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Phuket: Thailand urged to tackle dark side of 'Land of Smiles'

PHUKET: From jet ski scams to robbery, assault and even police extortion, for the millions of tourists who flock to Thailand each year the kingdom does not always live up to its reputation as the 'Land of Smiles'.


AFP

Saturday 20 July 2013, 03:14PM


The famed Thai smile. But not everyone smiles all the time. Quite the opposite. Photo Tevaprapas Makklay
The famed Thai smile. But not everyone smiles all the time. Quite the opposite. Photo Tevaprapas Makklay

Now, following a flurry of complaints, governments are urging the country to do more to protect the safety of the record numbers of foreigners visiting Thailand.

Its sun-drenched beaches, tranquil temples and libidinous nightlife have long been a magnet for tourists from around the world, but for some it is far from paradise.

Drink spiking in bars can be a problem and sometimes people wake up to find they have been robbed.

"There are a lot of people who get drugged here," said Wal Brown, an Australia volunteer with the Thai police who patrols the thronging streets of Patong on the island of Phuket, where crowds of tourists mingle with touts offering entrance to "ladyboy cabarets" or photo ops with endangered animals.

"A couple of years ago we had two Italians walk out of the bush. They couldn't remember anything for three days. All their money and clothes were stolen. They only had their jocks (underwear) on," he added.

Visitors are warned to beware of strip clubs offering "ping-pong shows" where two beers can sometimes cost $100.

"Last year we had one guy hit with a hammer. He wouldn't pay," Brown said. "The tout got very aggressive and attacked him."

Road traffic accidents and drownings are relatively common causes of injury among tourists in Thailand, where safety standards are generally poor.

Bag snatching and robberies are also a regular occurrence on Phuket with tourists on motorbikes sometimes targeted on dimly-lit roads.

"One French girl hid in the bushes for three hours. Another Swedish girl stayed there until daybreak. They were on motorbikes and stopped by people with hatchets and screwdrivers and makeshift weapons," said Brown, who recommends people read their government's travel advice before visiting.

Sometimes it ends in tragedy.

A 59-year-old Australian woman was killed in June 2012 in an attempted bag snatch on Phuket. Two Thai men were later sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder.

And just this month in Bangkok, an American man was slashed to death by a taxi driver after an apparent argument over the fare.

A record 22 million foreigners visited Thailand last year and although most did not encounter any serious problems, diplomats say tougher action is needed to ensure their protection.

"There have been quite a lot of problems in Phuket," said David Lipman, head of the EU delegation to Thailand and one of more than a dozen European ambassadors who recently visited the island to air their concerns.

"I don't think that the situation is getting better at all and that's why we really wanted to pursue this matter," he told AFP.

The Phuket police say they recognise the problem but insist they are doing the best they can with their stretched resources.

"We have set up the Patong Safety Zone scheme to protect tourists. The public can help take care of the tourists as although there are more than 100 police officers in Patong it is not enough," said Lieutenant Colonel Nikorn Chootong.

One common scam on Thai beaches is to charge large sums of money for pre-existing damage to jet skis, using threats of violence against people reluctant to pay.

"It's a racket," said Lipman. "The same with motorbikes as well. People rent out motorbikes. In the middle of the night they're stolen by the people who rented them out in the first place and the next day they say 'let's have our motorbike'.

Fines handed out by the local police for "parking in the wrong place" are another issue.

"We expect proper standards of behaviour from public officials," Lipman said.

"Let's face it, there is a bit of corruption going on and we hope that will be avoided."

One person who has no plan to return anytime soon is Elodie Triche.

The French tourist and her family took a wrong turn in Phuket airport along with other new arrivals in May and mistakenly left without having their passports stamped by immigration.

When they returned of their own accord to resolve the problem, they were detained, asked to sign inaccurate confessions and held by police for 12 hours with their 21-month-old daughter, Triche said.

The next day, after a further seven hour wait in a court basement, they were sentenced to a one-year suspended prison term and a fine of 2,000 baht ($65) each, with no legal representation.

"Such treatment is unacceptable," Triche told AFP from France.

Britain says Thailand is the country where its citizens are second most likely to require consular assistance if they visit, behind the Philippines. There were 389 deaths of British nationals in Thailand in the year to March 2013 -- about one for every 2,400 British visitors or residents -- although that figure includes natural causes.

Deaths and cases of hospitalisation of British citizens rose by about 30 percent from the previous year.

Thailand had the highest number of deaths of Australians overseas in 2012, with 111 fatalities. More than 700 Australians required consular assistance out of the nearly one million who visited.

China has voiced concern at a recent spate of deaths of its nationals on snorkeling trips, while European diplomats intend to keep up the pressure on the government.

"I very much hope that the situation will improve," Lipman said.

"Many people who go to Phuket have a wonderful time and don't encounter problems," he said. "But there are a lot of problems that people do encounter." - Daniel Rook

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