For the first time in seven years of travel, I experienced a theft on Koh Lanta.
My bungalow on Koh Lanta has been robbed.
And after traveling some serious war-torn dungholes, this quiet island (what I proudly name as my favorite island in Thailand) was the last place I expected it to happen.
I was planning to write a happy-go-lucky post summarizing my five weeks here on the mostly closed island of Koh Lanta, but maybe a whodunit is in order. Helping me solve a crime may be more interesting than hearing about how my cat caught a lizard this morning or that I saw a giant puffer fish washed up on the beach yesterday.
Let’s play detective — the police here sure don’t. Just for the fun of it, help me figure this crime out:
Theft on Koh Lanta: The Setting
Koh Lanta is my favorite island in Thailand; I know it intimately well. This is at least the fourth month that I’ve accumulated on Long Beach (Phra Ae), and I have even gotten to know the faces. I come here each year to stop moving and get some writing done. I was staying at Lanta Palm Beach Bungalows.
Koh Lanta is considered one of the safest destinations in Thailand. The low season gets so low here that there are very few bungalows or restaurants open yet.
With practically no other guests here, I certainly wasn’t robbed by another traveler. An abundance of seasonal contractors are on the island building things up for the busy season.
I was robbed on a Friday night, the day after the full moon. People, like animals, tend to get crazy on full-moon weekends.
After watching sunset on the beach, I left my bungalow to go eat around 19:30 and returned around 21:00. During that brief time (90 minutes), someone used a tool to force open a window high off the ground then climb inside. The latch was broken off and the wood scarred. The front door was locked with my own personal padlock, so they had to climb back out of the window.
The window is situated in darkness, a narrow space between bungalows. Only an insider would have known about the perfect setup.
The thief relieved me of around $400+ in U.S. dollars, Malay ringgit, and Thai baht. Exchanging money here without raising suspicions will be difficult for them. My money belt was halfheartedly hidden in the book pocket inside my backpack. The burglar thoughtfully left my passport, credit cards, and laptop sitting on the desk. My iPod was charging out in the open; they could have easily grabbed it but were in a hurry.
It was obvious that they even felt a little bad and didn’t want to push their luck too much.
The Police on Koh Lanta
After reporting the bungalow theft to reception, a ridiculous investigation ensued. The police on Koh Lanta came out to look, but didn’t speak any English; communication was difficult. I don’t expect local people to speak English, but these same guys somehow manage to communicate perfectly when asking for bribes from Western business owners.
The bungalow staff handled the encounter, and I don’t trust him. I had to loan the police my flashlight; they didn’t even bring a working one with them.
The following morning we went to the station and filed a report. There are no tourist police on the island, so I was stuck dealing with the guys who go from bar to bar monthly to collect bribes from the owners. According to Western owners with whom I’ve met, bribes range from $150 – $300 per month, depending on how busy a bar gets.
The police in Koh Lanta never asked me a single pertinent question such as what time the crime happened. Watching the two cops type up a report was like watching a blind third-grader lead a deaf second-grader in a typing lesson. After one spent over five minutes trying to locate the passport number on my passport, I finally blurted it out in Thai for them.
It’s clear to me that the small communities here on the island fend for themselves and handle justice internally. They have to do so.
The bungalow boss told me that several other bungalows had been robbed that night as well. I asked at the places he said were robbed and they didn’t know what I was talking about. He was lying.
Theft on Koh Lanta: The Suspects
Since this was a precision mission that would have made any ninja family proud, I’ve narrowed the suspects down to a small handful who knew exactly how, when, and where to pull off the job.
This was not a random crime of opportunity. I was watched, stalked, then robbed by someone I see every day.
Note: while these photographs accurately portray the personalities of each suspect, they are re-creations.
An extremely short man even by Thai standards, Shorty skulks around the bungalow grounds doing odd jobs. Unlike the others, he speaks no English, and barely says anything at all. He has very shifty eyes. He’s clearly the lowest man on the totem pole, socially and financially. I see Shorty the most when he’s using rubber gloves to empty the trash bin near my bungalow. Given the disgusting things that I throw away, he has reason to hate me. The rubbish bin has a perfect view to the narrow crime scene between bungalows.
Shorty was present during the police ‘investigation’ but didn’t say a word. The day after the robbery, I caught him walking a wide circle past me on the beach, then up to a ramshackle hut where a few Rasta guys live. He could have served as a scout for my next suspect:
The Rasta Guys
Every good beach in Thailand has some. Dreadlocked guys who couldn’t find Jamaica on the map, but all are convinced that they are the Thai reincarnation of Bob Marley. Rasta guys are often friendly, particularly if you are an attractive Western woman with money. They are nice even on the rare occasion when they aren’t high.
Unfortunately, seeing that it’s low season, there is a dreadful lack of traveling women on the island. And no backpackers are around to buy drugs. It’s currently a bear market for the Rastas. They probably need income.
They stare at me from the shadows of their hangout bar as I walk past nightly to go to dinner. They know my precise routine — which rarely varies — and exactly when I am coming home. If nothing else, they serve as the perfect lookouts.
They know when I come and go, however, I never saw them hanging around my bungalow. With their three-foot-long hair and tattooed bodies, these guys keep a high profile.
A very kind man from Myanmar, the Painter has been working around my bungalow for a month now. We speak regularly. He is intelligent, speaks five languages, and is happy just being a simple painter. We practice Bahasa Malay often and it has become our language for communication. The Painter is a vagabonding laborer. He has no friends or family on the island. He has worked in many, many countries, and comes and goes as he pleases. He boasted to me about how much money he earns as a painter (more than I do for sure).
He owns tools, the ladder, and knows my bungalow intimately because he painted the window ledges. Inexplicably, he has given me two packs of Indonesian clove kretek cigarettes despite my best effort to decline. I gave him fruit; we were friends.
The Painter made it a point to tell me that he has a Chinese kid and a Malay kid that he has to feed. He sends them money internationally.
The crime happened on the very last night of the Painter’s job. He vanished the next day, off to a new contract in the south of the island. He can certainly make use of my U.S. dollars and Malaysian ringgit that went missing. He was my leading suspect and I vowed to run him off the road if I saw him on my next motorbike excursion.
The Fish Man
My best Thai friend on the island, it saddens me to think that the Fish Man would be involved. He’s a Chao Leh, or “Sea Gypsy” as island residents call them. He’s an older, weathered, fatherly type with a kind face. He says hello daily and asks if I need anything as he makes his rounds. He breeds Siamese fighting fish — which he fights for fun and profit — in a small pool near my bungalow. We chat often about his fish.
The Fish Man made it a point to tell me that he has three young boys to feed.
The night I reported the theft, he literally came running with a torch and peda — a headhunter’s machete attached to a bamboo pole. He meant business and patrolled the area, carefully looking for clues or someone to punish. He was watching my back. When the police came, the Fish Man took charge. He argued with the police, urging them to take care of me. Inexplicably, he quit coming around altogether after the crime.
Aside from a gambling habit, the Fish Man seemed the least suspicious of all suspects, that is, until this happened:
Theft on Koh Lanta: The Plot Thickens
Having accepted my losses, and considered myself lucky for not losing passport or laptop, I decided to coast out the last days here on the island. Karma will do its job. The police sure as hell won’t be doing their jobs.
I emerged on Tuesday morning, three days after the crime, to find the Painter frantically approaching me. I was jolted awake with adrenaline after suddenly staring into the face of someone who has caused me a lot of undue stress. He was nervous, shaking hands lit cigarette after cigarette. He said that he had “heard about the crime” and asked me to show him how it happened. I obliged.
We walked around to the back of my bungalow. Immediately, he pointed to the wrong window “this one?” No. Then he said it must have been a tall man who did it. I told him that a ladder had been used. He squirmed with miserable body language. Then I decided to shake him up a bit and told him that the police had lifted fingerprints off of the glass — a total fabrication. They could make a match any day now.
In reality, those idiots couldn’t have lifted fingerprints off of a finger, let alone a crime scene. The Painter was visibly shaken.
Just as I was contemplating how to not-so-subtly coerce this guy into giving back my stuff, he dropped a bomb on me:
The Painter led me to his pile of supplies and pointed to a screwdriver which perfectly matched the blade size used to pry open my windows. It was his own and covered with paint. He said that he had left it in his bungalow a short distance from mine, but it had been dropped in the grass just meters away from the crime scene. Someone was trying to frame him.
Then he dropped an even bigger bomb: It was the Fish Man who had robbed me.
He said that he had heard in the south, where the Sea Gypsies live, that the Fish Man had gone to the village shaman. They still practice animist beliefs and must pay a medicine man to get rid of bad karma or evil spirits so that their families don’t become sick. The Fish Man, the least of my suspects, had paid handsomely for treatment right after I was robbed.
Well, now I’m confused.
The Painter is either a very brave man or a very stupid man; nothing between. If you’re going to accuse someone randomly to hide your own crime, choose one of the Rasta guys or blame it on a contractor from another bungalow. Don’t accuse the senior member of the staff. Particularly a tall family man who carries a headhunter’s weapon around and has numerous allies on the island. Doing so could be a career-limiting decision. It’s suicidal in a place like this.
Perhaps it’s just so crazy that it could be true?
The Painter explained in Bahasa that he himself is the number-one suspect because he was a Burmese vagabond, had no friends, and had left the next day. He swore that he didn’t know about the crime before he left. Makes sense, especially for an intelligent guy like this. Leaving the day after a crime looks really sketchy.
Did his conscience get the best of him to make him come back? Was he really stressed that the police were on his trail? Or was he legitimately a victim of circumstance and wanted to clear his name?
Regardless, he didn’t have to come back at all. He could have stayed in the south, never to be seen again. I would leave the island and life would go on. Instead, he came back and really shook up life here on this quiet beach.
Before I could claim bullshit and rough the guy up for accusing my fishy friend, the Painter took the initiative and went a step further. This guy should be a chess master.
He called the bungalow boss over and explained the scenario in detail about finding the tool moved. The boss immediately called the Fish Man — the most trusted member of his staff — who then came running. Suddenly, I found myself wearily in the middle of a serious drama. I retreated to my bungalow porch while they discussed the matter. I also wanted to be far away and nearer to my field knife just in case the Fish Man went berserk on this immigrant worker.
I feared the worst. Instead, the bungalow boss led away the Fish Man for a private talk. Hours later, they emerged and seem to be coexisting. Of course no one ever came over to explain the outcome. Did they agree to some profit-sharing setup?
Getting Robbed on Koh Lanta
No matter which of these two, hard-working family men end up accused, if any, the police in Koh Lanta are so completely inept, so useless at anything other than collecting bribes from bars, that nothing will ever happen. My money would certainly never be returned, definitely not by the police. The police suggested that my travel insurance would give me back the cash.
Nope, doesn’t work that way, fellas.
Fingerprints, suspects, exact times, even the tool — there are enough clues here that Mr. Bean or Steve Martin as the Pink Panther could solve the case in less than a day.
I could not provide any input and was never asked to do so. The culture and language divide can be very frustrating, even after all of these years spent in Thailand. If you say something controversial, or God forbid something that causes loss of face, people simply act like they can’t understand what you are saying.
The bottom line is that this was just a $400 travel lesson learned. That I can live with. I’ll cancel my diving and eat cheap. But until I head up to Bangkok on Sunday, I have to coexist with the perpetrator here on my island of thieves in the Land of the Smiles.
I don’t like that.
Both the Painter and the Fish Man still come around smiling and shake my hand on a daily basis. I have no idea how to treat them or who to believe.
Who do you think did it?
Sorry, poll is closed. The internet-chosen suspect was…drum roll…
The Fish Man.
Greg is a full-time vagabonding writer and adventurer who escaped the corporate world. Now he helps others begin a life of travel.