WHEN it comes to dream destinations, Thailand is way up there on the list for Australian travellers — and with good reason.
It’s flanked by some of the world’s most stunning beaches, has kilometres of untouched jungle, is laced with ancient temples, has inimitable night-life and legendary, fiery cuisine.
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All of this has been drawing vagabonds, expats, travellers, and artists for decades, enchanted by the mix of peace and chaos, the spiritual and the unflinchingly capitalist, the tranquil nature and urban hedonism.
That enthusiasm on the part of travellers has made tourism incredibly important to the Thai economy. In 2017, it is expected to generate more than $99 billion.
Most tourists visiting Thailand come away with nothing but amazing memories, great tans, and a whole lot of stories.
But there is an underbelly to the tourism trade in Thailand. Some of that underbelly can be particularly unsavoury, and at times even deadly.
What follows are just a few issues that have put Thailand’s tourism 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 victimise the planet’s most vulnerable.
IS KOH TAO REALLY DEATH ISLAND?
Talk to almost anyone who’s been to Thailand and you’ll likely hear the name Koh Tao slip out of their mouths.
This island 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.
Complaints about the trial included accusations of an improperly sealed crime scene as well as the inappropriate handling of evidence. The death sentence of the two workers also speaks volumes about the fates of marginalised communities in tourism-heavy destinations. The pair may have been tortured and framed, in part, because of their outsider status as migrant workers.
Then 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 neighbouring Koh Phangan.
Several other deaths have occurred in recent years, with relatives of the deceased often expressing dismay at local police handling.
All of that being said, most will find the island beautiful and safe, and home to superb snorkelling.
THE KAYAN PEOPLE
What little unsavoury news that Westerners hear about Thailand is often focused on the fates of a small minority of foreign travellers 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 neighbours in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos.
Migrant workers and refugees are made scapegoats for crime and unemployment rates around the world. The same holds true in Thailand.
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 fled violence and persecution in Myanmar and were granted refugee status in Thailand.
However, the Kayan people are forbidden Thai citizenship, and their rights are extremely limited. This 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 1997, the New York Times revealed some Kayan tribespeople were forced to inhabit Thaton, near the Myanmar border, and been kidnapped and subjected to sometimes fatal abuse to prevent them from leaving.
Kayan tribespeople have organised themselves through agencies to help ensure humanitarian needs are met for the refugee communities. More than 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 powerful landowners.
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 scarfs and bags to visitors.”
SEX TOURISM AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING
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 here to shame the workers themselves. 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 channelled into Thailand’s booming sex industry. The UN said conservative estimates put this population in the tens of thousands of victims.
Another UN agency, the Action for Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons, says: “Sex tourism continues to be a factor, fuelling 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 neighbours have some of the lowest GDPs in Asia. Those same countries also have histories of war and violence. While time goes on, Thailand has remained something of a beacon in the region. However, given Thailand’s 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 travellers 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.
ELEPHANT SANCTUARIES AND OTHER EXOTIC ANIMAL ATTRACTIONS
In 2016, the happy veneer of Thailand’s animal-centric tourist activities was ripped right off when 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 estimated to be making around US$15,000 every day, according to 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 from 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. 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. 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?
Our resounding answer is yes, you should absolutely 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.
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 and 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.
• Where to go in Thailand: A complete guide to the most popular destinations
This article originally appeared on oyster.com.au.