Jan 15 2014

What’s Bangkok really like during the “shutdown”?

Published by at 1:15 am under Practicalities

Over the past 76 days of anti-government protests, Bangkok has endured some tense and sometimes violent moments, and the road closures caused by the so-called Bangkok Shutdown are certainly a nuisance. But what is it really like for travellers who simply want to go sightseeing? We did a little experiment on Tuesday to find out.

Looks relaxing.

Looks relaxing.

Rather than hone in on the most dramatic situations as most media outlets tend to do, we set off on a city-wide excursion that an average traveller might take. Our chosen attractions were: Lumpini Park, Terminal 21, MBK, Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (BACC), Wat Suthat and the Giant Swing, Democracy Monument, Khao San Road and Wat Pho.

Departing at around 13:00, our path would take us straight through five of the main protest zones, but our intention was to act as though it were a normal day and see just how much the protests would affect our plans.

Let's roast marshmallows!

In Lumpini — let’s roast marshmallows!

Our first stop was Sala Daeng BTS station on the east end of Silom Road. Traffic on the sky train was light in the early afternoon — a bit lighter than usual — and neither the station nor the road were mobbed with whistle-blowing protesters. For the most part, the huge intersection where Silom meets Ratchadamri and Rama IV roads was closed to traffic, but walking through Silom MRT station to the main Lumpini Park entrance was a breeze.

The entire corner of the park that flanks the main protest stage near the Rama VI statue was awash in brightly coloured tents, so this was no average day in the park. We entered with no problems, however, and found most of Lumpini to have plenty of breathing room. It felt almost normal on the opposite side — we even saw a few joggers and swan boaters.

Quieter than normal in Siam station.

Quieter than normal in Siam station.

We then walked up Ratchadamri Road, passing high-end hotels like St Regis and Four Seasons, and found the whole stretch very quiet. When we changed trains at Siam (central) station, there seemed to be fewer people transiting than normal. So far, so good.

A few more people were milling about in Asok station, but it was far from overrun by the nearby protest site and felt almost how it does on a weekend. When we strolled along the skywalk to get a bird’s eye view of the main protest area on Asok Montri Road, we were surprised by how empty it was.

You call that a protest?

You call that a protest?

We easily strolled over to Terminal 21 to find it less busy than usual. All of the shops, restaurants and cinema were operating as normal. Part of Sukhumvit Road was closed to traffic, but it didn’t matter to us as we’d normally use the BTS here anyway.

Back on the sky train, we cruised straight through the Ratchaprasong protest site to National Stadium station, from where we intended to access both MBK and BACC. Here we found our first obstacle in the form of protester “security guards” who had barricaded the skywalk that leads to BACC’s normally convenient upper entrance, one of the MBK entrances and the walkway to Siam Discovery.

We wanted an above shot of the Pathumwan protest, but all we got was these guys.

We wanted an above shot of the Pathumwan protest, but all we got was these guys.

The barricade also prevented us from reaching the best vantage point of the protest area, but it was obvious that the entire intersection was filled with people. Rather than heading down the stairs and straight into the crowd, we took the only skywalk option available, into the second floor of MBK. Inside we found a mix of protesters and travellers who weren’t letting a little political unrest stop them from checking out the latest styles.

Exiting MBK on the ground floor, we waded into the protest. Tents and people were sprawled out on the footpath as the nearby crowd rippled to the passionate rants resonating from the stage. For a short time, we were funnelled into a human traffic jam, but there was never a moment — here or anywhere else — that we didn’t feel safe. The ground entrance to BACC could only be reached by nudging through more people and obstacles, so we decided to skip it.

MBK appears to be doing a brisk business off the protesters.

MBK is getting a lot of free advertisement.

Now came what we had expected to be the most daunting task of the day: catching a tuk tuk or taxi from National Stadium to the Giant Swing. Yes, we could have easily grabbed a motorbike taxi — which, by the way, are usually good ways to get out of protest zones even if roads are closed — but we wanted to see exactly what it would be like for a group of travellers.

We even held back our spoken Thai when attempting to catch one of the countless tuk tuks that were ready and waiting under the BTS station. The first one that we approached quoted a slightly high but typical fare for a non-Thai speaking foreigner — 120 baht — and he took our overly reasonable counter offer of 100 baht without thinking twice. During the ride into the old city, traffic was lighter than normal.

Within five minutes, we arrived on the doorstep of Wat Suthat. The area felt relaxed, almost like it does on a holiday, and traffic flowed easily around the Giant Swing traffic circle. Nearby Democracy Monument, was completely clear of protesters for the first time we’ve seen in two and a half months. Barely visible from the monument, a small protest site remains a bit further up Ratchadamnoen Avenue, but on the whole, Banglamphu residents seem to have breathed a tentative sigh of relief.

Amost enough space to go for a swing.

Amost enough space to go for a swing.

At Khao San Road, we found typical scenes of backpackers washing down fried bugs with cold Beer Chang. Traffic remained lighter than normal as we walked down Tanao Road to our final stop, Wat Pho. Just like on any normal day, an army of tuk tuks and taxis stood ready outside of the temple gates. By this point it was around 18:00, the usual Bangkok rush hour, and the Chao Phraya express boats were as packed as they are on any weekday at this time.

In sum, we spent around five hours traversing key parts of Sathorn, Silom, Sukhumvit, Siam Square, Banglamphu and Rattanakosin, passing through five of the eight main protest zones. With the exception of not being able to use our favoured entrance to MBK, skipping BACC and experiencing Lumpini Park more as a protest campground than relaxing green space, our trip unfolded as well as you could expect on any average day.

Room to roam.

Room to roam.

The main hassle came in the Pathumwan (Siam Square) area, which appears to have taken hold as the largest and most consistent protest site. Even so, entering the malls directly via skywalks from Chit Lom, Siam and National Stadium BTS stations didn’t appear to be a problem (and certainly wasn’t at MBK), at least for now.

With the exception of one grumpy dude who insisted on covering his ears when whistles blew, the expats and travellers we spoke with along the way told us that they hadn’t experienced many problems either. Some actually seemed to relish the unusually spirited atmosphere. It’s also worth mentioning that we didn’t see a single police officer, though we’re not sure that’s a good thing.

But, and this is a big but, this was just one traveller’s experience on one afternoon. The protests show no sign of letting up, and exactly how they’ll take shape in the coming days is anyone’s guess. In fact, the Sala Daeng and Asok protest sites were nearly empty in part because many protesters had earlier marched to the Customs Department office in non-touristy east Bangkok, clogging up several major roads en route.

"What do we want!?" "A pillow!"

“What do we want!?” “A pillow!”

On Wednesday, one group of protesters plans to march straight up Sukhumvit Road to the Ekkamai vicinity while others are set to clog roads on their way to the Ministry of Social Development near Chatuchak Park. Marches like these can make catching a taxi near impossible, but keep an eye on the news and stick to public transport where possible, and you should be fine. As the large movements of protesters tend to take place in the mornings and early evenings, it’s also wise to plan your sightseeing for late morning and/or afternoon.

Though the historic district was quiet Tuesday, you never know when protesters will decide to hit the Interior Ministry or other government buildings near the Grand Palace and Khao San Road. Democracy Monument is now clear, but it and Sanam Luang are always potential flashpoints for future protests, and protest leaders sometimes wait until the last minute to announce their plans.

In short, the situation is fluid – travellers should monitor it closely before setting out in Bangkok. But on Tuesday, at least, we found that this whole shutdown thing might not be as dire as many media outlets make it seem.

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3 Responses to “What’s Bangkok really like during the “shutdown”?” ...

  1. Dmitrion 15 Jan 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Thanks for doing this guys. It is really hard to gage what is it like to be here with the panic the news channels are spreading. But you are right – there is no way of telling what’s gonna happen tomorrow.


  2. Karl (England)on 31 Jan 2014 at 10:03 am

    I was in BKK on the shutdown and a little bit daunted as I was travelling with my mother for the first time in Asia. There were a few problems getting to the hotel, but the helpful taxi driver got us as close as he could and then got the guard to carry my mother’s bags for us.

    A bit like a festival when on the streets, but more like a party or madi gras than anything. Got into MBK the following day, no problem. Typical Thai protest; lots of mamas. whistles and flag waving but very respectful of Farang, even to the point of offering us free water.

    I’ve been in Thailand a few times, so knew what to expect, but it was more like a festival like Glastonbury than anything. My Ma’s typical response was “where do they do their No.1s and 2’s”, and yes we pondered this problem!

    It may have changed now, and the only problem is that now we are in Chaing Mai, that it is too busy! Never thought concerned or worried enough to change plans, and Sterling versus Baht gets better and better!

    My only concern is being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. of an anti-protester was to throw a bomb or something, but looking at the news, at Cairo, or Ukraine, well it seems as if you worry about that kind of thing, well don’t travel! Just my point of view, it is up to you to make your own decision.

    Regards, Karl (Leeds, Yorkshire) in the Land of Smiles…K ;) x

  3. Anna, Swedenon 22 Feb 2014 at 5:00 am

    Thank you for this post and for sharing your experience!

    Me and my husband arrived in Bangkok February 1st, and had already planned to head southeast after only two days. However, we were of course curious of this Bangkok Shutdown issue, and looked it up. We had the same experience as you.

    Because of this protests/occupations/mardi gras festival ;) just outside Centara Hotel, we realized that it actually was quite affordable to stay at this 5 star hotel at the moment – normally it would be way to expensive for us. So, well, we decided to spend our last week in Thailand at Centara, and here we are!

    Of course it has to be mentioned that is has been explosions, and there was an explosion at the occupied area at Ratchadamri Road (just outside the Central World / Centara Hotel) yesterday night, where six people were injured. So maybe you should avoid the occupations during night time, when the situation could heat up a bit. However, even though we had dinner at a restaurant just a block away during the incident, we felt completely safe.

    The reports in international media are, however, a disaster. Most people in Bangkok just simple seem to live their lives and do not care that much about the protests.