Your First Friend: A Day in the Life of a Tourist Policeman
Unaffiliated with any local police station, The Tourist Police are the guys who should be available for foreigners in trouble around the clock, and yet here in Chiang Mai, they’re the police we see the least. Intrigued, I decided to pay them a visit and spend a day finding out what being a Tourist Policeman is all about. Here is my story.
Just past the zoo on the first steep climb up to Doi Suthep sits Chiang Mai’s Tourist Police headquarters. Upon arrival, and after reassuring everyone that I was not there to report any crime, I explained my request to them. “I just want to follow you around for a day!” Expecting to be told to write a letter of permission and wait for months for said permission to be denied, I was immediately given the green light, quite a refreshing change of pace in the life of a Citylife writer. The commanding officer at the station, Pol. Lt. Col. Asawatorn Wongsawat invited me into his office so that we could discuss our plan of action.
“Anything you want to do, you can do,” he said, smiling genially. Cynic that I was, I raised an eyebrow. “This would be a good thing to improve our image amongst the community,” he explained. So, it was set; I was going to work alongside Pol. Sen. Sgt. Maj. Sutisak Suanpet, nicknamed Pi “Norn”, which translates to “worm,” a name I thought was perhaps not the most appropriate for a policeman trying to ingratiate himself with the international community.
I then found out, to my horror, that work for a senior officer starts at 6 a.m. This early start is followed by one of the longest working days on record, finishing at midnight, with no breaks, since the station must remain open 24 hours a day. I, however, arrived at the sensible time of 9 a.m. After all, I am still an unpaid intern. (Ed. So much for walking in shoes…)
I found Pi Norn sitting at his desk in the main office, in the classic tight brown policeman’s garb, with a Tourist Police badge on his right arm. I later asked him if he likes the uniform, and to my surprise he did. Kept him in shape, he whispered. “I have to be cautious on the beers now.”
The day started slow. It was only he and I in the office but soon others started to stroll in. Very blasé with time keeping, as expected. Across from the office, at the main entrance sat three very bored interns from a local university, who although were granted a great chance to work, were unfortunately had very little to do.
Soon visitors started to arrive. Tourists, of course. Our first “clients” were not in trouble or seeking advice, but were setting off for a jungle tour, here per local laws requiring a pre-excursion check-in. After being briefed on the dangers of drugs, told not to wander off, and other commonsense topics which were probably necessary to instill in this bunch of hungover shirtless youths, Pi Norn told me that this routine is repeated with three or four groups each morning. A surprisingly small number, given the huge amount of trekking backpackers.
We had some time to twiddle our thumbs after the backpackers packed themselves back into their songtaew, and I asked for thoughts on duel pricing, a topic which has been tearing up Citylife’s comments section since the inception of our publications.
“Thais have a life here, tourists have money to spend, why shouldn’t they pay more?” he replied. I tried to reason about resident foreigners and tax payment…but had lost his interest. A call came in on the emergency number, 1155, and it couldn’t have been better timing. It was a Chinese couple, phoning to complain about being charged 180 baht for a noodle soup they just saw a Thai pay 30 baht for. Excitedly, I perched on the desk listening in. But alas. Hanging up the phone, Pi Norn explained to me that not only did this situation happen yesterday deeming it “past the time to help,” but also was unanimously accepted by all the staff that this was “a different bowl of soup” so obviously the prices would be different. Ah, okay.
After a few hours, a few more tours and a lot of chatting, Pi Norn and I were becoming quite good friends as he began to open up about his life. He recounted one story of a poor English guy turning up really early in the morning crying his eyes out because he had unprotected sex with a prostitute. He wanted the police to arrest her and test her for HIV. “We sternly explained to him that if this story was true, he would himself be arrested for paying for a sex act.” The guy quickly left.
When I asked if the typical “stupid farang” tourist annoyed him, Pi Norn said no. “I feel sorry for them; you have to.” With all this camaraderie, I was beginning to see the noodle soup incident in a rosier light.
At this point, the Chinese translator, Mr. Bop, swaggered in. He looked just as I expected a Chinese police translator to look like. No taller than 150 centimetres and with no official uniform, he was dressed in a black blazer with the sleeves rolled up and aviators on his head. The atmosphere changed completely. He looked at me, looked at Pi Norn and then back at me. His look of confusion quickly turned into a cheeky grin as he stared straight at me and declared, “Oooooh lawwwww ah!” (Oh so handsome!) Then, with a flick of his wrist he scurried into the emergency phone room.
After a bit of a laugh, Pi Norn and I returned to sitting around waiting for a case while watching terrible daytime soaps on TV. Then another tour group turned up and, caught unawares, I was informed by Pi Norn that I was to brief them as his translator. Pi Norn explained that he was shy speaking English, a rather unfortunate affliction for someone in his line of work. I felt the power surging through me as I lectured these young pups…and I will admit, it went to my head.
By midday, with the tours heading towards their patches of jungle, we all got to chatting and the air hummed with excitement as Pi Norn and Mr. Bop engaged in manly flirtation. Pi Norn invited me out for a smoke. I declined, but was given one anyway. We stood out the back for no more than a minute before he offered to get some beers in after the big boss left. Working to midnight, he needs something to keep him going, he explained. I asked if he would arrest me when I went home drunk, and he said, “No, don’t be ridiculous. A drunk policeman can’t arrest a drunk driver!”
Later, calls began to come though. Unfortunately, (or fortunately) there were no emergencies, but it was lunchtime at the local schools and apparently calling the free tourist police number is a popular pastime for Thai kids. This station alone gets over ten prank calls per day, and the old policeman handling the calls loves to swear at the pranksters. The phone rang, and was answered with the standard “Hello…Hello…Hello…” No answer, just some stifled giggles. The annoyance in the old bobby was boiling, and like a geyser finally giving way, a barrage of all kinds of insults exploded through the phone lines to the sheer delight of the kids. I sat and wondered if maybe his almost poetic range of insults was what attracted the daily calls in the first place.
By two in the afternoon, there was still no cases. An especially slow day, perhaps due to the curfew making people much more docile than usual. I was beginning to wonder how boring it must be, day in day out, waiting for problems. The moral dilemma: excitement only comes from others’ misery.
Then, finally, our first case! I was excited, and pen gripped in hand, I sat attentive behind Pi Norn, ready to take notes, until I realised it was all in Chinese. I put my pen down. It turns out a Chinese woman had lost her money a few days ago and suspected her tour bus driver. Pi Norn pronounced it a dead end case, with no proof and too much time passed. I had to agree.
After another hour, another serious call came through the radio room. A westerner who was living in Chiang Mai had found his car keyed. Forms had to be filled.
At around 4 p.m., Pi Norn headed out to get a small bit of food from down the road. He offered to buy beers but came back empty-handed. Maybe it was a wind-up after all, but then again, I didn’t stay ‘til midnight. By the end of the day, with several passing tour groups, a visitor with a non-case, and a call that ended as soon as it began, I started to understand why the Tourist Police were so keen on letting me to do a story about them. The truth is that they are still largely unknown by many tourists and Thais alike. They have the same powers, authority and resources as regular police but also work in English, Chinese, Russian and any other language if they can find a translator.
With a (much needed) renovation, the Tourist Police station will soon be Chiang Mai’s most modern hub of crime fighting and soap opera watching. While today’s cases were unchallenging and a bit humorous, they by no means detract from the many serious cases the Tourist Police must deal with, nor their abilities to do so when called upon.
With specialised Honda patrols in all the key tourist spots, the Tourist Police are even known to have a slightly faster response time than the regular police. You also don’t have to be a tourist to call upon them; anyone in Thailand can do so, even locals. So remember, kids, the police are friends, not foes, and they are here to help. 1155 is a number any foreigner in Thailand should never forget.