Bangkok Phil

It's a lawless land

Who can you complain to in Thailand when you've been truly wronged?

I used to have a friend who ran a very successful student travel agency down in Malaysia. He was British by birth, but had lived in Malaysia most of his life, and his extremely charming wife was Singaporean. Their business never took them into neighboring Thailand very often, but they always referred to Thailand as ‘The Lawless Land'.

The first time I heard them use this expression, I laughed out loud. Let's be honest - it's the most perfect and appropriate title for this country and hits the spot far better than ‘The Land of Smiles', which has now become such a tiresome motto. In fact I was so enthused by such a descriptive and accurate slogan that I contemplated contacting The Tourist Authority of Thailand and letting them in on it. But somehow I don't think they would have seen the funny side.

This ‘lawlessness in a lawless land' was brought painfully home to me in early December when I was involved in a motorcycle accident. I wasn't riding the motorcycle. I was just crossing the road opposite my house - a road I've crossed thousands of times without incident - and a motorcycle hit me at speed. The motorcyclist was illegally riding his bike against the traffic flow. Those who have lived in Thailand any length of time know exactly what I mean because we see it day in and day out. One way streets mean nothing here. If getting from A to B by motorcycle means riding headlong into oncoming traffic but hugging the curbside, then so be it.

I'm only assuming it's illegal to ride your motorcycle in such a way of course. In a country where it's actually legal to ride a motorcycle on the footpath, regardless of how many human lives you're endangering, then I guess anything's possible.

Anyway, I had let my guard down for a second, forgotten all about my green cross code - and the next thing I was flat on my back seeing stars.

It's funny but when you're involved in an accident of this magnitude, a strange something happens, well before the pain kicks in. I'm not saying that life passed in front of me or angels gathered to sing me all the way to Heaven (assuming that's where I will end up) but I definitely saw a few faces belonging to family and close friends. But this definitely wasn't the way I would have chosen to go - not right opposite my house as well.

Eventually I picked myself up off the concrete footpath and realized I was still alive. The brain then goes through a sort of automatic checklist. Are my arms and legs still attached? Is there any blood? How much blood? And then the pain starts. And my God what a pain - my right arm was literally hanging off.

Then of course there's the motorcyclist himself to deal with. He had by this time dismounted his motorcycle - or fallen off (I didn't really care) and now wore the worried expression of a man who had almost killed a foreigner (not something I'm sure was on his agenda) He was quite clearly beside himself with remorse and I was in an emotional dilemma. I didn't know whether to put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and tell him that no serious damage had been done - or grab him by the scruff of the neck and batter the stupid prick senseless. I opted for the easy way out and held up my hand to signify I was still in the land of the living. And with that, the motorcyclist offered one more heartfelt apology and rode off - the wrong way up the street.

I then staggered across the dual carriageway, fumbled for my keys with my remaining good arm and collapsed on the sofa in my mother-in-law's living room. It's times like this when you are truly thankful to have a mother-in-law who is a qualified nursing sister and once she had ascertained what happened, my arm was put in a makeshift sling and I was ordered to swallow the obligatory cure-all paracetamol tablets. She then phoned my wife at work to ask her to come home and take me to hospital.

It was now that I realized my spoken Thai is sometimes woefully inadequate. I so desperately wanted to say "please break the news gently. Tell my wife that her husband's had a little accident but he's OK. He should probably get checked out at the hospital though"

I just knew that my mother-in-law would break the news in the worst possible way. When my wife answered the phone, my mother-in-law shouted "Phil's been hit by a motorcycle" and left it at that. There wasn't even a but clause. I could hear my wife's phone hit the floor and I pictured her sprinting through the company reception area, perhaps knocking over a couple of security guards before sliding across the bonnet of her car the way they do in really bad cop shows. Whichever way she did it, she was home in minutes. We then drove to the nearest hospital in a manner the Dukes of Hazzard would have been proud of. Thankfully hospital x-rays showed there was no fracture and a kindly doctor told me the arm would heal in a month or two. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. This had definitely been a lucky escape.

Later that evening, my wife and mother-in-law joined forces to quiz me intensely about the accident. I think my sister-in-law also stuck her oar in at one point. They all wanted to know why I had let the motorcyclist get away scot free. Why hadn't I performed a citizen's arrest and held him in an arm-lock until the police arrived? This was a guy who deserved to feel the full weight of the law. I just smiled. What fuckin' law is that? This is a lawless land. The guy was riding the wrong way up a one-way street. Not only that, he was on a main dual carriageway without a crash helmet. Was his bike insured? Was it taxed? Was it even his bike? I know where my betting money is going.

This is a country where I'm convinced you have to let these incidents go and chalk them up to experience. Pursuing things ‘legally' and going down what you feel are the appropriate channels will just lead to frustration and despair. This is Thailand. It's a lawless land.

Next door to the small compound on which I live is a single story shop-house which doubles as a car audio fitters. The business doesn't have a name but I refer to it as ‘car audio for morons'. The typical customer is a Thai male in his twenties with floppy hair and a knackered, rusty old car with go faster stripes and rear spoilers. Car Audio for Morons takes care of their ICE (their in-car entertainment) and this invariably involves fitting a cheap CD player and enormous stereo speakers with the acoustic output of a couple of Coke tins.

The most disagreeable part - at least for the people who live within a ten-mile radius - is when the business owner tests out his workmanship by playing Thai rap music so loud that it has on occasion, forced our house to shake at its very foundations. Eardrum-bursting Thai rap music is something I will begrudgingly tolerate in short bursts from Monday to Friday during working hours - but not on lazy Sunday afternoons when I'm enjoying quality time at home with my wife. Then I'm afraid something has to be done.

I've lost count of the number of times that my wife has been out to the owner and stood in front of the shop, arms akimbo, with a ‘what the hell do you think you are doing?' expression on her face, but let me tell you this - it's a lot. And every single time, the business owner just shrugs his shoulders and says "but it's my business" before turning the music down a couple of notches from earthquake-inducing to merely ear-splitting.

The noise got so bad at one stage a few years ago that we contacted a Thai lawyer to see what could be done. He explained that there was indeed a procedure one could go through if they suffered at the hands of noisy neighbors. It involved recording the noise levels on special equipment before eventually dragging the offender's ass through court. And how many years would it take and how much money would it cost before I could be photographed punching the air outside the courtroom as justice is finally served? Who knows? It's far easier to just appeal to the business owner's human side and hopefully make him appreciate that blasting out techno music at the weekend is not a very neighborly thing to do.

In more.....ahem.... civilized countries you might even consider reporting such matters to the police. And lo and behold, we've got a police control box situated just a hundred meters from our front gate. And that police box is manned 24/7. But I should point out that on the occasional Saturday night, the main road in front of our home becomes a race track for drunken motorcyclists and you won't guess where the starting grid is? That's right - directly opposite the police box. Doesn't fill you with much confidence in the local police force does it? They're sitting in the police box looking on as the motorcyclists rev up their engines. This is Thailand. It's a lawless land.

Who can I point the finger of accusation at next? Condominium developers - they'll do.

In front of our garden wall, between the wall and the public sidewalk, there is a small strip of land. It won't win any prizes in Gardening Weekly but I keep the grass well-trimmed and grow bougainvillea, which looks particularly nice at this time of year. It's obvious that the land is well-tended and furthermore, actually belongs to someone. But because that piece of land is on the main road and seen by thousands of motorists every day, it doesn't stop the evil condominium developers sending their gangs round in the dead of night to drive stakes into that private ground and affixing advertising hoardings to get some free advertising.

The first few times it happened, I would take down the advertising - basically a poster tacked onto a plywood frame - smash it into several pieces, and then drive to the condominium development (it's only a couple of kilometers away) and dump it on the ground outside their sales office. Then I would go into the sales office and go for their staff like a rabid Rottweiler. After they had soaked up enough abuse, I was assured it would never happen again.

It now happens virtually every week. There's hardly a Sunday morning I don't get up to find that a gang has come in the middle of the night and erected a new advertisement hoarding and trodden over my plants in the process. There ought to be a law against it right? Perhaps there is. But even my wife doesn't have the first clue about where to lodge a complaint. There is often no clearly defined system in terms of complaint procedure. And that applies to almost everything. It's all under wraps. It's like Thailand's little dark secret. It's a lawless land.


While waiting at a stoplight on my motorcycle, I was hit from behind by a speeding motorcyclist. We were both thrown to the road and a bit skinned up. The other motorcycle was damaged the worst.

A "kangaroo court" of locals came out into the street and demanded I pay the 500 Baht to the one who hit me, in order to pay for his damage. Not wanting to alone fight against of crowd (maybe 30?) of Thais, I paid the money and we all went on our way.

Later my Thai friends said that calling the police would have been the worst possible course of action. Why? They would have had their hands out for a bribe as well, so that I could avoid any legal problems resulting from the accident!

Thailand is NOT a land of laws. It is a land of money, power and connections. If you have any of those, or a combination of those three, you'll survive.

By Toptuan, Isaan (27th January 2011)

Let me tell you my side of lawlessness in Thailand. About 5 months ago , I was travelling home from work on Chaeng Wattana freeway in my car. There was a brand new B.M.W still with a red plate in front of me. We were doing about 100 kilometer an hour. I dont know whether you have traveled on Chaeng wattana freeway , but, right after Chaeng wattana exit , the three lane freeway, merges and becomes double lane freeway and that is where Pathumthani begins. Any way , right before, the merge, the B.M.W in front of me slowed down to 60 kilometer an hour in the fast lane and in front of him was wide open with no cars in sight. So, I naturally applied my brake to slow down and I just gave him a short " high beam " to alert him that there are cars behind him , but, as I gave him that short "HighBeam ' , he intentionally slammed on his brake which obviously will have a domino effect on the cars behind him, I also slammed on my brake yet gentle enough not to let the car behind me rear end me. I didn't understand why he was doing all of these , I couldn't change my lane, because my lane was merging into another lane, so I honked my horn, next thing I saw , was a man on the passenger side of B.M.W bringing his head out facing backward ( facing me ) with a gun pointed at me and he just fired the gun.

Luckily, neither me nor my car was hit, yes, he missed!. To cut the story short,I and my wife went to our local police department to file a report, they told us that since it happened on the freeway, we had to go to the station where the alleged crime happened. So, now, they are trying to figure out which police jurisdiction that section of the freeway is. They gave us the name of that police station which was in Pakred district. We immediately went to that police station and what I am about to tell you is even more frustrating than the actual shooting!. The watch commander explained the Thai law this way to us ; IF A MAN POINTS A GUN AT YOU AND SHOOTS AT YOU BUT HE MISSES, THEN HE CAN NOT BE CHARGED WITH THE ATTEMPTED MURDER!, ALL HE IS GONNA BE CHARGED WITH IS BRANDISHING A FIRE ARM AND FIRING IN PUBLIC WHICH BY THE LAW CAN BE FINED MAXIMUM 500 BAHT!, ANOTHER WORDS JUST A SLAP ON THE WRIST, AND THAT IS PROVIDING HE OWNED A GUN LEGALLY. HOWEVER, IF HE DIDN'T OWN THE GUN LEGALLY,THEN, HE CAN ONLY BE ARRESTED FOR CARRING a GUN ILLEGALLY ,NOT FOR THE ATTEMPTED MURDER.

I thought that he was just full of it and it is only the law for " Farang" but he even gave us an example that few years back, a police officer gets in to a fight with some body in a bar and shoots him dead, then , when other police officers arrived , he claimed that some body took the gun out of his holster and shot the man and ran out of the bar and he was able to walk. If you have been following recent shootings on T.V, the reason the police got involved was because some body died as the result of the shooting , but, if there is no injury or death, they will not go after it!!!. How is that for the land of no common sense!!!

By Kyle, Bangkok (23rd January 2011)

I agree with both sides of the argument here.

Obviously when the laws and rules and powers that be are working against you it is very frustrating. On the other hand there are many times when the lack of law, regulations and strict controls are a real bonus and the lack of red tape in these situations makes problems easier and cheaper to solve e.g. on the spot fixed penalties or dare I say, 'bribes'.

The western world nowadays has gone crazy with rules and regulations especially when it comes to things like 'Health and Safety' for just one example. There are departments employing 1000's of people to sit and think of new laws to introduce every day. Then there's all the extra police required to enforce these often stupid laws and the extra legal staff, courts, judges, lawyers etc. to administer them.

How many times in the west have you been at the wrong end of the law or heard stories where the accused will not defend himself in court because it is easier and cheaper just to pay a fixed penalty? Or, you know you are right when you have a complaint but you don't pursue it because the person you accuse will get legal aid costs paid but you will incur major expense?

Two sides to every story... in this case some is good and some is bad.

By Peter West, Nakhonratchasima (Korat) (22nd January 2011)

Thailand is not only the land of smiles; it's also the land of surprises and lawlessness. Coping with insane loud noises/stereo systems and millions of stray dogs are difficult challenges to the farangs.
Nonetheless, many farangs managed to survive despite these the challenges. Good luck.

By Roland Tan, Hatyai, South Thailand (20th January 2011)

My car was hit from behind while I was waiting for the green light. The Thai driver didn't even apologise. I asked him "why?". He just gave me an absent look. After a minute he got into his car and drove off. The damage cost me 4000 Baht plus insurance money. I was upset with insurance company as well that I had to pay 50% for fixing. That's not right as it wasn't my fault, but still I have to pay, what kind of insurance is that?

By Victor29, Bangkok (19th January 2011)

@ Spicy somtam. So what your saying is let one of the drunk taxi drivers take you home instead?

By BkkMatt, Bangkok (17th January 2011)

I agree with Steve. At least the guy hung around until you waved to him. That is unusual. Normally all you see are his tail lights. If he has some, which is also rare.
I also agree with Rod. I worked a contract in the Philippines and Thais are good drivers compared to them.

By Ralph, nong khai (17th January 2011)

Ok Phil, but still your conclusions were based on assumptions, not what actually happened. Since you took no action to report the incident, how could the police act?

I will concede things are done differently here in Thailand than they are back “home,” but to some extent isn’t that why many of us are here?

Try to light a cigar in a restaurant, or allow your kids to ride a tricycle in your driveway without a helmet, or ask a lady in a bar to go with you for a few hours, or enjoy the numerous other little freedoms one has in Thailand back home and see what happens. How much freedom are we willing to give up for additional safety? Sure living here is a trade-off, but one all of us who live here have freely made.

I have had many dealings with Thai authorities and even an encounter or two with the police. Sure I have had some frustrations, but there were also times when I was thankful for a little bending of the rules. Do you really want to go downtown to pay for a traffic violation or would you rather settle it on the spot? Laws and regulations in Thailand (and many other countries) are seen as general guidelines and not fixed boundaries that can never be crossed with punishment. Different philosophy.

There are some negatives of living in a “lawless” land and some positives.

It is up to each of us to measure the pros and cons and decide where we want to hang our hats.

But I can understand the need to make a rant every now and then, even when there isn’t much justification for it.

By A Fan, SEA (16th January 2011)

The government are trying to get the crime rate down at the moment, which gives the police plenty of excuse to fully enforce the law (and make lots of money at it). Thus if you are in the mood or habit of committing minor crimes, you might want to think twice before doing it?

I would add that your average crime can be bought off with a couple of hundred baht, but drink driving has become the new evil, akin to taking drugs. Thus if you are over the limit (>50mg; about a litre of beer) then they will send you to jail for the night (or whole weekend) until the court opens and then you will need to go to court, and figure on at least a 10,000 baht fine, plus a criminal record that may hamper getting future visas. Thus you have been warned! Instead take a taxi and help all those taxi drivers make a living!

By Spicysomtam, Huey Kwang, Bangkok (16th January 2011)

Helments are optional in Thailand until the police want money for lunch. Only then is it a requirement. Notice I didn't say enforced requirement because after you give him his lunch money, you are free to go without a helment. Motorcycle insurance? Not many Thai's in their right mind would have such.

He shouldn't have to think about location when he built his house if the laws were enforced.

By Ralph, nong khai (15th January 2011)

This is really funny.
You let your traffic awareness down and get whacked by a mo-cy. The Thai guy at least hung around to make sure you were 'ok..ish' and left when you waved to say you were so. This is a 'lawless land?' You have a house next to a dual carriageway? Thai shop cranking up music? Ever think of location when you live somewhere?

By Steve, Bangkok (15th January 2011)

You think Thailand is bad? It is heaven compared to the Philippines! Go there for a while. You would kiss the ground when you return here.

By Rod Lafleur, Bangkok (14th January 2011)

You were exactly right in figuring that calling the police would do anything except waste your time. They can't (or won't) enforce the law because they do the same thing themselves. If you always keep in mind that this IS a lawless land, you'll fare much better and be much more careful. One doesn't have to watch himself so much as everyone else.

By Ralph, nong khai (14th January 2011)

And people ask incredulously why I've changed. Well - having had to deal with frigging xxxholes - as the above story so clearly demonstrates - virtually each and every day of my last seventeen years here might 'possibly' have had something to do with it!
Fortunately - my sanity has somehow remained in tact in all that time. "It's a lawless land." I would go a bit further and say it's pretty Wild West in many respects.

By Peter Marshall, Bangkok (14th January 2011)

"Let me see if I got this right"

No, I don't think you did to be honest. The motorcyclist was also riding the wrong way up a main road with no helmet. And I assume (fairly confidently) without insurance. But perhaps you just didn't read that far.

By philip, (14th January 2011)

Let me see if I got this right. You were involved in a minor incident, assumed the police would do nothing, so you didn't pursue the matter, and therefore Thailand is a lawless land. Hmmm. I have read or heard stronger arguments supporting an opinion.

By A Fan, SEA (14th January 2011)

Hey Phil,

This is a great post. Honestly, my favorite part is your anecdote in the beginning. I have been living in Thailand for three years and when my family first visited last year, my father was in awe of the general lawlessness and, counterintuitively,the functionality. He was amazed that in a country with no law enforcement and an obviously corrupt, ineffective legal system, life could go on without mass chaos. He pointed to Africa and suggested that in lawless societies, Africa's situation tends to be more the norm. South America, Africa, much of the Middle East, and Russia have tragic, destructive crime/murder rates. I suppose for me that is the most amazing thing about Thailand: this kind of lawlessness breeds utter anarchy in most other countries in the world.

I agree with Timbo that part of Thailand's charm is that you don't need a permit to breath on a public sidewalk, but you can find that in almost every other Asian country. That was one of the most attractive things about Korea, where I lived for 1 year (and wish I still did; unfortunately, I met a know the story). Thailand is unique in that the level of corruption and the "mai pen rai" attitude creates a mad fantasia of illicit activity. The Thai legal reality always stands sharp clarity when I pass Soi Cowboy on a weekend and recall that prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand. The fact is: legality is a meaningless concept in the Kingdom. It can be seen at the core when the Abhisit Administration tries to allow the yellow-shirts to rally despite the State of Emergency stipulations (hats off to the Reds, who I in no way endorse, for at least calling them on that "inconsistency"). Happenings of that sort reveal a universe of corruption, exceptionalism, and brazeness whose extent cannot be fathomed.

For the record, I like Thailand's laid back approach (at times). Security and safety, however, will continue to be dreams; this will eventually come back to haunt this country as other, more motivated ASEAN nations quickly fill the gaps that Thailand simply cannot. As an American, it's certainly never boring to watch once great countries (for Thailand that's regionally) slip into benighted decadence. Hope your arm gets better; you're lucky.

By Aaron, Bangkok (14th January 2011)

The police in Thailand set a very poor example, often riding bikes on sidewalks themselves. They also rarely do anything about complaints unless either there's some financial incentive or a decision comes directly from the top. Having said that, do we really want this country to become like the west where over legislation means we can't fart without some penalty being imposed!?

By Timbo, Bangkok (14th January 2011)

Why don't you make a couple of cheap ad banners for and then go and put them up on the carefully-manicured promotional lawn in front of that condo development in the middle of the night? Give them a taste of their own medicine!

By Johnny, Bangkok (14th January 2011)

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