What killed seven people in Chiang Mai, Thailand?
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What killed seven people in Chiang Mai, Thailand?

By Dan Waites

Are the sudden deaths of several tourists within weeks of each other in Thailand’s northern capital of Chiang Mai “just a coincidence”? That’s what Chiang Mai governor Pannada Disakul told a press conference earlier this month.

Unfortunately for Pannada, that explanation has not satisfied the parents of New Zealand backpacker Sarah Carter, who died aged 23 in a local hospital on February 6, three days after being taken convulsing and vomiting from the city’s Downtown Inn. Neither has it satisfied Briton Stephen Everett, whose elderly parents George and Eileen died simultaneously in a room at the same hotel two weeks later. And neither was it enough for American Tony Pandola, whose wife Soraya died aged 33 in the city on January 11 with symptoms he claims were very similar to those of Sarah Carter.

Rightly or wrongly, the four deaths are among seven being linked together in media reports – much to the Thai authorities’ dismay. The shrouded body of Thai tour guide Waraporn Pungmahisiranon, 47, was seen by a guest being furtively removed from the Downtown Inn on the same day Sarah Carter was taken ill. Canadian Bill Mah, 59, died on January 26 after using the swimming pool of – you guessed it – the Downtown Inn. And an unnamed French woman also reportedly died around the same time in similar circumstances.

As Bangkok-based journalist Andrew Drummond has pointed out, Chiang Mai has “public relations problems”. (For thorough coverage of the deaths, see his website). The Thai authorities’ failure to provide convincing explanations for the deaths has frustrated bereaved relatives – and fuelled speculation. The New Zealand Herald:

Miss Carter’s father Richard Carter, from the southeast Auckland suburb of Howick, said today he didn’t agree with claims by the hotel’s acting manager Vinai Julsiri that the deaths were a coincidence.

“I think the circumstances indicate that it’s beyond coincidence,” Mr Carter told NZPA.

“I’d like to see the New Zealand government push the Thai authorities for some answers, and I’d like to see the area of the hotel, if not the whole hotel, off-limits until they can come back with some conclusive results to disprove the theories floating round at the moment.”

As Drummond says:

If the Thai authorities had come clean on every case immediately there would be no suspicion. Foreigners would say, ‘well that’s unfortunate, but the Thai authorities are being frank and open and doing their job. So they do care’.

It is not a good idea for the Governor to hold a Press Conference without the full facts in his hands and to merely state that it’s all a big ‘coincidence’.

Predictably, the internet is now awash with theories – as well as the usual dreary rantings from those long-term expats who hate everything about Thailand (gentlemen, please see here). Mooted causes of death have included a killer virus, Legionnaire’s disease, toxic seaweed, puffer fish disguised as salmon and, erm, MSG poisoning.

Phuketwan, the island-based news website, has noted similarities to the unsolved deaths of two young tourists in Thailand in 2009:

The cases bear a more than passing resemblance to the mysterious deaths of two young female tourists who took ill while staying in adjoining rooms at the Laleena Gueshouse on Phi Phi, a popular holiday spot a ferry ride from Phuket, in 2009.

The women – American Jill St Onge and Norwegian Julie Bergheim – died within hours. No cause of deaths has ever been established. Two other tourists fell ill, and one, Ms Bergheim’s Norwegian companion, almost died.

Adding to the intrigue this time is the revelation that the owner of the Downtown Inn is a well-connected businessman and former Chiang Mai mayor. Cynics have suggested this may be an obstacle to the investigation. On the other hand, the case now has international attention. The New Zealand foreign minister described Governor Pannada’s comments as “not wholly convincing”, demanding “further scrutiny”. The US has offered to send technical assistance. And the British Embassy has described the deaths of George and Eileen as “definitely not closed”. Will the truth come out? All bets are off.