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Phuket Travel Nightmare Revisited

By January 02, 2012

Simon had a fabulous Phuket trip - until he tried to leave
Phuket’s a strange place. As a writer, editor and witness to the weird happenings and rapid changes of this resort island over the years, I’m still amazed at the bewildering variety of things that go on here.

One news item that stands out in my memory is the Simon Burrowes story in early 2009.

A British citizen spends a few months holidaying in Phuket, enjoying a wonderful escape on the island: meeting the locals, doing some Muay Thai martial arts training, sampling the food, exploring the beaches and sights.

At one point during his Phuket trip, Simon emails a friend to say, “excelent [sic] out here. Haven't known happiness like this.”

All’s well until his final day, when Simon and a friend are about to board a flight back to the UK at Phuket International Airport. Simon’s passport comes under the scrutiny of the immigration officers.

It’s an older passport (UK passports are valid for 10 years), and, unusually, he appears shirtless in the photo. Simon later says that he was told by officials at the airport that the passport raised suspicions because it lacked a biometric chip, his alignment in the photograph did not look correct, and he appeared to be younger than 44 years old as written in the passport.

Incidentally, or not incidentally: Simon Burrowes is black.

Accounts of what transpire next diverge between Simon and the immigration officials, but Simon, who misses his flight and is unable to get help from his embassy to confirm his passport’s validity, is understandably agitated.

At some point he says or does something perceived to be ‘rude’ by the officers involved.

Simon Burrowes is then taken to Phuket prison and locked up for three weeks.

Offending or threatening a government official is a serious offence in Thailand, with a penalty of up to a year’s jail time.

Adding to his woes, during these weeks of incarceration in the overcrowded jail he loses his job and his apartment back home.

After getting bailed out, Simon spends the rest of his time in Phuket sorting out his case, a total of three unplanned extra months on the island.

Simon (reluctantly) pleads guilty to the charge of offending an official, pays a 500-baht penalty, and flies back to the UK on a flight sponsored by an unnamed person sympathetic to his plight. 
Phuket airport immigration, where Simon's travel troubles started
Simon’s case reveals the hidden, dark side of travelling abroad. You pack your bags and ready yourself for new experiences but you also pack with you your expectations about the way things will go, your perceptions, your biases, your doubts and fears, your notions about the appropriate ways to communicate.

Then you come into a place where you are the alien, the guest, the one who doesn’t know the language or the way things work, the norms, the ‘proper’ reaction to situations.

For most who travel, these cultural interactions are a delight, a chance to learn and grow. But if things go wrong, it’s a powder keg.

Simon, for his part, admits that his lack of understanding about the local culture probably contributed to the escalation of his problems. He writes in an email, “While it has been since submitted to me that their reaction was an inclination toward Thai social behaviour, I was naive to that.” During his hours being held at the airport, he sees some of the officials giggling and joking amongst themselves. Simon’s reaction: “I was left feeling mocked.”

It just takes an instant, a gesture, a few words to ignite something that alters your life forever. For some travellers, such a moment of misunderstanding can be fatal.

Simon Burrowes escaped a serious charge and a lengthy jail term, but there’s little doubt that this incident will be a defining moment of his life.

I recently emailed Simon to ask about his reflections on the experience, and he replied: "I've learnt that for all the value we place on our lives, experiences, emotions, ambitions, etc, even as a Londoner I am always one degree away from being snuffed out by government bodies without reservation if I step out of line.

"Scarily, I learned 1st hand and unforgettably how the mind can be radically corrupted in a short space of time. On the day of my arrest I had just done the most intense period of training I've ever done. I was fit as a fiddle, healthy, philanthropic, confident and relaxed.  Three weeks later, on my last day before my bail, I confronted a prisoner with the intention of killing him.

"He'd only sniggered at me as I was subjected to a moment of bog standard frivolous Falang humiliation but I had come to a resigned decision: I was going to kill someone so that for all the years I was due to spend in prison I would at least have played a part in my demise. I would at least have a tangible reason for rotting in that hell through which I could I could understand, justify and own my future." 

Simon has travelled only once since returning from Phuket, to Paris on the Eurostar, a trip during which, he says, "I was actually scared enough to break into a cold sweat." And as for Thailand, he will never return.

He's since turned to writing for solace and self-expression. He says, "I've retreated into writing, producing a journalistic blog and three poetry manuscripts, the first of which is a book." One of Simon's poems, entitled written from my stinkin prison cell, appears on his blog.

Visit Phuketwan for the full story on Simon Burrowes and his Phuket ‘nightmare’.

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