Highs & Downs in Paradise

Michael, 32, was in Thailand on his third visit in two years when I met him one night in a bar in Ko Chang busily and openly rolling joints. He explained that he was rolling joints for the bar’s owner, who sold them to travellers. Knowing that when it comes to drugs in Thailand association confers guilt (even if the guilty party states that you had nothing to do with the drugs), I immediately left the bar. The next day, bumping into Michael, I asked him if he was aware of the severity of the drug laws, and, moreover, of the drug scams that had been reported in Ko Chang.  


“My Thai friend has been asking me to roll joints for him on the basis that I make good joints,” he said, pausing. “But I think you’re right. Now it occurs to me that, in the few times I saw the Thai guy rolling, he did so furtively and hastily in a backroom.”  


Later, I asked Susan Aldous, the 41-year-old who has spent 15 years counselling and helping foreign prisoners in Thailand, what kind of risk people like Michael were exposing themselves to. She said: “It’s a massive risk if you’re overly confident and ignorant. If you are inexperienced and judge things by how they appear, you would be at a much greater risk because in Thailand things often seem to be so free. It astonishes me to see young girls who do not have their wits about them, or dread-locked guys wandering around in sarongs, off their faces with some girl in tow on the beaches, at the Full Moon parties and in Khao San Road – strutting as if they are above the law, thinking that the locals are going to bend to their wills and they are impervious to any trouble. Do these travellers know how often authorities are selling drugs to make a bust, paying informants, and out to get a few kickbacks? Or the police who are sincerely doing their job, and are given hefty monetary rewards for a successful bust?”  


The dangers of dabbling in drugs in Thailand are well-publicised. All the major guidebooks carry warnings, and the Foreign Office has been running a campaign called Know Before You Go. The book and film The Beach also dramatised the duality of paradise, the sense of escape and freedom in a deadly tango with nightmarish spectres. But Thailand, which has become the tourist playground of the East, is also a fools’ paradise. A significant proportion of the half a million Britons who visit annually are heady young travellers easily lured to readily-available drugs and sex. The Full Moon Parties at Ko Pha Ngan attract 80,000 revellers monthly. The bohemian beach-life that can be had on the islands has fomented a cult following. Overwhelmed by what might seem like an idyllic romantic lifestyle, many travellers enter into a kind of suspended reality. Many think Thailand is free, and Thais are the nicest people on earth. The truth is more sobering: democracy and human rights have shallow roots, the country is poor, and some of the Thai niceties are actually a charade designed to grab tourist money.  


In researching this story, the point that emerged repeatedly was that the majority of travellers who fall victim to Thailand’s unforgiving drugs-war are the ones who make themselves susceptible – from naivety, cultural ignorance, arrogance – in the first place. Theo Cresser, who deals with Thailand for the NGO Prisoners Abroad, told me: “I have heard people adopt a somewhat old-school colonial tone of outrage, assuming that the fact that they are British will automatically entitle them to better treatment.” For Garth Hattan, a 40-year-old American drifter, musician, traveller, and hippie, who decided in 1994 to traffic 6kg of heroin out of Thailand to finance his bohemian lifestyle, this attitude cost him eight years incarceration (he was pardoned in 2002). “Up until the very last moment,” he wrote in one of his monthly columns for the backpacker magazine Farang, “even after I was arrested, I was arrogant enough to think I could buy my way out.”  


Now the plight of Britons caught with drugs in Thailand has been brought into renewed focus following the apprehension of Michael Connell, 19, with an alleged 3,400 Ecstasy pills. Connell is the first Briton on a big charge to face the new harsher penalties. In 2002, amphetamines and LSD were notched up to Category 1 drugs, and heftier fines introduced. Among these, ‘production, import, or export’ of 15-plus LSD tablets, or 50-plus Ecstasy pills, or 0.73-plus-grams of pure heroin is subject to life imprisonment. (At the lower end, mere consumption of cannabis could put you in prison for up to a year.) Connell’s trial starts on Monday; if convicted, he is likely to get 100 years and a fine of up to £50,000, which has to be paid before he becomes eligible to be transferred to a UK prison.  


Connell is likely to end up in Bangkwang, the high security prison in northern Bangkok. Bangkwang, like all Thai jails, is grossly and chronically underfunded, operating on a budget of 28baht (about 45p) daily per inmate. Overcrowding (Thai prisons were built to accommodate 90,000, but now house about 250,000 inmates) is so acute that prisoners reportedly have to take turns sleeping at night because there isn’t enough space for all to lie down simultaneously. Diseases (HIV, TB, Hepatitis, skin and gut diseases) are rampant. And the food provided is inadequate – just enough, according to one prisoner, “so you don’t die on them.” Up to 63% of inmates suffer from mental problems, and over 11% are suicidal. Most prisoners resort to hard drugs to numb themselves.  


There are currently 32 Britons incarcerated throughout Thailand, 16 of them on drug convictions. Prisons in Bangkok hold most of them: seven each in Bangkwang and Klong Prem, and a female (the only British female prisoner) in Lard Yao Women’s Prison. Lard Yao achieved fame in the nineties as the hell-hole of three female prisoners: Sangra Gregory, who served over seven years after she was caught trying to smuggle heroin out of Thailand in a condom, and the teenagers Karen Smith and Patricia Cahill who in 1990 went to Thailand on a holiday paid by a British man, and were intercepted with 66kg of heroin in their luggage, then released after three years in a case that is widely assumed to have been a frame-up.  


Over the years, the notoriety of prisons in Thailand has turned them into something of a traveller pilgrimage. Guidebooks give info on visiting prisoners, and some guesthouses in Khao San Road, Bangkok’s travellers’ ghetto, pin notices to the same effect. “Yes, it’s great to see a new face,” said Brian Mounsley, an ex-inmate of Bangkwang, expressing a general view that visitors are appreciated. Mounsley, 45, Scottish, was caught delivering 11kg of heroin to a Bangkok bar. “I got loads of visitors over the years. Some people visit because they really want to help, some because they’re curious and some because it's something to do. We used to call them ‘Banana visits’ – like going to the zoo.” Mounsely singled out food as the gift most welcome.  


The imagery of a zoo is reinforced in the arrangement between visitors and visited. Prisoners stand behind a wire mesh, and visitors at the other side of a second wire mesh, about ten feet apart. The two swarms of people – visitors and visited, all shouting at once – produce a maddening cacophony of voices; and for each pair it is like two people trying to conduct a conversation across a busy road. After twenty minutes, when visits end, all the shouting leaves you with a throbbing head. Moreover, the stipulation of ‘dressing appropriately’ (long trousers, no exposed shoulders) in the tropical heat, and the feat involved in getting anywhere in the chaotic sprawl of Bangkok, combine to make it an exhausting experience.   


Meanwhile, those merely using drugs might take some comfort in the fact that few caught using drugs are imprisoned. Thai courts hand down the minimum sentence to Westerners prosecuted for personal-use possession. The six Britons monthly, on average, that are charged with miniature quantities for personal use – mostly amphetamines or cannabis – are fined and deported. Yet the risk of getting caught is considerable. In areas such as Khao San Road the police consistently search travellers for drugs, and the police also have powers to submit anyone to a drugs test if they suspect drug consumption. These powers were used dramatically in the Bed Supperclub, one of Bangkok’s most elitist clubs, last August when everyone inside was forced to submit a urine sample.  


Perhaps a greater potential danger of drug consumption lies in the susceptibility factor – something Aldous kept emphasising – which gives an opportunity for scammers and extortionists to go in for the kill. Prisoners Abroad report that the police get a commission of 25% on the street-price of the drugs they confiscate, and informers get between 30% and 75% – a situation that encourages scams. Aldous said: “There are scams and there are extortion tactics being employed towards those that look susceptible – up to something illegal in the first place, poorly or loosely dressed, alone, at bus stations, or appear to have money or parents who would help them if they get in trouble. I have heard of several cases of people being approached by police – or those dressed as police – and threatening to plant drugs on them unless they cough up 10,000baht.”  


The relationship between travellers and some Thais has become mutually destructive. Many travellers go to Thailand to seek cheap thrills, and Thais who are surrounded by these hedonistic travellers are blinded by their illusory yearning for Western wealth. So blinded, in fact, that they become participators in the exploitation by tourists, thus perpetuating and amplifying the exploitation. Travellers, meanwhile, do not pause to think that Thailand is in fact a traditional country, and that the liberal behaviour of some Thais is partly a marketing ploy for tourist money, in selling Thailand's cheap thrills, particularly sex, drugs to a lesser extent. Also, aside from this dependency on tourist money, Thais are culturally inclined to avoid conflict or to loose face, a situation that further compels them to suppress their indignation towards the 'moral obnoxiousness' of hedonistic travellers. Once in a bar in Bangkok, for example, I saw an English woman straddling her sitting male friend, rubbing crotches. The Thai bartender asked them to get off each other with the usual Thai good-heartiness (a wide smile, used to mask the embarrassment). They ignored her. "Not in Thailand," she pleaded them. They ignored her again, and the bartender slunk away, unwilling to confront them. It is this kind of behaviour that causes the Thais to nurse, beyond the facade of friendliness and servitude, what I heard one Thai refer to once as a "deep-seated resentment towards Westerners."  


The bribes and scams have to be seen in this context, a kind of backlash to the exploitation. Cameron Cooper, the editor of the backpacker magazine Farang, a Canadian who has lived in Thailand for ten years, insinuates that  police extortions are, for the police engaged in them, a form of unofficial folk justice. He said: "Probably most [caught with drugs] buy their way out. My correspondents report that this is very common. In cases like drugs, it is pretty easy for the police to convince themselves that justice is being served – particularly in a Buddhist sense: the 'wrongdoer' is being punished, the policeman is showing mercy by not sending him to jail, and instead of some foreigner rotting in a cell, you have extra food and clothing for the policeman's family. Everybody is happy, so it's a perfect solution to the problem." 


© Victor Paul Borg. This article was originally published as a cover feature of The Times (of London).


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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