This is the second essay in a series that examines the criteria prospective expatriates and retirees use when considering a place to live. Last month we analyzed health care options in Thailand. This month we’ll talk about another issue that ranks in the top three concerns of would-be retirees; safety.
Whenever someone asks me, “Is Thailand safe?”, I fumble a bit before answering. Quite a bit depends on one’s perspective does it not? If I’m being totally honest, I’d say, “Thailand seems really safe to me … then again I’m from Florida. Maybe you should ask someone else”. A person who comes from a quiet little village in rural England, or some squeaky clean town in Norway may think this place is fraught with danger lurking in every alleyway. But if you come from a place plagued by crime, road rage and random violence, Thailand is Nirvana.
Perception vs Reality
When we think of safety, our first impulse is to talk about crime. A country’s crime statistics give us an overall picture but does not single out tourists and long-stay foreigners as a specifically victimized group. Please excuse my unashamed self-interest, but I am primarily concerned for my own safety and for sure there is a big difference between how safe a place is for natives versus visitors.
And it should be said that public perception isn’t always a reflection of reality. Long-timers who pay attention to the Thai news media will tell you Thailand suffers from the same violent crime issues as most developed countries. Jealous wives, cheated business partners and disgruntled employees … where there’s motivation to do harm there is danger. And if you partake in the daily dose of bad news dished out by media outlets that cater to foreigners, it would be easy to conclude Thailand is quite dangerous for us … especially if we are in Pattaya. Unfortunately happy news doesn’t sell papers or create web-traffic. A drunken knife-wielding Russian running naked down Beach Road does. We cannot depend on prevailing media to provide an unbiased account of how things are.
When it comes to crime involving foreigners in Thailand, we should base our opinions on the facts, not hyperbole. With that said, here are some facts:
The homicide rate in Thailand is 3.51 persons per 100,000. That’s slightly lower than the global average of 3.6 and significantly lower than the 4.9 per 100,000 in my home country. To give some perspective, England’s homicide rate is .2 per 100,000, Australia’s 1.0, Norway .6. God help you if you live in Brazil with a whopping 27.6 or even South Africa at 10. You are twice as likely to be murdered in Thailand than in Cambodia (a fact that surprised me) but 3 times as likely to be rubbed out should you choose the Philippines.
A website called Farang Deaths (farang-deaths.com) keeps statistics on foreigner deaths in Thailand registered with them. While this is by no means a complete list, here is a breakdown of some of the causes of death on 614 foreigners since 2009.
• 40 homicides
• 22 accidents
• 101 drownings
• 64 falls from buildings or bridges
• 37 heart attacks
• 19 drug overdoses
• 119 road accidents
• 64 suicides
Again, while it is not a complete list, it does indicate tendencies. Foreigners are far more likely to hurt themselves or be involved in a traffic accident (we’ll get to that in a minute) than to be willfully snuffed out by someone else. And my experience has been, most violent or malicious crimes against foreigners in Thailand are committed by other foreigners. It also seems that once our status changes from tourist to resident we are less exposed to most petty crimes as well.
Killer on the road
But violence and crime aren’t really the number one safety concern for anyone living in Thailand be they foreign or domestic. Vehicle accidents are. Thailand ranks second in world for vehicular death. Only Libya is more dangerous. Think about that for a moment.
When I came to Thailand in 1999, I had never seen a dead person other than at a funeral. I am sad to say, I’ve seen several since then and all of them were lying lifeless on some stretch of pavement in Thailand. The statistics don’t lie; the roads in Thailand are deadly.
It is however important for those “taking a look at” Thailand as a prospective home to delineate how those gruesome facts apply to them. Nearly 70% of all traffic fatalities in Thailand involve a motorbike. A little over 50% of those involve intoxication by alcohol or other substance. I’ve lived in Thailand for nearly 20 years and have been involved in only one minor accident (a buffalo rammed my truck in Phuket). I attribute this stellar track record entirely to the fact I don’t drive drunk and I don’t ride a motorbike.
In recent years the Thai government has put forth a great amount of effort to curb vehicular fatalities with mixed results. Drunk driving checkpoints … increasingly stringent criteria for driver’s licenses … more cameras on the road. All of these things will surely save some lives, but the sad truth is, when 17 people pile into the back of a pick-up truck and drive down from Buriram for Songkran, people are going to die.
Up to you
The real threat to safety in Thailand to expats and retirees is those people themselves. Something about the warm weather, friendly natives and open-mindedness of Thailand encourages people to act foolishly and do things they normally wouldn’t do. Unsafe things. I suppose an insurance specialists would say they put themselves in a “higher risk group”. In Thailand freedom can turn to “freedumb” very quickly.
Thailand is a relatively safe place to live. Practice situational awareness, don’t take unnecessary chances and don’t elevate yourself in the “high risk group”. Like many things here in the Land of Smiles, your safety is mostly “up to you”.
By Bart Walters