Though violent crime is rare in Thailand, it is unfortunately on the rise. Fortunately, foreign visitors are not usually targeted unless they have seriously upset a local. Tourists are more likely to encounter con artists, but a few basic precautions can help avoid problems.
Because pickpockets and scam artists work the tourist areas and pounce on friendly or naive travelers, keep an eye on valuables in crowded places, and be wary of anyone who approaches you in the street to solicit your friendship. However genuine the entreaty sounds, you will end up wasting precious time on "shopping tours," where your "guide" will collect a commission and keep you from getting where you'd like to go (or worse).
In general, even in big cities, single men and women are fairly safe as long as they stick to walking in brightly lit areas where there is plenty of activity. If, for whatever reason, you sense a confrontation developing, just walk away. The tourist police hotline, tel. 1155, should bring a quick response but does not guarantee that the police will support the foreigner. Know you cannot win in any altercation: Every year a handful of gung-ho tourists injure themselves trying.
Thai police are some of the lowest-paid civil servants in the country, so it's not surprising that they have a reputation for harassment, intimidation, and bribery. Involving yourself in any way whatsoever (especially amorously) with a Thai cop is dangerous. There are many cases of lovelorn officers gunning down Thai and foreign girls (and/or their new boyfriends) who had previously flirted with their affections.
Thailand can offer illicit temptations that may seem harmless to naive travelers. Yet the Thai government has zero tolerance of drug trafficking and use. Many people who think they are being offered a casual puff on a joint don't realize they are being set up; every year a few will end up never leaving the kingdom, serving a life sentence in a Thai jail cell. Prostitution is also illegal.
Driving is another all-too-obvious danger here. Many drivers in the country have bought their licenses, and hence little attention is given to speed limits or other rules of the road. Driving a rental car here is not for the fainthearted; extreme caution should be taken and defensive driving skills are key. Every year Thai hospitals are full of banged, bruised, and mummy-wrapped travelers recovering from road accidents. For years, Thailand's annual road death statistics have defied belief, especially on the hilly islands of Phuket, Ko Samui, and Ko Chang, where a sense of exhilaration tempts drivers to their fates. Pedestrians in cities should be particularly wary of foot crossings operated by traffic lights, as many drivers ignore them completely.
If you do get in an accident, keep in mind that Thais don't normally have insurance. If they don't flee the scene, they might try to negotiate a settlement. Local officials may actually hinder the situation, especially if the culpable faction can persuade them you are to blame. If you find yourself in this situation, take photographs of the scene and ask to get a copy of the IDs of those involved.
Since the military coup d'état in September 2006, the political situation in Thailand has become quite unstable and there is ongoing unrest as red-shirted supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), who would like to reinstate ex-Prime Minister Thaksin, rally against the yellow-shirted supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Several clashes have occurred around Bangkok's Sanam Luang district and in front of Parliament House. The current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has promised to call a general election soon, but the current political climate suggests that campaigning will produce some ugly scenes. Steer well clear of any large groups, particularly if they are wearing red or yellow shirts.
If there is a hint of trouble, many shops will close; in extreme cases (such as the 2006 coup), local TV stations shut down. Stay off the streets and watch overseas satellite news for the latest developments, but do not be tempted to be part of history by joining the protests. If you remain indoors, it's unlikely you'll be caught up in any violence.
The far southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani, near the Malaysian border, have seen increased sectarian violence between Thai Muslims and Thai military police. Thai institutions, schools, banks, and Buddhist temples have been targeted with small-scale bombs. The Thai government has come under international scrutiny for the brutal force used to quell uprisings. Avoid this area, or travel through it with care.
Sex for Sale
Prostitution in Thailand is illegal, and yet every day you will see foreigners picking up Thai hookers of both sexes. Selling sex is not so much tolerated as politely ignored. However, some travelers regard it as a tourist draw, especially when underage boys or girls are involved. These days, the international police are hard on their heels; high-profile arrests are now not just common, but actively sought.
It is hard to get exact numbers for Commercial Sex Workers (CSWs) in Thailand; the number fluctuates from 80,000 to 800,000, depending on the source. Due to the huge numbers involved and the dangers therein, Thailand has made significant steps to counter the spread of HIV/AIDS. Through education and the introduction of condoms, it has made efforts to stem the tide of new cases (though statistics are unreliable). A leading force in this effort is the Population & Community Development Association (PCDA), led by the courageous and innovative public health crusader Senator Mechai Viravaidya.
The PCDA has enlarged the scope of its rural development programs from family planning and networks distributing condoms to running seminars for CSWs. In poor, uneducated, rural families, where sons provide farm labor, the sex trade has become an income-earning occupation for parents, who sell their daughters to urban criminal gangs, often saying they will "go to a good job." They don't. They end up as sex slaves. Under international statutes, many are still minors; having sexual relations with them is equivalent to rape. It is a sorely misplaced myth to believe that CSWs live a good life of fun and freedom. Addiction to drugs and alcohol or physical abuse is commonplace. Rape is even more frequent. Girls contract STDs or fall pregnant, and scores of unwanted children -- many with HIV -- are dumped on orphanages.
Poor regulations and scheming between gangs and police do nothing to stop this. Though legislation coyly prohibits full nudity in most go-go bars, it just means the illegal backroom deals, kidnappings, rape, and the enslavement of children carry on behind closed doors, funded by the profits paid by the brothels' ignorant clientele.
If you choose to support prostitution, you are not only breaking the law, but also supporting the trafficking and abuse of women and men, including minors. You are putting your own life at risk from STDs and perpetuating a trade that ruins lives. It's not all one-sided play either: Numerous cases are known where tourists have been drugged in their hotel rooms by their sleeping partner. If they are lucky, they awake 2 days later to find all their valuables gone. There are a shocking number of stories about Western travelers found dead after a liaison with a CSW, but rarely will the newspapers report the full details.
Exercise caution in your dealings with any stranger. If, in spite of all these warnings, you decide to use the services of Thailand's CSWs, take proper precautions; carry condoms at all times, and check the person's ID. If you are in any doubt, walk away -- it could save your life.
Dealing With Discrimination
There is still a certain amount of institutionalized racism in old Siam, and much pride is taken from the fact that no foreign power colonized the kingdom. Thai people are, superficially at least, tolerant, but not always accepting of Western ways. Foreign men with young Thai girlfriends can be viewed with deep distrust, and even distaste.
Thais follow a codified hierarchy, with wealth and status going hand in hand. Therefore, the richer Thai-Chinese, who own and operate big businesses, top the scale, and people from Isan, the impoverished northeast of the kingdom, come way down in the ratings. Associating yourself with any Thai will, very often, put you at their level.
Caucasians are known as farang (a word that originally meant French, referring to the nation's earliest Western visitors). Farang is not necessarily a racist term, but, yes, foreign tourists are ritually overcharged and some take this personally as a form of discrimination. Look at this from a Thai, not Western, perspective. Thais believe if you have more, you are expected to give more; the rule applies to Thais as well, regardless of your budget. As a farang you are automatically seen as wealthy in Thailand. Skills in bargaining will come in time, if you practice. Just remember that Thais really appreciate generosity, rather than someone who makes a big deal about haggling over a baht or two.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.