The number of tourists in Thailand is increasing every year. In fact, in the five years since 2012, this number has doubled, and now stands at almost 32 million a year. That’s quite something. Of course, nearly all of these are concentrated in and around the nation’s major tourist areas. But out of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Pattaya, only Samui stands out. It’s the only one that’s not high-rise and citified – the atmosphere is quite different. But it still gets a great many visitors and the daily problems that they create.
Things have changed a lot. A decade ago, visitors to Samui were composed mainly of Europeans and Australians. Today, however, around 70% of the tourists coming here are from one of the Asian nations. Many of the Europeans from before are still here, though, but now they’re running small businesses instead! All of which means that you’ll probably hear a dozen different languages spoken when you go out and about. And that’s where the Tourist Police come into the picture.
Well, that’s over-simplifying things. The idea of creating a police force specially to cope with the language barrier was only a part of it, because all those tourists also brought with them a totally different view of the world. They could only imagine that Thailand was the same as their own nation, that it had the same laws and social systems, that the police worked in the same way, and that everyone had the same ‘rights’ as they were used to back home. And so what was needed was some kind of stop-gap between the regular police and the millions of tourists. A kind of intermediary – a policeman just for tourists – who could not only act as a translator, but also could gently point out, where needed, that Thai law and culture was nothing like they were used to, back in their own country.
The bigger and busier tourist traps of Bangkok and Pattaya were the first to grasp the nettle and admit that tourists were a special case. On the one hand visitors here can sometimes become belligerent and even aggressive if they suddenly find themselves the victim of a crime or an accident, worried by the circumstances, frustrated by the lack of communication and frightened by a situation they can’t understand. But, on the other side of things, it sometimes takes great restraint for the every-day Thai police to repress their irritation and frustration, too, particularly when being challenged or provoked in a language they can’t understand, by an angry tourist who’s demanding his ‘rights’ in a nation where, in actual fact, they are not what he thinks they should be!
But even more of a problem was those tourists with no common language, such as a lot of the Russian-speakers or some Asian nations, many of whom could not even communicate in English. The solution which emerged was to separate out a small group from the main body of the Thai police force; those who could speak and understand English. And then, to supplement this, to additionally recruit foreigners into an integrated ‘Thai Tourist Police Volunteers’ force, as an extra arm of the Tourist Police.
Their true function is a buffer. They calm the tensions, allow tourists to defuse their frustration by explaining things to a sympathetic ear, and are able to grasp all the aspects of a situation and pass these onto the police so they can understand both sides of the story. And with volunteers now being able to get to the bottom of things in around 14 different languages, they serve an invaluable function.
Samui seems to come up with different challenges than, for example, Pattaya. On our little island there is far less of the out-of-control drunken foolishness that seems to be a core ingredient of the daily life of the Tourist Police in Pattaya. Rather, here, the problems are more general, and often somewhat domestic in nature. Road accidents are a frequent example. The police here have the same power as a judge and jury in the west. And it can be infuriating for a happy tourist to suddenly find his rented motorbike on the floor and the Thai party claiming (in incomprehensible Thai) that it was the tourist’s fault and he wants 30,000 baht on the spot to fix his motorbike. The police here have the authority to evaluate the roadside evidence and make that decision. It’s the law in Thailand, and no matter how angry the tourist becomes about this ‘outrage’, he’s only making things worse by shouting about it. Fortunately the regular police are now wise to this, and will usually call upon someone from the Tourist Police to intervene and calm things down. And 99 times out of 100, a satisfactory compromise can be quickly reached.
But it’s not all about crime or being robbed or scammed, although this happens more than some might think. The Tourist Police are frequently contacted to advise on lost or stolen passports and matters related to visas, or to help with sorting out the disturbance caused by late-night parties or even domestic disputes – it’s not just tourists who call on them, it’s residents too.
And so, if you need them, call 1155 and explain your problem. There are about 30 Tourist Police on Samui, including volunteers, and they’re readily on hand to protect and serve you and translate your problem when needed!
Rob De Wet
For assistance, telephone 1155.