FULL MOON PARTIES, DRUGS, SEX TOURISM, DEAD TOURISTS AND THE DARK SIDE OF THAI TOURISM

TOURISM PROBLEMS IN THAILAND

Problems linked to the tourism industry include jewelry rip-offs, various other scams, overdevelopment, out-of-control growth, pollution and deforestation. In many areas the infrastructure has not been able to keep up with development. Such is the case on Ko Samui, Phuket where the drainage system, roads, trash disposal and water supply are all inadequate. Government officials that try to enforce laws regarding development run the risk of being driven out by locals who depend on tourism for money.

Potential tourists to Thailand have been scared off by bird flu, the AIDS-ravaged sex industry and the round-the-clock gridlock traffic in Bangkok. SARS, the Bali bombing and the Iraq war were set backs even though they didn’t occur in Thailand. However, Thailand quickly recovered.

Thai tourism industry was also hurt by the closure of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok as result of the Yellow Shirt protests in 2008 and the Red Shirt Demonstration and the springs of 2009 and 2010. After the violent 2009 protests a leader of a Thai travel agent organization said Thailand could lose 200,000 because of the unrest. At that point the tourism industry was already hurting from the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. The 2010 protest were even more disruptive and violent. But after each the tourist returned in strong numbers within a couple months.

The tourism business is surprisingly resilient. It bounced back quickly after the 2004 tsunami and 2006 coup and was little affected the unrest in Bangkok in 2008, 2009 and 2010. One Hungarian woman who almost lost her legs in the wave of bombings on New Year Eve in 2006 said she held no grudge against Thailand and was “planning my next visit already...Maybe within this year.

See Scams Crime

See SARS, bird flu.

Hippie Travelers and Backpackers in Thailand

More than a third of Thailand’s foreign visitors are young. Many of them are backpackers. Lots of hippies still congregate in places like Ko Samui and Ko Phangan, according to writer Jeff Wise, "like mosquitoes to a purple fluorescent lamp." Old ladies sell bags of marijuana at their fruit stands and waiters at the restaurants offer their patrons heroin.

Khao San Road (north of Grand Palace) is the main backpacker area of Bangkok. It is filled with several hundred cheap guest houses with rooms that go for as little as $5 a night and have names like Nirvana and Sweety’s. There are also restaurants with banana pancakes and mango milkshakes; bars with young travelers and middle-aged drunks that play pirated DVDs and techno music from 10:00am to 4:00am; and Internet cafes were travelers catch up on their e-mail and locals play Korean computer games.

The cast of characters includes recent American college graduates on their first big traveling adventure; Israelis who have just completed ther military service; South African who have worked in Taiwan as English teachers; middle-aged English drunks looking for a fight; Australian backpacker couples with their kids in tow; Japanese students on their spring break; Germans on their way to Laos and Cambodia; and young Scandinavians making a pit stop before heading to the full-moon parties on Kho Phangan, which along with Khao San Road inspired the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach . Most visitors to Khao San Road don’t stay long but often return after completing a segment of their trip.

The first guesthouse catering to foreign backpackers, Bonny Guest House, opened in 1985. As is the case with successful tourism ventures in Thailand others jumped on the bandwagon and before long dozens of other guest houses opened along with cheap restaurants, travel agencies, pawnshops, laundry services, money changers, tattoo parlors, herbal massage centers, hair braiders and drug dealers that cater to the hedonistic but penny-pinching travelers. There are few prostitutes however because the guest houses frown on overnight Thai guest.

Over the years the Khao San Road area has grown into what is arguably the world’s largest backpacker mecca. Susan Orlean wrote in the New Yorker that these backpackers transformed Khao San Road “into a new sort of place—not really Thai anymore, barely Asian, overwhelmingly young, palpably transient, and anchored in a world by the Intenet, where there is actual time and no actual location.”

How do the locals feel about the all the backpackers? One woman who runs an Internet café told the New Yorker, “When I was in the seventh grade...the foreigners arrived. It happened so fast! It was a quiet place before. There were no foreigners. It changed like overnight, and I never went outside again.” She said the backpackers scared her parents and shocked them with the way they dressed and behaved. For Thais who live outside of Bangkok Khao San Road has become a place to come and gawk at the foreigners.

Drunk, Rowdy and Criminal Tourists in Thailand

In January 2006, The Bangkok Post reported: “The unfortunate drawback of showing hospitality to the world and opening your door to tourists, visitors and businessmen is that it also opens it to far less desirable elements, such as criminals on the run from their home countries, terrorists seeking a trouble-free meeting place, and an assortment of other unsavoury individuals. Falling into the latter category was a drunken 44-year-old Swede who wrought havoc aboard a Thai Airways International flight last Saturday, after it had taken off from Stockholm for Bangkok. The half-naked man started fights with as many of the 397 passengers as he could before the cabin crew succeeded in restraining him. He gave his purpose for visiting Thailand as intending to marry a Thai girl, buy a house and live there. [Source: The Bangkok Post, January 28, 2006]

“The flight captain of TG961 decided the man's violent, rowdy, uncouth behaviour was a threat to the 747's other passengers, so he dumped 60 tonnes of expensive and polluting aviation fuel in the ocean and returned to Stockholm. Other passengers on the flight then suffered a five-hour delay and, for the many tourists among them, a very bad start to their holiday in Thailand.

“For every undesirable alien who gets stopped, a great many more slip through in the guise of tourists and businessmen. That is why the Russian mafia is so well represented here, the terrorists who planned both World Trade Center bombings chose to do more than just visit the country, tattooed German gangsters strut the streets of beach resorts and an American who murdered his wife in Atlanta hid out here, along with assorted pedophiles of all nationalities. It is also why Thai police receive so many requests to help track down foreign fugitives. Just this month, the FBI asked police to hunt down a racketeer on their list of the 10 most wanted fugitives because the trail led here and a German and a Swede were arrested in Prachuap Khiri Khan province and Pattaya, and are being held for extradition to face major crime charges in their home countries.

“The UK media has also reported extensively on the criminal underworld, which at times gives the impression of being an overworld, in Pattaya. Their frequent references to Pattaya as the ''Costa del Crime'' because of its supposed abundance of British criminals, are not helping the Tourism Authority of Thailand's efforts to promote the resort as a quality tourist destination for families. This is despite the heavy police presence and rarity of visible violence in the streets.

“Pattaya police have rejected British media claims that the resort city is as much of a magnet for wrongdoers as foreign publications like to paint it. Yet they cannot deny the number of high-profile arrests in recent years. And the black T-shirts so popular in the resort proclaiming ''Good guys go to Heaven, bad guys go to Pattaya'' have more than a touch of irony about them. Police do admit that more international cooperation and information-sharing is needed to arrest and extradite foreign criminals and list Germans, Koreans and Chinese as the top three nationalities of offenders in Pattaya.

Immigration and other police are well aware of the dark side of globalisation and a great deal of taxpayer money has been spent in upgrading computer facilities and links at airports and border crossings to prevent known foreign criminals from sneaking into the country, yet the influx continues.

Drug Tourism in Thailand

Many people visit Thailand specifically because it is easy to get drugs there. In the 1990s it was estimated that about 20 percent of the 150,000 people that go on treks in northern Thailand do so to sample opium and marijuana. One trekking operator told AP, "A group will go to a trekking operator and say, 'We want to do a trek, but there has to be opium.' If the operator says no, they go find someone who will."

The recreation habits of American GIs had a profound influence of the cultures not only of Vietnam, but also Thailand and Laos. In many ways the association of these countries with sex, prostitution, drugs and decadence can be tied to the American influence during the Vietnam War.

Psilocybin mushrooms— known as het khli kiwai (“buffalo-shit mushrooms)—are found in Thailand , particularly in the south on the rainy Gulf of Thailand islands. Technically not illegal, they are served up in mushroom omelettes and sometimes collected by foreigners. Use of them of them can be a little dodgy as the dosage can vary greatly. Lonley Planet reported the case of one foreigner who swam to his death after eating a magic mushroom omelette on Ko Pha-Ngam.

See Ecstacy and Raves: factsanddetails.com ; Ecstacy Dangers: factsanddetails.com

Koh Phangan Full-Moon Parties

All-night ecstacy-driven “full-moon” parties are held on Haad Rin beach on Koh Phangan near Koh Samui held each month on the night before or after every full moon. The events attract partiers from all over the world. Some draw tens of thousands of people to the island.

The first Full Moon Party was improvised at a wooden disco not far from the beach in 1985, and was attended by 20 to 30 travelers. The parties gained fame through word of mouth and became a must-attend event among backpackers traveling around South East Asia. The event now attracts a crowd of between 20,000 and 30,000 every full moon and continues past dawn the following day. Bars and DJs on the sunrise beach play psychedelic trance, drums and bass, house, dance and reggae music. Among the attractions are fire skipping ropes, alcohol 'buckets', and a drug culture. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Full Moon Party is more a bunch of small parties than one-large concert-like event. Oliver Benjamin and Phoowadon Duangmee wrote in The Nation: “The sheer variety of moon-theme parties on Phangan is amazing, each one touted on loud psychedelic flyers and posters all over the island — the Half Moon, the Black Moon, the Shiva Moon — and each one a bacchanal of all-night techno music, half-naked foreigners and unabashed drug and alcohol indulgence. Generated by huge loudspeakers, the dance music can shake the ground for a kilometre in all directions, and for years it seemed to have deafened everyone in authority to whom complaints were directed. [Source: Oliver Benjamin and Phoowadon Duangmee, The Nation, March 22, 2008]

Although the Full Moon Party generates a lot of money for locals not everyone on Koh Phangan likes the event. While it may be wild, once-in-a-lifetime happening for party-goers, for farmers and residents involved in everyday commerce—people who like to get to bed early—it can mean yet another sleepless night.

The Full Moon Party was featured in the films The Beach, Last Stop for Paul and the Thai film Hormones . It was also the subject of the first episode of the Comedy Central TV show Gerhard Reinke's Wanderlust . In 2011, the island's parties featured on Tourism and the Truth: Stacey Dooley Investigates , a documentary investigating the negative impacts of tourism on local people and the economy.

Koh Phangan

Ko Phangan (half hour boat ride and 15 kilometers north of Koh Samui) was once a quiet place but now it hard to come up with a place—during certain times anyway—that is any noisier. Dominated by backpackers, hippies and ravers from all over the globe, its famous for its ear-piercing and mind-numbing Full Moon parties—all-night-all ecstacy-driven dance events. Among the drugs available here are marijuana, heroin, magic mushrooms, ecstacy, opium, LSD, amphetamines and a variety of designer drugs. Many restaurants specialize in magic mushroom omelettes. If this doesn’t sound very appealing the island is big enough (190 square kilometers) there are plenty of quiet places. Many people come for both—some hard core partying followed or preceded by some relaxation time.

Located in the Gulf of Thailand a short boat ride from Koh Samui, Koh Phangan (pronounced pun-ngun) is a large, mountainous island covered with coconut trees and surrounded by white sand beaches and aquamarine waters. While each month thousands of young people flock to the world famous Full Moon Party in Haad Rin, where local and international DJs play music on the beach, there are dozens of other beaches in varying stages of development that are alternatively occupied by five-star beach resorts, budget beach bungalows, and a number of yoga, meditation, and health retreats.

Thong Sala is the main town. The center of the drug scene is Sunset Beach. The drug-infused Full Moon parties are nearby near the village of Hat Rin. "Ko Phangan's appeal lies in its combination of sun and near-total permissiveness," wrote Jeff Wise in the New York Times magazine. "Probably nowhere on earth have so many drugs been consumed so openly by so many for so long. Large in backpacker lore, Sunrise beach is no more than 300 yards long. The southern half fronts a rocky shore...Riddled with cigarette butts, soiled by dogs and rimmed with tideborn debris it maintains a ravaged dignity.

“A crowd of topless sunbathers clusters along the northern half, where the sand is soft and bleached white and slopes gently into the turquoise waters...A scruffy trio of Israelis follow the narrow dirt lane past rows of open-air shops down the water's edge, where a crowds is gathering. A German woman with brightly painted breasts pushes through to greet a group of white Rastas who are clambering down from a motor launch and wading ashore. A faint musk of marijuana graces the air...In a place like Ko Phangan, where the old Woodstock virtues of openness, generosity, and lack of purpose still hold sway, chronic vagrancy is badge of honor...Every year the scene there looks less and less like a "happening" and more and more like a psychedelic frat party."

Efforts to Shut Down the Koh Phangan Full-Moon Parties Early

Oliver Benjamin and Phoowadon Duangmee wrote in The Nation, “The fat-moon parties used to be lawless enough that huge signs advertising "special mushroom omelettes" and "amphetamine tea" were tolerated, but the local cops began cracking down on drugs and other craziness in the mid-1990s.” But the efforts didn’t produce lasting results. Later there were other attempts to limit collateral damage. “The administrators of Baan Tai School complained about the Black Moon party, and the event was moved into the dense woods of Baan Khai jungle - but attendance dropped, so it was promptly shifted back to its original location. There was considerable publicity when an irritated nun at Wat Khao Tham managed to shut down the Shiva Moon party, but then she mysteriously withdrew her objections and the techno-thunder resumed as usual. [Source: Oliver Benjamin and Phoowadon Duangmee, The Nation, March 22, 2008]

In 2008, “suddenly Koh Phangan's rave parties were shut down early. Residents of the village of Baan Tai wrote to the governor of Surat Thani complaining that the parties were depriving more than 100 households of sleep. "What's worse is the drug dealers who hang around the guesthouses pushing marijuana to the tourists on party nights," they said, adding that theft was becoming common and more sober-minded tourists were shunning the island.

“The police showed up at the Half Moon Party in Baan Tai and ordered the organisers to shut it down because it was "after hours". The next night they did the same at the Baan Sabai Day party. The exact cause for the policy change wasn't immediately known but, given the massive amounts of money involved, local residents are skeptical that the mandate will hold. "The governor of Surat Thani is concerned about the complaints," says Colonel Wuthichai Hanhaboon, head of the Koh Phangan Police Station, "so the police stopped several parties and ensured that the revellers would cause no trouble."

"We try to bring some order to the parties, but the organisers don't listen - they're making a fortune," says Threerayuth Plaisuwan, head of the civic administration in Baan Tai, home of the original full-moon parties. "They get Bt300 per ticket, and the corrupt authorities get a Bt100 cut to turn a blind eye to the problem." Thus, a handful of people on Phangan bank a bundle of cash from "techno-tourism" while the vast majority suffer the headaches and sleepless nights with nothing to show for it. "The communities earn hardly anything from the parties since we can't tax the organisers," Threerayuth says. "And then we have to pay for the beach clean-up afterwards too!"

A "party zone" has been suggested. Instead of staging the events in or near the central villages of Baan Tai, Baan Nok and Baan Nuea, organisers could get together and carve out a specific area in the dense jungle environs some distance away. Choosing a spot behind natural hillside would muffle the sound. Critics of the monthly noise assaults find it ironic that the raves are festooned with messages of multiculturalism, tolerance and "getting along". It's a message the locals wish the revellers would take to heart - so they can get a decent night's sleep.

Full-Moon Party Safety Issues

Although drugs are consumed by many partygoers, drug laws are strict and police enforcement is stepped up during the parties. There are undercover police on patrol and even the drug dealers themselves may report drug users to police. [Source: Wikipedia]

In January 2005, seven people were killed, including four foreign tourists (including an American and an Israeli) and 23 were injured, and 17 were missing after an overloaded speedboat capsized off Koh Samui. The boat was returning to Samui from an all-night party on Koh Phangan. Forty people were on the boat when it capsized a few kilometers from Koh Samui. The boat was not allowed to carry more than 30 people.

In July 2010, forty-two people were injured after two boats carrying Thai and foreign tourists collided near Pha-ngam island. The boats were ferrying tourist too and from the island’s “full moon” parties. The boats collided around midnight in rough seas during a rain storm.

A number of crimes in which foreigners have been the victims have occurred at the all-night Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. In recent years, there has been an increasing number of assaults, robberies, muggings and sexual attacks on tourists in the in bars and the area surrounding Haad Rin on the island. Break-ins at hotel bungalows while partygoers are away from their rooms sometimes occur as well. Many Thais from Bangkok do not visit the Samui archipelago because of its reputation.

The British Embassy in Thailand has warned that western tourists have been victims of vicious unprovoked attacks by gangs in Koh Phangan. "These attacks are particularly common around the time of the Full Moon parties and generally occur late at night near bars in Haad Rin. Exercise caution when walking in this area at any time, especially after dark."

This wasn’t the only murder on Koh Phanga. In 2004, three Thais were gunned down in a fight on Haad Rin beach. In April 2007 Israeli tourist David Kakitelashvic, 31, died after being stabbed eight times with a knife at the beach’s Drop Inn Bar. A gang of teenagers, including the son of a local politician, were the chief suspects. In March 2008 an Indian tourist was stabbed to death trying to break up a fight during the full-moon party.

The British Embassy in Thailand has warned that western tourists have been victims of vicious unprovoked attacks by gangs in Koh Phangan. "These attacks are particularly common around the time of the Full Moon parties and generally occur late at night near bars in Haad Rin. Exercise caution when walking in this area at any time, especially after dark."

Koh Phangan Full-Moon Party Murder

On New Years Eve 2012, 22-year-old British tourist Stephen Ashton was killed by a stray bullet. Victoria Ward wrote in the Telegraph, “Ashton was killed as he danced with friends at a beach bar on the popular island of Koh Phangan. He is believed to have been caught in the crossfire when an argument between two groups of youths suddenly escalated. [Source: Victoria Ward, the Telegraph, January 2, 2013]

Mr Ashton, a junior City trader, had quit his job in November and had planned to travel from Thailand to Australia. Local police spokesman Lt Col Somsak Noorod said: "He was shot in the side while he was dancing on the beach." He was rushed to Bandon International Hospital on the neighbouring island of Koh Samui, but was later pronounced dead.

The suspect, named locally as Ekkapan Kaewkla, 26, was subsequently arrested and was found in possession of a homemade gun. On his arrest, Ekkapan admitted he had fought with another group of men at Zoom Bar but denied firing the fatal shot, according to local reports. A few days after the murder Ekkapan Kaewkla appeared in court. Police Colonel Kittakarn Kramothong, said: “Stephen was not involved in the fight.”

Around 300 revellers attended the Countdown party at the Zoom Bar on Haad Rin beach on Monday night. Witnesses said that two groups of Thai youths got into an argument which escalated into a fist-fight at around 4am. As one of the groups ran from the bar, one man turned and fired a shot back inside. Ashton was shot in the torso.Sophie Harwin, a graphics editor from Surrey, had spent the evening nearby but left the area before the shooting occurred. “I just met someone who said loads of people were trying to save him,” she said. “Very sad."

Mr Ashton had been staying with a group of friends at Pink's Bungalows, a series of basic wooden beachside properties in the fishing village of Ban Tai, not far from Haad Rin. He had posted a photograph of himself and two friends drinking beers in a Thai bar on Facebook on December 13.

Sex Tourism in Thailand

The recreation habits of American GIs had a profound influence of the cultures not only of Vietnam, but also Thailand and Laos. In many ways the association of these countries with sex, prostitution, drugs and decadence can be tied to the American influence during the Vietnam War.

The sex trade geared for foreigners became a big time operation in the Vietnam War era. In the 1980s, Bangkok and Pattaya were major center of the sex trade. In those years, 747s filled with Japanese men arrived in Thailand— and the Philippines too—on pre-paid sex tours that include airfare, accommodations, transfers and a local girl waiting for them in their room. These days, many foreign men indulge themselves at Phuket's Patong Beach.

The sex industry remains a big draw for many foreign travelers, but organized sex tourism along the lines of what existed with the Japanese in the 1980s doesn't really exist any more—or at least it is not openly flaunted like it once was. Most sex tourists are individuals or men who come to Thailand with a friend or small group of friends.

Know Phuket reports: “Clearly authorities are happy with most of what happens at the major tourist destinations as sex is so openly on display. The fact is, it is a big money earner for Thailand. Sex tourism attracts a large number of visitors from all over the world and a huge amount of foreign currency. There are many influential business figures involved and of course, many poor girls reliant on the money they make from the industry. [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket]

In recent years there has been an effort to crack down on the sex tourism industry in Thailand. In the old days, bars and sex entertainment places in Bangkok were famous for staying open to dawn. Then in 2001 a government decree ordered them to close at 2:00am. In 2004, another government order, nicknamed by locals as the “Cinderella Decree,” ordered them to close by 1:00am. There were massive protests over the new rules and the debate and closing time changes go on today. Addition rules have made it illegal for sex-related businesses to open outside designated entertainment areas.

In the early 2000s, Thai police raided CM2, a bar at the Siam Square Novotel Hotel that is favorite of Western an Thai businessmen. The doors were locked and police checked the urine of all patrons for drug use. Such crackdowns risk driving away foreign tourists fat wallets. Many Thais especially from poor areas in the Northeast rely on the sex industry to survive.

Bangkok’s Red Light District

Patphong Road—off Silom Road— is the center of Bangkok's sex and sin district. Here you will find massage parlors, hostess bars, karaokes, nightclubs with live sex shows, and sidewalk hustlers, who attempt to direct men in their clubs, where they are entertained by girls blowing ping pong balls, nerf frisbees and fire out of their private parts. In many cases while the men are distracted by the show, they are surrounded by a dozen or more girls with drinks in their hands, which the men are supposed to pay for. It is not unusual for a man to spend 20 minutes in one of these clubs and walk out $200 poorer.

Ultimately Patphong Road is a very sad place. Many of the girls are barely into their teens, and men who patronize them are very unappealing. AIDS has made the sex industry less vigorous than it once was. In recent years, Patphong Road has been taken over by conventional tourists. Soi Cowboy is arguably the main sex district now. Nana Plaza is another sex area. Lumpini Park is popular with prostitutes.

In the Patpong sex show scam, touts outside a bar say free sex shows and drinks for only 100 baht each. Visitors can end up paying a bill in the thousands. Stay clear if you are alone as they can turn violent if you refuse to pay. Another trick is to lure customers into a place with a young, good-looking girl and then suddenly make her unavailable and substitute an older, less attractive woman is the customer wants sex.

Dead Tourists in Thailand

In February 2009, a 16-year-old Japanese girl was in a coma after she fell from the fifth floor balcony of a hotel in Chiang Mai. The girl was an exchange student. Police investigated whether the girl fell accidently or somehow foul play was involved. The same month the body of a 20-year-old Japanese tourist was found in the Kwai River on Kanchanburi Province two days after going for a swim. The tourist, Ryuti Nakajima, appears to have been swept away by the river’s current while swimming.

Seven British nationals were been murdered in Thailand between January 2009 and November 2012. In November 2003, a 35-year-old French tourist was shot dead after he refused to hand over his money to robbers who accosted him and his friends as he returned at 2:00am to his guesthouse near the Bridge Over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi Province (110 kilometers west of Bangkok).

In March 2009, seven people, including five Westerners and a Japanese man died after their diving boat sank in bad weather in the Andaman Sea off Thailand’s resort island of Phuket. Thirty people were on the boat which went down in a storm near the Similian Islands about 28 kilometers from Phuket. A search operation rescued at least 23 people at sea. The boat sank around 11:00pm and went down quickly while some divers and crew members were asleep. The dead included two Australians, two Swiss, one German and one Thai.

See Separate Article CRIME AND FOREIGNERS IN THAILAND: SCAMS, MURDERED TOURISTS AND CRIMES BY FOREIGNERS

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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