Death in paradise: when the dream holiday turns sour
Thailand is a hugely popular destination for young backpacking Irish students. Will the brutal murder of two young British tourists be a wake-up call - or were these savage killings a tragic exception to the rule?
At what point paradise becomes lost depends on whom you speak to. For Thomas, a 35-year-old childcare manager from Britain, the dark side of Thailand's party islands emerged on only the second night of his three-week holiday.
After visiting one of the notorious "full moon parties" on Koh Phangan, where 30,000 revellers high on drink and drugs crash like waves upon the beach, he left his five friends, with whom he had travelled out from London and climbed into what he believed was a taxi to take him back to his hotel.
"I was feeling a bit worse for wear and didn't realise until I got in that there were three Thai men in the front," he says. "I think they were trying to get me to fall asleep because they were driving me around for ages. When I realised they hadn't taken me to the hotel, I asked them to stop, but they didn't."
Instead, Thomas found himself driven through the night on dirt roads, deep into the jungle. "I suddenly realised the danger I was in and jumped out of the back seat, and rolled on to the ground, knocking myself nearly unconscious. They all got out and surrounded me. It looked like it was going to get really nasty so I took out all my money - which was about £20 - and handed it over. Then they just left me where I was and drove off."
What followed was a seven-hour walk through fields and farms, stalked by feral dogs, before he made it to a shop where he collapsed, severely dehydrated. Here the alarm was raised and Thomas was driven back to his hotel by a man on a scooter.
'I reported it to the staff there and they told me it sounded really strange, and that nothing like that ever usually happened. But when I mentioned it to other expats I met during the holiday, they told me it happened every day. There were stories of people being tied to trees and robbed and so on."
Among such horror stories are also tales of murder. In January 2013, soon after Thomas had returned from his trip, 22-year-old London city trader Stephen Ashton was shot dead at a New Year's party on a Koh Phangan beach.
He had been dancing with around 400 other tourists when a gunfight broke out between two Thai gangs. Stephen was caught in the crossfire.
Now, as this year's tourist season gets under way, more young lives have been lost on the white sand beaches of the Gulf of Thailand. Police are hunting the murderers of Hannah Witheridge (23), a university graduate from Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, and David Miller (24), from Jersey, after they were attacked with a garden hoe while walking home from a late-night party on the island of Koh Tao on Saturday. Their deaths take to 13 the number of British visitors killed in Thailand over the past five years.
One reporter on the Samui Times, an online English-language newspaper covering the archipelago that comprises the holiday islands of Samui, Phangan and Tao, said there may in fact be more: the authorities are so anxious to protect the country's reputation as a dream holiday destination that unexplained deaths of Westerners are often branded suicides and not properly investigated. "There have been a couple of reported suicides where a person has been said to have fallen off a balcony, but there is more to it than that."
In addition to the murders, on its website the British Foreign Office points to "vicious, unprovoked attacks by gangs, violent assaults and robberies, sexual assaults and reports of people having their drinks spiked".
All this in a holiday destination that has attracted millions of Western visitors over the past five years. Ever since the publication of Alex Garland's novel The Beach two decades ago, the islands of Thailand have become a parable for our globe-trotting times.
"There have always been Burmese migrants in Thailand but there is a greater number at the moment because there is a lot of infrastructure being built to cater for the increased number of tourists and investment opportunities," says expat Clare Plunkett, who has lived on Phuket for the past five years and whose 17-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son attend its international school. "The Burmese are usually considered below a Thai person. They look down on them and they normally live in shanty towns in the environs of wherever they are working."
Despite its strict drug laws, Thailand's beach parties are fuelled by ecstasy, magic-mushroom pizzas and everything in between.
An explosion of yaba, a mixture of crystal meth and caffeine whose name translates as "crazy medicine", has recently been reported among the locals. Westerners, meanwhile, wash down everything with the ubiquitous plastic beach buckets filled to the brim with a mix of spirits and energy drinks that cost around 200 baht (€5) each.
Visitors describe the scene as similar to any 18-30 strip on Rhodes or Magaluf, even if it does involve a €600-plus flight halfway across the world.
A once untouched wilderness is now a global party destination, its pristine sands another murder scene.