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Thailand Travel FAQ | Avoid while Traveling in Thailand

▶ "I am not a Drug Smuggler, just a Recreational User"

The Thai police won't see it like that if they catch you either at the border or within the country with any type of drug, "soft" or "hard". If you are caught with a large amount of any drug, the police will assume you are a dealer and you are in for at least 10 years of hell, locked in a cell with 30-40 other people, in blistering heat with one toilet and guards who have never heard the term "human rights". You don't want to experience that so don't touch drugs. Even if the police were to catch you with a small amount of any drug, there would be big trouble. Most likely you would be locked up without charge and extorted out of a large amount of money in order to avoid jail. And don't expect the police to be nice to you, there is no police complaints commission so they are not answerable for their actions, in fact there have been thousands of extrajudicial killings of people allegedly involved in drugs - the police don't even need proof to shoot you dead on the street, if they have received a tip off about you buying, selling or carrying drugs they may just open fire.

▶ Full Moon Party

I know what you are thinking - a bit of weed or some amphetamines at the full moon party can't hurt. Well, chances are that you won't end up in prison but you could easily get arrested and taken for all your money. That is not to mention that by getting involved with the dealers you are getting involved with some seriously bad people. Violence towards foreigners is very rare in Thailand but it is becoming disproportionately common on Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui. That's the sort of thing that can happen when you get involved with drug dealers.

▶ Sexual Crimes | Underaged Sex

Sometimes sex may be consensual, but the consent doesn't count. How does this happen? If the person with whom the defendant has had sex is considered too young to consent. In Thailand this age is 15. If your sex partner is under 15, you're guilty of violating Section 277 of the Criminal Code of Thailand, and this applies to practically any sex act. It is also applicable regardless of whether your partner is of the same sex. The punishment for this is a fine and imprisonment from four to 20 years. Stay away from it if you do not want to be jailed the "Bangkok Hilton" However parts of the Prevention and Suppression of Prostiitution Act, which disallow any sexual contact with prostitutes under the age of 18, are widely interpreted by some local authorities to cover sexual acts classed as "obscenity for personal gratification". Also from the Penal Code Amendment Act of 1997 Section 283bis, having sex with a child under 18 is a compoundable offense even with the consent of that person. The parent or the child may file charges against the other side if he or she later regrets his or her own action. This ostensibly makes the Thai unfettered age of consent 18. A high profile example of this application of the law was a statutory rape charge filed against the lead singer of the Thai band Big Ass for allegedly having had sex with a (then) 16 year old girl. The charge was filed by the girl after the singer refused to take responsibility for her baby. The singer has since been cleared of being the baby's father due to the results of a paternity test and he received 2 years suspended sentence.

▶ Prison Time

The latest prison statistics for July 2012 have been released and they show a 3.8% increase in the prison population from the previous month. This is also a 4.26% increase from this time last year. In June 2012 there were 239,718 inmates. In July 2012 there were 248,825 inmates. On 5th December 2011, the King’s Pardon resulted in a number of releases and a drop in the prison population. Just before the pardon, there were 251,812 inmates but by 1st January 2012 this had dropped to 224,864. So, it could then be presumed that about 26,948 had been released by the pardon. Since January, each month has seen a slight increase in the prison population.


▶ The Jailhouse Rocks.... Well, not quite

A former inmate at Samut Prakan prison says that while sleeping head to foot with 60 other convicts and dealing with meal-time misery wasn’t fun, his time incarcerated wasn’t the nightmare he was expecting.

Let’s call him Stan. That’s not his real name, as this recently released prisoner doesn’t want to get into even deeper trouble than he was last December and January, when for a period of almost one month, he was incarcerated at Samut Prakan prison.

He also did not want to reveal his nationality, nor the crime he was convicted of.

Yes, the food was horrible, there was little to read and the mechanisms of the court system were slow. But inmates were able to spend a great deal of time outdoors, there was little antagonism between the prisoners and Stan did not witness any mistreatment of them.

“Overall, it was quite decent,” says Stan. “I don’t want to give Thai prisons a bad rap. All in all, the conditions were better than I expected.” Stan had only one major grievance: the size of the cells. Given the lack of space, cellmates had no option but to sleep with the head of one prisoner flanked by two pairs of feet and his feet were in turn flanked by two heads. Packing them in like sardines in this manner was the only way so many men could be squeezed into one cell. “Having 62 people in one cell, as was the case in my cell, was impossible. A friend of mine there told me that sometimes they had 70 in a room. I can’t imagine that. I would have loved to have been in a room with 50 people. “Fortunately there wasn’t a lot of foot odour since nobody wore socks or shoes.

“We were packed in tight. I was right up against the toilet. But I was happy there as I could relieve myself at night without having to stumble over other prisoners. We would be pressed up against each other. We had days in which more people would come in, but fewer would go out, adding to the overcrowding. “The lights stay on at night for security. You wear blinders. One inmate has to stay awake as a guard. I often volunteered to do that because I couldn’t sleep anyway.”

Stan described how one Cambodian prisoner that he usually slept next to kept trying to curl into the foetal position, and how he had to keep straightening out the man’s legs, as everyone needed to sleep in a straight position to keep from infringing on their neighbour’s space. “That was the one thing I really had a problem with - it’s a human-rights issue. It’s sleep deprivation. There’s no excuse for that,” says Stan, “But I know it’s not supposed to be like the Dusit resort either.” For Stan, the worst time of day came at 4pm, when the inmates were confined to their communal cells until 6.45am. The days were not as gruelling as is commonly believed, largely because they had the run of the compound during that time.

“They have a football pitch,” says Stan. “A lot of inmates enjoyed playing on it. And other prisoners and I would jog around it and do pull-ups on the goals. There are also benches, a Buddhist temple and a mosque. I would mostly just pass my time walking around the compound.”

He also reports that at no time did he ever see or hear about guards abusing any of the prisoners. What’s more, many of the non-formal guard duties were performed by well behaved and trusted inmates.

As Stan puts it, “The prison is run by the inmates. They guard you. And when you come in, they process you. “Prisons in some other countries are dangerous. The prisoners in Samut Prakan were all nice.” While overcrowding was his only major complaint, he also had several lesser grievances. One was what was - or wasn’t - on offer at mealtimes. “You don’t get many vegetables in there,” says Stan. “But you could buy better food with your own money. The free food that they gave us was almost useless. They served rice topped with some bits of indescribable vegetables and some tiny pieces of meat that were very bony. You lose weight in there.” He also missed fruit, saying “We were lucky to get an apple a week.”

There are dozens of cells and each has a TV, often showing what Stan called “horrible and violent Hollywood action movies”. He was glad that at least they were dubbed in Thai.

Stan also expressed frustration that the strict measures enacted to ensure that no drugs are smuggled into the prison also meant that many medicines would not get in either. “They don’t have to have that security at the expense of our health,” he says. “I was cold there the first few nights since it takes a few days to be issued a blanket. And you have to wash it right away. Sleeping on the floor is horrible. When I got out, my doctor told me that I’d contracted bronchitis and scabies.” He says that only representatives of the inmate’s embassy could bring in medicines for them.

The same policy also applies to reading material; even his Thai girlfriend wasn’t allowed to bring him books, and he says that although there was a prison library, it was full of “awful-looking, mostly romance novels”. “There was only one good book in there, The Killing Fields, which made me feel better while reading it since I wasn’t that guy in that story. “Considering that I was only in there for a month, I can’t complain much. If I’d been in there longer, getting out would have taken a bigger adjustment. I tried not to worry about it.”

Another source of annoyance was going to court. “We were shackled each time we had a court appearance, which was about once every 12 days. The system is very backed up. So basically you would be shackled, bused to court and stay there all day in a cell that’s worse than prison, only to get a piece of paper stating that your case was still under review and that you had to come back in another 12 days. “Court days suck. You don’t look forward to that piece of steel being attached to your legs by a guy with an anvil who would bang it on for you. And you would always have a thorough body search on court days when you left and when you came back to your cell.” Stan thinks that prison may indeed serve its purpose of scaring convicts straight. “Anyone who goes to prison will try to do something on the straight and narrow when they get out. The question is: Will they fail in readjusting to life outside? There need to be more efforts at rehabilitation - prison shouldn’t just be about punishment.”

Source: Bangkok Post


▶ The Womens Prison

The foreigner with probably the best knowledge of the inside of the Central Women’s Correctional Institution in Bangkok is former Miss South African finalist Venessa Goosen.

She was arrested in 1994 at the airport with 2.7kg of heroin in her possession. She was initially sentenced to 50 years in the female section of Klong Prem Prison. Over the years she received a series of pardons until finally, after 16 years, she was sent home. A year later, another Souther African, Nolubabalo Nobanda, has just been arrested at Suvarnabhumi Airport for allegedly carrying 1.5kg of cocaine in her dreadlocks. Speaking to a South African newspaper, Vanessa tells what it was like in the women’s prison and gives some advice for Nolubabalo and her family. “Nolubabalo will have a tough time. No-one speaks English. The police and the warders only speak their mother tongue. This is terrifying because you cannot understand anything.

She will be taken to the local police station where new prisoners are kept in a filthy, dark basement for up to seven days. There is no mattress or pillows, just the cold floors. Most times the food is contaminated. Goosen claimed the policemen were also very forward and loved “touching women prisoners”.

“At court the language barrier is also a problem. I signed stacks of paperwork that was in [Thai]. I could not understand a word.” Prisoners were then taken to the prison where “the real hell starts”.  “You are stripped naked. Violated in every possible way as a doctor, assisted by prisoners, search your entire body for drugs. All your possessions are taken away. All you are left with is a prison uniform.” Nobanda would have to pay for food, toiletries and water. “Nothing is free. If you don’t have money, you starve. I hope Nolubabalo gets cash from her family.”

“Our government does not have a prisoner transfer treaty with countries like Thailand and China. Their hands are also tied because the offenders are tried by the laws of the country they are arrested in.” Goosen said new prisoners found it hard to adjust and suffered severe mental torture at the hands of the authorities and veteran prisoners. “It’s one year since I am home. But, I am still adjusting to normal life. I had to get used to using a cellphone and other technology.


▶ Prison Cells

Unlike their American or European counterparts, Thai prisoners live in open rooms with no beds or furniture of any kind. They aren’t even given any bedding. Sheets can be bought and some people stuff these with old clothes in order to make pillows. Each cell is about four metres by seven metres. On each side, people are lying side by side with their feet facing the middle. Then, down the center of the cell, there are two rows of other prisoners. There are on average at least 50 prisoners in this one cell. There isn’t enough room for all of them to lie on their back. New prisoners are only allocated another room to lie on their side. They are packed in so tightly that they cannot turn over. If they have any money, they can bribe the cell boss to let them lie on their backs. But, there isn’t enough room for them to all do that.

The prisoners have already eaten and showered by 3.30 p.m. and then they are taken up to their cells. There are only two fans so you can imagine with so many people in the cell that it heats up quickly and the smell from sweaty bodies becomes overpowering. The squat toilet is at the far end of the cell. This has a low wall about two feet high. Imagine what it would be like if you needed to answer the call of nature during the night and had to clamber over all these bodies. At least the lights are kept on all the time. But then, that is also a curse because it makes it difficult to sleep. The prisoners are locked in here for 14 hours per day. They are not allowed to bring any food up to the cells. If you have enough money, you can bribe the cell boss and prison guards to allow you to be transferred to another cell. But, they are all much the same as each other.

It wasn’t always like this. Since the government declared an anti drug policy in 1998, the prison population increased greatly. In fact, 60% of the prison population today are there due to narcotic offences. In the past, property crime was the biggest offence. But now, that is only 19%. As a result, Thailand has one of the highest ratio of prisoners to population in the world. The following is a chart of prison population over the last ten years. At present, there are 139 prisons around the Thailand with 245,033 sq.m. of sleeping space. The Department of Corrections stipulates that each prisoner should have 2.25 sq.m. each. That would mean a maximum prison population of 108,904 prisoners. The statistics show how badly the prisons are overcrowded.

Recognizing this problem, the Thai government undertook a number of measures to help reduce overcrowding. In 1999 and 2003 there were collective royal pardons. Then, in late 2003, the Narcotic Rehabilitation Act stipulated that drug offenders, especially those who were drug users, should be sent to Drug Rehabilitation Centers. Although there is a slow downward trend, it is not solving the main problem. The increase of drug offenders was only one reason for the increase in prisoners. There is also the problem of unsentenced offenders who make up a staggering 30% of the prison population. Normally these people should be sent to special remand prisons. But, due to the overcrowding, potentially innocent people are mixed in with hardened criminals. The courts are also crowded, so prisoners who cannot afford the bail may have to wait up to a year in prison awaiting trial. Then they might have to wait another year for their appeal to be heard.

The third reason for overcrowding in Thai prisons is the liberal use of imprisonment as a punishment. Even for petty crimes such as stealing, gambling and offences against traffic laws. In other countries, offenders are often given probation or suspended sentences. In my own province of Samut Prakan, I have been told that nearly twenty foreigners are arrested every month at the airport for stealing and are then sentenced by the courts to a minimum of 6 months. One person I know from America only stole some face wash and he got this sentence. Another was an elderly gentleman from Australia who stole a watch. He said he tried to pay for it straight away and any fine they wanted with his credit cards, but they insisted on arresting him and sending him to court. Then there are people in prison who just didn’t have enough money to pay the fine.

Apart from overcrowding, general prison conditions have improved over the years. Beatings by sadistic guards are less common. Even the food can be quite good. One foreign prisoner that I visited a few times at the notorious Bang Kwang Prison said that the best thing was the Thai food that he paid a Thai prisoner to cook for him. Basically if you have money then you can make your life a bit easier. From paying for extra space in the cell and for bedding, to having better food and even clean water to bathe in. But, the majority of the Thai prison population do not have anyone on the outside to support them and many of them are barely surviving.


▶ A Foreigner in a Thai Court

When I was younger, I once sat on the jury of a murder trial. It lasted for about seven days. I had always been fascinated by courtroom dramas and after watching “Twelve Angry Men” I fancied myself as Head Juror. Alas, I was only 19 at the time and no-one voted me for that position. Although it was a serious case, I did enjoy my time listening to the arguments of the prosecution and defence. The evidence was overwhelming and I think we all knew what the verdict would be quite early on in the case. On the final day, we were sent to deliberate the verdict just before lunch. There wasn’t really much to discuss and I think we could have gone back in straight away with a guilty verdict. However, out of respect for the accused, we decided we should at least put on a show of having a deep and meaningful discussion. We were also hungry and decided to order the free lunch and give our verdict after we had sufficiently rested.

In Thailand, the Courts of Justice don’t quite work in the same way. In the Criminal Courts, there are always at least two judges and no jury. Although it may seem to be unfair not being judged by a panel of your peers. I think it is probably better if amateurs, like myself, didn’t have so much of a say in the lives of the accused. But then, that leaves a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the judges. A few days ago I was in court for the trial of a defendent who had been accused of attempted murder. This was a Westerner who was being put on trial in a foreign land. Everything was conducted in Thai. At the beginning of the case, there was a discussion between the judges and the defence team as to whether there should be translations for the defendent during the trial. The judge was of the opinion that it would slow the proceedings down too much and asked the lawyer to only translate what she felt was necessary. Really, John was lucky to have a lawyer that spoke English. Another prisoner that I spoke to said he couldn’t afford his own lawyer. So, the court appointed one for free ,who unfortunately didn’t speak any English. He said there was a court interpreter, but all he said was “You, come here. Sit down. Stand up. Sign here” etc. Other than that, he had no idea what was going on or even how much time he was sentenced to. In fact, he was the last to know.

The courtroom wasn’t very large. There were probably about six or so of these rooms on this floor alone. At the front was the raised platform where the judges sat. Above them is a portrait of H.M. The King. Below it is the symbol of the court, a downward pointing dagger with scales balancing on it. In front of the bench sat the court clerk. On the judges right was the table for the prosecution. On the left was the table for the defense. In the middle of the room, facing the judges bench, was the chair and table for the witness. The room was roughly split in half with a low railing. Behind this were the benches where members of the public and interested parties sat. In Thailand, courts are usually open to the public. So, in theory, if you are respectfully dressed, you could go and watch a trial. Just remember no cameras are allowed and you should turn off your mobile phone.

At about 9.35 a.m., John (not his real name) was escorted into the courtroom by a policeman. He was barefoot and chained at the ankles. A piece of string was attached to the chains which enabled him to pick them off the floor as he hobbled along. The policeman told him to sit down on the front bench next to where I was sitting. I asked him whether he remembered me visiting him in prison and he said “yes” but he didn’t remember my name.  While we were waiting for the judges to arrive, I tried to have a conversation with him. He wasn’t looking too good.

Shortly later, the two judges arrived through their private entrance at the front of the court. No-one announced their arrival, but everyone stood up anyway. They wore a black robe with a dark velvet edging around the neck and down the front. People didn’t wai the judges, but bowed instead. The public prosecutor was sat on my left. I recognized her instantly as she was also in Gor’s trial. The first day was reserved for the prosecution. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution and she has to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In the morning, she called three witnesses: the victim, the arresting officer and a witness to the crime. Each one was called forward where they then put their hands together in a prayer like gestured and promised to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. As in Western courts, the prosecutor asked a series of questions and then the defence were allowed to cross examine. However, there were some notable differences.

In Western courts, there would be a stenographer who would make a record of everything that was said. However, in Thailand, this is left up to the judge. In front of him was a tape recorder. This wasn’t to record the witness. What happened is that after the witness had answered the question, the judge would then paraphrase what he had just said. But, he didn’t do this for everything. Only what he deemed to be relevant. During the cross-examination, I could see the defence lawyer pausing before he asked each question so that the judge could have time to record the answer. However, sometimes the judge didn’t bother to record anything which obviously annoyed the defence. He just told them to ask the next question. The witness had said he was in hospital for four days. However, under cross examination, he said he was only in ICU for the first day. The judge didn’t record that.

I also noticed that the judges participated more in the questioning of the witness. Sometimes they asked questions that they felt the prosecutor should have asked. Or a question to clarify an answer. Like in my previous trial, the prosecutor sometimes left the courtroom during cross-examination. Although there were two judges, there was only one lead judge. The other was there as support. Every now and then he would change tapes and the court clerk would then take this to type up. At the start of each tape he would record something and then quickly rewind it to see if it recorded properly. The last witness of the morning was supposed to be the doctor. However, he didn’t turn up which seemed to annoy the judges. After a few phone calls, they decided to postpone the next trial date. The prosecution were supposed to finish on this day and then the following week the defence team would have their turn. But, as the doctor couldn’t come the trial was put off for just over two weeks.

It is doubtful that the verdict will be read out on that day. From previous experience, I would say it would take them two to three weeks before they set a date for the verdict to be read. By about 12 p.m., the court clerk had finished typing up the testimonials from the witnesses. These were then read out in court. Each witness was then asked if what had been read was a true account. They said it was. Then each relevant party had to sign these statements. At first John didn’t want to sign this document. It was all written in Thai. He said that he was being framed and didn’t want to be a part of all this. The lawyer managed to persuade him in the end by saying that he was only signing to witness this document. Not to say what was written was the truth.

Update: I was unable to go to his other trial dates.  As expected it did drag on as court dates were put off to another time. He was finally sentenced to nearly seven years in late October – five months after the first court date and one year after his arrest.


Friday, April 23, 2021