CHIANGRAITIMES – It will be a year since Joe Welch went to a full moon party on Thailand’s Phangan Island and never came home. He was 19. His death has had a devastating effect on his family and friends. The passing of any loved one diminishes us, but something surely dies within us when we lose a son or daughter.
Joe’s accident happened after he’d gone with a group of friends to Phangan, now infamous for its ”extreme” partying. At some point he went for a swim and was subsequently pulled unconscious from the water. He died two weeks later in a Bangkok hospital on February 5.
His parents, brothers and sister had kept a bedside vigil throughout. It was agony for them as hopes of a recovery rose and then fell. At Joe’s funeral last February his mother, Gabrielle Trainor, and father, Peter Welch, rued the ”alarmingly dangerous mix” of ”teenagers, summer holidays, beach resorts, partying long, music, alcohol and risk-taking” that had taken their son. They were rightly critical of Thailand’s tourism industry which, as they said in their eulogy, ”sometimes seems bent on encouraging the mix”. The first anniversary of Joe’s death will be a difficult time for all of us who watched him grow from a boisterous child to the fine young man he’d become.
Now, two more families are grappling with the consequences of teenage risk-taking. My heart goes out to them also. Seventeen-year-old James Wilkinson died on Tuesday night while apparently train surfing near Caulfield station. The apprentice builder had reportedly boasted on Facebook he was the ”Kelly Slater of train surfing”.
Of course it was stupid, reckless behaviour. The boy’s father, Tim Wilkinson, acknowledged as much when he fronted the media, saying: ”It’s unnecessary risk-taking, especially when you’ve been having a drink, because the risk-taking just gets worse.”
The second Melbourne teenager to die last week was 19-year-old Melbourne University student Daniel Eimutis. He had disappeared on Monday night while tubing at Vang Vieng in Laos. The exact circumstances of Daniel’s death are unknown, but Vang Vieng is notorious as a magnet for young travellers who ignore the risks associated with tubing on a fast-flowing river in a largely unsupervised location. The local operators make plenty of money out of thrill-seeking backpackers but don’t supply helmets, harnesses or life jackets. Too often alcohol is involved too – there are so-called ”bucket bars” the length of the river.
According to reports, Daniel had been travelling with friends through Thailand and Laos. This tourist trail has become a well-worn and dangerous path for young travellers. Just last week the 21-year-old daughter of another friend flew out to Thailand intending to go to the next full moon party on February 7. But she abandoned the idea after entreaties from her parents. Or, at least, she told them she would.
Peter Welch and Gabrielle Trainor have spent much of the past year trying to educate parents and kids about the dangers of risk-taking behaviour, particularly at far-off destinations. They urge parents to try to dissuade their kids from heading to Phangan or Vang Vieng. As they say, there are great holidays to be had in safer places. But they’re realists and know that often kids don’t heed parental advice. If they are determined to go, Peter and Gabrielle tell parents to talk through travel plans and any associated risks. It should be made plain to young travellers that the operators in Thailand and Laos are only interested in their money, not their safety.
It’s imperative also that parents impress upon their children that the safety nets we take for granted in Australia – lifeguards, security, ambulance and police services, responsible service of alcohol – pretty much don’t exist in south-east Asia. Of course, travel insurance is a must.
Joe’s parents are also keen to try to extend the notion of a designated driver to all social situations involving risk-taking young people. It is now well-established in driving that one person will remain sober. But what if this were extended so that regardless of transport, one group member would be charged with policing the behaviour of others in their group? They call it the ”designated watcher” principle.
Says Peter Welch: ”Parents need to emphasise to kids that they should look out for their mates at all times – they always need a designated watcher – and that the only thing you want is for them to keep vigilant, not to take risks, to keep in touch and to come home safely.”
Risk-taking is not limited to teenagers. This week there were avoidable adult deaths along the Great Ocean Road, Port Phillip Bay and at a railway level crossing in St Albans. Two men and a woman made errors of judgment that cost them their lives. They certainly weren’t looking for trouble or seeking thrills. Too often, teenagers are.
By: Bruce Guthrie