Thailand - Dangers & Annoyances

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Dangers & Annoyances

Since the 1920s and 1930s several insurgent groups have operated in Thailand - the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) with its tactical force, the People's Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT) in rural areas all over Thailand, as well as Malay separatists and Muslim revolutionaries in the extreme south. These groups have been mainly involved in propaganda activity, village infiltration and occasional clashes with Thai government troops. Very rarely have they had any encounters with foreign travellers. Aside from sporadic terrorist bombings - mostly in railway stations in the south and sometimes at upcountry festivals - 'innocent' people have not been involved in the insurgent activity.

In 1976, the official government estimate of the number of active guerrillas in Thailand was 10,000. By the end of the '70s however, many CPT followers had surrendered under the government amnesty programme. In the '80s new military strategies, as well as political measures, reduced the number to around two to three thousand. In the south, traditionally a hot spot, communist forces have been all but limited to Camp 508 in a relatively inaccessible area along the Surat Thani-Nakhon Si Thammarat provincial border.

In the north and northeast, the government claims that armed resistance has been virtually eliminated and this appears to be verified by independent sources as well as my own recent travel experience through former CPT strongholds. Part of the reason for the CPT's severely curtailed influence stems from the 1979 split between the CPT and the Chinese Communist Party over policy differences regarding Indo-Chinese revolution - CPT cadres used to get training in Kunming, China. New highways in previously remote provinces such as Nan and Loei have contributed to improved communications, stability and central (Bangkok) control. This means that routes in these provinces closed to foreigners in the '70s, are now open for travel, e.g. Phitsanulok to Loei via Nakhon Thai. Within the next two years or so, travellers should be able to travel from Nan to Loei by bus, and from Chiang Rai to Nan via Chiang Muan. A new road between Phatthalung and Hat Yai has cut travel time between those two cities considerably.

Whether this signals a long-lasting trend or not is difficult to say. Battles are between government and anti-government forces. As long as you are not directly associated with either side there is little danger in travelling through guerrilla territory. Most observers do not expect Communist guerrilla activity to flare again anytime in the foreseeable future. This seems especially true in the light of the great economic strides Thailand has made during the last decade, which have simply made Marxism a less compelling alternative for most of the population.

Border Areas

Probably the most sensitive areas in Thailand now are the border areas. Most dangerous is the Thai-Cambodian border area, especially since the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin regime has instituted its 'K-5' plan to seal the border with heavy armament, land mines and booby traps. Most of the latter are planted inside Cambodian territory, so it is imperative that you stay away from this border. The armed guards, booby traps and mines make it impossible to safely visit the Phra Viharn ruins just inside Cambodia near Ubon. Anyway, you would probably be stopped by Thai troops at Kantharalak on approach.

The Thai-Lao border is not nearly as dangerous, but you should avoid walking along the Mekong River at night, as this is when Thai and Lao troops occasionally trade fire. During the last three years, relations between Laos and Thailand have improved considerably and it is very likely that tourists will soon be allowed to cross overland between the two countries. The Australian government has even promised to build a bridge over the Mekong River from Nong Khai Province. As with Cambodia, it is not a good idea to try and cross into Laos illegally - you might very well be accused of espionage and end up in prison or worse.

The Burmese border is fairly safe in most places, but there is occasional shelling between Mae Sot and Mae Sarieng coming from Burmese troops in pursuit of Karen rebels. The rebels are trying to maintain an independent nation called Kawthoolei along the border with Thailand. If you cross and are captured by the Burmese, you will automatically be suspected of supporting the Karen. If you are captured by the Karen you will probably be released, though they may demand money.

In the Three Pagodas Pass area, there is also occasional fighting between the Karen and Mon armies, who are competing for control over the smuggling trade between Burma and Thailand. And along the Burmese-Thai border in northern Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai provinces, the presence of Shan and KMT armies make this area dangerous if you attempt to travel near opium trade border crossings - obviously these are not signposted, so take care anywhere along the border in this area.

The Betong area of Yala Province on the Thai-Malaysian border was until recently the tactical headquarters for the armed Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). Thai and Malaysian government troops occasionally clashed with the insurgents, who from time to time hijacked trucks along the Yala-Betong road. But in December 1989, in exchange for amnesty, the CPM agreed 'to terminate all armed activities' and to respect the laws of Thailand and Malaysia. Nevertheless, for a year or two, until things cool down, travellers are advised to take care when travelling outside Betong, especially at night.

Precautions

Although Thailand is in no way a dangerous country to visit if you stay away from the hot spots mentioned above, it's wise to be a little cautious in general, particularly if you're a solo woman traveller. In that case take special care on arrival at Bangkok Airport, particularly at night. Don't take one of Bangkok's often very unofficial taxis by yourself - better the THAI bus, or even the public bus. Women in particular, but men also, should ensure their rooms are securely locked and bolted at night. Inspect cheap rooms with thin walls for strategic peepholes. Take care with the police, reported several women travellers

Take caution when leaving valuables in hotel safes. Many travellers have reported unpleasant experiences with leaving valuables in Chiang Mai guesthouses while trekking. On return to their home countries, they received huge credit-card bills for purchases (usually jewellery) charged to their cards in Bangkok while the cards had, supposedly, been secure in the hotel or guesthouse safe! Organized gangs in Bangkok specialize in arranging stolen credit card purchases - in some cases they pay 'down and out' foreigners to fake the signatures. Make sure you obtain an itemized receipt for property left with hotels or guesthouses - note the exact quantity of travellers' cheques and all other valuables. You might consider taking your credit cards with you if you go trekking - if they're stolen on the trail at least the bandits won't be able to use them.

On trains and buses, particularly in the south, beware of friendly strangers offering cigarettes, drinks or sweets (candy). Several travellers have reported waking up with a headache sometime later to find their valuables have disappeared. One letter reported how a would-be druggist considerably overdid it with what looked like a machine-wrapped, made-in-England Cadbury's chocolate. His girlfriend spat it out immediately; he woke up nine hours later in hospital having required emergency resuscitation after his breathing nearly stopped. This happened on the Surat Thani to Phuket bus.

Travellers have also encountered drugged food or drink from friendly strangers in bars and from prostitutes in their own hotel rooms. Thais are also occasional victims, especially at the Moh Chit Bus Terminal and Chatuchak Park, where young girls are drugged and sold to brothels. Conclusion - don't accept gifts from strangers.

Keep zippered luggage secured with small locks, especially while travelling on buses and trains. This will not only keep out most sneak thieves, but also prevent con artists posing as police from planting contraband drugs in your luggage. That may sound paranoid, but it happens.

A warning about the possibility of armed robbery. It appears to be on the increase in remote areas of Thailand.

In 1988, two UK women were robbed and killed on the island of Koh Chang in Trat Province while hiking across the island at night. Another woman was attacked and killed near Tham Lot in Mae Hong Son Province the previous year while hiking alone and I've heard a similar report from Koh Tarutao. A lone male motorcyclist was shot several times (he survived) on the road to Sangkhlaburi in Kanchanaburi Province in '87 and another man was shot on Koh Samui while walking back to his bungalow at night. Armed bandits attacked two boats carrying tourists on the Kok River in Chiang Rai the same year. A male New Zealander lagged behind his trekking group in Mae Hong Son and was shot dead during a robbery attempt.

Approximately eight million people travelled through Thailand in 1987 and 1988 and these are the only incidents of extreme violence I've heard of, so the risk of armed robbery should be considered fairly low. On the other hand, the clear message here is that the safest practice in remote areas is not logo out alone at night and, if trekking in north Thailand, always walk in groups. More information on hill trekking is given here.


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