I’ve had six run-ins with the police here in Thailand. Here’s how they went down…
Back in January I was pulled out of a taxi and searched on my way home from a night club. I suspect they targeted me because I was a foreigner and they were hoping to find drugs and elicit a bribe. Alas, all I had was a few old tissues in my pockets. The whole thing was quite pleasant though, all smiles and no roughness.
Last month I rode the 700 kilometers back from Chiang Mai to Bangkok in a single day. It was dark and I was exhausted by the time I reached the big smoke of BKK, having battled through drizzle and traffic jams for the final 200 kilometers (holiday weekend, busy roads). I ended up a little lost and trying to take my motorbike through a toll booth, which I quickly discovered was not a good idea. The toll booth operator called over a nearby police officer to reprimand me. This cop was not so pleasant, and after checking my passport and driver’s license told me that I’d have to go to the station and pay a 500 baht fine.
— Can I just pay you instead?
— Yes, good idea.
I handed him the money and was led out of the toll area through a side-gate.
The last couple of weeks I’ve been riding a scooter around Bangkok, affording me many more opportunities to catch the attention of the law. Weekend before last I was giving a buddy a lift home and stopped at some traffic lights alongside a police checkpoint. Sure enough, they took special notice of the two farang and pulled us over to the side. First I was given a breathalyzer test, which I managed to pass with flying colors despite never having studied. Then a chubby cop checked photocopies of my passport and license before explaining with a smile that I’d have to go to the police station and pay a fine.
— I don’t understand.
— You have to carry original, no photocopy.
— Okay, let’s go to the police station.
I was trying to call his bluff, figuring he didn’t really have anything on me. He began writing up a ticket for the station. While he was busy I had this vision of going to the station and being made wait there for several hours while they “processed” my ticket. Not liking the thought of that, I asked if I could just pay the fine there and then, at which point chubby cop invited me around to the other side of the checkpoint kiosk to sit alongside him. I tried to hand him 400 baht (the price of the ticket) under the table but he refused to take it, telling me instead to leave 200 baht on the chair and be on my way. So that I did.
(Quick aside: While we were stopped at that checkpoint a local guy and girl rode by on another scooter. The cops motioned for them to slow down but they just accelerated on through. One officer made a grab for them and swiped clean the lady’s handbag. The couple kept going and the cops just shrugged, no inclination to give chase.)
Heading home from the gym last week I was pulled over in broad daylight for riding in the wrong lane. Apparently bikes are supposed to stick to the inside lanes, a law that I find quite silly, since the outer lane is usually free and bikes can zip along there more safely than weaving through stalled traffic in the inside lanes.
This time I wasn’t even given the opportunity to offer a bribe. I recall smiling relentlessly at the cop who pulled me over as he wrote out a quick ticket and instructed me to go pay at the kiosk across the street. The officer at the kiosk then told me that I could only pay at the station.
So I got back on my bike and rode home. I still have the ticket.
This past weekend I was riding with my Thai friend on the lookout for a ferris wheel when we got pulled over. I’m thinking I would have had to pay a bribe again if not for my friend. She spoke to the officers in Thai as I aced another breath test (I rock at those) and showed my photocopies. They let us go no problem.
The very next night I was pulled out of a taxi with the same Thai friend. The cops searched all my pockets and her handbag, which was a bit annoying. Finding nothing of interest, they soon sent us on our way.
To bribe or not to bribe
I don’t like paying bribes, because it is essentially rewarding corruption. I have heard however that police officers here in Thailand make very little money for the work they do, and that they depend on bribes for much of their income. I’ve also heard that each officer is required to pass on some of their bribe money to the station to pay for equipment and upkeep.
Not sure if any of that is true though. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cops I bribed passed their bonus along to the liquor store as soon as their shifts ended.
The penalty for possession of illegal drugs is severe in Thailand. They can lock you up in a shitty prison for a long time if you’re caught carrying even a small dose. I’ve heard stories of foreigners being caught with drugs and paying thousands of dollars in bribes to get unstuck. One story I heard had two cops accompanying an English chap to an ATM and withdrawing as much as they could before letting him off the hook.
Of course, it is illegal for Thai police officers to accept bribes (one was caught on video and fired just last week), but then prostitution is also illegal in this country, though you wouldn’t know it from walking down Sukhumvit after dark.
Staying out of trouble in foreign countries
I’m often asked if I’ve ever felt like I was in danger since I started traveling.
Well, no. Except for that one dude in Nepal who didn’t like me flirting with his sister, I’ve never even been threatened. This is despite traveling overland through 17 countries the last year and a half, including such “dangerous” places as Iran and India.
I’ve probably had a little luck on my side to avoid trouble for as long as I have, but I’m also pretty sure that I’ve stayed safe by following a few simple rules…
- Avoid getting very drunk.
- Avoid shady night spots with lots of drunk people.
- Don’t try to buy drugs.
- Avoid shady people, and be clear and firm with anyone who tries to harass or control you. Don’t be afraid to be rude if someone won’t take the hint. Get help from security or police if they persist.
- Check accommodation reviews online in advance to ensure you’ll be sleeping in a safe place.
- Don’t walk alone at night in badly lit areas (especially if you’re female).
It’s mostly common sense. In short, my philosophy on staying safe while you travel is this: You’re unlikely to find trouble unless you go looking for it.
One final tip is to read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. I’ve recommended this book before and for good reason: It may well save your life someday. Go get yourself a copy.
Got any police stories of your own to share? Or additional tips for staying safe on the road? Comments are open.