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”.
A Place Of Grief.
Now I understand completely where these feelings are coming from. They are coming from a place of deep grief and personal 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 20 years ago now, and have been countless times since. I know the island very well. 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.
Is Koh Tao Safe?
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 when scuba diving or jungle trekking. There is no doubting these facts. They happened and are on record for doing so.
But despite much media attention, the mainstream press dubbing Koh Tao ‘death island’ 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 absolute minority. As many travellers that have bad things happen to them, far far more, in the measure of hundreds of thousands 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 among women, a fact that has been published for decades in academic studies and statistics from the Crime survey of England and Wales, among others. The fear of crime is one thing, 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 island, city and country on the planet. But that does not mean that is the norm.
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, knowledge and training 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. Of course it isn’t perfect, 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 or from visiting Koh Tao.
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.
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