A few things you might not have thought about... particularly for the guys
September 24, 2005
Disclaimer: The following is not meant to stir up fear mongering, discourage anyone from visiting Thailand, or in any way implicate Thailand as an unsafe tourist destination. It is not. However, what this item is intended to do is to bring attention to a particular problem that has not received much coverage in guidebooks and related literature, yet has in a number of cases resulted in serious injury to tourists, and in a few tragic incidents, even death.
Open up a Lonely Planet Thailand and have a look at the section entitled Dangers & Annoyances (I haven't seen the new eleventh edition, but the tenth edition/ August 2003 - the section starts on page 92). There's the usual bit about watching your valuables, bits on credit card fraud, robbery by drugging, and robbery by assault (which we're told is rare). However, browse through a discussion forum such as the Lonely Planet Thorntree and what appears to be the most common warning on the Thailand branch? None of the aforementioned concerns, but instead reports from male travelers on being the victims of absolutely savage beatings.
Surprised? What? Violence in Thailand? Land of Smiles and all that? Yup, 'fraid so. Forget the facade (which is what it is), foreigners can and do find themselves with alarming regularity on the wrong end of a drunken mob of Thais wielding empty bottles of Beer Chang. The lucky ones gets cuts and bruises, the unlucky ones end up in the hospital, sometimes with permanent injuries.
Well, I bet the guys deserved it.
Right, and a woman deserves to be raped.
Please. We're not talking about a bit of fisticuffs, we're talking about one or two western guys being set upon by large groups of drunken Thais and beaten within inches of their life over what are usually very minor infractions.
Here's the deal. It's called alcohol. Thais don't handle it well. Take into consideration how alcohol effects people, release of inhibitions and all that, as well as how Thai society dictates the expression of emotions and displays of anger and it will all begin to make sense.
That violence and Thailand don't mix is pure mythology. Violence is very prevalent in Thailand and one need only look at a Thai newspaper or watch the evening news to get a taste of it. However, visible evidence of violence or not, in Thailand as in most Asian nations, ones emotions are not meant to be put on display, particularly the negative ones. That doesn't mean Thais don't get angry. They do. That doesn't mean they don't lash out. They do. The problem is that while everyone has a breaking point, the threshold is set much higher in Thailand than in the west where a little outburst now and then is just part of day to day living. Have a good yell and five minutes later everyone is smiles again. Not in Thailand. When a Thai snaps, he/she really snaps. Pent up anger and frustration, held under pressure by the constraints of accepted public behavior in Thailand comes bursting out in a hideous display of the worst face of humanity. I've seen it. It's ugly. Really ugly. And if you're on the wrong end of it, the consequences can be horrid.
I remember once a number of years ago, seeing a rare one on one scuffle between a Thai and a westerner (the situation was diffused quite quickly and well before any additional Thais could join the fray), a Thai turned to me and said, "that farang is very lucky, when foreigners fight, they fight to win, when a Thai fights, he fights to kill."
Think about that.
But how is it that foreigners wind up thrashed? It would be nice to dismiss the beatings as the result of culturally insensitive boorish foreigners getting their comeuppance for acting like ignorant drunken twats, and such behavior can be the catalyst, but the reality is that a number of these thrashings were over minor misunderstandings where the behavior of the foreigners was not so much the spark, but rather alcohol was the spark. And even if the behavior of the foreigner is suspect, does a few misguided words spoken from under the influence deserve one to be set upon by a mob of eight drunk Thais wielding bottles of Beer Chang?
We could blame the nationalist rhetoric of the present government stirring up anti-foreign sentiment. We could blame cultural differences - a few westerners are drinking it up with some Thais and commit some seemingly minor faux pas that is taken as in affront by one of the Thais and then hell breaks loose. We could even say that Thais aren't any less immune to looking for a punch-up then anyone else and a few foreigners in the wrong place at the wrong time might make for an attractive target. Any, all, or none. We're dealing with alcohol and who says there need be any rhyme or reason to the hows or whys. All that matters is that when alcohol is involved, a few foreigners in a club full of Thais is a disaster waiting to happen. And when the beatings are over, to throw salt on the wounds, the police will in most cases not offer much help as inevitably it will come down to your word against your attackers. In the absence of any Thais to back up your innocence, you are probably not going to get any justice. There are exceptions, but they are just that.
So here's the advice of the day:
DON'T DRINK WITH THAIS!!
I know, I know, you're on holiday, you want to experience Thai culture and all that and not sit around with a bunch of westerners having a piss-up. Tell you what, commune with the noodle seller, commune with the souvenir vendor on Sukhumvit, commune with the sales girl at Central, commune with the Silom office workers at the next table eating Som Tam, commune with the hotel receptionist, commune with the taxi driver. But don't drink with Thais. When the bottles start cracking stay with your own.
Update October 19. 2005: Since writing this piece, not surprisingly I suppose, quite a few people have objected to it, saying particularly that it's an over-the-top warning, that they drink with Thais quite often without problem and what a great time it is, etc. and to an extent they are right. However, this piece is not directed at people who drink with Thais quite often because if you drink with Thais quite often you've obviously been in the country awhile, have identified cultural barriers and the potential problems they create especially when mixed with alcohol, possibly speak some of the language, and probably are drinking with people you know. Rather, this is directed at those who are not well-traveled who with the cultural blindness that results from inexperience combined with the effects of alcohol, are not as well positioned to identify and subsequently remove themselves from potentially harmful situations before they occur. When there have been victims of violence as described above, it is all too often the young and inexperienced travelers who are on the receiving end of it and not expats or frequent visitors. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to decide if this piece is directed at them or not.
And yes, this could piece could pretty well be transferred to any country, any situation, where there can be a potentially lethal mix of alcohol and cultural misunderstanding. This piece is not meant as an indictment against Thais or Thailand, but as Thailand seems to have more than its fair share of incidents of alcohol-fueled violence against foreigners, and this is a Southeast Asia travel site, it's Thailand that gets the focus.
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