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OPINION: Thailand – Land of false smiles




by Pete Downing, Guest Contributor

Every year for the past eight years we have saved and come to Phuket for minimum of a week. More often than not we bring other members of our family, anywhere from four to six at a time, and every time bringing empty cases with a 30kg allowance per person and filling those cases each time while emptying our wallets along the way.

We’re not stingy people, we tip and we tip everywhere, the people that most tourists don’t – the gardeners and cleaners of the toilets in Jung Ceylon and the likes, the people that more often than not are simply walked past without a second thought. We are mindful that the stall holders, and those in the shops, are simply trying to earn a living, so play the game but don’t drive a hard bargain.

Tonight we wandered down to Karon Plaza and on walking into the gauntlet got the traditional “have a look” etc. We knew what it was we were looking for being that we were shopping for our adult kids.

“Madam you want another bag the same? Have a look,” to which my wife replied “No thank you, sorry”.

That earnt the first barrage from behind which was ignored. Then around the corner we were met by what appeared to be a couple, she moved into her shop and he stayed in the walk way. We spent 3,000 baht in her shop as he helped to determine what it was that we needed from the shop.

As we left that shop he said to my wife “Madam you need more the same, have a look in my shop, I’ve got more the same”. My wife politely replied, “No thank you sorry, I don’t need anymore”.

At a volume deliberately loud enough to be heard by all around, his immediate and unnecessary response was “Go to hell!”

To my own surprise I didn’t swear, which in itself was completely out of character but I asked him what he said. “Nothing”, so I asked again but louder “What did you say?” As I walked back to him.

I asked him if it was quiet. I said to him “There’s not a lot of customers around is there? There’s not a lot of money around”. He agreed, so I asked him what made him think it was okay to abuse those that are? Surprisingly he had no response.

Even a Russian man stated “They can be very rude” and he was dead right.

It’s no longer ‘he’, but ‘they’.

It seems to be a given now that if the tourists don’t buy, you have a right to abuse them and insult them as you please. This was just par for the course this year.

The tuk tuk drivers are actually, by and large, the best behaved. Generally they give you an acknowledgment and smile when you say “no thank you”. The shop and stall owners have become a different kettle of fish though and they are the ones that predominantly have the biggest impact on tourists’ perception of Phuket – those that bear the key to their survival.

In the shops, they follow you and stand over you, watching as though you are going to steal their overpriced products. When you do purchase something they will often simply charge you and not acknowledge you as a person at all. The stall holders are nice, and then nasty. There is an air of hate behind false smiles for the tourists with a lust for the contents of their wallet.

The world is a small place today and the tourist dollar can take you a long way in Asia with the cost of air travel being more competitive than ever. We don’t travel across the globe to get abused, especially when it comes free at home.

This will likely be our last time in Phuket. The Land of Smiles has become the Land-Of-False-Smiles or Once-Was-Smiles. We will find a new destination, which may well become a trend if the Thai people do not take ownership of the issues instead of pointing the finger of blame elsewhere all the time.

A taxi driver spoke very honestly to us the other day. He said “Phuket is shit, Thailand is shit. Too much corruption, too much stealing. Everyone’s trying to steal from each other. Steal from tourists too”.

He stunned us, but was he wrong? An impromptu speech from the heart in response to our saying how beautiful a place it was.

The streets in Phuket have been cleaned up so well but there is no respect for the source of the economy and if it doesn’t change soon it may become unrecoverable.

Sadly for the short term at least, we’ll be taking our tourist dollars elsewhere until the climate here improves. How many follow is up to the people that rely on us the most.

(Published in full)


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