How To Stay Safe In Thailand

thailand safety tipsThailand is a very popular holiday destination for all kinds of travelers from backpackers to families and business travelers and offers something for everyone. The country, in general, is actually a very safe place to visit, however, it is still a developing country and as such there are some hazards and annoyances to watch out for, a spell in a Thai hospital is not a great way to spend your holiday and could potentially cost you a small fortune.

Violent crime against tourists is almost unheard of and is generally not something to be concerned about. A frequently quoted phrase is that you’re more likely to have trouble with another traveler than with one of the locals, and whilst this may or may not be true if you keep your wits about you, then you’ll almost certainly have a very enjoyable and hassle-free holiday. Safety in Thailand is often misunderstood and distorted by the media, particularly safety for tourists, but tens of millions of tourists visit the country each year without issue.

Roads & Traffic

By far the most dangerous aspect of Thailand is the situation with the traffic and roads, and there are several reasons for this, which combine to give Thailand some of the worst traffic fatality statistics in the world. As such, you should bear this in mind at all times and not become complacent when traveling by road, whether you or someone else is driving and also as a pedestrian. Remember that in Thailand, drivers will not stop for zebra crossings and many of the highway rules and regulations are regarded by most drivers as advisory only.

Many vehicles on Thai roads are poorly maintained by western standards. The Thai equivalent of an MOT or road safety check is lacklustre at best and as a result, many Thai people drive vehicles which most countries would not consider roadworthy. This invariably is the direct cause of many road traffic accidents, with bald tyres and badly maintained brakes being particularly dangerous.

Combine that with the fact that the roads themselves are inherently dangerous in Thailand, with large potholes not being fixed for long periods, if at all. Plus, on the islands particularly, some roads can be very steep, winding and covered with mud making driving conditions even worse. Heavy rainfall and floods can leave roads strewn with debris, and wildlife can wander on to the roads at any time.

You will see very young Thai schoolchildren riding motorcycles, who are barely tall enough for their feet to reach the foot-pegs. They can not possibly be old enough to have a driving license, indeed many Thai people drive without even having passed their driving test. And although drink-driving in Thailand is just as illegal as in your home country, it is often turned a blind eye to resulting in intoxicated drivers being behind the wheel, especially at night. Even licensed drivers can drive in a very erratic and careless manner, often driving too fast and in an aggressive, impatient manner.

As a result of all of these factors, driving in Thailand is risky, indeed many young tourists never make it home after trying to ride back to their hotel from a party on one of the islands. Therefore you should only consider driving a motorcycle in Thailand if you hold a full motorcycle license in your home country, and are confident and experienced in doing so. And bear in mind that the majority of travel insurance policies will not cover you if you have an accident in Thailand and you may end up with a large bill for repairing the bike and a hospital admission (and a ruined holiday). You will see many tourists hiring bikes and riding without a helmet or any kind of protective clothing, and may be lulled into a false sense of security, but take your time to carefully consider whether you are prepared to accept the risks before doing so yourself.

Petty Theft

Although Thai people are very friendly and decent (with the vast majority being Buddhists), of course, there are still some bad eggs who will go to lengths to separate you from your hard-earned money and expensive belongings. And these types of miscreants will be more likely to gravitate towards areas popular with tourists, whom many Thais still consider to be rich, but with a bit of basic common sense, you can avoid becoming a victim yourself.

The first and most obvious point is to consider what you are taking with you on holiday. Do you need to take your brand new $2500 MacBook Pro with you to Thailand? The answer is almost certainly no, take a beaten up old laptop instead. Gold jewellery, expensive watches, iPads and the like will be noticed by somebody, so it’s a much better idea to leave such things behind, you’ll be able to enjoy your holiday a lot more by not having to worry about having such things being stolen from you. You should use the hotel safe wherever possible, however, you should also be aware that things have gone missing from safes also, the hotel staff will be able to access it and in the case that something disappears, you will get very little assistance from the police.

Mobile phones, wallets and suchlike can also be stolen easily if you leave them out on your restaurant table or at the bar, particularly as many establishments have tables outside with lots of people walking past. Keep your valuables out of sight to avoid tempting an opportunistic thief. A common type of theft in Thailand is snatch theft, where one or two people will drive past on a motorcycle and grab your handbag or gold necklace before zooming off. By the time you realise what has just happened, they will most likely be out of sight and your valuables long gone.

In addition to these types of crimes, unfortunately, bill-padding is still common in Thailand, particularly in bars where if you’ve been drinking they might suspect that you won’t notice extra things being added to your bill. Often they will write your bill in Thai but you can still see the amounts if you can’t read it. Don’t be afraid to query any additions to your bill and it should be corrected immediately. Also try and keep a variety of bills in your wallet, another common scam is trying to give you change for a 500 baht note when you actually paid with 1000 baht – and there’s not much you can do about that as it will be your word against the waiter’s and the police won’t want to get involved.

Of course, petty theft happens in practically every country in the world, so don’t let fear of crime ruin your holiday. Just a bit of common sense can help you avoid most of these things happening to you. Especially if you are staying in some budget hostels it would be very wise to leave your valuables at home.

Terrorism

There have been some indiscriminate bombings in the capital as recently as August 2019 (which were fairly harmless), and the more deadly Erawan Shrine bombing in 2015 which killed 20 people and injured 125. These types of bombings are almost certainly linked to terrorist organisations from the far south of the country, notably the four southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Songkhla and Pattani. This region is on the border with Malaysia and as such has a small Muslim population, who feel marginalised by the government, with bombings and shootings in this part of the country being fairly common. Therefore this part of the country, although likely to be perfectly safe for a short visit, should be avoided entirely by travelers. There’s not a great deal to see and do there for foreign visitors, except for the biggest city of Hat Yai. However, over the years, Hat Yai has been targetted by Muslim separatists so should be avoided.

In reality, except for the southernmost provinces, the risk from terrorism is low, and not something to be concerned about.

Nightlife

Thailand is just like anywhere else in this regard. If you stay out all night drinking heavily then attempt to walk home alone, you are invariably increasing the risk of something happening to you. If you mind your own business and avoid being visibly intoxicated, you will almost certainly be fine but there are a few key points to mention here. The first is that health and safety in Thailand is non-existent by western standards. This came to a head when there was a fire in the Santika nightclub in Bangkok in 2009, caused by someone setting off fireworks inside the club. There were no proper fire exits and as a result, 66 people from 13 countries died. Therefore, if you are out partying just keep your wits about you, if a nightclub feels completely packed out, leave and go somewhere else, if the place had to be evacuated then many would likely die in the ensuing stampede.

Another unfortunate thing is that powerful hypnotic medications can be purchased over the counter without prescription at some pharmacies. Unscrupulous people can then drop these substances into your drink when you aren’t looking, such as when you go to the bathroom or take your turn at the pool table. By the time you feel the effects of the drugs, it will be too late, you will likely wake up the next afternoon at your hotel with all of your belongings missing. This is unfortunately fairly common in Thailand due to the ease with which people can get hold of the drugs, and it goes without saying that for female travelers they could also be assaulted whilst they are too intoxicated to do anything about it. There are two ways to avoid this happening to you. One is to avoid being targetted; don’t flash wads of money around and don’t wear expensive jewellery or watches. Second is to not let your drink out of your sight, don’t feel silly about taking your drink with you to the bathroom if you’re drinking alone.

Sunstroke & Sunburn

Thailand is hot, there’s no two ways about it. During the middle of the day, the temperature can reach highs of over 40°C, combine this with an abundance of alcohol and partying and you can quickly become dehydrated and ill. If you are fair-skinned and prone to burning, it goes without saying that you should be liberally using a high SPF sun-cream and be making sure to drink as much water as you can throughout the day. Sunstroke can come on rapidly or gradually and produces symptoms including dizziness, confusion, headaches, nausea and weakness, if you suspect that you or someone else is suffering you should seek medical assistance immediately. In severe cases, death can result so don’t take any chances.

Beach Safety

Many of the beaches in Thailand are stunningly beautiful. However, basic safety precautions should still be taken if you intend to swim in the sea. The first thing to note is that health and safety isn’t really a thing in Thailand, and some beaches are not safe for swimming due to effluent or untreated wastewater being pumped into the sea, a prime example of this would be Pattaya beach. Also, lifeguards are few and far between in the country so bear this in mind if you are not a strong swimmer.

Even if you are confident of your swimming abilities, rip tides and undercurrents can still pull you much further out to sea than you anticipated. Thailand is also home to some dangerous jellyfish including box jellyfish and the Portuguese Man O’War, and you don’t want to be getting close to either of those.

Arguments & Fights

Thai people are generally very reserved and hide their emotions, however, sometimes things get too much for them and fights break out, especially when alcohol is thrown into the equation. Thai people will fight incredibly fiercely, and will think nothing of attacking with bottles, sticks, chains etc. and nearby locals often get involved, meaning that there is no such thing as a fair fight. As such, you need to avoid such situations entirely, if someone is acting aggressively towards you you must do everything possible to ensure that violence does not erupt, even if that means just walking away from the situation. Plus, if it is not you that is involved, never, ever get involved in any way. Trying to help will invariably get you beaten up, arrested, or likely both. Steer well clear.

Dogs

Stray dogs are seemingly everywhere in Thailand. You’ll see them on the streets of Bangkok, on the beaches, even in shops, and by far and away the majority are completely harmless. However, as a rule, you should stay away from them as rabies still goes unchecked in Thailand, and if bitten (or even scratched) you would have to go for a series of expensive injections to protect yourself. Just do what the locals do and pay them no attention and you won’t have an issue. If you see a large group of dogs, particularly at night, use your common sense and steer well clear of them.

Creepy-Crawlies

Thailand is a tropical country and home to a huge number of potential pests which you are probably not familiar with. However, apart from the geckos, on a short holiday, you generally are very unlikely to encounter many, if any unless you go jungle trekking, and then you should be cautious of anything that you’re not familiar with.

The common gecko, known in Thai as a “tuk-gae” seems to be almost everywhere, indoors and out, but you have no reason to be scared of them. They are terrified of humans and are completely harmless. They are commonly seen in the evenings close to light fittings waiting for their next meal, they certainly won’t cause you any problems.

The scorpions, on the other hand, are another kettle of fish. Thailand is home to several different species, and they can all give you a very nasty sting, something akin to a more painful wasp sting. Something to note with scorpions is that it’s the small ones which are most dangerous, the large black ones are the least venomous. The smaller, brown scorpions can cause pain lasting for up to three days. However the big issue with scorpion stings is the potential for a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction, so always seek medical attention if it happens to you. And always check your trainers before putting them on in the morning. Safer to stick with flip flops.

There are also many species of spiders in Thailand, but again they are not terribly aggressive and if you ignore them then they will likely do the same. Many are venomous but not deadly, the most common being the huntsman spider which do tend to come inside buildings to find their next meal. They can give a nasty bite, but you aren’t going to die from it, generally, they only bite when threatened but can find their way into your clothes or shoes.

One little horror that you need to be very cautious of is the giant centipede, known in Thai as “da-karb”. They look terrifying, move fast, and can be very aggressive. The bite from one is excruciatingly painful and can last several days, and in some cases can be fatal. Recently a Thai woman died after being bitten by one in her sleep.

Thailand does have many species of snake, many of which are dangerous including the Malayan pit viper, cobras and keelbacks. Some snakes can be remarkably aggressive if in a bad mood, but again you are very unlikely to see one unless you go jungle trekking.

The general rule of thumb with these types of pests is that if you stay away from them, they will stay away from you, most of these things will only attack when threatened except for the evil centipedes which should be feared. Most of the time in Thailand, when people get bitten by a spider or scorpion or suchlike, it is because they were hiding in clothing or shoes and then tried to defend themselves when the person wanted to get dressed or put their shoes on.

Medication

The pharmacy network in Thailand is generally staffed by well-educated people who have to undertake English proficiency tests before being allowed to work. They are very helpful and will be able to supply most medications for you at very low prices. However, there are some caveats to be aware of. First is that not all western medications are available in Thailand (although they can usually recommend a suitable alternative), so if you take some obscure medications you will need to make sure that you bring a sufficient supply with you.

Second is that pain medications are generally viewed in a very negative light in Thailand as possible substances of abuse. Anything stronger than paracetamol or ibuprofen can be difficult to get, and at the airport, any stronger pain medications such as codeine or tramadol may be confiscated from you unless you bring a copy of your prescription or a letter from your doctor. Even late-stage cancer patients in Thailand struggle to get adequate pain relief because of the country’s phobia of these potentially addictive medications which is a crying shame, but understandable seeing as many pharmacies in the country will bend the rules and sell anything if enough money is offered.

Something which compounds these issues is that due to a lack of regulation, pharmacies can buy their drugs from almost anywhere and quality control is very much lacking. Therefore, although fairly unlikely, the medications you buy in Thailand may consist of nothing more than sugar tablets, and with things like blood pressure medications, it’s unlikely that you would be aware of this until it’s too late. So again, bring your medications from home, or try to buy your drugs from reputable pharmacies such as Watsons or Boots.

In some tourist areas, you may see pharmacies which advertise as selling dubious medications such as valium, morphine and anabolic steroids. No matter what your intentions are, you should never be tempted to buy from these places as you will be breaking the law, and the drugs you end up with could literally be anything and could well be fake.

Malaria

There is no risk of malaria in the urban areas of Thailand. However, in rural areas and particularly in the border regions with Cambodia and Myanmar, there is a small risk and precautions should be taken.

There is zero risk in the most common holiday destinations of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Phuket and Samui. The best bite prevention is a product containing DEET which mosquitoes hate and won’t go near you, you do not need any form of prophylactic medications for Thailand as bite avoidance measures are enough (plus the strains of malaria which are present are multi-drug resistant strains anyway).

There’s no need to take anything with you as mosquito nets, repellents and other medications are widely available at the local pharmacies, and at very reasonable prices.

In short, malaria is not something you should be concerned about when visiting Thailand. Mosquito bites when jungle trekking and visiting the islands can be extremely itchy and annoying, so look for a DEET product to make your time more enjoyable.

Sexual Health

A lot of people like to let their hair down when traveling, especially in Thailand, but it pays to consider the fact that Thailand is still a developing country with a not-so-great healthcare system, and as such, sexual health is something that you should keep in mind. Thailand has an abundance of very attractive people, ladies in particular, but this doesn’t mean that you can leave your common sense at the airport.

Thailand suffers from a fairly high incidence of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases, so just like in any other country you should be using some form of protection. In Thailand, polygamy is very common, with many married men taking on mistresses known as a “mia noi” or other friends whom they may have sexual relations with known as “giks”. As such, some Thai people may have several sexual partners at any one time.

You may be surprised to hear that prostitution in Thailand is, in fact, illegal, however, it is something that is very much turned a blind eye to, and more often than not, a way for police to extract payments from businesses. And just because your new friend works in an office or a shop, this does not mean that you are “safe”. Wages in Thailand are low (think $200 a month), and many people top up their meagre wages by soliciting themselves outside of work hours, so always bear this in mind. Unprotected sex with someone you just met is never a good idea anywhere in the world, especially in Thailand. There are better ways to spend your time on holiday than going to a sexual health clinic and having to take antibiotics, and infections and warts are souvenirs that no tourist wants to take home with them.

Good quality condoms are widely available across Thailand and are cheap. However, Thai condoms tend to be more on the tight side so if that is something that concerns you then bring your own condoms from back home.

Ladyboys

Ladyboys, known as “katoey” in Thai, are almost certainly a very curious sight for many tourists in Thailand. By and large, they are harmless, but there are some key points to consider. Unfortunately, ladyboys are still shunned by Thai society to a large degree, and this contributes to many of them feeling like they just don’t belong and, as such, many can end up with lingering resentment and psychological instability. This means that they are more likely to be emotionally unstable, and many unfortunately end up living a life associated with drugs and petty crime. The never-ending pursuit of the next cosmetic procedure mean that some are just out to accumulate as much money as possible, and prostitution along with theft and/or drug dealing allows them to achieve this goal.

In some areas, particularly Bangkok and Pattaya you will often see small groups of ladyboys walking around looking for their next target, usually at night. The usual tactic is for one of them to come up to you and put her arms around you and kiss you on the cheek. After engaging in some small talk, she will walk away, and it’s only then that you will realise that your necklace or wallet are missing. Other than reporting it to the police, there is not much that you can do in this situation. Confronting them is an absolute no-no, ladyboys may look incredibly feminine but they can be viciously strong and many are trained in Muay Thai techniques.

Always ask before taking a picture, most are pleasant enough and will usually oblige. Otherwise, bear in mind that some have been shunned by their families and their country and end up having to resort to desperate measures to survive, so you should be on your guard if they approach you.

Food-Borne Illnesses

Thai people are astute enough to know that customers falling ill after eating their food is not good for business, and as a result the food, including street food, is almost always safe to eat. Some places might look a bit rough around the edges to you, but the food will invariably be clean and hygienic, and as a result, you’re no more likely to fall ill from food poisoning in Thailand than you would be anywhere else. Traveler’s diarrhoea, on the other hand, is very common and caused by different strains of bacteria than your digestive system is used to, simple rehydration is the most suitable treatment in all but the most severe cases.

Restaurants in most western countries would have to go through some kind of routine inspections based on hygiene or health and safety, there appears to be no equivalent to this in Thailand. This means that if a restaurant is serving food not fit for consumption, nothing would be flagged up until people start getting ill. Thai people love eating out, in fact, many apartments don’t even have installed cooking facilities because it is assumed that they won’t need to cook. So to be sure of getting fresh food, look for somewhere which is busy with locals, where you will be much more likely to be served fresh food. Avoid empty restaurants altogether, as there will invariably be a good reason why the locals don’t want to eat there.

If you do fall ill, the local pharmacies are excellent and will be able to sell you rehydration salts or other medications as and when required. The chance of you contracting something serious like salmonella on a two-week visit is minimal.

Dealing with the Thai Police

By and large, the Thai police are friendly and helpful, that is if you can speak Thai. Very few policemen in Thailand, even in the tourist hotspots such as Phuket and Pattaya can speak anything close to passable English. They may know a few words and phrases that they need to know for their role (such as “driving license”, “passport” etc.), but if you do not speak any Thai, you will be very likely to have trouble interacting with them. Your other option is to go to the police station, where they may be willing to find an interpreter, but this almost certainly will not be done immediately.

This is why in Thailand, they have what is known as the Tourist Police. However, these guys lack police powers and most often spend their time creating reports for incidents of theft (for tourists to claim on their travel insurance) and mediating between tourists and the actual police in more serious incidents. The assumption, therefore is that the tourist police is comprised of staff who are fluent in English – this is not the case. Although the tourist police force will invariably have a better command of English than the regular police, only a small number of them could be considered fluent. For a country so heavily reliant on income from foreign tourists, the level of spoken English in the country is poor and noticeably worse than in neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and even Cambodia.

Therefore, if something petty happens to you, you may want to consider writing it off rather than spending hours at the police station. If something more serious happens and you want to make a report, your best option will be to contact the tourist police on 1155. But remember, nothing happens fast in Thailand and dealing with the police here can be laborious, time-consuming and downright frustrating at times, try to prevent anything happening to you in the first place by using a modicum of common sense and staying clear of any trouble.

In places such as Pattaya and Phuket, you may also spot the volunteer tourist police. This is a small contingent of foreigners working with the Thai police who have very limited powers, but they will almost certainly be fluent in English or be native English speakers, and as such you will find them to be very helpful in the event of an incident.

Final Thoughts

Thailand is, in reality, a very safe place. We have spent several years traveling the country with no real issues. You must be mindful of how dangerous it is to drive in Thailand, mostly because of other drivers who can be downright careless and dangerous. Compared to the risks of driving, the other issues are relatively minor, so you should only be driving if you hold the correct and valid license to do so and are 100% confident in your abilities. On average, 15 motorcyclists die every day on Thai roads (the worst statistic in the world for motorcycle deaths), if you hire a bike without knowing what you’re doing then the chances of you ending up as such a statistic are significantly increased.

It’s important to be aware of these issues before traveling to Thailand to reduce the risks of something happening to you, but then again it’s also important to relax and enjoy your holiday instead of fretting about every little thing that could happen to you. Thailand is a wonderful country and we hope that you enjoy your time there as much as we have.

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