Experiences with local law enforcement often yields interesting stories. Such encounters mostly arise out of pure curiosity and kindness. In the provincial town of Simunjan, Malaysia, for example, local police approached me and offered to show me around. And often, during hitchhiking, it's police officers who help me get my next ride.
A Lucky Turnout in Myanmar
Sometimes, these connections arise as a result of simple protocol; most people know that most parts of Myanmar are still inaccessible to foreigners. However, when I was hitchhiking from the tiny village of Bankachon to Bokpyin in October 2018, I figured out it is actually easy to end up in those prohibited places when I accidentally found myself in protected territory in Myanmar.
I had just crossed the border with Thailand at Kawthaung, which involved negotiating down a barely-functioning longtail boat to pass over a river. In Bankachon, a community of barely a few hundred people, my visit drew many smiling and happy people out of their houses. Bokpyin was a different story; upon noticing the unusual presence of a foreigner in town, I was immediately brought to the police station, where I had to stay for a long time. This was not the best welcome I could get after sitting in the back of a truck packed with people for hours. However, I do have to mention that the hospitality of the family who picked me up was amazing; they invited me for dinner and coffee along the way.
Almost ten cops and immigration officers were called in but with good result; the local police were happy I’d decided to visit their small town, and although it was illegal for me to be there, they offered me a private tour around all the local sights, which consisted mostly of small markets, trading fresh fish and vegetables.
I was only allowed to walk freely for ten minutes one evening, during which time I was followed by police on motorcycles, who watched every step I took. The hotel I was forced to stay in was priced at 6.000 Kyat for a single room (approximately €3), plus an unexplainable “foreigner fee” of 5.000, which I found to be a bit weird for a town where foreigners aren't allowed. To use an understatement, I can say the hotel was old-school; the bed I slept in wasn't actually a bed, but a wooden block with a thin blanket on top of it. An interesting experience.
Thailand’s Southern Mafia-Run Police Force
However, for some connections, one needs to either delve deep or get extremely lucky. My experience in Thailand's southern province of Phuket was a combination of both.
Phuket, and especially Pa Tong, are infamous for being hotspots for one particular subcategory of tourism in Thailand: Sex tourism. A practically inevitable aspect of any such destination is that there is always a “shady side” present. Years earlier, in 2015, I had already tried to learn more about these darker sides by spending a long time in rural areas of Thailand. The statistics never lie: the majority of the girls working in places like Pattaya (another destination with its main commodity being sex tourism) or Pa Tong originate from Isan – the north-eastern region of Thailand. Isan is the poorest region of Thailand, with about fifty percent of its inhabitants living in rural areas. The spoken language is something closer to Lao, which is undoubtedly caused by the proximity of Isan to Laos.
When I visited the area back in 2015, I had the chance to look inside a few homes of the girls that worked in one of the many Go-Go bars. Go-Go bars are famous for having an easy system: lots of barely dressed (and sometimes fully naked) girls perform in the middle of the bar, and all are wearing something like a sticker or a badge with a number on it. If you’re interested in a girl, you just give her number to one of the owners, and she’ll come have a drink with you. For the price of a Vodka Red Bull, one can do almost anything that he pleases with the girl. The life of such girls is unimaginable: either being drunk or having a hangover for the whole week, sleeping with four other girls in a small room without a mattress, and so on. I even met a girl who had to attend high school every morning after working as a Go-Go dancer until very late at night. Many girls I’ve seen had wounds on their arms and legs from cutting themselves.
The great thing about Isan is that, unlike other regions in Thailand, it is relatively unknown to tourists. When I cycled through villages in Amnat Charoen, people came out of their homes to wave hello at me. I even got invited for a meal a few times every hour. And the times when I took that opportunity were special: there were fresh and delicious papaya salads, chicken feet and lots of sticky rice. And everything is eaten only using your hands, of course! Although, nothing compared to Bangladesh, where I even saw people eat yoghurt or ice cream with their hands.
It was also in Isan, this time in Si Sa Ket, where I worked on a farm for a few days. It was another great experience which involved learning lots of things I never did before. If you’re up for an authentic cultural experience, and you want to enjoy untouched rural sights in Thailand, Isan is the way to go. I still have to go back and see how big the banana trees I planted have grown.
Back to the 2018 story: to help a friend with a personal problem, I obtained the number of a policeman and made him pick us up at the hotel I was staying in. However, when he turned up in a luxury car, he didn't bring us to the police station. The man decided it was a better idea to bring us straight to the home of his boss instead.
After talking with one of the highest-ranking police officers in Pa Tong and accepting dinner at his place, the “real boss” (as they called him) walked in and led the conversation for the next hour. The man looked like your typical character in a gangster movie. We were told he was one of the key figures controlling “the scene” in Pa Tong, and he happily showed us his collection of cars, jet skis, and motorcycles. Although he was mainly a self-proclaimed “businessman”, he had most of the police in the city working for him or his superiors, which was something the police officers present for the conversation confirmed.
When we arrived at the actual police station to solve my friend’s problem (a false accusation which could possibly keep him from leaving the country), the man demanded the file from the officer on duty and immediately tore the document to pieces, no questions asked, another confirmation of the bizarre influence of this rich businessman, who wasn’t even an actual police officer. Outside the police station, he proceeded to call and threaten the person who had made the false accusation against my friend.
The story turned weird when he invited my friend and me to Illuzion, a world-class nightclub known in the whole of Southeast Asia. Later that evening, we found ourselves sitting in the VIP room with police officers and “businessmen”, surrounded by expensive bottles of liquor. The evening continued in a strip club, where the men enjoyed themselves with multiple young Thai ladies. While our “big boss” was getting more unpredictable and aggressive by the minute, my friend started to receive videos detailing the results of the earlier telephone threats he had made—mutilated arms and a lot of blood. We found it to be the perfect moment to leave the place.