Is Thailand safe for couples to visit

Podcast: How safe is traveling in Thailand with Jonny Hamburg

From Thailand we receive horror news at regular intervals that travelers have died in a boat accident, in traffic or in the fall of a high-rise building. I've been to Thailand many times, I've also lived in Bangkok, and unfortunately I have to agree that the safety standards in Thailand are completely different from those in Germany or Europe. Nevertheless, it is not one of the Germans' favorite travel destinations for nothing, because dream beaches, lots of sun and warmth and delicious food are simply ideal for a break!

Jonny lived on the island of Koh Tao for a year and is very familiar with the subject of security in Thailand. In this 24th Off The Path podcast episode he tells, among other things, how safe Thailand really is, what you should be aware of and why you shouldn't let the media scare you off.

Find out more about security in Thailand in this episode:

  • What about security in Thailand
  • Whether a trip to Thailand is really safe
  • Why you shouldn't always trust the media
  • Why tourists died from pesticides in hotels
  • What are the greatest dangers in Thailand and how to avoid them
  • What a Thailand tattoo is

Shownotes about security in Thailand:

Sebastian: Welcome to a new Off The Path Podcast episode! Today we are talking about a very important topic because it is a bit timely and that is about safety when traveling in Thailand. Thailand is a beautiful country. The Thais are incredibly nice, but accidents still happen regularly, where locals, but also many tourists, lose their lives. And that's why I have a special guest on the podcast today, Jonny Hamburg. Jonny lived on the island of Koh Tao for a year, worked there as a diving instructor and can certainly tell us a few interesting things. Jonny, it's nice that you're here!

Jonny: Yes, thank you very much for the invitation.

Sebastian: As just mentioned, you lived on Koh Tao for a year. How was the year, what did you experience?

Jonny: Yes that's right. I lived on Koh Tao for a year, trained as a diving instructor there and then taught. Koh Tao is a bit off the normal life in Thailand and I think you can see very well how Thailand is ticking. Especially with all of tourism. Of course we also have boats and such. In other words, I am well aware of everything that relates to security risks.

Sebastian: Yes, what is your impression of the security in Thailand? So either on Koh Tao, how it is handled there, or on the mainland as well? How does the Thai deal with the issue of security towards their guests?

Jonny: I think the first thing you have to realize is that Thailand is of course not Europe, and certainly not Germany. In other words, the safety standards that we are used to here do not, of course, exist over there. I think it was only now at the beginning of the year that you also have a public defibrillator, for example. It didn't exist before because it was illegal for someone to use it, unless it was a doctor. You have to become aware of such things first, so that you can even see that it's not Germany. In the villages and on the small islands like Koh Tao, the medical care is not as it is now in Bangkok or something. You just have to be aware of that.

Sebastian: Yes.

Jonny: In general, it is very different when it comes to security standards. With us, for example, we attached great importance to it. Many of the diving instructors, for example, have done a separate training in first aid, which is great in remote places. On Koh Tao, it takes a few hours to get to Samui or the mainland and of course you have to be able to take care of people.

Sebastian: Yes. Now you just mentioned Koh Samui very briefly, where three tourists died in a speedboat accident last week.

Jonny: That's right, yes.

Sebastian: And that's not the first time that something like this has happened. It happens almost at regular intervals that tourists regularly die from such accidents either on the east coast, i.e. Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, Koh Samui or the west coast of Koh Phi Phi. Is it safe to travel to Thailand?

Jonny: Let me put it this way: It was of course a terrible incident. I think there was a German there and I think the others were English. That is of course very tragic. But it has not become more dangerous than it was before. It was actually just an accident. I just read it again because it was still a little unclear what happened. Allegedly they hit a big wave just before they were ashore. Relatively close to land, the boat turned around or capsized and of course there is always the question: How much of it is now, what the official report is or what, of course, really happened, whatever that topic is in Thailand . But I think it was actually an accident and not negligence on the part of the captain, for example. It happens quite often in Thailand that there are accidents. I am of the opinion that this is because the people are not trained as extensively as we now have in Germany, for example. So, as far as bus drivers are concerned, as far as captains of small boats are concerned, or something. It is certainly true that most of them are certainly licensed, but I'm not sure how seriously this is taken. I know that with our ships, the people are very well trained. It's always a thing with these speedboats. I don't know which company it was, but we also have to do with the speedboats on Koh Tao more often and it is well known that they just snap into such a bay, even when there are divers. That's just a different understanding, I think. I think they have as much understanding of security as we do.

Sebastian: Yes. You just said that they have a license, but often you don't know how this license came about.  

Jonny: I wouldn't say that or I can't judge it because I can't check it. I only know that our people have a license, for example, and with the others, I don't have much to do with. I only know that some of them drive like crazy, which of course has to do with the fact that they are also somehow pressed for time, that they have to be in certain places at certain times and then come back again. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that, of course, all the tourists say “Okay, we have to be back at this and the time” and when somebody somehow - I don't know - stays 10 minutes longer on an island , they have to make up for the 10 minutes or half an hour.

Sebastian: Yes. Are there any more such accidents that you know of that you may have noticed during the time on Koh Tao that did not make it into the German media at all. For example, I'm a subscriber - this is not an established paper now - but the Wochenblitz in Bangkok. He sends messages every day. And when you read through it, you might think twice about traveling to Thailand. I don't want to make Thailand bad with it, that's not the aim of this podcast episode, but it is true that a lot is swept under the carpet, that a lot is not told, that a lot is simply not made public.

Jonny: Yeah yeah The first question for me is what do you mean by German media. Sure, the mainstream media certainly leave out a lot of things, but if you take smaller online media, for example Der Farang or our backpacker group, most things come up there. Of course, I don't know to what extent this will come into the consciousness of the people who then travel to Thailand. There is also a page where statistics are kept about how many Falang ultimately died or died in Thailand this year, for example. And that's definitely frightening, I think. There are actually people who just go over there and then live the last few years of their lives, but of course there are also many who simply have accidents or whatever. You have to keep in mind that with the Thais it is the case that keeping face plays a huge factor there, because you now mean “sweep under the carpet”, one must not forget that. True face is a huge factor and it certainly affects the media as well as how it is presented. Phuket is very famous for it or Pataya that some people fall down from some high-rise buildings and that is usually the statement, although it is clear that they then had some difficulties. Whether it's some pimps or some drug stuff or something. In any case, it's noticeable.

Sebastian: This is exactly the heading I just read before the interview. A Norwegian fell out of an apartment on the 10th floor in Pataya and nobody knows how that came about.

Jonny: Unfortunately, that is also a standard statement. It is also known for people who have been in Thailand for a long time that things like this certainly exist. I don't know whether it really is or just happens to be the case that so many people are dying there. I think there are also one or two high-rise buildings where this only happens. It's kind of mysterious too.

Sebastian: Yes, unfortunately it is like that. I still remember when I lived in Bangkok in 2012 and now again in Bangkok. At that time two Canadians died on Koh Phi Phi and I had direct contact with the Canadian embassy and found out what the problems are and what the cause of death was more or less after they did the autopsy. And yet it was said always and everywhere that they ate something wrong, food poisoning, did not drink enough and somehow died of weakness as a result. But the fact is - years later this was somehow proven - that they died of pesticides, which are commonplace here in Thailand. They are used in - I wouldn't say in expensive hotels - or not everywhere, but incredibly bad and cheap pesticides are still used in hotel rooms on mattresses, which tourists breathe in and thereby die. And that's how the two girls died on Koh Phi Phi. In Chiang Mai there is or there was the Death Hotel. That was closed and demolished a year ago. Seven people died in one year.

Jonny: OK?

Sebastian: I just wanted to say that it's really crazy what's going on in this country and you don't hear much about it if you're not in such groups. Which group do you lead where such things are discussed?

Jonny: In the end we have two groups, these are purely German groups. So a bilingual group, that’s the “Thailand Backpacker 2015 - Who is where and when?” That is a relatively large group, also purely for Thailand. And then we have a Southeast Asia group called “Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines & Co. Backpackers”. Even in German and English.

Sebastian: Okay cool, we will definitely link them in the show notes so that you can find out more when you are there. But do you think these are the risks you have to live with when you fly to Thailand or where do you think the greatest dangers lurk next to the boats, next to these pesticides, when you are here? And can you generalize that at all?

Jonny: Yeah, that's a good question. You can certainly not generalize that. Just because you just meant Hotel Death ... Koh Tao is also known as Murder Island, since in 2015 a backpacker couple - well, they weren't a couple, but two backpackers - were murdered there. You can't deny that they were murdered. It is only natural that there are things that are swept under the table. I don't know if you noticed it by chance: Two Englishmen, a girl and a man - were murdered on Koh Tao and only locals, i.e. Thais, were convicted for it or they assumed that it was a certain Thai family and In the end, two Burmese were arrested for it, who have now also received the death penalty, in my opinion, in December. I am 99% convinced that the Burmese had nothing to do with it. This is simply because someone told me before that two Burmese will probably have to believe in it, which indicates that it is well known that something like this has happened before. So Koh Tao, like many other places, Koh Phangan, Koh Samui and Pataya, Phuket, Chiang Mai, of course all the places have a lot of crime. There are a lot of people who say mafia about it. Mafia would mean that it is organized. I am of the opinion that it is not organized, but there are large family networks and I see them in there and I think that is one of the reasons. It is just the case that savings are made in many areas, probably because of money. You certainly have to live with the risk to come back to your question. You said yes, whether you have to live with the risk. It's just like that, now tourism is huge in Thailand. It is true, however, that it is Southeast Asia. It is - I don't want to say a third world country, but it is at least a country that is not as developed in some things as we are and of course you have to be aware of that. Backpackers of course also have to ask themselves a few questions, why are there groups like ours? You also have to find out about some things in advance. That's why there are groups like ours that you can be a little clearer, where can you go safely, for example? It is also the case in Hamburg or London that there are corners where I would not go after dark. It is also available on Koh Tao, it is also available on Samui or anywhere else in Thailand. It is generally the case that the Thais are very nice and very friendly and polite. It's not called the land of smiles for nothing. However, it is also the case that the Thais not only have smiles, but are also quite annoyed by us tourists, especially in such tourist strongholds.

Sebastian: Yes, in any case. I still remember very well: That was on Koh Samui in Chaweng, where I saw the other smile of Thais from Thais who were incredibly annoyed by tourists. For example, you have now spoken of the Mafia, and there is also a very corrupt system in Thailand. Have you had any experience with that?  

Jonny: With corruption now or with the mafia, or both?

Sebastian: Or both?

Jonny: Yes and no, as I said, I wouldn't call it mafia. There are families, that is clear, also on Koh Tao. There are large groups of people who belong together and do business together and, as in many other places, there is just muttering and they only do business with each other. These are most of the "native people". Koh Tao doesn't have any indigenous people, they all came over from Koh Phangan and maybe they were originally fishing families, but of course these are the ones who now have large diving schools or restaurants or something else. And there it is that they work together. What is often the case in general is that the taxi companies, the taxi boats, the tuk tuks or something like that belong to one or two people. Especially on islands like that. And they are somehow related. For example in Bangkok it was the case that some tuk tuk driver made a deal with me that I could drive from MBK to Khao San for a special low price, where he then stopped at some shops that then wanted to turn something on me somehow. Everyone tries to survive, of course, and it is certainly the case that sometimes, when something happens, it is swept under the carpet. On Koh Tao, for a while, now that has changed, but at the time these murders happened, we had relatively few police officers for what was going on on the island. It's gotten better now. There are a lot more police officers, but that's the way it is supposed to be - I haven't had the experience with that yet - if you are stopped with a bike, you can regulate it by doing a little what matters.

Sebastian: So you can buy your way out.

Jonny: That's how it is told. Yes, that's what they say. Personally, I have not yet enjoyed it. I didn't have to have it yet, but yes ... that's just the way it is. Again to the risks, where we are currently with the police: A risk, which is very big in Thailand, is driving a scooter. It is often the case that the people who drive on Koh Tao without helmets or something like that are stopped by the police and then pay a small sum in order to be able to continue.

Sebastian: Yes, that would have been my next question, the subject of scooter riding. Many people rent a scooter in Thailand and I think there is almost no more dangerous place than renting a scooter in Thailand or Bali, because the traffic is just so incredibly crazy. Because they all just drive so crazy and many drive around without a helmet, which they would never do at home in their life. Do you think this is a good idea? In that year on Koh Tao, how many of your diving clients had to drop out of the diving course because they were in hospital or because they were at the clinic because they had a scooter accident?

Jonny: So no, I don't think that's a good idea at all. Unfortunately, I did it myself back then and actually crashed into a wall in the first five minutes because I just couldn't drive myself. I find it especially on Koh Tao, so it's a small island and of course, when there are straight stretches it is relatively easy to drive, but the traffic in Thailand is not like ours either. So there is nothing strictly regulated and it is not that people stick to road rules to a large extent. It is more like that you have to assume that they will not stick to it or that somehow everyone is out to harm you in some way or something. That is of course not the case, but it may well be that if you think that this person is turning or you turn on the indicator yourself to turn, someone drives into you because they didn't pay any attention or, for example, with the turn signal does not work on the bike. It is also the case, especially here or on the islands, that the main roads are broken or not as well maintained as they are with us. Lots of tourists who drive to Thailand for the first time and they just behave. It’s the case that they’re driving for the first time. They come to the island, which is of course also cool, if you want to explore the island, don't wear a helmet, as I said, and drive drunk or something. That's just a problem. I recently had a young lady in our group who asked why it is the case that everyone on Koh Tao is wearing bandages, whether she has missed anything. But it really is the case that many accidents are caused by bikes or fire. For example, it is very popular that people get off the right side of the bike when they sit on the back, that's where the exhaust is and that's where you get burned. It goes so far that we call it Koh Tao Tattoo when you have such a burn mark, because 90% of the people have a burn mark there who did not pay attention to it.

Sebastian: Yes, I know that too, the Koh Tao Tattoo or the Thailand Tattoo, because the scooters are often so broken that they don't have a protective cover around the exhaust and you get burned accordingly. What you also know is that you get a totally scratched scooter. When you return it, there isn't even a new scratch with it, but then you have to pay for the old scratch, which often happens. There are also a lot of dubious providers.

Jonny: Precisely. This is also a point that you see as crime on the islands right now. Or where you have to be very careful that if you rent a scooter, do not give your passport if possible. There is also the possibility to rent a bike on Koh Tao, also directly from a diving instructor. Of course, they are usually a bit older and may already have a few more scratches, but they don't see it that closely if there is another scratch. Then it just has to be repaired, but you don't have to pay huge sums of money. But there are also some scooter rental companies who offer, for example, insurance with a self-participation of X thousand baht or a few, where you know exactly and you can ask us in the group, for example, where it makes sense to yourself rent a scooter. I've already had that some people didn't do that and they really only had a small scratch because they somehow fell over or something that might have cost 200-300 baht with a repair, they then somehow got 10,000 baht removed because otherwise they would not have got their identity card back. You have to be careful. These are a few risks one should be aware of.

Sebastian: The same thing is done a lot around Pattaya, Phuket and Kao Lak with the Jet Skies. Also a very big problem in Thailand, where many tourists and travelers had to dig deep into their pockets because something supposedly broke. Let's get to the end of this episode slowly. But I also heard, for example, that traveling by bus is a big problem. It's all safe, so to sit upstairs, it's all comfortable, it's all cheap, but I've also heard from several people I know personally, but also in your group, for example, I also read that things were out of your luggage missing after the trip. So if you drive from Bangkok to Surat Thany, for example, to get to the islands, you arrive and your laptop gone, your cell phone gone, because people are practically traveling with you in the overhead locker and cutting your backpacks open all night. Have you heard of that before?

Jonny: So I've heard it too, it hasn't happened to me yet. I've never had any problems with that either. My niece is 19, she drove through Southeast Asia for six months and never had any problems with it. But I also know a few people who have experienced this before. I actually always do it so that I have the things that are really, really important on my daypack. That means, I always have a laptop, camera, GoPro, cell phone, passport, tickets, etc. with me and credit cards and emergency money on my body or in my pocket or something and that's probably why I've never had any problems with them.

Sebastian: Yes, I would always, always recommend, especially to the audience: always have your passport and credit cards on your man or woman, so always in your pocket. Everything else can also be carried in hand luggage, because it can be torn away from time to time. So that you always have money in an emergency and can leave or continue your journey - just as a little tip. But as I just mentioned, slowly we should get to the end. Now we've talked a lot about security and all the problems in Thailand. Thailand doesn't just have problems, it's not just negative and criminal. It is also an incredibly beautiful country! What are your three best tips so that your trip to Thailand does not end in a disaster.

Jonny: Yes, I would say you should inform yourself beforehand. There are certainly a few small etiquette rules in Thailand that you should adhere to. Whether it's taking off your shoes when you go into a private apartment or in many restaurants. You should also always stay polite and above all, and that's what I often see on the islands: You shouldn't do anything that you don't do at home. Common sense is actually the be-all and end-all. In Germany, as a young lady in a bikini, I wouldn't stand in a bar or sit on a bike. Of course, beach bars tempt you to do so, but you should just realize that this may not be the best thing to do. Just common sense, pay attention a little. It's best if you're partying, also see who you're partying with and not necessarily - regardless of whether Thai, Burmese or Farang, Westener - not just trust everyone blindly, but also see who you're talking to.

Sebastian: Yes, always listen to your gut, your inner voice, whether it feels right or not.

Jonny: Correct.

Sebastian: Very good. Great tips! Jonny, thank you very much for your time for discussing this important topic with us and all the best for you!

Jonny: Thank you for letting me be with you and I hope I was able to give you one or two good tips.

Sebastian: Quite a lot. Many Thanks! See you, bye!

Jonny: Great, Ciao!

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