To Gamble or Not to Gamble When in Thailand?

Thailand is one of Asia’s top tourist destinations because of its pristine beaches, breath-taking and world-renowned temples. Its one-of-a-kind nightlife also offers a different adventure for wanderers and out-of-the-box thrill seekers. From the Grand Palace to the White Temple in Chiang Rai, make sure you have at least two weeks to embrace the beauty of the city of smiles.

While there is a long to-do list when in Thailand, every prudent tourist should also be equally aware of what not to do, what is disrespectful and offensive to Thailand and its people.

Thailand is a Buddhist country. Monks are regarded as spiritual guides and interventionists, they are not tourist attractions and cultural icons. They must be regarded with utmost respect and reverence. Also, take not of various local regulations on taking pictures of Buddha or having your photo taken with Buddha in the background. This therefore begs the question– is gambling therefore illegal in Thailand?


Largely Illegal and Underground

Gambling is largely illegal. Only two forms of gambling are allowed– state-sanctioned lottery and horse-racing. This is according to the law drafted in 1935. Despite this, gambling thrives underground in a supposed Buddhist country that regards gambling including online casino  as a “road to ruin” and “life full of suffering.” Still, data shows that 70% of the population has participated in or are active bettors and gamblers.

The government lottery is drawn every 1st and 16th of each month and is broadcasted on national television and radio stations. A local agency facilitates the bi-monthly draw. The government sells around 40 million tickets, 28% of sales goes straight to the national treasury, 12% is earmarked to management and operations while the remaining 60% is reserved to the lucky winners of the lottery. Each ticket is sold in two, at B80. Lottery tickets are cheap and accessible, they are sold in street markets, villages, etc.

Despite its accessibility, the national lottery fails to compete with its illegal counterpart “ban nok lottery.” The game is still based on the number drawn from the national lottery, but its popularity is due to the bigger chances of winning, with bigger payouts. For instance, if you get the last two digits exactly in the correct order, you can get B1,000 for every B12 wagered. If you get the last three digits precisely, you get B500 for every 1B wagered. If you get the last three digits in any order, you can get B90 for every B1 wagered.

Authorities are not completely oblivious to the operations of underground and illegal lottery games. In fact they recognize that they cannot compete with them precisely because of their low pay out.

At one time, increasing the payout for lotteries have been laid on the table. However due to opposition that increasing payouts would entice more bettors and incite addictiveness, this proposal was abandoned. But, this doesn’t mean that the Thais have also abandoned the arena, in fact more Thais are drawn to illegal gambling in clandestine rooms with their hands sweaty from game-induced adrenaline coupled with the fear of being caught by the local police.

In a gambling participation study conducted by the Research Centre for Social and Business Development in 2019, 57% percent of the population was said to have “engaged in some form of gambling.” In real figures, this means a 1.5 million increase in gamblers relative to the same study conducted in 2017.

Disaggregated according to demographics, the survey revealed that almost a majority of gamblers were seniors or age 60 and above or 42.2%, followed by aged 19-25 at 36.3%. Around 2.4% of Thais aged 15-18 have admitted that they have also participated in some form of gambling.

Among gamblers, football betting seems to be a crowd favorite. In fact in 2018, Thailand’s Metropolitan Police Bureau have arrested 722 suspects in 667 offline betting cases and another 763 for launching online gambling during the Football World Cup. Underground illegal lottery has the second most turnover while the government sanctioned lottery comes in third place.


Crackdown on Illegal Gambling

The steady rise in gambling participation has embolden authorities to intensify their iron-clad operations against the unlawful act.

In September, Thai authorities were on a roll in the crackdown against illegal gambling, even braving social media Facebook and Twitter in the hunt against violators in the highly-elusive arena of online betting.

Combined forces of Territorial Defense Volunteers and Phuket local police apprehended 14 people, men and women who were caught in the act of card game gambling in Phuket. Operatives seized B1400 in cash and two sets of cards. The gamblers were said to have been taken to the local police station where they were charged with illegal gambling and illegal gathering.

More recently, Thai authorities have been making headlines for targeting Facebook and Twitter for failing to take down accounts that have been linked with illegal activities such as gambling, pornography, slandering the monarchy, among others. The media giants were said to have violated the country’s Computer Crime Act and Gambling Act.

According to local news reports, Facebook failed to block 446 accounts while 65 accounts guilty of illicit activities are still active on Twitter. In assertion of the country’s “sovereign rights” police authorities charged the media outlets fines of up to USD 6,300 equivalent to B200,000 and additional B5,000 for every single day that they fail to block illegal accounts.

Whether or not authorities can hold these giants into account is an unfolding story. As of writing, both Facebook and Twitter have not yet released their respective statements.

Another legal impediment to the crackdown against gambling is neighboring country, Cambodia. In Cambodia gambling is legal. As there are no casinos in Thailand, several land-based casinos can be accessed by Thai players in Cambodia near border crossings. The most popular gambling destination is the Aranyaprathet District accessible through a 3-hour ride from Bangkok.

The recent approval of the Cambodian parliament of the much-awaited gambling bill aimed at strengthening management of the industry will entice more commercial gambling investments that will populate gambling zones in addition to the 193 licensed casinos in the country. Cambodia has benefitted from a USD1B investment from China that has transformed the former sleepy coastal town of Sihanoukville into a busting neon lighted city home to some 50 Chinese-owned casinos and high-end resorts.

We have yet to see how this recent development will lure in more Thai gamblers, but one thing remains certain, online casinos will continue to proliferate in Thailand.

The proliferation of online casinos is owed to the fact that there are loopholes in existing laws that make the industry so elusive and therefore, thriving. The most that authorities have done so far is to sanction internet service providers (ISPs) for allowing operations of accounts that are alleged in gambling activities.

If you are a foreigner who wants to venture in online betting, proceed at your own risk. While Thai locals can place their bets in online casinos with international licenses, foreigners can also follow suit, BUT once discovered by authorities they will have to pay fines and may spend time in jail. You wouldn’t want to be an in National Geographic’s “Locked Up Abroad” series, would you?


Prospects of legalization:

Recently, Parliament leader Mngkolkit Suksintharanon from the Civilised Party proposed a bill that aims to regulate online gambling activities operating in the country. According to his proposed legislation, this would generate revenues for the country suffering in an economic slump due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to him, the government stands to benefit around B5 billion to B6 billion (between $157.6 million and $189.1 million) in annual tax collections from online betting companies. (5 ways to benefit from playing casino)

The regulations,  should it appeal to the members of the parliament, could draw in more tourists especially from mainland China and help revive the industry and the economy.  Tourism accounts for 18.4% of the GDP of Thailand.

Another game changer would be the continuing political unrest in Thailand owing to the incessant desire of the civilian population for political reforms. In August, Thais swarmed the streets of Bangkok clamoring for political reforms. The resistance has placed Thailand’s unstable monarchy in question and at the same time echoed the calls to subject military power to civilian authority through elections.

If these developments gain ground, the prospects of legalizing gambling can also gain momentum. But that is easier said than done. It is up to the Thai people to decide on the future for themselves, and that includes the future of legal gambling in their country.




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