Readers' Submissions

What A Horrible Country

  • Written by Khun Bill
  • April 21st, 2012
  • 28 min read

I have been travelling to Thailand regularly since 1979 and I love the place. I caught yellow fever way back then. I love hot weather – yes I know that now it is 36c or even higher most days but I would rather have 36c than 36f any day. I enjoy being a foreigner in a foreign country as opposed to being British in England – a country that bears no resemblance to how it was when I grew up there as a child in the fifties/sixties. Many times I feel like a stranger in my own country. Thailand, Bangkok in particular, has a ‘buzz’ 24/7, 365 days a year. For over eight years I have been happily married to a kind and loving Thai woman. I can speak a reasonable amount of Thai. Almost all our holidays are spent in Thailand and once I retire fully in another 2 or 3 years we will probably spend 6 months of the year there.

So why the title ‘what a horrible country’?

When one looks in detail at a number of aspects of holidaying or living in Thailand there sure are many major negative issues and these have undoubtedly contributed to the change in the mix of tourists visiting the country over recent years. Because of the internet, information is readily available to those planning a visit – try googling ‘Thai scams’ for example. Air fares continue to increase largely because of rising oil prices but also in the case of the UK because of the imposition of a departure tax which seems to increase year on year. The economies of most European countries and also of the US are on the floor. People are scared for their economic futures and most simply do not have the spare cash they did a few years ago, or if they do they do not prioritise holidays as a way of spending it. Western tourists in Thailand have been replaced by those from India, mainland China, Russia and the middle east. A whole area east of Walking Street in Pattaya has become an enclave for middle eastern men. Bars and restaurants have their menus printed in Russian. Working girls who ten years ago would not have contemplated ‘going with’ a man from India are now having to reconsider and abandon their prejudices for the sake of cash flow.

But apart from these general factors what about specifics. Why do I suggest that Thailand is a horrible country? Below I will go into considerable detail and outline issues that ‘normal’ western tourists would not like, indeed issues that would put off many if not most from visiting the country a second time. For myself I have come to accept most of these issues, and fellow Stickmanites please do not regale me via email telling me to **** off and stay in England. As I said earlier, I love the place, but I am neither blind nor deaf nor stupid. Consider the following for starters.


Road safety

One is in some danger even on the pavement before attempting to cross a road or take any form of transport. Motor cyclists use the pavements and expect pedestrians to move out of their way. They drive aggressively, the worst being pizza delivery boys who presumably will suffer financially if they fail to deliver within a particular timescale. Before you ‘change lane’ on a footpath glance over both shoulders. Whatever you do, do not make a sudden turn without looking behind first. Hold your child’s hand all the time. Motosai boys (and girls) are ignorant and often under the influence of alcohol – you can see them openly drinking alcohol while they wait their turn. When they do deign to use the road, do not expect motorcyclists to observe one way streets – never ever step off the pavement assuming that traffic can only be travelling in one direction.

Thai drivers on the whole show no courtesy or consideration to other road users and in particular to pedestrians. Never assume that they will stop at a red light. They totally ignore ‘zebra’ crossings. I recall a few years ago there was a lot of media coverage when the Government/Police announced that they were to enforce the law regarding drivers giving way to pedestrians on crossings. Of course nothing happened. In the whole of the central area of Bangkok which is visited by overseas tourists (Sukhumvit/Siam/Silom etc) I am not aware of one light controlled dedicated pedestrian crossing. To clarify, I do not count the pedestrian green light at the Sukhumvit/Soi 3/4 junction because one has no protection from traffic turning left from Soi 3 eastwards into Sukhumvit. If you are brave you can try to force them to stop, but don’t count on it. In Pattaya there are several light controlled pedestrian crossings on Beach Road and Second Road, however most of the time they are not working (flashing amber) and on the rare occasions when they are working they are ignored by the local drivers. Having lights which are ignored is of course more dangerous than having no lights at all.

Driving standards are appalling and often deliberately dangerous. Most taxis have no seatbelts in the rear. The Thais themselves do not take road safety seriously as evidenced by their cavalier attitude regarding their children. Very rarely do you see a child in a proper car seat, they are almost always unrestrained and often in the front sitting on the lap of a passenger, sometimes even the driver. On motorbikes you rarely see a child wearing a helmet – unquestionably unforgivable (and please don’t plead poverty on behalf of the parents; if they can find the resources to fuel the bike and top up their mobile they can surely finance the purchase of a basic helmet).

And God forbid that you should be involved in an accident. If you are hurt you might wait a long time for an under-equipped ambulance to fight its way through the inevitable traffic. There would then be questions about ability to pay, credit cards etc. The accident will of course be the fault of the foreigner whatever the circumstances. Money may be extorted from you regardless of what insurance cover exists.

Road engineering and design is a factor in the appallingly high number of road accidents and fatalities in Thailand. The ability to turn right or u-turn across the central reservation of fast inter-city dual carriageways is probably the major example of this. Signage is poor as are lane markings.

Driving while under the influence of alcohol is of course illegal in Thailand, but this law is not enforced and alcohol is undoubtedly a factor in the high road death toll.

And while on the subject of road safety I comment on a Thai peculiarity that will not affect tourists but is nevertheless a potential death trap on the roads – the bus convoy. You will have seen these hurtling along the dual carriageways and motorways at speeds in excess of 100 km/h, four, five, six, maybe more buses packed – probably overloaded – with schoolchildren, boy scouts whatever. They travel in the outside lane, they have a police escort (quite often the only moving police vehicle that you will see on your journey). They tailgate one another. What happens if one of the buses towards the front of the convoy has a blow-out or is otherwise involved in some sort of accident? Carnage is the answer, an accident just waiting to happen.


Other forms of transport

Most years there is a boating accident involving the deaths of tourists. These are usually the result of overcrowding coupled with bad weather and a lack of safety equipment. Are vessels used to ferry tourists to and from the islands seaworthy? Are they properly insured? Is there an adequate supply of lifebelts, flotation devices etc? Are the crew members properly trained? Are they sober?

Air transport I would suggest is risky in Thailand and several years ago I wrote a submission on this specific subject. There were accidents at Samui and Phuket in the fairly recent past. Detailed investigation followed by the publication of causes generally follows in western countries but I am not sure about whether this happens in Thailand. Are you confident about pilot training in Thailand, about promotion to captain based on merit, about correct maintenance procedures being followed, about genuine spare parts being used, about limits on flight crew hours being properly observed…and so it goes on.


Taxis

Taxis have been mentioned above in connection with road safety but they merit a separate subheading in view of difficulties they make for tourists and even for local Thais.

In Bangkok it is my understanding that a taxi driver is obligated to accept you as a fare within the metropolitan area – but this does not work. Having been hailed, when the driver stops (not 100% guaranteed) you have to state your destination after which the driver will say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and very often it is ‘no’. This applies to locals as well as tourists. On many occasions I have been waiting for a taxi with my wife and several will stop but then decline the fare. This could be because my wife does not look or dress like a Thai so maybe the driver thinks he is picking up a tourist ‘falang’ with his non-Thai (but Asian) wife i.e. suitable for scamming – about more later – but often once my wife states our destination we are declined. To be fair this generally happens only in the tourist hotspots.

Once a taxi has accepted me as a passenger I generally have no problem with getting the meter turned on, probably because I can speak enough Thai to communicate with the driver and state my destination in correctly toned Thai. I do know, however, that many tourists have great difficulty in getting meters activated especially in areas such as the Grand Palace, Wat Po, around Pat Pong and around lower Sukhumvit. Even for a Thai it is not worth attempting to get a ‘meter’ taxi at either end of Pat Pong in the evening, better cross Silom and hail a moving taxi near the Soi Convent turning. The taxis which hang around hotels and tourist destinations will of course not use their meters, a waste of time and effort to even ask.

Arriving at the airport and using the official taxi desk will not guarantee that a driver will activate his meter. I know for a fact, because it has happened to me, that drivers will load their car, drive off, but then stop while still within the airport area and try to negotiate a fixed (high) fare. This did not work with me but for sure this type of behaviour would intimidate a rookie tourist and certainly scare a lone female passenger. And on the subject of airport taxis, after battling through the airport, more than likely involving a queue of anywhere between one and two hours at immigration, your taxi driver opens the boot of his car to stow your suitcases…but hold on, his boot (trunk for any Americans reading this  ) is half full with a gas tank. Your ‘normal’ suitcase will not fit inside with the lid closed. It may be placed on the front passenger seat – obscuring the driver’s view of his nearside wing mirror – or it may be left hanging out of the boot with the lid secured half closed by string or an elasticated tie. To be honest I have never heard of anyone’s case being stolen from a taxi stuck in a traffic jam, but I know plenty of people whose cases have arrived at their hotel soaked through because of rain or Songkran antics (coming soon to a soi near you!)

To digress, although related to my submission because it refers to a serious current weakness in how the Thai authorities fail to cope with increasing tourist arrivals, consider airport immigration queues which I mentioned above. Have a look at www.airportquality.com and see all recent postings for Bangkok’s main airport. Waiting in a badly managed queue for up to 2 hours to enter and leave the country is hardly likely to encourage further visits. Welcome to Thailand, Land of Smiles (and airport delays, scowling immigration officials, taxi touts and rip-off ‘duty free’ and airport food prices).

Pattaya and Samui have smart clean ‘taximeters’ but the meters will never be turned on. Pattaya has an efficient songtaew (baht bus) system at 10 baht per journey within the main resort area but in Samui the minimum fare is 50 baht for foreigners for similar style transport…why? I stopped going to Phuket years ago because I try to avoid being ripped off, but I understand that the taxis – which are not taxis but open sided tuk tuk type vehicles – demand ridiculous fares of 200/300 baht for even the shortest journey. In Hua Hin the tuk tuk drivers demand 100 baht minimum – if available I prefer to give my business to the samlor men who work hard for their money. They will take you from central Hua Hin to Market Village for 50/60 baht but I normally give them 100. Perhaps the most blatant overcharging by taxis is at Samui airport where they demand 300 baht minimum for a journey to Chaweng which must be all of 2 or 3 miles and takes less than 10 minutes.

Don’t even think about using the long distance mini buses. You see them tearing along the roads to Pattaya and Hua Hin at speeds of 120+ km/h, undertaking, overtaking, tailgating. Scary!


Pollution

OK most major cities suffer to some extent from pollution. As regards air pollution I would guess from what I have read that Mexico City, Los Angeles and Beijing are probably as bad as Bangkok if not worse. But in the main tourist areas of Bangkok such as Siam, Sukhumvit and Silom the pollution from traffic is terrible, trapped as it is under the concrete of the sky train structures.

Tour buses and taxis leave their engines running when parked up so that they can keep their air-con working. Pollution from traffic is made worse by fumes from the food vendors.

Pollution from smoke has been particularly bad in the north of Thailand for the last couple of months reaching hazardous levels. It is the same most years at this time but nothing happens to prevent it happening year after year. The Thai authorities disingenuously blame neighbouring countries and whilst some smoke will drift around from country to country the cause is a combination of slash and burn, burning rice stubble and the like and burning domestic rubbish. It is a Thai made problem that is harming tourism in the north and it is harming the health of the unfortunate Thais who have no choice but to live suffering it.

All I know is that as you drive out of Bangkok, generally, the sky steadily gets bluer, and as you drive back into Bangkok you see a pall of haze and pollution hanging over the city. It is the same when you fly in from the west – as you fly over Burma and western Thailand at 30,000 feet the air is clear and you can see detail on the ground, roads, rivers, villages, traffic etc but as you descend and get closer to Bangkok the view from your window deteriorates.

Air pollution is an obvious problem, not only in Thailand but in many developing countries. But noise pollution is where Thailand wins the prize without doubt. Thailand, Thai people and Bangkok in particular are noisy. Consider the following.

Skytrain – you reach platform level and television sets are blaring out advertisements. Ditto on entering the train. The locals sit gazing vacantly at the screens, that is those that are not engrossed in their mobile electronic devices.

Massage shops – it’s 36c outside and it looks like rain. You think ‘a foot massage’, relax, maybe nod off for 30 minutes or so. But no, there will probably be a TV set at high volume showing a Thai soap opera and the staff will be incessantly chattering away to each other oblivious of the needs of their customers. I stopped having foot massages long ago and now only have Thai or oil massages in establishments which have private rooms.

TVs are often showing Thai programmes in hotel reception areas and restaurants where most of the customers are foreign, one concludes for the benefit of the staff.

Vendors – there’s the ice cream seller with his annoying electronic chime, the food vendor honking his horn, the fruit vendor with his loud speaker shouting ‘lamyai’, or whatever happens to be in season, at the top of his voice, there’s the pick up truck endlessly going round in circles in Pattaya, Samui, Hua Hin and no doubt other places promoting Muay Thai, an Ice Bar or some other entertainment establishment.

Shopping malls – for some reason there is often pop music being played at loud volume from loudspeakers, either that or there is live music outside. Inside there is likely to be a ‘pretty’ on a stage fronting some sort of function or promotion talking non stop at full volume into a mike.

In bars music is often played at a volume which makes conversation impossible and which will be harmful to the hearing of those exposed to it for any length of time e.g. Thai staff.

On the beach – sure there are some idyllic quiet ‘desert island’ type beaches in Thailand, but they will maybe be too quiet i.e. no food or drink outlets and limited transport available. The beaches at the main resorts – Pattaya, Samui, Phuket and to some extent Hua Hin – are noisy because of jet skis, motor boats and noise (music) from beach bars. Some tourists pay a lot of money to stay at fancy beachside hotels, particularly at Chaweng on Samui, but then have problems sleeping because of loud music from beach bars playing until the early hours. The beach at Hua Hin has a different type of pollution, horse shit! Better than dog shit, yes, but still not nice on a beach – watch your kiddies when they go paddling.

PA systems – I’ve not fully worked this one out and know for sure that it exists in Hua Hin although it may be present in other places. On certain street corners there are loud speakers up on lamp posts, telegraph poles or whatever. At certain times of the day music is played, at other times some sort of address, in Thai of course, which my wife tells me is public information.


Sex

Not necessary to dwell too long on this subject. I have participated in the adult entertainment industry over the years. It would be hypocritical of me to complain about the existence of the industry, and there are many other countries in the world where sex is overtly on sale. Those coming to Thailand on vacation are either coming for the p4p scene or if not they certainly will know of its existence.

However there are three specific things which I think are unnecessary and which leave a terrible impression on those who otherwise enjoy their holidays:

Sex toys and (probably fake) Viagra etc on public display – illegal, in bad taste and unnecessary. The street market stalls along Sukhumvit are full of this stuff and it hardly does the already tainted image of the country any good.

Touts around Silom/Pat Pong – most first time tourists go to Pat Pong street market. They arrive at Sala Daeng BTS or Silom MRT then walk down Silom. They are constantly accosted by touts promoting sex shows, massage parlours DVDs and the like. Unnecessary. If a tourist is in the market for such services or products it will be pretty obvious, but these annoying touts approach people of all ages, all sexes, all races, even families with children in tow. It tarnishes the country’s image and will doubtless harm the country’s long term tourist trade.

Glossy free magazines – these are often left for tourists to pick up at foreign exchange booths. Some useful information is included among the adverts for dentists, tailors, hotels and the like, however possibly as much as 25% of these publications are full of adverts for full service massage parlors and escort agencies. One such magazine named ‘the Visitor’ contains an advert for a ‘super oil and ball massage’ and, helpfully, for the avoidance of doubt, the word ‘testicle’ appears in brackets after the word ‘ball’. So an official looking magazine aimed at tourists and made available at bank exchange booths is advertising the p4p industry, again evidence of a side of the country which many tourists do not like and which might make them inclined to holiday elsewhere than in Thailand in the future.

Western women generally do not like Thailand. A massive generalisation I know but one I believe to be true. Sure a couple of days shopping is enjoyable for them but the majority do not like the competition from wall to wall pretty and slim girls. They don’t like them having eye contact with their husbands, they don’t like their husbands eyes straying. They know what their husbands are thinking and wishing.


Footpaths

Of course footpaths (sidewalks to you Americans) do not exist in many areas, for example large stretches of Soi Buakhao in Pattaya and Suk Soi 8 in Bangkok have no footpath and walking here can be hazardous. Be particularly careful of electronic ‘buggy’ type vehicles going up and down Soi 8 as they are just about silent and what noise they do make is drowned out by other noise (see above)

The pavements that do exist are a joke. If they are not blocked by permanent structures such as trees, telephone booths, lamp standards, fire hydrants etc they are blocked by food vendors and their tables/chairs/equipment, motor bikes, parked cars, (illegal) bars at night in the Nana/Asoke area, people selling stuff etc etc.

The pavements themselves are poorly maintained and whilst negotiating them looking down to avoid holes, raised paving slabs, sleeping dogs/children/people, merchandise on sale etc you are quite likely to smack your head on a low sign or on the sharp corner of the canopy of a food vendor’s cart.

Anyone unfortunate enough to be wheelchair bound has to risk life and limb and travel on the road, preferably wearing a fluorescent tabard or the like. The same will apply to those with pushchairs (that’s strollers to you Aussie chaps).

And whatever you do don’t forget the advice given towards the beginning of this submission – beware of motorcycles as they seem to have right of way over pedestrians.


Beggars

There is no welfare system in Thailand to take care of those who cannot work because of disability. If they do not have a family to support them then maybe there is a case for begging. The Thais do give to the street beggars but I believe they give selectively to those that genuinely have no other option.

However a large number of the street beggars are for sure not Thai, they are ‘controlled’ by gangmasters, and they are not genuine beggars. I include here the young children who sell flowers (and try to pick pocket you at the same time) and the women with babies.

The shoe shiners, the nut salesmen, the ‘hill tribe’ ladies, the guys and girls selling fake tattoos, watches, sunglasses and all manner of other things are at least working and trying to eke out a living. They are not selling their bodies and they are not begging – some of them, if too persistent, can be annoying but most will leave you alone if you smile and say ‘no thank you’.

I believe that in the tourist areas of Bangkok and Pattaya in particular the large number of beggars is a disincentive to genuine tourists, especially those with young children.


Health and safety

In the west we are overburdened with health and safety legislation and the burgeoning industry that goes with it – all paid for out of taxation or by consumers one way or the other. But in Thailand, and to be fair in other ‘developing’ countries, there is a lax attitude to health and safety.

I have already covered issues relating to safety on the road – seat belts, helmets, lack of enforcement of legislation relating to drink driving etc. I have also alluded to health and safety issues relative to other modes of transport, for example boats where every year there seem to be fatal accidents.

Every year one hears of tourists being electrocuted because of faulty or exposed wiring. These occurrences strangely often do not get reported in the English language press in Thailand but thanks to Stick’s links to reports in the foreign media from his weekly column we can read about these deaths in the newspapers of the victims’ home countries. A year or so ago there were deaths of tourists in strange circumstances at a guest house in Chiang Mai (I think I am correct here, my memory regarding this is not so clear). I believe it was put down to the use of some chemical?

The big problem though, actual and potential, is fire, particularly in high rise accommodation. In recent weeks there have been tourist fatalities in a hotel fire (Suk Soi 20 I believe) and there was an office fire on Asoke in which fortunately nobody was killed – that might have been different had it occurred on a weekday and not on a Saturday. Last year there was a fire in a high rise up-market condo which was widely reported in the media. There was also a fire on the top floor of the massive Central Bang Na shopping mall which was not widely reported. Several years ago there was the terrible fire at the Santika nightclub which resulted in major loss of life.

The common thread in all these instances of fire are lack of a properly functioning fire alarm system, absence of a functioning sprinkler system, a lack of fire drills and, very worryingly, locked emergency fire exits. The fire fighting equipment available to the authorities is limited and road traffic issues will often make access to the site of a fire difficult and time consuming.

I personally have stayed in a hotel in Hua Hin which is used by Scandinavian package tourists where the fire exit on the top (6th) floor was padlocked shut. I have stayed at a popular hotel in Chaweng, Samui, used mainly by overseas tourists, where the fire exits were totally blocked because they were used as a storage area for spare beds, mattresses etc.

I would guess that most fires are caused by faulty wiring or faulty electrical devices. One day there will inevitably be a serious fire in a high rise with serious resulting loss of life. Take my advice and stay in a low rise establishment on your next trip.

Signage is quite poor almost everywhere, even in up-market shopping malls like Paragon. Again take my advice, the next time you are shopping in MBK with your Teerak be aware of where the exits and stairs are.


Dual pricing

I can accept that admission prices to taxpayer funded establishments should be less to those who are paying the taxes. For this reason I accept that I should pay more than a Thai to enter a Thai National Park – although it would be nice to be able to see evidence of one’s entry fee being used to upgrade or even maintain the particular facility. I also accept that I should pay more to enter the Grand Palace as this is obviously maintained at considerable cost by the Thai people either out of general taxation or donations. We are in both these cases talking of 200 baht or thereabouts, not much when compared to what one has to pay to enter St Paul’s Cathedral or The Tower of London.

What I dislike is when commercial operators charge customers more based on their race or nationality, made worse by sometimes attempting to conceal this by the use of showing numerals in Thai script. For sure the excellent aquarium under Siam Paragon is an example of this – foreigners are charged I believe 1,000 baht whereas Thais are charged I believe 300 baht, a not inconsiderable difference, especially when we are talking mum, dad and a couple of children. The Tiger Zoo at Sri Racha is another example and also I believe the Ripleys place at Royal Garden, Pattaya is guilty of this practice.

Not many will know that Thais practice dual pricing here in the UK. There is an international chain of fancy Thai restaurants named ‘Patara’, part of the well known Thai S & P brand, and they have a couple of branches in London. If you are Thai you get a 10% discount. That is dual pricing based on nationality, doubtless illegal in the EU. I have been to the Patara near to Harrods in west London a couple of times. The first time my wife and I got the 10% discount without asking. The second time it was not automatically given so I requested it. The staff member scurried off, as Thais do, and a conference of 3 or 4 Thais ensued. My wife overheard the debate which centred around the fact that a ‘falang’, not a Thai, was paying the bill. We got our 10% but I will not be going back, and furthermore I avoid S & P in Thailand because of this racist business policy. Not a big loss to S & P sure, but my way of showing disapproval. <A certain airline practices this at some of its overseas offices with nationals of a certain country getting a discountStick>


Scams

Too numerous to mention here. The main ones have been going on for decades under the eyes of the Thai police who do nothing about the problem. Statistics will not exist for the number of people who holiday in Thailand once only and vow never to return because of being scammed – it must be thousands and thousands. And there will be thousands and thousands more who never go to Thailand in the first place because of what friends tell them, because of what they see on television, because of what they read on the internet etc.

But the Thai authorities clearly do not care. The western tourists who come only once or who never come are being replaced by Indians, Chinese…whatever. As the people from India and China and Russia steadily get wealthier there is a massive market that is only just beginning to be tapped. And after these nations there is a queue including Brazil and Indonesia. I used to wonder why there was so much middle of the road construction going on in Pattaya, the spread of hotels, condos, serviced apartments ever eastwards gradually filling the gap between Second and Third Roads. It is obvious. Go back there 20 or 30 years from now and I guarantee you will find very few westerners.


Conclusion

Thailand is finished as a mainstream holiday destination for westerners. It will continue to attract sex tourists and it will remain on the ‘backpacker’ route for those traveling between Europe and Australasia.


Response

I give my email address and expect to receive vitriolic comments. Go ahead, at least in the west we have almost total freedom of speech – far more than the Thais have. Maybe I attracted your attention with a controversial title. My submission is negative and critical but I think you will find that it is almost entirely factual.


Khun Bill


Submitter's email : khunbill@hotmail.co.uk


Phnom Penh guesthouse
Phnom Penh hotel


Stickman's thoughts:

I am not sure I really understand what you have tried to do here outlining all of the downsides. I could write at least as much about the problems in my own country, as I am sure you could about yours – or any other country one has sufficient experience with. Nowhere is perfect – and I don't say that as a Thai apologist, but simply stating a fact.

I think it might have been better to perhaps say (speculate?) as to why these things happen, and better still, discuss means of overcoming these issues and challenges. With so many of the things you have mentioned, there are ways around them – or explanations as to why things are the way they are. And some of the downsides or negatives you have outlined are exaggerated or generalisations.

In life in general, not just in Thailand, but really anywhere, I have found that spending a bit more money eliminates many of the challenges and problems one can face. Go to better restaurants, stay in better hotels and avoid the bars and try to spend time with educated folks and I find things go much more smoothly…