Paradise revealed

Thailand has long had a reputation as one of the most idyllic places on earth. But the recent murder of a British backpacker has put its previously unseen dangers into the spotlight

By Lorna Martin  /  THE GUARDIAN , KOH SAMUI, THAILAND

Wed, Jan 25, 2006 - Page 13

When Katie Gill decided to visit Koh Samui during her round-the- world trip she had an image in her mind of the most pleasurable place on the planet. Kilometers of white sandy beaches, clear azure water sparkling in the sunlight, cheap beachfront accommodation, serenity, solitude and, above it all, a crown of coconut palms blowing in the breeze. Like many things in life, it didn't quite live up to the fantasy. She didn't, for instance, expect to see a Starbucks or McDonald's. And it was much busier and noisier than she'd expected.

But she wasn't too disappointed. When she sat on the sand listening to the waves splashing gently on the shore, it felt as close as she would ever get to that funny old concept called paradise.

Katie had planned on staying a few days, but after a week decided to abandon the rest of her adventure around the globe and stay for ever on the small island on the Gulf of Thailand.

On a hot and sticky evening last week, some two years after she arrived, the 25-year-old from Derbyshire, England, sat outside one of the few remaining bars in the town of Lamai that she still feels safe in, sipping an ice-cold Singha beer.

The pot-holed and flood-damaged road through the town was teeming with traffic, the air thick with dust and petrol fumes. Stalls offering lethal local whisky and fake designer goods competed for pavement space with stray dogs and people selling chickens and ducks. On the narrow road, hundreds of motorcycles tried to out-do each other by constantly blasting their horns, while dilapidated jeeps crawled along, their Tannoys blaring adverts for the best foam parties.

In the glut of neon-lit "lady bars," drunken, lonely Western men were propped up by groups of beautiful Thai women, giggling and whispering and wondering whether tonight was going to be the night that they would get lucky and hit on a man with a bulging wallet and an urge to get married. Were they shocked by the news, with the men already caught, of the rape and murder of the Welsh student Katherine Horton? Yes, it seems. But they may well be the only ones.

"It's not paradise any more and I guess it never will be," said Katie, surveying the scene around her. "For the first time since I came here I don't feel safe. I used to live on the beach and would often walk alone to bars or wander home a little bit drunk on my own.

"I never felt scared. I used to think in a place like Koh Samui, as a single female, nothing could go wrong. I actually thought it was more dangerous for single foreign guys because they are always getting ripped off by bar girls and lady boys. Now I would be afraid to walk along the beach on my own and I rarely socialize. For the first time in two years I have actually been longing for home."

She is not the only one. Since the murder on New Year's Day, many British tourists have abandoned the tropical resort, unable or unwilling to accept that the worst horrors of the modern world can also reside in a place they thought was the nearest thing to heaven on earth.

Last week, two illiterate and impoverished fishermen, who pleaded guilty to rape and murder, were sentenced to death for the crime.

As they awaited the judge's ruling, a new picture of Thailand was emerging, a sharp contrast to the palm trees of the brochures. Spiralling violence and corruption on the island is growing amid increasing resentment among some Thais about its unregulated over-development. I have also spoken to British women who claim Thai police do not treat rape seriously.

In Britain, Katherine's murder has sparked fears about the safety of backpackers. Any parent with an adventurous child must have wondered what they would have done in a similar situation as they listened to the words of Ian Horton.

He was nervous about his 21-year-old daughter travelling to another continent. But she had tried to reassure him that she could just as easily be knocked down by a bus at home.

"She was full of confidence," he said. "She felt immune to the dangers of the world, as we have all felt when we were young adults. She came to Thailand to dance on a beach, to ride an elephant. Tragically her faith in her fellow man let her down."

In Koh Samui, Thailand's fastest growing tourist destination, emotion still rides high.

"I am very angry about what happened," said businessman Piya Chanthong, the owner of a complex of beachside apartments near where Katherine had been staying. He is campaigning for more control over development and extra police officers for the area. "The people who did this have nothing in their heads," he said. "They just drink and watch porn and decide they have to find a lady to rape. In Samui foreign girls have been raped before, but not killed. To rape and kill is very unusual here. That is why everyone is so angry. They are afraid that it is going to make people hate Thailand."

Fifteen years ago, Koh Samui was a backpacker's secret -- a sleepy and unspoilt coconut and fishing island. Then came the dream of The Beach -- the film based on Alex Garland's novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The island from which tourists visit the film's location was, before the tsunami hit it, so overbuilt that the water supply had been irretrievably poisoned by tourists' waste. These days Koh Samui now rivals Phuket as one of the country's most popular destinations. It has recently experienced a triple boom, benefiting from a financial crisis which suddenly made Thailand very cheap for visitors, the 2002 Bali bombing which discouraged people from going to the Indonesian island, and the 2004 tsunami which devastated the west coast of Thailand but left Koh Samui unscathed.

Last year, during high season, it was so busy that some tourists were found sleeping in temples. For some it is all good news -- property developers, the sex trade, wealthy expats and ex-cons are reaping the benefits. Others -- mainly backpackers, poor uneducated Thai people and the environment -- are paying a heavy price. Although still unarguably beautiful in parts, many of Thailand's main beaches and towns have been ruined by the trappings of Western tourism.

Lamai has been spoken about as the new Ibiza or Faliraki. Premiership football matches are shown in many bars, British newspapers are widely available. In addition to such influences, Lamai has also emerged as one of the largest and least regulated red-light areas in the country. It is not easy to find a bar there which is not a front for prostitution and many Thais say the scene is now far worse than the once notorious Patpong district of Bangkok.

There are around 10,000 prostitutes in Samui alone. Thai officials have an uncomfortable relationship with this side of their country. At least 10 per cent of the total tourist spending is on the sex trade which, although illegal, is tacitly tolerated by the government because of the enormous sums earned from it.

"There are two types of Thai men," said Chanthong. "Those who work with tourists and those who have come down from the mountains and never come into contact with them. Most Thai men have the same respect for Western women as they do for Thais, but some men see European women topless on the beach and think it is easy to have sex with them. I even have friends who come down from Bangkok and ask if I can find them a European woman to have sex with. I say it is not like a piece of cake. They don't understand that. I suppose it's the same as the European men who come here thinking Thai women are easy."

Koh Samui is increasingly becoming a tale of two cities. While it is still possible to rent a beach hut like the one Katherine had stayed in for US$15 a night, they are becoming a rarity. In their place are multi-million-dollar homes and five-star spa resorts. In the next six months, around 20 upmarket health spas are due to open.

Although the permanent population of the island is just 40,000, it now draws nearly 1 million tourists every year. Thailand as a whole hopes to increase its tourist numbers from 14 million to 20 million by the end of 2008.

Unless there are some controls, however, on the relentless overdevelopment of islands such as Koh Samui, many locals fear it will not only spoil the area and the environment, but also lead to an increase in crime and corruption.

There is already endemic corruption among police and government officials in Thailand. And, despite Samui's increasing levels of crime, it has only 15 tourist police and a regular force of 200.

Despite the myth peddled in holiday brochures and assurances from police and politicians that Koh Samui is safe, in the past eight weeks, there have been at least five murders, more than 20 robberies, the same number of violent assaults and around 15 gun-related incidents.

There have been at least two more reported rapes on the island since the beginning of December. One involved a 26-year-old British woman who was allegedly raped by two men in the island's busiest resort of Chuweng. The two fishermen charged with Katherine's murder have been linked to this attack. Photographs of them have been sent to the victim but sources in Thailand have said the men vehemently denied any involvement. In the other case, a 12-year-old Swedish girl was allegedly raped by a man who worked in the resort where her family was staying.

Although these are the only known reported rapes, the true level is thought to be much higher. Police in Thailand tend to turn a blind eye to violence in relationships, even if that relationship is little more than a one-night liaison on the beach.

Katherine's murder may focus minds. It may just bring a little more control over the rapid development of the island and its deteriorating infrastructure.

Paiant Pangha, a driver in the area, said many ordinary Thais felt their island was being taken away from them and destroyed for ever. "This was once a beautiful island, but it has lost so much of its charm. It resembles a massive construction site, as every inch of land is sold off to developers to build more luxury resorts, with no regard whatsoever for the environment or the natural ecology."

As well as government action, he would like to see tourists taking more responsibility when they travel to foreign shores.

"It's terribly sad what happened to Katherine. Every Thai person is deeply saddened by it and hate the men who did that to her. But I also think it is important that as more and more tourists come here, they respect our different culture. I'm not talking about Katherine here but there are many European women who ignore our culture and, for example, run around topless on the beach. I know many Thai men who boast about the number of farangs (foreigners) that they have slept with. I just think it would be better for everyone if people respected other peoples' cultures and environments."

With the eyes of the world's press on them, and because of their fear of inflicting damage on their vital tourist industry, the Thai authorities have acted with unprecedented haste in solving the murder of Katherine. Hundreds of officers were dispatched to the province and in an unusual public appeal, the country's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the killers should receive the "hardest punishment possible."

Rachel Harrison and Erin Sander, both 26, arrived on Koh Samui as part of a three-month backpacking trip. Rachel said they had already spent one month on another island and would not be put off because of the murder. "It is of course tragic for her family and it did feel a little eerie walking along the beach," she said.

"But these things can happen anywhere. We have spent one wonderful month in Thailand, people have welcomed us into their homes and looked after us. Some people can tend to lose their judgment when they are on holiday. They do things they wouldn't do at home, and think nothing can touch them. But in Katherine's case she did nothing wrong. In many ways, that is scarier."

Erin said she would definitely return to Thailand. "I would never devalue what has happened. It's awful. But parents can't keep their children in a cocoon. They have to let them fly. You can't stay in the basement and be afraid to travel the world. There is too much to see and explore and experience."