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Gambling in Thailand – and why it’s not a good idea to be tempted!

Gambling in Thailand – and why it’s not a good idea to be tempted!

The Thais are a fun-loving nation. They like nothing better than to have a good get-together. Bring in some chums, a bottle or two, and a nice bouncy set of karaoke tunes. No-one cares if you can’t sing – in fact that’s almost a requirement. They’re a peaceful, passive people, un-nerved by standing in line, or sitting in rows of cars at red lights. But they’re passionate, too; just look at the way they love football. Or their soap operas on TV. But there’s one thing that beats the lot. Something they all just itch to do. There’s one thing that’s almost a national addiction. But, alas, it’s not allowed. And that’s gambling. And it’s illegal.


Actually, it is allowed. But only in two respects, and they’re controlled with an iron fist. The first and most popular is the Government Lottery. This is held every two weeks and attracts record audiences when the draw is aired on TV. To give you some idea of the immense national involvement, think about this. Twenty million Thai people (one-third of the population) buy tickets every time, each spending an average of 2,400 baht every month. The Thai average wage is a bit less than 15,000 baht a month – meaning that 20 million people spend one sixth of their before-tax income on lottery tickets every month.


These people are serious! They have developed sure-fire ways of dropping on to the right combinations of numbers, snatching them avidly from dreams, running permutations of their birthdays, telephone numbers, street addresses, or even car number plates, consulting fortune tellers, exhorting Buddha every day for good luck, visiting their local temple to pray for the right numbers – even gaining mystical insights through oddly-shaped vegetables or the unexpected sight of a deformed animal. Unfortunately,none of this alters the cold hard fact that the pay-out ratio is heavily pegged to be one of the worst in the world at 60%, comparing unfavourably with other national lotteries (74%), bingo (81%) horse racing (89%) or the admirable 98% seen with blackjack.


The only other legal form of betting is horse racing, which regularly takes place at venues such as the Bangkok Turf Club, and betting is permitted on these events. However, gambling on foreign horse racing is, as with all other sports, strictly prohibited. If you’re new to Thailand then such a statement will probably make you smile, shake your head knowingly, and murmur something slick about the internet. But just try it! Google ‘online betting’, pick out a couple of prime candidates, and try to get onto their websites. You can’t. Because the government here is adamant about all aspects of gambling, and has censored all online gambling and betting sites.


The entire thing is a bit scary. But it’s the reason – this addictive compulsion – why gambling is so strictly controlled in Thailand. Every year 50,000 gambling cases come before the Thai courts with fines range from 500 baht to 5,000 baht and jail stints from a few days to three years, with heavier penalties being bestowed upon those deemed to be organisers or ringleaders. And if you’re in the mood to throw a few dollars around in a bar to bet on the outcome of the Superbowl, or fancy a flutter in a sports pub because The Derby is on TV, or even just fancy a game of cards, then think again. Foreigners are not exempt. But if you promptly throw up your hands and mutter the Thai equivalent of “it’s a fair cop, I’ll go quietly officer”, then you’ll probably get away with only a moderate fine – and then be handed over to the authorities to be deported . . . at your own expense. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!


However, such restrictions don’t apply to Thailand’s neighbours. As a result you’ll find no fewer than seven huge casinos, with Las Vegas wannabe luxury hotels attached, just after the Aranyaprathet border post on the Cambodian side at Poipet, just a few hundred metres away from the rigours of Thailand. Most of the customers you’ll see here are Thais. Officially a permit is needed to travel across into Cambodia, but there are Cambodian ‘brokers’ who will get you into a casino compound with a sort of package deal, if you speak to the right people. Gambling in Thailand – and why it’s not a good idea to be tempted!The border at Had Lek in Trat province offers the same sort of opportunities, with casinos just across the border at Koh Kong (also Cambodia) and up in the north there are more casinos just across the Mekong River in Laos. You’d think the Thai government would be itching to get in on all this, wouldn’t you!


But, you see, it’s all about not losing face. They need a way, after all this righteous legislation, to figure out how to put together a scheme so it sounds like it’s doing everyone a favour and they’ve not suddenly changed their mind overnight. And, lo and behold, exactly such a plan is in the pipeline as you read this. The stance is that there are too many underground dens, leading to all the associated crime, bribery and corruption. Legalised casinos would, on the other hand, generate more income, provide increased employment, and promote tourism. But, to ensure the moral vigour of their national flock, there’s a condition. Thai people will have to show ID, and will not be permitted to enter a casino in their home province. They’ll have to travel, if they want to gamble.


I suppose the idea is that it works the same way as wife-beating. You don’t plan a weekend away with accommodation for two in a nice hotel simply so you can whack your wife about – it’s a spontaneous thing that suddenly happens on impulse. An hour later you’re full of remorse. Very much like with gambling (as all the pawn shops in the casinos across the border seem to emphasise.) So if you can be bothered to plan it and have the time and money to travel, well, that’s okay, off you go then – if you’re Thai, that is. But, seeing as you’re probably not, then it won’t affect you so much. Unless you get nabbed playing cards in a local bar, anyway!


 Rob De Wet


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