Thailand is considered a safe travel destination and very few visitors feel uptight about their personal safety. You’ll soon discover a very relaxed atmosphere where you’re safe to travel alone, at night, or as a female traveller. The locals are friendly, helpful and non-aggressive, generally. Theft is seldom a problem, except for pickpockets in touristy areas.
Although there are always scam artists preying on the naïve, there is very little duress or violence to contend with, and not so much of the persistent bothering and hawking experienced in other Asian countries. Chiang Mai is particularly safe compared to other tourist centres. Apart from hustlers at tourist markets, pushy girls in bars or irritating tuk-tuk drivers, you can enjoy a hassle-free holiday here.
Safety in Chiang Mai is good; it’s a calm provincial town with few incidents of violence, theft or harassment. The tourist police do a good job of maintaining the safety in Chiang Mai. Here are the common complaints to be aware of:
Credit card fraud: is problem and many banks worldwide have blacklisted Thailand, meaning a replacement card cannot be sent here. Although you are generally safe in respectable establishments, never let the card out of your sight and do not sign the slip unless you have seen it come from the machine. A common trick is to run off several debit slips and then forge your signature on the others. Due to poor law enforcement, fraud proliferates here. When in doubt, paying by cash eliminates this problem, and regularly checking your statements (internet banking) helps keep this in check. In general, the reported cases of this are few.
Drugs: aren’t tolerated in any quantity in Thailand. This includes marijuana, opium, ya-baa (amphetamines), and all recreational drugs. A widely publicised ‘war on drugs’ in 2003 resulted in some serious human-rights abuses, and the police attitude towards offenders (and suspects) hasn’t changed. The lightest sentence you can expect is a 50,000 Baht fine (or bribe), time in custody, a suspended sentence and deportation for possession of even a small quantity of pot.
Several foreigners are languishing with life sentences (in appalling conditions) in Thai prisons for their involvement in trafficking or selling drugs. While ‘smoking dope’ continues in some of the more bohemian places, such as Pai and Koh Pha Ngan, police raids continue and care should be taken. Smoking of opium while trekking has faded in popularity and it is now difficult to come by. Lately, the police in Pai have become draconian in trying to catch ‘hippie backpackers smoking dope’, and we’ve received reports of people being hauled off the street for impromptu urine tests!
Gem scams: are a common occurrence in many of the nation’s cities, and unfortunately naïve visitors continue to fall prey to these simple scams. The ruse involves duping people into believing they are buying smuggled Burmese gems which are considerably cheaper than market prices.
The dealers are very convincing; of course, by the time you discover they’ve sold you fakes, the shop has disappeared and there is little the police can do to help you recover your money, even if you paid by credit card. Simple solution: don’t be foolishly greedy, thinking you can score something for nothing. The problem mostly occurs in Bangkok.
Hustlers and touts: are more of an annoyance than a threat, and it is common to be accosted outside train stations by touts. They are only trying to make a living and although they can be quite affirmative, you can usually shake them with a firm ‘Mai ow krap/ka‘ (no thank you). Tourist areas are full of them and, although they may appear innocently friendly, their motives are usually always financial. How far you decide to go along with this is up to your own judgement, but there is no need to be mistrustful of everyone offering you a guesthouse or taxi;mostly the outcome isn’t disastrous.
Tuk-tuk drivers can be pretty persistent and even follow you down the road sometimes. Avoiding initial eye-contact or ignoring them is usually effective. One popular scam is to offer you a ‘free tour’ or cheap ride, which involves a time consuming detour to gem shops and tailors and this becomes quite uncomfortable when you oblige by ‘window shopping’ and then fail to buy anything. If you find them to be aggressive, raising your voice and calling for the Tourist Police makes them back down.
Pick pocketing and theft: is reported regularly in tourist areas; however, muggings and grab-and-runs are uncommon in Thailand, as it is very uncharacteristic of people here to openly rob others. In general, you can safely move about Chiang Mai without needing to constantly keep your wits about you. There is no need to tuck your valuables away in a money belt, but be careful with bags while in busy tourist areas. There are increasing reports of snatch and grabs from youths on motorcycles, so hold onto your bags. Also, be careful when riding a motorbike with your bag in the front basket or slung over your shoulder. Theft occurs fairly regularly from guesthouses, usually due to insufficiently secured windows or doors. The cheaper the place, the more effort you need to lock up or keep your valuables with you.
Political trouble: this is perhaps the greatest threat to your visit, mainly due to the inconvenience and possibility of getting caught up in the ongoing squabbles between the two polarised groups that have emerged in Thailand in recent years – the ‘reds’ and ‘yellows’. The three-month seige of Bangkok was disastrous for tourism, even though travellers in the rest of the country were unaffected and only parts of Bangkok were risky. However, the situation remains serious and a repeat of the crisis is quite real, with minor incidents flaring in Chiang Mai where the ‘Red Shirt’ group are active.
Protests are mostly confined to Bangkok, where the closure of the city or blocking of the airport could cause great inconvenience to your trip. The media do tend to exaggerate the general atmosphere, and your foreign office is obliged to be prudent when issuing a travel warning. In contrast, the peaceful situation in Chiang Mai and other upcountry tourist spots seems to defy this, but check your travel insurance policy carefully when these are issued. The situation is now under control and calm and the risk of another such incident has diminished as the two sides agree to reconcile.
Road safety: Thailand, unfortunately, has a high road death rate and, while the casualties are seldom visitors, those who are driving or riding here should be extra vigilant against reckless, careless and ill-disciplined driving. Laws aren’t strictly enforced, signs and lights are frequently disobeyed and irresponsible overtaking is common. Drunk driving is a chronic problem around about midnight when many bars close.
Fortunately traffic moves slowly in urban areas, but accidents on northern Thailand’s winding, mountainous roads are a problem; additionally, emergency services are unreliable. If you are renting a motorbike, always wear your helmet and ensure you are confident and aware. Also, ask the rental shop for a lock and chain. Motorbike theft has become a major problem in Chiang Mai recently, and rental bikes are popular targets.
This is why it is highly recommended that you pay the extra 50 Baht per day to buy insurance from the rental shop. If your bike does get stolen, or wrecked, you won’t have pay for it. Without insurance, a stolen bike means you’ll have to cough up around 45,000 Baht to replace it. Travel insurance is also a must to cover you in the event of a motor accident.
Terrorism: Thailand is a peaceful country that has managed to steer an even keel between Western allies and its Muslim regional neighbours. This Buddhist country has few enemies, and with the exception of violence among renegade Muslim groups in the southern three provinces, there is little risk of terrorist activity to your safety in Chiang Mai. That said, the ongoing political rift in the country, which caused the Bangkok siege, has heightened the risk considerably. Disenchanted groups, particularly ‘Red Shirts’ who have a strong base in the north, continue to agitate the government with random acts of aggression on selected targets. There are seldom casualties, only damage and threats, but the police seem impotent in stopping this – see previous post on political problems.
Violence: is uncommon in Thailand, and Thai people have a reputation for passiveness, tolerance and keeping cool. However, if you fail to reciprocate and continue to take liberties of their cultural manners, they do occasionally snap and can become extremely fierce in avenging their damaged honour. This could be your part-time girlfriend throwing a tantrum and wrecking your hotel room, or a wiry Thai kick boxer in a drunken brawl – either way the results aren’t pretty.
Thais are easy-going, non-confrontational people who prefer a relaxed, threat-free environment. However, they generally approach life with much less sense of caution and responsibility, and can at times be reckless. Care and awareness is necessary with traffic, risky adventure, drunken bar arguments and scams.