Hi Friends and Family,
Now that I am safely home, I want to speak candidly about my my Thai ordeal. I know the email below is long, but please read it. I guarantee you will be thoroughly entertained. Please feel free to forward the email along to anyone you feel would be interested to read it.
I want to first start off by saying my feelings about Thailand are now bittersweet, however I have absolutely no ill will towards the Thai people. The Thai people are some of the most friendly, respectful, polite and kind people of the world. I could go on for lengths with my admiration and respect for their hospitality and decency. The country has great natural beauty and even after this incident I would say is one of if not my favorite country to travel within. After what happened it would be easy for one to completely dismiss a whole nation as a corrupt and unjust, but that is not my sentiment and that is not my goal. I would simply like to share my cautionary and have my friends take note so the same will never happen to any of you.
The first 7 days I spent in Thailand were in the islands of Koh Samui and Koh Tao located in the gulf of Thailand. These 7 days were amazing – I lounged on the beach, obtained my open water scuba certification and made many new friends. I was living high on the hog; I had just finished a 3 month rotation working in India which included financial incentives and a trip to a casino in Goa where I won nearly $600. Unlike many of the other foreigners whom were on a tight shoestring budget, I was not. Rather than sharing a dorm room with 30 19-year-old Europeans and Australians on gap year and dealing with their late night stumbling home and casual and visible hook-ups, I stayed in luxury. Private apartments on a hillside with a view of the sea, upgraded to the finest suites with the points accumulated while living in a hotel in India. My luck was about to change, for I was headed to Bangkok.
Unlike legend has you believe, Bangkok is a relatively clean and modern city. Its skyline is dotted with modern office buildings and luxury high-rise condominiums. Its modern subway and skytrain systems would rival or surpass any American city’s. However, above the subway and below the skytrain there are the streets. The streets of Bangkok are filled with gridlocked traffic, 7-11s, hawkers, beggars, prostitutes, ladyboys, exotic foods, pushy Indian suit sales man, illegal Burmese migrant workers, sexpats and expats. Walking down the sidewalk you’re bound to step on a loose cobblestone which will immediately gush muddy water up your leg—every step you take is a gamble. Whether you’re a gambler or not, there are stakes placed on every step. I hit the bad luck lottery. I was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand for a false charge of possession of 1 gram of marijuana.
This story that I’m about to unfold should not jade your opinion of this country as a whole, only the justice system and the bad characters who have infiltrated it. However, I must emphasize that no country has a perfect justice system, and I do not mean to single out Thailand, this type of thing can happen in any country, but my account happened to happen there. Not even the US’s justice system is perfect, and it’s not perfect by a long shot. Fortunately, in this country we have due process, although constantly under attack, and one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. East Asian countries with cultures of honor and respect they do not afford the same treatment for its alleged criminals. Like they say in Japan, a nail that stands up gets pounded down.
My itinerary was planned months in advance. After staying in the gulf of Thailand, I flew from Koh Samui’s tiny idyllic airport to Bangkok’s massive and modern Suvarnabhumi International Airport. After landing I went to the Family Mart in the airport, grabbed a Singha (a local Thai lager) and waited to rendezvous with my friend, Mike. Mike is one of my best friends, however he has lived in Japan for over 3 years, and we rarely have the chance to see each other--once a year if we’re lucky. As I was about halfway down with my Singha, Mike arrives, his flight was right on time and he cleared immigration and customs effortlessly. Delighted to see him, I return back to the family mart and buy him a Chang, another Thai lager, as a sign of friendship and the fact that he has yet to find an ATM to withdraw thousands of Thai Baht. Unlike Singha, Chang has a certain reputation. It is rarely drank by the locals, but instead worshipped by backpackers for its slightly cheaper price and higher alcohol content. In Thailand you do not get a hangover, you get a “Chang-over.” We were to spend one night in Bangkok before continuing to the laidback and beautiful northern Thai city of Chiang Mai before continuing on to Vietnam to round out our trip. I never made it to Vietnam, instead I woke up with the worst figurative chang-over of my life. I hate to quote the song by Murray Head, but in my case one night in Bangkok did make a hard man humble.
We finished our respective beverages and headed into the city and checked into our hotel. We were staying on Sukhimvit, the longest street in the world, starting in downtown Bangkok and continuing all the way to Cambodia. Along Sukhimvit are perpendicular side streets called Sois. Every Soi has a different flavor. Some are filled with luxurious condos and bars frequented by wealthy foreign businessmen and beautiful Thai women trying to find a sugar daddy. Some are filled with sports bars and billiards rooms, some ladyboy bars, some do not cater to the foreigner and are instead frequented by mainly Thais. Essentially, no matter what your vice is, there is a soi that can fulfill it. There is a skytrain that runs the length of this street called the BTS, a beautiful, modern and convenient mass transportation system. We decided to ditch Sukhimvit all together and head to Khao San road. Khao San road is known as the backpackers gateway to southeast Asia with its extremely cheap accommodations, bars selling booze by the bucket (literally), proximity to Bangkok’s temples and its multitude of travel agents.
There is no public transportation linking Sukhimvit and Khao San, so we jumped into taxi and for a ride that would have cost $60 in the US cost us 200 baht or about $7, what a bargain! We proceeded to do what any traveler does on Khao San road; we lived it up like two jovial twenty-something guys do when reunited in an exotic country. We ate some bugs to prove our machismo, bought souvenirs including a hand carved ribbiting frog, took pictures of the street filled so tightly with people that not even a petite Thai woman could squeeze through without getting bumped around by a group of stumbling immature Europeans drunk from drinking buckets filled with red bull, coke and a local Thai whiskey, Sangsom. This was going to be the start of a great week of travelling with one of my best friends, until things took a sudden unexpected turn.
The night was June 24th, however, the night was winding down and we were flying to Chiang Mai the next day so we decided to call it a night. Around midnight we entered a taxi bound to Sukhimvit. Luckily the driver allowed us to have a metered fare, which is rare for foreigners to get. Usually a taxi ride requires careful negotiations with the driver as they are constantly trying to squeeze every last baht out of their foreign customers. A metered fare can often result about half the price of a pre-negotiated fair. We stopped paying attention to where we were going, slightly intoxicated and not familiar with the city we wouldn’t know where we were going anyway. The ride seemed to drag on for longer than expected. Mike’s blatter began to swell with the by-product of many Changs. Mike asked the driver if we were close because he needed to urinate. Instead the driver offered to pull over in a safe place for him to pee--common place in this hemisphere. The taxi driver located a "safe" place on the side of the road, during which time my friend was urinating a police officer approached the car and began to confront my friend about his urination. He then looked into the back of the taxi where I was sitting and reached toward but not in my pocket, hit the side of my leg and then presented a very small bag of marijuana (the bag ended up being about 1 gram). He never even searched me, just simply reached toward my pocket and pulled up the bag, which was in his hand the whole time. The officer demanded a payment of 10,000 baht on the spot. I was in shock. At the time 10,000 baht seemed like a lot of money the equivalent of about $300. So many thoughts quickly went through my mind: Was this a real cop? Why should an innocent man so easily fork over this sum of money? Should I call his bluff and not pay and hope he’ll let me go so he can get back shaking down other unsuspecting travelers? I declared my innocence and refused to pay. Promptly hand-cuffs were slapped on my wrists. “OK, OK, OK, I’ll pay!” I cried. To which his reply “too late.” The police officer then climbed in the taxi and escorted my friend and me to the Chanasongkram police station. Mike was kind enough to pay the fare as my hands could not easily reach into my pockets. It was unusual, because we had been in the taxi for about 25 minutes but never seemed to leave the Khao San road area, as the police officer was based out of the Chonasongkram station which is located at the end of Khao San road.
My friend's ridiculous charge of urinating in public was promptly dropped at the station after he called the embassy, I was not as fortunate. From within the cell, I desperately called the Thai equivalent of 911 and said I was falsely arrested and a huge injustice was occurring. They laughed and told me not to call back.
I was placed in a holding cell for the remainder of the night as my friend returned to the hotel to retrieve my passport. Luckily, because they never even bothered to search me I had my wooden frog. I removed the percussion device from its mouth and rubbed it down its back to simulate a ribbit. Until I fell asleep, I laid atop a table in the room making the sound: ribbit, ribbit, ribbit.
At 8:00 the next evening they moved me from the isolated holding cell to a jail with several other prisoners. They never discussed with me the timing of my court date until late in the morning, but kept telling me it was going to be sometime during the day to June 25, however at 13:00 they informed me that my court date would be the following day, June 26. I was devastated to hear this, as it meant spending another day in jail with no safe drinking water and little food. I was forced to sleep on the concrete floor with no bed, sheets, pillows surrounded by ants, misquotes and cockroaches. A prisoner before me had fashioned a pillow from three water bottles stung together with a rubber band. In the middle of the night the rubber band snapped, my pillow was broken.
Unlike in the US, you are guilty until proven innocent. And rather than simply isolating you from society which is supposed to be the aim of our prisons, their prisons are designed to punish. There is no convenience, no comfort, never. You’re constantly under the glow of a buzzing florescent light with no clock, so you’re just guessing what time it is. These were the longest two days of my life. Time had slowed to a crawl. They were trying to break my will. They were so kind to let my friend give me a book and some bottles of water and snacks; otherwise I would have had no safe drinking water. The provisions given were a small bag of steamed rice and one hardboiled egg in the morning, in the afternoon a small bowl of instant noodles.
The night of June 25, they put me in contact with a translator named Belle (name not changed). She told me that in order for my safe release and fast processing through the legal system without prison time I needed to pay 55,000 baht, which consisted of 20,000 for bail and 35,000 for "other" services which she had a hard time explaining exactly what for, but that it would speed up my court date to 2 months after my bail and that it would get me safe release after my court date and that upon my court date I would need to pay between 1,000 and 1,500 fine and will have to spend one night in the court jail. They explained to me the process to extend my Visa by picking up my passport at the court and going to immigration with a police escort. My visa expired July 15. I paid the 55,000 baht to the captain in his office with the door closed with the translator and my friend present. I was not given any type of receipt for this payment. After paying this money the police began treating me extremely well, they allowed me to drink a beer with them in the police station before returning to my cell for the remainder of the night. In accordance with Thai custom and instruction from the embassy, I was very respectful to the police officers throughout the whole process. I graciously thanked them for anything they did for me no matter how small and never raised my voice in anyway. At the time I had barely learned a single Thai phrase, but I did know how to say thank you: Kop Kun Kap.
The next morning at 11:00 I was taken to court. In the car on the way to court, an Australian was also in the car and the new translator, Steve (name changed) and the other police had a good laugh at my expense as I told them I paid 55,000 baht in comparison to the Australian’s 40,000 baht. The handcuffs in the car were extremely tight. I asked if they could be loosened to the reply was “we are close.” I glanced down at the cuffs to ironically see “Made in USA.” The new translator, Steve, described the courtroom process to me. I would go in front of the judge and he would ask me if I wanted to stay in jail for 12 more days and my answer would be "yes". I believe this was my way of entering a guilty plea. I followed these instructions, and at 17:00 I was released from the court and freed. The translator arrived and explained that my court date was set for 14/8/55 (American 8/14/12). I was given the police report which was completely in Thai, even the numbers. I later had someone translate this report for me. The gist of the report stated that I was standing outside the Chana songkram Buddhist temple and that I looked suspicious and might be dealing drugs. Upon this suspicion I was searched by a police officer where he found 1 gram of marijuana, not enough to deal, but enough to get thrown in jail. All complete lies. I realized that none of this is about justice; it’s a vast extortion racket, that’s all. I’ll say it: Within the Chana songkram police station is corrupt and contemptible people whose sole existence is to extort tourists from their money. They have no empathy and do not think twice about the harm they are causing to people. Chana songkram in Thai means “Victory in the battle.” I don’t know what fight they are fighting for, but it’s not the good fight.
Before returning me to my friend’s hotel the translator Steve said some police officers wanted to meet me and have beers with me. I had no choice but to go. I was taken to a the police general (6-stars) condominium complex where he, another uniformed officer, a captain (3-stars), the translator and 2 other Thai gentlemen were having dinner and drinking beer in the courtyard restaurant. I proceeded to drink beer with them for the next hour and a half as not to insult them. During this time I tried to be jovial and respectful, this was difficult. Thanking them whenever my glass was filled and also filling the glasses of the officers when empty. During the dinner Steve had disparaging remarks about the original translator, Belle, saying she is a liar and a cheater, I found this to be true. He mentioned that Belle and the captain probably celebrated their ill-gotten gains by sleeping together in the captain’s office, I don’t refute this claim. She is one of the most despicable people I have ever met, but I am not writing this to assassinate her character, so I will speak of her no more.
After dinner, the translator drove me along with the captain and another non-police Thai fellow to Khao San road, but stopped at 7-11 on the way to pick up a 4-pack of Leo beer which we shared during the car ride. This showed complete lack of respect for the law, as they had already been drinking and were continuing to drink in the car. The translator found his way to his motorbike near Khao San road and the capital then took over driving. After about 1km of the captain driving I was released.
The following day I went to the embassy and the embassy contacted the court and discovered my bail was in fact only 10,000 baht, not 20,000 I paid. I wasn't that surprised, either way I knew I would never see the money again. I knew this is all a scam to extort money from me, a tourist who does not speak the language or know the law, what a business plan!
On August 14, I appeared in court. The judge couldn’t have been any older than 30-years-old. I am not joking. The court proceeded like a traffic court. Although I could not understand what was being said each proceeding essentially goes like this: The judge asks if you’ve changed your plea, you say no. He then has a chart or some metric in which he determines the judgment. I image it’s something like this: 1 gram of marijuana = 1,500 baht. One gram of cocaine: 50,000 baht One gram of methamphetamine: 100,000 baht. The judge is not like a judge the way we think of judges, they are more or less administrators in robes.
On August 20, I flew home. However, before going to the airport I had one last legal issue to resolve. I had to get my name off the travel blacklist to allow me to leave the country. I took my court documentation to my translator at the police station; he gave it to a motorcycle taxi to go to the immigration office to be notarized or something in order for me to leave. While waiting for the taxi to return, I was called into the police station to talk to two newly arrested Europeans, a Frenchman and an Englishman. They were like me at first, defiant. They were used to living in lands of functioning legal systems. The translator asked me to explain the process and that paying for the “services” was in their best interests. They both expressed their innocence to me. I told them “it doesn’t matter; you’re here now so you’re guilty. You now just need to do what they say.”
After being stopped at immigration for a very nervous and tense 10 minutes while they looked over my court documents, I was allowed to leave the country.
Inside the jail, there was graffiti covering the walls. One particular line has left a lasting impression in my mind. “You don’t know how much your freedom is worth until it is taken from you”