Thailand: Keeping Safe in the Land of Smiles (and Pickpocketing Ladyboys)

Want to stay safe in Thailand? Take every smile with a grain of salt for starters. But soon you’ll realize how things flow and how to keep a low profile. Then you’ll really have some fun and you won’t wake up with your wallet and a kidney gone.

Safety in Thailand: Take the Smiles with a Pinch of Chili Pepper

Thailand has been a popular destination for travelers for many years. It’s a beautiful country with some extraordinary natural features. Superb white beaches, beautiful mountain regions, incredible islands with clear water, and active cities filled with life.

It has an intriguing, complex, rich and extensive cultural history. It has some of the most delicious and spiciest food in the Asian region.

The Thai people have been known for their smiling and welcoming nature and Thailand has been called the Land of Smiles. 🙂  The influence of Buddhism flavors almost every aspect of Thai life and there are many magnificent temples and statues all over the country. Ceremonies and traditions are an important part of the culture.

But there’s another side to Thailand that’s become increasingly apparent in recent years.

The Thai people have seen many people come to their country to take advantage of a whole range of things that are on offer. Some of that’s not been with respect for the Thai people and it’s led to behavior that reflects the attitude of the visitors.

It seems that an environment of mutual disrespect may have been created.

 Thailand’s been battling with an increase in criminal activities, and there have been some problems with a system that still has some inherently corrupt practices.

This impacts on the local Thai people as much as it affects visitors. Thailand continues to be a place that attracts tourists. It’s a more popular destination than Paris now. But with that comes an increase in crime as people seek an opportunity to take advantage of the unwary.

For many Thais, the tourists have become a group to take advantage of, whether through legitimate or illegal means has become less important. The lines have become blurred.

Street Theft in Thailand and How to Avoid It


In Thailand, pickpockets will operate wherever there’s a crowd. You will most likely encounter them in the crowds of the major tourism cities such as Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, and Phuket.

They may operate as individuals or they could be part of a group. They are skilled at getting wallets and purses and may even take other items such as cameras and phones.

  • They know how to remove items with you having no knowledge of it.
  • They could have somebody to distract your attention while they are stealing from you.
  • They could operate in a group that forces you into a spot in a crowd on a busy train or bus, in Bangkok or in a local market in Phuket where they can limit your movement to simplify access to your valuables.

Ensuring that you don’t have a wallet in your back pocket is a simple way to reduce the chance of being a target. They will also be happy to take a wallet out of a handbag in a busy Skyrail carriage, so be careful when in a crowd. Having pockets that are closed in some way such as a zip or Velcro will limit access. Using other ways to carry your cash and valuables such as a money belt or body pouch will make much more difficult for potential thieves.

Backpack slashers

These are people who will use a small and very sharp blade to slice into the material of your backpack or bag to be able to get to something of value inside. It will usually be in a crowded environment where you will be unlikely to notice any pressure on your pack.

Busy environments like a tourist market or public transport are often chosen. You could be standing on a crowded peak hour bus or train in Bangkok where people are crowded in together. You would be in a busy tourist market in Chiang Mai.

This is likely to occur with the outer pockets of backpacks and may even happen with laptop satchels or larger handbags. There are backpacks which have been designed with a stainless steel mesh in the material which will prevent from the blade being able to cut fully through the material.

Pacsafe, for instance, are specialists in this area and they have a range of products suitable for theft prevention. These are more expensive than other packs but do offer that extra feeling of security. Another alternative is to ensure that you’re not carrying anything of value in a backpack, although this can be difficult with electronic devices and cameras sometimes.


Ladyboys or katoeys are a familiar sight in Thailand. They have a bit of an exotic flavor to them but there’s also a harsher reality tied to their existence. As with any group, there are some who will be genuine but also there are those who will simply take advantage of any opportunity placed in front of them.

This group is perhaps one of the worst for a theft crime. It’s not to suggest that all ladyboys are thieves but there are those who have made a living out of unwary tourists. (There have been crackdowns, though; here’s a video.)

Most recently they have been identified operating in Phuket and Pattaya although you are likely to encounter them in Bangkok as well. Unfortunately, the fundamental rule is that when you’re out and start to see katoeys circling then make sure you’re ready to protect your valuables and that they are not within hand’s reach.

They will often work as a small team with one or two distracting you while the other one looks for any valuables. There are multiple cases of this occurring in Thailand, so be wary, even if the ladyboys aren’t how you swing.

Snatch thieves

If you’re out in public you may be sitting at a cafe with a friend and enjoying a conversation. You put your phone on a table. Somebody comes past and distracts you both. You don’t even notice somebody else going past your table the other side. You turn back to your conversation and the phone has gone.

You may not even notice it’s gone for a while because you did not witness the theft.

You could be sitting in a car with the phone resting on the dashboard beside an open window. You’re stuck in traffic. Somebody walking past reaches in and grabs the phone and runs into the traffic and crowds before you even move. This occurs regularly in Bangkok, and there have been reports in other cities.

Mobile phones are an obvious target for this. They have even been snatched from people’s hands which is difficult to combat, however, by using your phone in places where it’s less likely to be grabbed is sensible. The simplest thing to do is to remember to keep putting your phone back into your pocket after use. This limits the opportunity for it to be taken.

Consider wearing clothes that offer you a suitable closable front pocket for this. Even if it does not suit your perfect fashion sense, such as cargo shorts, at least you will reduce the chance of your phone being taken.
Do not walk around with a purse, wallet or phone in your hand.

Thieves are able to see what phone you have, follow behind you and then snatch it. The same goes for purses and wallets.

Bag snatchers

There could be a bag snatch on an unsuspecting shopper at a large shopping mall in Phuket or Bangkok. It could happen in a crowded market in Pattaya or Chiang Mai. Bag snatchers can even operate on the street where they are able to make a quick getaway. If you have a handbag then never walk with it on the side closest to the street and hold it close to your chest as well.

Bags being snatched by people on passing mopeds is happening regularly to local Thai people as well as tourists. In Bangkok there are districts where there are signs warning you about this. And hanging onto your bag may cause you injury and you could still lose the bag.

A woman was injured in Phuket after trying to hang on to her bag and being dragged behind a motorbike. If you reduce what is of value in the bag then losing it becomes much less of an issue. Use a small bag that’s less obvious, don’t let people see you have valuables inside, keep it close to your body and you will reduce the chances of being chosen as a victim.


These do occur. It’s more likely to be a mugging of a foreigner as they stumble alone back to their rented apartment in the early hours of the morning in Pattaya or Bangkok. But it happens.

The simplest way to avoid a mugging is to not place yourself in a position where it’s likely to happen.

Take advantage of local transport services if you’re drunk and alone, particularly in the early morning. Stay away from problem areas and dark streets. These are generally practical rules for anywhere. Thailand does not differ.

Transportation Security—Ride Safely

Taxi cabs

In Thailand, there are usually two types of taxis. Those who are willing to use the meter and those who want to have a set price for your trip. Usually, you will find that the set price will be inflated although, if you get caught in a Bangkok traffic jam it might work to your advantage.

Usually, if you’re traveling during the day you will find that the metered taxis will provide you with a better price. Many taxi drivers are totally unscrupulous about finding ways to get the maximum amount of money possible out of you. If you don’t know the usual price for a trip then you’re better off choosing a taxi that will turn on its meter.

Airport taxis at Phuket and Bangkok are well known for trying to scam unwary travelers, but for any airport in Thailand this can occur. Consider using a hotel pick up service with set rates or ensure that the driver uses a meter. If they do not use the meter or claim it is broken then do not accept them and find one who has a working meter.

You may also need to pay tolls but the driver may want to charge you more than the tolls cost, so you need to be clear about this.


If you go to a larger city such as Bangkok you’re able to try the local bus services. This is an interesting experience that may come with some risks. There are groups that operate on crowded public transport during the peak times. In Bangkok, the bus system is extensive and not always so easy to understand.

There are online bus maps which show you the bus routes although the buses don’t necessarily go all the way along a route. There are different prices for different types of buses. There are many different types of buses so there’s a bit of a novelty factor in trying them out but if you get caught in traffic without air conditioning you will suffer.

There is some risk in catching the bus during peak times with thieves operating and stealing from Thai people as well as travelers, although some travelers make it a little easier than others. When in a crowded peak time bus in Bangkok there may also be slashing attempts on baggage so keep your pack in front of you if you can. They may also cut the straps to handbags and cameras so keep things close.


This is the light rail system in Bangkok. It’s easy to use, quick, reliable and you’re able to buy tokens for single trips. Your bag might be checked by security as well.

It gets very crowded during peak times, with people pressed up against each other and you need to be aware of pickpockets and thieves.

They’ll be looking to get wallets from easy to access pockets and anything they can from a handbag or pack.

The rest of the time it’s very easy for traveling but much more expensive than the buses.

Theft on public transport

There are public bus services and train service in Thailand. These are in the bigger cities but also in the regional areas too. Generally, on the country bus services, you will be traveling with locals. These are usually busy services. There is the possibility where you place your luggage in a storage area that one of the bus crew could try to access it so a lock is a sensible idea.

In cities like Phuket and Pattaya there are also local buses and these can get crowded. Try not to carry too many valuable items if you’re going to be in the midst of a crowd.

If you go into a busy shopping district there are often people moving closely together.

Use cash belts or body pouches to hold valuable items close to you. And try to be aware of what is going on around you. When it’s crowded there will be body contact.

Theft on tourist buses

Traveling on tourist buses is one of the easiest ways to get around Thailand. They travel from the southern provinces up to the mountains and across to Cambodia. They are cheap and convenient. These are the luxury styles buses that provide comfortable travel arrangements for many travelers who don’t want to try the local buses.

There have been a number of stories in Thailand about how people have placed luggage inside the luggage areas under the bus only to discover on arrival at their destination that somebody had been through it and removed some items of value.

The luggage space under these buses certainly is large enough for somebody to get in and move around in so there would be no difficulty for somebody to do that. There are obviously some rackets tied to the bus travel arrangements, however, a service that allowed theft to happen regularly would be likely to find that their service would be impacted by online warnings.

There is no doubt that thefts do occur however it’s also possible to place locks on your bags which will act as an effective deterrent except for the most committed of thieves. Most luggage should offer you lockable zips. Pacsafe make great backpacks with secure zips. Consider investing in suitable travel padlocks such as the Alpine Rivers TSA approved locks. And keep items of value with you on the bus.

Ferry travel

There are many beautiful islands in Thailand, such as Koh Samui. Ferries are regular and tend to be reliable. As with any environment you need to be aware of what is happening with your belongings. But because it’s a closed environment with people around, it’s less likely for there to be theft.

You still need to watch out for opportunity theft, though, and keep your money and valuables safe, especially of you need to take a toilet break during the trip.


These are not a less-legitimate form of transport in Bangkok. Some locals do use them in a pinch, but they’re really after the tourists. In Chiang Mai and other regions, however, they may be more commonly used, and less of a scam machine.

For most tourists, they will be an opportunity to get scammed or to be simply just charged too much money for a short trip. That may be a little unfair but many tuk-tuk drivers are part of some form of scam.

They’ll be looking to take you to places where they are able to make a commission. It might be a restaurant, or a sales place, or a travel agent.

They may be involved in a more complex scam that involves gemstones or tailors. There are multiple places they can take you, and at many of these places you could be offered a deal which may be legitimate, but if one of their sources of sales leads is a tuk-tuk driver, then the chances are it’s not.

Scams in Thailand—Don’t Get Taken

A friendly face

So often in Thailand, you will be approached by a friendly stranger who says that they are simply looking to help you. They may speak English well. They may be well dressed. They may say they only want to practice their English. They are probably building a friendly rapport with you. They might say they have a relative going to your country or have one already living there.

The rule usually is that if they have approached you for no reason other than to be a friendly helpful person, then there’s a very high likelihood that they are part of a scam.

They may appear to be up

set or even a bit offended if you don’t take up their offer but it’s best to simply to be polite and just keep moving away. They could be asking you questions to find out more about your background. Be very wary of anything they suggest that you do and don’t accept an invitation back to their house.

The friendly face is usually the first contact with many scams.

The supporting role

When you do get caught up in a scam there will usually be some person, or even people, at some stage who will advise you that you really should take advantage of whatever deal is being offered to you. It could be before you get to the premises, it could be in the shop. They are there to reinforce the value of the dell which is the hook for the scam and to give it that added credibility.

Their personal credibility could be because they say they are a successful person from another country, maybe a lawyer, or someone with

connections who knows somebody important, or maybe they have just bought something themselves for such a good price and so on. There are many variations on this.

Some stores have fake shoppers who will tell you what a great deal they just got. They may even have a convincing story and present very well. The scams can be complex. And these people apparently will simply tell you this information out of the goodness of their heart even though you don’t know them. These scams are most well known for occurring with tailors or gemstone shops.

The Grand Palace scam

You arrive at the Grand Palace and a friendly face tells you that the palace is closed because of a Buddhist holiday but out of the kindness of their heart they can organize a special trip to other places for you at a very good price. They may even tell you they are a special tourist assistant and have a uniform with a tag and name badge to prove that point.

Do not believe them.

They are looking to get you to a place where you will pay too much for something that may, in fact, be virtually worthless.

The Grand Palace broadcasts announcements in English warning people to ignore these scammers. So you may have the pleasure of hearing the announcement while they are trying to scam you if the wind is right.

The water taxi scam

You organize a taxi and then he tells you the traffic is too bad and you should get a water taxi. You know the traffic is bad and maybe a water taxi would not be such a bad idea. The river does not get traffic jams. But the price you end up paying for the water taxi may be a lot more than you would’ve had to pay for the taxi trip.

They’ll be working on the principle that they are just able to get you to do what they want because you’re uncertain in a new environment.

However, once you’re at the river and you realize the arrangement is a scam, there are often ferry terminals nearby which offer regular services along the river. So even if you were to make your own arrangements you would still be sure to save some money.

Damage to scooter/jet ski

This is where you’re accused of damaging a scooter or jet ski that you hired and made to pay an exorbitant fee for it to be repaired. The simple way to prevent there being any misunderstanding is to make sure you take lots of photos showing the condition of the machine when you hired it.

That means taking photos from all angles and checking carefully for damage. In that way, you’re able to do any necessary comparisons when it’s returned.

The card game

You could meet a friendly face who wants to practice their English. They have a niece who lives in your country. Maybe you would like to have a coffee? Perhaps you could be invited by the friendly face to have a drink. Then maybe you talk for a while before being invited to have a bit of fun and join a friendly card game.

It all seems very natural and it’s a pleasure to meet such a nice person. So you join in and things are going well. You even seem to be winning a bit.

There is gambling but the money seems to be not so bad and there were a couple of decent hands. But then you’re dealt an almost unbeatable hand. The betting goes up.

Until you have no more money.

You are encouraged to go and get more, while they keep an eye on your cards. There are two scenarios. They want to get access to more of your money. Or they will just take what you already have in the pot. Neither is good. Do not get caught up in a card game.

Drink spiking

Although this is not really a scam it will often involve somebody, usually a friendly face or possibly a young woman, approaching you and engaging you in conversation. During the interaction with them your drink is spiked and you are then taken by them and their assistant(s) outside or you are robed in the bar. There you could have your valuables taken, or even your accommodation key.

If you’re a woman, it could involve sexual assault. When you are out in the nightclub or girly bar districts of Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket be very careful of your drinks and do not leave them unattended.

Bangkok and Pattaya are particularly dangerous areas if you go into the sex trade entertainment districts. Drink spiking and theft has also been reported at the large organized parties including the full moon parties in Koh Phangan.

Sex Bars

There are sex bar areas across Thailand. Bangla Road, Patpong Night Market, Soi Cowboy, and Walking Street in Pattaya are the more famous but there are others.

These are usually focused on foreign travelers and are designed to extract the maximum possible amount of money from any traveler. There is theft and criminal activity tied with these bars. If you go to the sex districts of Bangkok or Pattaya you may be told that there are special offers for a sex bar where you will see a range of activities and drink prices are good.

If you’re taken away from the main street-level bars then you need to be extremely cautious. It is likely that the bar is not monitored by authorities, that you will not get what you wanted to see, and you will be paying exorbitant prices for drinks, which you will be intimidated into paying by indications of potential violence.

Hotel and Accommodation Security—Secure Your Digs


Hostels are popular places to stay across Thailand. They’re cheap and usually offer basic but adequate facilities. You will find them in cities like Bangkok, on islands like Koh Phi Phi, in the mountains around Chiang Mai and at coastal resorts like Phuket.

Many hostels will give you a locker with a key. If you’re in a dormitory there are usually people coming and going which reduces the chances of somebody being alone long enough to attack a locker.

Although I’ve heard a story that staff had been through a locker while the guest was out, these incidents tend to be rare. Hostels don’t tend to have overly tight security but they will have some security controls.

In Bangkok and some other larger cities, you may find that they have electronic keys for the dormitory which will limit access for outsiders. You do need to be sensible about your fellow travelers. There are some of those who will be willing to take advantage of a situation where they could grab some extra money or a nice new camera.

There’s also the possibility of some problems with staff in a hostel that’s not very well managed. Staff may have access to spare locker keys and could use these if the dormitories tend to be empty during the day. However, there are some places where you’re able to use your own padlock so have one handy in case you need it.


Hotels are seen as a place where people with a little more money are likely to be staying which makes them a more attractive option for thieves.

It is, however, more likely that a theft in your hotel room will be by housekeeping staff rather than somebody cracking the lock on your door.

But you should check that balcony doors and windows are secured before you go out and use the room safe to deter a nosy staff member.

Also, ensure that you don’t leave any items just sitting around when you leave the room and have a lock on your suitcase which you can lock when you go out. If you have any valuable items you do really not want to lose, then use the hotel safe.

Budget hotels and guesthouses

The level of budget hotels and guest houses in Thailand can vary. Very few of them will have electronic room locks. Many will have fairly basic locks as well as a deadbolt for locking the door when you’re inside the room. Some may have a padlock for locking the room when you’re out. The door locks should be reasonably secure but you’re not guaranteed of that.

It’s unlikely that there will be a room safe. So you will need to consider if you want to carry your items every time you go out or if you should try to find ways to hide them in the room. Some of the hotels will have a hotel safe but it might be worth thinking carefully about using this if you feel the attitudes in the hotel are very relaxed.

Keep things in separate places and hide them well. By not being obvious with your valuables when you go out will help reduce the chance of people knowing you have valuable items. Also making sure that if staff come into your room that they will not be aware of the valuables you have either, and keeping your suitcase locked every time you go out.

Beach houses

Most beach houses and villas available for lease in Thailand tend to be good quality. You will find them around many coastal resorts such as Phuket, Pattaya and Hua Hin.

There will be some that have small lockers for storing valuables. Some of the more upmarket ones will have small room safes. Use these as they will deter most burglars. You should always remember to be secure.

Make sure external gates are shut and locked. When you go out lock the house, check all windows and doors for security. Items being stolen from beach houses is not unusual but if you take precautions, and don’t let people see what you have through a window or an open gate then you’re less of a good target.


Airbnb has become established in Thailand with properties available across the country. Most of them are in the resort towns and larger cities. Many of these have no extra security available such as lockers or room safes. It can be just like staying in an ordinary house or apartment.

If you’re in a single room with other occupants in the house or apartment then the room must be lockable and there should be very limited access to a spare key. When you have booked the whole house or apartment then take the usual precautions of checking doors and windows before going out and ensuring that people outside are not able to see your valuables inside.

Other Theft Threats in Thailand

Theft on a beach

Leaving valuables on a beach in Thailand has become a real problem. Phuket and Pattaya are very well known for having high levels of beach theft owing to the large numbers of visitors that travel there. When the beaches get very busy it becomes simpler for thieves to access belongings left on the beach.

It’s also important to realize that the women offering items on the beach are also capable of taking belongings that are easy to pick up without being noticed. Do not assume that a smiling friendly face will ensure that the person will not take advantage of an opportunity to gain money.

Most beach theft in Thailand occurs on any resort beach where there are large numbers of visitors. If you leave anything unaccompanied on the beach then, unfortunately, you’re taking a risk.

You are able to take a few precautions to limit the chance of items being stolen. The first suggestion is, of course, to not take anything of value to the beach. This is the simplest and most effective. Alternatively, go with someone you know who will sit with your things while you go for a walk or a swim.

Use an old bag and not a bright expensive looking new one. Try not to take a large camera because they are easy to spot. Look to see if there are any lockers available in the shops near the beach. Sit near an older non-swimming couple and ask them to keep an eye on your things while you swim.


Governments recognize that crime of opportunity is a problem in Thailand and it is listed on multiple Government websites. Some examples are provided below.

Canadian Government

UK Government

US State Department



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