit a crime knowing that more resources than usual will be deployed to catch them. Further, any crimes against tourists or high profile expats get reported back in the victim's homeland and this negative publicity only serves to damage the tourism industry, hence the police being more diligent than usual. Thailand really hates it when they get bad press in the West and they do everything they can to prevent this from happening.
But I am afraid to say that random acts of violence are on the increase. Let me give you a few examples. In late 2005 a young foreign gentleman was on the back of a motorbike with another foreigner near the intersection of Rama 9 Road and Rachadapisek Roads late at night. This is a fairly central area. They were set upon by a bunch of teenagers on motorbikes who had machetes of all things! One of the foreigners suffered horrendous injuries, was rushed to hospital where a leg was amputated and he failed to recover from the injuries and died 48 hours later.
In another example, a reader of this site was surrounded by a bunch of what he described as rough looking locals in their '20s and was told to hand over his wallet, which he did. He was then roughed up a bit and the locals took off, never to be seen again. This happened at the mouth of Sukhumvit Soi 12, an area with a lot of tourist foot traffic.
But don't let me worry you too much. Even for females walking alone, you are unlikely to have any problems in the central, well lit areas of Bangkok. But, it still pays to be careful and as a rule, you shouldn't do anything that you wouldn't do in your own country. Obviously if you're walking down the street with 1,000 baht notes falling out of your pocket or other valuables in sight, then it might be a different story.
Another major concern is to try not to get into any sort of serious confrontation with Thais, which sadly is easier said than done. The Thais are generally a friendly bunch but when they feel aggrieved the ante can be raised to uncomfortably high levels very, very quickly. If you ever feel that things might be getting a little out of control, smile, apologise and get away as fast as you can. Even if you do not feel you are in the wrong, apologise!
I always advise people to steer clear of Thais drinking heavily. Even if you speak Thai well and have a feeling for the locals you just cannot predict how the situation may change. Thai men can become unpredictable once they have had a few drinks and alcohol is often a factor in crimes, especially those committed after dark, in Thailand.
But it is not only the Thais you need to be careful of. There are plenty of really questionable foreigners in Thailand. Plenty of Westerners get themselves into financial difficulty and run out of money. Desperate people turn to sensate measures and anything is possible. Again, plenty of problems happen when guys have had a bit much to drink so be aware of people who look like they may not handle alcohol well.
In my time in Thailand, seldom does it seem a month goes past when there isn't another reasonably high profile case when a pretty young Western backpacker is raped, or a foreigner is murdered or dies under mysterious circumstances. Every week in Pattaya there are farangs perishing under mysterious circumstances and the Western embassies report many of their nationals die in Thailand every year.
If you dispute my claims that Bangkok is dangerous, have a look at the photographs of dead bodies on the front page of some of the Thai newspapers. As a foreigner, you really do not want to get caught up in anything – even if you are an innocent bystander. If you witness anything or if you see some sort of fracas taking place, it is often best to quietly become scarce rather than intervene. While you may have the best intentions, you could well get arrested and charged with an offence that you didn't even commit, or even have money extorted from you! Sadly, it does happen and yes, I know of incidents where this has happened to people I knew. I knew a guy who was arrested because he was close by when a fight took place and there was a small amount of blood spatter on his shirt. He had nothing to do with it and he was locked up for the night and had to pay 3,000 baht to get out. Crazy! Never forget that a foreigner is seen by some as a walking ATM machine.
On a similar note, I also recommend that you do not get involved in things that don't concern you, even if it goes against everything that you believe in. Some years ago now, a friend and I were on a road trip in southern Isaan. We were driving through the countryside when we came around a bend and saw an accident right in front of us which looked as though it had just happened. A motorcycle was on the ground, the rider several metres away. He must have hit the car pretty hard because the damage was considerable. We debated quickly whether we should stop to render assistance or not, but decided against it. We were concerned that we might get blamed for something even though we had stopped to help. Later on, I was told by Thais that the best thing to do, as much as it pained us, was to just to proceed as if we had seen nothing. We felt bad, but at the end of the day we could have been charged with any sort of crime, we might have suffered a backlash by the people involved or, as I have heard of, we might have been asked to contribute towards some of the damage. Madness really that we could not help. Note that whenever there is an issue in Thailand that the Thais will stand around and watch, but no-one will actually do anything!
Slum housing next to the Saen Saeb Canal
Note: March 2000. There have been some problems with tourists and some other foreigners being attacked and in some cases murdered. A bunch of foreigners were murdered by an unlicensed taxi driver who picked them up from the airport before taking them to meet the grim reaper. An Australian girl was attacked in Surat Thani and raped and murdered in an isolated temple. Another Australian couple were attacked up in Chiang Mai, again in an isolated area.
Addendum: August 2000. In three separate, seemingly unrelated incidents, an English backpacker was raped and murdered in a Chiang Mai guesthouse, a farang's rotting corpse was pulled out of a canal in Banglamphu (near Khao San Road, the backpacker area) and a farang was found dead, dumped in a bag in Sukhumvit soi 5.
Addendum: November 2004. In what has become a very high profile case, a Kanchanaburi based policeman was charged with the murder of two British backpackers. The two were shot dead late at night and after going into hiding for some time, the policeman turned himself in and admitted to it. Then after a period of time he changed his statement, requested bail and it was granted, much to most people's astonishment. What this case did for many Westerners in Thailand was simply re-enforce the belief that if one is the victim of a crime in Thailand, redress may not be available and justice may not be served. Whether the accused is guilty or not is a moot point, but what little confidence Westerners in Thailand had in the justice system when they are victims of crimes was totally ruined by this case.
Dealing with the police
Let's cut to the chase. The Thai police do not have a great reputation. Many Westerners talk of corruption, ineptitude, a lack of willingness to help Westerners when in difficulty, and a definite bias in siding with Thai nationals if they find themselves in a dispute against a Westerner.
I always say that you should only get in touch with the police in Thailand if you absolutely have to. As one of my friends once said, don't make the evil look at you.
If you ever have any dealings with the police in Thailand, it helps to understand that the whole system and the way the police work in Thailand is very much different from the West. First of all, very minor offences, or offences deemed to be minor by the police, are often not put through the system. The perpetrator may be asked to pay a (usually) small amount of money, and that is the end of it. No going to court, to wasted police time, no prison or criminal record and in all likelihood, no receipt for the fine paid. In the case of a civil dispute where one person makes a claim against another, the police will help liaise so that an agreement is reached. Some of the money paid would go to the person who made the complaint (if the police upheld it) and in all likelihood a small amount would be paid to the police.
It is often said that to get the police to do follow up some things, you may have to pay. Unfortunately I have seen evidence of this myself, first hand. Very disappointing indeed.
If you ever find yourself as the complainant, you need to understand the system – and a big part is the status and connections of the person you are making a complaint about. Irrespective of whether you have been hard done by or not, a complaint against someone of status, or someone well-connected, will likely not be investigated as you might expect. It is very possible that the case is deferred and little or nothing done. Of course, if the complaint involves something very big, or very serious, then the police might be forced to do more. But generally, you have got to understand that as a Westerner complaining against a Thai, you might be up against it. It is all somewhat complicated and people's status DOES come into it.
Let me give a couple of examples. A farang complains to the police about a taxi driver who ripped them off. The police will almost certainly act on this as taxi drivers are usually from a poor background and don't usually have great connections. If the complaint is upheld, the farang will likely “win” and an agreement would be reached with the likely outcome that the farang's money is returned. Another example might be the case of a farang complaining to the police about a landlord who refused to return their deposit on a rental property. The landlord might be a wealthy and well-connected businessman who perhaps has police friends or even built a police traffic control box (yes, this is quite normal – private individuals and companies finance the air-conditioned police control boxes you see all around the city). In this case, do you think the cops are going to side against that guy? UNLIKELY! Thailand is a place where a farang really does have to choose their battles carefully. If you go to the police for anything, it is often worthwhile checking with Thai friends first because they will ordinarily understand the system a lot better than you ever will.
Also, even if your case against a Thai is taken, you have to be aware that they might seek revenge against you. I once heard a farang ranting about the local police and how they hadn't handled his complaint in the way he had hoped and how he was going to make a complaint against the officers involved. Nothing could be more stupid. There would almost certainly have been retribution.
I hate to say it but as the victim of crime in Bangkok you can very much feel as if you are on your own. OK, if it is a really serious or high profile crime then the cops will do their job as best they can, but for less serious issues, don't expect a great deal of assistance.
When you go to the police station to make any sort of statement, complaint or whatever, you should take your passport with you. And for goodness sake, make sure your visa is valid and hasn't expired. Unless you have a VERY good grasp of the local lingo, I would take a Tai along with you.
The police in Thailand are a law unto themselves and many, many Thai people (and Westerners resident in Thailand long-term) are downright scared of them. Problems of all sorts including alleged corruption are often reported in the English language newspapers.
If you are able to befriend any police officers or have an opportunity to do any coppers a big favour like giving them or their children free English lessons, computer / internet assistance, translation or the like, you may begin to develop a little "insurance policy". If you have any genuine problems in the future, go back to your friendly copper and ask for help – I'm sure they will see to it that the problem is resolved, or at least provide some assistance. This is not a get out of jail card for any problem, but they could and usually will help with any small, minor issues. However, this situation can potentially become nasty so don't take them for granted. Also, if you have influential Thai friends, it may well be worth consulting them if you have any problems. If you do get yourself in real hot water, no amount of money or influential friends will get you out of it. It has to be remembered that there is always the concern that the authorities will make an example of a farang who gets in trouble and plaster his / her name and mug shot all over the press.
As far as dealing with the police goes, and their attitude and willingness to help goes, obviously it varies from station to station. Some stations are known to be farang friendly and this manifests itself in many ways. The Prakanong Police Station has a very good reputation and the locals generally have a good feeling towards them. The police in that particular district are less likely, for example, stop and fine a farang on a motorbike who is not wearing his helmet. It is almost as if they recognise the value of farangs to their community, and turn a blind eye.
In my limited dealings with the Thai police, I have been impressed by their friendliness. Like most Thai people, at an individual level at least, they are pleasant. I also get the impression that they are a little worried that if they do not meet the farang's expectations, complaints may be forthcoming – and that is the last thing they want.
In addition to the regular police, you can always get in touch with the tourist police, although they exist for tourists – and not necessarily for Westerners resident in Thailand. There is a misconception that the Tourist Police are an English speaking branch of the Thai police, there to help all foreigners. That is true, but they are here to help tourists, in tourist areas. You will not usually find tourist police in non-tourist areas. I guess you could purport to be a tourist and consult the Tourist Police though I imagine that when they realised it was not something to do with a tourist or tourism related, they would refer it to the local police.
One of the problems with the police force is that they are very lowly paid and under resourced. Officers have to buy their own weapons, uniform and various things that we would consider essential tools to do the job. The police are thus forced to try and make money so that they can recoup their own costs. Each police station apparently has a central fund that the coppers can dip into to finance the tools of the job. Yes, it is a shame that they are so badly under-resourced and under-funded that they are literally forced to extract money from the public to enable them do their job. Obviously, the cops are so poorly paid that not all of the money ends up in the station's central fund, but in their pockets. While corruption is never a god thing, when anyone is so poorly paid, this is inevitable. It's simply the way things are in what is still, at least when compared with the west, a poor country.
Many cops get money from all manner of crooked folk, be it the managers of the gogo bars who want the girls to dance topless or even nude (which is against the law) or the local con men who is up to who knows what.
There are often stories in the press of big drug lords making millions of dollars peddling their poison across the Kingdom and beyond who are said to push money the police's way. Basically, anyone who is doing something they shouldn't but would like to keep doing it may make certain contributions to the local police. With this in mind, there is potential for conflict of interest. What happens if you make a complaint about someone who is, for want of more subtle words, on the police's payroll? In a typical scenario, the police will be in an awkward situation and may move very slowly and eventually the case will be closed without any real resolution. As unlikely as it is that you will ever face this situation, it is still useful to know how the system works. If you have any general problems such as you lose your wallet or your camera is stolen, the police will be helpful enough although such petty crimes concerning foreigners seldom seem to be solved. In fact I would go as far to say that often such crimes aren't even investigated and all that happens is that you are given a police report to use to claim against your insurance.
It must be said that while many Thai policemen are obviously bent, they generally deal with farangs with courtesy and politeness. On the odd occasion when I have had to talk with the police, this has always been my impression.
If you ever get caught for a very minor offence or are subjected to a shake down, it is probably best to use English instead of Thai (assuming you speak some Thai) when dealing with the officer. The idea here being that they do not want to unduly upset a foreign tourist BUT if you live here, there is no harm in shaking you down for a few baht…after all, as a local, you know the reality of living in Thailand. If you are subject to a shakedown and feel it is unjustified, I have heard it said that the best approach is to simply ask the officer if you can make a phone call. Inevitably, the cop will get worried and ask you who you want to call to which you should reply "never you mind" or something to that effect. Now you have the cop guessing and if it is something very minor or a shakedown, you will be left alone. If he insists to know who you are calling, respond that the ambassador at the American Embassy (or someone similarly placed in society – but someone who it would be reasonable to expect that he is not close friends with) is a close friend and bingo, the copper is out of there! It is important to remember that while you might be targeted as a farang – you have money and you might be easy prey -the Thais get shaken down just the same. I know, that doesn't make it any easier!
Whenever you deal with the police, BE EXTREMELY POLITE. If you have to go to the police station to make a report, wear clean, neat and tidy clothes. The more respect you give them and the more polite you are, the more helpful they will be. NEVER be rude to a policeman in Thailand EVER. Never say anything rude or insulting and leave sarcasm outside the station's walls. If a Thai policeman wanted to make your life difficult, he could, so under no circumstances provoke them or give them any reason to do so. (This should be stating the obvious but you'd be amazed how many idiot farangs are rude to the police in Thailand. DUMB!)
The Thai police don't always deal with the accused, or established guilty parties, with compassion. Stories of people being knocked about while in custody are not unusual, though for this to happen to a foreigner, they would likely have to be accused of a serious crime against a Thai national. I have heard numerous stories over the years of Thai policemen beating up smart-mouthed Westerners so please, do not say anything you shouldn't. There was a very high profile case a few years back in Kanchanaburi where a Thai policeman claimed he was abused by two British backpackers and that caused him to cause significant loss of face. He then went and killed the two of them, shooting on and running the other over, if my memory serves me correctly. Not nice at all.
In the unfortunate case of a dispute between a Thai and a farang, there is no guarantee that the mediating policeman will look at it impartially. Some cops will, some won't. You need to be aware of this. If you get involved in a situation with a local, there is a very real chance that being a foreigner up against a Thai, irrespective of the circumstances, will count against you. This is why I always recommend that you do your very best to avoid any sort of conflict or dispute with a Thai national as it has the chance to get really ugly – and you may not receive justice.
Again, I have heard of countless stories of Thai women and their farang boyfriends having problems. In what is a very common theme, the Thai woman pulls a knife or a weapon and attacks her boyfriend, causing him various injuries. Generally speaking he is able to overcome her despite his injuries and he may push her back or try and restrain her. Even though he was merely defending himself against a frenzied attack, if she gets so much as a small bruise or cut, in all likelihood it will be him who is found to be in the wrong. There is no shame in running away from a problem in Thailand. In such a situation, I would run. Avoiding a problem before it even happens is the best means of sorting out issues in Thailand. Once a problem escalates it can be very hard to get it sorted out.
But perhaps the very worst scenario is that where a foreigner has an issue with another foreigner and the Thai police are called. Most likely neither party has any status, and neither party is willing to pay the police to investigate. The police now have to try and work out what has happened, while speaking English, and try and resolve it. The Thai police really do not like situations like this. There is nothing in it for them!
In summary, and as much as I hate to say it, the Thai police are often looked upon, by both Thais, and Westerners in Thailand, as a group not trusted and best avoided.
From time to time, one hears stories of police harassment of foreigners here and often it may be an attempt by a third party to get money out of someone by getting the police involved. The classic story is the idiot who buys drugs and then the police miraculously turn up in no time. Well guess what – the guy you bought the drugs from tipped off the cops because not only did he make a profit on the drugs that he sold to you, he's going to make a profit from the tip-off money too!
Anyone who gets involved with drugs in Thailand in any way at all is taking a significant risk. Anyone involved in drug trafficking is just plain dumb. Two books written on the topic of Westerners caught trafficking drugs out of Thailand and who later ended up spending many years in Thailand include "The Damage Done" (Also published as "4,000 Days) and "Forget You Had A Daughter". The first is the story of an Australian male and the second the story of an English female, both who got caught smuggling drugs out of Thailand. The drugs problem is taken VERY seriously in this part of the world so don't be an idiot – stay well clear of them.
At a number of entertainment venues in Bangkok random drug testing occurs from time to time so if you have used drugs and frequent such venues, you may well get test positive for drug use. This could be very embarrassing, even if the drug use took place outside of Thailand. I hate to say it, but try telling that to a Thai policeman or worse still, a Thai judge. You may indeed be totally innocent and have a valid defence, but frankly, I think it wouldn't fly.
Being a foreigner in Thailand charged with any drug offence doesn't bear thinking about. Every year there are idiot farangs who get caught trafficking drugs. They are just about the craziest, most daring people on the planet because anyone caught will get likely end up with a 50 year prison sentence.
DON'T TOUCH DRUGS IN THAILAND. IF ANYONE YOU KNOW HAS OR USES DRUGS, GET AWAY FAST!
It is often said that anyone who is caught for minor drug offences in Thailand is given a chance to pay their way out of the situation. True or not, I do not know, but for sure it is possible. It is also said that any chance to pay one's way out of the situation should be seized. Now I do not want to condone bribery of an official here, but really ,drugs and Thailand just do not mix!
The physical environment of Bangkok
Bangkok suffers from dreadful pollution which can cause health issues. When I first visited Thailand and returned to my native New Zealand, I took with me a dreadful cough that I attribute to the city's awful pollution. It really is that bad.
And neither is Bangkok a pretty city to look at it. If it's a cloudy day the city looks grey and drab, but as I have often said, it is the vibe that makes the city, and the zest that the people have for life, not the physical environment of the city itself. There aren't that many green areas but there a few big parks you can escape to and getting out of the city at the weekend is easy with many interesting places to visit within an hour or two in every direction.
Although Bangkok is dirty, one thing that isn't seen nearly as often as it is in the West is graffiti, although that is slowly changing and it can be seen more and more these days, including profanity in English. Who was the English teaching plonker who had to teach them those words?!
While I find that I personally am able to overcome the fact that Bangkok is dirty, the pavements grubby and crooked and quite capable of tripping you up and bringing you down, it's the beggars that get to me. And it isn't the fact that they are begging that upsets me, it's the fact that some of these poor folk are in an awful state. There truly are some poor wretches in a bloody terrible state and if you have never been to a developing country before, it can all be a bit of a shock. Amputees, the homeless, lepers, the deaf, the blind and quite frankly, the horribly deformed, are all competing for the jingle of a few baht that they hear in your pocket.
Many of these beggars are often put on the streets by organised gangs and while they may collect a reasonable amount of money each day, it is taken by their captors who but provide them with a place to stay and food to eat. How else can you explain that these unfortunate folk move daily from prime location to prime location, day after day, in search of the compassionate tourists' loose change? Many Thais have believe in wasana, or fate, and many believe that someone who is born with deformities deserves it because they must have done something really horrible in a previous life. All I can say is that if all of this is true, with the huge amount of corruption in Thailand at present, there's going to be a great number of crippled folks in the next generation…invest in wheelchair manufacturing or some related industry!
Of course there is a real problem with children being put out to beg too. Sometimes they are controlled by their parents and sometimes by gangs. Worst of all, they are often put into the nightlife areas – read red light districts – and are not allowed to go home until they have sold X number of whatever it is they are selling, often flowers like the little girl pictured here. Very sad business indeed.
Speaking of people in a bad way, unfortunately one sees a lot of animals, mainly dogs, in a similarly dreadful state. All I can say is that the SPCA in the West would have a nightmare if they saw the state of some of these beasts. And of course rabies is a problem too. Do your level best to avoid being bitten by stray dogs because rabies is a problem in Thailand. If you get bitten by a dog, it is recommended that you go to a hospital immediately and get started on a series of rabies shots. You don't get them all at once and have to return every few days for a few weeks, I believe.
Lawyers and the legal representation
Let me just say a quick word about lawyers and the legal profession in Thailand. In my time in Thailand I have used just one lawyer who came recommended by a friend and he was really excellent. As he tells me, lawyers in Thailand often deal with all aspects of the law, be it civil or criminal matters, the transfer of property, registration of a business, assistance getting work permits – whatever! Many simply do not specialise in one area of the law but do it all!
The lawyer I used was Thai and he charged VERY reasonable fees. Once I consulted him for an hour on a personal issue and he charged me 1,000 baht. What is even more incredible is that he drove to see me! Another time I called him, outlining an issue I had and what I wanted to do. He drove to see me, a distance of some 25 km, met me, and discussed the problem. He said that a complaint needed to be made at the local police station and he accompanied me there and we went over the whole complicated issue the police. The total time was about 2 and a half hours and this was on his day off. The total cost for this? 3,000 baht. Try getting a Western lawyer at those rates!
There are a number of Westerner practicing in Thailand as lawyers. Actually, they are not lawyers as such in that they cannot enter a court of law. I guess you could call them "legal consultants". So, while these guys might be able to do everything for you if you are looking at something which does not need any interaction with the Thai authorities, or will not go to court, they may not be able to help you otherwise. I guess you could look at them as "legal consultants". They can explain the law to you, advise you on your options and point you in the right direction, but if you need to interact with the authorities then they will ALSO have a Thai lawyer to help, meaning that you essentially pay for two lawyers! And then you have the translation problems as the Western lawyer tells the Thai lawyer, or the Thai lawyer nods but really doesn't understand entirely. I am sure there are some very good Western lawyers in Thailand, but they can charge astronomical rates and the rates I often here are 4,000 – 8,000 baht per hour. Ouch, that hurts! There are many very good Thai lawyers so if you need a lawyer, I would actually recommend going directly to a Thai – just try and get a recommendation!
On of the most annoying things about living in Thailand is the inability to put a wrong situation right. What ever problems you experience in Thailand, there is often little recourse available to you. If your employer craps on you, don't expect them to put it right by simply going and talking to someone in the HR department or even the MD. You're essentially forced to get a lawyer and take them to court. It is good to know that contracts in English ARE legally binding and the Labour Department or if it comes to it, the Labour Court, often sides with the employee – as seems to be the way worldwide, notwithstanding that it may be a farang making a claim against a Thai organisation. If you buy goods that turn out to be faulty, unless it is a brand name from a big store or a store where you know the proprietor well, don't expect a refund or an exchange. A lot of stores have a very clearly stated no refund or exchange policy.
Take a careful look at yourself and if you are someone who always squeals when something doesn't go quite your way and you frequently cry consumers / contractual / legal rights, then you may find Thailand a little disconcerting. Basically, a lot of the rights that are taken for granted in the west simply don't exist here.
Although it goes without saying, one does not want to get into trouble with the Thai authorities as they can be ruthless. A friend was involved in a crime that was quite profitable – the Thai authorities caught up with him and it cost him a huge amount of money (read more than 1 year's salary in the West) to get his way out of trouble and settle the issue. Had he been unlucky, he may have done some time in the slammer, then been sent home on the first available flight and possibly even received a stamp in his passport prohibiting him from ever re-entering Thailand. It's not worth it! Also, if you go to court and get found guilty, it usually means instant deportation and you risk becoming persona non grata, blacklisted from ever returning to Thailand again. Further as the Immigration Department, the Foreign Minister and your Embassy are all notified, there might be other consequences. The bottom line to remember is that the judicial system is very tough in Thailand, much tougher than anywhere in the West.
As crazy as it sounds, the truth is not always the solution to one's legal problems in Thailand. One area where this manifests itself is in the laws of slander and libel. These are both criminal and civil issues in Thailand. If someone cheats you in the West or does something and you simply say what they did, i.e. state the facts, then you have most likely not broken any laws. In Thailand it is quite different. If you say, write or publish something that causes someone to lose face, EVEN IF IT IS TRUE, then you may be liable. One rule of living in Thailand, no matter how crazy it may seem, and no matter how hard it may be for you to do it, do not cause another person to lose face through your comments, announcements, writings or whatever.
But really, one wants to avoid getting into any legal problems in Thailand in the first place. The whole legal system is confusing and different laws are applied differently to different people. Penalties can be severe and some of the reports I have both heard of and read about concerning court cases would make anyone ending up before a judge extremely nervous. Mark my words, you want to avoid getting into trouble in Thailand – and court should be avoided at all costs!
Traffic and being behind the wheel
If you do a lot of driving in the City Of Angels, it is inevitable that you will be waved over by cops at a random checkpoint. And one day, you are going to meet someone at a checkpoint that has not been set up only in the interests of road safety or vehicle fitness certificate inspection but also in the interest of collecting revenue! The routine generally goes like this: You will be waved over and approached by one of the coppers who will almost always be very friendly and polite. You will be informed of the (alleged!) infringement that you have made and that there is a fine payable (they are generally in the 400 – 800 baht range). He will pull for invoice book and start writing up a ticket, slowly, ever so slowly! At this point, it is up to you to offer him some money there and then. The general excuse that most people use is that they don't have enough time to go to the station to pay it and that they would prefer to pay it here and now – and damn, they don't need a receipt either! Although some people pay more, a drivers licence handed to the cop with 1 nice bright red 100 baht note will usually suffice. 100 baht is not always enough for Thai people but often it will cost a foreigner 200 baht. Note, the cop will NOT ask you for money outright – if he does and you were to have taped the conversation, this guy is for the high jump. When paying your 100 – 200 baht, make sure he doesn't see all of the 500s and 1000s in your wallet otherwise he may deem 100 – 200 baht to be too little! Be polite at all times and you shouldn't have any problems. Also, when paying off the cops, do it VERY discretely and don't be an idiot and start counting out the notes into his hands for all and sundry to see! Remember that technically you are as much in the wrong as he is. I am told by people who have driven in Thailand for a long time that these days it is not common to be asked to pay when you had not actually done anything wrong. The one big exception is the famous toll both on the expressway heading north out of the city. Coppers wait at the second to last toll both on the Don Muang expressway and will accuse you of all sorts of things. One friend of mine was accused of doing 190 km/h, a speed his car couldn't possibly reach. This spot seems to be a real "target the foreigner zone".
If you do get a ticket for traffic infringement, the police officer will usually take your driver's licence from you. You are required to go to the police station (the one which this pleasant fellow who just issued you with a ticket) works out of and pay the fine within 7 days. If you take longer than that to go and pay it, the fine increases. When you pay the fine, your licence is given back to you. One reason to avoid getting tickets is that each time you are given a traffic infringement notice like this, you get a number of demerit points on your licence. Once you reach certain number of points within a certain period of time, you lose your licence, that is if you are driving on a Thai driver's licence. If you were driving on an international licence or a licence from your home country, no points are deducted obviously as you are not in the Thai driver's licence computer system.
From time to time, you might find yourself in a taxi that is pulled over at a police checkpoint. More often than not, you will just be waved along, but there is always a chance that the police might want to see some form of photo ID, preferably your passport. A pedantic policeman could insist on seeing your passport and if you do not have it, he might get a bit shirty. Smile, be pleasant and polite and they'll usually just let it go. A photocopy of your passport in your wallet may well help. In Thailand, all Thai citizens aged 15 and over must have their ID with them at all times and it is no different for foreigners. Strictly speaking, we are supposed to have our passport with us at all times but generally speaking, a copy of it, or another form of ID will suffice. If you have a Thai driver's licence or a an ID from your local place of work, that is generally good enough. Just remember though that strictly speaking, we are supposed to have our passport and they might insist on seeing it.
Try and avoid being involved in a vehicle accident (easier said than done!) Things can get a little messy and often the foreigner is considered at fault even if he / she is clearly the victim of a local driver's error. The argument often cited is that this is Thailand and if the foreigner had not come to Thailand in the first place, the accident would never have happened! Excellent! A comprehensive insurance policy is obviously a must if you choose to drive here. At the risk of sounding cynical, Bangkok is a good place to verify the bad reputation that Asians have behind the wheel. If you do have an accident and you are at fault and someone else is injured, you are expected to pay for their medical attention there and then! If you do not have enough money on you, you are expected to go and get the money! As a foreigner, you will probably be asked for a silly amount like 1,000 baht for a minor injury when 200 – 500 baht will suffice. Yes, as silly as it sounds these amounts sound, they are most definitely negotiable. In the case of a road accident, you must leave the vehicles where they stopped and call not just the police, but your insurance company who will dispatch a representative to come out, analyse the situation – and this person will deal with the police on your behalf. This is one very good reason for having a mobile phone. Keep your insurance company's phone number close by at all times!
As with many developing countries, two tiered pricing is a sad fact of life and is prevalent throughout not just Bangkok but all of Thailand. Two tiered pricing, also known as double pricing or dual pricing, is when different prices are charged for exactly the same good or service, with the price based on the purchaser's nationality. This racist policy happens at a variety of places from national parks, to temples, to various businesses, many of which target tourists and it sometimes even goes right down to small, street stall style restaurants. Often the price difference is huge, not just a few baht but as much as ten times! Possibly the most well known example of dual pricing is The Grand Palace, also known as Wat Phra Kew. Entry is 200 baht for foreigners but free for Thais! This is perhaps fair enough as the Thais visiting this temple are predominantly Buddhist and this is the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand. At many other interesting or historic temples, the entry price is 20 – 30 baht for foreigners and either free or just 10 baht for Thais. It starts to get annoying when one has to pay more at tourist attractions that are not related to religion or not government owned and operated. In the case of government owned and operated businesses, one could argue that the locals getting in for free is because it is their taxes that paid for it all. Annoyingly, the argument so often given at these places with dual pricing is that foreigners are richer than Thais and that they can therefore afford to pay more! This argument is totally invalid, especially when you see a Mercedes Benz or similar full of locals arrive at one of these places, each member of the group wearing brand name clothes, an expensive Swiss watch and carrying a top model phone, all clearly demonstrating that these are people not hard up for cash.
From a temple in Phitsanulok city, entry is free to Thais – but not to foreigners!
If you speak Thai to a reasonable level, you can simply ask for the Thai price or hand over the correct money for one ticket at the Thai price. If you can read Thai, you will be able to read the Thai price as funnily enough, establishments where dual pricing is prevalent are amongst the few places you will still see Thai numerals used. (In most of Thailand they use the same number symbols as we do.) Some places will accept your work permit or a local ID card that you are locally based and therefore accept the local price. Still, this is not a lot of help to people in Thailand on holiday. The Thais do not seem to understand that this leaves a really bad flavour in our mouth, being forced to pay more like this. I know that they would be up in arms if this sort of thing happened to them when they were abroad. Notice that if you ever go out with a bunch of Thais and you are asked to pay more, they feel great shame…and so they should.
Even in places where double pricing isn't prevalent, endemic corruption can result in the bill being padded with frivolous charges. This is often done in a very subtle way and can take on many guises. In some restaurants, you will be shown a menu but once you have ordered your food the menus are taken away. When the bill comes, it is often just a small piece of paper with a single number on it, the total of all of the dishes and drinks combined. Any establishment operating like this is just asking you to check the bill. I have been mis-charged so many times that it just starts to get ridiculous. When asking for a breakdown of the bill, the staff will take their time and often get creative in an effort to make everything tally up with the figure written on the paper. One is forced to call for the menu and literally, more often than not, you'll see that you have been overcharged. The people doing the overcharging vary from place to place – sometimes it is quite simply management practice and at other times it is the waitresses and / or the cashier pulling a sly one and pocketing the difference between what you paid and what the actual cost should have been. The worst thing is that complaining about it falls on deaf ears and you just know that the next people are going to get the same treatment.
Buy a bottle of water from a street vendor in the vicinity of tourist attractions or in an area where tourists may frequent and you may end up paying 10 – 20 baht whereas a local may very well pay less. Many shops, ranging from small restaurants to transport providers, and even including the odd barber, have the prices listed on the wall in Thai with one set of prices and in English with another. I remember getting a haircut once in the Pratunam area and the difference between the Farang price and the Thai price was 20 baht for a haircut, 50 for a Thai 70 for an "English speaker". I argued the point and got the haircut for the Thai price but was pretty much told to fxxk off and never come back.
Suwan Siam, often called Siam Park in English, a water park on the north-eastern edge of Bangkok, Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Chok Chai Farm in Saraburi and the Bangkok Crocodile Farm are just a few of the many examples of places where the price for farangs and Thais is OPENLY different. One set of prices written in Thai for the Thais and another for the foreigners written in English. This is absolutely diabolical! Another way to get around this is to send your Thai friend / girlfriend to buy the tickets with you well out of sight! No problem for us expats who can actually read Thai but for others, it can be a pain. 5 baht here, 10 baht there won't break the bank but the principle annoys quickly. Also, quite a lot of this dual pricing is set at Government level – while on one hand one can understand that the taxpayers have essentially paid for some of these things but surely this seems somewhat hypocritical given that Thailand is trying to promote tourism? Around 2001 the national parks revised their prices with entry to Thais being set at 20 baht and entry to all other nationalities 200 baht – which has since gone up to a whopping 400 baht! This includes the likes of Erawan Waterfalls in Kanchanaburi and the beaches at Ko Samet. The Thai Government really should look at itself with shame over this decision.
Victory Monument, often plagued by heavy pollution and a traffic jam from hell!
Getting by in Thai society without problems
Don't rock the boat! There are some people involved in all sorts of dodgy deals and dodgy businesses and unless it is DIRECTLY affecting you, just ignore it. When in Asia, don't mess with some else's rice bowl! Yes, child prostitution DOES happen here (but it is almost exclusively for the Thais – NOT the foreigners). Yes, unscrupulous vendors do sell the latest version of Windows XP for 100 baht and yes you can buy a fake Rolex for 500 baht. Yep, that tuktuk driver is about to rip off those two tourists off and take them on a high pressure tour of some jewellery and tailors shops that they're not interested in but which he stands to make quite a commission from. LET IT BE! Don't go complaining about things that don't concern you! Many Thais struggle to earn a living and if you do anything to detrimentally effect their income – be it legitimate income or otherwise – you may find yourself in all sorts of hot water and the situation can quickly get out of control. And remember, in a lot of cases, the cops know about what is going on and are receiving a cut so a complaint to them may go nowhere – and just bring unwanted attention to yourself. Basically, keep your nose out of other people's business. Disclaimer: This doesn't mean that I condone some of the things that go on. If things get really ugly and you piss off someone enough, well, let's just say that I have heard banter that the price on a life, even a foreigner, can be as low as 50,000 baht… In Thailand it is VERY important to accept what you cannot change or influence, especially if it does not directly concern you! People who stick their nose in where it doesn't belong, even if they have the very best intentions, will get their comeuppance in Thailand.
One needs to be a little wary of some of the other Westerners in this city. Just because they are white / speak English / the same nationality as you does not mean that they are immediately trustworthy. People tend to make friends easier in Bangkok than back in their homeland and tend to be less choosy about who their friends are. Despite the excitement of life in this city, people get lonely and crave conversation and interaction with their own kind. Remember, back in your homeland, you have probably known most of your friends for years and those relationships and trust have developed over a very long period of time. In a new city, when one may be fighting to become established and make new friends, one can lower their guard and become a little too trusting. Choose your friends with care, an be aware that there are a few foreigners in Thailand mixed up in some really questionable stuff. There are also a lot of Westerners here living hand to mouth and they will do whatever they can to part you from your money. This is one of the huge unspoken shortcomings of life in this part of the world – the caliber of the people who float up on the beach here.
As crazy as it sounds, there are more than a few foreigners around who have really lost the plot. It's the usual story – drink, drugs or women, sometimes all three! I'll never forgot one fellow who somehow scammed 7,000 baht out of a friend of mine and then tried to hit me up to put a brand new laptop on my credit card! "I'll pay you back next week when a cheque arrives from the States." Wake up! This same guy had some serious problems and became a real nuisance until told where to go. They are everywhere, but they tend to hang around in the Khao Sarn Road or Sukhumvit areas more than anywhere else, basically the farang ghettos. From time to time, you might even see a farang begging, and then you know they have really reached rock bottom. There used to be a farang with a North American accent who begged for almost a year around the Erawan shrine – then one day he was gone.
I hate to say it but I am not that impressed by some of my fellow farangs living and working here in Thailand. The number of farangs living here is significant so it is to be expected that there will be some questionable folks amongst them, but frankly, the number of folks who fail to impress make up a much higher percentage of farangs in Thailand than what you would find at home. You get farangs up to no good, leading really questionable lifestyles. You get farangs who have lived in Thailand for many, many years and can't string together 10 words of the language and you get no shortage guys who are doing the same thing they did when they first arrived and are on the road to nowhere. Don't get me wrong, while these are all things that are hard to admire, it isn't adequate reason to view them in a negative light and I do not necessarily have anything against such people – they can live their lives as they please and it would be totally wrong for me to suggest otherwise. What I do have a problem with however is the Westerners who cast aspersions on anyone who suggests that Thailand is anything less than perfect. You often hear Westerners resident in or travelling through Thailand who will comment on various aspects of life here – and not always in a positive light. Sometimes they will tell stories of how this or that happened and how they wee the victim – and some of the things complained about may be genuinely bad. I have read a number of stories of Westerners being victims in their dealings with the police, including being scammed on the road, or, in worst case scenarios, actually being beaten up by police. What I REALLY HATE is when other Westerners come along try and defend the actions of the perpetrators and tell the victim that either they were in the wrong or that they should put up with it, shut up or even leave Thailand! You see, there are some people who had no life at home, before they came to Thailand, for whatever reason. Maybe they were unpopular, or never got ahead in life, were career criminals, or whatever. Despite problems at home, their lives in the Land of Smiles are the complete opposite. In Thailand, the locals smile at them and treat them nicely. In return, these questionable farangs will defend the Thais to the hilt, even if it involves something very clearly questionable or downright wrong. This drives me crazy and is one of the reasons I seldom read the local internet discussion forums these days. There are some Westerners who find Thailand to be their personal paradise and are prepared to overlook anything, even things that border on a minor atrocity – and they will vociferously criticise anyone who questions their idea of paradise! This is one of the huge unspoken shortcomings of life in this part of the world – the calibre of the Westerners here.
Corruption is so endemic in Thailand and so many people are so corrupt that they do not even recognise that what they are doing is actually corruption – it has become so institutionalised and in many cases it's just considered the norm. A friend tells a classic tale about when he started working as a teacher at a school. It is the school's responsibility to get and pay for all of the work permit documentation. Along with some from the administration department at school, they had just about completed all of the paperwork and were sitting in the office of one of the immigration big wigs who signs things off. He was told by the administrator that the cost of the visa would be 500 baht. My friend says I'm not going to pay it – the school pays it. They haggled over this for a minute or two before the administrator pulled 500 baht out of her wallet and gave it to the immigration official. My friend asked whether that was her own money and she replied, "no, it was from the school". My friend then said, "you just tried to rip me off" to which the administrator just smiled as if this was perfectly normal. See what I mean? They just can't help themselves! Spend enough time in Thailand, especially in a business environment and you will see corruption at almost every level. I have no answers as to ho on gets around it. Try to fight it and you will lose. It is a sad fact that the endemic corruption in Thailand is holding the country back and until they really get it under control, it is going to hold them back, and slow their development.
If you do have the misfortune to suffer any serious problems or get into any major trouble, it goes without saying that your embassy would be the best people to contact. They will be able to give you sound advice on what to do though some of the embassies, the Brits in particular, have the reputation of being less than helpful. Remember, if you have broken the local laws, there isn't anything that they can do to assist you other than recommend a lawyer, possibly give you some advice and liaise with friends and family. Don't get the embassy involved unless you have to though, because once it's on paper, it's official and once that has happened, the chances of you being able to "pay" your way out of any situation you maybe have got yourself into are all but eliminated. But don't take the idea of being able to pay off the police lightly. Yes, as with other countries that have not reached industrialized status, some policeman in Thailand will take a backhander to look the other way. Attempting to bribe a policeman is still a very big deal, apart from traffic offences, or alleged offences, where quite frankly, it seems to be the norm.
Freedom of speech does exist in Thailand but in reality, there are some things that are best not mentioned. NEVER say anything negative about HM The King, the royal family or about Buddhism. These are things that Thais hold very dear to their hearts and any comments, even for the purpose of intellectual conversation, will not be appreciated unless they are of an extremely positive nature. In addition to this, any comments made that reflect on Thailand in a negative nature do not seem welcome either. Thailand does have some laws that say something to the effect of "anything published that may harm or damage the reputation of the Thailand is illegal".