Category Archives: Thailand

So, We Got Married…. In Vegas

Bangkok, Thailand

I met Sarah in a bar at one of the cheapest hostels in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city.  I’d been travelling for a year and a half and was staying at the old share house (Baan Falang, which loosely translates to Foreigner House in English) that I’d stayed previously while taking a few weeks off from the craziness and dramas of the islands in the gulf.

We met at the Overstay... classy...
We met at the Overstay… classy…

I’d helped out a bit at the hostel, named The Overstay – working on the website and helping tune the sound system, but this time around I was just there hanging out and enjoying a few cold Leo beers with Suzi, and Austrian girl who was also living at Baan Falang and was studying at Thammasat University on exchange. Suzi had invited a few friends from the exchange programme to show them that there was life outside of Khao San Road, of which one of them was an Australian.

Now as a Kiwi, it’s my patriotic duty to take the piss out of any Australian I come across, especially when drinking is involved. So, over a few beers I told everyone about how this girl was descended from convicts, and she talked about how all Kiwis were sheep fuckers – standard practice when Kiwi’s and Aussies meet up and joke over a few beers, something which confuses travellers from other countries – all in good fun and part of the sibling rivalry that goes on between our countries.

Thanks Suzi, we owe you a beer when we see you next!
Thanks Suzi, we owe you a beer when we see you next!

It was at this stage that Suzi’s American friend butts into the conversation and says “But you don’t look like you are Australian” to me.  Drunk as I probably was, I had no idea of where this particular conversation would take me and how it would completely and utterly change my life.  I spent some time chatting to this girl, who seemed completely different to anyone else I’d met on my travels (or anywhere else) – this conversation covering her interest in Buddhism, teasing her about her being a vegan, arguing about Atheism, talking about Thai politics and eventually human trafficking. Somehow I got to talking about an article I’d read about human trafficking and slave trading that was going on in Southern Thailand and we ended up talking for hours.  I found out that this girl was volunteering at an NGO in one of Bangkok’s red light districts helping to teach english to Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Laotian sex workers.  At the end of this conversation we exchanged numbers and I’d promised to take her for a bit of a tour around the parts of Bangkok that aren’t in the tour guides.  This American’s name was Sarah. It was September 4th, 2013.

Beer. It makes marriages.
Beer. It makes marriages.

We eventually ended up doing our little tour of Bangkok, starting off by finding Sarah a copy of the Nancy Chandler Map of Bangkok (and essential for anyone spending a while in the city), exploring the seedier parts of the city before ending up at a favorite drinking hole in Thonglor – Brew Bar. At this stage I find out that Sarah isn’t really a beer drinking – I open the menu and there is a page titled “Beer for Ladies who say they don’t drink beer”, and Sarah orders a belgian fruit beer, while I grab an IPA.  She enjoys it so we decide to order food and some more drinks.  I go up to the bar and order a beer that I hadn’t tried before – a Deschutes Brewery Summer Ale from Bend, Oregon. I take the beer back to the table and Sarah completely freaks out, I start to think I’ve committed some horrible faux pas, before she pulls out her cell phone and shows me a photo. The photo is of the exact same river thats on the label of the beer bottle, and is right next to her mothers home in Terrebonne, Oregon.  Around 30 minutes later a group sits down next to us including a Singaporean guy wearing a black T Shirt, with Deschutes Brewery – Bend Oregon on it.  This was all too much of a coincidence and at that stage Sarah even wondered if it was a set up, but it wasn’t.

No one believes our story until they see the photos.
No one believes our story until they see the photos.

We spent the next few days sending text messages back and forth and communicating via Line, a popular messaging app used by many in Thailand and South East Asia, and I asked one of my best mates back in New Zealand, Vitaly – for advice on this particular girl who seemed to be really different.  The next few weeks were spent with us checking out parts of Bangkok and getting to know each other before one evening where a group of our friends were partying in a bar on Khao San, Happy Bar where one of my mates was over from New Zealand. I won’t go into much detail, but the night ended with the two of us going home in a Tuk Tuk, and the next day was spent shopping in Ikea for her place and my place back in Koh Phangan. It didn’t take much convincing for me to join her and Suzi three days later on a quick flight down to Krabi, which was our first trip as a couple, hanging out on a deserted beach and relaxing together.

Baan Falang in Bangkok
Baan Falang in Bangkok

Eventually I had to go back to the islands, and the next couple of months were spent with each of us making the 9 hour bus trip and 2 hour ferry ride to visit each other and hang out on the island. In November I left Thailand for a brief trip to Malaysia to play paintball for the Tahiti team and DJ at the Paintball World Cup Asia, where I got a phone call that things had gone downhill with a venture I was involved in down on Phangan and it would be best for me to return to Bangkok – Sarah flew me back up, and by that stage Sarah had moved into my old share house, Baan Falang on the floor above where I used to live, which is how we came to move in together.

Her dad came over in December, and we got to know each other travelling to Cambodia together and exploring Phnom Penh and Siem Reap as well as spending new years down in Koh Tao, where I hope I made something of a good impression on him.

Things were getting a little sketchy in Bangkok at the time.
Things were getting a little sketchy in Bangkok at the time.

The next few months were spent in Bangkok, where we tried to live as normal of a live as possible while the protests were going on around us.  Sarah’s classes were cancelled and it became impossible to visit parts of the city as our local bridge was occupied and taxi’s would refuse to travel to our area.  We waited for Sarah to finish her Semester’s studies before booking a flight to New Zealand.  We’d planned to celebrate my 30th birthday with family and friends, as well as spending time working at Asylum Paintball, whom I’d been working for remotely since November.  Two day’s before we were scheduled to leave the country the Army overthrew the government in a military Coup.  TV Stations ceased broadcast, the internet was censored, and the country was put under martial law. We spend the day destroying Sarah’s school books and study notes, which could potentially breach the law – which doesn’t look too favorably on the accurate teaching of history and politics in the Land of Smiles. Since then some of her professors have gone into hiding or exile fearing long prison sentences under laws that are designed to silence dissent. Fearing a repeat of the 2006 occupations of the airports, we booked a hotel by the airport and decided to get out of the city and wait it out in Bang Na. We got on our flight from Thailand to Malaysia, and it felt great to be back in a country where we had a comparatively higher level of freedom of speech before boarding our plane to Auckland. The next three months were a blast, working at Asylum Paintball and watching it grow then touring around New Zealand on my days off to do as much touristy stuff as possible before we headed off to explore the USA.

Terrebonne, Oregon

Fast forward a few months.  It’s now September, 2014 and we are driving up to Terrebonne Oregon to visit Sarah’s mum.  We spend a few days hanging out there, walking about and generally getting over Jet Lag, before going for a walk to Smith Rock. We try to get to the top, but I’m tired, and struggling with the dryness and heat, so we go back down to the base and decide to hike along the river.  We get to a bend in the river and I have to tie my shoelaces.

Does this look familiar?
Does this look familiar?

It’s September 4th, 2014. Exactly one year to the day since we first met in that Bar in Bangkok, but Sarah hasn’t realised this. We are standing right next to the river that’s on the Label of that beer we drank together at Brew Bar in Thonglor on our first date. That’s where we got engaged, one year exactly since we met, at the exact location that caused such a weird conversation in Bangkok – and no, it wasn’t even planned, it just sort of happened spontaneously.  Because, here’s the kicker, I did plan to propose to her that day on the summit of Smith Rock, but I hadn’t clicked onto the significance of the date or location at that stage. At least not until we were right by the river, then it all made sense.

We got home and told our family and friends, and started planning our wedding, which was to be in Malta in July, 2015.

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Las Vegas, Nevada

Fast forward a little longer and Sarah’s cousin from Australia came to stay and travel around the states for a bit. We’d just dealt with a massive family health crisis, and stress levels had hit their peak, fuck it we thought.  Lets get married now.

So off we went to Las Vegas.  We hired a car, or at least attempted to – when we got to the hire place our car wasn’t there, so after a, ahem… heated discussion we got the car we’d ordered before relaxing for the night.  Sarah had a class in the next morning and it wasn’t until around 1pm the next day that we’d get to hit the road.  We decided we’d go the “traditional” Las Vegas route and get married in the Little White Chapel. Yes, that one, the one that all the celebrities got married in. So the night before we got married, I call up and book the wedding and manage to get a time slot where we can get a limo and a wedding – at 10:30pm.  This might sound weird for those who have planned something traditional, but seriously – once you’ve gone through all the insane things we’ve experienced travelling organising something like this at the last minute is just normal.

Paperwork time
Paperwork time

It’s around 1pm on the day of our wedding and our friends are running late, meaning we don’t get to set off until around an hour after we’d plan to leave for the 5 hour drive from San Diego to Las Vegas. As we are driving I have a strange feeling not to stop at the shops in Primm for last minute shopping or anywhere for dinner – I still don’t know why, but that decision pretty much saved the wedding!

We drive through the desert, the sun sets and it’s dark.  We’ve still go to get to the Clark County office and fill in our marriage licence paperwork.  We get there at around 7pm and go to fill out the paperwork. $60 in cash (they don’t accept credit cards) and we have our licence to get married.  Time’s running out and we’ve got to get to our hotel.

Keeping it classy
Keeping it classy

We eventually get to the hotel that we’d booked two rooms, The Stratosphere. Only there’s a problem, only one of our bookings is in their system and the prick on the front desk is trying to charge us an extra $175 per night on top of what we’ve already paid in advance to secure a room that we’ve already booked and paid for.  I try my best not to lose my shit and get arrested on the night of my wedding and keep it together before we eventually get in front of the manager. I put on my best angry Kiwi face and explain that in all the years I’ve dealed with hotels I’ve never had this type of service, before we eventually get the rooms we’ve paid for – without so much of an apology, in fact we are left with a warning that if our story doesn’t check out we’ll be billed for the rooms. So much for service with a smile.

10659188_10152814433856346_6472422562217624601_nWe rush to our rooms, and get ready. I literally crack open a bottle of beer in the shower for my pre drinks. Luckily we are all ready in time and rush to the front door to wait for the limousine.  The driver picks us up, and is an absolute legend, getting us to the Little White Chapel on time.  We are met by the staff from the chapel who give us a tour of the venue, and tell us stories about the history of the place before going over our vows. We’d expected the place to be tacky, being in the old part of the Vegas strip and well, being a place that does drive through weddings. Instead they give us an amazing, fun and memorable stress free wedding.  As we are taking photos, a few mates from New Zealand who have been holidaying in Vegas turn up and join in without wedding party, they can’t believe what we are doing.

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We go through the ceremony, have some laughs and before we know it – we are married. We go back to the hotel and plan some drinks, except a friend of ours, who is on exchange from Thailand and was in the same classroom as Sarah, is under 21, so we can’t drink.  We go to a 50s themed diner for some dinner, and the waitresses are singing to us for the wedding. The whole thing is surreal and by the time we are finished we are completely shattered and need some sleep.

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We are still planning our family wedding in Malta next year, but now we have a lot of paperwork to fill out.  I’m waiting for my paperwork to be sorted out for the states, which should hopefully be sorted in a month or two. It’s been a crazy year and life throws you some real curve balls, but if I hadn’t have gone travelling – I wouldn’t be sitting here married to the most amazing person I’ve ever met, in a country that I never planned to visit, let alone go through the immigration process.

Thailand’s underground home brew & microbrew craft beer scene

Coconuts Bangkok just published this excellent video on the underground and illegal craft beer home brewing scene in Thailand. This is something that I investigated, but never got into due to the dubious legal situation with brewing beer yourself (Especially as a foreigner) and importing hops from overseas. The team at Coconuts Bangkok did a great job in explaining the situation, and profiling some local brewers.

While the fine is small (only 200 baht for brewing), there is a potential 6 month jail term if you sell home brew – a penalty that puts many home brewers off even trying, or at least keeps the practise underground.  There are however a few new home brew or craft beer collectives popping up over the place – though officially they don’t sell beer to the public, unofficially however – you’ll have to try your luck.

I never spotted these when I was living in Thailand, only hearing rumours of them and the odd Facebook post of someone brewing on their roof in Bangkok.  Instead I settled on the wide range of imported beer that was popping up in bars around Bangkok.

Brewers profiled include:

Team Alpha Brewing (Location Unknown – Bangkok):

Established in September 2013 according to their Facebook page. These guys are brewing a few different beers at the moment “Bangkok Sunburn” and “Single But Unavailable” both APA style beers. They are currently working on a new brew “Lion Funeral” which should be ready about now. These beers aren’t available for sale, you’ll have to get in touch with them via Facebook, convince them that you are a home brewer and earn their trust.

Team ALpha Brewing BKK

Chit Beer (Ko Kret, Nonthaburi)

These guys are interesting as they appear to brewing very openly, serving their beer in a retail bar and selling it to the general public. They are located on the small (2km by 1km) island of Ko Kret which is actually on the Chao Praya river in Nonthaburi, 20km north of Bangkok. You can find out how to get to the island on this blog.  They appear to brew the largest range of styles in Thailand.

Chit Beer appear to be brewing a wide range of beers as well as operating a shop where you can purchase home brewing kits and supplies. Their beer styles include include an Amber Ale, Porter, IPA, Stone IPA (is this a clone of the famous San Diego beer?), American Wheat, Stout, Wisen, Kolsch, Pilsner, Vienna Lager, Dunkel Munich Lager, Chrysanthemum Ale (an APA), Pandanus Ale and even a seasonable Pumpkin ale!  They are serious about brewing, even teaching the locals how to make their own beers with specialist home brewing classes.

Chit Beer

Sandport Beer (Location Unknown – Bangkok)

Another one that I had not heard of until this short documentary. Formed in 2014 Sandport appears to be more a club of mates brewing for themselves, and sharing their creations at the odd party, clandestine event and pop up shop.

They’ve got a few different beers on the go, including Broken Sword Red Ale & Bang Bang IPA in bottles as well as Rah IPA and Wheat Boom White Ale.

Who else is out there?

Do you know of any more home breweries or bars selling locally produced craft beer in Thailand? Add them in the comments!

The Dark Side of Thailand’s Island Paradise

Edit: 24 December 2015: The two Burmese have been found guilty of murder and have been sentence to the death penalty as we predicted way back in September 2014. This is after a complete travesty of justice, with tampered and lost DNA evidence, confessions under duress, lack of translators, mafia threats to journalists, a smear campaign against me originating from a Farang bar owner connected to the family in question, as well as this post being used as the basis for numerous articles including Time, Channel 4 news and more. While the defence team say they will appeal, I’m guessing that under the current military regime that this will never happen, or that something will happen to the two Burmese migrants who were made to be scapegoats – after all “no Thai could ever do this”.  

Shame to the westerners who live on the island and have continued to support the family in question, those who have helped to cover up what has happened. You now have the blood of these two unfortunate workers on your hands. I hope that the lifestyle is worth it. 

Edit  30 September, 2014: Since publishing this post it has received over 40,000 views, 4,000 Facebook shares and has been quoted in major international newspapers. Due to this I will be editing it as a live document, with news as it comes in. I’ve received a few angry messages from people on the island with vested interests (as well as very close connections to the very mafia families mentioned here) and past residents have added their two cents in the comments section – if you have had any personal experiences or can add to this, please feel free to comment.  Any corrections will be added providing there is evidence to do so. 

The recent murders in Koh Tao of two young backpackers have attracted a lot of unwanted attention to the dark side of Thailand, including “mafiastyle families (known as Chao Pho “เจ้าพ่อ” in Thai) operating in the Gulf of Thailand on islands such as Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samui.

Chao pho or jao poh literally means “godfather.” Chao pho are mostly of Han ethnicity based in the provinces who have business interests in both legitimate and criminal activities. Moreover, they have groups of associates and followers, move closely with powerful bureaucrats, policemen and military figures, sit in positions in local administration, and play a key role in parliamentary elections.[1] Chao pho mostly come from a Hanethnic background.According to Thai authorities, there are chao pho groups in 39 of Thailand’s 76 provinces. From these provinces they work like a local mafia as they are active in both illegal as well as some legitimate businesses. They are involved in a wide range of criminal activities such as prostitution, drug trafficking, illegal gambling and others They are known for cooperating with the Red Wa ( who are associated with the United Wa State Army) for the trafficking and sale of narcotics.[2]

– Wikipedia “Chao Pho

Having lived on both Tao and Phangan, I’ve got some insights (but can’t claim to know everything) about how things operate – which should give more of a picture to what is currently going on than what foreign journalists are portraying.  As with anything in Thailand, things are much, much more complex than they appear at first.

A Bit of Koh Tao History

For most of it’s history Koh Tao looked nothing like it did today. It was likely a stopping off point for Malay fishermen for centuries, due largely to its isolated position in the Gulf of Thailand. In the 1800s, there would have been a couple of small villages, while later on in the 1890’s King Chulalongkorn visited the island – which is marked with a monument on Sairee beach.  The island remained a quiet place for decades, with a few fishing families and farmers and not much else.

After the Siamese Revolution of 1932, the country moved from being an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democracy (of sorts).  Koh Tao was used as a political prison in a similar way to Koh Tarutao in the South. In 1947, the prisoner inhabitants were given a Royal pardon and shipped off out of exile to the neighboring islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. The island was once again abandoned.

The legend then goes that two brothers from Koh Phangan sailed to Koh Tao and settled on the land that is now considered Sairee beach. They farmed and fished and lead a fairly simple lifestyle occasionally trading with those on Koh Phangan.

The Vietnam war came about, which created a tourism boom in Thailand during the 1960s and 1970s for American GIs on R&R. Early backpackers began to explore the Islands in the gulf of Thailand, with dive trips originating from Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. The first full moon party being held on Phangan in the late 1980s. Gradually tourism began to increase on the Islands, and the island began to become more and more developed. First with a few simple shops and dive huts, then resorts, and later bars and other non diving related business. Larger ferry companies such as Lomprayah, Seatran and Songserm began to serve the island with overnight buses originating from Bangkok to fill the many spots on a growing dive industry. The island developed its two main areas of Sairee beach (which is now full of nightclubs, resorts and dive shops) and the sleepier “local” side of Chalok Ban Kao as well as the busy port of Mae Haad.

Power Structures on the Island

As with virtually any other town, village or island there is a patronage style system that those in the west would consider “mafia like”. However due to Koh Tao’s isolation and history this becomes more complex.  (Technically these go all the way from the lowliest street vendor, through mafia and local government, all the way up to the military and eventually Royalty –

Spend any time living on the island or speak to long termers under normal circumstances and they will speak of the “five families” that inhabit the island. Three of these key families inhabit and control the main Sairee beach, while the other two have more power on the Chalok side of the Island.

These families are the descendents of the original settler families that arrived on the island between the 1940s and 1980s, prior to the advent of dive tourism. Although they do not own land (all land on the island is technically owned by the King via the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources) they do have a form of squatters rights that allows them to extract rent and develop businesses on their patch. A very small land rent is then payable to the crown for every “rai” (a Thai measurement of land) that they possess.

These families control or have an interest in virtually every business on the island in some way, shape or form. This can either be in the form of direct ownership, partnership, as a landlord or major supplier. No business on the island, whether Thai or Farang exists without some form of interaction of patronage or involvement from these key families.

The families areas are fairly clearly demarcated around property boundaries. What might be appropriate behavior in one area of the beach, would not be acceptable behavior in another. A long termer may have “protection” in one bar, but would never contemplate entering another due to relationships (business, friendship or otherwise) with someone connected to another.

These families, in typical Thai fashion, tend to be incredibly jealous of each other, and highly competitive for every tourist dollar. There are many stories on the islands of what happens when one family perceives another family to have wronged them in one way or another and it generally involves petty rivalries over cash.

The other power source on the island is the Royal Thai Police who operate out of a building behind the school and temple on the Mae Haad end of Sairee beach. To describe them as law enforcement is generous, as they are merely another form of mafia style organisation on the island (a 6th family if you will). Their police work generally consists of driving around the island on their scooters, collecting their weekly extortion money from local businesses before spending it on booze and other entertainment. It’s worth noting that police purchase their postings in Thailand, it costs money to be the top police officer in a Tourist area, because to Thais – being the local sheriff in town is a business opportunity. Ask locals what the going rate is to be head of police in Phuket, Samui, Pattaya or any other area with a large potential revenue stream of bribes from strung up tourists.

“If there really is a mafia, locals and police detectives would have informed me already,” Pol.Gen. Somyot.

Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2007, a survey assessing the public’s perceptions and experience of corruption in 60 countries, states that, for Thailand, the police received a rating of four out of five, where one represents “not at all corrupt” and five represents “extremely corrupt”

– Wikipedia

Drugs on the Island

Drugs are prevalent on Koh Tao and easier to get. As with everything on the island there is a police of family involvement.  In my time there, I saw people on a wide variety of substances, including cannabis, LSD, Ya Ba ( literally “crazy drug” in Thai, a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine) and surprisingly cocaine. Cocaine was being consumed by many of the Thai Bar owners on Sairee beach while I was there during low season, and resulted in unpredictable behaviour – extreme highs, and extreme lows, which could potentially turn dangerous at a moments notice.

Long term locals all know the situation with drugs on the island, either consuming or turning a blind eye. When the police start to run low on cash, checkpoints will be set up on the road to Ao Leuk and the entrance to North Sairee village. This is where fresh foreigners will be caught with small amounts of cannabis, or urine tests will sometimes be taken for substances.  The police intention is not to catch and charge foreigners for drug possession, but to use the threat of criminal sanction as leverage in order to extort cash off them.

When the amount is too large to cover up, criminal charges may be laid, but generally the person charged will get out on bail and a local lawyer will arrange a generous fine in order to get the person off the charges.  Everyone involved takes their cut. In my time on the island I’ve personally witnessed a Thai businessman threatening to plant drugs under the seat of the motorbike due to a perceived insult from a farang, before calling the police.

Motorbike Rental Extortion

The biggest scam on the island (as with the other islands in the Gulf) involves the rental of motorbikes to tourists. All of the motorbike rental companies require a passport as collateral and use a standard rental agreement that is common on Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Requiring a passport for collateral is illegal in Thailand, and for many nationals it is also illegal for them to provide. That said most tourists still do this, naive to how everything works.

Bikes that are returned with any damage, no matter how small result in massive costs for the renter.  A scratched piece of plastic that costs no more than 300 baht, will be charged anywhere from 3,000-10,000 baht.  Excessive consumption of booze, poor quality roads, crazy taxi drivers and lack of lighting at night result in more than a fair share of motorbike accidents. Tourists are often eager to leave after a crash, and don’t want to miss their ferry – leaving all of the power with the rental company to extort whatever they like for a damaged bike. Those who argue with a rental company risk physical violence, and there have been multiple reports of on tripadvisor of firearms being pulled on those who argue with the rental company.

Koh Tao continues to rent out dangerous four wheel ATVs to inexperienced riders, a practise that has been banned on the other gulf islands due to the sheer number of accidents. None of these bikes are insured (even those that advertise insurance) and riders who do not carry an international drivers licence, with a motorbike endorsement along with specific cover for motorbike riding are not covered.

As with any other islands, police involvement may result in a slight decrease in the compensation for any motorbike accident, but the police officer will need to take his cut.

Violent Crime on the Island

Generally speaking the island is very safe.  Part of the reason for this, is ironically enough that local strongmen and families keep the peace. There is only one main way in and out of the Island, and if you put a foot wrong you will be made to leave.  By the same token, there is little theft because of the small size and difficulty of removing valuable items. There have however been a few incidents that I know of in the recent history of the island.

  • A bar owner was shot dead in a bar on Sairee beach, in public on a busy night in front of multiple witnesses over a business dispute. The bar has since been renamed and is under new (unrelated) management.  No one was ever arrested for the shooting, and the alleged shooter operates a bar on the other side of the island.
  • Around 2002, one of the most powerful business people on the island, and brother of the operator of a major dive (Ban’s Diving – the biggest dive school in the world) school is shot dead in the middle of Sairee after a dispute with families. This is allegedly in or around the same shop that Scot, Sean McAnna was in when hiding from the two Thai men over the weekend. Again, no one was ever arrested for the shooting, though many locals claim to know who did it. Apparently the body was still in a freezer waiting to be cremated 6 years later. The story was covered by the Bangkok Post, but is no longer available online.

TAO chief killed by masked man

Shot in daylight, talking to friends

A local administrative organisation chief and business tycoon was shot dead by a masked gunman on Tao island early yesterday morning.

Virat Asavachin, 42, chairman of Tambon Koh Tao Administrative Association, was shot while talking with three friends near Ree beach.

A lone gunman, his face covered with a woollen mask, walked up to the group and fired six shots at Mr Virat, police said.

One of the bullets entered his left ear.

The gunman then walked calmly away towards the main road, witnesses told police.

The dead man’s wife, Ramluek, 29, and tambon organisation officials were questioned yesterday as police investigators looked for a motive.

The investigators suspected the attack arose from either a business conflict or a dispute over work in the tambon.

The victim owned Ban’s Diving, a 100-million-baht diving business and the largest dive shop on the resort island.

He recently began a ferry boat business serving the Chumphon-Koh Tao route.

  • A taxi driver stabbed another taxi driver in Mae Haad after he “stole” a customer from him in broad daylight. No one was ever arrested. Taxis are also operated by two mafia families – there are no motorcycle taxis allowed and the lack of competition results in extortionately expensive taxi fares.
  • There are also numerous stories of bars being burned down by jealous brothers, or even landlords.  Parties have been shut down at gunpoint by jealous competitors with an empty bar. Business owners have been made to leave the island at gunpoint by the close of business.
  • There are many stories of Thai on Thai crime, generally involving shootings over men who have fooled around with others wives. This tends to happen away from the resort areas.
  • The attempted rape and throat slashing of a foreign bar managers wife, which went unreported.

In the Context of the Recent Murders

Over the last few days a very complex and ever changing story has emerged from the Island.

  1. A pair of British tourist’s were brutally murdered on the beach front in front of a bar owned by a local Poo Yai (big man on the island) using tools that belong to either a Thai business or migrant labourers.
  2. Local police were quoted as saying that a Thai could never do something like this (even though there are thousands of Thais in jail for doing similar things to each other), and proceeded to attempt to pin the blame on everyone from the victims best friends, migrant burmese labourers and more.
  3. Police officers start posting images of the victims on their personal Facebook accounts, people who are IDed as potential suspects later on are photographed walking all over and contaminating the crime scene.
  4. The media leaks sensitive information, and starts to paint a picture blaming the friend of the victim, claiming he is his gay lover and completely defaming him. Police apparently plant bloodied shorts in his bag.
  5. The Prime Minister then stepped in, proceeding to blame the victim of the murder for being pretty and wearing a bikini, even though the murder was at night and photos of video the victim show her fully clothed prior to the incident.
  6. A long termer on the island (Scott McAnna) who is also a friend of the male victim accuses local family members of being involved with the murder (he does not directly accuse them of it) and threatening to hang him, and use him as a scapegoat. He posts this on social media, and attempts to get it far and wide, with posts along the lines of if he is found dead tonight, these are the guys who did it.The Thais involved openly admit they “had words” with Sean, confirming that he was at least threatened, but because they are “Poo Yai” and mates with the cops, they are allowed to walk – without taking a DNA test.
  7. The police continue their ludicrous investigation including reenacting the scene in the middle of the night, measuring the footprints of Burmese women and taking urine tests from Burmese males.
  8. Various things would have happened behind the scenes, and eventually those fingered by the foreigner are brought into the police station for an interview, and refuse DNA tests.
  9. Relatives of those accused by Sean of threatening to kill him do a runner up to Bangkok. Thai media name them as suspects while local police claim they are not, and merely at University. This is after the island was supposed to have been sealed off.
  10. Posts pop up on various facebook groups urging foreigners not to comment to the media, or speak to any outsiders until approval is given by key people on the island.  Comments are deleted or self censored.  There is an appearance of a wall of silence, either for personal safety, or to protect business interests.
  11. Various sock puppet accounts appear on online message boards such as Thaivisa.com attempting to derail commentary on the incident and the character assassination of the only witness begins.
  12. It turns out that the witness has a very shady past of his own back in Europe, this is reported in Scottish newspapers.
  13. Family are cleared due to DNA tests that are processed in record time (bare in mind that it takes 3 hours to get off Koh Tao by boat, and up to 9 hours to drive to Bangkok – where the main forensic labs would be, otherwise its a 3 hour boat ride to Koh Samui, then a 1 hour plane to Bangkok. This is before even factoring in the time it would take to actually process the tests). DNA Tests in a first world country generally take anywhere from 24-48 hours, and thats not even taking into account the chain of custody of samples each way. There is some concern as to whether Thailand even is capable of testing to international standards (this is an old source, circa 2007):

    “Currently, neither of the 6 forensic DNA laboratories in Bangkok is accredited for forensic DNA analysis by international accreditation bodies nor ISO17025:2005. However, out of the 6 DNA laboratories, one laboratory is ISO 15189:2003 accredited and one is ISO 9001:2000 accredited for the management system. All of the 6 laboratories are equipped with essential instruments sufficient for carrying out forensic DNA analysis, though a need to balance the capacity of major instruments to reach it’s full capacity. To strengthen the competency of staffs, specialtraining regarding forensic issues must be provided. All 6 laboratories have positive attitude towards standards and accreditation as prerequisite to carry out forensic case work. Over 66.67% of the DNA laboratories aim for being ISO17025:2005 accredited within 3 years. However, in order to process for the accreditation, the main organizationmust have a clear supporting policy. An external auditor may be appointed as a part of the auditing team to provide a broader view to the laboratory, as well as demonstrating clarity of the quality assurance process. In the beginning of this year, 2007, the Bureau of Laboratory Quality Standards, Ministry of Public Health, Thailand has launched anaccreditation program based on ISO/IEC 17025:2005 for forensic science laboratories. This is would help support Thai forensic laboratories to meet the quality and international standards in the very near future.”

  14. Family head man offers 1 million baht (about $40,000 NZD) to the police if a member of his family is guilty.  This screams either blood money, that he knows who did it, or that its a thinly veiled threat against any local who might name a family member.
  15. Police stop considering Head man’s son as a suspect as he has a dubious “alibi” in Bangkok, yet no DNA tests are taken. It is unclear whether there is a second son on the run, due to the poor quality of Thai and Foreign of media reporting. The person in charge of the Forensics institute in Thailand is none other than Pornthip Rojanasusnan, the same person who defended the fraudulent GT-2000 bomb detectors, which had no working parts. She even suggested using these fake bomb detectors to find corpses that were rumoured to be held in shipping containers off the Thai coast in 2009.  In 2010 she was quoted as saying: “I do not feel embarrassed if the bomb detector is proven ineffective. Personally, I have never handled the device myself. But my people have used it and it is accurate every time. Long long time ago, people believed that the Earth is flat and anyone who said otherwise faced execution. Things which are not visible does not necessarily mean they do not exist.”
  16. A Thai Taxi driver says he is arrested by the local police who then offer him 700,000 baht to give false evidence.  He is beaten when he does not comply. He states that the knows nothing about the incident. The headman (whose family was earlier implicated by Sean McAnna as making threats on his life) urges the police not to use violence with the police or arrest a scapegoat.
  17. The Tourism Authority of Thailand visit Koh Tao, and the Minister of Tourism suggest solutions such as wristbands with tourists ID details and tracking devices for tourists, as well as a local “buddy system” and safe areas. This is received with widespread ridicule worldwide, as such a system would do absolutely nothing to prevent violent crime against tourists, but would make a considerable amount of money for whoever is involved in the production of said devices and wristbands.

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At this stage its not clear exactly what happened, though generally speaking, when there is smoke – there is fire. I have no idea what happened on that night, as I’m on the other side of the world.  Based on past experiences on the island – I do have strong suspicions that the local families and police have actively tried to derail the investigation, attempted to cover it up and that had social media not attracted international attention on the case, that a Burmese scapegoat would have been found.  The police almost admit this  in a newspaper article:

“Please have confidence in our work, there will be no scapegoats”

“The case is being watched closely, watched worldwide and we are working hard to make this case as airtight as possible”

Lt Gen Panya

I personally believe Sean McAnna when he says he was threatened by the local Thais. I’ve read various claims on Thaivisa.com that the threats were too direct and in colliqual english that would not be used by a Thai.  Koh Tao is not like other areas in Thailand – the locals have the best command of English out of anywhere I’ve been.  His chequered past would have made him an easy patsy, but then again so would many long term residents on the Island whom the local police are probably keeping tabs on. The police were building a story about guitar players, about foreigners and that Thai’s couldn’t possibly be involved.

I think had Sean not made his outburst that he probably would have ended up either dead, or blamed for the whole situation. I have absolutely zero faith in the Thai justice system or any island police officers ability to do their job.

I’m saddened by the wall of silence from the Koh Tao expat community, but I can also understand why. Many have had brushes with the law in the past, mostly to do with drug use – and the police always hold this as ammunition for use in the future. Many others have business interests but incorrect Visas or nominee shareholdings in their business or property ownership. They could lose their entire investments and lifestyle that they have become accustomed to simply for speaking out. Some could get deported for overstay, fined for employing illegal immigrants or arrested for working without a work permit.

Something about the whole story still doesn’t make sense though. I simply cannot understand why someone from one of these powerful families would actually get involved in this mess and do something so brutal.  Somewhere these facts don’t add up. Thai males are known to get violent at a moments notice – but this is when “face” comes into play.  They don’t (especially well connected business owners, even ones descended from squatters) just rape and murder two tourists when their entire industry depends on them.

I very much doubt that the person (or people) who did this will actually be punished. I think someone will be arrested, and will have a confession beaten out of them by Thai police. Due to the international attention, local cops cannot risk the loss of face by not “solving” this tragic crime.  It is unlikely however that justice will be done.

There will likely be a short term drop in tourist numbers to the rock, but backpackers generally don’t pay attention to these sort of things, many tend to think they are invincible or will never happen to them, and by next season – things will be back to “normal”.

As with anywhere in Thailand, tourists should use caution while having fun, and always be careful around Thai males when drugs, alcohol and women are involved. What happened was a very rare occurrence, but its not unprecedented on the islands, where suspicious deaths are often reported as being by “natural causes” or “suicide”.

Baan Si Daam – The Black House in Chiang Rai

Baan Si Daam is another one of Chiang Rai’s more interesting art spaces, often described as the opposite of the White Temple nearby. Personally I think its a little lazy to compare the two, although they are two compounds of buildings with seemingly opposite messages, they are also completely different.  With both buildings having their own dark messages to tell.  Baan Dam 9White the White Temple is a temple based around an artists work, the Black house is more of an artists lifelong collection and gallery, with a focus on the dark and morbid (such as animal bones, skins, weapons and other art pieces referencing death and decay).
Baan Dam 8The art space is a project of Thai artist Thawan Duchanee and is also his home, he was the mentor of Ajarn Charlemchai who built the White Temple.  Walking around you’ll find elephant skeletons, massive drums made of animal rawhide,  antique firearms, snakeskins, huge tables and chairs decorated with buffalo horns and much more. Baan Dam 7While we were visiting there was an exhibition of local artists, with paintings, sculptures and more that you can view.  The pieces have been described as the “artists vision of hell“, but again I find this a strange thing to say and possibly a western description, as there isn’t really a “Hell” in the Bhuddist belief system.   Baan Dam 6 The Black House is definitely one of the more interesting places I’ve visited in Thailand, and well worth a visit if you are travelling in the North. If you like your things dark and edgy (and possibly if you are a metal fan, this place could make an amazing backdrop for a metal video), Baan Si Daam is the place for you! Baan Dam 5

How to find the Black House, Baan Dam

414 Moo 13 Nanglae, Muang, Chiang Rai, 57100

Ok, so this place isn’t terribly easy to find and its about a 30 minute motorbike ride north from the White Temple.  Head north through the township of Chiang Mai towards the Mai Sai border.  The Black House is about 12km outside of the city.Baan Dam 3

You’ll go over a bridge, pass the airport and the university and you will be close.  You’ll see a purple sign (these are all over Chiang Rai for various artists) that will have “National Artist Thawan Duchanee”, you’ll need to turn left into this soi.Baan Dam 1The road is flooded so you’ll need to mount the pavement and drive down the soi, taking another turn when you see a sign for “Baan Dam” then follow the road until the end.  There is parking space across the street for cars and bikes.Baan Dam 4Baan Dam 2

White Temple (Wat Rong Kun) in Chiang Rai

 

The White Temple is probably one of the most interesting temples that I’ve visited while in Thailand.  The temple is a project that is started by Thai artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997. White Temple 5
The temple is white to symbolise purity, in contrast to many traditional Thai temples that are colourful and covered in gold.  White Temple 9Its full of imagery of skulls, hollywood villains, monsters, aliens, demons and other evils of the world, which of course, has often caused some confusion among tourists when taken out of context.
White Temple 6
This week the Daily Mail in the UK decided to take offence at the temple, despite never actually setting foot in the place, and not doing a single bit of research into the motivations of the artist.
White Temple 4
In the words of the artist himself (who we saw painting inside the temple when we were there) in the information brochure:

“I want everyone to know our world is being destroyed by those who build weapons to kill, thereby ruining the environment because nothing is ever enough. They segregate and cannot find peace. I saw the violence and it hurts me me and mankind to observe the killing of the innocence by these two powerful individuals (referring to Bush and Bin Laden). Peaceful people do not want to see the murder of the muslims and the collapse of the new york twin towers. I want to show the eyes, as important organs, should look at each other with kindness and not with hate that can lead to war. I painted at that time to caution both bush and bin laden, so that they can look toward a peaceful and happy world. I painted superman and Ultra Man to let people know that there are no heroes in or world, actually people need heroes since our morality declines every day. However no heroes from the movie screen arrive to help the havoc of the twin towers. Eventually the world becomes ill not only with the environment, but also with the people. People lack moral standards, that is why I portray evil people as the demon with mouth opened encircled at the entrance to the temple. When people walk out they will feel that they leave the demon behind that is they have rid themselves from evil spirits and going towards the highest level of dhamma, where people will not be reborn. The thai designs that flow from the eyes, nose and mouth of the demon towards the back wall of the temple change into angelic carriage that takes the people who rid themselves from evil deeds to meet the lord buddha at the edge of the universe”

White Temple 3The temple is constantly being added to, with new buildings being constructed, sculptures being cast from concrete and paintings added to the interiors.  The project is expected to last at least 90 years, with instructions and plans to be followed after the artists death.

The artist gets up every morning at 2am, meditates and then works on the temple for the day along with his students. White Temple 2It even features quite possibly the nicest toilets in Thailand, or as its referred to in the brochure “the most beautiful toilet”, with its own slippers for wearing inside to keep it clean. White Temple 1

 

How to find the White Temple in Chiang Rai

The White Temple is located a few kilometres south of the main township of Chiang Rai on the right hand side of highway 1.  You’ll get to an intersection, hand a right and you are there.

Its probably easiest to get there on a hired motorbike that can be rented for about 200 baht a day, and a deposit of around 3000 baht (or your passport if you insist, but I don’t recommend giving your passport to anyone in Thailand unless its absolutely necessary).

White Temple Map