Like so many others my age, I was initially drawn to Thailand for all the same reasons I was drawn to horrendous English clubs and student nights: There were cheap drinks, and it presented a new opportunity to meet girls.
Granted, Thailand is an infinitely more glamorous environment in which to do those things, and by proxy the girls who I did meet there had more in common with me than those on the sticky floors of bars and clubs in northern England, but I was still as unsuccessful and hopeless with them as I was back at home, save for the attention of a fair number of prostitutes and ladyboys, whose company I always respectfully declined.
What’s more, as a guy in my late teens and early 20’s, whose sole focus seemed to be drinking beer, my appreciation of the natural beauty and cultural value of the country was very limited. The irony of that being that when I returned to England, culture and the natural beauty of the places I had been whilst ‘travelling’ (on holiday) were my go-to conversation pieces to make me seem more interesting. In truth, I probably just sounded like an irritating, self-righteous cretin who had been abroad a couple of times and was overly proud of it.
My earliest ventures into Thailand consisted of trips to Bangkok, the beach islands in the south and very little else. What’s more, my explorations of Bangkok were all but limited to the beer tower bars and various other squalid night haunts on the city’s infamous Khao San Road, which sometimes led to a late night tuk-tuk ride to one of the city’s many back alley theatres, where I witnessed stage shows that could at best be described as unsavoury and more honestly as exploitation.
The jewel in Thailand’s crown for those whose interests stretch no further than being intoxicated is Koh Phangan’s full moon party. Thousands of revellers, none of whom are Thai incidentally, pitch up on one strip of beach – Haad Rin Bay – on the night of the full moon to drink alcohol in varying shades of luminosity by the bucketful, milkshakes spliced with magic mushrooms and any number of other vulgar concoctions in front of a backdrop of numerous DJs spinning terrible, repetitive dance music until the sun rises and reveals to all how much of a mess they’ve become overnight and how much their night of hedonism has contributed to soiling this little slice of paradise.
Now that I think about it, I could imagine few worse ways to spend an evening, yet in the not-too-distant past, I attended two of these beach shindigs and at the time, had a blast.
The impact tourism such as this has on Thailand’s economy is reason enough for the locals to keep putting these enormous parties on every month. Were it not for that huge injection of capital, maintaining the beach’s serenity would surely be higher up on Thailand’s list of priorities than providing foreigners with an opportunity to get drunk, but money matters most and Thailand is cashing in on the fact that young people with student loans burning holes in their Topman shorts are wanting to intoxicate themselves in evermore exotic locations. And I was one of them.
My friends and I had decided we were far too sophisticated for your average ‘Lads on tour’ holidays to Magaluf. Instead we spent a bit more on flights so we could do basically the same thing as we would have in Magaluf, but at the same time eat fried insects from market stalls and visit Buddhist temples and label the whole thing a cultural experience.
We arrived in Koh Phanghan in time for the full moon party and booked ourselves a room in a resort with a swimming pool, despite the fact the clear turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean were lapping at the island’s shore just a couple of hundred metres from the hotel.
Our room was described as a ‘beach bungalow’, but unlike its name suggests, it was high up on top of a steep hill, situated right at the back of the resort, behind all the other bungalows. It had a pretty decent balcony and a good view of the sea and they let the three of us stay in a double room, which worked perfectly for our somewhat limited student budgets.
We stayed at the resort for 3 nights, all the time eating our meals there and drinking beers from the bar pretty much constantly, all of which was added to a tab. A system which, as result of our stay, I would be surprised to see still in place.
Our problems started on the evening of the full moon party. We left our room relatively early and didn’t return until a similar time the next day. This left a massive window of opportunity and unbeknown to us, as we spent the night getting blind drunk, someone was craftily making their way through the belongings in our hotel room, with our passports high up on their shopping list.
Fortunately for us, other than our passports, the thieves didn’t seem interested in any of our expensive items. Mobile phones, ipods, cash and travellers cheques were all neglected, yet our passports were nowhere to be found.
The feeling of being robbed abroad is a far from pleasant one, especially when you’ve had a middle-class upbringing and aren’t used to having to sort out such things without your parents there to help out.
Fortunately common-sense played its part and dictated that the first thing we should do was inform the hotel. However, the man behind the counter who I assumed was owner/manager/barman etc so he could employ as few people as possible, was very defensive, suggesting it would not have been possible for someone to break in and steal things, as he was there all night.
After we eventually convinced him we had indeed been robbed, he produced a small silver revolver from his belt, checked it was loaded and assured us it wouldn’t happen again and that he would be watching very closely over the next few nights.
Feeling both assured and slightly frightened by this gesture, we then had to inform the police. We realised there was very little that could be done, but it was necessary to have a police report for insurance purposes, so we spent the day filling in forms at the police station, which looked a bit like an empty primary school complete with a small football pitch out the front.
The police officer inside gave us absolutely no indication that he would be making any effort to look for our belongings and instead just gave us the required paperwork and sent us on our way.
After a day spent trudging around the island for bureaucracy’s sake, we returned to the hotel and had a few quiet drinks next to the pool. Our minds had been given time to clear by this point, which in turn gave us a chance to better evaluate the circumstances.
We thought about the location of the room – up a steep hill, hidden away somewhat behind the rest of the bungalows in the resort. Then we considered the fact that there had been no signs of a forced entry into the room and that the door was still locked when we had returned. Then we thought about the other items that had been left on display in the room, that had been neglected by the thief and why they may not have deemed it necessary to take those items, despite them being of greater value.
Whilst we couldn’t be sure, all this evidence seemed to be pointing in one direction – to the one person who had already confirmed to us had been at the resort the whole night, who would have known exactly when we were out and would have had a spare key for clean, easy access.
The gun-wielding man from the hotel desk.
Ordinarily before laying blame at a person’s feet, I like to make sure that it is beyond any reasonable doubt that I have all the facts right, but never before have I suspected a person who, when I last saw them, was waving a firearm around. Naturally, we didn’t want to take any chances and the evidence seemed substantial enough to us that we needed to get out of the hotel as quickly as we possibly could.
Around the corner from the resort was an internet cafe that also organised boat trips and tickets to other islands ran by a young Thai lady, not much older than we were. We booked a flight to Bangkok from the nearby island of Koh Samui and the earliest boat possible off the island, which was at 5am.
We spent that evening packing our bags and preparing for our escape, knowing fine well our actions would be giving a man in possession of the necessary tools to kill someone a reason to use them.
4:30am came and we crept out of our room as quickly and quietly as possible. The whole island was quiet, save for the screech of a few crickets and birds. We tiptoed past the reception desk, with our luggage weighing heavily on our backs. Our chief suspect slept in the reception on a fold down camp bed and we had to sneak extra gingerly in order not to disturb his slumber.
Adding to the need to not wake him was the fact we owed him a substantial amount of money. Three nights accommodation for three people, a couple of meals each per day and innumerable beers would surely have added up heftily, even in the budget resorts of Thailand and in sneaking out like this, we not only risked forking out to a man we were almost certain had stolen our passports, but the possibility of finding our bodies on the receiving end of the bullets in his revolver in the process.
Fortunately, he slept peacefully as we slinked past him and into the taxi we had arranged to take us to the boat, thus completing our escape successfully.
We later bumped into some guests who had also been staying at the resort who the hotel owner had seen us chatting to by the pool. He had tried to make them cough up £300 for the pleasure of being seen with us, apparently seething at the fact we had escaped. Fortunately they weren’t made to pay our bill, meaning they weren’t too displeased to see us again and we had a chance to explain why we ran away without paying.
Whether or not the conclusions we jumped to that day were correct or not still remains a mystery, though I am still fairly sure our suspicions were accurate. What I am certain of is the fact that never again do I wish to find myself in a position where I have to sneak away from a man who I know is armed.
This experience, although scary, ended up teaching me a lot about myself and other people.
I have since returned to Thailand and even to Koh Phangan, albeit briefly and with great paranoia, and have developed a greater appreciation of its culture and its wonderful people, after straying further afield than the bars of Bangkok and the parties in Phangan and sampling more of the cuisine than just barbecued bugs and bottles of Chang and Singha. However, most importantly, this experience – as well as the countless other positive ones I have had in Thailand – has taught me to not let one bad incident sully my feelings towards a whole country.
It would have been easy for me to dismiss Thailand as a country ridden with thieves and crooks and some possibly would have, but the truth is everywhere has its bad eggs, but more often than not, people will help you and be good to you if they can be.
Thailand is a phenomenal country full of wonderful food, culture, wildlife and some of the friendliest, most hospitable people you could ever wish to meet. That is how I will be remembering it. With the terrifying, gun-toting hotel man as a humorous tale to tell, about a time when I was younger and far less careful than I needed to be.