On the Move

“Land of Smiles” Has More than Just an Image Problem

Most commonly associated with beautiful beaches, warm hospitality, and a liberal nightlife, the country of Thailand has more recently gained a reputation as a place where violent crime and tourism are growing alarmingly intersected.

On the same small island of Koh Tao, where backpackers Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, were viciously murdered in autumn of last year, yet another young British girl has been found dead, and the cause remains puzzling at best.


Few details have been released, other than aspiring young journalist Christina Annesley, 23, of London, was found in a cheap backpacker’s hotel with blood on her face by a staff member.

The investigation conducted by Thai police into the deaths of Witheridge and Miller was roundly criticized, as police first failed to properly secure the crime scene and then faced accusations of forcing confessions from two young Burmese restaurant staff.

After a three-hour preliminary examination of Annesley’s body, Thai authorities stated that there was no sign of foul play or sexual assault. Considering that the previous criminal investigation was so badly botched, this assessment is now open to closer inspection and possible criticism. Justly or unjustly remains to be seen.

Annesley’s parents were insistent that the autopsy be performed in the United Kingdom for fear of some sort of “cover up.” Although this request initially fell on deaf ears, recent reports have said that her body has been sent back. There is no news yet on whether an additional autopsy has been done by British officials.

After the preliminary examination, Thai officials declared her death most likely the result of antibiotics that she was said to have been taking for a chest infection. Her parents claim she did not have any pre-existing medical conditions.

Although nothing is conclusive in Annesley’s case (and it’s a good chance it stays that way), these incidences of death are, unfortunately, not rare in the multibillion-dollar tourist country. In 2013, an American businessman was murdered by a machete-wielding taxi driver in Bangkok over US$1.60. On the island of Koh Samui, a German bar owner was murdered after arguing with three drunken teenage boys who beat and stabbed the man to death with broken shards of glass. And, 27-year-old British girl Lauren Hebden has been missing since December from Koh Tao—the same island that Hannah, David, and Christina have died on.

Tourists seem to be dying of unnatural causes with an unusual frequency in Thailand. Many are due to risky behavior. But just as many are from unexplained incidences. No matter the cause, the end result is invariably the same… a distraught family back home that is left with many, many unanswered questions.

To be fair, murders and foul play can, and often do, happen in most every city in most every country. And yet I cannot recall hearing of tourists being murdered in Baltimore—one of the more dangerous cities in the United States—before. Or at least not in my years spent living there. Granted, Baltimore does not get the same type of tourists nor the same numbers as Thailand, but during the spring and summer months it does get its fair share visiting the harbor areas. And so far none are reported dead in a tourist locale surrounded by some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America.

Annesley’s death may have been from natural causes. With any luck, her parents will be afforded the truth. This does not, however, change the underlying issues or the image problem that Thailand has been gaining over the years. For a country that relies so heavily on tourism, it should seriously consider investing money (/more money) into the proper safety and security of one of its main economic drivers.

Many farang (foreigners) over the years have not been entirely ideal visitors either. With thousands of drunken traffic deaths each year and debauchery taking place on the streets and in the alleys of most every tourist corner in the country, it’s understandable if Thais are maybe a little frustrated with their unruly guests. But this is never an acceptable excuse for violence (or worse).

Perhaps the relationship between host and guest has finally reached a boiling point? Thailand has seen, what, six decades of rising rates of tourism? So could this unruly “marriage” between the two be approaching relationship troubles? A seven-decade itch, if you will.

It is not my intent to drag on, pontificating endlessly on the issues and problems surrounding Thailand’s tourist industry. There are others who clearly know more about these topics.

Rather, my reason was to point out how street smarts are your most important asset while traveling. And how a little humility, some respect, a sense of humor, and mindfulness for others will go a long way.

If you are traveling anywhere with a backpack, do not travel alone. Go with a friend or friends. Yes, I realize there are millions of people who do so, and love it. And I’m sure if you’re older it’s probably not even an issue. But if you’re young and attractive, you may want to think twice. The simple fact is, young and attractive people… attract! Some of it is probably welcomed. Some of it not. And then some of it is “blurred.” This is where the troubles begin for many.

The traveling businessman should also be weary. It is not only the young, wild, and free that attract unwanted attention. If you’re like me, and travel a lot for business, it’s best to follow the old (although important) cliché of “when in Rome…”

In addition, it might be a good idea to follow a few simple steps that potentially minimize the risk of troubles. These are things that would be of no concern back home in, say, New York or London, but might just save you from some serious problems while abroad:

  • That nice watch you have? Save it for meetings. Otherwise, throw on a G-Shock or just use your phone.
  • Suit and tie? Lose it before venturing out for dinner or drinks.
  • Your credit/debit card? Don’t let a bar or restaurant “open a check for you.”
  • That cute girl who approaches you on the street? That’s not a softball pitch. That’s a potential fastball waiting to take your head off.
  • Negotiate everything upfront, communicate effectively, and never let the negotiation get heated. A laugh and a smile go a long way.
  • Don’t venture out without at least a few business cards from the hotel you are staying at in your pocket, and a photocopy of your passport information page (leave the passport in your hotel safe). Some have traveled for years without ever carrying a copy of their passport. I was one of them, for decades. I know my passport details, so why should I? And then a friend pointed out what if I were unconscious—motorcycle accident, jumped and robbed, or insert-equally-horrible-scenario here. Made all too much sense. I never not have a copy on me now.
  • Lastly, smile, and expect to get frustrated from time to time. An important mindset to develop while traveling is “one why question a day.” You get one, and only one, a day. Everything else you have to let roll off you.