We may not be getting the rain, but Chiang Mai is thronging with tourists at the moment. I like the tourists being here. Some of them sit down and talk to me. I like them because they are not jaded like me and mostly incredibly excited about the adventures they are having and the escapades ahead of them. I apologise to anyone who would prefer the epithet ‘traveller’, but frankly your hair is far too soft, shiny and well cared for.
Many of the conversations I have with these lovely creatures tend to touch on what I am going to call the three ‘Ds’ – Drugs, Drink and Driving – so that is the subject of this month’s lecture. I have what I like to call a healthy trepidation of spending any time at HM’s pleasure. I have a horror of incarceration and my palms are sweating in panic just imagining ever hearing whatever the Thai equivalent of: “’Ello, ello, ello, what’s all this going on ‘ere, then?”. I don’t claim to be unique in this; I assume most people feel varying degrees of trepidation at the thought. Unfortunately, the three ‘Ds’ are by far the commonest way for expats and tourists to embark on an adventure not often advertised by tour agencies.
None of this is likely to be new to anyone who has lived in Thailand for any length of time, so you might want to pop off and make yourself a cup of tea. But for those who have just arrived and may be reading this over breakfast, there might be something vaguely helpful below.
Drugs. Top tip is not to dabble. I’m very aware that I’m sounding like a bit of an old stick-in-the-mud – it’s Thailand. You came here for thrills, excitement and to try new things. Problem is – it’s Thailand!
I was asked this rather brilliant question recently: “But, you can get away with doing drugs in Thailand, can’t you?” The simple answer is: “Yes, of course you can get away with doing drugs in Thailand. Then again you can get away with riding through the streets on a buffalo, firing off a machine gun while guzzling methamphetamine…as long as you get away with it.”
However, if you don’t get away with doing drugs in Thailand you really can’t complain when your whole life falls apart. Does Lonely Planet no longer cover this in adequate detail?
Although I feel terribly sorry for those who can’t quite believe being handed a 30-year prison sentence for doing something that would have elicited little more than a slap on the wrist in their own country, it’s not as if the warnings are not there. It’s like those posters at Phnom Penh Airport. At what point does one need to be presented with a massive placard pointing out that paedophilia is not okay? I imagine the disappointment on the face of the kiddie fiddler who has saved up, taken two weeks off work, paid for the parking at Heathrow and excitedly boarded a plane to Cambodia with a bag full of toys and sweeties. As he enthusiastically collects his luggage from the carousel he is confronted with a poster telling him he is in huge trouble if he is caught doing naughty things with children. Do the words: “What! Really? How was I to know?!” really go through his tiny brain? Telling the police later that his travel agent is culpable for not adequately explaining the rules is unlikely to wash. And I’m pretty certain that sort of behaviour makes your holiday insurance void. I am well aware that
smoking a joint and indulging in extremely sad and destructive behaviour with children are poles apart, but my point is that ignorance of pretty universally understood drug and sex laws is not going to be admissible as an excuse if caught.
And I have no moral or ethical objection to recreational drugs and feel sad whenever I see a headline declaring the opening of a new front on the ridiculously titled ‘War On Drugs’. However, in a country that still nominally has the death penalty for fooling around with narcotics, you only have yourself to blame – as I was told by a friend just after I said: “Hold my beer; this is going to be amazing!”
Another top tip is not to ‘look’ like you’ve had anything to do with drugs. I was riding back from Pai a few months ago. It had been a typical weekend in Pai, and I know I wasn’t looking particularly clever. There is a police checkpoint half way back to Chiang Mai and as I watched my friend nip past the barrier on his bike a man in a tight brown uniform stood out in front of me with his arm extended. I’m not big on drugs, I can’t afford the ones I like, and the others make me go weird, but a wave of nausea and panic slammed into me and my brain searched through every second of memory for the previous 48-hours for any evidence that I may have done something silly. The search the policeman and his younger colleague conducted was…let us just call it thorough. My body was searched, my unmentionables were fiddled with, a bit too often in my opinion, my back-pack emptied, my motorcycle scrutinised and my crash-helmet taken apart. After about half-an-hour, and a final unmentionable twiddle, I was allowed to go. Looking the way I was, I’m pretty sure I would have been made an example of if even a whiff of anything elicit had been found.
Drink. Undeniably a problem in this country – a problem in most countries to be fair – but unlike drugs, where the perils are pretty evident, alcohol is less straightforward. I don’t mean that jail doesn’t await the unwary drink driver (unless you are a well known actress or the chief of police); I mean the bloody laws seem to change weekly. A while back there was a huge furore over advertising. All references to alcohol were to be outlawed. My fear of incarceration meant I threw out my favourite t-shirt with my favourite beer on it. As per usual I was premature and nothing seems to have changed. Excellent news for those of you, who like me, think Chang beer wife-beaters are rather snazzy.
The latest move is to ban booze sales within 300 metres of any institution for educating children. Surely the fact that the minimum legal drinking age in Thailand is 20 should cover this. And who are these tweaking students who can’t wait to travel 328.084 yards on a motorcycle to get their booze fix? How do the logistics work? Is it a 300 metre circumference around the place of education? Where is the beginning of the measurement for the 984.252 feet taken from? The headmaster’s office, the playground, the front gates? And what if an alcohol serving establishment has a bar that starts 295 metres away from the school but ends 315 metres away? Quite a long bar for Chiang Mai admittedly, but will half the bar be closed with the other end still serving? I’ll let you know as soon as I do.
And here’s something that may have slipped past many of you. I was told, by a member of the Foreign Police, that the maximum amount of alcohol allowed in a person’s body before risking a trip to the cells if caught driving has recently been reduced to the equivalent of one-and-a-half large bottles of beer (probably just the one large bottle in the case of a popular beer brand where even the brewery hasn’t got the foggiest what the alcohol content is). So, the likelihood of being over the drink drive limit, after even a gentle night out in this fair city, is considerable.
And finally driving. There is nothing better than hiring a motorcycle and heading into the jungles and mountains to the north of Chiang Mai. Just don’t do this on drink, drugs or with a paedophile as a passenger. Be careful in the rain; and if you are heading for Pai beware the rummaging hands at the police checkpoint half-way there.
Art by Yutthaphong Kaewsuk.