31/07/2013 11:01 BST | Updated 25/09/2013 06:12 BST

Travel Payola


The first time I came to Thailand was in 1970. Bangkok airport was a collection of Nissen huts which on the day I arrived were without air-conditioning.

The immigration hall was dirty, teeming, disorganized and steaming. I scooped some sweat off my forehead. On the wall next to the immigration officer's desk a thermometer touched ninety-three.

"How long you want to stay?"

The immigration officer scratched his head and studied my visa.

I'd been told I didn't need a visa if I was coming for just a few days, but some friends who knew Thailand well said I'd be better off getting one, so I had.

" This visa not so good," he told me. "Why you didn't get better one?"

It seemed a strange question, difficult to answer.

"It was the one they gave me at your embassy."


"No. I just want to see a little of your country."

"Better you give me five dollar."

"I haven't got any cash," I lied.

He didn't seem to care at all - just stamped my passport and handed it back with a smile. I couldn't work it out. That an immigration officer should ask for a bribe surprised me. That he should give up on it so easily and smile instead surprised me even more.

It happened again at customs. Sweating profusely, my jacket slung over my shoulder, I headed across to where the baggage was stacked on a trolley. Mine was about three down in the pile and when I pulled it out all the other bags fell off the trolley with a crash. A customs officer who'd been waiting at a counter in the corner strolled across to see what I was up to. He looked scathingly at the mess I'd made.

"I was trying to get to my bag out from underneath," I explained lamely.

"Have you anything to declare?"


"Maybe you want to pay Non-Declaration tax," he suggested.

"How much?"

He smiled. "Up to you."

That was 1968, and at the airport things are different now. In thirty years I've never again encountered bribery at immigration, though in a way I didn't on that occasion either. It wasn't extortion, nor even a demand, just a suggestion, and there appeared to be no downside to ignoring it. Nevertheless it was the perfect introduction to a country where giving and taking small bribes is a normal part of everyday life.

The insidious thing about bribery in Thailand is that it's easy, efficient, not very expensive, and done with politeness on both sides. And it exists everywhere. Every conversation with a policeman in Thailand ends with a small payment - a hundred baht maybe - just to leave things 'feeling nice'.

Once, enquiring after a residence visa, I was required to have a short interview with a lady at the immigration office. I already knew the scale of charges involved but somehow it cost five hundred baht more than I'd expected.

"To help us have nice meeting," she explained cheerfully.

And we did. It was most pleasant.

Renewing an annual visa will require a letter from your bank stating you have one million baht in your account. If by chance you don't, it's not unsual for someone at the immigration office to let you know that in exchange for a good-sized tip, it could be deposited in your bank while your visa is issued.

My advice would be to turn it down flat. When dealing with state officials, there's always a downside - they have a record of it. But for millions of Thais these things are a normal part of every day life. A little money placed in the correct hand will get your car delivered quicker, your operation done sooner, your package passed through customs unchecked or your fine for any number of driving offences waived. At the very top end of the scale it might even get you off a murder charge.

In the west this sort of thing is called corruption. Thais see it more as a buffer to life's downsides. Bribery is the poor man's insurance, and in the end most Thais feel comfortable with it.

However much people in the West disapprove, most Thais feel it gives them more personal freedom than they would otherwise have.

Simon Napier-Bell's new book 'TA-RA-RA-BOOM-DE-AY' is a complete history of the music business. Publication is paid by sale of advance copies at Unbound Books.