His fingers trembled as he lit another cigarette, the previous one still smouldering in the ashtray. His hands felt clammy and he was sweating despite the chill blast from the air-conditioning. There was a heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach. This was the most terrible thing he had done in his life, and the waiting was the hardest part."
This is the opening paragraph of a short story called "Rainfall", written in 2003 by Toby Charnaud, an English expat living in the upmarket beach resort of Hua Hin, Thailand. Charnaud recounts, with a sense of impending dread, the tale of a British man named Guy who plans to murder his Thai wife. Yet, this sobering parable is turned on its head, as the Thai wife has her husband killed instead.
Two years later, on 27 March 2005, Charnaud himself was murdered in horrific circumstances. The 41-year-old was lured into the house near Hua Hin that he had bought for his Thai ex-wife, Panadda Laoruang, to live in. There, after a home-made gun failed to kill him, three men hired by Laoruang beat him to death with a heavy object. His body was partially cremated in a fire pit, cut into small pieces and scattered around a nearby forest. Charnaud's parents, Jeremy and Sarah, were then forced to endure the insensitivity of a graceless British Embassy, the hiring of private detectives and countless DNA tests to fully ascertain, months later, that the meagre charred remains belonged to their son.
In the gruelling task of discovering the awful fate of their son, the Charnauds discovered a Thailand not seen in its tourist authorities' glossy brochures. Yet what also emerges from the death of Charnaud and many others is the fact that Thailand, despite its popularity with the British, is among the most dangerous places in the world for UK visitors – a fact that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has been reluctant to publicise.
Born and raised a farmer's son, Charnaud only ever seemed to have one destiny growing up. "We always thought he was going to be a farmer," says his father. We're sitting in the kitchen of a cosy country farmhouse in the tiny Wiltshire village of West Kington, where Charnaud and Som (Laoruang's Thai nickname) spent two happy years together.
Charnaud had an uneventful rural childhood, which he shared with two sisters, Martha and Hannah, and his Down's Syndrome brother, Matthew, and which included a stint at one of Britain's top private schools, Marlborough College. He then decided to attend The Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. "He met a great bunch of people there," says his mother. "It was one of the happiest periods of his life."
After graduation, Charnaud began a successful career as a land agent, moving around the UK and building a reputation. It was during this period that he was bitten by the travel bug. "Toby travelled to Australia, New Zealand and then took an overland trip to South Africa," says his father. The part of the world that really caught his attention was South-east Asia and, in particular, Thailand. "While he was working as a land agent he began to travel much more regularly," says his mother. "We knew at that point that he was beginning a particular fascination with Thailand."
It was on one of these trips that Charnaud met Laoruang. "Apparently she was working as a security guard in a department store," says his sister, Hannah. "They had some kind of brief contact but then Toby didn't see her for a number of years." While on a return trip Charnaud unexpectedly bumped into Laoruang and their romance blossomed. "Toby had moved back in with us to work on the farm," says his father. "We noticed he was corresponding with someone out there and that some intense feelings were developing."
In October 1997, Charnaud and Laoruang were married in a Buddhist ceremony in her home village in Isaan, Thailand's poor north-eastern region. Martha was the only UK family member there. "All of Som's relatives were incredibly welcoming," she says. "The village itself was idyllic – it seemed completely removed from Western consumer culture and I guess Toby believed that Som might not be so easily seduced by the trappings of that." One incident stood out for Martha when she visited Laoruang's family: "Som shimmied up a tree and chopped down a coconut for us. Toby was very impressed by this – he just seemed completely smitten."
Shortly after the wedding, Laoruang and Charnaud moved back to Britain and into the cottage in West Kington. "I got on very well with Som," says Martha. "She was warm, friendly and funny. We used to have little girly chats about things – of course I never suspected anything. I mean, why would I be looking?" Charnaud's wife seemed to take to English village life, finding a job at a local horticultural nursery and becoming part of the family. "Som was a loving wife, made friends with local people and was well suited to life in West Kington," says his father. "I thought she was great company."
In 1999, with UK farming on a downturn, Charnaud and his wife made the decision to return to Thailand. "She never pressured him to go back," says his father. "He was genuinely very keen on the idea." In early 2000, the pair, by now settled in Hua Hin, had a son, Daniel. With the arrival of a beautiful baby boy, a wife he loved and a burgeoning business in one of Thailand's premier resort towns, life looked almost too good to be true.
It was at this point that things started to go wrong. "When Toby moved [to Britain] with Som we'd welcomed her into our family," says his father. "She always seemed like such a sweet, almost naive, Thai girl," adds Hannah. "But Som managed to pull the wool over everyone's eyes."
In fact, the marriage was not just the coming together of two people, but of two very different cultures. For Westerners living in Thailand, it is often hard to decipher the country's subtle and highly complex social and cultural codes. As is common in other Asian cultures, Thais tend to separate the persona they present to the world from their interior character. Maintaining jai yen (a "cool heart") in all situations is viewed as the correct way to conduct oneself. To reveal jai rawn (a "hot heart") – by showing anger, being direct or engaging in verbal confrontation – is to risk causing yourself and others to "lose face", and is regarded as a serious breach of social protocol.
The result, for Laoruang, was that when she got into difficulties, she tried her best to prevent her husband from finding out about them. "I received a letter from Som in 2001 that said she had got into trouble and needed £5,000 to pay a bribe," says Martha. "She also begged me not to mention the matter to Toby." By all accounts, Laoruang now began to run up some serious gambling debts. She appeared to begin an affair with a local policeman and became involved in shady gold deals. With a wealthy foreign husband, it is also possible that Laoruang could have become a target for local hustlers.
By 2004, her debts were sucking the business dry and her extramarital affairs were destroying her relationship with Charnaud, who soon divorced her. He gained custody of Daniel, set up a generous divorce settlement that included a one-off sum, monthly allowance and payment of Laoruang's rent, and then cut her off from access to the business. "From what happened to Toby you might think he was quite naive," says Martha. "But he was quite an astute person. He'd really sussed out the Thai way of doing things."
Yet, the following year, Charnaud was dead. His fate at the hands of his ex-wife provides a tragic glimpse of an altogether darker aspect of the so-called "Land of Smiles". Thailand has one of the world's highest per-capita murder rates – when the UN last counted it in 2000, it stood at 5,140 per year, though the annual total is now speculated to be more than 6,000. In the years 2003 to 2006, 17 of these victims were UK nationals, according to the FCO. These murders include a sexually motivated killing of a young British woman; a Thai police officer executing two backpackers in a crowded street; shootings, throat cuttings and two cases of other Westerners murdering UK nationals; and, more pertinently, several cases of Thai wives or their family members slaying British husbands.
On average, about 50 civilian UK nationals are murdered around the world each year (excluding terrorist attacks). This means that almost 10 per cent of all murders of Britons abroad are committed in Thailand – a chilling figure, given that Thailand comprises only 0.6 per cent of all foreign travel from UK shores.
The murder rate is perhaps surprising; of the 420,000 annual British travellers to Thailand, a tiny percentage are the victims of crime. The Thais are friendly and engaging hosts and, with their famous beaches, handsome resorts and low prices bringing in millions of tourists, it is easy to understand why we have fallen in love with the country, and currently comprise its highest proportion of Western visitors.
Yet its dark side is quite visible. Hua Hin, where Charnaud lived and worked, is one of Thailand's most relaxed resorts, located 150 miles south of Bangkok. Long a getaway for Thai royalty, who have attracted a whole section of the Thai elite in their wake, it has a smattering of seedy bars, but the town is a picture of innocence compared with Pattaya, 150 miles north across the Gulf of Thailand. It is here that the country's less-welcome foreign visitors encounter the darker, more dangerous reaches of Thai culture; it is here that Thailand's huge sex industry has its epicentre.
While there is no suggestion that Charnaud was in any way involved in this world – "Toby could never be called a sex tourist," says Hannah, "I can't imagine he went to one strip club the whole time he was in Thailand, it just wasn't his style" – Pattaya is worth including in his story for a fuller picture of the society in which he lived and died; it is believed by some that more British citizens meet a violent end here than anywhere else in Thailand.
On any given day, tens of thousands of prostitutes can be seen working the brothels, bars, streets, hotel lobbies, beach fronts and even shopping malls of this gaudy city. Pattaya is also the focus for high levels of criminal activity involving international gangs from Russia, Germany, the UK and China. The number of deaths of British nationals' in Pattaya is hard to ascertain – though some sources claim that it is up to four every week, neither the FCO nor the Thai authorities have any data they are prepared to release. However, what can be speculated with some confidence is that of the 226 average annual deaths of British citizens in Thailand recorded by the FCO, a large percentage are in Pattaya. (The FCO refuse to list causes of deaths, so we must also speculate as to the reasons for this morbid hotspot. Anecdotal evidence suggests straightforward causes of death for some, such as road accidents and health problems; then there are the suspicious-sounding "suicides" – jumping from balconies seems to be a favoured method.)
At present FCO information regarding deaths in Thailand is limited. Andy Pearce, the deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Bangkok, admits that the murder rate of Britons resident in Thailand is about the same as the domestic Thai rate – roughly five times higher than in the UK – but adds that this is only an estimate. (There are thought to be about 50,000 British resident in the country at present.) "To create the kind of advice needed on murder rates would require a greater statistical base and more research," he says.
In early 2006, just after the brutal rape and murder of the young British backpacker Katherine Horton on a deserted Koh Samui beach, and following an 18-month period in which nine Britons were murdered, the FCO had a revealing internal debate about what safety advice they should give to British nationals travelling to Thailand, as an email obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act testifies: "The trouble with [giving advice about the murder rate]... is that it would effectively highlight the number of murders over the past year or more here, which in the current circumstances could have a disproportionate impact on Thailand's reputation and legitimate commercial interests."
No amount of number-crunching by the officials at the British Embassy could have saved Charnaud. While his end was brutal, the reasons for it were never genuinely clear. "The only thing we know is that she killed him for financial reasons," says Hannah. "Som [who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder, along with three accomplices in a Thai courtroom in September 2006] thought she could get Toby's money through their son, Daniel. But she was never going to get a penny." "It has been an horrific time for us all," adds Martha, "but the family hasn't fallen apart." (Daniel is now living happily in the UK with family members.)
Yet Charnaud's family believe British officials in Thailand could have done a lot more to assist them, something that led to their local MP, James Gray, asking questions in Parliament in 2006. "In direct contrast to the Thais, who handled the whole thing very well, at every step our embassy was insensitive, ineffective and incompetent," says Hannah. "When Toby's remains were found they sent us a short email, complete with graphic details. This was done after they had spoken to the press. They offered help with DNA testing and then made that extremely difficult."
At one point, when Charnaud's remains had been released by the Thai police, and with all his family back in the UK, the embassy contacted his family and offered to have the body cremated. "I said, 'What? Do the cremation with no one there?' and they said 'Yes,'" says Hannah. "I was staggered. It seemed like they were just eager to shut the case down."
In 2006, a ceremony of remembrance was held for Charnaud in Hua Hin, his ashes scattered in the shimmering waters of the Gulf of Thailand. "It was one of the hardest days of my life," says Hannah. For future sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers of Britons murdered in Thailand, it seems that more hard days are going to follow.
"Guy forced himself to look up. His eyes widened with shock as he saw the gun pointing at him. He didn't understand, couldn't take in what he saw. His last thought, bizarrely, was that the silencer was as big as the gun. The girl slipped into the room. She was tiny with large brown eyes. She looked at Guy's body on the floor, then at the Thai man slipping the gun back into the waistband of his jeans. The expression on her face was of regret, sorrow and bewilderment. It passed quickly..." "Rainfall" by Toby Charnaud, 1964-2005.
Andrew Spooner is the author of Footprint Handbooks' guide to Thailand (£14.99)