Travelfish #404: Don’t like our hotel? Be careful what you say

How to involuntarily prolong your stay in Thailand

Hi everyone,

This week, I’m all about a legal case in Thailand that broke over the weekend. A guest is facing two years in jail over writing their thoughts of a Thai resort on TripAdvisor.

In case you missed the news, our redesign is done—please take a look and, while you are at it, give our opening feature, by Julia Winterflood, a read. Our next feature—titled “Ko Pha Ngan then and now”, by Tom Vater, is out on October 1. All these long reads have been funded through our crowdfunding. Thank you!

Have a coffee before you file that police report. Phnom Penh. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Talking about the crowdfunding, it has just two weeks left to run, so if you’ve loose change, please keep it in mind. You can follow our progress (and make a donation!) here.

Last week on pay to read Couchfish, I had my fortune told by a parakeet, then took a boat ride to a temple, and mused on Oedipus—all in Cambodia’s Kompong Cham. Later, in Phnom Penh, I did a food walk.

On free to read Couchfish, I first wrote a love letter to Phnom Penh (this was supposed to be for the paid list only, but I accidentally sent it to everyone!), and then I had a long piece on why doing a food walk can make your tip all the better. Both have proved to be very popular, so I hope you enjoy them.

As always, the photos in this newsletter are from last week on Couchfish.

Over on Thai Island Times, David had his regular Thai island wrap and then took a look at Ko Kradan—one of Thailand’s quirkier islands.

Cheers and again thank you for all your support


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This week in insanity

Over the weekend I read a series of tweets by journalist Andrew Marshall concerning a story about the arrest of a past guest at an up–market hotel in Thailand. The guest faces up to two years in jail. His crime? He wrote at first one, then a series of negative reviews, under multiple names, about the hotel, on both TripAdvisor and Google.

“The hotel did what?” Kompong Cham, Cambodia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

He was picked at his Bangkok workplace, then moved to Ko Chang (or Trat, accounts vary), and booked. Not being able to post 100,000 baht in bail, he went into lockup. It is not clear to me in what parallel universe having a guest arrested and jailed for a negative review is considered sound hospitality.

There is more to this story of course, much boils down to “he said she said” and fake reviews. The most important aspect though, is Thailand’s deranged defamation law.

I’m not naming the resort nor the reviewer. Nor am I linking to any of the material concerned. DuckDuckGo is your friend in this regard.

A deranged defamation law

Section 326 of the Criminal Code is the centrepiece. In it, criminal defamation carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail, a fine of up to 20,000 baht or both. If the defamation was “by means of publication” then you need to read further. Section 328 increases the penalty to up to two years’ jail and a fine of up to 200,000 baht.

Think calming thoughts. Kompong Cham. Photo: Nicky Sullivan.

The definition of “means of publication” is, well, as broad as a beach on an unnamed Thai island.

“A document, drawing, painting, cinematography film, picture or letters made visible by any means, gramophone record or another recording instruments, recording picture or letters, or by broadcasting or spreading picture, or by propagation by any other means”

One would assume TripAdvisor reviews fall under this rather large umbrella. This law is a favourite tool of big business in Thailand to intimidate and silence critics. In some cases for as little as a single tweet. At one stage in a long–running case, labour activist Andy Hall, hounded by a pineapple company, faced four years in jail.

Please keep these laws in mind as you prepare to diss a hotel over your take on their labour practises—or pad thai.

There has to be another way

In the case above, some of the reviews submitted were undeniably fake. What made them fake was the different names the same person used. The substance of the single review publicly online at the time the threat was made to report the matter to the police, is up for debate. Yes, at the time the hotel threatened passing this matter to the authorities, the only publicly accessible material was a single 52 word review.

The latter Google reviews, of which there were two noted by the hotel in their press release, alleged variations on the same central beef—that the reviewer had formed a poor opinion of the staff and management as a result of interactions with them during their one night stay at the hotel.

Stormy skies ahead. Phnom Penh. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

According to the reviewer, TripAdvisor refused to publish some of the reviews. The first, and most incendiary, TripAdvisor removed a week after posting (according to the hotel—the guest insists it was never published). I could not find it online on TripAdvisor while writing this piece.

I say incendiary because it levelled a certain labour–related charge that many Thai businesses are incredibly sensitive to—and not without reason. This review, and its allegations, only came to light post–arrest, revealed by the hotel, in of all things, their own press release.

So just pause and think about this for a moment. The following is a rough time line, mostly supplied by the hotel:

  1. Guest posts a negative review on TripAdvisor on June 29

  2. Guest posts a second negative review on TripAdvisor on July 3

  3. Some time in early July TripAdvisor removes the first review

  4. On July 21 the hotel emails the guest, threatening legal action over the remaining, less incendiary review. This email is not in the hotel press release, but was supplied to Andrew Marshall, (by the guest I assume), who then published it on Twitter.

  5. Sometime in August, the guest posts two more short, negative reviews on Google

  6. On September 12, some time after the hotel files a police report, the guest is booked and jailed until they can make bail

  7. On September 26 AFP pick up story and it bleeds all over Twitter and Facebook

  8. The primary review, posted on June 29, remains offline

  9. On September 26 the hotel releases a screenshot of the June 29 review in, of all things, their own press release

The hotel becomes the public face of Thailand’s insane defamation laws—and for what? Primarily, a nasty review that was online for a week, but is now everywhere thanks to a hotel press release.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I can’t help but think there was another way.

What you can’t (or shouldn’t) say

I’m no lawyer, so my opinion on what qualifies as defamation is irrelevant. What is relevant is Thailand’s take on defamation. It is so broad that almost anything could qualify. Writes Human Rights Watch:

“Charges of criminal defamation and “disseminating false information” have been wielded against individuals criticizing the performance of the junta or making allegations of corruption, while private companies have emulated the authorities and aggressively used criminal defamation laws against workers and human rights defenders seeking to raise awareness of labor violations or other abuses by private industry.”

So now you have to ask yourself, is writing a review saying “the owner of Hotel X is an idiot because he picked a bad colour for our room” sullying the reputation of another? Under Thai law, possibly. I should note, none of the reviews in question commented on the resort’s colour scheme.

Time to go to jail

After the first two reviews on TripAdvisor (and remember, by this stage TripAdvisor had already removed the first one), the resort emailed the guest. In it they threatened legal action for defamation and slander. To make the problem go away, they demanded the reviewer remove the remaining 52 word review and to undertake not to do anything that may affect the hotel in the future. The reviewer ignored the email at the time. In correspondence with popular Thailand blogger Richard Barrow after his arrest, the guest said he thought the email was an “empty threat”. It is now clear it was anything but.

“I could go to jail for writing a review?” Wat Maha Leap, Kompong Cham. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The resort in question has almost 1,000 reviews on TripAdvisor, of which around 30 are 1–star. My first thought was: Were other similar letters sent to 1–star reviewing customers?

Apart from the resort, the only other party who knows the answer to this is TripAdvisor.

The buck stops with anyone except TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor sort of takes some responsibility for what they publish. Not all reviews see the light of day. Others, like some of the duplicate, obvious fake reviews in this case, sometimes get let through. Why?

“This is why I am not on TripAdvisor” Phnom Penh. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

TripAdvisor has plenty of form for nixing negative reviews. Why? Their business model. They rely on people clicking on ads and booking hotels. I’m sure there is an element of protecting a property’s reputation against abuse at work as well. That said, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest the interests of hotels is secondary to the need to keep TripAdvisor’s wheels turning.

Why didn’t the resort unleash the legal hounds in TripAdvisor’s direction? They published them after all.

Writes TripAdvisorWatch:

“Tripadvisor takes an ‘interesting’ position concerning the reviews it publishes. It says on its website that it is not responsible for the content of reviews and that it does not verify their content. Yet it also claims ownership of that same content. A case of having your cake and eating it, if ever there was one.”

TripAdvisor seems to allow resorts to reply to reviews, though not always I’m told. Most of the 30–odd negative reviews still online for the property in question include lengthy responses from the resort. There is a common thread through many of these bad reviews (which span over a year). At a glance they do not look like an organised vendetta. Rather, as with the reviewer in question, a small subset of guests have had clear issues with the staff, management, or both.

How small a subset I wonder.

Fake good is good, fake bad is worse

I don’t think I’m alone in thinking fake reviews are a problem. Businesses sweat negative reviews, but a fake 5–star review is as much a disservice to a guest as a fake 1–star review is to a hotel.

Praying for more 5–star reviews. Phnom Penh. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

While I read TripAdvisor reviews infrequently, I often read the bad ones. As a potential guest, bad reviews can be as useful as good ones. Which brings me to my next point, fake good reviews.

You’ve all read gushing positive reviews. Says Search Engine Land, quoting TripAdvisor on the fake review problem they face:

“The company uses a mix of machine detection, human moderation and community flagging to catch fraudulent reviews. The bulk of inauthentic reviews (91%) are fake positive reviews TripAdvisor says.”

As with negative reviews, these positive reviews are often by reviewers with no other, or few, reviews. The beach is “the best in the world”, “the food was better than my Mum’s”, “the staff were awesome and gave me a free upgrade”. That last one I’m sure was not in return for writing a positive 5–star review on TripAdvisor...

Hotels don’t complain much about this kind of thing. TripAdvisor bans the offering of inducements for reviews, but the practise is commonplace. The coffee shop that offers a free second latte for a review, or the hotel that offers a free upgrade. I see this kind of thing all the time.

Hotels whine that fake negative reviews harm their business. Don’t fake positive reviews harm their guests? Is not making a property sound better than it is, an equal disservice to a potential guest?

So much change is needed

So, there are a few things that need to happen here.

Before anything else, I’m not alone in suggesting Thailand’s lunatic defamation laws need reform. Hotel reviews are a trivial example of the chilling effect of these laws. Critics have been silenced and/or jailed over far more serious matters. If a guest has a bad experience, they should not face prison for submitting their opinion in a review. I’m sure for the reviewer in question, this matter does not feel at all trivial.

A 5–star review just for the smile. Phnom Penh. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

TripAdvisor should reveal how many (if any) negative reviews were removed by reviewers for this specific property. I’d love to know if this legal threat thing has been the normal flow of business for them. If it emerges that it has been, de–list the property. Forever.

I should note, people being sued over their TripAdvisor reviews, is not a new thing. What makes the case in Thailand different, and all the more intimidating, is it is a criminal rather than civil case—the reviewer is facing jail time.

Given the risks to reviewers, TripAdvisor must add a warning note to the review process, immediately. It should be there, flashing in red for all to see:

“If this review does not sufficiently satisfy the property, you may face up to two years in jail and/or a 200,000 baht fine. And don’t expect TripAdvisor to pick up the tab for your legal fees.”

This may sound like hyperbole, but it is far from it. If this case proceeds and the reviewer is jailed, this is exactly the precedent the case will set. Any country with similar idiotic defamation laws, demands the same treatment by TripAdvisor.

For a country trying to recover from the carnage of Covid19, I’m sure hotels will be delighted to have the above warning on all their pages. Not.

Smart hoteliers I know, understand that real negative reviews are an unavoidable part of the business. Nowhere is perfect. Even the most unhinged can be a learning experience—even if all you learn, is that the reviewer is an idiot. If you’re getting consistent negative reviews about staff or the owner’s attitude, then act on them. Take off the denial cap and address the problem. Fake reviews? That is TripAdvisor’s problem to fix—it is not the responsibility of the local police.

The sun needs to set on these laws. Phnom Penh. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

TripAdvisor needs a better means of handling new contributors. One that surfaces the moderate rather than the extreme love and hate—that is after all, what Facebook is for. Perhaps they could require that one needs to have submitted ten reviews before they can select 5–stars—or 1–star for their review. I’d argue that one who has posted ten reviews has better experience to be able to accurately reward (or not) with a 5–star or 1–star review.

TripAdvisor also needs better systematic ways of protecting hotels against engineered vendettas. In this case, the duplicate reviews posted after the initial one were clearly fake—at the quickest of glances. TripAdvisor does turn off new reviews when there is a deluge of suspicious positive or negative reviews. See this hysterical case for an example. Reviews have been turned off in this case, though by the time they were, the guest had already been arrested.

A thought for those running hotels—if you’re considering filing legal papers that could result in the jailing of a guest over a review, I have this to say. Close the laptop, step outside, and take a breath.

If, after doing that, you still want to hit send, you should not be within a mile of the hospitality business. Clearly the reviewer was onto something when they wrote about the management.

Lastly, the hotel in question should drop, immediately, the case against their guest. Perhaps even send them a bottle of gin as an olive branch.

Happy reviewing!


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Ten things worth reading

Rat that sniffs out land mines receives award for bravery

“Magawa, the most successful rat to have taken part in the program, was trained to detect TNT, the chemical compound within explosives. The ability to sniff out TNT makes him much faster than any person in searching for land mines, as he can ignore scrap metal that would usually be picked up by a metal detector.”

Palm oil labor abuses linked to world’s top brands, banks

A must read.

Seaweed tides over Bali islanders after tourism slump

“But with the global tourism industry paralysed by the coronavirus pandemic and 13 million tourism workers now unemployed in Indonesia, seaweed farming in the Penida Archipelago is back in vogue. “When COVID-19 hit, the locals reverted immediately back to it,” Senyk said.”

Expectations of a “Thai girl”: Obedience, submission and not-too-much ambition

“I’m not writing this because I’m a feminist. I’m writing this to say that for us to move forward, we need to start having new conversations. We need to start pushing kids to break out of their bubble and do what they love, teaching them to prioritize themselves and to know what self-worth and self-love are.”

Burying his anguish: Indonesian gravedigger lays to rest dozens of Covid-19 victims each day

“A strong sense of duty towards treating the dead with dignity is the reason he continues doing his job, even if it means having to don protective suits and stuffy masks, rain or shine.”

How did Vietnam bring the spread of coronavirus to a halt—again?

“The Government used a range of creative means to communicate messaging about symptoms, prevention and testing sites, including via state media outlets, social media, text messages, and famously—a viral song about the importance of handwashing.”

Land to lose: coronavirus compounds debt crisis in Cambodia

“Borrowers who are unable to make repayments often double down on MFI loans, or turn to unregulated loan sharks who fly under the radar and offer instant cash at rates as high as 50%.”

While school is out in Cambodia, students help each other learn

“The Areak Svay library recorded more than 500 book borrowings in August 2020, up from only 100 when the library first opened in May. But according to librarian Khat Da, some children stopped coming after they finished reading all the books that were available. The libraries are therefore considering rotating books between different locations.” Learn more about donating books here.

Thailand under pressure to act against the Sanakham dam project

“The lack of press freedom and civil society in Laos has put Thailand’s activists in a unique position to speak out against the construction of the $2 billion Sanakham dam.”

Singer defends nationalist music as second rapper, 17, arrested

“The latest arrest comes as at least 10 youth activists have been arrested since August, most of them for protesting in support of jailed unionist Rong Chhun. Chhun was arrested in late July for saying in a radio interview that Cambodia was ceding land to Vietnam along the border in Tbong Khmum province.”

Something to read

The Face: Strangers on a Pier

Tash Aw’s lovely personal essay Strangers on a Pier examines the rich diversity of a slice of modern Asia through his own family’s immigration and educational experience.

Photo of the week

Calm down and eat. Phnom Penh. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Thank you!

Thanks from reading the Travelfish newsletter. Please feel free to forward it to all and sundry and your feedback, as always, is much appreciated.

Travel light!

Stuart & the Travelfish team

Update: September 28, 9pm

Sorry I have turned comments off on this post as the last thing I want is the allegations the reviewer made being reposted here. Sorry. I do answer emails, or you can find me on Twitter at @travelfish. Cheers & apols.