AS ANYONE arriving to rain-soaked Phuket or Samui this week will have discovered, the reality of a tourist destination is often starkly different than what's portrayed in the brochures and travel websites. Diving under the surface of the glossy sheen is what British investigative reporter Stacey Dooley tries to do in the one-hour documentary, 'Thailand: Tourism and the Truth - Stacey Dooley Investigates', which aired on BBC3 yesterday.
While the 2009 documentary series 'Big Trouble in Thailand' on Bravo Channel UK exposed the mishaps and dangers encountered by tourists to Thailand, this film gets to grips with the every-day pressures and strains faced by those working and living in a thriving Thai tourist resort.
The opener asks, "Are our two weeks of luxury abroad making life hell for the locals?" and Ms Dooley first explores this question with a visit to the Banthai Beach Resort in the Phuket west coast town of Patong, first shown with images of its inviting swimming pools, immaculate rooms and smiling staff, with Ms Dooley expressing amazement that all this could be had for as little as 30 quid a night.
After a day as a tourist with a frolic in the pool and drinks at the swim-up bar, Ms Dooley goes to work as a chambermaid, learning that she is expected to clean 14 rooms a day, taking no longer than 30 minutes per room. She gets a failing grade from the manager after a sweaty hour-plus spent scrubbing one room.
She then catches a ride on the Banthai staff bus to the worker dormitories, clean yet rather cramped and sparsely-furnished quarters where three maids share a small room. All of them, she learns, are mothers whose children live in another province. One maid, Khun Kalerb, has not seen her children in two years, and Ms Dooley stares at her with Oprah-style empathy as the maid stoically describes the stark choice between seeing her children or sending her earnings to her family.
Dooley later goes to see the grim rental room of a Banthai bartender located in a back-street Patong slum, where apparently some 100 hotel workers live. Rats and roaches make Ms Dooley jittery as the bartender explains that she prefers the freedom of life here compared to the staff dorm.
Among those familiar with the Phuket hotel industry, Banthai is known to be a fair yet exacting employer, expecting high standards from its staff yet rewarding them with free food, accommodation and transport, plus annual parties where big gifts including motorbikes are handed out. Dooley takes a balanced look at the situation, speaking with Banthai's senior managers who say they do face a lot of pressure to maintain high standards for increasingly narrow margins, but that that their wages are fair, and that it's up to the staff to manage their money.
When she probes about the possibility of allowing staff to have their family stay with them in the dorm, she is told there is no space, yet there's a vague, face-saving response that this could be a possibility in the future.
The doco makes it plain, however, that the price pressures combined with the high cost of living in Phuket unavoidably gives its hotel workers short shrift. If the Banthai workers are living like this, one shudders to think how those toiling at less reputable places are faring. Ms Dooley's proposed short-term remedy is to urge those staying here to leave good tips.
She then heads down to Rawai Beach and meets the Moken, better known as sea gypsies, whose small slice of land is under threat of being taken away for hotel development. The clash of modern property laws and ancient traditions couldn't be more clear. The Moken tell her how they were urged to put their fingerprints on papers that they couldn't read, with the promise of rice in return. Only later did they learn that they had signed away their rights to the land they had lived on for generations.
After stumbling through their crowded, concrete and corrugated tin dwellings and seeing old photos of their spacious thatch huts spread across the beach, she valiantly takes up their cause and helps them secure a meeting with the Prime Minister. The PM does not see them but sends an advisor to meet with Ms Dooley and the Moken village head, Khun Sanit.
One piece of evidence they will submit as proof of the Moken's land rights is a photo of HM the King visiting their village decades ago. After pressing the advisor to look into the case, Ms Dooley vows to keep calling back to check on its progress. Afterwards, she bids a tearful farewell to Khun Sanit.
Ms Dooley also checks out the famed Full Moon Party on Koh Phang-ngan, where images of young raving Europeans are juxtaposed with the fridge-cooled coffins where bodies are kept until they can be evacuated from the island (some 10 tourists a year die at the Full Moon parties, about 7-8 of them British, says a local rescue volunteer), and questions are asked about how the small local population can cope with the large monthly influx of tourists.
Throughout the film, the young Ms Dooley maintains a doe-eyed innocence, wonder and friendliness that is disarming to all who encounter her, and her emotional reactions to what she sees and hears add to the sense of heartbreak. Some will say that her approach is too one-sided - the bargain-hunting, insensitive tourists vs the unwitting, pure and simple hard-working locals - but overall a balanced view is presented and the documentary refreshingly avoids the usual shock-value images of the gyrating chrome-pole dancers and the leering, washed-up Western men.
It will be interesting to see how Phuket's tourism players react to the film, whether it will be viewed as a sober yet necessary look inside the industry or written off as yet another attempt by uninformed outsiders to discredit Thailand. There's nothing in this documentary that will necessarily scare off tourists - indeed, the people, the beaches and the lifestyle in Phuket are generally portrayed as enchantingly as any tourist travel show - but it will certainly make potential visitors more aware of the true value - and cost - of their holiday in paradise. Seems like a win-win for all.