Known internationally as the land of smiles (LOS), a new website that went live today is sure to wipe the smiles off the faces of the people at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) when they return from the Songkran holidays.
Thailand Travel Tragedies has been set up to “list all occurrences of fatalities or serious illness contracted [by foreigners] while visiting Thailand”, and is actively soliciting contributions from anyone with Thailand holiday fatality or serious injury tales to tell.
The idea for the website evolved following the death from an as yet unexplained reason of 23-year-old New Zealand backpacker, Sarah Carter, in Chiang Mai earlier this year,
Ms Carter is one of at least seven known deaths to have occurred earlier this year in the Northern Thailand city, with all having the Downtown Inn located in the Night Bazaar section of the city as a common factor.
The names and the dates of death of people known to have either died at, or shortly after staying at the Downtown Inn in Chiang Mai are:
Unnamed French woman aged between 23 and 33, reported to have died January 4, 2011 after using the facilities at The Downtown Inn.
Soraya Pandola, aged 33 from California, USA, January 11, 2011.
Bill Mah, aged 59, from Alberta, Canada, January 26, 2011.
Waraporn Pungmahisiranon, aged 47, a Thai tourist guide, February 3, 2011.
Sarah Carter, aged 26, February 6, 2011.
George and Eileen Everitt, aged 78 and 74, from Lincolnshire, UK, February 19, 2011.
That’s an average of one death a week over a two month period in January and February of 2011.
While people dying in hotels is not a phenomena, it’s doubtful if any other hotel in the world, apart from the Downtown Inn in Chiang Mai, has ever had such a run of guest deaths in such a short period of time before.
Chiang Mai tourist deaths “a coincidence”
Adding to the frustration of the relatives of the dead is the inability for the Thailand Government to come up with a plausible explanation for the deaths, with Chiang Mai Provincial governor, Mom Luang Panadda Diskul, being so insensitive as to describe the deaths as “a coincidence”.
Theories as to the cause of death for so many people at one Chiang Mai hotel abound amongst Thailand observers, the expatriate community particularly excelling in the ludicrousness of some.
That the owner of The Downtown Inn, former Chiang Mai mayor Boonlert Buranupakorn, is also reported to be the owner of several other hotels in Chiang Mai, in addition to shopping centers and a chain of high profile local restaurants, therefore making him extremely influential, is adding as much fuel to the cover-up claim as the inability of Thailand forensic specialists to identify the causes.
Throughout the website, Thailand Travel Tragedies uses the word “coverup”, a term also bandied about by many other people writing on The Downtown Inn Chiang Mai tourist deaths, but says it “is not the aim of this site to discredit Thailand, but rather to provide a forum for recording tragedies that may otherwise have been covered-up”.
While some websites report little is being done to ascertain the cause of the deaths, the Chiang Mai Department of Disease Control (DDC) has asked for assistance from the World Health Organisation (WHO), as well as liaised with the US Center for Disease Control (US-CDC), International Health Regulations (IHR) authorities, and also invited officials from the American, French, and New Zealand embassies to be part of the investigation.
A report, Myocarditis cases in Chiangmai, published by the DDC public relations office and posted on its website in the Academic Center section and updated on March 11, 2011 describes the actions taken by the DDC, along with a brief report on postmortem investigations.
“The joint investigation team found four clinically-confirmed cases of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and another two patients with mild symptoms. These six patients were among three separate groups of tourists visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand, between 9 January and 4 February 2011. All were young women aged 23-33 years and were from the United States (1), Canada (1), France (2) and New Zealand (3).
“Of these six patients three died (one each from the USA, France and New Zealand). Five of them became ill while visiting Chiang Mai and one developed symptoms three days before arriving there. Common features of the illness among these patients include vomiting without diarrhea and lack of respiratory symptoms. One patient had a fever but all others were afebrile.”
Tissue samples have also been sent overseas at the request of family members of the dead, who wish to organise independent pathological exams on the samples.
In its own report the DDC acknowledges, “four cases [of myocarditis] among young healthy adults in the same location is rare”, certainly giving the impression that Thai forensic specialists are genuinely baffled. Little wonder that lay-people, such as the families of those who have died in Chiang Mai, are also having such a difficult time not knowing what killed their loved ones.
The open manner in which the deaths are discussed in the DDC report, tantamount to an admission that the Thai specialists can’t find an answer, is not the sort of report any government wants to issue, particularly Thailand, where loss of face is a major cultural issue. This in itself casts some reasonable doubt on claims of a cover up by the Thai authorities.
Koh Phi Phi tourist deaths
Though some people are drawing a link between the deaths of American tourist, Jill St Onge and Norwegian holiday-maker Julie Michelle Bergheim at The Laleena Guesthouse on Koh Phi Phi on May 6, 2009, the only similarity is that the cause of these deaths too, remains unexplained.
Ms St Onge’s fiancé and the Norwegian Government were both extremely critical of the Thai handling of the Koh Phi Phi deaths and the result of the Thai autopsies, however, an autopsy conducted by the Norwegian Government six weeks later, likewise failed to determine the cause of Ms Bergheim’s death .
Until a plausible cause of death is established for each of these people, any civil or criminal legal proceedings are stalled, while frustrated relatives are left with the anguish of not knowing why their family member’s idyllic Southeast Asian holiday went so tragically wrong.
While the TAT will certainly not be happy with the appearance of the Thailand Travel Tragedies website, its emergence is a signal to Thailand authorities that Western visitors will not accept the same hollow explanations that the Thailand Government feeds to the local population. However, care will be needed in administering it to ensure accurate and full disclosure is made for all matters it publishes.
Feature photo Channel 4 News
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He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
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this is caused by a Cambodian curse over the border thing
For a Governor to draw conclusions about these deaths being coincidental, we know immediately that he is more interested in covering his @ss than any sort of real investigation. A typical example of a self-serving (self-protecting), lazy Thai bureaucrat. He is proud of his lapel adornments, no doubt, but I hope he is shamed by his inability to resolve serious problems under his jurisdiction. I wonder what he might do if his own daughter were found dead… could it be that he would actually rise to his position.
Convenience? Yes, your convenience ‘Governor’… shame on you; you bring shame to your rank and title.
I had not noted before the “autopsy conducted by the Norwegian Government six weeks later, likewise failed to determine the cause of death of Ms. Bergheim.”
this would seem to indicate that the cause of the deaths is not obvious even to probably quite reputable examination, so perhaps we should not be too sneering of the Thai authorities
however we should be concerned to ensure there is definite and continued follow up on all the deaths, to discover if they are all due to similar cause and strive to find a way of avoiding further deaths
have there been other cases perhaps at similar times in other years, indicating any seasonal connection? any locals vs visitors?
Thanks for reading David.
Since writing the original story on April 13 I have come across a report issued by the Chiang Mai DDC and somewhat buried on its website. In the interest of disclosing as much information as possible a link has been inserted and additional details added to the original story in blue type.
The answers might be unsatisfactory, but “cover up” might indeed be too strong a word to be using at this early stage of what appears to be an extremely unusual situation.
Wow, this is pretty creepy. Why would do government not carry out proper investigations on these deaths? And why are these deaths actually happening? There are so many Western expats in Chiang Mai, this is very weird.. Is the local community somehow unhappy with it?