Travel: He's sorry, I'm sorry, we're all sorry: Susanna Frayn is bemused by the chain of events set in motion by her mugging in Thailand

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The Independent Travel
HE IS the criminal and I am the victim, I reminded myself as we sat outside the courtroom, waiting for the case to begin. So why do I feel so guilty? Four days ago this man had mugged me outside a temple in Nong Khai, north-east Thailand. Sheltering from the midday sun, I had taken off my sweaty money belt and sat in the shade of a tree, with the leather wallet hooked over my shoulder and tucked firmly under my arm.

Minutes later a dark figure crept up behind me, ripped the money belt from my arm and fled on a moped. I pathetically ran after him shouting: 'Stop] Thief]'

I felt outraged and frustrated as my passport, money, travellers' cheques and credit card disappeared out of sight down the road.

How I had wept as I sat in the police station trying to give my version of events to a kindly Thai chief of police with limited English. When I had calmed down I rang Britain to cancel the stolen documents and make arrangements to pick up what could be replaced in Bangkok. I felt chastened by the experience, but thought the matter closed.

I had not reckoned on the super-sleuths of Nong Khai. Eight years ago, this town was notorious for its high crime rate. Tourists were too scared to visit the city - just across the Mekong River from Laos. A new governor decided to take a tough line to bring crime under control. Villagers claim that 20 of the worst offenders were caught, burnt alive and thrown into the Mekong. Not surprisingly, according to the police, I was the first tourist to be mugged in eight years.

The team of nine crack detectives went undercover and staked out all the local banks. Sure enough, the next day a young man turned up with a dollars 100 bill and tried to cash it. The first I knew of all this was when three excited detectives turned up at my guesthouse the day after I was mugged, brandishing pound notes and dollar bills. Did I recognise this money, they asked. I agreed it looked kind of familiar.

They eagerly led me out to their van. A young Thai man sat inside. As soon as he saw me he bowed his head, hands pressed together before him as if in prayer, and repeated over and again in Thai: 'Sorry, sorry, so sorry]'

'Do you recognise him?' they asked eagerly. But I had not seen my mugger's face as he crept up behind me, and by the time I had spun round to chase after him he was already disappearing in the opposite direction. None the less, the detectives insisted I go with them to the man's house, where they hoped I would be able to pick out more of my belongings.

I was forced to sit next to the penitent young man. How should I respond to this poor lad? Yesterday, in my fury, I had been muttering: 'If I ever lay hands on that man, I'll kill him.' Now I felt nothing but sympathy for this submissive youth, his eyes wide with fear, who bowed even deeper and begged even more pitifully every time I sneaked a look at him.

I was spared the ordeal of searching through his family's possessions after he volunteered to show the police himself. They returned shortly, with my money belt and everything that had been in it - less dollars 100 that he had somehow managed to keep.

We went together down to the station where we both made statements and signed lots of bits of paper. The detectives were immensely pleased with themselves. They explained the plan had been the brainchild of a team member they called 'Shurlok Olmes'.

Then it was time for the first set of photos. The recovered belongings were spread out on a table and the young man, head bowed, and now handcuffed, was made to stand next to them. Snap. Then it was my turn to stand next to the contents of my money belt. Snap. After that the detectives gathered, arms round each other, for the group shot, with me and the 'thief' in the middle. Snap.

Finally, we had to go and see the chief of police again. By now the young man - a 26-year-old out-of-work welder with a wife and two children to provide for - was in tears.

The following day I had to return to the station to make another statement. It was then that I learnt the police also felt sorry for this poor man. It was his first offence. He seemed unlikely to reoffend. But dropping charges was not an option. The police would proceed with the case anyway. They wanted to make an example of him, but they did not want him to suffer too much. The fact that he had used a moped made the crime far more serious than if he had simply been on foot - he could face 20 years in prison for such an offence. But if I changed my story and said he just ran away, he would face only a maximum of 10 years behind bars and a minimum of two. I agreed to do so.

After the lengthy procedure of the new statement, I assumed I would be free to leave. But it is customary in Thailand to take photographs to help the court visualise the crime. The young man and I were driven back to the scene where a police photographer snapped away as we re-enacted the event.

The translator persuaded me to turn up in court, saying that if I appealed for leniency they might give the young man only a six- month sentence.

So it was that I found myself sitting nervously outside the court in sweltering heat, feeling full of remorse for putting this young, unemployed family man through this terrible ordeal.

The 'mugger' sat next to me, head bowed in fear, still apologising, with his tearful wife and two small children next to him. After waiting around for hours, we were called by the court usher. We were ordered to take off our shoes and bow in respect as a young bespectacled judge appeared on the steps above us and read out the charges in Thai.

Within a matter of minutes it was over and the wife was wailing and the young man looking dejected. 'What's happened?' I asked the translator.

'He's got two years,' he explained. 'He's a lucky man - it could have been worse. He'll be out after a year if he's well-behaved.' The young man bid a tearful farewell to his family before being led away to the cells. I walked free, reminding myself over and over again: he is the criminal, I am the victim.