The Thai government is investigating the illegal acquisition and sale of some 12,000 rai of land across the Kingdom, from Chiang Mai in the north to the southern provinces, according to the regional press. One rai is the equivalent of 1,600m squared, so the total land under investigation is 19.2km2. More than one third of that land is on Phuket itself, Of the island’s 224km2, 3,600 rai or 5.76km2 is under scrutiny.
The Phuket News, the island’s English language news rag has published the story. Browse through any newspaper or magazine in Thailand and you will find dozens of advertisements for real estate firms in English, Russian, Swedish and Thai. One of the first things I noticed when I turned up in south Thailand with a bag was the amount of money flying around the tourist spots, who were way removed from the traveller crowd. Much energy is spent trying to channel that money into property and land. Why spend two weeks in paradise when you can make it your home?
I have spent a little time in Thailand, exclusively in the south on paradise-like islands. A swathe of one island is a designated national park, where the lush green flora of the tropics can flourish. Visitors pay a nominal fee to walk through the park’s trails and camp on the unspoiled white sand beach. A walk right through the park leads to a secluded, bizarrely situated and eccentrically designed resort, boasting different types of accommodation including rooms in boats, half finished air conditioned apartments and tree houses. There is a small pool surrounded by plaster of paris giraffes and elephants and fake street lights. The resort is an eclectic projection of the owners’ tastes which sadly do not appeal to many tourists, aside from me perhaps. When I first stayed there, I lived in a tree house and one of the boat houses. I organised parties, promoted the resort online and took tourists on bike rides across the island to visit the place. In all, I bought in.
The owners with the strange taste in decor were a charming old Thai couple. A former state governor and a former high court judge – politically exposed persons who held influential positions and at least in the case of the ex-governor, had access to public funds. They spent their retirement between this property and the others they owned, including rubber and fruit plantations. a birds’ nest farm and homes in southern Thailand. The ex-governor and I once drove in his clapped out old Mercedes to a city on the mainland. He proudly showed me his identity badge, which showed his former minister status, and mentioned this would mean he paid no fee at toll booths and never had to bribe traffic cops.
“And if that doesn’t work,” he laughed slapping the side of his seat, “there’s always this.” He pointed to an ivory handled pistol which looked as old as the car shoved between the driver’s seat and and the gear stick.
I have no idea whether the land this man had acquired was actually a part of the national park. When I asked to see plans of the resort’s plot, none were produced. Many people on the island claim he took what he wanted from the national park to build the resort. While I was there, at least three tourists made him offers for the land, which he declined. The man tells a romantic story of finding the land one day while exploring the jungle on the island. He staked his claim unimpeded and the local people from nearby villages brought him fish to eat while he stayed there. This bucolic image of an old man sat at the edge of a beach surrounded by tall trees and screeching monkeys and barefoot locals climbing over rocks to deliver him food is almost certainly embellished. The man’s children and employees recite the tale with ease, even the part about him using his influence to acquire identity cards for unregistered citizens. This, in fact, is what the King of Thailand did for many indigenous communities to stop them from growing heroin in the Golden Triangle. I even heard myself telling these stories in the combined voice of wisdom and naivety. Certainly, everyone was made to understand that this man, with an enormous piece of land in a protected part of the national park, an ex-governor whose wife was a high court judge, was well beloved and respected throughout. The locals, I was told once, called him ‘Phuwaa’, a term I had to research, which means ‘speaker’ and is given to the village chief.
I don’t know if this man and his wife are still alive, or where they are. Their children are running the resort as their inheritance and the deeds will no doubt be passed down to their children after them until the real title of the land is lost. I have not named the island, resort or family in question, although it would not be difficult to find out where it is. I do believe that this story is not unusual in Thailand and the sense of entitelement felt by the certain groups has filtered down to the rest of society.
The influx of organised criminals from abroad who have chosen to invest their dubiously acquired wealth in Thailand has not been accidental. Apart from the country’s stunning natural beauty, there are other appeals to someone who wants to invest without questions. Corruption in local public officials and the ability to turn a blind eye for the right price are common place and lauded by criminals. I do wonder, though, if the land I know of is under investigation, and if the probe takes any real momentum, will the losers be the foreigners who tried to cash in on cheap deals in paradise, or the national buyers.