A Night with a Thai Mafia Don

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“This is not a police island.  This is a Mafia island.

The bartender’s eyes shift from side to side, sizing up the landscape.  I try to match his intensity as I take a sip from the bucket of Sang Som, Red Bull and Coke.

The bartender, an expat from another Southeast Asian country, has been living in Thailand for years.  In that time, he’s gleaned some wisdom:

“You are nice to Thai people, they are nice to you two times.  You F*CK with them, they F*CK you three times!”

It’s taking everything I have not to laugh, but the serious expression in the bartender’s eyes keeps any would-be giggles nestled in the back of my throat.

Thailand has two sets of laws, as the people who live here are well aware.  There are the actual laws, which are often ignored, and then there are the unwritten laws that must be followed at all times.

Sure, there are police on this island.  But every neighborhood has its own Mafia leader.  And those are the people who control everything. Soon, the bartender is telling us stories of police being “asleep” during emergencies, of dead victims and corruption.

Then he shifts gears.

“I will never run a business with a European again.  I got f*cked in the a**!”

The bartender leaves to tend to his other customers, leaving me and Matt in shocked incredulity.

He was in the bar with us last night,” Matt whispers.

“Who?”

“This neighborhood’s leader.  He was the shirtless guy.”

“The crazy drunk shirtless guy?!  No way was he the Mafia leader!”

“That was him.”

“If there’s anything I’ve learned from the movies, it’s do not get involved in the mob!” I whisper-shriek.

And yet the neighborhood’s Mafia leader chooses that moment to walk into the bar and sit down across from us.

The bar goes quiet. We’re spellbound.

The Mafia leader recognizes us from the night before and gives us a polite wai, bowing with his hands together.

Matt and I wai him back so quickly and deeply that we’re nearly on the floor, our palms pressed together in front of our faces.

I have images of Goodfellas running through my head, but they’re mixed with exhilaration — we’re in.  We’re just got a wai from the Mafia.  And if anything happens to us on this island, we’re protected.

That said, I couldn’t wait to get out of the bar.

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28 thoughts on “A Night with a Thai Mafia Don”

  1. Yikes! Talk about suspense.

    The Mafia is kind of scary no matter what country you’re in. The large city closest to my hometown used to be run by the mob. A mob boss bought the property next to us in the early 90s and built himself a mansion there. Then, when I was 5 or 6, he got shot and killed in his driveway. Good thing I was too young to realize how scary that was!

      1. Even more frightening? My dad (who was a city cop and knew all about Joe Naples) didn’t want us kids to be scared, so he referred to Joe as “Uncle joey” around us. I went around calling a mob boss “Uncle Joey” for a couple years!!

      1. I don’t know about the Asian Mafia, but will just say I am Sicilian, and have family members who held high ranks in the KKK. The thing to do is be respectable towards people.

  2. Not bad! People love using the word mafia in Thailand. There is the taxi mafia, tuk tuk mafia, even the maids have a mafia. It’s just used tounge in cheek. I think your friend was pulling your leg a little!

    1. I used to think that too, the “taxi mafia” is basically some kind of local professional organisation pushing the interests of its members and the “market mafia” simply just organises the markets… Until a week ago on the island where I live the market organizer was shot dead in the middle of the crowd by a head-hunter working for the taxi people… These outbursts of violence are thankfully not too common, but it is that picturesque approach to the resolution of business conflicts that suddenly reminds you why the mafia is called the mafia…
      As a foreigner though you should largely remain unaffected by the underbelly unless you really go out of your way to piss people off; traffic accidents and petty crime are by far the main items to watch out for.

  3. Well I have personal eat with the man and drunk with his family, and I’m a seasoned traveler, I’ve been very welcomed by the man him self me and my gf (farang) and I found the man a very nice person even when I did wake other people up and I was aloud the run of the place and when I was asked where I was staying I replied with the answer I was told many times (Thai mafia)

  4. Please!!!

    Your article is absolutely missleading. There is no Mafia in Thailand. After 10 years here i realized that Thais like to talk about it and call everybody with some influence or even just a “bad” guy Mafia.
    They also like to call themself Mafia without even knowing what that means.

    If anything close to organised crime excist then in Bangkok but sure not in Kho Lanta.

    Your comment you were greeted by the Mafia is ridiculous!

    1. There certainly are mafia in Thailand. It’s quite a deadly country with a murder rate 5x higher than the UK. Yes, they do like to talk and joke about it, but it is quite real. Thai people can sometimes have a different attitude to death. I have heard someone say “we die, but then we get born again (meaning reincarnated.)” and then laugh! Over about ten years in Thailand I went to three funerals where someone had been shot dead. Usually as a tourist, you would be in little danger though. Riding a motorbike is probably the most dangerous thing you’ll do!

  5. There is a difference between the rich leader of the village with land money and the power of (local) corruption, and a mafia don with millions of baht. There is no big deal here, but i undertstand that the word “mafia” (too easily used) can be intimidating.

  6. Like someone has said above, the Thai like to use the word mafia a lot, and not in the same way that we do.

    I’ve lived on Koh Lanta a while and believe I know who you’re talking about. He owns two bars and part owns another two. His little crew are known for dealing drugs and petty thefts. This is not even close to being the mafia, there is no mafia on Koh Lanta.

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