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The Black Box Society

Here is an author interview from the Blog, One Weird Globe. To view readers comments go to:

In case you’re not tuned to the Thai interwebs, a controversial new book has just been released by John Stapleton entitled Thailand: Deadly Destination:


(I can’t prove it, obviously, but this photo definitely looks like it was taken near the Railay pier. For such a dour-sounding sort of book, the author knows how to pick a lovely cover.)

The e-book was released in mid-November, with the print version coming in December. Even before it was published, the book made waves, much as you’d expect – but not without cause. In the past month alone, I’ve lost a friend to a motorcycle accident, had a number of close calls with traffic treating laws and lines as suggestions, and read scores of stories relating to foreigners dealing with some kind of woe. The term caveat viator (Let the traveler beware) seems quite appropriate for most traveling through Thailand.

The following interview was conducted with John via e-mail, who writes from Western Australia.

Who are you and what is your connection to Thailand? 

I am a retired news reporter who worked for a quarter of a century on Australia’s two leading newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian.

I first visited Thailand in the early 1970s as a young man; and like many other foreigners was charmed by the country’s unique culture and the friendly, fun-loving nature of the people. I was one of the generation now labelled by guidebooks as “pioneering backpackers”.

Why did you decide to write the book?

At the beginning of 2010, uncertain of what to do next after leaving fulltime journalism, I decided to head to Thailand, which I remembered fondly from previous visits.

As the book observes many writers are drawn to the country’s intensely atmospheric feel, its complexities, duplicities and intrigues. There is a thriving genre of English language crime and detective fiction set in and around Bangkok; and in real-life the country also serves as the crime capital of Asia. Attracted by the countries lax law enforcement, foreign criminal milieus, particularly the Russian and British, find Thailand just as appealing a place as tourists.

It only came to me slowly, after having my drinks repeatedly spiked, being robbed, bashed and having my passport stolen, that Thailand was not quite The Land of Smiles that I had once thought it to be.

I badly wanted to live in Thailand, and spent more than three years in and around Bangkok. Unlike many expatriates and tourists, I spent a lot of time with the Thais themselves. As a tonal language, Thai is extremely difficult for foreigners to learn or understand. The Thais will often speak openly and contemptuously about foreigners directly in front of them, assuming that no foreigner understands a word they say. Having spent so much time with them, I finally began to understand how they thought; and to understand that they actively dislike foreigners, have no compunction in robbing them, and that their cultural distaste for foreigners and ultra-nationalistic pride in their own country fuels and justifies the crimes against tourists.

Like many foreigners, I had an enormous, almost romantic affection for Thailand, and at first I assumed that the fact that I was being constantly robbed and deceived by everyone from street workers to landlords, as well as being deceived by members of the police and the Royal Thai police with whom I became acquainted, was a result of my own stupidities and human frailty. The initial title of the book wasExploited Dreams: Foreigners in Thailand.

Then I started studying the news reports on the welfare of foreigners in Thailand, and realised that my own experiences were very far from unique; and that the death rate of tourists in Thailand was perhaps the worst scandal in the annals of modern tourism.

It was an extremely difficult book to write, and I almost gave up half way through. It started to come together when I opted for a straight forward journalistic style, which is what I had done most of my life. In the end, it was too good a story to let go.

How do you define the ‘most dangerous’? Surely an African or Middle Eastern nation would take that dubious crown…?

More Australians die in Thailand than any other country. Thailand is the second most dangerous destination for British citizens after Spain, which has 17 times the level of visitation. It is also from some Swedish media the most dangerous destination for Scandinavians. As you will see from the book, much of the diplomatic community has expressed concern over the welfare of their citizens while on Thai soil. The Ambassador for China, which supplies the largest volume of tourists, has been vociferous in his criticism of the Thai authorities and the lack of safety in the tourist industry.

What advice would you give a tourist coming to Thailand (other than ‘don’t go’?) There is still plenty to see and do around the country.

Don’t get me wrong, Thailand is a stunningly beautiful country with a fascinating culture, wonderful food, superb music, stunning hotels and a fascinating political and social landscape. But I would urge tourists to be extremely careful of their safety; particularly in the bars and clubs.

Scams and locals that prey on tourists are everywhere, not just Thailand. What makes Thailand more (or less) dangerous for tourists?

I think the country’s social development and the poor management of the tourist industry is one of the principal reasons why the industry is so unsafe. The Tourist Authority of Thailand has trumpeted ever rising tourist numbers as the sole marker of success; and have thus invited large numbers of budget travellers, and of course, sex tourists. As you will see in the book, and if you read Elizabeth Becker’sOverbooked, there are other tourist models besides the open-slather approach that Thailand has adopted. France is a model which has closely integrated tourism into the fabric at all levels; and does not see the same social dislocation or environmental degradation that occurs in Thailand. There are other reasons, also explored in the book.

Do you think the country has become less safe in the last few years compared to in the past?

Yes, absolutely.

In 1960, when the modern tourism industry began, there were only 81,340 visitors with an average stay of one night.

Prior to the military coup and the latest scandals afflicting the industry, there were estimates that visitor numbers for 2015 would exceed 30 million in 2015; and they stay almost a fortnight on average.

But it is not just a matter of volume.

The original founders of the Thai tourism thought it would be a source of great pride to the Thai people, a way to showcase their unique culture and beautiful landscapes to the world.

They did not intend their country to become known as one of the world’s most freewheeling tropical theme parks, with prostitution and uninhibited partying front and centre. The beach front at Pattaya, for instance, two hours south of Bangkok, has an estimated 100,000 sex workers on duty on any night, and its beachfront is known as the world’s largest open air brothel.

The intense dislike which Thais feel towards foreigners has been generated in part by the poor behaviour of countless drunken Westerners in the nation’s many red light districts.

But by marketing itself as Party Central, Thailand has brought this circumstance upon itself.

The cultural revulsion which Thais feel towards the millions of foreigners infesting their country helps to justify the high level of criminality perpetrated against tourists. For example, there have been a number of attacks on foreign business owners by teenage gangs in recent months, and the humiliating economic disparity between visitors and locals also fuels this dislike.

While the responsible body, The UN World Tourist Organisation, refuses to publish figures on the deaths of foreigners in Thailand, it is demonstrably true from available evidence that Thailand is one of the world’s most dangerous tourist destinations.

Do you find yourself referring to official statistics, un-official statistics, or other numbers to validate your experiences / perceptions? 

You can see for yourself that the book is heavily referenced; and primarily from Thai sources. It is the best compilation of information I was able to pull together on the subject; and I hope will prove useful background for the next writer to seriously pursue the subject. (OWG note: endnote references are seen throughout the book, and I count 253 citations of publications from Thailand and around the world.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As a resident of Thailand, I’ve seen first-hand some dangers of the country. The roads, even when not full of drivers, can be a hazard thanks to poor maintenance, faded lines, and unmarked turns. Vehicles occasionally lack working headlights, taillights, and even license plates, while others feature blindingly strong headlights or outrageously loud engines.

No country is perfectly safe, of course, and many of Thailand’s dangers can be avoided or lessened with a few tips.

  • Avoid attempting stuff beyond your skill or ability level. Just because a friendly Thai person is willing to rent you a jetski or powerful motorcycle doesn’t mean you should.
  • Keep your common sense – and wits – about you. Some of the most common stories of theft, injury, or detainment happen when you demonstrate your clear incapacity to care for yourself.
  • Watch as your drink is made, and keep it with you.
  • Be suspicious of a local that approaches with a sales pitch or spiel.
  • Know at least something of the country before arriving. Simply reading the Wikitravel page to Thailand is a start, and picking up some light reading on the country certainly won’t kill you.
  • Keep a firm hand on your belongings while traveling, and avoid letting them out of your sight.
  • Know how to avoid getting ripped off in Bangkok, and learn the several tips on this post as well.

You can never avoid all risk while traveling – whether you’re traveling Thailand, Tibet, Texas, or Tunisia – but knowing what to expect is half the battle. Stay safe, folks.

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The Black Box Society

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