An Open Letter About Thailand And Koh Tao.

Thailand Island Ko Tao

As many people have seen on social media the open and heartfelt letter from the sister of murdered traveller Hannah Witheridge that openly lambastes and attacks Thailand, I thought a calm and measured response was needed as extreme comments from both sides of the internet void are starting to build into a loud crescendo. 

For those that don’t know, Hannah Witheridge, alongside David Miller, were two British Backpackers murdered on the island of Koh Tao in 2014.

Laura Witheridge, Hannah’s sister, recently openly wrote about her feelings on Facebook both about her sisters murder, her and her families treatment by the Thai authorities and about Thailand and it’s people. She openly states that Thailand is dangerous and people should not go there out of fear of something similar happening to them. Arguing that Thailand is only beautiful on the surface and that it will lure innocent holiday makers into a deadly trap, she goes on to criticize the Thai authorities and say that Thai’s have little regard for human life and that any suspicious death will simply be covered up.

Most tellingly, she wrote that she has been asked ‘when she will warn people about the dangers of Thailand’, as she states those warnings may one day ‘save someones life’.

Since Hannah was taken from us, I am continually asked whether I will warn the World about the dangers of Thailand… I am asked if I will warn people because I might just ‘save someone’s life’. This person’s comment serves as a perfect example of why I would be wasting my time. People can be ignorant and many, probably the majority, have very short memories.

Now I understand completely where these feelings are coming from. They are coming from a place of deep grief and anger and that is absolutely understandable. No one in the world deserves to go through what this young woman and her family are going through right now and it is completely reasonable and acceptable that these feelings are finding their voice in this way. I dare say if I was in her position I may even feel the same and possibly even react the same way.

My deepest sympathies go out to Laura and her family.

But that does not mean that I agree with her, and I feel that it is only fair to try and calm some of the fear mongering and fever pitch hysteria that is starting to build up around Thailand and Koh Tao in particular.

Koh Tao is a truly beautiful island in what is an amazing and awe inspiring country.

I first visited Koh Tao about 15 years ago now, and have been many times since. It has changed a lot in that time, and has certainly become far more overdeveloped and touristy, but it is still a beautiful part of the world. It is a great place to go and enjoy the beaches and learn to scuba dive or snorkel, and has a far more laid back vibe than its neighbouring islands. Koh Tao is a place where you can turn up, completely lose track of time and easily spend far longer there than you originally planned.

Now, there have been a number of high profile crimes against backpackers and travellers on the island in recent years, not least of which was the unfortunate murder of Hannah Witheridge, Laura’s sister. No one can ever deny that this was a horrific, brutal and completely senseless crime, just as others were. There have also been tragic and senseless accidents where travellers have unfortunately died. There is no doubting these facts. They happened and are on record for doing so.

But despite much media attention and even articles in Time magazine suggesting Koh Tao is no better than the Wild West and shock horror, crime does exist there, it is a huge leap to suggest that these horrific incidents are the norm and that people should avoid Thailand as a dangerous and lawless vacuum where human life is cheap and the locals are there simply to prey on travellers.

Now obviously I cannot comment on Laura’s words about how she and her family have been dealt with by the Thai authorities or her allegations of corruption or that she has received death threats. I don’t know anything about that. I obviously know nothing about the case beyond what I have heard in the media. But what I can say based on my own experience and my academic and professional training is that Thailand is not in any way as dangerous or as morally, ethically or legally bankrupt as many people are suggesting.

As tragic as this and other cases are, they are still by far in the minority. As many travellers that have bad things happen to them, far far more travel through Thailand without incident and have an amazing – and safe – time.

The danger of the fear of crime is that it can become all consuming. Far too often the fear of crime is far greater than the actual reality, especially amongst women, a fact that has been published for decades in academic studies and statistics from the British Crime survey, among others. The reality is often far different.

Bad things do occasionally happen, of course they do, no one would ever suggest otherwise, but that does not mean they are the norm.

Of course travellers are victims of crime, of course there are bound to be corruptions within the legal system and of course there will be human beings in Thailand with no or little regard for human life. Of course there will be, just like there will be in almost every other country on the planet. But as someone who is very highly trained and experienced in security and self defence, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that although there may be risks out there wherever you travel, very often those risks are overblown and for the risk that does exist, preparation and knowledge can reduce it to more than acceptable levels.

In short, bad things do happen, but Thailand is safe, travel in general is safe, and reasonable common sense precautions make it even safer.

I understand the grief and anger Laura Witheridge is feeling right now. I do. But that does not excuse saying that Thai’s ‘hate Westerners and have no regard for human life’, or that people are ignorant for thinking that they can go to Thailand and not expect something horrific to happen to them.

That is wrong. That is grief and anger speaking and people who are thinking of going to Thailand should read those words in that context.

For me, Koh Tao will always be an amazing island where I first learned to dive, where I spent many hours exploring the stunning beaches and where after a particularly bad case of sunburn after losing track of time snorkeling, a local family looked after me and applied aloe vera wraps to my back out of the kindness of their hearts without expecting – or accepting – anything in return.

For me, Thailand will always be an amazing country. Yes bad things do happen there, yes there are scams and touts and other problems backpackers and travellers have to face, and yes sometimes bad things do just happen to good people, but there is also a lot of wonder, beauty and awesome experiences in the land of smiles that no traveller should ever deny themselves because of fear.

As unlikely as it may feel for them at the moment I hope Laura and her family find some peace in the coming years, and they can find some way to live with this tragedy.

I also hope though that the tragedy of her sisters murder, and other tragic events that have happened to other travellers, don’t put people off from travel.

So please, I urge all of you, be understanding and empathetic to the heartfelt words of Laura Witheridge, but don’t let fear stop you from travelling to Thailand and experiencing all the good things the land of smiles has to offer.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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12 comments on “An Open Letter About Thailand And Koh Tao.
  1. This was a very thoughtful post. While I respect that Laura is coming from a place of grief, I agree with you in that preparation and safety measures can reduce most risks to acceptable levels. One thing that absolutely breaks my heart about this case is the Burmese suspect who was more than likely framed by Thai police.

  2. Joe says:

    I have travelled, worked (for the last 30 years) and finally settled in South East Asia. I would say that everything included Thailand is actually quite a dangerous country……just look at the figures for violent crime, for road deaths………..Look at how many tourists die there every year. (most of it does not make the local media)
    That aside i think we all know that bad things can happen to us anywhere in the world; what many people have problems dealing with is the reaction of the next to useless law enforcement agencies.
    I am afraid to have to disagree, Thailand really does have a dark under belly, how the country is marketed and the reality of the situation are poles apart.

    • So the fact that Thailand does have crime automatically makes it dangerous? I’m sorry but I can never agree with that. By that logic I would never leave my front door in the UK and no one should ever visit the USA based on the fact that both have much higher overall crime rates. Yes Thailand does have a range of crimes, road accidents etc, everywhere does, but if you check official statistics Thailand is pretty far down the scale compared to many others, and if you look at how many people are victims of those crimes, then you also by extension have to look at how many people travel to Thailand and are not. Guess which statistic is vastly higher than the other? No one will deny that there isn’t crime or risk in Thailand, but it isn’t as all pervasive as some of the exaggerated scaremongering would have you believe. The fear of crime (or becoming a victim of it) is far removed from the actual reality of the situation.

      • Joe says:

        Possibly with a gun murder rate equal to that of the US, and three times that of Cambodia….. i would say dangerous….yes…….(figures as quoted by the Bangkok Post)http://www.bangkokpost.com/learning/learning-from-news/652076/thailand-troubling-gun-murders

      • Well if you look at the actual full range of statistics of gun crime (not just take a manipulate headline’s word for it) the US is still higher than that of Thailand. However, crime OVERALL in Thailand is much lower, and the fact that no media seems to be screaming that the USA is a no go area for tourists says it all really. Does crime exist in Thailand? Yes it does, just like it does everywhere else. Is there a risk? Yes, just like there is everywhere else. Can that risk be managed? Yes. Will the majority of tourists not become a victim of any crime and have a safe trip? Yes. Quoting statistics is all well and good but you have to know how to interpret them properly. I came across this problem a lot in my dissertation for my first degree (Social Science and Criminology) where I looked at the differences between the fear of crime and the actual risk.

      • Joe says:

        Sorry checked,many sources for stats regarding violence and danger here…… but all seems to confirm that Thailand is a relatively dangerous country to travel/reside in.
        Is it possible that you could provide the source of your stats rather than just your personnal views? I too learned to interpret the “evil that are statistics” when studying Biochemistry……. and whilst we all know that they are not the be all and end all……they can provide a reasonable picture of the situation……. possibly far better than one’s own opinions.
        I have no interest in this issue apart from the facts……Guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, best wishes.

      • More than happy to provide my sources, the British Crime Survey, the Office for National Statistics and the Foreign Commonwealth Office, amongst others. Far more academically sound than a generic’statistics.com’ site on a quick Google search. And yes, there is crime in Thailand, no one is denying that fact. But to give you just a couple of examples, out of 956,312 travellers and expats in Thailand in 2013 – 2014, there were 362 deaths, 11 rapes and 6 sexual assaults. Crime exists, and it is horrific for those victims I agree (and I do have all the sympathy in the world for them) but let’s just keep it in perspective. The absolute vast majority find Thailand to be a very safe place indeed.

  3. Very interesting post.

  4. maninahuff says:

    I can understand where this young girl is coming from, and I’m sure it isn’t hard for anyone to put ourselves in her shoes (not that any of us would want to be), but you are absolutely right that accusations of Thailand being unsafe etc have to be taken in that context and tempered with a bit of reality.

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a published author, qualified nurse and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent 15 years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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