Apr 052011

You may’ve noticed in my recent posts that whenever Herb and I go out partying, we tend to hop endlessly from venue to venue. This isn’t because of impatience. It’s because of necessity.

See, one very interesting trait about Thailand (which I chose to separate from the previous post) could only be described as…well, lawlessness. But not lawlessness in the sense of danger or of visible crime – before anyone gets upset, let me assure you that in the context of Thailand, I don’t mean this in an even remotely negative way. Because here in Thailand, the lawlessness seems to translate to one thing and one thing alone.


And while I do recognize how shortsighted such a statement may seem, give me a moment to explain. Many of you have probably read some of my posts from Ukraine, where the incessant extortion by corrupt cops eventually drew a shade over the whole experience. Or Brazil, where despite its countless fantastic attributes, the very real risk of mugging made it too dangerous to just let loose and enjoy the country as I would’ve otherwise done. Here in Thailand on the other hand, “lawlessness” only seems – at least on the surface – to work towards peoples’ benefit.

Consider the alcohol law. Technically, booze can only be sold during very limited hours – in the morning and in the afternoon – a rule that the big corporations like 7-11 or Foodland have to follow. Little street vendors, on the other hand, generally do as they please and are free to peddle beers until the wee hours of the morning. In a Western country such behavior would never fly, but here, it’s because of the “lawlessness” that little Mr. Jaidee can earn his living, and that people can head out for a quick drink anytime they like.

Or how about if you get a speeding ticket? In the US it would mean a hefty fine and outrageous insurance hikes for years. Here, just slip the officer a few bucks and you’re on your merry way.

So what does all this have to do with hopping from club to club on a Saturday night? Well, in Thailand, nightclubs can only be opened until 3am. Which really means that nightclubs which can’t afford to pay off the cops can only be opened until 3 am. The scene is always changing, depending on the current chief of police, the mood of the local enforcers, how much of a kickback they think they can get – so a place that’s opened until 7am this weekend might be closed at 3am the next. In reality it doesn’t change quite that often, but you get the picture: basically, if you hope to have a full night out you’ve got no choice but to stay on the move. You might start at a classy bar in an upscale hotel before heading to a mainstream popular nightclub – it’ll be posh and packed, but done by 3. Which is okay, because that’s when the afterhours joints are just getting going – the next spot might be busiest from 2-4:30, and the following from 4 to 6. That’s why we move around so much: because if you try to pick just one spot, there’ll always be a good portion of the evening when it’s nearly empty. Or closed.

Another interesting observation I’d make about the lawlessness in Thailand is that, surprisingly, nobody seems to hide it. This goes strongly against the Asian “face-saving” culture, but perhaps things have just become so free-form over here – so “anything goes,” so to speak – that there’s really little point in trying. On Khao San Road for instance, you’ll find countless bars with huge signs advertising “Cheap drinks – we don’t check ID!” On the biggest streets of Bangkok it’s not uncommon to see a scooter with a 12-year-old driver zooming past street stalls that openly sell Viagra. Even as a foreigner, renting a motorbike doesn’t require a license – just a wad of cash and you’re on your way. On the Southern islands things can get even crazier: cafes will list “magic mushroom shakes” right on the menu. And of course let’s not forget that prostitution is still technically illegal.

Yes, in Thailand it often seems like law is more a matter of what the cops feel like enforcing than anything else. It’s almost shocking that in such a society, truly dangerous crime isn’t more of an issue – or at least it doesn’t appear to be on the surface. I’ve now spent well over two months in the country without having felt even remotely uncomfortable in even a single situation…and trust me that when I say that after all my random adventures, I do have a pretty attuned sense for danger.

But then again, I suppose that when you get down to it Thailand really isn’t any more lawless than many developing countries; perhaps the real difference, the reason why it’s so interesting to me, is more how it’s manifested itself. Thailand is no longer an off-the-beaten-path destination like Ukraine or Moldova; it’s a country that hosts millions of tourists and expats every year. It’s modern, high-tech, and well connected. Yet despite all the considerable progress, Thailand still retains a distinctly “wild west” sort of feel – like the people can pretty much do what they please, when they please. And while one would normally assume this to be an instant recipe for disaster, here, cops rarely hassle you and locals never attack you. For the most part people just do what they need to to get by. For some this means taking a job at 7-11, for others it means selling Viagra on a streetcorner. And for the visitors, it means they’re free to go out and lightheartedly enjoy the Wacky Wonderland that is Thailand.

Throughout our month-long trip, Herb and I repeatedly found ourselves wondering “How can this be?” “How does it all work?” So many things over here just seem inexplicable. To these questions, there’s only one response I can think of:

“Dis Tailann!”

  9 Responses to “Lawlessness”

  1. Ummmmm…..is there a story behind that first picture!?!??!?! Or was it just a posed setup for the camera?

  2. It’s a setup, of course πŸ˜‰

  3. haha i was going to ask about that first photo, as well! πŸ˜›

  4. It was in Patong (Phuket), on Bangla road – the tourist police were just having fun with the tourists, so you know I was one of the first to jump in πŸ˜€

  5. What a great photo opp! πŸ™‚

  6. It’s not as innocent as you think though. I know of people first hand that have been killed because of cop-mafia and nightclub payments. Tourists get mugged from time to time just like any other place and you also know of your own encounter with the mischevious kathoey in Bangkok. I was personally assaulted twice in Phuket during my 3-4 months there and a friend ended up in a hospital with critical stab wounds. So I’d be a little careful advertising this lawlessness as a purely good thing. Sure, it’s convenient when it’s “only you”, but it does spawn more powerful forces that can do real harm…

  7. Yeah, I’m sure – and I have heard the periodic story of i.e. a foreigner having drugs planted on them by cops, then being hit up for a bribe. But like you said, everywhere in the world has their issues from time to time (think of Club Heaven in Japan, supposedly one of the safest countries out there). My surprise was more that in a place that functions SO outside the rules, it isn’t more in-your-face. Obviously you don’t want to be foolish about how you act, but I’ve also never really felt “threatened” like we often did in Brazil or Ukraine…

  8. Out of my own personal experience I’d say Thailand is *less* safe than many western countries, like i.e. Norway. This type of lawlessness is a strong fertilizer for mafia, and whereas you and I don’t bend the rules that hard, there are others that do. Still, I totally agree Ukraine and Brazil are worlds apart.

    >> but I’ve also never really felt β€œthreatened”

    …kathoey-story in Bangkok?

  9. Well yeah – but if Norway weren’t safer than Thailand, something would be really wrong, haha πŸ˜›

    Again, I just meant that “*for a place that seems so lawless*, it feels surprisingly safe. Unlike many developing countries. Norway never felt even remotely lawless πŸ˜‰

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