The Dark Side of Tourism in Thailand

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When it comes to dream destinations, Thailand is way up there on the list for most travelers -- and with good reason. It's flanked by some of the world's most stunning beaches, has miles of untouched jungle, is laced with ancient temples, has inimitable nightlife, and has legendary fiery cuisine. All of this has been drawing vagabonds, expats, travelers, and artists for decades, enchanted by the mix of peace and chaos, the spiritual and the unflinchingly capitalist, tranquil nature and urban hedonism. That enthusiasm on the part of travelers has made tourism incredibly important to the Thai economy. According to Thailand's Tourism Authority, the industry contributes over $70 billion to the nation's economy every year. 

The truth is that most tourists visiting Thailand come away with nothing but amazing memories, great tans, and a whole lot of stories. However, there is an underbelly to the tourism trade in Thailand -- as there is in most destinations around the world. Some of that underbelly can be particularly unsavory, and -- at times -- even deadly. What follows are just a few issues that have put Thailand's tourism business in the news recently. All are worth considering when you're planning your trip to make sure you don't find yourself in a dangerous situation, or unwittingly supporting practices that victimize the planet's most vulnerable.

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Is Koh Tao Really Death Island?

The gorgeous beaches of Koh Tao.

Talk to almost any backpacker, burner, hippie, flashpacker, club kid, or scuba enthusiast who’s been to Thailand, and you’ll likely hear the name Koh Tao slip out of their mouths. This island — a tiny spit of land in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand — is, for many tourists, exactly what a trip to Thailand is about. There are countless budget-friendly beachside hotels and bungalows, white-sand beaches, turquoise seas, and all sorts of backpacker bars slinging cheap drinks.

Koh Tao has gotten a bad reputation recently due to a spate of deaths involving foreign tourists. That attention became impossible to ignore when, in 2014, the bodies of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller were discovered on one of the island’s beaches. While the case was supposedly resolved, responsibility was pinned on two migrant workers from Myanmar amid an investigation and trial that was anything but standard (or up to standards, for that matter). Complaints about the trial included accusations of an improperly sealed crime scene as well as the inappropriate handling evidence, according to and The Bangkok Post. The death sentence of the two workers also speaks volumes about the fates of marginalized communities in tourism-heavy destinations. The pair may have been tortured and framed, in part, because of their outsider status as migrant workers.

The double homicide isn’t the only recent disturbing news item out of Koh Tao in recent years. In early 2017, a Belgian backpacker was found dead in the island’s jungles. Her death was ruled a suicide by police, though ongoing investigations now suggest everything from murder to involvement with a rogue ashram on neighboring Koh Phangan, according to The Daily Mail. While several other deaths have occurred in recent years — and relatives of the deceased often express dismay at local police handling —  it’s also important to note that the behavior inspired by Koh Tao itself can play a role. After all, drugs, alcohol, tropical heat, and large bodies water aren’t exactly the safest combination. All of that being said, most will find the island beautiful and safe, and home to superb snorkeling. (Our Senior Executive Editor even spent part of her honeymoon at the upscale Haad Tien Beach Resort, and recommends it highly.) 

The Kayan People and the Case of Refugees as Tourist Destination

anson chu/Flickr

anson chu/Flickr

What little unsavory news that Westerners hear about Thailand is often focused on the fates of a small minority of foreign travelers who have met tragic ends. However, other sectors of Thailand’s tourism industry have problematic effects on both local Thai people and immigrants from Thailand’s impoverished neighbors in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Migrant workers and refugees are made scapegoats for crime and unemployment rates around the world — including right here in the United States. The same holds true in Thailand, though perhaps in ways you may not realize.

You’ve likely seen pictures of Kayan women, who famously elongate their necks to mind-bending lengths using heavy brass coils as they age. The group arrived from Myanmar, fleeing violence and persecution there at the hands of a regime bent on ethnic purity, and were granted refugee status in Thailand. However, the Kayan people are forbidden Thai citizenship, and their rights within their new home country are extremely limited. This, of course, leads to issues like exploitation and, in some cases, trafficking. 

These days, the Kayan in Thailand live in designated villages that are dubbed “authentic,” but are often no more than a repeated performance put on by members of the community because they have no other choice. In a piece published in the New York Times in 1997, journalist Andrew Drummond revealed that some Kayan tribespeople who were forced to inhabit Thaton, near the Myanmar border, had been kidnapped and subjected to sometimes fatal abuse to prevent them from leaving.

Kayan tribespeople have organized themselves through agencies like the Karenni Refugee Committee, which now works with The Border Consortium to help ensure humanitarian needs are met for the refugee communities in Thailand’s northwest. Over 10 years later, though, the BBC reported that the UN was considering boycotts to the villages, as there were substantiated reports of refugees being refused the right to resettle outside of Thailand. This is, in part, because the villages are often settled on privately owned Thai land and are major sources of income for the landowners, who are often powerful members of the local Thai community. 

However, if tourists do stop arriving, what little income the Kayan are given to live off of disappears, and an even more bleak future may be in store. According to a website that purportedly represents the Kayan people inhabiting Huay Pu Keng, “They are reliant on tourists for income. Most of their income is generated from selling their woven scarves and bags to visitors.”

Sex Tourism and Human Trafficking

One of the clubs in Bangkok's Patpong Night Market.

One of the clubs in Bangkok’s Patpong Night Market.

Bangla Road. Patpong Night Market. Soi Cowboy. Walking Street in Pattaya. Thailand is flush with red-light districts, some of which are the world’s most notorious. To be clear, we aren’t going to shame the workers themselves, many of whom are funneled into a way of life for reasons well beyond heir own control. But there are guilty parties involved on many fronts when it comes to the link between sex work and human trafficking in Thailand — and most of the guilt rests with tourists themselves. 

According to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, as of 2013 there were at least three million migrant workers in Thailand. And while a significant portion of that number is involved in Thailand’s fishing industry and other factory work — which doesn’t mean that they’re free from exploitation — men, women, and children are also channeled into Thailand’s booming sex industry. As the UN states, “Conservative estimates put this population numbering in the tens of thousands of victims.” Another UN agency, the Action for Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons, reaffirms this claim, noting that, “Sex tourism continues to be a factor, fueling the supply of trafficking victims for sexual exploitation, and at the same time corruption, limiting the progress of anti-trafficking efforts.”

The situation is due, in part, to the relative wealth of Thailand in a region where its neighbors have some of the lowest GDPs in Asia. Those same countries also have histories of being ruthlessly bombed by the United States (in the cases of Cambodia and Laos), violent foreign interventions (Vietnam), the abrupt end of colonial systems of subjugation (Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar), and repressive regimes bent on ethnic cleansing (Myanmar). And while time goes on, Thailand has remained something of a beacon in the region. However, given Thailand’s aforementioned dependence on international tourism as a huge source of revenue, there’s little incentive to aggressively enforce laws against trafficking and sex work. 

And in case you needed proof about the role of Western travelers as fuel for this industry, simply take a walk through Patpong Market any night of the week and take note of the languages being spoken by the patrons at the ping-pong shows and strip clubs (which are essentially brothels). It won’t be Thai, Khmer, Lao, or Vietnamese that you hear. 

Elephant Sanctuaries and Other Exotic Animal Attractions

Christian Haugen/Flickr

Christian Haugen/Flickr

In 2016, the happy veneer of Thailand’s animal-centric tourist activities was ripped right off when the Thai authorities raided the once-famous Tiger Temple in the nation’s western Kanchanaburi province. While arguments were made that the temple’s monks and the staff were actually providing the 137 tigers living there with better lives than those in state-run zoos, it was the discovery of animal pelts and other products common on black markets that struck a nerve with those who heard the news. The temple was making around US$15,000 every day, according to estimates provided by Al Jazeera, as tourists flocked there for pictures with seemingly docile grown tigers as well as tiger cubs. Even more, it seems, was being made off the sale of tiger body parts on the Chinese market 

Up north, in Chiang Mai, elephant rides are a popular tourist activity, though this, too, is ethically questionable at best. As Al Jazeera notes, this begins with smuggling baby elephants into the country and continues with brutal training regimes in which the animals are subjected to all manner of abuse. Additionally, the animals are often kept chained and otherwise confined between rides, during which they are subject to often indelicate treatment by mahouts. This is to say nothing of family syndicates that control the smuggling of elephants and who intimidate those working to improve the lives of animals in captivity.

You should do a substantial amount of research before you visit any animal-related destination in Thailand, as even those that have chosen to designate themselves as sanctuaries may be that in name only. Opt for animal encounters that take part in rehabilitation of wildlife or formerly abused animals for something that puts you in touch with nature without doing it harm. These include Elephant Nature Park and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary. Just to be clear, you won’t be riding the elephants in either of these venues — that’s a practice you should avoid if you’re looking to actually help these creatures have better lives.

Should You Still Visit?

Young monks in Bangkok.

Our resounding answer is yes, you should absolutely still visit Thailand. But, expectations need to be managed and you need to exercise some smarts. The days of Thailand as a blissed-out bohemian tourist wonderland are essentially finished. Almost all of the previously untouched, gorgeous corners of the nation have been gulped up by the tourism machine, meaning that unless you’re willing to go way outside of the tourist track, you’ll encounter touts selling elephant rides, blocks of shops slinging identical souvenirs, men and women selling sex, and plenty of offers for illegal drugs. To be fair, amid all of that is a centuries-old Buddhist tradition, locals willing to share their culture, amazing street culture, and all manner of gorgeous natural scenery.

To put it in perspective, according to several UN reports, rates of many forms of violent crime and hard drug use across Thailand are lower than those found in the United States, even though the murder rate is a bit higher overall. But it would be a mistake to pass over Thailand on the whole. Nearly every nation on earth has its thorny ethical issues to contend with, from police brutality and the easy availability of assault weapons in the United States to the treatment of refugees in Australia. We aren’t saying that the world is universally safe, but in places like Thailand, a little research and some street smarts will go a long way toward making sure your next trip there is as flawless as possible. 

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