A common question among people considering a visit to the land of smiles, Thailand. Is It Safe To Travel To Thailand? Whenever you travel, you have to consider your own personal safety, especially when you’re traveling abroad. Every country has it’s security challenges, and Thailand is no different.
Thailand regularly experiences political and civil unrest which can create challenges for travelers. Political demonstrations take place with some frequency. Many are scheduled on the anniversary of political events, and others happen with little warning. Demonstrations can attract tens of thousands of participants and often cause severe traffic disruptions, especially if they include processions from one site to another. I experienced this on my last trip this July/August. Planned protests lasted throughout the week and created unbelievable traffic jams.
Between March and May 2010, political protests throughout Thailand resulted in the deaths of at least 91 people and injuries to over 260 people. Interestingly, I was in Thailand on one of my earlier trips during this time but left before any significant violence erupted. Anthony Bourdain, TV personality, was in Thailand filming an episode of his show during some of the dangerous days and described it as a state of siege in his blog.
In Thailand, people literally wear their politics on their sleeves, or shirts – red shirts and yellow shirts. Thailand’s “red shirts” are an anti-government group that supports the country’s deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The “yellow shirts” support Thailand’s current prime minister. It’s a good idea to avoid wearing either color while you’re in Thailand, and especially while you’re in Bangkok.
The Department of State advises all U.S. citizens residing in or traveling to Thailand to monitor events closely, to avoid any large public gatherings, and to exercise discretion when traveling within the country.
By law you must carry your passport with you at all times. Tourists have been arrested because they were unable to produce their passport. To be safe, keep a photo-copy of your passport in your hotel safe, in case it’s lost or stolen, and make sure a family member or friend at home has a copy as well. This can help with getting an emergency replacement passport if needed. I keep a scanned copy in my phone for convenience (if you do this, make sure you have security set up on your phone for added protection.)
Over the years, Thailand has been the site of domestic and international terrorism. In February 14, 2012 an explosion occurred in central Bangkok and a man, linked to the explosion, threw an explosive device at a taxi. The Thai authorities linked them man to an Iranian group.
The far south of Thailand has been experiencing almost daily incidents including incidents attributed to armed local separatist groups. And while it’s been more than a year since there’s been a significant attack, there are regular reports of smaller scale crimes and uprisings.
- On March 31, 2012, almost simultaneous bombings in one of Hat Yai’s largest hotels and in a Yala commercial district killed at least 13 people and injured more than 500, including a number of tourists.
- On September 16, 2011, three coordinated bombs exploded in Narathiwat’s business and entertainment district, killing five people, including four Malaysian tourists, and injuring over 110 others.
- On April 18, 2011, a car bomb exploded in Yala’s business district, killing one person and injuring 23 others.
- On February 19, 2011, gunmen fired on a karaoke restaurant in Narathiwat municipality, injuring two; half an hour later, a car bomb went off nearby, injuring more than a dozen people.
- On February 13, 2011, a car bomb exploded in Yala municipality’s business district injuring at least a dozen people
The U.S. Embassy prohibits its personnel from traveling to the far south of Thailand — Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces. The Department of State urges visitors to defer non-emergency travel to these areas.
Thai-Cambodia Border: Ongoing border disputes between Thailand and Cambodia have prompted the State Department to issue a caution if traveling near the border.
The Thai-Burma Border: The Thai/Burma border is subject to on-going conflicts between the Burmese Army and armed opposition groups as well as clashes between Thai security forces and armed drug traffickers. According to the State Department, pirates, bandits, and drug traffickers operate in these border areas and are responsible for a large portion of crimes in the area. The Department of State recommends that you exercise caution when traveling in remote or rural areas of Thailand adjacent to the Burma border.
Phuket Area: While Phuket is generally safe, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers routinely charge fares that are much higher than those in Bangkok for comparable distances. Threats of violence often accompany these excessive charges. Tuk-tuk and taxi drivers in Phuket are frequently described by the media as being a “mafia.” In 2012, a German citizen was hospitalized after a severe beating by a group of tuk-tuk drivers following an argument about the fare. Last month (July 2013) an American citizen was killed by a taxi driver over a fare dispute – they were arguing over $2 (US). You should take caution when riding in taxi’s and tuk-tuks.
Bangkok: Although most bars and clubs operate honestly, some, frequented by tourists, try to charge exorbitant prices for drinks or unadvertised cover charges and will then threaten violence if the charges are not paid. If you are victimized in this fashion, you should not attempt to resolve the problem yourself. Pay the bill and then phone the Tourist Police at 1155 (within Thailand) but don’t expect much to come of it.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand. Bars and other entertainment venues charge fees to take a “bar girl” or “bar boy” out for the evening. Many of the women, men, and children in the industry are themselves victims of human trafficking rings. You should be aware that not only is prostitution illegal, but there are serious consequences for those choosing to pay for these services, including criminal conviction and imprisonment, particularly in the case of child prostitution.
There are many tourists scams in Bangkok and one on the rise involves purchasing prescription drugs from a pharmacy. If someone claiming to be a police officer demands money from you after you make a prescription drug purchase, request to pay at the police station. Often times you’ll be set up by the pharmacy and a someone pretending to be an officer will try to take your money. Requesting to pay at the police station can help you avoid the scam. If you really are caught, police may impose fines up to 1,000 baht per violation at the police station and should provide receipts for any fines paid. Keep in mind, the Thai Criminal Code does not provide police authority to impose a fine over 1,000 baht. Only a court can impose a larger fine. While these schemes can happen anywhere in Thailand, according to the State Department, they are most often reported in Bangkok, Phuket, and Pattaya – tourist destinations.
You should also keep in mind that you can often buy medicines in Thailand that are prohibited in other countries or require a prescription in other counties. Don’t get caught at customs trying to bring illegal drugs into another country or you could face serious penalties.
So is Thailand safe? After you read all the reports of incidents and warnings from governments, Thailand can seem scary. But on a whole, it’s as safe as most other places in the world. Tragedy can occur at any time, anywhere – look at what happened during the Boston Marathon or at a screening of Batman in movie theater in Denver. You should be aware of your surroundings no matter where you are and avoid high-risk situations. While in Thailand, be observant of local customs and laws and stay abreast of any travel warnings issued by the US or Thai government.
Before you go anywhere overseas, you should register for the State Department’s STEP program – the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program – so you can receive updated information and the Department of State can assist you in an emergency. Follow the local US embassy or consulate on Twitter if they have an account and you’ll often receive very up-to-date and relevant information. Sometimes Twitter doesn’t help so you shouldn’t rely on that as your sole source of information.
Don’t let security and safety concerns keep you from traveling, just be prepared and aware to ensure you have a great holiday.