It's true, Thailand has problems with corruption -- as do most of its neighbours. On the one hand, tourists are seen as walking money bags and on the other, an ample supply of corrupt (and underpaid) police and assorted dodgy con men and shysters are on the loose. The current economic situation has seen an increase in reports of theft and fraud -- though I'd hazard a guess this isn't unique to Thailand.
What does seem to be unique to Thailand is the amount of press some of these cases get. We're all for exposing police corruption and scams -- and the attention given to the recent extortion case at Bangkok's international airport is a great example of the foreign press helping to get a few backsides kicked.
But let's get a bit of perspective here. Thailand will receive in excess of ten million foreign visitors in 2009 and the vast majority of these people will have no problems whatsoever. In many of the cases you read about -- but not all -- the people being taken advantage of have put themselves in a situation where they are going to be taken advantage of. We're not excusing the corruption, but we are saying that if you conduct yourself in a sensible manner, familiarise yourself with the laws and customs of the land, and don't forget to pack your brain, chances are you will have few -- if any -- problems in Thailand.
Take this example of a post recently submitted to Travelfish:
"After visiting Ko Sukorn twice over a period of four years we decided to buy a lease on some land and build a school. We used our life savings. Then the police and the land office demanded 500,000 baht extortion money. We were teaching up to 100 students at the time (for free). We have been threatened with a two-year prison sentence and deportation for teaching without a work permit (unless we pay). I think all travellers should know just how corrupt Thailand can be. We have no problem with the people on the island and still keep in contact. If you go to Ko Sukorn please ask about Small Sea School and what happened to it. We have lost our life savings of four million baht. "
We're getting only one (very limited) side of the story here, but one wonders if they'd done some basic research, they'd have found out that you need a work permit to teach in Thailand -- even if you are not being paid. Did the school have a license? Was there a Thai director? Pure and simple, it's Thai law. While undoubtedly the police and land office were corrupt, if you aren't completely legal, you're setting yourself up as prey to the local predators and lowlife.
We lived in Bangkok for seven years and have been in Asia upwards of a dozen. In all that time we've been extorted once (in Indonesia) and it was our fault -- we hadn't got an exit permit and in the end had to pay a bribe to get out of the country. We've had friends who have been extorted. One was caught with a small amount of grass at a Bangkok bus station and marched to an ATM to be liberated of about 70,000 baht. Yes, the police who caught him acted corruptly, but he was breaking the law and so put himself in a vulnerable position.
I'm not saying all the cases that hit the press should be discounted as happening to naive or idiot foreigners -- undoubtedly there have been some tragic cases in Thailand, with the murders of foreigners in Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi and Pai (all by police) coming to mind. But these are individual aberrations and do not, in any way, point to a larger "problem" of gun happy corrupt cops running around shooting tourists willy nilly.
Yes, I know -- we run a website for people heading to Thailand and it's in our interests to talk this down. We're not trying to talk it down, but rather asking for a bit of perspective. Go to Thailand, get drunk, steal stuff, get caught, abuse the police and you will probably be arrested -- as would probably happen in your home country. Thailand isn't a magical fairyland where you can behave however you want because the laws don't apply to you. The laws apply.
If you conduct yourself appropriately, educate yourself about the local customs, laws and regulations and, well, generally behave -- chances are you'll have a trouble free stay in Thailand.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.